Thursday, November 29, 2007

If anyone mentions "the latte factor," I'm going to lose my mind.

When I was growing up, no one drank lattes except on tv. My dad is a caffeine addict with a fondness for espresso, but he never bought them at coffee shops. He brewed them himself in a little espresso pot on the stove using beans bought at a warehouse club. Later, my aunt bought him an espresso machine for his birthday. My brother and I thought it was very exciting at the time, and my dad steamed some milk for us when he first got it. Neither of us ever developed a taste for coffee.

We first got a Barnes and Noble in my area when I was in junior high, and with it came an attached Starbucks. My dad and I used to go there on Saturdays for an hour or two between martial arts classes. He'd drink an ordinary coffee, I might have milk, and sometimes we'd have cheesecake. It was nice. We'd sit and talk before drifting off to go find things to read, and he treated me like an adult, perhaps not as an equal, but as a reasonable person deserving of respect and interest. Those conversations over cheesecake mean a lot to me.

Nonetheless, coffee shop culture never became a part of my daily life. It was a special occasion, a treat. When I first heard the term "latte factor" I was incredulous. Do you mean to tell me there are ordinary middle class people who buy fancy, overpriced coffees every day? Since starting college, I've discovered that this is indeed a reality.

Many writers of personal finance articles and blogs seem to be laboring under the delusion that everyone does this. They preach that by brewing my own coffee, buying my soda in bulk or quitting entirely, and by not buying bottled water I can save hundreds, if not thousands of dollars a year. I'm sure that advice helps some people and gets them thinking about their spending. For me, it's useless. I don't drink coffee, have around two sodas a month (generally when someone else provides them), and have purchased bottled water perhaps four times in my entire life.

So while those articles are suggesting I can save huge sums of money by getting rid of habits I was never in in the first place, others are reminding my that every single penny I spend in my entire life could have been put to some better purpose. After all, there's no area of spending that couldn't somehow be cut, freeing up more money to invest for retirement. I'm sure even as you're reading this, someone is penning a post about how by switching to generic toothpaste for the next thirty years you can have an extra $87 when you retire.

Then there are the folks who insist I'll never build real wealth (whatever the heck that is) working for someone else. In their eyes, only fools and cowards take W-2 jobs and take orders from others. Everyone should consider becoming an entrepreneur, even those who know they have neither the temperament nor the skills to be happy striking out on their own. Folks who do otherwise are making a huge mistake, even people like my aunt, the lawyer, who semi-retired very comfortably in her early fifties. Can you imagine how much more she could have made selling dog toys on eBay???

As you have no doubt guessed, I'm feeling a little burned out on the pf blogosphere today. There are lots of lovely, friendly, inspiring people out there, but there are also plenty of people who do a good job of making me question every financial decision I've ever made. I think I'm going to cut my blog reading back for the next couple of weeks since finals are looming anyway and focus on only reading posts by people I really enjoy.

I'm hoping I'll come out of those weeks a little saner. Last night at the grocery store, I found myself taking an inordinately long time to decide whether paying an extra 22 cents a box to get the macaroni and cheese I really like was worth it. I felt mildly guilty for buying an apple juice from the vending machine outside my econ class on Tuesday, even though I had the money and had been looking forward to juice all afternoon. There's this ridiculous notion that being frugal means sacrificing everything you can possibly bear in the hopes of a better future. That isn't a good way to go through life. I've got to strive for a better sense of balance.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Zero cost chariatable giving

It's the time of year when many people's thoughts turn to helping the less fortunate. I'm still debating what the best use of my charitable giving budget is, but that doesn't mean I can't pitch in a few small ways in the meantime. Even if you truly have no extra money to spare, there are many ways you can contribute that cost you nothing.

My personal favorite is giving blood. I had some anemia issues and haven't been able to donate lately, but I look forward to visiting the bloodcenter soon. There's something really rewarding about the thought that you could be helping save a life. If you're really into the frugality aspect of your giving, there's the additional bonus of blood drive t-shirts and the occasional free meal.

