Thursday, December 29, 2005

Saving on Groceries: Defeat Your Receipt And Still Eat Your Meat

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

One place I’m looking to save money in the coming year is on groceries. You might be thinking, “Dude, you only spend $300 a month on groceries as it is! How are you going to save more?”

You’d be quite right to question my ability to save us any more on our monthly food bill, but I’ve found a few tips that will definitely help us extend that $300 to make our meals more delicious and filling. I’m sure you’re all familiar with the standard grocery tips like buying in bulk (or not!), not shopping while hungry, and looking to top and bottom shelves for deals, but here are a few I hadn’t considered before and that I plan to implement immediately.

  • Plan out the week’s meals in advance as much as humanly possible. This one’s going to be tough, but for the most part we know exactly when we’ll be at home and what meals we’ll need to eat while there. At present, our list-making regimen is terrible and consists solely of adding to a list on the fridge whenever we see that we need something. Instead, we’re going to try to plan meals for Sunday through Saturday on the previous Saturday and do the shopping on Sunday morning. If at all possible, we’ll try to incorporate whatever existing food is in the house into these meals, and when we need something in particular for a recipe or meal, we’ll add it to the list. We’ll study flyers for the nearest grocery stores to ensure we’re getting good prices while leaving room for alternatives in case there are some better deals in store.


    I’m hoping that by planning grocery trips better, we’ll avoid one of our biggest grocery problems: buying stuff, forgetting it’s in the cupboard, and never using it. While getting ready for our move a few months ago, we found some things in the cupboard made by companies that I don’t think are around anymore! No more of that! I want to know what’s in our kitchen from now on!
  • Chart grocery prices. Is 47 cents for a can of fruit cocktail a good deal? How about a pork loin for $2.99 a pound? Or a bag of apples for four bucks? Since Tegan and I have been doing the shopping together for a long time, I’m usually pretty good at distinguishing between real grocery bargains and fake ones that make you think you’re saving money when you’re really not. Still, even I sometimes forget what the normal going price is for a ham butt (79 cents a pound? Ten dollars a butt?). To help with this, I’m going to monitor grocery prices very closely for a little while and keep track of them by date and store. Maybe I’ll be able to spot a pattern in how often pasta goes on sale at Giant or when Safeway does its crazy soup deals. At the very least, I’ll have data for future grocery trips so that I’ll see if the price I’m paying for kiwi fruit is good compared to its regular and typical sale prices.
  • Making ends meat. Hahaha, what a witty pun. Looking at just about any grocery receipt of ours will reveal that we spend anywhere from 30-40% of our entire grocery budget on meats–poultry, beef, fish, and even Mr. Oink-Oink. Plenty of people get by without eating meat (or anything else that was, is, or might possibly evolve into something living), and while we’re not about to jump on that bandwagon, we definitely both agree that cutting back on the roast beast is something we can handle. At least once or twice a week, we’ll try to have a meatless dinner–spaghetti without meatballs, a nice big salad, or maybe a hefty stir-fry–and another day or two we’ll have a reduced-meat dinner consisting of dishes where meat is more of a secondary ingredient than the main dish. I expect this measure to have the biggest impact on our grocery spending, assuming we stick to it and don’t become meat zombies. NEED BRAAAAAAINS OR MAAAAYBE THIIIIGHS AND WIIIIIINGS.
  • Break out the cookbooks. This one won’t save us any money really, but it should help us make better use of the food we do buy. While Tegan and I could both stand to take a few cooking lessons, we can do just about anything a simple recipe tells us to as long as it has lots of pictures and uses small words (i.e. chop, not julienne or emulsify). We need to be careful about this, because whenever we do try out a new recipe, it usually calls for a lot of ingredients and a trip to the grocery store for a bunch of items sold by the gallon when we only need a teaspoon. I’ll try to locate a cheap but tasty cookbook of just three- and four-ingredient recipes.
  • Cook less often. If I can make a lasagna that lasts us two meals, then by golly I’m going to make one! Big recipes that serve six or eight will save just the two of us time and cooking fuel while also allowing us to make use of large quantities of ingredients bought on sale or in bulk. One dinner a week strictly made of leftovers would be ideal for us.
  • Don’t forget the non-food groceries! Another bad habit of ours: automatically assuming that Walmart or Target is the best place to buy toilet paper, detergent, and aluminum foil. Nine times out of ten they are, but grocery store sales prices on these items can sometimes meet or beat those of the super-stores. This will be simple enough to integrate into our normal shopping trips.

