Friday, May 29, 2009

I'm done with my first year of teaching. Oh, and I've been spending like a drunken sailor on shore leave, with more big spending coming up in the next few months. Details to follow once I regain a bit of sanity.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

A confession

I caved and used my debit card and am now $1.82 over budget for the week. I spent a few bucks more than I'd planned on groceries on Sunday, bought one fast food lunch (I know, I know, bad E.C. !), and then my parents came to visit so I needed more food for them. My budget would have withstood the stress if I hadn't needed batteries for my camera for graduation as well. My dad offered to buy the food I got for dinner when we went to the store together, but I couldn't allow that.

I'm still tweaking my weekly cash allowance. $100 was a very comfortable amount, but the past couple of weeks I've been trying to do $80 instead, which works reasonably well on the weeks when I don't try to go out and do anything that costs money but is fairly tight the rest of the time. Twenty bucks a week doesn't seem like a big deal, but it's a lot over the course of a year. Thoughts?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The end is near.

By this time next week, I'll be finished with my last day with my students. Friday will be teacher in-service, and then I'm officially done with my first year.

Now on to trying to relearn all of the physics I've forgotten so the Physics GRE doesn't kill me next fall.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

I miss the Scirocco.

My odometer hit 122,222 the other day, a number of no particular significance other than that it looked neat. I paused for a moment to admire it and quietly will my car to reach 222,222 miles before I finally have to replace it. Each day, I remain somewhat astonished that I not only have a car that has never left me stranded by the side of the road, but have the funds to replace it when it does become unreliable. This seems to me to be a violation of the natural order of things.

Growing up, I got used to being stranded from time to time. Cars broke down. It was a fact of life, probably an even more annoying one for someone traveling with small children in those days before cellphones became ubiquitous. My favorite of those cars was the Scirocco.

My parents acquired it sometime before I started school. It was a hand me down from my aunt, who herself had received it from her sister, costing us nothing but the bus fare to travel halfway across the country to go get it. My father rigged a system of webbing to secure children's car seats to bus seats and off we went. I recall the bus terminals as bustling places full of people who seemed terribly interesting to a preschooler.

The Scirocco was a valuable addition to our stable, an improvement over the car my mother had previously used to schlep us around, a 1955 Chevy in which my ever prudent father had thoughtfully installed lap belts and a roll bar. My father, a mechanical engineer and car nut, found the Scirocco fun to drive. It served well for many years, but my mother gradually became more and more dissatisfied with it, even though by that point she rarely drove it.

Over the years, she gradually got better and better cars, first a giant brown Oldsmobile in which my brother and I once spent the night at a gas station in Little Rock on the homeward stretch of a family vacation. The water pump had failed, but my father had packed a replacement part because that was the only repair he could envision dealing with on the road that hadn't already been necessary in the preceding months. It took him most of the night, with my mother holding a flashlight and lending a hand. Sometime after that, she got a very nice Suburban that still runs well thanks to an engine transplant. (Not a repair my father handled himself.) That was the vehicle she was driving when she began nagging my father about his car in earnest.

Ok, so traveling was a little less fun after my father removed the radio and air conditioner in the course of a repair and never replaced them, but we could do without those luxuries. When the fan for the heater died, coats and mittens became imperative in winter. The front seats were padded with a granular black substance that eventually all leaked out the bottom of the seats, leaving the driver and passenger sitting on the metal seat frames. After the red upholstery wore through, my dad got brown furry seat covers. They eventually bleached blond in the sunlight and then themselves wore through. The windshield gaskets were bad, resulting in an inch or two of water in the back floorboards after each heavy rainfall. My father eventually rigged a switch to turn on the fuel pump when starting the car after the system that was supposed to do that went kaput. In its last years, the car idled rough, sometimes dying at stop signs, not always, just often enough to make things interesting.

My mother thought the Scirocco was an embarrassment. I disagreed vehemently. It had its flaws, as do all things in life, but I couldn't understand caring what other people thought as long as my dad liked it and it generally got us from point a to point b. I took a certain perverse pride in getting picked up from a junior high dance in a slightly rusty twenty year old Volkswagen that got washed perhaps once a year.

