Saturday, January 29, 2011

Gold Star for me!

I have had a super-productive two days...and today I did my taxes!

I got a discount on TurboTax through Bank of America, so it was about $20 to e-file my federal return. They can do the state for you too, but state taxes are typically pretty easy. So for $37, I'll re-input my info into Illinois' interface myself, thank you.

I've been collecting forms since they started being released two weeks ago. I don't mind doing my taxes but I had a near-breakdown last year from trying to hunt down missing forms, not having logins work for online accounts I rarely use, etc. So I learned from my mistakes and started early. You do it too--go right now and download two of your tax forms so they're ready when you actually feel like doing your taxes!

Even with all my prep, once I got started I realized I was missing two things: my student loan interest form (which I was able to look up) and the amount of property tax I paid. This was my first full year paying property taxes, and the deduction was pretty big. On the one hand..yay! Look at all the money I get back!! On the's not like its a present from the government. That's my money, and I let them hold onto it for a year. I'm a better money manager than the government, and can make interest if I have that money!

That means I need to adjust my W-4 from my primary job (School), as I doubt the other two (Store and Tutoring) had a big impact. So I know WHERE to find it, but not really WHAT to do. Do I just change it by the amount I was refunded this year? I'll have to look into it, but I'm still proud of getting my taxes done before the end of January*.

*Even if they can't get filed til after Feb. 14 because I itemized deductions. Oh well.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Dinner time, Part I

I started this project waaaaay back in mid-summer. We've been making baby steps ever since, but I think its most useful to talk about things in order (and, um, we haven't improved all that much, so maybe writing about it will help). At that time, I wasn't really working and Mark worked full time. Our schedules remain similar, but he comes home from school around 6 instead of work.

Meal planning and grocery planning is something I've been wanting to do for awhile. Mark and I eat most of our meals together, and it I'm not sure why it bothers me so much, but I think its because I thought this would be easy. It wasn't even something that it occured to me could be difficult or annoying. And we just cannot make it work. (I was really frustrated this summer. Probably something about too much time on my hands. I'm better now. Ish.)

On a sample day, I get home around 5 or so (I leave for work before7). Mark comes over usually after 6, by which time I'm hungry. And I'm trying not to eat something, because it should be dinner, but he wants to chat and relax and catch up. And I'm STARVING. After that, he wants to discuss several options for dinner. I no longer care, because I'm so hungry. I suggest one or two things, he doesn't like them, and we both end up annoyed (me more so, because I'm annoyed and famished). Mark genuinely likes cooking, but he isn't big on having a plan or scheduling. So its no big deal to him if he doesn't figure out what's for dinner til 7 and eat til 8:30. Part of this is laidback-ness, part is having a day that is altogether later than mine (my schedule is dictated by my workday, and I eat both other meals earlier than he does; I also eat a lot less).

I think I had in my head that you just figure out a plan and it comes together. Never did I think I would be totally miserable every night. Mark knows it bothers me, but he isn't sure what to do either. (This has actually been an issue since the worst-anniversary-week-ever*.) So he tells me he doesn't care, which is not true at all, just that he has no interest in dealing with it. He just isn't into almost every meal I come up with. The obvious remedy would be meal planning, but I'm so frustrated by the whole issue that I'm overwhelmed and don't know where to start. And Mark just wishes I could work it out and cheer up about it already. I'm too hungry to cheer up.

So I spent half my weekend reading everything Trent has ever written about food, and trying to come up with a plan. I heart Trent, so that was fun, but I was still a little lost. And Mark isn't always the best listener, so when he gets frustrated he mostly a) repeats himself and b) ignores whatever I'm saying. So he'll say "x" and I'll say "Agreed, thats a great point" to which he'll say "X" and I'll say, "Yeah, definitely, and what about Y?" And he'll say, "I really think x". Its a little frustrating.
I made out a list of the meals we needed and wrote down what we needed to buy (which sounds pathetically simple when I write it...but there are so many little decisions involved, it doesn't feel like it).

*Which I will tell you about sometime. It involves bad food, a work event and possible criminal charges.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

I like the gray one!

(This post is by Mark)
We're trying to pick a new paint color for the living room. We've gotten lots of compliments on the handsome gray we have there now, but the color simply sucks any light out of the room, especially at night. So, time for a new paint job!

We'd both like a gray paint, and we agree it should be much lighter. So, during this morning's expedition to Home Depot, we looked at some paint samples.

Somehow, being at Home Depot with hundreds of colors, fluorescent light, and little brochures with rooms that look way more fabulous than what we've got now make the process feel overwhelming. So, we snagged a bunch and brought them all home.

