Thursday, March 31, 2011

Money Matters: More on Mint

Its been awhile since I talked about Mint. If you got started with it too, it takes awhile to really figure out what's going on, and how you can best use it.

We got started a few months back by getting accounts in there, so that it would have time to build up some data. Then, I gave a quick overview of the different components. Hopefully, all of your accounts are in there, and you've been checking in every week or so on your transactions. You should also have made some guess budgets, and have probably been revising them. Some of the alerts are useful; some make no sense for quite some time ("You spent $1,000 on rent. You usually spend $173.42 on rent.") as they average over a shorter period of time and apparently confuse themselves.

Anyhow, for me, I was looking for a good big picture of my spending and to help me plan. After setting up my budget categories and spending for a few months, I started noticing some things that confused me or just didn't match the way I spend or what I was hoping to track. I'm not in debt, nor am I an overspender, so this isn't something I need to monitor obsessively and some of the (over) categorization was making it confusing to get a quick overall picture.

Mint auto-categorizes transactions, usually pretty accurately. My problem was in things I won't spend regularly on--I'm looking at you, stamps. Or a magazine subscription. I don't spend enough (or frequently enough) on little things like that to have a budget for them, but I do want to know where and how they're adding up. For me, what made the most sense was to pare down my categories into the following:
  • Home (with Home Improvement & Furnishings subcategories)
  • Auto & Transport (with a Gas & Fuel subcategory)
  • Food & Dining (with Groceries & Restaurants subcategories)
  • Charity
  • Travel
  • Bills & Utilities
  • Shopping
  • Gift
  • Personal Care
I know some people will want more categories than that, but for me it made things simplest. For things that are technically "Pharmacy" like shampoo, I categorize them as Groceries as well. I buy both food and drug items from both food & drugstores, so instead of splitting out purchases or trying to remember if that CVS purchase was detergent or eggs, I call it all groceries. I never overspend on shampoo etc anyhow, so I don't really need careful tracking.

Other than that, if you don't see it on the list, its probably "Shopping". There are subcategories under that like "Clothing" "Books" "Sporting Goods" and "Hobbies", and I categorize things that way, but it all pulls from the same budget. I don't spend enough on any one category for it to need its own bucket, and as long as I stay within my overall budget, I'm not too concerned where my money goes. This is especially true since I often spend in cycles. I might not buy any new clothes for several months and then want to refresh my wardrobe, or have a shopping spree at Michael's.

Along those lines, there are a couple of options when you set up a budget, including to set up a budget for "every month", "every few months" and "once". The idea behind it is to help you budget for things like auto insurance, which is only due once a year. However, this confused me. I swear it double counted my auto insurance, and I think my way is much easier:
Mint also allows you to rollover a budget, and virtually all of mine do this. That means I put aside an extra $70 a month in my "Auto" budget, and by the time my car insurance is due, I've built up enough of a surplus to pay that money out of my regular budget. And I still have that "on average" idea of how much I spend in a month. This also works well for things like Personal Care, where I put only $25 each month, not even enough for a haircut. But I get my haircut infrequently, and if I have the money in that account, I won't feel guilty using it on a manicure either. I also "save up" for bigger things using this method, instead of Mint's goals. I put money into my travel, home improvement and furnishings accounts, and know that as long as I don't go over, I can do any home projects I want that fit within the budget. The goals are great if you need to regularly transfer money (like to pay off debt) but if you're just trying not to spend more than an average of $100/month on furnishings, I think my method is way easier (and I didn't get confused, like I did with Mint's saving up feature, or yelled at, like I did with goals). 

Although this makes me recategorize things sometimes to make it more streamlined, it gives me a good (and quick!) overall picture of my spending that I find really helpful. If you want to use a similar method, think of the places you're really interested in monitoring and where you spend enough to be able to see trends, and make smaller categories for those. For everything else, make life easier and don't create a zillion budgets!

I know this was a lot, so let me know if there's anything else I should have covered! What has your experience with Mint been?

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Party of the Year

Last night was a bittersweet one for me. For the last five years, I taught (math) in the the JROTC academy at my old School. JROTC is a fantastic program, and they do tons of cool activities with the kids, one of which is the annual Military Ball.

This was my fourth and final one--I had a blast, but it's sad knowing it was my last. My kids are seniors now. They planned this, they were the ones sitting at the head table, etc. I won't really know next years kids, and it won't be the same.

My favorite Division 146 girls
But enough of the weepy stuff...Military Ball is SO FUN.

It's held at a cheesy banquet hall (this one was actually pretty nice)
They include the centerpieces the last one our package included the wedding cake (?!), so it was in the middle of the dance floor. Colonel cut it with a saber.

