No big wins

Playing around with Mint, you can see where your money goes.  Prior to setting this up, I had the idle hope that I’d look at where our money was going and think, “Gracious, we spend how much on X?  Well, we can easily cut that out.”  And then save thousands with minimal effort.

Of course, it didn’t work that way.  There’s no enormous latte factor.  No big ticket items that we buy repeatedly and don’t get pleasure out of.  Even our eating out patterns seem pretty reasonable.

There’s just nothing obvious to cut.  Even if we never bought any more food ever again, at most we’d save $500/month in groceries and $300 or so per month in restaurant meals.  So if we never ate again, we’d maybe save 10K/year.   And of course, we still have to eat.  Cutting all food out isn’t realistic.  So that gets us down to much smaller wins.  Maybe we could cut 4K/year (or more!) by being super careful and never eating out and cutting down our consumption of organics, fancy cheeses, lara bars, and so on.  Are those cuts worth 4k/year?  Given my income and our current savings, no, probably not.  I would rather have the little food luxuries than another 4K/year of savings.

Similarly with our utility bills (except in August, but you can pry my August a/c from my 82-degree dead hands… and the HOA dictates the summer water bill grrr).  We don’t spend that much all things considered.  We already have an extensive fan system and keep the thermostat at temperatures at a level that is better money-wise than most public finance tips suggest.  We take short showers.  Our dryer is on gas rather than electric and adds at most a few dollars to our gas bill.

Cutting all childcare or all insurance would be a “big win”, but it would also be a big loss to our careers or to our risk-averse well-beings in the event of a negative shock.  (Or the state government finding out, in the case of our car insurance.)

Even though there’s no big wins, we still spend a lot of money each month.  More than graduate school us could ever have dreamed.  So money can be cut.

But money must be cut in unsatisfying ways of cutting a little here and a little there.  Eating out a little less.  Price shopping at the grocery store a little more.  Calling up our regular providers again to ask about discounts (though we already do this about once every year or two).  Smaller Scholastic orders.  More needs on the Amazon wishlist and fewer wants.  Driving on our annual trek to the relatives rather than flying.  And so on.

Of course, we’re already doing all the easy stuff.  Real cutting is going to be noticed.   Spending will have to be more mindful.

And now, another challenge update:

DH made another unscheduled run to the grocery store (he needed ones and the bank wasn’t open yet), but ended up buying things that were on the grocery list.  We’re around $400 at this point.  He also got cleaning supplies and batteries at Walmart for $15.

Our refrigerator is dying, specifically the freezer.  We vacuumed all the parts that could be vacuumed and we’re going to try to eat down the freezer and hook up the ice maker (the people who owned the house before us didn’t cook but they threw lots of parties) so we can save the frozen breast milk should it go completely caput.  We’ve had the fridge for around 10 years now and it was the cheapest one they had at home depot when we were graduate students.  We suspect we would do better getting a more energy efficient one rather than trying to repair this one.  It may not last the month, and if we do get a new fridge we’ll probably get a more pricey one meaning we probably won’t make the February challenge even if we never leave the house.  But we’ll see.  DH is going to try a few more things to see if he can keep the thing alive, so maybe it will hold on until March.  In the mean time, we’re trying to eat down the freezer.  Update:  He seems to have gotten it going, will probably post tips at some future date.  Update 2:  Keeping it going requires vigilance.

I got tired of the books I had and got a hankering to reread a Discworld book.  This time around I’m reading them from first published to last, but I don’t have all of them.  Our local library (surprise surprise) does not have Mort, and the university library has it but it’s on reserve and can’t be checked out.  So I bought it on Kindle.  $6.  I also don’t have the one after that, but the university library has two copies of it.

We went out to eat at the local Korean place.   $60.

I put gas in my car:  $27.49.
Phone bill:  $78.
Vacuum cleaner bags:  $23.
Utilities: $117.
Quarterly insect control:  $72.