The internet opened new avenues for charities to raise funds. Ad revenue makes it possible for websites to offer a donation for every click they receive. The Hungersite has been in existence for several years and provides 1.1 cups of food for every visitor. Sister sites The Child Health Site, The Rain Forest Site, The Literacy Site, and The Animal Rescue Site, and The Breast Cancer Site operate on a similar model. is great. It's a nifty vocabulary quiz that provides 10 grains of rice for every correct answer. The quiz self-adjusting so it provides the correct level of challenge for just about anyone. It's a great way to prep for standardized tests as well as help others. My brother showed it to me during Thanksgiving break, and I'm slightly addicted now. (One of these days I have to score higher than level 46; I just have to.)

Saturday, November 24, 2007

A good way to stretch my food budget?

While browsing a friend's church's website to find out when their alternative gift fair will be held this year, I came across information about a program they offer called Angel Food Ministries. For $28, including tax, anyone can get a big box of food. In December this buys: 4 5oz. ribeye steaks, a 2lb. lasagna, 2lb. of chicken breast, 1 lb. honey roasted pork sausage, 1 lb. chicken breast fajitas, 1 lb. meatballs, 1 lb. hot dogs, 3 lb. fresh apples, 8 oz. biscuit mix, 1 lb. mixed veggies, 1 lb. cut corn. 1 lb. sliced carrots, 14 oz. chicken broth, 24 oz. hashbrowns, 6.5 oz. hamburger dinner, 10 waffles, and one desert item. It isn't the healthiest assortment of foods know to man, but it isn't terrible either. They take food stamps as well as cash and checks.

The information sheet stresses that anyone may order as many boxes as desired and that ordering more doesn't take food away from someone else. They buy the items once the orders are in, and the $28 covers the cost of all of the food. They save a lot by buying directly and in bulk. A friend of mine has bought food from them before, and it helped keep her and her husband going after her parents decided to disown her (A long story, they are back on speaking terms with her parents, but my friends are still surviving on slightly more than minimum wage and some student loans).

I'm considering trying it. It's more meat than I generally eat in month, but it should keep well in the freezer. If I decide to do this regularly, I'd gladly volunteer to help out on distribution day. Can anyone think of a major downside to signing up for December's food shipment?

Friday, November 23, 2007

Happy Buy Nothing Day

The break from classes has been nice and relaxing so far. Thanksgiving included a nice visit with my mom's family and a gathering of physics folks at my advisor's house. It was lovely, weird, and great fun, exactly what I expect with these people.

Today, I'm going to hang out around the house with my parents, eat, clean, do homework, read, and perhaps watch my university lose at football on tv. I will not be going shopping, despite my brother's attempt to persuade me to go wait in line at 3am to buy a cheap laptop. I don't need it. I do have fleeting moments of wanting a laptop, but at this point I do just fine without one. Someday in the next few years, that will likely change, but it makes sense to delay the purchase and wait for prices to drop and technology to improve further.

My brother may not buy anything today either. There wasn't anything in the ads he had his eye on. He was still considering doing the 5am trip to Best Buy, even if he decided not to buy anything, just because he enjoys the atmosphere.

I don't get it, but I'm the sort of person who was thrilled to get all of my Christmas shopping done online last year. I find crowds most disconcerting, and not having to drive to the stores is a major plus. Based on where my parents small-town home is relative to the major shopping district in the nearby college town, I'd burn almost a gallon of gasoline to make the round trip today, so paying a bit extra for shipping doesn't seem like such a bad deal.

By this time last year, I'd finished my shopping. The gifts for my parents are hidden in my closet, but I have no idea what to get my brother. He tends to buy himself pretty much anything of reasonable cost that he really wants. Do you think he'd get annoyed if I gave him a savings bond instead?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Money does grow on trees.

There's a great old black walnut tree in the backyard. In the summer, it provides shade for lounging in a hammock with a book and a glass of ice water. In autumn when the nuts begin to fall, it becomes a bit more of a nuisance. Every other year there's an abundant crop. If you've never know the joy such a tree can provide, envision your lawn covered with hundreds of slightly squishy green and black golf balls in addition to the usual leaves. Walking outside becomes treacherous, even more so at night.

Picking up all of those walnuts isn't difficult, but it is tedious. If you don't wear gloves, they stain your hands. There are worse ways to spend a sunny afternoon than crouching, scooping up the walnuts, and tossing them in bins, but it isn't my favorite task. Fortunately, the walnuts themselves are a valuable commodity.