Military Ball can be described as a cross between Boy Scouts & the Prom. The girls wear dresses, the boys (the ones that are in JROTC and not dates) wear their uniforms. The evening starts off with the saber team marching in. They do a little formation thing, and then line the sides of the dance floor (to the left and right in the photo above). Then the MC announces each member of staff (those are the student leaders) and their dates. Each of them has a different rank, and so the sabers do a different twirling* motion. For the Battalion Commander, they do their thing and then all bow down. It's pretty awesome. And I knew a lot of the kids being introduced and sitting at the head table this year, which was fun.

Anyhow, then the saber team goes back to attention, and the Color Guard posts colors (I love posting colors--its a cool military ritual, and our kids are really good--they've done it at Cubs games and everything). Then, in all our formal wear, we say the pledge of allegiance and someone sings the Star Spangled Banner. After that is dinner, which is just, you know, high school dance dinner, and then they announce royalty.

My awesome friend & also former coworker did the announcing, and I did the presenting. This should mean I got the easy job, since I basically hand things out. But there are four tiaras (one for each level), 3 scepters, a crown and then sashes too for the king & queen.
But four slightly different sets
 And everything is taped and plastic-ed together within an inch of its life. Which we didn't realize until she read the first name and I could tell that tiara was never coming out. Which was ok, because I was about to give the LET 2 tiara to the LET 1 princess just as soon as I could set that sucker free. Oops. Also, I do not have a future in tiara placement. I was worried about messing up hair and I couldn't figure out where it should go, and so I mostly just plopped it on their head with a worried look on my face. Some photo op I make (and some mom made me re-tiara her daughter--I tried to look less concerned for that one). The sashes at least I've got down, thanks to beauty pageant themed Sorority rush party back in the day. And scepters are easy. 

We even got JROTC coins in recognition of our help, and the student speaker gave me a shout out in his speech ("Like Ms. C, who is over there eating her ice cream!"--awkward!). Then the dancing started up--probably not like any dances you go to, as the music that's the biggest draw is Bachata, a Puerto Rican dance music.

Anyhow, it was a blast, it was fantastic to see so many of my students, I miss them like crazy, and now I can't wait to see them again when they (OMG how did this happen) graduate.

*I bet what you do with a saber should not be called twirling. But whatever.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Happy Birthday Sister!

I finally made up to Milwaukee to visit my sister this weekend. Her birthday is Monday, so my dad came up for the day on Saturday as well.

It was my first time seeing her new place, including the new-new couch (since the first one didn't fit). And, um, boxes. After the whole couch debacle, all she had was a papasan chair, a couple bookcases and a coffee table. When the second couch finally came (and fit) she was kind of used to some of her random items. Like using the microwave box for an end table.

We put an end to all that--we did some shopping and got her two new end table lamps (darn it--the one I rejected from my living room got rejected from hers too. Want it mom?), as well as a new end table. And my dad brought up a floor lamp. Her room looks so. much. better. (I'll add some pictures in later). She was very resistant to losing those boxes, but we got 'em out while she wasn't looking.

We also went fancy for our mutual favorite meal--Saturday we made waffles (in the Grilleration, hahaha) and Sunday we did crepes. Our first one turned out terrible, but we totally got the hang of it by the end.

We had dinner at Roots, which I actually had walked by before--it looks really cool.
After my dad left, he called to tell us there was some sort of super moon* that won't happen again for a long time, so we bundled up and walked out to a point on the lakefront to see it. It was very bright, so I guess it was super, and the walk was fun either way.

It was great to see her, and hopefully I'll get back up here faster this time!

*This is unverified and in fact I have no idea what it means. My dad said it and we just believed him.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Back on the Road!

It's finally time...I rode my bike today!  It's been stuck at School since December 4, when the weather turned halfway through the day.

 [And then I tried to find a picture on the internet and post it here--my bike is awesome but, um, dirty and in the basement right now. My bike is like a secret bike, and no pictures of it exist. Or they've all been destroyed. Or something.]

The high was in the upper 50's, it was sunny and balmy and not too windy, and I totally needed a good bike ride.  I wasn't even slow or anything--right at my normal gear, although as I was feeling all proud of myself for not being as pathetic as anticipated, I hit a bridge and had to downshift like four gears. (Yes, you can laugh at me tomorrow when I can't walk, which is highly likely.) It took me only a little over an hour, right on par with my usual time--and not bad at all for 13 miles.

I started* bike commuting back at my old School, a nice 3 mile commute. It took almost the same time as driving, so it was no different. And, added bonus, I hate working out so it took care of that too. Then I moved a mile further away. It was a quick adjustment though. Just a few more minutes on the bike (or in the car).

And then. I switched jobs over the summer. If I haven't mentioned before, one of the things I don't like about my new School is that it's really far. The commute sucks. That was a principal thing I was upset about when I got the job--how would I ride my bike?