Eventually, my father did get a brand new car. By that point, my parents had paid the house off. They had enough breathing room to easily afford a nice, reliable little econobox for my father's commute. His Mazda was a great car until it met its untimely demise by the side of the interstate on an icy night last Thanksgiving weekend.

I can see now why they bought it, but at the time I was outraged. I felt like my father was caving to my mother, and I understood even less why they would finance a car when they could have paid cash without even having a significant impact on their savings. Taking the zero percent interest financing on top of the discount my father got for working for an OEM supplier for Mazda was mathematically a good deal, but my upbringing instilled in me a horror of consumer debt that at that point in my life would have rivaled that of the most devout Dave Ramsey acolyte. (Or perhaps I was just at a phase where I was inclined to be deeply pissed off by anything my parents did.) Now that I'm a wee bit more mature, I understand their decisions much better, but I'm still a little sad that they got rid of the Scirocco. I suspect that my father could still have it running today if he'd absolutely had to, especially in light of the spare engine he salvaged from a dead Rabbit and kept in the garage, just in case.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Great news: I'm not qualified for a job I don't want!

It turns out the folks manning the literacy lab this summer have to be certified English teachers. Maybe that isn't the greatest news on the financial front, but it'll do wonders for my sanity. It's going to create problems for our poor English department head since she's got to figure out staffing when her department is losing somewhere between 1/2 and 5/6 of its teachers. (Two TFA teachers and one non-trad licensee have done their two years and are heading out, and there's one elderly teacher who is still waffling about whether to retire this year and one teacher who is considering making her first year in the district her last.) Again, a sad situation, but ultimately not my problem.

I may be adding one more summer activity to my calendar, however. My department head suggested a week long summer program that sounds highly relevant to my classroom practice, offers a smidge of graduate credit, and would provide a few nifty tech toys to use when I go back to school in the fall. Best of all, they offer full funding for the course and a $650 stipend to everyone they accept. Fingers crossed.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

I'm going to go spend my very last dime on a bean burrito and some cheese enchiladas.

I realized long ago that it's a wee bit dangerous to allow myself to realize I have money. When I notice I have actually socked away a semi-substantial sum, I'm more inclined to spend. It doesn't usually lead to a flood of wild extravagances, but a trickle of repeated little treats that put me over budget is just as bad in the long run.

Developing strategies to combat this has been vital to maintaining my savings momentum. During my senior year of college when almost all of my income for a semester came in a lump sum, a very strict budget kept me on track, but I found myself obsessing about the numbers a bit more than was healthy. Now I'm striving for a bit more flexibility.

One thing that helped has been keeping multiple bank accounts. Longer term savings get locked away in accounts I can admire from time to time when I transfer funds in but wouldn't dream of spending on day-to-day life unless I faced a dire emergency. Money goes in, but it doesn't go out, period. Keeping a "life happens fund" in a different savings account linked to my checking account for quick access and overdraft protection enables me to keep just a couple hundred dollars more than I plan to need in a month in my checking account itself. Thus, looking at my checking account balance usually makes me feel pretty nearly broke.

Still, spending creep happens. To combat my tendency to go just a little over budget every month, I'm trying a strategy I'd heard about for years but probably would never have tried if I hadn't seen how well it works for the boy: I'm going on a (nearly) cash only budget. Daily expenses that aren't bills or rent are to be paid for in cash. Each Sunday afternoon I get my allowance for the week, go do my grocery shopping, gas up my car, and then figure out how to live on what's left. If I know I have other big expenses coming up that week, I'm forced to plan ahead. It's easy to see where I stand by simply opening my wallet. My budget is low enough that if I do go over, it won't be a huge setback, but the thought of caving and going to the ATM a second time in one week makes me cringe.

This Sunday was an expensive one. A weekend day trip used quite a bit of gasoline, and I found myself running out of a lot of boring staples like pens, pencils, toilet paper, and laundry detergent. It was my week to buy the supplies for the science club lab, and I also decided to go wild with the grocery shopping this week in the hopes of alleviating my proclivity toward getting bored with everything in the house and deciding to grab fast food.