So what do you think? Do you have any other unique grocery or cooking hints to share? Or is food one of those things that you just can’t help but splurge on because you work hard to save money in all other facets of your budget?

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Goal #1 For 2006: Spend Less Time Thinking Up Witty Blog Post Titles

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics:

Assuming the bird flu pandemic doesn’t hit and force us to hide in the closet for six months, we’ve set a number of financial goals for the upcoming calendar year. If we succeed in meeting all of them, we’re going to Vegas and putting it all on red! (Tegan, this is sane Nick. If you’re reading this, please hide the checkbook if we meet all of our financial goals for the year.)

Goals for 2006

  1. Stop spending $119 a year on calendars. Honestly, I never know what the date is anyway, so they’re obviously not doing me any good. Those appointment book things are even worse because I usually have four or five of them and I never use them to record appointments! I actually already met this goal by getting a single calendar for 60 cents the other day. It’s hanging on the fridge and has lots of nice pictures of cats. Of course, I don’t like cats, so I won’t go near the thing, but that doesn’t matter because I never remember the date anyway. GOAL ACHIEVED 12/12/2005!
  2. Increase value of savings and investments by $10,000. I haven’t kept track of the value of our savings for more than a year now, mostly because I knew the wedding would take a massive bite out of it. This year, thanks to the wonderful Quicken folks, I’ll be able to monitor the value of our savings and investments much more closely. About $6,000 of this is kind of given since it will automatically be deducted from my paycheck on a before-tax basis and put into the 401k, so I’ll need to set aside at least another $350 a month to reach our goal. And then it’s off to Vegas and I’m putting it all on blue! Wait, what do you mean there’s no blue?
  3. Stop paying so many damn taxes. A couple years ago, while I was free-riding my way through college, I had some part time jobs to help cover personal expenses, but I never made enough per year that I ended up owing taxes at the end of the year. Of course, I won’t “owe” any this year, but that’s because Uncle Sam’s been keeping his dirty hands in my paycheck to the tune of a few hundred dollars a week all year. Even though I know we’ll be making more money given my impending salary increase in February and Tegan’s part-time job, I want to set a goal of paying less in income taxes next year than we did this year. Whether that means having more deducted pre-tax for my 401k or studying up on tax credits, the gubberment ain’t gittin’ none more o’ ma munnies. *cocks shotgun*
  4. Boost our credit ratings. This will probably be the easiest one since it just relies on us doing what we already do: use credit cards for everyday purchases and pay them off at the end of every month. Credit scores are kind of a flaky thing as they fluctuate depending on which finger you use to pick your nose, so I won’t use them to set the measurable value for this goal. Instead, if we start getting more good pre-approved credit card offers in the mail (none of that Providian or Capital One nonsense), I’ll take that as a sign that our goal has been achieved.
  5. Explore alternate avenues of revenue. I’ve already started on this, and I hope to expand on it this coming year. Some of these alternate methods for making a few bucks may include finally doing a few eBay auctions for junk around the house (Nick’s Dirty Little Secret #3: I have yet to sell anything in an online auction.), putting up a couple of ads on this here blog, and possibly signing up for various bank accounts and credit cards just for their bonuses. If time permits, I might try figuring out some sort of small home business opportunity like something with computers or hamster-powered electric generators. I’m setting a firm goal of making $1,000 before taxes in 2006 through these sort of tasks. And then it’s off to Vegas to put it all on 53! Huh? I don’t care if the wheel doesn’t go that high; I’m putting it all on 53!
  6. Get us both financially enlightened. Steps toward achieving this goal are already well under way. I’m loading more finance blogs in my feed reader all the time, I’m digesting investment web pages by the barrel, and I might even buy a book or two (gasp!) on various money-related subjects. Tegan’s not one for the heavy math, so I’ll try to pass on some more general pecuniary tidbits to her whenever I can. Maybe I’ll add her as an author to this blog so she can keep you all updated on her funny hat collection budget.

