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Live Like a Mensch

  • Going Grocery Shopping Without a List

    "Mom, I don't think this is going to end well..."

     

    Yesterday, for the first time in years, I went grocery shopping without having made a meal plan or a list.

    Yikes.

    You see, I usually do my meal planning on Sunday and my grocery shopping on Monday. But I had Grandma Mensch (my mother), Auntie and Uncle Mensch (my sister and brother-in-law) and Little Cousin (my niece) in town for Passover this past weekend. It's much more fun to take a passel of Menschkins to the park and the zoo than it is to make meal plans, so I decided to wait on my routine.

    And, of course, I couldn't really go grocery shopping until after Passover was over Tuesday night.

    So I found myself staring down an empty cupboard on Wednesday with very little time available to do my usual planning and list-making. 

    Which is why LO, BB and I headed to Target yesterday afternoon sans list or specific meal plan. It mostly helped me remember why I ALWAYS have a list. Here's a breakdown of how it went:

    What I Did Right

    There are certain items that I know we always need, like crackers, apple juice, applesauce, peanuts, and turkey bacon. I was able to get all of those without feeling the need to check a list.

    I also was able to ask J what he needed before we left, so I was able to procure the 24-pack of the beer he wanted to celebrate the end of Passover with.

    And some things that I buy are kind of dependent on what's there. Things like produce. I felt perfectly comfortable restocking our fruits and veggies without a list, even though I didn't have anything specifically planned for veggies for dinner.

    What I Forgot

    I manage to forget something every single time I go shopping, even when I have a list, so it's natural that shopping without one would lead to even more forgotten items. In particular, I forgot:

    • Shampoo and conditioner
    • Veggie burgers (we're hosting some friends for a cookout this weekend, and one family member is a vegetarian, which I totally forgot as I was purchasing the ground beef and hot dogs).
    • Syrup (we ate a lot of matza brei with syrup during Passover, and now that LO can enjoy pancakes and waffles again, he is requesting them all the time. I'm hoping he won't notice when I water down the maple syrup).
    • Tomatoes (for the burgers)
    • New shoes for LO (not a grocery staple, I know, but we were at Target and the poor kid's shoes are getting threadbare.)

    Impulse Buys

    I'm generally able to keep these to a minimum, since I feel that if it's not on the list, it doesn't go in the cart. Yesterday, the following items made it into our cart:

    • A bag of popcorn (I missed it during Passover, even though I don't really eat popcorn that much normally. Forbidden fruit, I guess.)
    • Ritz crackers (We buy the Target brand wheat thin type crackers, but LO saw the big red Ritz box and asked for it. Normally, I'd tell him no, but the kid was such an angel about having to eat matza all week, I figured why the heck not?)
    • Letter bath toys (I had to get something in the baby aisle for BB, and LO saw the bath toys and wanted them with a fierce passion of a million burning suns. I was going to tell him no when I realized that the child was asking for an educational toy, rather than having an attack of Iwantititis over some branded plastic monstrosity. Also, it was only $2.50. I still can't decide if I made the right call or not). 

    Bottom Line

    I ended up spending almost $175 at the grocery store, which is $25 more than I normally spend. I would feel good about this, except that I still only have enough "dinner food" for four meals (rather than the six I normally meal plan for) and I'm going to head back to the store in the next couple of days for both the items I forgot and for the meals I plan for next week. (Although I'm going to try to meal plan out of my larder this week to minimize my purchases.)

    Basically, there's a reason why I felt naked yesterday while shopping.

    I really need a list!

  • Two Lessons on Frugality from Passover

    Photo courtesy of Claude Truong-Ngoc

    Today is the last day of Pesach, and J and LO and I will be celebrating the end of my favorite holiday by enjoying a pizza that is not made of matza or matza meal for dinner.