DH spent about $75 out of his allowance, but we’re not counting that.  We also spent a little under $600 for two weeks of childcare.  We’re not counting that either.  And of course the mortgage posted.  :)

If you had to cut your budget, do you have any obvious big wins?

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link love

NJWV warns us about the monster at the end of this tweet.

Our fricking budget tells about how it took $15 to fall in love.

Laura Vanderkam adds commentary to a post of ours about obstacles to turning income into leisure.

Things you wouldn’t know if we didn’t blog intermittently tells us about an adorable and deadly little sea slug.

We were in this week’s carnival of personal finance.

Glamour does a little spot with Jessica Williams of Daily Show fame.

WTF Evolution Tumblr

ABDMama needs some academic advice for how to set up having a post-doc.  (Our best guess is to reach out to a senior professor at her institution and ask them!)

This post from Donna Freedman makes us smile every single time we think about it.  :D

And the following video needs no explanation.  It beats even the old spice guy and is wrong in so many very right ways.  I almost want to buy what they’re selling.  (May or may not be safe for work depending on where you work.)  Hoooooeeee.

Ask the grumpies: Estimate someone else’s mortgage payments?

Grad School Cautionary Tale asks:

Husband and I are trying to save for a house. He is a prof and was on leave this year. For various reasons, we were unable to buy a house this year as we had planned. For the next academic year, we need a place while we look for a house to buy.

A colleague in his dept. is on sabbatical next year. We thought we could rent that place, agreed on rent and we would pay utilities. Turns out there is oil heat and utilities are an extra 500. In trying to negotiate with the colleague, I’m trying to figure out their mortgage payment without asking to try and find a reasonable amount to pay. I have, from public records, sale price, year bought and term of loan. Is this something that I can figure out/estimate w/o knowing interest rate/down payment?

We are sort of stuck b/c at first colleague said ze didnt know what ze would do with the house while abroad. It is not a true rental in we would only be moving in our bed, have no storage space, and make no changes. We don’t want to be paying their phone and cable package though, and it seemed like we were doing each other a favor, (we house sit, pay some rent, live constrained for a year so we could save money, ze has someone they trust with their house/stuff, doesn’t have to move much). Now that i type it up, it sounds kinda crazy, but I think my original question of figuring out mortgage payment still stands.

Can you help with that?

Well, I think the best you could probably do would be to plug assumptions into online mortgage calculators and get a range.  Keep in mind that their mortgage payment is also likely to include property taxes and insurance.  I’d start by assuming that they put 20% down on whatever term mortgage you found and vary the interest rates.  You’ll end up with a range.

We have been on both sides of this furnished housing rental deal.  We paid fair rent for a furnished place for a year (we got a discount for asking and being a good risk, but paid extra for our cats, so it balanced out), and another family rented out our furnished house for that year and paid less than the going rate but still more than our mortgage.  (There was a glut of short-term professor rentals that year because of an overseas program– usually the short term rentals in our market go for a premium.)  I don’t think in either case we thought of it as doing a favor or having someone do us a favor.  There are still risks to having a family living in your house, just as there are risks to leaving it alone.

You can also see price ranges on sabbaticalhomes and academichomes.  Craigslist and whatever rental sites are used locally will tell you what unfurnished rentals go for in the area.  You can also contact a local realtor who specializes in rentals.

If you’re in the northeast, it isn’t unusual for a house to be oil heat.  Since the price did come as a shock, personally I’d just try asking for a discount off the rent because of it.  They may be willing to work with you.  People are often willing to come down in price for low-risk renters, regardless of ideas of fairness, especially for a short-term deal.  I’d suggest not even naming a number, but saying the cost of oil heat is a problem for you and letting them name a number– they may be willing to lower the rent by quite a bit.  (And if you don’t like their number, you can suggest a lower one.)  If you haven’t written up a contract yet, then feel free to walk away if you find something you like better.  (And do make sure you write up a contract eventually wherever you end up.)

Good luck!

Any wisdom to add, Grumpy Nation?