Eventually I’ll get around to dreaming up some long-term goals, but I’ll need to do some more calculations to determine how much we want and/or need to save for the future. Right now, I’m thinking ten GAZILLION dollars by 2020 ought to be enough.

Friday, December 23, 2005

So We Give You Pictures of Presidents and You Let Us Live Here? Score!

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics:

So far, it’s looking like we live the high life: lots of savings, building credit nicely, planning for the future, and even a pretty little motor vehicle. Of course, you might also think we’re homeless and starving because I haven’t gone into all of our other monthly expenses. Fret not–we do have a roof over our head and food in our bellies, but those things don’t come for free … unless you live in your office and eat nothing but donuts, but I try to limit myself to doing that just twice a week. Anyway, here’s a quick look at the red parts of our checkbook:

Expenses

  • Rent. Living in Montgomery County, Maryland is not cheap, but it’s easily one of the best all-around counties in America. Great education system, solid public transportation, and more entertainment avenues than one could experience in a lifetime. We’ll be waiting a few years to look into home-buying, so for now we rent a two-bedroom apartment with about 1000 square feet of space, nine foot ceilings, tons of amenities, and one of those gas fireplaces that I can’t figure out how to work. The management here is highly competent and dependable; all I have to do is think about a problem and I come home that day to see it fixed. Our monthly rent is $1495 which is actually a pretty decent price compared to some of the other apartments in the area.
  • Utilities. We’re good on conserving water and electricity, so our bills here are probably a lot less than our neighbors. We take relatively quick showers, turn the water off while brushing our teeth, keep the heat around 67 during the winter and the A/C around 77 in the summer, and perform all sorts of other little energy-saving tricks that would put a smile on Captain Planet’s face. Our water bill’s around $10 a month, and gas and electricity total $60-70 in spring and fall but usually never more than $130 in summer and winter. Our home and cell phone and DSL internet run another $80 a month.
  • Transportation. Back when we were living in Baltimore and I was commuting to Rockville on a daily basis, I went through a tank of premium gas every six days even with the 35 MPG the MINI provides. During the peak of gas prices this year, that amounted to about $160 of petrol a month. (I like saying “petrol.” It’s so British, like my car. Petrol petrol petrol.) Since we moved to Rockville, our gas usage has dropped to about $30 a month, and most of that is used in trips to see relatives on the other side of the state. The MINI is still under warranty for a couple of years, so gas is its only real expense for now. Of course, it’s depreciating in value as I type, and it’ll eventually need repairs after the warranty runs out, but that’ll be long after the monthly car payments come to an end.
  • Food, or as Tegan calls it, yummies for the tummy. Tegan and I share the cooking responsibilities, though she always makes me a lunch to take to work with me. Between us, we know how to make enough different foods to keep life interesting, and we’re ever-so-slowly learning how to make new dishes. We go out to eat once every week or so, but we usually bring along a coupon or two and save a lot of money. We also like recreating some of the dishes made in restaurants to see the difference between the menu price and how much it costs to make at home. Our most recent example is sushi. A sushi meal for two with a menu price of $10-12 (and that’s not including drinks and tip) was easy enough to replicate with items purchased from the Safeway across the street; we spent about $5 and made enough sushi for roughly four meals for two. Of course, my sushi isn’t quite as pretty as restaurant sushi, but it tastes about the same, and I know all of the bad words in Japanese for all the times when I accidentally cut myself while making it. Oh, our usual monthly food bill (including the trips out) doesn’t exceed $300.
  • Entertainment. Nick’s Dirty Little Secret #2: we don’t have cable television. We also don’t want it because we rarely watch TV as it is. There’s plenty of free entertainment on the internet, and when we do plop ourselves in front of the tube, it’s usually to play videogames or watch Japanese anime. Also keep in mind that we’re married, and there are lots of ways a married couple can have fun that don’t cost a whole lot. There’s rarely a month when we spend more than $100 on having fun.
  • Tuition. I was fortunate enough to have a free ride through college thanks to the wonderful taxpayers of the state of Maryland, but Tegan’s trodding through part time and we’re paying her way ourselves. Figuring in some increases for Fall 2006, this will probably run us about $2,500 in 2006.
  • Miscellaneous. We have a few assorted expenses that fall through the cracks of the other categories–clothing, gifts, donations to the Church and other charities, and my collection of chewing gum wads that look like former U.S. presidents. These don’t figure much into our budget, so you’ll rarely hear me talking about these items.

