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August 2013 - Posts - Live Like a Mensch
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Live Like a Mensch

August 2013 - Posts

  • No Dessert Until You Drink Your Vegetables...

    Regular reader and commenter Bobi asked last week how the juicing was coming since J and I dropped $285 on a ridiculously expensive juicer after watching the film Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead.

    We were pretty darn gung ho about the whole juicing thing for the first six weeks or so. I experimented with strange combinations of veggies and fruits--sometimes to the detriment of my taste buds. We discovered that freshly juiced orange/carrot juice is one of life's joys. We weren't so keen on the carrot/celery/apple combination that others highly recommended.

    Then, life got overwhelming and hectic for a few months, and the juicer started collecting dust.

    It might have been yet another one of those enthusiasms that we spent money on and moved past if it weren't for two things:

    1. I got really good at making fried potatoes, meaning we were eating more than our share of homemade vitamin G(rease) with breakfast and dinner.

    and

    2. I saw a quick video with Joe Cross (of Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead fame) explaining how to make a mean green juice.

    So, licking the ketchup off my lips, I decided to try it.

    J and I both liked the juice so much that we have it for breakfast at least three times a week. Even LO likes the green juice.

    It's a fairly simple (and not super expensive) recipe:

    Directions:

    1. Gather together your ingredients: one cucumber, four celery hearts/stalks, four kale leaves, half a lemon, a 1.5 inch piece of fresh ginger, and two to four apples.

    2. Run them through the juicer.

    3. Enjoy

    As I figure it, this is a relatively inexpensive high-end juice per serving. In order to get a full pitcher, it costs just about $5. ($0.79 for the cucumber, $0.75 for four celery hearts [from a $2.99 package], $0.25 for half a lemon, $0.25 for four kale leaves [out of a $1 bunch], $1.89 for three apples, and about $0.80 for the piece of ginger).

    We get two and half servings from each pitcher, meaning we spend about $2 per serving of juice. While that's certainly not the cheapest breakfast we could be eating, it is a heck of a lot less expensive than buying pre-made super juices. (I also could easily reduce the cost by buying celery stalks instead of hearts and by buying cheaper apples than the Fuji and Gala types that are my favorite.)

    Granted, we do need to keep the cost of the juicer itself in mind. But I'm thinking once we've made juice 100 times, we'll have brought the price per glass down far enough to make it not worth worrying about. We're getting there.

    So, Bobi, I hope this helps you make your juicing decision. I will tell you that not only is our green juice delicious (as is our other go-to favorite, orange-carrot juice), but I find I feel a lot better on days that I drink it. It was definitely a purchase I feel good about having made.

    Does anyone have any juicing recipes that they highly recommend?

  • Handling Healthcare Reimbursements and a Flexible Spending Account

    "You guys can take care of the insurance paperwork, right?"

     

    When J and I moved to Lafayette three years ago, it took us a little while to get used to the health insurance through his new employer. (And by "a little while" I mean that I think I finally got the hang of it sometime in the last month.)

    Basically, our healthcare provider will often have us pay out-of-pocket for things that are covered, and they will then send us a reimbursement for whatever amount is covered.

    There are two problems with this system:

    1. The reimbursement arrives in paper check form, because apparently the health insurance industry is stuck in the 1950s when everyone wore fedoras and going to a physical bank on a regular basis was still a thing. (This is not to mention the fact that since the health insurance is in J's name, the paper checks are made out to him, which is only a minor pain in the tuchus for the person who actually puts on the required banking fedora and goes to do the paper-based banking--the person who, I might add, is not J.)

    2. While each paper check comes with an attached "explanation of benefits," which theoretically should alert a sharp-eyed insurance beneficiary as to which particular recent out-of-pocket payment the check is reimbursing, these EOBs do not explain much. All it will tell us is who in our household received the service and the date on which the service was provided. With three individuals in our household, multiple doctors and dentists treating the three of us, and my policy of forgetting when appointments were once they have already passed, I cannot ever figure out what the money is actually paying for. This is not aided by the fact that we are usually NOT reimbursed for the full amount that we paid. Nor does our health insurer feel the need to let us know which doctor was seen.

    I have often found myself depositing checks for random amounts with no way of knowing what we are actually being reimbursed for.