As a result, there are folks who offer to clear yards of walnuts in exchange for permission to sell the nuts. It's a good arrangement for everyone involved. Most people view the walnuts as a minor nuisance and are happy to have others do their yard work for free. It's a business that requires few start-up costs. There are buyers eager to process and resell the nuts once they've been collected by these middlemen so there's a near certainty of at least a small profit.

Every fall when I was in elementary school, the same elderly couple came to our door to ask if they could collect our nuts. They spent the day gathering them and then hauled them away in the back of a battered truck. Even after the man suffered a stroke, they continued to come each fall. It was clear that they needed the money. I don't think that they could have earned more than a few hundred dollars each year from this business, but for someone trying to scrape by on Social Security, that meager amount might make a big difference in comfort.

They haven't been back in several years, but others come in their place. This year, the guys who wanted our nuts came long before most of them had fallen, and so my mother and I were left to gather most of the walnuts. We have gallons and gallons of the things, and I've researched where we might be able to sell them ourselves. It won't make us much money, but since we've already gone to the trouble of collecting them, we might as well take them down the road to the buyer to get what we can for them. It's an unexpected source of alternative income, but in the future my mom will probably leave the job to others.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Float is good.

I just got my credit card bill, and the statement date was the day before they charged my card for the lab equipment. As a result, I can put off paying for that item until approximately January 6 without accruing any interest, giving me plenty of time to get reimbursed before having to pay. It doesn't really matter, but it enables me to keep a bit more cushion in my checking account without having to transfer money from savings.

The best laid plans...

Even well thought out budgets can fall apart. I've done a bit of unplanned spending this month, buying a nightgown and a math book. The nightgown came out of the Amazon gift certificate I got last month, and I might be able to persuade the powers that be that getting better at vector calculus is essential for electromagnetic theory next semester and the book is thus a reimbursable academic expense. It's worth a shot since I've got to go do the paperwork to get paid back for internet access, a modem, and almost $600 worth of lab equipment. I can afford to spend the $11.90 on Div, Grad, Curl and All That if my scholarship won't pay. (Hurrah for used bookstores and ABE Books, even though the internet makes buying books far too convenient and thus tempting).

After reviewing spending patterns from the past two months, I decided to shift some money from my grocery budget into my dining out budget. Now it looks like I'll come in under budget for dining out. I set aside $10 for a geology class Jurassic Park watching party at a pizzeria, but our prof insisted on paying for everyone. The Taco Bell nearest to campus burned down last weekend, dramatically reducing my temptation to buy fast food.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A body at rest tends to remain at rest unless acted on by an outside force.

I once had over $8,000 sitting in my checking account, earning no interest whatsoever. I'd had certificates of deposit before, but at some point I got too busy to search out good local rates, parked every penny I had in checking, added money every time I got my stipend, and just ignored it for a couple of years. That certainly wasn't the worst financial blunder a college student could make in this era of easy credit, but it wasn't a logical decision. It wasn't until I wanted to buy something big and started thinking about the impact such a purchase would have on my savings that I started trying to use my money to make money.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Saturday, November 10, 2007

If I had a million ducats...

I've been humming that song all morning. If you like funny music and/or Celtic music, go check out The Brobdingnagian Bards. You can even listen to many of their songs for free.

You may well be asking why I have such ideas drifting around in my head. The folks at Wise Bread want to know what their readers would do if they were given $1,000,000, tax free. Most of the people who're responding are astonishingly sensible, pretty much what you'd expect of the self-selected group who read pf blogs.

My answer is fairly typical. I'd put a couple of years worth of living expenses in FDIC insured accounts, consider buying a house, stick the rest in some sensible mix of index funds and highly rated bonds, and go on with life usual for a few years with the knowledge that I had far more flexibility. Teach for America would still be my post-graduation goal, and after that I might want to go to St. John's College and study the great books curriculum for four years before graduate school in science.