I just started keeping track of these expenses by category in Quicken, so it’ll be a while before I have any pertinent data to share. Once I do, you better believe I’ll be feeding you more pie charts and bar graphs than a high-strung timeshare salesman with a quota to meet. I know some of you need diagrams on a daily basis to survive, so here’s one about puppies:

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Honey, What’s This $184 Charge to "I Luv Midgets?"

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics:

Your favorite doughnut-loving, personal finance blogger is back with more juicy details about our secret stash of limited edition Krispy Kreme Platinum Doughnuts. I mean, here’s the scoop on all of those accounts bearing the names Nick and Tegan.

Assets and Liabilities

  • Checking. Bank of America has the honor of housing our only checking account. I use their billpay option to pay most of our bills (utilities, credit card, etc.). I never have and never will activate this check card they sent me with our account. Why not? Nick’s Awesome Money Tip #1: Check and debit cards are garbage. If you’re going to pay off your balance every month, it’s far better to use a credit card so that you can earn rewards and have the protection that debit cards lack. If a thief gets your check card’s number, he can wipe our your whole bank account, and you’ll suddenly have lots of bouncing checks. Credit cards–you see a fradulent charge, call up customer service, charge is gone, back to sipping margaritas in the shade.
  • Savings. I’ve also got a savings account at Bank of America, but I have no idea why. I’ve got the minimum $300 sitting in it earning next to nothing in interest. Most of our savings are in a high-yield account at Emigrant Direct. If you haven’t heard of them, you’re not alone. They’re the internet-only branch of Emigrant, a century old bank in New York. Emigrant Direct (ED) offers only one product: a savings account with an Annual Percentage Yield of 4.00%. The catch? None really. There’s no minimum balance, and you can transfer money in and out of your ED account by linking it to another checking account. Our ED account is linked to our Bank of America checking. If I want to put money into ED, I initiate an Automated Clearing House (ACH) pull from the ED website and it yanks the money right out of Bank of America. We have a third savings account with ING Direct, another internet bank with an annual yield of only 3.75%. I opened this account less than a month ago with just a dollar purely for the $50 account opening bonus. It doesn’t take a math major to figure that our ING Direct account only has $51.00 in it, and as soon as the bonus clears (after 30 days), it will go back to having just a dollar … unless ING ever overtakes ED’s rate. See this article over at the Bank Deals blog to learn why that will likely never happen.
  • 401k. Try as I might, I cannot find any documentation that actually calls it a 401k, but I have the first 8% of my paycheck (pre-tax) put into an account held by CitiStreet. My employer matches 50% of that 8% with company common stock. I’ve got the money in various investment options, but the company common stock has been performing the best as of late. I think it jumped 2% just in the last 24 hours. Unfortunately, I only opened the 401k a month ago, so that 2% jump translated into about three dollars for me. Suffice it to say, anyone who is able to and doesn’t contribute to at least their company’s matching limit is missing out on lots of free money and should have to pay a dummy tax to those of us who do contribute.
  • Liabilities. Just one here: a car loan. That 2004 MINI Cooper doesn’t pay for itself, and while I had the cash to pay for it in full, I decided to get the loan because my dad sells cars and got me one with a low rate and because I needed to start building some credit history. Right now, our savings is making more than enough in interest to make up for the interest payments on the loan. I’ve got about 18 months left on the 36-month loan and am paying $475 a month. Last time I checked, she has a Kelly Blue Book value of about $17,000, though I expect that to drop somewhat significantly in 2006 since most cars devalue quickly after they’re two years old.
  • Credit Cards. Only two of these: a Citi Shell gas card and a Bank of America Power Rewards Visa. Not realizing the awesome power of credit cards until recently, I haven’t yet had the chance to apply for a whole bunch. That’s one of my goals for 2006–obtain lots of credit. I avoid going above 30% on my credit limits of $1,400 and $2,900 because credit scores start taking a hit above that level of usage. I also pay it off every month in full directly from my Bank of America checking (or, rather, the ED account connected to it).