Personally, I like the gray one.

So does Mary.

(Note: the photos make the colors much more intense than the actually are--they really did all look gray at Home Depot...)

Fortunately, it was pretty easy to whittle the choices down to four for the gray (and the green for the bathroom). Actually, it was phenomenally easy. Being in the space and seeing the colors in natural light made it obvious which ones were too yellow or too blue or too whatever.

We've got the samples on the wall and after another brief talk this evening, I think we should just throw caution to the winds and let 'er rip!

Time for samples on the wall!

Mary now:
I worry about the contrast of the grays, especially in natural light. I don't want the walls to look dirty but I also don't want them to be too dark. The answer is probably going to be picking up some samples to paint squares, but I don't want to rush into that either.

On the one hand, its better to buy the samples and get the colors right, but the samples cost money too. If we consider our swatches in enough light, different locations etc (which we've been doing), we won't waste money on samples we should have known were wrong. I'm just not sure where the line four samples overkill? Can we narrow it down more? Or will we eliminate the one thats best because we cut too early? Decisions, decisions.

How do you pick out paint colors? Do you think its impossible too?

Stay tuned for the conclusion of this riveting miniseries.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Progess Made & Questions Asked

We went to Home Depot this weekend. We had a list of things to do: check out some furnishings we still need, pick up paint swatches, price countertops and buy hooks.

I keep a running list in google docs (two actually) so that we know what kinds of things we should be looking for. Mark's the type who buys stuff "because its a good deal" and knowing what we actually need is a good check point for him. So I have one list called "Stuff we need" creatively named to include small household items we need want. On it is things like serving spoons, a carving set, new towels, etc. None of it is pressing, but all of them are things we would love to steal from my mother recieve as gifts or pick up if we found a great deal. The other list is "Around the House" and we put it together pretty recently. Its a room-by-room list of things we would like to change about the room. It includes things like furniture and art for the walls, as well as projects we want to do (like those darn bathroom walls).

Although I learned that Home Depot isn't just for hardware (and we did look at the Home Decorators Collection for rugs) we were mostly there for business. We started with rugs, and found a couple of good and affordable options for the porch (although now I'm thinking of maybe painting the concrete floor instead). Then we hit the paint aisle...I'd tell you more about it, but Mark actually wrote a post that I'll put up soon all about it (how sweet of him!).

Finally it was the moment of truth...the kitchen department. My realtor told me I would want to upgrade to granite before selling, and if I'm going to shell out for something, I better get to enjoy it myself. I'd be planning on around $1500, but had no clue how realistic that was. Our plan was to get three quotes, and this would be the first. We priced out Kashmir White and White Spring (guess who picked the more expensive one. Young House Love has the first one, and I took their reminder to think about what it would look like all over the place to heart, shooting down one sample after another with too dark, too spotty. My kitchen right now has light gray laminate countertops and I love how it looks. So I want basically that, but nicer.

According to the consultant's calculations (based on my meticulous floor plan...I'm a math teacher; I always* measure right), I have 26.69 sq. ft of granite needed, including the four inch backsplash. On top of the granite cost, here's what Home Depot says I'm looking at:
Undermount sink prep 235
Undermount sink         269--I should be able to buy separately online for less
Tearout old counters   200.18--we might be able to do this ourselves
Plumbing disconnect     65
Plumbing reconnect     350--we might be able to have both of these done ourselves--I belive both of my parents can do minor plumbing, and I doubt redoing the faucet and dishwasher are very complicated.
All this bonus stuff comes to an extra 884, so I sure hope we can save at least parts of it. The countertops themselves run $1400 to $1900 for the amount I need, for a total between $2500 and $3000. The good news is: a) there's no tax on this, since its an installed product (Mark's brilliant question) b) Home Depot has 10% off til Jan 31. But still....

Lesson. Learned.

I'm not sure why my estimate of $1500 was so far off--probably all the bonus stuff didn't quite get taken into consideration. I'm thinking about what to do. I have plenty of money in my savings (I'm very very very patient. Also, cheap.) so I could afford to do it right now, but its more than what I earmarked. Mark, on the other hand, is all "oh, lets just do it", so its hard to be as level-headed about things. I'm still holding myself to getting two more quotes, and we'll see how things look once that's done.

Despite everybody else and my own mother having opinions about what I should do, this seems like a good decision. My kitchen is pretty nice as it is, but has white appliances and laminate countertops. I actually dislike stainless appliances, so that isn't happening...but I think the granite would be enough to send my kitchen into "really nice" territory. And, even if it does run me over $2000, I know its one of the things eventual potential buyers will look for, and is commonly touted in ads etc. I just need to decide when the right time is.