Until I realized the only thing stopping me was myself (and, you know, sanity). It's a little more involved now--I can't just wear the flats I'm going to wear to work (and sometimes most of my outfit). I never used to carry water, but now I need it and have to stop at the park for the drinking fountain when I forget. And after a flat** incident last fall, I have a little emergency kit that I don't know how to use. I think my plan is to flag down a sympathetic cop, as no one on the south side actually rides bikes.

Anyhow, I probably need to go get a spring cleaning and tune up and whatever else, but it's great to be back on the streets!

*I was really obsessive about starting. I actually walked the entire route first so it would look familiar from my bike. It seemed very brilliant at the time and took three hours. I did learn how much I dislike Cortland.
**Your tire can be really low but still ride-able. My pressure should be between 60-85 I think, and it was at 30. When you realize you have special valves and cannot in fact fill up at the gas station, RIDING TEN MILES IS REALLY DUMB. You won't be able to walk for three days. Sometimes I am too tough for my own good.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Glass boxes

Last fall, in the Crate & Barrel catalog, I saw this:
Crate & Barrel

And I decided I really, really needed a glass box. I cut out the picture and put it on the fridge (to remind myself? For a hint for Mark? Who knows.) Even the small one is pretty pricey at $49.95 though, and while I really really wanted one, I don't have a rock collection like they show. Or really anything else that is just begging for a glass box.

So I didn't ask for it for Christmas or anything, I just idly wanted it. And then when we went to pick up a gift at West Elm, there it was:
West Elm
They're smaller than the Crate & Barrel ones, and also a good bit cheaper. This I can do. So I picked one up when B and I had our shopping spree. It looked so nice on my coffee table, if a little, well, empty. We had some M&Ms in the candy jar, so I put those in. Which mostly looked (unsurprisingly) random.

But over the weekend, I fixed it. I keep a bunch of stuff for when I eventually start to scrapbook (I make cards, but Mark hopes I will make us a scrapbook someday). I pulled some "us"* stuff out of my box, arranged it in the glass case, and now it looks way better:
 In case you're curious, I put in tickets from two concerts we've been to, a photostrip from the City Museum in St. Louis, the punch card from a corn maze we did when our Couples Group went on a retreat last fall, the sticker from the Apple Cider Century (my very first organized bike ride!) and of course a turtle. I didn't put too much time or thought into it, but so far I like it!

What would you put in a glass box? Anyone have any better ideas?

*True Story: My first thought was...."Hmmm, I could put my rush nametags in there" I saved them because they tend to be very elaborate, and they would look cool. But I might be just a bit too old for that.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Paid Off

In other news, I'm pretty sure* I own my car now.

My car was the first thing I ever took out a loan on. I know in general its bad to have loans, but I've never carried a balance on anything, and it seemed like it would be wise to prove I COULD pay something back if I wanted to. But it always makes me feel guilty when I read personal finance blogs.

In my case though, it wasn't a terrible decision. First, I could have paid cash if I'd wanted to (and could have paid my car off at any time). Second, my interest rate was 2.9%. And third, I'm pretty sure it made my credit score go up.

I can't be certain about the credit score thing, because I didn't know my exact score shortly before I bought my car, but it's always been in the mid to high 700's. When I bought my condo a little over a year later, my lender's score (they always use the middle one of the 3 bureaus) was 806.

Anyhow, I feel more affectionate towards my car now that I own all of it. This is silly, since yesterday I didn't own $185.15 of it...which is like the floormats or maybe a wheel**. But anyhow, now its really-really mine, and my only remaining debt is my mortgage.

Hooray for me!

*I have automatic payments set up, and this last one was for the remainder of my loan ($185.15) so I assume that takes care of it. But who knows...I paid it off early, so maybe there is something else I need to do.

**I did the same thing with my condo, where I put down 25% and then amused myself deciding which specific part of my condo I owned. Conveniently, it has four rooms. I decided I owned the dining room. If I ever have problems with the bank, can I give back say, the living room but keep the dining room??

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Now THAT'S Progress!

I made some changes to my living room two weeks ago, and almost 2 weeks in, I'm really liking it. The new lamp and rug are winners for sure (as is my random glass box). The jury is still out on the pillows. Several people who have stopped by think they look great, but Mark and I still feel like they're too white--something more cream would be better.

This is what we started with:

Anyhow, here's where we are now:
Doesn't the rug make a huge difference?
 Several things are placeholders right now:
  • The chair was in the dining room. 
  • So was the lamp that is now on the mantel
  • We still want a new coffee table
The jury is also still out on those pillows:

I know the colors aren't great, and the couch definitely looks good with light-colored pillows. We just think they're too light. It's tough to tell, but the blanket on the chair is cream, and the pillows are white. They are off-white enough that in the store with all their white-pillow friends, I was like "oh, they're cream." But not really.

