Thursday, July 28, 2011

Spending Fast

No, I'm not spending money quickly; instead, I am not spending money. Like one of these fasts. It wasn't until today that I had a sort of epiphany. (Warning: it's not as major as it seems.) I haven't spent money for the past two days [GASP!]. Three days ago, I paid my phone bill and applied a few bucks towards my credit card balance (that hardly counts as "spending" as it's more of an obligation, rather than something that's discretionary. "Spending" sounds much more fun to me and, although it's the same thing, I set aside "bill paying" in my head. But I digress...)

My mini-revelation surprised me in two ways. First, I realized - aside from looking at my expense tracker- that I spend quite a bit of money on food. I still long for Panera (it hasn't been a week yet and I'm already dreaming about the next time I'll treat myself to their goodies), I haven't eaten any cheesy goodness from a fast food restaurant (ex. Subway's meatball sub, an organic cheeseburger from Elevation Burger), and no random snacks from my local CVS (I've been thinking a lot about sour gummy worms). I tried the meal planning thing; actually, it wasn't much of a plan. I made a crock-pot meal on Saturday and have been eating it for lunch and dinner all week long. I'm so sick of chicken stew! Chicken stew and rice. Chicken stew on a flour tortilla. Chicken stew and toast. Plain ol' chicken stew. I finished what was left of it tonight for dinner. Luckily, I changed things up a bit with a bowl of imitation Fruit Loops and pizza (that was on sale this past weekend) for dinner last night and lunch today.

My second surprise was that I didn't feel bad for not spending money. There was a bit of awkwardness because I haven't been too many places outside of home and work. As weird as it may seem, spending money has almost become an automatic thing (yikes!). I've always been aware of my spending (as evidenced by my near obsession with expense tracking), but I haven't been so conscious about my non-spending. We'll see if it matters.

Update: I tried bottled water for my coffee and it tasted better! Then again, it was a different type of coffee (Caribou's K-cup vs. the Gloria's Hazelnut that I tried at first). Frankly, the brand of hazelnut is unimpressive (which sucks, because it's my favorite flavor of coffee!). Nevertheless, I will continue to experiment in order to find the perfect cup o' joe. And if things don't work out, I'll sell my new toy for half of what I paid for it on Craigslist and head straight to Panera. Okay, okay, I'm joking....but only a little ;)

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

My New Toy

In my last post, I talked about using meal planning as a way to adhere to my food budget of $50 per week. I did okay on a trip to the grocery store (I spent $50.60, but $10 of it was for non-grocery items<<paper towel and toilet paper). However, I did not purchase breakfast items. I knew that breakfast is was best at Panera Bread. But when I did the math (at least $3.02/day for at least twenty days each month), I knew that I might be better off (at least a little bit), by putting $60.40/month elsewhere (savings account maybe?). 

So what did I do? I bought one of these...

The machine, additional pods of hazelnut coffee and skim milk set me back $120.22. The cost per cup (excluding the depreciation of the machine) is $0.67 compared to the $1.75 I pay paid at my lovely bakery chain restaurant.

I tried it last night with tea (nothing special there), and this morning with coffee (it doesn't taste like Panera :/). I even made a second cup because I thought the first was a mistake.

The next time I use this machine, I'll use purified water (as recommended). I'll let you know how it turns out.

By the way, why did I purchase an "expensive" single brewer coffee maker? I've had coffee from Keurig (machine and pods) before and it's always delicious. Like, addictive delicious. I figured, why not have the same deliciousness in my home?

I'll do my best to make breakfast at home as pleasurable as breakfast on the go (I'll miss you cinnamon swirl and raisin bagel!). I should remind myself that there was life before carrying out breakfast every morning. But the smell of freshly brewed coffee for a few months has easily overshadowed such memories. At any rate, I'll do my best to "get back to the basics."

P.S. Okay, so maybe I'm being a little dramatic. You would be too, if your coffee wasn't on point!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Is Meal Planning My Ticket?