So I'm down to eight bucks and change, and I'm planning to blow all of it tomorrow night. I can afford it; I have 7/8 of a tank of gas, enough groceries that I could get through all of next week without shopping (but I probably won't), no weekend plans beyond a TFA event that'll include a very nice free dinner. It feels wildly extravagant to go into a restaurant planning to leave absolutely broke. It feels good.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Maybe I am a masochist after all.

Today the teacher next door asked me if I'd consider working this summer. She was informed today that she needs to round up teachers to do literacy remediation for four hours each morning throughout June. It'd be easy work since the remediation is computer-based; basically the job is to supervise everyone, help kids when they get stuck, and make sure people don't cheat by logging in as their friends. In all honesty, it sounds pretty boring.

I know in this economy I'm lucky to have a job, never mind having the chance to make $35 an hour for very easy part-time work, but I still don't want to do it. I'd take it in a heartbeat if such a position were available in my home town. I want to escape the Delta for a bit, catch up with my family and friends, lock myself in the library and study for hours on end, read, watch movies, go for long walks, get ahead on lesson planning, and basically enjoy having some time I can call my own. There will be a bit of professional development in there, but overall the summer should be a much more relaxing time if I don't take the job. A few weeks of freedom was going to be the reward for a year of hard work and frugality

Naturally, I told her I'd do it if she absolutely can't find anyone else to take the position.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

I know it was my money all along...

but there's something kinda cool about logging into your bank account to deposit your latest paycheck and discovering you have an "extra" $1,258 floating around in there. I can see why people like getting their income tax refunds enough to make an interest-free loan to the government. (Not that I'm planning to do that again this year!)

My cell phone is dying a slow death.

I have a decidedly uncool mobile phone. I never wanted one at all, but I caved to my mother's demands and got a Tracfone before I went to New York for an internship the summer before my junior year of college. It died less than a month into my time there, and I was just fine without it. I went ahead and sent it off for a replacement when I got home, and that Motorola c139 has served me just fine ever since. It allows me to make and receive telephone calls. If I really want to, I can send a text. Attempts at setting up voicemail have been unsuccessful, but that's ok with me. The little phone is sturdy, too; it has been dropped down a flight of cement stairs with no ill effect.

It's been a reasonably frugal option, at least as a supplement to a landline, which is how I've always used it. Because I paid extra for a double minutes card a couple of years ago, I can get minutes for around ten cents a piece if I shop the sales. Typically once a year, I buy a batch of minutes, and I'm set. Budgeting the minutes themselves is easy enough since the reserve is displayed right on the phone screen. (Although, this year, I've been traveling more and been less good about keeping conversations short. I'm down to 63.2 minutes that are supposed to last me until July 31.)

Alas the battery is now showing its age: a phone that used to go well over a week on standby can now go a mere three days. Even more annoying, I can head to school in the morning with two of the three battery bars showing, and the phone is sometimes dead by the end of the day. I can charge it more often, but I know that this is the beginning of the end.

My mother actually bought me a new phone a few months ago, nice Motorola flip phone that she picked up on sale when she went to buy a Tracfone of her own. It's nice I'm sure, but it's still in its packaging. It's too fancy, with bluetooth, a camera, a built-in FM radio, the option of buying weather reports, and a ton of other feature that will add complexity but no real functionality for a user like me. Plus I read somewhere, perhaps Consumer Reports, that flip phone are more prone to breaking than my candybar-style brick of phone because they can snap at the hinge.

Activating the fancy new phone would probably be the most economical option since I already own the darn thing. Yet, I found myself pricing batteries for the c139. For mere $10, I could get a brand new OEM battery. At that price, I'm tempted to pick up a couple and try to keep this little phone going for several more years. It's totally illogical to throw money into maintenance of a such a cheap item that's pretty much designed to be disposable, but I've developed a bit of an emotional attachment to my phone and to being a person who uses an out-of-date phone that was super cheap when it was new, especially in classrooms where students can just look at its outline in my pocket as evidence that I deserve mockery. Am I letting conspicuous non-consumption trap me into spending more money?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Now my roommate is talking about buying a house! (Or, yes, I am still a judgmental jerk.)

I'm still puzzled by the way my roommate thinks about money. At some level, she seems to want to be responsible, but the decisions she makes are baffling to me.