    And of course, this is all made more complicated by the fact that we also have a Child and Dependent Care Flexible Spending Account, into which we put money for LO's Montessori schooling. Once a month, I send paperwork off to the proper authorities in order to receive a reimbursement check for LO's childcare. You would think that this type of check would at least be clear when it arrives, as I could recognize the amount being the same as what we pay for LO's childcare for a month. However, since we don't necessarily fully fund the FSA, we get random amounts of money from them at weird times depending upon how much is in the FSA at any given moment and how much the FSA still owes us for prior claims.

    While these checks DO specifically state in the explanation of benefits that they are meant for LO's dependent care spending, they are otherwise identical to the checks we randomly receive from our insurer.

    Fun, huh?

    After three years, I think I have figured it all out.

    J and I have a cash envelope for medical spending. We set aside a decent chunk of money each month to go into this envelope, and we use it to pay co-pays, medical bills, random demands for money in exchange for health care by roving bands of street doctors, etc. We trust the health care providers to deal with the paperwork with our insurer.

    Since our cash envelope can more than cover our medical expenses, I don't bother to reimburse it with our reimbursement checks. I tried that for almost two years, and it drove me batty. We'd end up with a fatter envelope than we really needed, and I could never figure out exactly what I was reimbursing.

    Instead, I put all of the reimbursement checks, along with the FSA checks, into the savings account I have set aside for LO's Montessori expenses. That way I know I'll never get a bill from Montessori without having the money set aside to pay it. Yes, I may be misappropriating funds, but it saves on the mental accounting, which is totally worth it.

    And, since we don't necessarily fully fund the FSA for LO's care (since the costs can be variable depending on what's happening in a particular year), we would have to use some money from somewhere to make up the difference. Why not use these random checks?

    I have wondered if someone who enjoys organizing money as much as I do can have this much trouble keeping track of reimbursements, then how on earth can the insurance company efficiently stay on top of it all? (I also wonder how many people miss out on their reimbursements because they don't have a fedora and never actually go to the bank. Seriously, is it that difficult to set up a direct deposit?)

    How do you handle your healthcare reimbursements? Have you found a better system than the one I've cobbled together?

  • I Paid WHAT For a Planner?

    Image courtesy of Fluff

     

    I've mentioned before that I am something of a calendar aficionado. (Although that term would suggest that there is some sort of expertise on my part in knowing what kind of calendar will work for me, which is sadly not the case).

    Basically, I am always on the lookout for a system that will help me to keep my life in order and minimize the chaos of also being the external, appointment-remembering brain for both J and LO.

    And yet, I am (almost always) completely and inexorably WRONG when I think I have found the planner that will finally work for me. So I get to feel the dual guilt of having wasted money and paper/resources on yet another calendar/planner that collects dust on my desk.

    After the success of the personal daily docket I created for myself (I actually do use it every day!), I realized that the real problem with my calendar obsession is that I am constantly trying to make someone else's ideal of a planner work for me. What I really need is a planner that I can personalize.

    As I was musing on this, my sister happened to send me a link to a daily cleaning regimen espoused by the blogger behind A Bowl Full of Lemons. After we spent some time wondering if our houses would make this woman require a defibrillator and access to oxygen, I found myself drooling over the schedule portion of her daily cleaning regimen. A Bowl Full of Lemons apparently uses the Filofax system, for which I have secretly lusted for many a year. Unfortunately, Filofax is ridiculously expensive, and only available in a limited number of brick-and-mortar businesses, making it quite difficult for this particular frugal mensch to ever go through with a sight-unseen purchase.

    I was mentioning this to my sister when she asked if I had heard of Circa by Levenger. These bad boys are basically build-your-own planners, and since they sell hole punches to allow any sheet to fit their planners, you can personalize as much as you want. The best part is that they're not that expensive, compared to Filofax, anyway.

    The next thing I knew, I had purchased a starter kit, a hole punch, a set of meal planning sheets, and a set of grocery shopping sheets.

    Though no particular part of this purchase was that expensive, I was a little disconcerted to authorize an $84 payment for my new planner.

    $84.

    Holy cow.

    (And this planner doesn't even include a calendar.)

    However, since I bought the hole punch, I'll be able to create and print out a calendar for myself to include in the notebook--and I can update it or change it whenever the spirit moves. I can punch my laminated daily docket and insert it into the calendar. I can replace my notes notebook (since this comes with notepaper and you can add more), my to-deal-with clipboard (since it comes with pockets), and my meal-planning/grocery list scrap paper, and various other clutter-producers on my desk.

    If this crazy scheme works, I may never have to make another guilt-inducing calendar purchase again.

     

     

    Still...$84.

    Yikes.

    I don't think I need to tell J how much I spent on my newest calendar.