Mental load and menu planning

Sometimes the biggest problem with weeknight dinners is figuring what to make when you get home from work.  Generally you’re somewhat hungry and exhausted from making too many decisions at work and an additional decision, even of just what to have for dinner, puts you over the edge.  Even adults can have low blood sugar melt-downs.

Now, to fix this problem, you could do what one set of our friends does and have the same thing to eat every week.  Monday is chili night.  Tuesday is Spaghetti night, and so on.   (Wasn’t there a commercial about that?)  Problem solved.

We need more adventure than that, however.  Otherwise I might have to take up skydiving, and nobody wants that.  So that means new and different meals that can be made quickly on weeknights with minimal advance planning.  Pantry meals.  Or meals with ingredients that will last between weekly grocery store trips.

There are online services out there that will give you a weekly menu plan complete with grocery list, taking the thinking out of the process.  We tried a couple of these at various points, but they always seem to call for exotic ingredients that we can’t get given our lack of Whole Foods, take much longer than the 20 min we have for making dinner (if the cookbook is called, “20 min meals” it is LYING), and end up leaving mostly unused jars of ingredients in the fridge to rot.  Alternatively, they focus on pouring can of Campbell’s X over Pillsbury Y, which is not only unhealthy but doesn’t taste great if you’re unused to so much processed stuff.   So, a great idea in theory, but in practice they seem to be unworkable.

Fortunately it’s pretty easy to cobble together your own menu plan with minimal mental effort using one or two cookbooks by the mother-son team of Nancy and Kevin Mills.  If there are 1-3 people in your family, use Help! My apartment has a kitchen!  If there are 3-5 people, use Faster!  I’m starving!  Obviously you can use your own cookbooks, but we like these because they are actually accurate in terms of preparation time, they use simple healthy and inexpensive ingredients that work well with a pantry, they have a nice variety of cuisines, and the meals are darn tasty.  For non-meat eaters, Kevin Mills married a vegetarian before writing Faster!, so that book has more suggestions for making the meals veggie-friendly.

Open up your book of choice.  Go to the first section (possibly salads, maybe appetizers), pick the first meal from that section (or the first meal that sounds good).  Write it down on one sheet of paper (or used envelope) and put the ingredients that you do not have on your grocery list.  Then move to the next section (chicken, for example), and pick the first meal from that section, adding its ingredients to the grocery list.  Continue until you have 5-7 meals listed on the paper.  Then go grocery shopping.

When you get home from work on Monday, instead of wondering what to have for dinner, just pick the first meal off the list and ~20 min later it should be ready to eat.  Get the partner and/or kids involved too, if applicable.

What if you don’t feel like that day’s scheduled meal?  That shouldn’t be a problem, just pick a meal further down the list– you should have all the ingredients from all meals on hand.  We usually just have a list of meals, generally one or two more than we’ll be making before we next get to the grocery store.  The default no-think option is the top one, but if that doesn’t sound good, we move to the next.  Also we will often have one night that’s just leftovers (if not all of the leftovers have been eaten as lunches), or people can have leftovers instead of the planned meal.

The idea is that this kind of planning is more flexible than a strict menu plan and also takes less thinking than other forms of deciding what to have for dinner.  There’s a default option for each day each week that is a pretty good option.

Is figuring out what to make for dinner stressful for you?  Have you found ways to cut down on the mental load?

Authoritarian vs. Authoritative parenting

We recently left DC1 with my sister for hir first overnight away from home without parents.  My sister asked, “Do you have any rules?”  And really we didn’t have any.  I came up with, “Don’t rob any banks” (Actually, I came up with, “When we’re gone, your aunt is in charge,” turning to Auntie, “Don’t abuse that privilege.  No robbing banks,” back to DC, “If Auntie tells you to rob a bank, tell her no.”) and DH came up with, “Ze is too short to cross the street by hirself.”  Apparently my sister’s friends have a lot more rules for their kids.

DH and I don’t have a whole lot of rules for our DCs.  We don’t say that they must ask to be excused at the dinner table.  We don’t make them clean their plates. We do have a set bedtime, although we didn’t used to.  But practice has told us that if DC1 isn’t asleep by 8:30 ze is difficult to get up to go to school at 7 the next morning.