If you're following along with Mint, I hope you have your account all set up. I'll post a follow up next week about monitoring your account in the beginning--don't stress about anything but getting your info in there and correcting any mis-categorized transactions.

*How much do you want to bet I regret saying that?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Re-furnishing, Part 2: At least it was cheap

After I bought a new buffet/console/cabinet/whatever for my living room, I was ready to tackle the piece that was just for fun. And, bonus, it's for the only room that wasn't largely decided for me based on what furniture was passed on to me.

I have a 4 x 8 enclosed porch (with jalacy* windows). It faces north, but I'm on the second floor and its painted white, so its pretty bright and pleasant and sunny. It got the leftovers when I moved in: my ultra-versatile kitchen table with both leaves flipped down, and then from my sister: a Target floor lamp, 2 non-matching chairs and a small bookcase. That was actually a little more furniture than it really needed but I had it all so why not. The table just had random stuff on it, but it was helpful to use as an extension table when we wanted to host our couples group of 10 for dinner. The bookcase had one shelf of books and then some puzzles and a couple throws. It was a little crowded (the bookcase was on one side of the door, which put a chair kind of in the doorway), but it worked. We would sit out there and chat sometimes.

Flash forward to this summer, and my sister needed the table for her new place. And wanted her small bookshelf back. So I was left with the lamp and two chairs. Both chairs are cheap, so while they work fine for now, its totally reasonable to want to replace them someday. That makes this the only room I actually get to choose, all by myself.

The first order of business was replacing that table. But I didn't just want a table--I wanted CLOSED STORAGE (my holy grail). When I moved in, Mark tentatively asked if someday, if he moved in, we could get something besides bookshelves. I owned nothing with doors (and my place has: built in bookshelves on both sides of the fireplace, two more bookshelves in the dining room, two tables + former console table with shelves underneath and more)...and my new place isn't exactly closet-heavy. (But hey, you take what gets passed on!). Anyhow, if I was buying something, I better be able to put things in it and not have to make them look pretty. I know, I obsessed over this with the living room thingy too, but can you really have too much closed storage?

More on the look of the room as it, you know, actually comes together, but I determined I wanted to keep it light and airy--I wanted white. A cabinet, so it would always look clean. No specific kind of cabinet. One with a roughly similar footprint to my table (around three feet long, normal depth and height, with doors). That was it.

So I checked out Pottery Barn. Maybe Pottery Barn Kids. West Elm? Crate and Barrel? CB2? World Market? (Seriously people?!? I have no standards--why is nothing even passably close?!) All I wanted was something: a) white b) with doors. I could get a bookshelf and put baskets on it, but that isn't what I wanted. I wanted doors. My sister saved the day when she suggested I try places like Lowes and Home Depot. My Home Depot (the one on Halsted) has a Home Decorators Collection in it. Apparently, its actually a totally separate store and they get all offended if you think they're the same. Um, you're in the Home Depot. Whatever.

And lo and behold, two kinds of white cabinet! (Actually several, like a one-door or a three-door, but I needed a two-door). The one with a drawer across the top looked perfect and it was 20% off. I'd budgeted up to $200 and figured I might have to go higher, but it rang in at just $120. Sweet! And if they ship to store and you pick it up there, shipping is waived. Win again! A week later, and that flat-packed cardboard box was chilling in the corner of my living room.

So I opened 'er up, laid out all the pieces, picked up my allen wrench and got to it. Everything went fine. It was mildly frustrating to get the cabinet doors to line up, but I'm pretty sure thats always the case. We proudly put it at the end of the front porch, and the fit was great. Just what I was going for!

Side note: The next day I opened the door to the porch to admire my handiwork and UGH! I was bowled over by the stench. My new piece of furniture REEKED of chemicals. Eeeeew.

Calls to my mother, Google searchs, and various attempts to fix it ensued. Advice was actually pretty hard to come by, mostly embedded in posts about other things (so I couldn't find much with google). I ended up putting baking soda all over the thing. I had the time and space for it to hang out without stinking up my house, so I wasn't terribly urgent about it. It ended up taking SIX WEEKS to fully fade.

If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, it sounds like wiping it down vinegar or putting charcoal briquettes in it would also work. And don't buy furniture from China. It does NOT seem to be a low end problem though. Another really helpful post was from a lady in a bird users group in NY whose new Pottery Barn furniture was off-gassing so badly she was concerned for the health of her bird. I don't like birds so much, but if I had a small animal I probably would have worried too. Unfortunately I have no advice on how to prevent this, but try those tips if you ever find yourself with really smelly furnishings.