As for the chair:
We both LOVE it. It was a 16th birthday present for me. [When I moved in we couldn't figure out where to put it, and my mom put in the corner of the dining room by the windows, telling me I could sit there to...look at cookbooks? We all laughed since she was obviously just trying to justify the placement (it's right next to the bookshelf with the cookbooks). But surprise surprise, she's right. We DO sit there and look at cookbooks.] In the living room? It just looks too old-fashioned for me. I'm trying to get away from the look of the coffee table, and the chair isn't helping. I think I found a new chair already, but I'm probably going to wait and ask for it for my birthday.

I'm also on the lookout for a lamp for the mantel; the one that's there right now doesn't really work. But at least now I know I want a lamp there. And it helps fill that 11 feet of space.

Anyhow, what do you think?!?

Friday, March 4, 2011

Dear Connie

I'm sorry I'm an idiot sometimes. I'm not sure why I didn't file a homeowner's exemption for my county property taxes. At first I thought you were being mean to me (which I probably deserve for being so dumb), but you weren't. You were one of the most helpful telephone service people I've ever talked to.

You told me:
  • Which two forms I needed
    Where to find them and precisely what they were called (It's a "Homeowner's Exemption Certificate of Error"--and you even mentioned it will say C/E Number, but I shouldn't worry, as that's for office use only).
  • What I needed to include
  • Where to take it when I fill it out

And then, you kept going. You mentioned that my assessed value went up, and gave me several steps to go through and places to try to get it adjusted.

And also, after I get my paperwork filed, you explained that I needed to call my mortgage company--but make sure I talk to the Escrow Department--to have my payment adjusted down again.

You're the best government employee ever, Connie. Thanks!

Seriously? This woman was SO HELPFUL. She was the one who mentioned the assessed value and how to get it adjusted. She also did not have to walk me through how to get my mortgage payment adjusted back down, especially in such great detail.

And in case you screwed up your taxes too, never fear, fixing them isn't that bad!

I had to fill out a form to make it correct for this year, then a certificate of error to make it correct for last year, and then submit a phone bill* showing I had service at this address. I also now have a list (including the phone number!) of places to call to try to get my assessed valuation down. Awesome.

I know no one really cares about my taxes, but there's more here: Don't psych yourself out. I knew I messed up and was afraid fixing it would be a pain. But putting it off wouldn't have helped, and now I feel so much better. Take something you've been procrastinating on and DO IT!

*I could have used my license, had I bothered to change it.

Never mind

Remember how we were choosing paint? And then trying to find a new lamp and table?

All because this:

is too dark and heavy and old-fashioned. So we thought maybe we could paint it a lighter color of gray, and it wouldn't look so dark. And I could get a lamp (I thought glass would look nice, but didn't have specifics) in a lighter color; still large but not so heavy and dark looking. With a lighter coffee table... maybe that would do it.

Then when we were hanging out with M & B, who are awesome (she's more like me than anyone I know, he's one of Mark's closest friends). B also happens to have a design background, a well-decorated condo, plenty of opinions and unfortunately, no job right now. When we mentioned the paint again, he said he really thought the rug was doing a lot to make it look so dark. See above. (Then make fun of me/us for being dense--that did not even occur to Mark or I.) He thought maybe if we switched out the rug, we wouldn't even need to repaint. A smaller and lighter colored rug would show off my wood floors, which are in good condition and hopefully be a paler base for the room.


So we rolled the rug partway up (it's really big and we didn't feel like moving every piece of furniture out of the room). And it looked...great. Lighter, more open. Brilliant. So B and I spent the afternoon shopping on President's Day. We hit Crate & Barrel, and then headed over to Pottery Barn and finally West Elm. We saw a couple of decent things at the first two, but at the last we hit the jackpot (the double jackpot, considering my discount there!). First thing we saw?

The one on the left
A glass lamp! I didn't have an actual idea of what I wanted, but I was thinking a glass lamp--perfect! We wandered around and finally got to the rug wall...where we found this:
It's less brown and more cream in person
The gray of the walls? Check. A medium to dark tan, like the couch's base color? Check. A cream base, to lighten up the room? Check. Perfection!

We also found some pillows (that I don't love--they looked more cream/less white in the store, and at home they're white--but the idea is a good one). We picked up the lamp, rug, pillows, and a glass display box that I irrationally really want (even though I have no idea what I'm going to put in it). We went back to my place, and pulled out old rug, put the new one down, and then B took some stuff out and grabbed things from other rooms. Its totally not done yet, but getting there.

And even more exciting, I had game club two nights later, and one girl (who has been to my house several times) walked in and asked if I got a new couch. "It just pops...I love it!" So obviously its a good change. And it looks so much lighter, we don't need to paint now. I need to find pillows that are a better fit, we need a cream/natural chair and a new coffee table would still be nice, but I'm super-pleased with where we are now. Thanks B!

What do you think? Good switch?