    Thinking about this holiday, I realized that there are actually several unexpected frugality lessons tucked into the holiday. Here are a two that I've been turning over in my mind:

    1. It's a marathon, not a sprint.

    While the seder is the big reason why I love Passover, I'm also a huge fan of Passover food--matza ball soup, charoset, gefilte fish, horseradish, macaroons, and, of course, plain old matza. I love butter and jam on matza, egg-salad sandwiches on matza, matza brei, tuna sandwiches on matza, matza pizza, and even matza sans toppings.

    The thing about matza, however, is that it does not necessarily agree with one's digestive system. It tends to have a cumulative effect. Just about the same time you realize you're sick of the taste of matza, you also realize that your body is about to go on strike.

    This happens to me every year. I'm so excited to be enjoying matza that I over-indulge and get sick of it when I still have three more days left to go before I can eat bread again.

    This is much like frugal fatigue. If you jump into saving money with both feet, you may go on the momentum of saving for a while, but at some point you're going to feel sick of saving money and want to rebel against the rules you've given yourself. It's better to do a little at a time so you get used to being frugal by steps, rather than becoming an extreme frugalista all at once. 

    And for Passover, I really ought to focus on the Kosher for Passover foods that are not matza based early on in the holiday so I can actually enjoy the matza for the full eight days.

    2. Freedom tastes sweet

    There are two reasons why we eat matza during Passover--because the Israelites did not have time to allow their bread to rise when they fled Egypt and because we need to remember that the plainest of food (matza) eaten in freedom tastes sweeter than the most decadent food eaten when you are enslaved.

    I feel that living debt-free offers a similar sense of sweet freedom. By living debt-free, you may not be able to afford the luxuries and the decadence that others (seem to) enjoy, but your "plain" life is so much sweeter because you can afford it entirely on your own without owing anything to creditors. We should all strive to be free, even if it means giving up luxuries.

    And on that note, I'm going to spend the rest of my day wiping drool off my chin as I imagine the taste of a real pizza. Come on, sundown!

     

    What frugal lessons have you learned from your favorite holidays?

  • I Have Discovered the Secret to an Organized Kitchen

    I feel like someone on an infomercial.

    You know how infomercials show you just how hard the lives are of the poor, beleaguered shmoes without Product Shiny to simplify things? And then once they have been given Product Shiny, those shmoes start smiling the crazy-eyed smile and telling the audience "It's so simple!"

    Yeah, it's been like that.

    You see, I've been trying to keep an organized Tupperware/Gladware/plastic storage container cabinet for pretty much all of my adult life. I would estimate that I have wasted nigh on 7 or 8 years of my life total in attempting to find a matching storage container bottom and top. Not to mention the avalanche of too many containers that would fall down upon me anytime I opened my Tupperware/Gladware/plastic storage container cabinet because I kept buying more in an attempt to ensure that I could always find clean and matching bottoms and tops.

    Recently, I decided that I was done with that way of life.

    I decided to start storing my storage containers with the tops attached!

    Yes, I had to cull the herd before starting this revolutionary new way of life. BUT...now that I can always find the top and the bottom without wasting twenty minutes searching through scads of Tupperware, I find I need much less in the way of food containment compared to my pre-organized life.

    An added bonus, now that I am no longer attempting to nest my Tupperware, is the fact that it really doesn't matter if my Tupperware is organized by size or not. It all fits in the cabinet, and we have enough for our needs.

    And so, just like the crazy-eyed "after" participants in informcials, I am shouting my newfound truth to the world. It's really that simple! Why on earth did it take me 35 years to figure this out?

    Do you have a "why didn't I think of that?" solution that you have been using at home? Please share in the comments!

  • Protecting Yourself From Heartbleed

     

    By now, you've no doubt heard of the latest sign of the computer apocalypse, the Heartbleed Virus Bug. Not only does this virus make your secure information on various websites vulnerable, it will also step out of your computer with brandishing an 8-bit sword (a la the creepy little girl in The Ring) and stalk through your house wreaking havoc. At least, that's the level of panic that various news sites have indicated is appropriate for this virus.