*Jay came to my second walk-through of my condo solely so he could say this word. This is probably not even how you spell it. I would describe them as "flap-y windows" which means they have horizontal glass panes that move together, much like shutters. You can see them in the picture above.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Greener Clean

Mark's old roommate would give us cleaning products for free all the time (he got them from a family member who worked for whoever makes Scrubbing Bubbles. I have lots of Scrubbing Bubbles.) So now I have a ridiculous amount of cleaning products, some of which are similar but not quite the same. Fun Fact: Did you know there are four a billion different kinds of scrubbing bubbles? I have four. I'm not about to get rid of something that was free, but there are so many that they have nowhere to go. Add to that our recent recycling resolution* and we were in serious need of some space. So on Saturday, I took everything out of the cabinets under both sinks and from under, around, etc, my clawfoot tub. You could see these, they weren't really hiding. Pretty tacky. 

I didn't end up getting rid of anything, but I was able to put things that were duplicates (or close cousins...looking at you, 4 kinds of scrubbing bubbles) way in the back so that other things were able to hide. Now I just need to use that stuff up for good. (I wrote this Sunday and today we finished off a bottle of Clorox Clean Up--yay!)

The next step is figuring out what I want to use/make for green products. I've seen a couple of good articles on this like this one and this other one on Young House Love, as well as the resources here. Those are all good places to start, and I'm going to use them as I finish off the rest of my non-green cleaners and am ready to go greener. And part of the reason I want to start thinking about this now is because I may want to save some of those bottles--it's much greener to reuse them than go out and buy new ones. 

*I have a blue metal bin that lives next to the chair in the dining room for recycling. Because I only drink milk, I mostly have paper to recycle and it fits nicely. Mark does not exclusively drink milk and recycles cans and bottles. These drive me nuts. Also, its not very logical to have the recycling in the dining room if its kitchen-y stuff (in my defense, most of MY recycling is paper, so it made sense in the past). Plus we had this big red bucket hanging out with the army of cleaning supplies--not cute. So we put a bag in the bucket and put it under the sink for (ta-da!) recycleables. I feel better already. 

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Money Matters: Getting Started with Mint

It took me several months of trial and error to figure out how Mint worked best for me. My boyfriend started using it, a coworker and I discussed the program, and I convinced my college roommate to try it out as well.

I'm no technological genius (my boyfriend had to find my mortgage account, which didn't work quite right, and I wasn't creative enough to figure it out) so some of my problems may be due to not really understanding how to make the program do what I wanted, but here is 1) how the program works and 2) some things I've found that work best for me.

Mint has a user-friendly interface with tabs across the top of the screen.
The Overview shows each account down the left side of the screen, totalling for your net worth at the bottom, and then a summary of trends below. The right side shows alerts, then your budget and current progress (there's even a handy bar that shows how far through the month you are), then goals, then investments.

The next tab is Transactions, which shows all of your transactions from your linked accounts. It auto-categorizes them, but you can change it. This is helpful if a) it guesses wrong and/or b) you would prefer not to use certain categories. This is mostly a checking-in screen for me. I can see everything I've been spending and make sure its putting it in the right place.

Moving along, we come to Budgets. I have way more to say about this, but the short version is you can set up budgets in any one of a number of categories (home, auto, food & drink, etc).

They recently added the Goals tab, which isn't useful for me, but I tried it and helped a friend set it up, so I have a decent handle on how it works.

Trends is great fun. It lets you make all kinds of different graphs, beginning with a pie chart of your spending for the month, but also letting you make bar graphs over time, compare categories and much more. Now that I've had my account for awhile, this is also helpful in refining my budget--at the bottom of the screen it gives you least spent, most spent and average.

Last is Investments, which looks fascinating, but I never use. My investment accounts are the way my uncle the financial planner told me to do them, and I'm not planning on messing with them, so I don't track their progress. Bad Mary. Oh well. I do add to them though.

Oh, and I guess last-last is Ways to Save, which I'm pretty sure is just advertisers, but is maybe helpful if you are paying fees for your bank or credit card (which I'm not). 

If you're still with's my experience:
I set up my account a year ago (teacher with too much winter break free time). This takes awhile, as you have to input the logon data for each account. I have 11 accounts, some of which I don't log in to particularly frequently, and some have syncing issues. For instance, my mortgage, through Bank of America, isn't accessed by selecting Bank of America. You have to look up "Mortgage Bank of America" or something to get it to sync correctly. Although I occasionally have compatibility issues, I have access to all of my accounts.

