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March 2014 - Posts - Live Like a Mensch
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Live Like a Mensch

March 2014 - Posts

  • Money and Mood

    The other day, I read this (Not Safe for Work or Children if You'd Prefer Your Boss and Kids Didn't Know You Know Curse Words) Cracked article about odd things that can affect your mood. The third on the list? Money, which apparently can make you both depressed and unethical.

    In particular, the article talked about a study that asked participants to fill out a short questionnaire and then offered them a chocolate bar. Half of the participants had a photograph of a stack of money on their questionnaire, and the other half did not. The money-viewing participants enjoyed their chocolate less than the non-money-viewers, which clearly shows that they were eating their chocolate all wrong.

    I'm of two minds about this study. On the one hand, I can certainly recognize the ways that money can scramble your mood, even if you have plenty of money. There's a reason why Wall Street types have the repuation that they do: unhappy, greedy, and unethical. No one would accuse Gordon Gekko of knowing how to really savor the simple things in life.

    On the other hand, I love thinking about money. (I know. Big surprise). Doing mental cash-flow predictions is how I get through long waits at the DMV and bad dental procedures. And it definitely does not affect my ability to really savor the heck out of chocolate (and other important moments in life).

    I was thinking about my own view of money recently when I read fellow blogger Abby Freedman Perry at I Pick Up Pennies talking about money and fear. I started to post a comment on her blog, when I realized that I have never felt any sense of fear over finances. None. Ever.

    Certainly, I have been a little overwhelmed. And I have sometimes wished I had more money. And I have often thought that money might solve a problem I had. But I've never been afraid financially.

    I know part of this was growing up with the privilege of a secure middle-class childhood. I didn't have anything to fear financially growing up, for which I am very very grateful.

    But I think some of it simply comes down to how I am wired to think about money. When I was 22 years old, I went from working an $8.25/hour job at Barnes & Noble to an only slightly-better paid job as an administrative assistant for Graeters Ice Cream corporate headquarters. I had about a week off between the two jobs, and it took something like three weeks for me to receive my first paycheck from Graeters.

    I remember paying my rent and all of my bills at the beginning of the month during that transition, and finding that I had under $40 to my name until I received my first paycheck about three weeks later. I certainly didn't like being in that situation, but I felt good knowing all my bills were paid and knowing exactly where I stood until that first check came along. My primary feeling after paying all my bills was satisfaction at being able to handle them all, even though it left me next to nothing. (I believe I had around $300 in a savings account at the time, but that was the full extent of my worldly goods).

    Again, I know that I didn't feel fear then because I'd never had to deal with a financial catastrophe, and because I knew my parents could and would help me out if I did get into a jam. But I also wasn't afraid because I tend to think of limited money as a puzzle to solve. In my game of financial Tetris, I was able to get everything to fit together.


    And of course, success tends to beget success. My early successes with handling my budget made me more confident and led me to the path wherein the thought of money management makes me smile.

    So both my nature (detail-oriented and meticulous), and my childhood environment (having all my financial needs met) are probably what primed me for a career as a personal finance blogger. Change something small in my makeup or my history, and maybe the very sight of money would be enough to put me off my chocolate. (Seems unlikely).

    I just hope to be able to provide a similarly secure childhood to my kids and hope that I pass along some of my money meticulousness to them. I hope they will always be able to stop and smell the flowers (or enjoy the Hershey bars) no matter their money situation.

    How do you feel about money? If you've ever had negative experiences with money, have you found a way to enjoy frugality?

  • Money Lessons I've Learned From Children's Books

    While putting LO and BB to bed lately, I've noticed that several of the lessons in their books could also apply to personal finance, believe it or not.

    So, without further ado:

    Let's take a reading trip

    Come on! It's fun!

    And you'll better understand money

    When we're done.

    Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss

    Image courtesy of Joe Mabel

    The Lesson You Know: Don't assume you don't like something until you've actually tried it.

    The Money Lesson: You may or may not be aware that Green Eggs and Ham was written because of a bet. Dr. Seuss's editor bet him that he could not write a story using only 50 words. Since Dr. Seuss was a genius, the now-famous story of an unnamed man who was reluctant to eat moldy breakfast food clocked in at a total of 50 words.

    My takeaway is that if you make good and creative use of the tools you're given, then you can accomplish anything. And that's true whether those tools are a mere 50 words, or a minimalist budget.

    The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle

    The Lesson You Know: Caterpillars transform into beautiful butterflies after a short period of incessant eating. (Also, people don't seem to finish any of their food at a carnival.)

    The Money Lesson: If you indulge in greed, you will make yourself sick--and might even turn into a version of yourself you don't even recognize.

    Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs by Judi Barrett and Ron Barrett

    Image source

    (Please note that I'm referring to the wondrous and magical book of my youth, and not the recent Hollywood abominations that completely missed what we all loved about the original.)

    The Lesson You Know: GIANT FOOD FALLING FROM THE SKY!! 

    The Money Lesson: Not having to work for what you need is not the blessing it might sound like. Then you have to simply accept what you get--even if it's potentially harmful. (Also, the streets of Chewandswallow must have been awfully sticky. That's not a money lesson, it's just something that completely escaped me when I was a kid reading this book).

    Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

    Image source

    The Lesson You Know: It's amazing how long a supper will stay hot when you're off galivanting with Wild Things--in and out of weeks and almost over a year! (Or, that forgiveness and love are available at home, even when both parents and children "misbehave." Seriously, I get choked up about the hot supper at the end because I know Max's mom is feeling as bad about sending him to bed without supper as Max felt about being a wild thing.)

    The Money Lesson: Being powerful does not protect you from loneliness, and power is not nearly as important as being where someone loves you best of all. (Okay, it's not so much a money lesson as a status lesson. But they're both important for kids).

    What are some of your favorite children's books? What unexpected lessons can you find in them?

  • Searching for the Best Grocery Coupon Apps

     

    Image source

    Now that J and I are the proud owners of some spiffy new smart phones, I am looking for ways to make sure the $925 (!!) investment will save us money even before we get to the break-even point in the spring of 2015.

    In particular, I'm hoping to use my higher-IQ phone to help me save money on groceries.

    To that end, I did a quick Google search of the best money-saving apps out there. Here's what I found:

    • Grocery Smarts This app reminds of the Grocery Game--a service from back in the day (back in the day being defined as around 2008) that would help you find the best deals. Both the Grocery Game and this app track the circulars of your local stores and cross reference them with manufacturers coupons so that you can pair the coupons with the lowest prices available. I'm excited at the possibilities for this app, although I do worry that it will have the same issue that coupon-clipping always has for me--that the healthy food I generally want to buy is not the food that manufacturers offer coupons for.
    • Coupon Sherpa This app offers coupons from any number of retailers, as well as coupon codes for online purchases. It also allows you to have the cashier scan coupons directly from your phone, meaning no printing out of coupons. My only concern is the fact that WiFi or data service is necessary for access--I don't know if it's also necessary to use the coupons. Since we're doing the Wi-Fi service on our phones rather than paying for data, that might make this app unusable for me.
    • Target's App Since Target is where I do the majority of my grocery shopping, I'm planning on checking out their app--which includes the weekly circular and bi-monthly coupons. I am a little wary about giving Target more of my information, in part because of their data breach last year, and in part because Target is in the habit of data mining, meaning they know things about you based upon what you buy. (Cue sinister music here).

    There are plenty more apps out there, but these three seemed like the most useful for my situation. Also, they're free.

    I'll report back in a few weeks to let you know how my experiment with these apps have gone.

    Right now, I'd love to hear from you as to which apps you rely on for saving money, at the grocery store or elsewhere. Have you found that the money-saving apps have helped you to offset the costs of owning a smart phone?

  • The Fine Line Between Frugality and Delusional Behavior

    This is my hand mixer:

     

    I have owned this bad boy for nearly 13 years, having bought it soon after I graduated from college in May 2001.

    It's a little difficult to see, but the beaters are actually wonky:

    Basically, I can only use one beater at a time because the two of them together get in each others' way and seize up.

    Other than the wonky beaters, my hand mixer works perfectly well.

    I cannot recall how the beaters became wonky, nor am I certain exactly when that happened. However, I do remember that they were wonky when we moved to Lafayette in 2010, so I have been mixing my eggs with a single beater for at least four years.

    Recently, I decided to see if replacement parts were available online. My model is so old that it didn't even appear on the Black & Decker website, and I thought I heard some definite laughter coming from my search engine.

    It's probably time to get rid of this mixer.

    This particular small appliance cost somewhere in the range of $15 thirteen years ago. By all accounts, I've gotten my money out of it.

    In addition, I could replace my hand mixer for under $10.

    And yet, I continue to make do with my one-armed bandit.

    This is because I abhor the idea of contributing to a disposable society. Somehow, I am convinced that upon the head of this silly piece of kitchen equipment rests the fate of the entire ecological world. I am the only thing standing between a throwaway culture and our future.

    It's a lot of pressure.

    I know as soon as I rehome this thing--either by throwing it out or giving it to someone more mechanically inclined and less time-strapped than myself--I will feel like a great weight has been lifted.

    But until then, I will continue to feel guilty and irritated every time I use it, just as I have for at least four years. Because these are the actions of a rational person.