I've been ashamed of my food spending for the past few months. I budget $50/week for food and have easily blown through more than a quarter of that budget with my work day breakfast purchases, alone.

Shout out to Panera Bread. I love your hazelnut coffee (w/skim milk) and cinnamon swirl and raisin bagels, toasted with no cream cheese or butter.

Any who, I've laid out my spending through the end of the year using my new budget template, noting that I'll be using my new rewards credit card (and maintaining the tradition of paying the balance in full), and trying to plan for upcoming expenses, such as a weekend trip to the Big Apple.

In an effort to restore my ability to "respect the budget", I know I have to do a better job of sticking to my $50/week food budget. And I'm wondering if meal planning is the way to go. Frankly, I have not been a model for eating meals that are nourishing or financially responsible. I won't go into any great detail about the $20+ I spent for lunch at the Cheesecake Factory a week or two ago...or about the beer and banana chips I ate for "dinner" last night, but I know I have to spend a reasonable amount (i.e. not $20+/meal) and it should be good for me (ex. add veggies, protein, and maybe better carbs to my beer).

This is where meal planning comes in. I've heard about it here and there, I know that it involves me making a list of stuff I want to eat for the next week, and making sure that my grocery list allows for some flexibility around core items, but frankly, I've never done it. The closest I've come to meal planning is whipping out a grocery store circular and buying only what's on sale. I wouldn't say that peanut butter, cantaloupe and pork chops constitutes a meal, but at least I spent less on such purchases =)

Have you successfully used meal planning to manage your finances and to ensure you eat balanced meals? What has worked best for you? I appreciate your insight!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Too Much Time...

At the beginning of July, I shared a new budget template that I plan to begin using in August. Since then, I've adopted a template from my boyfriend that allows me to view my expenses on an annual basis (with a month to month snapshot).

I've spent an inordinate amount of time trying to reconcile my monthly expense tracker tabs with this new "annual budget" tab. At times, I tell myself that I will only use the annual tab for the upcoming months. Then, I find myself toiling away at the workbook to get the numbers just right. I've spent at least 5 hours in the evening and at work trying to achieve an accurate reflection of my budget for the past six months.

Just a few notes: January, March, April, May, and June are all works in progress; those months with orange backgrounds are really screwed up (at least there's hope for getting May straight by moving around a few things); the plus signs (+) indicate that the information associated with that column/row is correct (as such, you'll see that my REAL problem is figuring out how to track my credit card expenses).

What do you think? 
Should I keep going until I get the past months right or move on?

Surprise! You Have a New Student Loan Payment Amount!

By no means is my new student loan payment epic. In fact, it's only $0.95 less than what I've been paying. Hardly enough to pay for a cup of coffee. At any rate, I was a little surprised to find a message in my Direct Loan Servicing inbox notifying me that starting July 28th, my electronic debit will be $228.26. 

Frankly, I wasn't expecting my student loan payment amount to change until I actively switched to the regular payment schedule. I've written before that switching to the regular payment schedule would boost my monthly payments to $265. I don't know what it would be if I switched today (and since is acting super-duper slow today, I won't bother finding out in time to publish this post!).

UPDATE: If I switch to the regular payment schedule beginning August 28, 2011, my monthly amount will be $368.74.

Nevertheless, I'm sure the retirement of my car loan will usher in yet another change for my monthly student loan payments, as I hope to extend my accelerated debt elimination plan to the federal government once my disposable income increases =)

By the way, there was no specific explanation as to why my payment amount changed. However, the website offered that the change might have occurred because of loans being added to my account and some other unlikely actions that I can't remember :)

July 2011 Net Worth Update

I apologize for keeping you waiting for so long (I've officially missed 4 on time posts). Here's where I left off....

My assets increased by $960.35 and my liabilities decreased by $1132.14. Here's the summary explanation:

403(b): (+739.34) This includes three bi-weekly contributions of $205 (total of $615). The rest reflects the growth of the underlying investments (two mutual funds). 