There are two big things Mint will help with: aggregating all of your financial information and letting you easily match it to your budget. Once it's set up, logging in to Mint shows you how much is in each account, and what your spending is in each category. The historical stuff won't be useful for awhile, so to start with, set up budgets. Go under the budget tab and set a budget for whichever categories you choose. Mint has 21 categories, most with additional subcategories. (So under "Auto & Transport" there's auto payment, auto insurance, parking and transit, among others). You can add any additional categories you want, although you can't change or delete their predetermined categories.

Make your best guess for each one--you'll probably be wrong, but thats ok. You can change it whenever you want. I initially set up a budget with about 20 categories, which wasn't right for me. I'm not a big spender, so breaking out food more than "groceries" and "restaurant" was annoying--but if you stop for fast food and frequent coffee shops, that might be a distinction thats helpful to you. For me, categories I had really low spending in weren't helpful, or things that were minor and infrequent (like stamps). Those take awhile though, so for now just:

1. Enter your information to make your account.
2. Set up a "guess" budget.

Login once a week or so to look over your transactions and re-categorize anything incorrect. Mint does it for you, but although it always knows "McDonalds" is fast food, it can get confused about businesses with unclear names, like "Ringo" so you'll need to change it so it knows its a restaurants. Don't bother messing with your budgets yet!

Have you tried Mint?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Keeping up with Whoever

We had a really good day yesterday. It's a three day weekend, and I wanted to talk about some of the stuff we're going to do here--things we've been tossing around for awhile, both large and small. So made a list by room, listing everything we wanted to do and might do. Most of it isn't pressing, but its things we want to make sure happen (plus some optional ones) and it felt good to get it all down. The next step was figuring out where to go from there, and we chose two things:

1. Get granite countertops in the kitchen.
2. Decide what to do with bathroom walls.

The countertops are something my realtor said I would need to do when I moved in. I have laminate counters, and they are in decent condition, but granite sells better. I have the money for this project, I'm stopped by my indecision. Do I find a contractor who then can suggest a stoneyard? Go to the Home Depot and have them take care of it? Go to a stone yard and get recommended contractors from them? I've been researching this for awhile, and didn't know what to do, but we talked about, and determined we need to go get three quotes. If the quotes vary widely, we can get more, but for now: three quotes. I also made a diagram of the kitchen, confirming measurements I'd already made.

My bathroom walls look lumpy. I'm not sure how else to describe it. There's a light fake brick texture in places, but then what must be repeated bad patch jobs and light cracks all over. Its not pretty. I also don't like the colors. This is bearable, but I'd like to change it for myself, and it will sell better if it weren't so ugly. We already decided the new color would be a pale sage-y green, with the rest white. Here's what it looks like now:

White, with beadboard. I dislike yellow. And lumps. You can see the lumps a little better below:

Our two options were: green below the molding with white on the upper half or beadboard below the molding with green on the upper half. We'd do a rug or mat with green in it either way, and a shower curtain thats the reverse of the lower wall color. We just weren't sure which, both in terms of effort and expense. So we talked about it, and decided we want to do green on the bottom, white on top, no beadboard. Next steps for that: Figure out how to flatten out the walls and get the supplies to do it.

So Saturday I emailed both my parents with a list of the things we thought we might need, asking to borrow whichever things they had.

And then...

My mom emailed back first. She said she had some of the things and we were welcome to them. But if the walls were plaster and lathe, we might want to take them all the way down and do drywall (you're good at drywall, aren't you?) (I am.)

And then Mark got a ride home from church with friends. Who really don't see the point of the granite, and said I wouldn't get my money back anyhow*. So they think I shouldn't bother.

And my dad emailed, telling me he could lend me some stuff but I'm likely to want it in the future, so I ought to buy it. And by the way, you shouldn't try to scrape the brick-ness, fill it in with spackle.


When Mark was leaving to go to the grocery store, he said, "I really hope this is a fun project for us. And not stressful. Because I feel like its been stressful today." Which, I think, is largely because everyone else has an opinion about how we should live our life and what we should do and why and in what order and what's worth it and what isn't.

But we just aren't going to be able to please everyone. I hope this is fun for us too, and I don't know if that means not telling anyone what we're doing (to avoid their varying opinions) or telling people we are just sharing what we're doing, but not interested in any changes (my father once famously told me, "If I want your opinion, I'll give it to you."). We might go get some counter quotes tomorrow, and maybe pick up some preliminary wall supplies while at Home Depot. I hope we can keep it to us trying some new things and leave everyone else out of it. Except my mother. She said she'd help. And she forgets her opinions pretty quickly anyhow.