     

    Does anyone else have trouble deciding when enough is enough with broken items? How do you reconcile your frugal/environmental guilt with practicality?

  • 5 Ways to Save Money (and Your Sanity) While Grocery Shopping with a Toddler

     

    Photo courtesy of Onderwijsgek

    Now that I have two kids, time is a precious commodity that I have far too little of. For some time after BB was born, I still tried to arrange my time so that I didn't have to go grocery shopping with both kids. However, several weeks ago, I discovered that grocery shopping at midnight is a great way for me to come home with packages of Pop Tarts that I had no intention of purchasing.

    However, I have found that (so far), buying groceries with both LO and BB in tow has been a relatively low stress endeavor--and some of my biggest fears about overspending just to get the heck out of there were overblown. Here are five things I've done to keep grocery shopping (basically) stress-free and money-saving even with a three-year-old and a baby along for the ride:

    1.  Plan for hunger

    You know how bad it is when you go shopping while hungry? Multiply that by about eleventy-seven when it's your toddler who's surrounded by food and starving. That's what brings on the meltdowns and the incessant whining requests for Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs cereal.

    Lately, I've been going shopping on Monday afternoons after BB and I pick LO up from school. If I'm super organized, I'll have a juice box and a snack ready in the car for LO. If I'm not, we'll stop for refreshments at the cafe in our local Target (yes, I get that this is the opposite of saving money). But I've budgeted for the additional $2 expense of a juice and a package of crackers or cookies, and having LO occupied with food and drink through the first 15 minutes of our excursion is worth the extra expense.

    2. Let them think it's their idea

    LO likes to make suggestions for foods that we can bring home. For instance, yesterday he asked if we could get mini muffins, soda, and candy. He also asked for strawberries and applesauce--which happened to actually be on our list.

    Since I had to say no to the junk food suggestions, I made a big deal of saying yes to his requests for applesauce and strawberries. "What a great idea!" I told him, while surreptitiously crossing strawberries off our list. "I would never have thought to buy strawberries!"

    3. Institute the Bye-bye game

    I remembering reading somewhere how important it is to validate a child's emotions. Which is why we have a game we play whenever we come across something LO may not have: I make him say "Bye-bye!" to whatever it is. For instance, as we wheeled past the huge display of Easter candy yesterday, LO pointed over and over again to different candies on the display. "I want that," he said. "And I want that. And that."

    I told him that it did, indeed, all look bright and pretty and delicious--but that it wasn't coming home with us. I suggested that we say "Bye-bye" to it, which LO did, waving and smiling.

    This is one of those parenting tips that I never thought would actually work. I started it when LO didn't want to leave a toy behind on another excursion to the store. Imagine my surprise when he started independently waving bye-bye to things I had told him he couldn't have. So it's now a regular part of our repertoire. So far, he's perfectly content knowing that I see what it is he wants and that we're just going admire it and then pass by it like a ship in the night.

    4. Work from the outside in

    You probably already know that the perimeter of the store is where the healthiest (and least expensive) food can be found. So you might already be focusing on those areas of the store while you're shopping. But shopping from the outside of the store inward is also a good idea for grocery toddler-wrangling, as well. If you ever need to make a fast escape from the store (meltdown, potty training emergency, etc), then you're more likely to have gotten the essentials taken care of by shopping the perimeter of the store first. You can take care of your toddler issue, come back to your cart, and immediately check out.

    This is also helpful for reducing the dreaded Iwantititis if the Bye-bye game isn't working for you.

    5. Pay with cash

    This is already something that you should be doing in order to make sure you stay within budget. But this is also really important for helping your child to understand the finite nature of money and the fact that buying an apple juice and some crackers at the cafe (see #1) means you can't buy something else. LO is still a little young for this lesson, but he is very interested in money. (He kept asking "What's that?" yesterday as I handed our cash over to the cashier. For him, money is usually coins.)

    As he gets older, I'll give him more instruction about our money when we go shopping and let him man the calculator once he's old enough.

    What tips and tricks do you use to make sure grocery shopping with a toddler does not result in shell shock and/or bags full of Hostess snack cakes?

  • Super Cheap Cell Phones and the Break-Even Point

    Recently, J's cell phone gave up the ghost. (I believe it was dropped from his shirt into a ginormous mug of coffe. Multiple times. J can be pretty hard on his belongings).

    We have phoned with Credo for several years now, after we and Verizon had a less-than-amicable divorce. (Some things were said on both sides that simply could not be taken back. For example "This is your rate" and "Yes, you were roaming while sitting in your living room" and "Doodyheads!")

    So, we looked up when we could replace J's phone without paying for it. We discovered that of the 750 minutes we are currently eligible for with our plan (which, by the way, is the cheapest/lowest usage plan offered), we have not even used 10% per month over the last year. (This is because we, unlike anyone else in our age group, actually have a home phone. I love it. You can have my landline when you pull it from my cold, dead hands.)