  • There's a Savings Account for That

    Several years ago, my sister told me and J that we had taught her that she could afford anything, as long as she saved up for it.

    We knew she was paying us a compliment, but at the time, J and I looked at each other wondering if we needed to brush up on our social skills.

    I'm now starting to appreciate what the heck she was talking about.

    You may remember my previous explanation of how we have multiple savings accounts through Capital One 360 (previously ING Direct) in order to pay for various future costs. While we started with only a handful of separate accounts, we're now up to nearly twenty--each with its own specific savings goal and amount that is put away each month. We just keep on adding to that list of savings accounts.

    For instance, LO is starting Sunday school at our synagogue in a few weeks, and we recieved a bill for his tuition for the first year. We were easily able to pay for the tuition, but after putting a check in the mail, my first action was to create a new savings account for Sunday school tuition, and put away 1/12 of the amount necessary for a year's tuition. That way, next year's tuition will already be funded and paid for.

    Then this past weekend, J and LO and I drove down to Indianapolis to see the Moto GP races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I asked J on the way down what kind of motorcycle he'd like to add to our stable in the coming years, since the vintage 1975 Honda 400 he currently owns is great for wedding photos but a little uncomfortable for super long rides.

    J wasn't sure exactly what he'd like his next bike to be, but he knew that he'd like something a little more comfortable for long rides so he could have his very own Easy Rider adventure with some friends. He figured he could get one of the several bikes he's had his eye on for about $6,000 to $8,000.

    I suggested we start saving for something now so that he could go on an epic motorcycling adventure for his 40th birthday (in about four years). He was thrilled with the idea, and I set up a new savings account (tentatively nicknamed "J's Midlife Crisis") while he alerted his friends to the fact that they now have plans in June 2017.

    When J and I first started doing the savings account thing, it felt a little weird to see so much of our money get put into these accounts that we didn't actually touch. There were times when one or the other of us (two guesses as to which one) would freak out a little bit over the smaller balances in our checking account because that meant there was less of a cushion to handle an emergency.

    But after doing this for five years, it seems like we don't have any emergencies anymore. We have the money already set aside for irregular expenses (like LO's Sunday school tuition), for big/fun purchases, and for those "life happens" kinds of moments.

    For any financial issue we might encounter, we've got a savings account for that.

    I'm guessing that's what my sister was talking about.

    We're still going to work on our social skills, though. Just in case.

  • Credit Card Theft and Due Diligence


    Last week, while hard at work on my (now finished!!) manuscript, I made the executive decision that I didn't have time to make lunch. (Which was pretty hilarious considering the fact that the amount of time it would take for me to slap some PB and some J on a couple of slices of bread was less than the amount of time it would take for me to order something).

    My favorite "I don't have time to make lunch" solution is to order a sandwich from Jimmy Johns. Not only does a sandwich quickly arrive at my door--accompanied by a diet cola, if I so choose--but I can put in my order online and refrain from having to speak to anyone. If I pay with my credit card, I can even get away with just grunting vaguely at the delivery person rather than having to ask for change. It's an introvert's dream!

    So, last week, not feeling particularly social, I attempted to order my sandwich using my credit card so that I could allow my verbal skills to completely atrophy.

    Unfortunately, I must have transposed a number on the security code, because my card was declined. I shrugged and changed my payment option to cash instead.

    Little did I know that my credit card company has been on the lookout for wanton fraudulent sandwich charges.

    Within one minute of completing my order online, I received an automated phone call from my credit card company asking me to confirm the attempted charge.

    Meanwhile, I also received an email directing me to my online account, also asking me to confirm the attempted charge.

    After several moments, I started listening for the sound of helicopters with fraud detection agents rappelling into my living room to question me about the attempted charge.

    (It was in the midst of this paranoia that Jimmy Johns decided to stop by with my sub. I think I was even less coherent than usual as I handed over the 8 bucks plus tip).

    Apparently, there has been a major data breach of credit card information, meaning credit card companies are taking absolutely no chances.

    After confirming the fact that I am simply an overworked idiot and that no one has made unauthorized use of my credit card for an $8 sandwich purchase, I assumed that was the end of it.

    Then, this weekend, I recieved a letter from my credit card company alerting me to the fact that I have been issued a new card with a new number, just in case.

    While part of me wants to roll my eyes at this, I do have to admit that I'd prefer them to take this issue too seriously rather than not seriously enough.

    However, apparently my current card will continue to be usable for several weeks.

    And this is the point at which I start banging my head against the wall.