How do you keep the peace when everyone wants to put their two cents in?

*How can you tell if you get your money back anyhow? Like, "Oh, by the way, if those were laminate, how much would you have paid for my WHOLE HOUSE?"

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Re-furnishing, Part 1: The eco-alternative

Due to generous parents and well-timed moves, I bought my first two pieces of furniture this fall. All my other furniture was handed down from relatives who didn't need it anymore (mom, grandma) or didn't want it (my dad's wife not wanting anything predating her). I have a very well-furnished and outfitted home and have bought very little of it myself. I know, super lucky.

However, some of my furniture was my sister's and when she moved to Milwaukee from California this summer, it was time to give it back. The first priority was for the wall you see when you walk in the door. Her console and mirror were there, and they worked fine. My one problem was that they didn't provide much storage, so I was excited to upgrade to someplace I could stash my stuff. I looked at Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel, World Market, and several other imports-type stores. I found a couple of contenders and also realized that due to the traditional style of my living room furniture (I have a large Oriental Rug), a cheaper piece was going to stand out and not fit. But yikes, those other pieces were pricey!

So I tried consignment. I ended up finding a piece I liked for a great deal at Divine Consign in Oak Park. (Word of advice: pay cash. They messed up my transaction four separate ways, ultimately charging me triple, and weren't particularly sorry or urgent about fixing the mess.) It's a little bigger than I would have liked, but had the storage I was looking for at the right price. Sometimes I still look at it and think, "Hmmm...that's a little big" but no one can label it as for sure too big. And it has tons of storage. Plus, what's greener than taking furniture someone else didn't want?

I was a little scared about actually choosing something for myself, since I've never done it before. And since my house isn't exactly furnished in MY style, it can be hard to figure out what will go. But if it turns out this isn't the best choice, it isn't something I need to keep forever--and its something I won't feel bad altering. I'm not sure it would look great painted (and not at all where it is right now) but if it eventually lives in a basement for storage, thats totally okay.

Of course once I put that in, the mirror above it looked TERRIBLE (and it was my sister's anyhow) and had to go (and, you know, she wanted it). Turns out that wall is slightly bowed, and the mirror took quite a bit of effort to set free. And it liked my house so much it took a little piece of it along--in the form of a six inch strip of paint and a lil bit of bonus drywall. Oops. I'm not totally sure what I want to go up there (and we probably want to change the wall color to something lighter) but two screws and a tacky hole weren't cutting it.

So I put up a piece of wrapping paper (which you can just see in the picture above). Because that's not tacky either.

At least its classy wrapping paper. And it isn't that noticeable. Half the time I forget, which explains how we had our (very nice) annual gingerbread house party with wrapping paper decorating the walls.

And why I need to spend my weekend putting together a real to-do list and goals for my house...which should likely include less wrapping paper. Sigh.

Am I the only one who can't figure out what to put on the walls?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Money Matters: Budgets & Mint

Although I've never had budget trouble, it seemed like something wise to do. And what I really wanted to know was where my money went. I've always spent less than I earned so I wasn't too concerned, but tracking where my money went sounded useful and like it would head off any potential problems.

That said, it seemed like an awful lot of work to set up a spreadsheet and keep it updated, and I didn't have any software already on my computer. My level of curiousity just wasn't high enough to warrant a bunch of extra work. (I feel the same way about vitamins, flossing, and pointless exercise. I know they're good, but I can't quite work up the enthusiasm to do it.) And then I read about Mint.

Mint allows you to input your account information* into their site, and it then aggregates everything for you. It was magical. I could see all my account balances, my transactions, set up a budget and view trends in my spending over time. It was also confusing in some of its details, which I'll cover in a future post.

Want to try it? In my experience Mint takes a little while to catch on to your real habits, so sign up now so that it can start getting more data on you. We'll go through this real-time, so you can follow along. You'll need online accounts set up for all your banks, and you'll input those logons for mint to get read-only access. I'm generally not too skittish about security, but Mint uses bank-level encryption and I've never heard of a problem if it makes you feel better. So go try it! You want to have a couple months in there before doing too much with it; the records will make it easier to see your true patterns. And don't wait based on some big event that you don't want to "count" against you--you can always exclude something (but you better have a good reason!)

Next week we'll start looking at some of the features...until then just get your accounts in there! It walks you through the process so you don't miss any accounts. 