My mother know exactly how she'd spend a million. Money truly would solve many of her problems. It isn't fair that over 85% of the responsibility for caring for my grandparents has fallen on my mother instead of being shared by her four siblings, but having money would ease the burden significantly. She could hire nurses and certified nursing assistants in shifts around the clock, and her 88 year old father could move back home. She'd no longer need to deal with Medicaid and all of the accompanying bureaucracy. Having staff around at my grandparents' house would also mean there would be more people to keep an eye on my grandmother, who's still quite capable of handling most of the tasks of daily life but is getting a bit more forgetful, illogical, and sometimes combative. It's the thought of having to take care of, and possibly support, my parents a couple of decades from now that keeps me scrimping and saving.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

I devoted large portions of my day to shopping.

Worse still, I ended up spending $575 plus shipping and not getting exactly what I set out to buy. Before you all start griping at me about my extravagant ways, I guess I should clarify that I was ordering something for my research project. Once I submit receipts, reimbursement doesn't take long. The lab exists in an alternate universe in which money doesn't mean as much. It's weird.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Ending economic outpatient care. How do I get my parents to stop buying me stuff?

My parents keep trying to subsidize me even more than they already are. They keep insisting that since they aren't paying for college for their kids, they can afford to be generous. I'm grateful, but it's driving me a bit crazy.

When I first started looking for an apartment, I had just moved a big chunk of change into my online savings account and had a bare minimum in checking. Getting an apartment wasn't in my plans. My mother was very persistent in asking if I was sure I wouldn't be happier living somewhere else, and it became clear that she thought I should move out. (Now she thinks I ought to move home, but that's another story entirely.) Since I couldn't access my money without a three day delay for the transfer, she offered to lend me the first month's rent and pay the deposit. I promptly repaid her, but a couple of weeks ago she shredded my check and told me to keep the money.

I think I'm going to have to stop shopping with my parents entirely if I want to cut down on the amount of things they buy me. Last weekend, my father and I went to go buy some car repair supplies, and I decided to buy a pack of chewing gum. He refused to let me pay. I tagged along with my mother on a trip to Sam's Club so I could stock up on food using her membership. I offered to pay, but she said no. Arguing with her about this only makes her angry, and when I tried sneaking money into her wallet, my brother ratted me out. The fridge and pantry contain perhaps $40 of food I didn't get to pay for.

My parents want to take care of me. I appreciate their emotional support, but it's time for them to reduce their financial support. It would be much better for them to invest this money for retirement or spend it on things that give them pleasure. I have to learn to support myself and live within my means, not on my father's income.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Planning for November

I know I need to reign spending in somewhat, but I’m already off to a bad start. I signed up for internet service on Tuesday. That will increase my monthly bills dramatically, but it counts as an educational expense so my scholarship will cover it. Tonight I splurged and spent nearly $11 on rabbit ears for watching broadcast television on my computer. It’s a waste of time and money, but sometimes brainless entertainment is nice.

Utilities will likely go up in November since I’ll have to turn on the heater before too much longer. If I can figure out what to get him, I’ll buy my brother’s Christmas gift sometime this month. A carefully planned splurge may be necessary this month as well to prevent the temptation to waste even more money.

Buying clothes holds very little appeal to me, but pajamas are another story. I have plenty, but if I let myself I’d buy more at least a couple of times a year. I’m toying with the idea of buying this nightgown. It caught my eye a couple of months ago, but I resisted and reminded myself I didn’t need it. Now there’s a gift card burning a hole in my pocket. An occasional indulgence in something utterly frivolous and unnecessary sounds like the perfect way to spend a minor windfall.

October wrap-up

Spending and income were both abnormally high this month. I bought a present for my brother’s birthday, which is in November, and ordered Christmas presents for my parents. I also spent far too much on dining out, in part because I resolved to eat down my pantry and then got sick of everything I had on hand. The work on the physics standards was a one-time project. The interest earned on my savings will be far less for the next few months since my cd won’t pay interest until May.

Rent $410
Utilities $83.63 (electricity, water, landline phone, trash service)
Groceries $67.67
Dining Out $46.10
Personal $6.10 (grooming and hygiene)
Household $1.43
Miscellaneous $15.48 (transcripts and photocopies)
Gifts $85.02
Charity $1
Total Spent $716.34

$626.80 scholarship (1/5 of semester housing funds)
$54.83 interest earned by savings account
$110 tutoring
$91.32 work on the physics standards
$25 Amazon gift card from wisebread
$3 Pinecone Research
$0.01 found on the ground
Total Income $910.96