    Yes, I'd prefer to still be able to use my card--especially since the "fraudulent charge" was nothing more than either fat fingers or blurred vision on my part. But if the charge truly had been fraudulent, wouldn't it make more sense to just shut the whole thing down?

    Add in the fact that my credit card has "helpfully" sent me some cash advance checks* for the new card number, and I'm wondering if the credit card industry has ever encountered a major problem that they could not figure out a way to make more money out of.

    I guess this is what I get for insisting on an $8 sandwich when I could easily have had peanut butter and jelly.


    *Cash advance checks are evil like the fru-its of the devil. The customer service representative I spoke to in order to clarify some of the issues I mention above was truly taken aback when I told him that they are evil. He was very sorry to hear me say that.

    I'll bet he was.

  • Your Retirement Questions Answered, Part II--If You're Forced to Retire

    "I'm making a fortune knitting Jayne's cunning hats for Etsy!"

     

    Your Retirement Questions Answered has returned!

    Today, we'll be answering the question posted by regular commenter frugal_fun:

    Well, this might not be the best topic, but a chapter might be about what the numbers look like if you retire only when you've become physically unwell would be helpful for me. (And unfortunately, I'm not talking about covering the medical bills, either.)

    I don't think we're going to be able to save enough to replace our income for 20+ years without a pension plan or SS mostly to cover it. It's a gargantuan task if you are on a fixed income but variable expenses like most workers. (Let's face it "fixed income" for seniors is a euphemism for "low income". Most of the US is on a fixed income. ;))

    First, frugal_fun, I love your description of "fixed income" as a euphemism for low income. I must say, I have wondered for years why a retirement income is referred to as fixed when I myself have been on "fixed" incomes while working various jobs. (Yes, there were opportunities for raises/advancements, but they didn't happen particularly often.)

    As to your question, forced retirement is a toughie. Whether it comes about because of failing health or because of late-in-career job loss, it can be financially devastating if you don't have enough money set aside--and let's face it, how many people really do have enough money set aside?

    However, there are five proactive measures you can take now and in the future in order to keep a forced retirement from making you eat cat food in retirement:

    1. Find out what you can expect from Social Security Disability and Retirement benefits. Believe it or not, at least the customer service side of Social Security has embraced the 21st century, and you can find an incredible number of user-friendly apps and information online. In particular, you can use the Social Security disability calculator, which provides you with a (very rough) estimate of your disability benefits. There are also several Social Security retirement benefits calculators, which you can personalize and use to get anything from rough estimates to exact projections of your retirement benefits.

    For a fun party trick, go ahead and look up what you can expect from Social Security. It's pretty illuminating--and it gives a good idea of what your life in forced retirement would be like if you put no other money aside. (NOT recommended!!)

    2. Invest in adequate disability insurance. As I mentioned last year, I'm quite the convert to disability insurance. If you are concerned about the possibility of losing your ability to work, then disability insurance is a must.

    Unfortunately, there are several things that can disqualify you from a disability policy--pre-existing conditions, physically demanding jobs, and jobs with irregular income (like freelancing or owning your own business). But if you're able to get your disability insurance on, do it. Do it now.

    3. Start a second income stream. This was the sort of advice that used to annoy me about reading personal finance articles when I first starting writing in the genre. Many of my colleagues would beat the drum of the importance of additional streams of income, and I often wondered what parallel universe they lived in and exactly how many extra hours per day they enjoyed in that universe.

    I'm now understanding better why second income streams are important. We rely on our jobs for so much, and if anything happens to our ability to perform those jobs, having something already set up to fall back on is an incredible gift to ourselves.

    I personally feel like every family should strive to have a two extra income streams, preferably one passive and one active (even though I am generally somewhat skeptical of the claims about "passive" income). But, if you're able to collect rent from a boarder and also sell your crafts on Etsy, then you know that something can and/or will be coming in if you lose your job or you suffer from failing health.

    Please note--this is one of those things where I do not practice what I preach. Someday, I hope to be in that position if I can continue to write and earn money from writing I've already done. But I entirely understand how this can be much easier said than done.

    That being said, my sister and brother-in-law are a living embodiment of how this works. Dave owns a house in one of the cities where he was previously stationed, which he rents out. And he takes gorgeous photographs that he sells on Etsy. In addition, my sister does freelance editing and writing on top of her day job.