We do try to guide DC1 (and someday DC2) into the rules for polite society.  Grown-ups don’t have to ask to be excused at the dinner table.  But when they leave, they must leave politely.  We try to model that.  Adults also can’t hit people, but that hasn’t been a problem with DC1 since ze was 2 or 3.  And if DC1 does anything odd, we address that at the time and explain what appropriate alternative behaviors look like.  So DC1 says please and thank-you and is reminded if ze doesn’t.

Our goal is not to have total and unthinking obedience.  The rules we do have (see:  street-crossing) we have for a reason.  DC1 is free to argue with us about said rules, so long as ze does it in an appropriate fashion that could be termed, “discussion” and not the heated kind.  Our primary goal is to guide, and we have authority because we’ve lived longer and know more about the world than DC1 does.

Another form of parenting is authoritarian parenting.  With this form, there’s a belief that the child needs to respect and obey hir elders because they are hir elders.  Blanket training is an extreme and awful example of this.

The ironic thing is that Authoritarian and Authoritative parenting seem to lead to exactly the opposite types of behavior that the parents are trying to instill.

For example, DC1 is a natural rules follower.   Ze trusts us.  If it were our goal to raise someone who questions authority, we’d be doing a pretty poor job of it.  (Fortunately for us, our goal, as always, is just to make things easier for ourselves.)

We haven’t noticed that kids under authoritarian parenting are any better behaved.  In fact, with more rules, there seem to be more rules to complain about.   And that leads to lots more arguing.  The arguments don’t seem particularly valuable either because there’s a lot more, “Because I’m the adult and I said so.”  Authoritarian parenting seems to create rebels in a way that authoritative parenting does not, despite rebellion being exactly the thing that authoritarian parenting is trying to squash (and questioning authority being encouraged by authoritative parents).

How were you parented growing up?  Do you think how your parents disciplined mattered to you as an adult?  If you have children, how do you try to instill lessons today?

The push-pull of spending/saving/not-working

Retire by 40 had a post up recently wondering if he’s too cheap.  Since he quit his dayjob, they’ve had less income and the easiest thing to do was to cut out  extra spending.  No more date nights, less restaurant eating, and so on.

We’re struggling with this right now with DH’s impending job leaving, albeit from the other direction.  As we’ve been discussing (and as we discussed last week), we have the money right now but in a few months we’ll lose 40% of our income.  How much should we cut now?  Should we stop eating out once or twice a week?  Should we stop buying so much fancy cheese? We’re already spending at comfortable levels, but we may have to cut next year.  So do we cut now?  Do we start budgeting now?  When we have a relatively high net worth, do we really need to cut at all?  But our net worth isn’t high enough to generate enough income to finance our spending without drawing down our savings or at least not adding to them (we didn’t hit the financial independence cross-over point before DH quit his job).  That line is hard.  It is much easier to have more money than you know what to do with!

I left that comment on Rb40’s blog, and he suggested that we start living at 60% income now.  But really we have been doing that.  We spend XK/year.  My take-home pay (not including summer money) will be XK/year.  The difference is that we will no longer be putting away DH’s salary in mortgage pre-payments, extra retirement saving, and so on.  (In previous years we banked more than DH’s salary!  But kids can get expensive, especially when you choose private school and daycare.)

The problem is that when you spend XK/year and you make exactly XK/year, you’re living on the edge.  Even when that XK/year is actual money spent including emergencies and not some dream budget, there’s still the worry that some month you’re going to get hit with too big an emergency and you’re not going to make it.  It’s really easy to bank all your extra money when you have almost double what you need coming in every month.  Even if you make a little mistake this month, you’ll just redirect some of next month’s money before the credit card bill comes due.