    Despite my blase attitude, I am taking the opportunity to change all of my passwords.

    I have recently perfected my password strategy in a way that makes me feel as though my passwords are both secure and memorable (although we'll see on both counts). Since the modern world requires us to password protect EVERYTHING, each with a different password, wherein each password has a minimum of 8 characters, three of which have to be symbols like the one Prince changed his name to, etc, it can be difficult to feel as though you really have a handle on your passwording.

    I have the solution!

    First, start with a sentence that means something to you. For instance, you might write:

    I look to Live Like a Mensch for all my advice.

    or

    If loving Game of Thrones is wrong, I don't want to be right.

    Then, use the initial letters for each word, substituting at least one with a number or symbol, like so:

    Il2LL@M4ama

    or 

    IlGoTiw,Idwt0br

    You now have a random string of characters that will be unbreakable by a hacker but actually means something to you. You can even write down the original sentence somewhere (my suggestion is on a date in your date book that means something to you but that isn't your birthday) and know that even if someone finds the sentence, they still won't be able to come up with your password.

    Of course, we're not done yet. Because you have to go through these shenanigans with EVERY. SINGLE. WEBSITE. you associate with, many people just reuse the same password for everything. (Not you, of course. People do. People who shall remain unnamed).

    You can protect yourself without making yourself crazy remembering (or writing down) 150 different passwords. Start adding letters that identify the website the password is for into your password. For instance, if the Game of Thrones password from above is the one you use for everything (and don't worry, I won't tell), you could make it different for each site by simply adding letters at the end:

    For Pinterest:

    IlGoTiw,Idwt0brPIN

    For Amazon:

    IlGoTiw,Idwt0brAMZ

    For Gmail:

    IlGoTiw,Idwt0brGM

    And so on.

    Now you have uncrackable passwords that you can actually remember!

    So, have some fun changing your passwords until the next computer security apocalypse arrives.

  • Childcare Costs and the Work-at-Home Mother


    I recently hired a babysitter to help me through the infinitely long afternoons that are Tuesdays and Thursdays.

    You see, LO is currently attending a language-intensive preschool on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. The bus picks him up at 8:30 and drops him off again at noon.

    The rest of the week, he goes to Montessori from 7:30 (when J drops him off) to 3:30 (when I pick him up).

    For most of the year, I would wake up on Tuesday and Thursday full of hope, vim, and to-do lists of all the things I would get done. Yes, BB was home with me in the morning, but he would nap and I could work on my writing. And once LO got home in the afternoon, they'd both nap and I could work on my writing.

    Instead, most Tuesdays and Thursdays would find me sitting in the middle of a pile of chaos by the end of the day with no writing done, no children napped, and trail of unfinished tasks in my wake.

    Finally, after it occurred to me that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity, I hired a Purdue student to come from noon to four so I could close myself in the office and actually get some writing done.

    Now, despite the fact that said student does not charge very much and that I really really need the time in order to keep my sanity/deadlines reasonable/etc, I cannot help but notice the fact that between the babysitting, BB's daycare at the Y on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and the cost of LO's Montessori, I don't necessarily break even with my income.

    (I don't know this for sure, since I'm only doing the mental accounting rather than actually breaking out the old calculator to figure it out. I'm actually a little afraid to discover what the calculator will tell me.)

    There have been times when I've wondered why I don't just stay at home with the boys, rather than try to also work from home. After all, if I'm only just breaking even, it might make more economic sense for me to put the career stuff on hold.

    There have been times when I've wondered if I should put the boys into more hours of daycare/school so I have more time to work. After all, if I could earn more if I had more time to work, it might make more economic sense for me to have the kids in more childcare during the day.

    Very rarely do I feel as though I have the appropriate amount of time to devote to work or to being Mom.