*I know many people have security concerns about giving one company all of their information. Mint uses the same encryption all of the online banks use, so its as secure as they are. Basically, for me the convenience is worth the risk.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Money Matters: Where I come from

After the holidays is when many people turn from the fun and excitement of the holidays to practical matters, and I'm no exception. This post is intended to give some background to the "Money Matters" posts I will be publishing over the next few weeks.

I have never had financial problems. I grew up poor, but it was situational (as opposed to generational)-- meaning that we were poor, but it was for a reason (my dad was in medical school) that would eventually end.  And my mom is and was a phenomenal money manager, so we always made do just fine. We never had a lot, but we had good nutritious meals (even if we couldn't go out to eat) and plenty of (hand me down) clothes.

My parents share responsibility for my good financial skills. My mothers example throughout my childhood showed me how little you really need, and her careful budgeting and creativity meant we never had to do without.

My father was in medical school until I reached junior high, and my parents divorced soon after that, so he did not play a role in everyday finances. Interestingly, I can recall my father as an example at both extremes of the spectrum. He always wants the next big electronics item or car, but is very (obsessively) careful with what he has, so things last forever. For instance, he refuses to put things with printing on them (like pyrex measuring cups) in the dishwasher, because that will make the writing disappear. Eventually. This includes the plastic cups from burger king that came free with a kids meal and that we have no particular attachment too. Luckily, this serves me well later in life as nothing he owns ever wears out, and his inherent cheapness won't let him just throw it away. Enter his only local daughter, ready to take cookware and furniture off his hands.

The real key though, was how my father paid for college. When I moved off campus after sophomore year, my father told me that he had been paying $x for the nine months a year I was in school, and would instead divide that total by 12 and send me a check every month. He had me research if that amount would be reasonable, and when I confirmed it was, that was the end of it. The money was mine to do with as a I pleased, but I wouldn't get anymore. I paid my rent, utilities, groceries, sorority dues, and usually had some left over. While I wasn't working for it, it was good practice in making sure I could pay for things, and I think it helped me as I moved into paying for everything myself.

When I returned to Chicago and lived with my father, he didn't charge me rent (I was unemployable as a teacher for a longer-than-expected 16 months while I waited for my certificate to transfer, working in retail). Had he charged me rent, it would have gone into an account in my name, repayable when I needed a mortgage or something. I think at that point I had proven myself to be good enough with money that he didn't really worry about it.

Now I have a good grasp on what I need (as opposed to want) and a generous family that has spared me from most major purchases through hand me downs. My dad bought me a used car in college, but I paid for my new car and my condo on my own. My furniture is a combination of hand-me-downs and inheritances, but much of it is very nice. So much so that when I moved in, I needed to buy a rug pad (for my oriental rug) and that was about it. Most of my furniture is very nice, I just didn't choose much of it. Actually, until my sister moved back five months ago, I hadn't bought any of the furniture. And it was great to be able to wait a year to adjust to my new place and not deal with furniture expenses on top of furniture expenses.

Are you a spender or a saver?

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Drawing the Line

On blogs like Get Rich Slowly, a common theme is better finances through making more money. You can improve your current situation at work by doing things like taking on new responsibilities, asking for a raise or getting a promotion. But the most common way to earn some extra money is to take on another job. Some people try home businesses, others get a part-time job outside the home.

I already have two side jobs: I tutor a high school sophomore in math and I work at Williams-Sonoma. I don't do either of them a whole lot, and I do them more for the change of pace than for the extra money. Teachers might not get paid that well, but it's a good deal better than Williams-Sonoma. I probably get (a lot) more benefit out of the discount than I do the salary.  While more money is always nice, I'm a lot more concerned with my quality of life and time for things outside of work than I am with making extra money.

The only debt I have is my mortgage and car (with only two payments left on it!). I always have enough left over for savings, I max out my retirement and my emergency fund is ready for anything. So I don't NEED need extra money.

Which brings us to yesterday...
I was getting ready to go home when my Assistant Principal asked if she could speak with me. We talked about an ongoing issue, and as I got up when the conversation ended, she asked me to wait. There was something else.

Our school has recieved a grant for forming a data team (a big trend in education right now). The team would analyze various data about our school, present it to the staff, and help inform decisions. And they want me to run it. It's not a surprising choice--I taught AP Statistics, so I probably have a better background (er, consisting of community college online Stats 101, but whatever) than anyone else, I've proven myself to be responsible, etc. It would be an interesting experience, we're likely to have the grant again next year, it would look good on my resume, and so on. I took some notes and she asked me to check in about it. I went to leave again.