It’s not so easy when your income matches your expenditures almost exactly.  I know, the standard response is to bulk up the emergency fund.  A large emergency fund is something you can draw on in an emergency

And that leads to the push-pull part.  On the one hand, we can bulk up the emergency fund now without much difficulty (and we are doing that).  On the other hand we could cut spending so our outgo is not equivalent to our in-flow, and in theory we’d get used to that new level of spending.

Normally you need to cut spending to less than your take-home pay in order to bulk up the emergency fund, so you get into that spending-less habit before you have the emergency fund set up.

But our emergency fund is already set-up with our current levels of spending.  We could make it bigger, but that wouldn’t really cut into our spending, just our savings.  And it seems silly to have a huge cash emergency fund when that money could be going towards the mortgage or tax-advantaged savings instead.

So I dunno, we’re just going to keep going back and forth on this.  Emotionally I’m probably going to end up cutting spending because I hate not having that monthly (flow) cushion no matter how much we have in an (stock) emergency fund.  I just can’t handle it.

How about finishing with a challenge update:

So the minute I decide to limit spending, I feel like I need to spend.  Probably because I’m thinking about spending, which is something I’m normally too busy to do.  And then I can’t spend.  I hate that.  (Related: cash flows through me like water, but I rarely use my credit card.)

Our entertainment budget is on track with its automated billing from Netflix.

Went to target once to get  replacement white flappy things for my breast pump, and that is all we got.  Went a second time to get diapers (the mother’s helpers don’t do the EC or cloth) and nuts.  Amazingly did not walk out with anything else.

We went a bit crazy with groceries.  The weekend before last we had a dinner party.  Then we ran out of yogurt and some other things in the middle of the week so DH decided to do a midweek trip before childcare came in the morning.  We took advantage of some good sales to buy a few things in bulk.  This weekend’s grocery shopping hasn’t posted yet, but we’re well over $300 at this point.

We have not eaten out once.  Why not?

Because, to quote Erasmus… “When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.”  I ended up on my amazon wishlist and saw that a geometry textbook that I want to buy before DC1 is in middle school (many years from now) had dropped in price from $111 to $31.  So I bought it.  Couldn’t help it.  I told myself, “That’s one meal out for the family.  We won’t eat out this weekend.”  So we didn’t.  Then DC1 brought home a Scholastic order and we came up with $54 of books that we wanted to buy.  So we did.  And I thought to myself, “That’s an expensive lunch or a dinner out for us.  We will not eat out this weekend.”  And we didn’t.  But really, lentils are quite tasty if you add enough bacon!

And $20 for a school fundraiser.

So, grumpy nation, if you had to choose among spending less so that your take-home income was more than your outflow, staying in a job you didn’t like, or spending exactly what you earn (not including mandatory retirement saving), what would you pick?  What would help you make a decision?

Link love

Scattered and Random put up this link from The Nation.  Why aren’t you angry?  (Or are you?)

Tenured radical noting that being a military trained sniper on a gun range can’t protect you against an armed man.

Historiann notes that caring positions done by women never pay much.

More mad props to Hillary Clinton care of mad woman with a laptop.

A gai shan life muses on pf blogs and attitudes.  This is one of those fun “do what works for you” posts.

I think delgar linked to this feministe rant:  The second half is especially strong.  Does it really take some white male conservative jackhat to say that women aren’t doing their duty as broodmares for people to realize how ridiculous it is to pressure women to have kids?

Why do you think this post by wandering scientist on success didn’t get more comments?

This post from ombailamos was just adorbs.

Our congratulations to Prof. Que Sera!

#2 would like to note that it seems like the world is being run by the staff of the Onion.  Her evidence is the following headlines pulled from her newsfeed:

Rights Group: Sorcery-Related Killings in Papua New Guinea Must End

Amish Sect Leader Gets 15 Years in Beard-Cutting Attacks

Super Bowl outage traced to device used to prevent power outage

Florida Couple Addicted to Coffee

Facebook Connect bug takes down entire internet (almost)

The Superdome folks might want to get their money back on this one. An electrical device whose sole purpose was to prevent a power outage caused the Super Bowl blackout, the stadium’s power company said Friday.