    But even if I'm not doing much more than breaking even with our childcare costs, I can't imagine either doubling down on the at-home part of my job description or on the work part of my job description.

    That's because I can't imagine seeing less of my boys. There are already days when I feel like I don't get a chance to enjoy them as much as I'd like.

    And it's because I can't imagine not having the opportunity to research and write about the topics that fascinate me. There are already days when I think one more repetition of "How Much is that Doggy In the Window?" will send me spiraling into looney-town.

    So, I spend close to what I make in order to have the best balance I can muster. I still wish there were more than 24 hours per day and that I could actually have the satisfaction of finishing projects on the same day that I start them.

    It feels like I'm attempting to acheive balance on a gossamer tightrope.  Balance may not even be possible.

    I will say that I'm ultimately grateful that I have the options I do, even if like so many issues in parenting, it feels like whatever I choice I make will be wrong.

    How do you deal with finding economic and time balance as a parent?

  • How Much Do You Spend on Groceries?

    Pictured: NOT Mr. Money Mustache, despite the facial hair

     

    The other day, I was perusing Mr. Money Mustache's hilarious and subversive website, when I came across this post: Killing Your $1000 Grocery Bill.

    In this post, Mr. Mustache states that his family of three spends $80 per week at the grocery store. (He also claims that he thought he was going a little overboard by spending that amount, but I think that part is actually fictional. He has to know that he lives like no one else).

    When J and I were first married, I managed to lower our monthly grocery costs from $400 to $180. In order to do that, I shopped every other Sunday, made two-week-at-a-time meal plans, cherry-picked sales, matched coupons to sales, and took seven hours to grocery shop every other Sunday.

    These days, I generally shop once a week, and I spend about $150 per week for a family of 3.2. (Since BB is only just now learning the joys of gumming food, I don't yet fully include him in my grocery head count).

    That puts us just under the USDA's average weekly cost of food for a family of four on a low-cost plan ($164 per week). According to the USDA, on a thrifty plan, families of four will spend $128.90, on a moderate-cost plan, they'll spend $202.90, and on a liberal plan, they'll spend $251.20

    Even though I do a little bit to keep our grocery bill low--using coupon apps, comparing prices, meal planning, eating vegetarian for at least two dinners a week--I suspect that most of my grocery savings come from the fact that I live in Lafayette, Indiana. Not only am I living in a farming state, but the cost of living here is in general pretty low.

    I could probably get down to Mustachian levels of grocery savings if I were willing to do a few things:

    1. Spend more time on grocery shopping. If I went back to my early married habit of shopping at three different grocery stores in order to cherry-pick the sales, I'm sure I'd save a decent amount of money. But these days, I'd much rather spend my time sleeping, working, or blowing raspberries on certain unnamed tummies.

    2.  Reduce our luxuries. Mr. Money Mustache is not *exactly* anti-luxury--but he certainly does look askance at any luxuries you consume without thinking about it. In the case of the Mensch family, beer, apple juice, orange juice, out-of-season fruits, and store bought hummus are all luxuries we could theoretically do without. (J would like to point out that while *I* could do without beer, he simply cannot. Pesach is tough for him every year).

    3.  Stockpile. We've got a small house. Other than the aforementioned beer and apple juice (both of which I know will not be taking up a great deal of storage space for long), I'm just not willing to have an enormous stockpile in my house.

    4. Cook more things from scratch. I love cooking from scratch. As a kid, I used to prefer anything made "from scraps" as I thought it was called. But my life is so much easier if I don't attempt to rehydrate dry beans or make chicken broth from scratch.

    Even though I know our grocery bill is certainly within reasonable limits for the size of our family and the amount of time I put into grocery shopping, I can't help but think back to the $90 per week I managed to spend back when I was just cooking for myself and J. But since I am not willing or able to make the changes necessary to drastically reduce (our already reasonable) grocery bill, I'm not going to reach mustachian levels of grocery savings.