A bit of background: My roommate is, overall, none too fond of her job teaching elementary school music. It doesn't help that she's planning to become an academic focusing on music theory, but her school views her as a glorified babysitter. However, she needs an income until she either pays of a sizable chuck of her considerable college debt or actually completes her masters thesis, orals, and defense. Her big plans to get the thesis written this year and complete her oral exams during spring break have fallen by the wayside. (Being a first year teacher will do that.) She's hoping to write her thesis this summer, but she's also seeking a summer job to alleviate the cash crunch her credit card debt, student loans, and spending habits have wrought so there will be some competition for her time.

After her second year with TFA, she's planning to move to Memphis and teach there while working on another masters, this one in music education. She says will make her more marketable once she has a Ph.D. Plus, honestly, her deepening relationship with a guy who is a grad student in Memphis gives her a lot of incentive to stick around.

Today she informed me that she's hoping the housing market will stay down somewhat because they're considering buying a house once she moves to Memphis. She believes it might be a better deal financially because she's heard that it's better to buy if you're planning to stay someplace at least two years (!) and their graduate school plans would keep them in the area for three. I tried, gently, to ask what would happen if prices continue to decline during those years. She said that she hasn't heard anyone suggesting that we're entering a situation anything like the Great Depression and she's fairly confident that won't be a problem.

At that point I gave up. It would be rude to ask how she plans to save for a down payment when her current debts seem to be keeping her in a paycheck to paycheck life. Maybe her boyfriend is a secret millionaire who just happens to prefer renting a room in someone else's house right now.Maybe this is the motivation she needs to get her plans going and her budget in order. Or maybe she's just living in the dream world of the past few years where you didn't actually need money or any reliable means of obtaining money in order to buy a house and the tightening mortgage markets will save her from herself.

Monday, May 4, 2009

"You're halfway to being married," he guffawed.

Note to my mother, who has just had a heart attack upon reading the title of this post: this does not in any way imply that I'm getting married. You'll see where I'm going with this in a minute. Relationships + money = weird.

When the boy and I started dating, he wanted to pay for everything. Naturally, this drove me crazy, especially because he'd been open enough that I not only knew that I made more money than he does, I knew exactly what percentage of his weekly discretionary budget (money allocated for groceries, household needs, gasoline, and miscellany as well as recreation) that first sushi lunch ate up. He was adamant about not going Dutch on dates so we squabbled quite a bit as we tried to work out a system that seemed fair. We're both stubborn people. We could quite possibly have spent several minutes at the end of each evening out for the rest of our lives bickering over who got to pick up the check.

Fortunately, his wonderful mother, of all people, proposed a solution. We now have an envelope for joint entertainment expenses and contribute equal amounts. I'm still not altogether sure why this is more acceptable to him, but it is, especially since he gets to be the keeper of the envelope. It's drama free. It's nice. It's also apparently hilarious.

A couple of weeks ago, we met up with a friend of the boy's for lunch. When it came time to pay, the boy took our share out of the envelope, and his friend was curious about why he carries his cash in a paper envelope. He found the explanation somewhat amusing. (See title.) I hardly think that joint custody of fifty dollars is the same thing as agreeing to merge our entire lives.

We haven't been slavish about using the envelope system. When the boy was unemployed, I worked hard to inveigle my way into paying for darn near everything, over his vociferous protests. This weekend at his parents', he asked to treat me to dinner. I agreed but figured we'd use the envelope for everything else. Then he forgot it in his duffel bag when we went gallivanting around town. I'm pretty sure he ended up paying for more than I did, but that's ok. Someday, I'll be the one to foot the bulk of the bills. We're gradually working out an ebb and flow with which were both comfortable, but I think that more diligent adherence to the envelope would do us good.

For now, we just throw some money in the envelope when our entertainment fund runs dry, but we've talked about the possibility of trying to decide on some fixed amount to contribute weekly or monthly this summer when we'll be around each other a lot more. From there, it's just a short hop to trying to work together on budgeting our joint savings, talking through whether we want to go out to dinner tonight or buy groceries to eat in and save up for a splurge a couple of weeks down the road. Perhaps someday there will be real joint finances, with shared goals and struggles, but for now, the envelope seems like an interesting dry run.