    I called Credo, and discovered that there was no way to spend any less per month (currently $95), despite our more common usage of our phones as paperweights.

    Hmm.

    J is interested in possibly having a smart phone. We have not entered the 21st century, and our phones have been of the dumb, only-makes-calls-and-takes-really-bad-pictures variety. J would like to have a calendar available to him on his portable paper weight and coffee buoy. I would like to do the Twitter more often and program my phone to run my life, as I've been assured a smart phone would be able to do.

    J found a cell phone service called Republic Wireless, that charges as little as $5 per month, provided you buy the phone. They are able to do this because they allow you to use Wi-Fi for any data usage, rather than 3G or 4G or whatever number G they're up to these days. (I feel like those G numbers are the like the razor cold wars from a few years ago, when they just ketp adding more and more blades). If you use cell towers for data, you're charged for it, but otherwise, you can use the Wi-fi you're already using for your other devices.

    We were intrigued. Could this possibly be as good a deal as they claim?

    We did some research. Read many a review. Determined that as long as we actually turn off the switch-to-cell-tower option, you really can have a smart phone for $10 per month, each.

    Hmm.

    Unfortunately, we do still have to spend $300 each on new phones, cancel our contracts with Credo, which will cost $80 for J and $145 for me, and purchase Otterbox phone protectors at $40 each to keep our smart phones uncaffeinated. So, is it still worth it?

    J, because he is an engineer and could make an Excel document in his sleep, decided to create a spreadsheet to see when our break-even point would be. (And therein, you get a glimpse at how we Mensches keep the romance alive in our marriage.)

    So, if all goes according to plan, we will break even next April--and we'll have saved nearly $900 by March 2016.

    Of course, there's no guarantee that all will go according to plan. And this is why making these sorts of decisions is so difficult. We might have just made our single smartest cell phone decision since we stopped drinking coffee while holding a cell phone--or, we might end up having wasted more money overall than we would have if we'd just stuck with what we know.

    No matter what, I'm really excited to get a smart phone and become, what's known in the parlance of our times--a late adopter.

    I will definitely keep you updated on this situation as it develops. It's possible I might even update you from my new phone!

     

    Have you ever made a break-even point decision--whether for a mortgage refinance or a service provider change--that bit you in the rear? Have you ever had one work out exactly as you planned? Tell us about it in the comments.

  • Time as Money

    I seem to have a bit of a time management problem.

    (As a matter of fact, I have multiple time management problems, two of which are adorable and nicknamed LO and BB, but for right now I'm going to focus on the things over which I theoretically have control).

    I currently have a generous 9 hours a week wherein I have the house to myself so that I can get writing done. Yet despite the fact that this "Pfew, there are no kids about!" time is specifically set aside for me to work, I find myself instead spending the time on Facebook, on Pinterest, brewing more coffee, staring dully out the window, and wondering what the kids are up to. While I know that discovering how John Travolta would butcher my name at the Oscars and what time period I and all of my friends ought to be living in are issues of incredibly pressing importance, I do need to actually get something written throughout the week.

    Clearly, I need to be better at managing my time. So, earlier this week, I turned to Pinterest--where the answers to all life's questions can be found--and did a search for productivity. One article that I discovered suggested tracking your time in order to put it to better use.

    My first instinct was to hurl the computer through the window. This Mensch is no fan of tracking. Way to suck all the fun out of the mindless waste of my daylight hours on ridiculous inanities.

    Then, upon second consideration, I realized that I *am* actually a fan of tracking...money. As I've mentioned before, I get a bit of a weird pleasure from balancing my checkbook and paying bills, because I'm neatly tracking, categorizing, and organizing my money. Clearly, the way to get me interested in tracking my time is to pretend I have 24 dollars to spend over every day. I'm much more intersted in spending that wisely than I am in wisely spending my time. (Apparently, I have as-yet-latent Gordon Gekko tendencies. If you see me don red suspenders, slick back my hair, and start telling people that greed is good, please slap me silly).

    I also discovered the ability to create rainbow-colored pie charts in Excel, which means I can make my time-as-money tracking both attractive and ridiculous:

    My first goal: get that Me Time up from an equivalent of $0.01 of my overall pot (or 40 seconds of my day) to something that could realistically be spent on relaxing. (I'm thinking 90 seconds is a good goal.)

    How do you keep yourself on task and manage your time? Is there anyone else who likes to track their day to make sure they stay on task?

     

    By the way, it's not too late to enter to win a copy of my book, The Five Years Before You Retire. Just leave a comment on any one of the four Frugal Olympics posts by Friday, March 7!

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