    4. Know your bare minimums. We all get pretty used to lifestyle creep, and so it can be tough to remember just how little we all need to be happy. A friend told me about an elderly retiree friend of hers who lost everything and is now living in a low-income home for seniors under very reduced circumstances. But as long as this retiree can get books from the library, she is perfectly content, despite the fact that her life is no longer like it used to be.

    That's why I think it's a good idea to really think about what you need to feel good about your life and yourself, and even practice living that way (as much as possible) before retirement. Then you won't feel resentful of the changes in your life if you are forced into an early retirement.

    5. If you are forced to retire early because of a layoff, be an assertive negotiator. Granted, this is not helpful if health is the reason why you have to hang up your hat, but it is something that many people might be too shell-shocked to consider when they are laid off. So, be prepared to fight for a generous severance package. The worst they can say is no.

    Have any of you experienced a forced retirement? What have you learned from the experience?

  • Saving Money at the Grocery Store

     

    I was recently asked about suggestions for how to save money on groceries. As far as I can tell, there are three ways to reduce your grocery bill if you are not willing to be a couponer (which I most definitely am not):

    1. Meal planning

    2. Cherry picking the sales

    3. Taking only cash with you to the store

    Back when J and I were two footloose and fancy-free young marrieds in the wilds of Columbus, Ohio, I used to do all three. (In fact, I used to clip coupons at the time, as well, but found I almost never used them because they were for food items that did not pass my sodium/nutrition test).

    Every other Sunday, I would sit down with my cookbooks and various and assorted clipped recipes and plan out our meals for the next two weeks--including breakfasts and lunch snacks (since we ate leftovers for lunch, I didn't feel the need to plan those). To help me narrow down my meal planning/recipe choices, I'd start by going through our larder to see what we already had so that I could choose recipes that required a minimum of purchases. I would also use the sales circulars for Aldi, Kroger, and Giant Eagle to determine what recipes I could make with sale items.

    Once I had my meals planned for the week, I'd write down my list of what to buy at which store. I also kept a running tally of the amount I was willing to spend on each item so that if I found an item that was less expensive than my set price, I'd know to jump on it. (Have you ever been at a store buying an item that you only purchase semi-regularly and found yourself completely unsure whether you're looking at a good price or not? Yeah, I hate it when that happens). Next to each item on my lists, I would write down my set price, so I'd know to buy it at a store other than the one I had planned if the price was right.

    After all of these shenanigans were completed at home, I would grab my stash of canvas grocery bags, our cooler and some ice packs, and my $100 in cash and head off for the grocery stores.

    I'd always go to Aldi first, since both selection and prices were lowest there. I'd pick up whatever I could there, stash it in the car, and head off to Kroger.

    Generally, the Kroger stop was specifically for a handful of items from the circular, although I'd double check on item prices just to be sure.

    Finally, I'd end at Giant Eagle. They had a long-standing promotion for saving on gasoline, which is why I'd end up doing the bulk of my shopping there. I'd finish up my purchases, load up the car, and on most trips, then buy gas at the attached gas station using the savings I'd just earned.

    Throughout all of my shopping at each individual store, I would carry a calculator and a notebook to record how much I was spending so that I would (and could) not go over the limit of the cash I carried.

    At the time, I was able to keep our grocery budget at just under $200 for the month.

    However, from the moment I sat down to create the meal plan to the minute I pulled up at the house and hollered for J to come help me unload the groceries, it would take me 7 (SEVEN!) hours to complete two weeks' worth of grocery shopping.

    Yeah, I don't so much do all that anymore.

    While I still do take the time to create meal plans for a week at a time, and I will often carry cash to grocery shop (although I often end up having to supplement that cash with our debit or credit card once I hear the total), I definitely do not cherry pick the sales anymore. I also only spend about an hour and a half to grocery shop each week. But we're certainly spending much more than $200 per month these days--even discounting the additional cost of a third mouth to feed.

    When I was asked about ways to save money at the grocery store, I launched into my explanation of how these three things can really help. (When we were in Columbus, I managed to get our grocery budget down to less than $200 per month from over $400 per month by doing all of this).

    I then also asked my listener to please not look at me as though I had sprouted a second head.

    It was a lot of work to save all that money. At the time, I saw it as a fun game where I could get one over on the grocery stores. (I also saw it as an excellent excuse for not getting any grading done on grocery shopping weekends, the importance of which cannot be understated).

    But with the time crunch I now feel as a mom to a toddler, I value convenience more than I value the grocery savings.

    So, I thought I'd put it out to my readers. How do you save money at the grocery store? Is it just something that will be time consuming no matter what, or have you found some fast, frugal grocery hacks?

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