And again she asked me to sit back down. There's another thing. How would I feel about being the programmer? (The programmer writes the master schedule for students and teachers and makes all the programs.) There are some immediate deadlines so they actually need to know about that one asap, as I (maybe? a real programmer?) am already behind. I got a copy of that calendar too, and we talked a little about what next year would look like. She assured me it wouldn't take me out of the classroom (which I don't want), but when I mentioned a reduction in load (teaching fewer classes, which would be nice) she said she'd push for me to get extra money instead. Except I don't want extra money. I want nights. And weekends. And summers, and that sort of thing.

I feel really ungrateful, but I'm feeling very pressured by these two opportunities. They're nice opportunities. They'd look good. But...they're a lot. I think something else would have to go. But what?!?!

I know there are teachers in my school who could really use the extra money from doing these things, and that I'm in a strong financial position. So its tough to say that I might not want that money; I might not want to do these things. Or rather, I do want to do them. They sound interesting, challenging, developing. But worth the money? I just don't know.

How much is your time worth to you?

Monday, January 3, 2011

Over the River and Through the Woods

We had a lovely visit to Houston, although it didn’t warm up until our very last day. We got down on Christmas night, after a slightly delayed flight, and got to see my family briefly before they headed off to Colorado.
Mark’s parents bought tickets for the four of us to see a play on Sunday, and Sunday night hosted friends of all 3 boys for a scavenger hunt. After we had soup (tasty and economical—my favorite! I even liked them, and soups not my favorite), we got in a circle and counted off for the scavenger hunt. I was paired with Mark’s brother Chris and Chris’ friend. Apparently we are all competitive—but we won! It was a really good scavenger hunt. First floor, yard and art studio, so spread out but no going all over the place. And it was all items you had to pick up and put in the bag you gave them, but not something impossible like “make a stranger do a chicken dance” or “find a four leaf clover” where you just end up frustrated.
Later in the week we saw Bayou Bend, an old home with lovely gardens. We toured the house too—it was all decked out for Christmas, but of course Mark and I spent half our time trying to find the 14 felt mice hiding on the first floor. We did ok with a total find of 10, but the security guard said 2 of them are pretty impossible, so I’m giving us a B. We also went to Discovery Green, a downtown park, similar to Millennium Park (just a bunch smaller). It was really nice. They even had ice skating, which cracked me up. We had burgers at the little restaurant, and walked around. There were even listening pods, which were super fun. I’ve seen this before, but they still always fascinate me.
I also had the chance to spend some time with Mark’s mom. We got our nails done and went to Michael’s (the craft store). Mark told her I make cards so she wanted to buy me some card-making stuff, which was super sweet of her. She wanted to get it for my Christmas present, but wasn’t sure what exactly to pick out. She also got me a platter, which I love and am very excited to use. My current platters are really random—three of them are lightweight silver covered plates shaped like stars. Cute, but not really formal. So this one will be great.
So the trip was good, but the return? Not so much…
How was your holiday break?

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Cleaning out the Cabinets

(P.S. Working two jobs when one is retail and its the holidays makes it hard to stay on top of blogging. In case you didn't notice.)

I was all excited to kick off the new year talking about money, and I have several entries planned about using, which was has really helped me stay on top of my money. But that isn't what I ended up doing today.

This afternoon, while a pot of potato leek soup was simmering on the stove, we cleaned out the cabinets. I've seen several people reference this lately: Trent on the Simple Dollar did an "Out with the Old, In with the New" series and one of his steps was to clean out and restock the pantry. Since we were in the kitchen anyhow, it seemed like a good time to do it. We have food in three places: the large cabinet next to the fridge, a skinny cabinet next to the sink and the high up cabinet over the microwave. I have extra tall cabinets, so I can't reach the top shelf of any of them.

Basically, I brought my new tv table (so versatile! can be used to make the living room computer more computer-like!) into the kitchen and we took everything out of the cabinet next to the sink (the primary home for ingredients, but so skinny its easy for stuff to get pushed to the back and lost). Then we threw out anything expired--only a couple things this time, I was very proud. Before we put it all back, we did two things that I think were really helpful: we cleaned out the cabinets (duh) and we listed what meals we could make with some of the ingredients.

Before making the soup, Mark suggested two different dishes we didn't really have the ingredients for. We live a few blocks from the grocery store and its a quick trip, but I suggested we use up some of the stuff we have. We've been really bad about that. We started meal planning with the best of intentions, but frequently fall off the planning. And of course when that happens we just end up eating frozen stuff from Trader Joe's or going out or something.

So we cleaned out the cabinets, threw some stuff away, figured out what we have, and we're going to do some long term meal planning hopefully tomorrow.

How did you start the new year off right?