And since this blog is operating on the basis of an open wallet, here are the current balances on all of the above:

The Power Rewards Visa isn’t showing because it has no balance yet and the 401k isn’t populated with delicious data because my employer hasn’t yet enabled Quicken download support, so I’ll have to do it manually sometime.

Come next entry I’ll be covering the list of our regular expenses. Here’s a sneak peek: 17% of our monthly expenses are for Tegan’s midget porn habit. Uh-oh, she heard me type that…

Saturday, December 17, 2005

This Looks Like a Job for Software Man and His Sidekick, Doughnut Girl!

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics:

Now that you know the who, what, and where of this blog, it’s time to get into the “how much.” Fortunately for all of you, our financial situation is not that complicated … yet. (Give us a year of intense financial activity and constant scrutiny from your watchful eyes and I’m sure we’ll have money working for us in 48 states and Puerto Rico.)

Our primary source of income is my weekly paycheck from being the best darn software engineer this side of the pond behind our apartment. I started in this position right out of college a year and a half ago, and after an annual raise and promotion, I’m now bringing in regular pay of just over $60,000 a year. Even though I’m salaried, my employer also pays us some overtime–half time for every hour after the 45th each week. Our primary customer is the Federal Aviation Administration, and our product is a suite of air traffic control software that has been keeping planes in the sky for decades. Because my workload depends heavily on the performance of our software at the customer’s sites (software works, quiet day; software breaks, OMGWTFLOL), I can have a 40-hour week with not a dime of overtime one week and an 80-hour week with gobs of extra cash the next.

This past week and the next, with most of my department off until the end of the year, I’m looking at 80 hours easy each week. Why am I not off with them? It’s certainly not because I don’t have vacation time coming. Here comes Nick’s Dirty Little Secret #1: I don’t know the meaning of the word “vacation.” I can take off a hundred days and I will find something resembling work to occupy most of my waking hours. I guess you can call me a “workaholic,” except I prefer the term “relaxation challenged.”

Tegan, my loving, beautiful, and patient wife, is in college part-time studying to become a teacher. With the rest of her time, she takes care of her “child” (me) and puts in some hours working at the Krispy Kreme a five-minute walk from our apartment. She makes a respectable $7.00 an hour for hanging around the most delicious food in the world. Occasionally she’ll break the 40-hour mark after which she starts making time-and-a-half. Since she’s between semesters right now, she’s been working full time, but that’ll probably stop when school restarts in late January.

I feel I should mention that Tegan has the best benefit of any job in the world: free doughnuts. Surprisingly, I actually weigh less than I did when she started the job. I must metabolize torus-shaped foods well.

Tegan and I are newly wed, and since weddings in both our families are big events, our wedding carried quite the price tag–a price tag paid for 95% by yours truly. Even at the expense of half our savings, the wedding was amazing and totally worth every penny. One day I’ll share some of our money-saving tips for those brides- and grooms-to-be out there.

That covers the vast majority of our income. We make some money from high-yield savings accounts and investments, but we’re pretty new to both games, so those will come into play much more in 2006. I’ll talk about those accounts as well as our costs of living in my next couple of entries.

Tegan says hi! Oooh, she has doughnuts! Sprinkled are my favorite…