Emergency Savings: (+15.26) $15 of this amount reflects my deposits of $5 into the account every two weeks. I've earned $0.26 in interest on the balance. This amount will soon dwindle to $51.88 as I've set up a transfer of $400 to cover my new credit card balance.

Regular Brokerage Account and Roth IRA: (+$56.37 and +$158.92) Nothing new here: recurring deposits of $25 into the regular brokerage account every two weeks and no deposits into the Roth. You won't notice it, but I deposited $75 into my regular brokerage account since the June 1st update; however, the growth noted here is $56.37. Even though the balance for the regular brokerage account is higher than last month, I actually have an unrealized loss.

Savings Account: (-$9.54) This account is still suffering from motion sickness. Despite my deposits via "Keep the Change" and monthly deposits of $25 ($50 deposited since my last net worth update), the change in the balance is lower than it was in June. It doesn't help that I recently transferred $100 to cover part of my credit card balance. 

Car Loan: (+1027.53) I can hardly believe I put over one thousand bucks towards this account since my last update. Nevertheless, I am officially under a $5k balance! The end of this loan is fast approaching! Maybe then I can make up with my dwindling savings accounts balances :)

Credit Card: (+$397.27) I paid off my balance and have since had a number of transactions. However, the balance for this account is $0, thanks to the $280.41 payment I made. Going forward, this account will only have a recurring expense of $6 every week for a virtual assistant I pay. Most of my expenses will now go to my shiny new rewards card...
*NEW*Rewards Credit Card (-368.98) ...And it really is shiny. Like "bling-bling-gold" shiny. Anywho, I've been swiping away with my new friend: I reserved a hotel room for a family gathering later this month, purchased airfare to Florida for September (I jumped on a fare sale, a round-trip ticket for $95.40 ain't too shabby), and food. Going forward, I plan to use this account for all food, gasoline (and other vehicle maintenance) and miscellaneous expenses; furthermore, I will pay the balance in full every billing cycle (over at least two payments per cycle to keep the balance low).

Student Loan: (+$76.33) Every month, $229.21 diligently goes towards my student loan. I'm looking forward to increasing this amount, soon!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Updated Budget Template

This week was all about budget templates! (Sounds kind of corny, but whatever). My boyfriend and I discussed our respective expense trackers and a friend of mine asked about the budget template I use. My convo and special request got me to thinking about how I could improve my budget template. Here's the new and improved template with notes on how to use it:

Here are a few tips I shared with my friend:
  • The first tab (annual budget) offers a monthly and annual snapshot of your expenses. If you get paid every two weeks and have two "extra" paychecks per year, you can update the formulas accordingly.
  • I prefer to track my expenses based on when I receive my paycheck (every two weeks). You can track based on what's easiest for you (by week, every two weeks, or monthly).
  • The orange categories capture transactions from my checking account, since this is where the bulk of my expenses come from. The green category captures credit card spending. It's a bit subtle, but you'll notice that this tracker assumes that you pay your credit card balance in full (credit card transactions are combined with checking account transactions; both are deducted from your total income).
  • If you use your credit card to make the majority of your transactions (and to earn points, rewards, miles, etc.), you can categorize your credit card spending and change the "credit card transactions" column to "checking account transactions".
  • If it's more helpful, you can move the credit card transactions column next to the "cash transactions" column and exclude it from your "total income - total expenses" category. Doing so will make it easier to reconcile your bank statements with your expense tracker (this is the way I use my tracker). See the third tab for an example of this.
  • The blue/green column (cash) captures transactions you make using cash. In the [orange] ATM/Cash Back column, you're tracking money that has been withdrawn from your checking account. In the separate blue/green column, you're tracking the use of the aforementioned funds after they've been withdrawn.
  • You insert your income (weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly) in the formula for total income minus total expenses. If you have any funds that carried over from the previous pay period, you can add it to this formula (second tab) or as a line item (third tab).