    How much do you spend on groceries? Where do you draw the money-saving line?

  • Vlog Post 1: Dealing with High Pressure Sales

    My very first vlog post is live! In it, you'll hear my opinion of high pressure salespeople, how my sister laid the smack-down on such a salesperson, and why $50 was a small price to pay for me to learn the ways of conmen:

    Vlog Post 1


  • Is It an Either/Or: Inheritance or a Work Ethic?

    Photo of piercing blue eyes and majestic silver hair courtesy of minds-eye

     

    This morning, I read this piece about how newsman Anderson Cooper will receive zilcho from his mother, heiress and millionaire-in-her-own-right Gloria Vanderbilt.

    This really got me thinking about a couple of things:

    1. How did I not know that Anderson Cooper was a Vanderbilt?

    and 

    2. Why does it seem as though parents have to choose between passing along an inheritance and passing along a strong work ethic, as if they are mutually exclusive?

    If you didn't read the original piece, it talks about how Cooper knows his mother will not leave him anything and that he feels like he got a better inheritance by learning an incredible work ethic from her. He actually described inherited wealth as an "initiative sucker" and a "curse."

    I generally tend to hew to Cooper's money philosophy. I just recently wrote about how one of my money scripts (unconscious beliefs about money) is that I don't deserve money that I didn't earn. This has less to do with my feeling as though I am unworthy of gifts of money (although being the beneficiary of my father's life insurance certainly did come with mixed emotions), and more to do with the pride I feel at earning my own money.

    I remember the first "job" I had outside of my family. I was about 12 years old, and I worked as a mother's helper for my father's best friend whose little girl was about 1. For two hours of entertaining the baby, I was paid $5. I remember walking on air on my way home because it felt so incredible to have earned that money. I wasn't quite plotting to take over the world with my five-spot, but I definitely felt as though an entire new world of possibility had been opened to me because I could earn money.

    So in my own life, I'm personally much happier to have a solid work ethic and a belief in my own abilities rather than gifts of money.

    On the other hand, when I think about LO and BB, there are definitely financial gifts that I would like to pass along to them in addition to the work ethic.

    In particular, it's my dream to give them their undergraduate education free and clear--and to put no restrictions on what they study. I am pretty sure that I'm not going to be able to fully follow through. (They will probably have to take some loans in order to get their Bachelor's degrees.) However, I'm definitely sticking to my dream that they can pursue anything they like in college.

    Unfortunately, this is the only consistent disagreement J and I have had over the years. He's afraid that my dream of such a gift will allow our kids to take a four year vacation, during which time they'll major in Underwater Basketweaving and keg stands. While I suspect that we're not capable of raising two kids who would do that (and I humbly suggest that we could always change our plans if we do), J does have a bit of a point. If LO and BB need to feel financially/externally invested in their education, then giving it to them gratis could set them up for a world of hurt.

    So, even though I have no reason to be worried about the sort of initiative-sucking millions that a Vanderbilt kid might fall "prey" to, I do wonder if it's possible to raise hard-working children with the financial privileges you hope to give them. I suspect that finding a way to do both is like walking a tightrope (as is true for many parenting dilemmas.) But it seems like it would be better for the kids to err on the side of the work ethic--which is probably why Gloria Vanderbilt is not leaving her son a dime.

    In our case, J's and my conversation/discussion/disagreement about college will likely continue and change its dynamic as our boys grow and show interest in various subjects. I want them to be internally motivated to complete their studies and love whatever it is they decide to learn and do with their lives. J wants them to be able to take care of themselves financially. Hopefully we'll find that those two wants are not mutually exclusive.

    Although I'm still throwing out any college brochures that focus too much on the exciting developments in the Underwater Basketweaving department.

    What do you think? Are money privilege and a work ethic mutually exclusive parenting gifts? How do you balance wanting to give you kids the world and trying to prepare them for it?

  • 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?

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