Tuesday, September 29, 2009

I do not have swine flu. I do not have swine flu. I do not have swine flu.

I've been telling myself that since Sunday evening. So far it hasn't been helping. I haven't been to the doctor to confirm flu since the symptoms have been fairly mild, but I have been staying home from school to avoid infecting anyone. I figured that something that gives flu-like symptoms and a fever wouldn't be nice to spread around whether it is technically flu or not, plus I've been feeling the need to sleep twenty or so hours a day. At this point, I'm not so achy anymore, but I still want to sleep all the time.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

I guess this means I won't be getting my security deposit back after all.

As I mentioned, I moved at the start of this school year. My old roommate would really have preferred to live alone, but since she has such large student loan payments, keeping the $650 house herself would have been prohibitive. She felt that she needed a house with a fenced yard instead of an apartment for the sake of her dog, and she also didn't want to move because she owns a lot of furniture and it would have been a hassle to move all of it. She also made noises about not wanting to live with a first year teacher because they are "too much trouble to support emotionally", but none of the second years or alumni wanted to move in so she didn't have a lot of choice.

It looked like she wasn't going to find anyone at all, but eventually "Guy" wound up in search of housing after a last minute switch of district and subject. He asked my new roommate about my old roommate, she said something vague along the lines of, "All of my interactions with her have been positive," he decided he could live with her crazy dog, and he moved in. I was a bit relieved he didn't ask me anything because, although I hadn't loved living with my old roommate, I didn't want to make it more difficult for her to find a new roommate.

When he moved in, I offered to wait to get my $300 security deposit back until after he got his first paycheck since most first years are in fairly dire financial straights until then. Shortly thereafter, he started pondering moving out. He discussed this with everyone besides his roommate and began seeking other housing options.

Most of his complaints sounded awfully familiar. My old roommate isn't mean or a bad person, but she can be difficult to live with. She takes over not only her room and the office, but the entire living room as well with her projects, spending almost every hour of every evening camped out on the couch working in front of a dvd. She expects others to follow her rules, not opening the blinds in the living room ever because someone might look in and see that she owns a stereo and a television, consuming seafood only on weekends she was out of town because she didn't like the smell, informing me when I was moving out that whoever was moving in would not be allowed to get cable, and if he or she did, it would have to run directly to that person's bedroom and not the living room. I always got the feeling that I was living in her house, at least in her mind. She tended to express frustration on the occasions that my weekend plans conflicted with her hope that I would once again watch her dog while she went out of town to visit her boyfriend. She didn't interact much, often treating a roommate as an annoyance to be endured for the sake of rent money. I think we might have been better friends if we hadn't tried to share living space.

Guy found all this hard to come home to after long days of struggling at school, and yesterday he moved out. My old roommate is venting her frustrations in her facebook statuses about being unable to trust anyone's word and needing to look into small claims court. Guy wasn't on the lease, they had no written agreement, and he paid his share of rent and bills every month. Does anyone know if she has legal grounds to sue him?

This cannot be a fun time for my old roommate, but I also understand why Guy decided to move out. I'm planning to stay as far from the drama as possible. I'm a little frustrated that I won't ever see my security deposit or any reimbursement for my half ownership of the washer and dryer that my old roommate kept, but I don't see any way to pursue it that wouldn't cause a scene.

My cards are on house arrest.

My debit card and credit card are going to stay locked up unless I have a good reason to use them, such as going to the ATM for my weekly allowance or paying a bill online. I guess they will get to travel with me, but in an envelope with a note across the seal reminding me not to use them unless there is a real emergency.

Either I'll end up planning more purposefully and making better use of the cash in my wallet, running out of money and having to say no more often, or breaking into my lockbox to increase my allowance. Obviously, I'm hoping for outcome one. If that isn't what happens, I'll have to monitor and adjust.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Please talk me out of my new bad habit.

My grand plans of living on the contents of my wallet until next Friday have already fallen by the wayside. Some of the spending was justifiable. I'm pretty sure getting a new flapper valve to fix our leaky toilet was ok even though we could have technically just kept turning the water to the tank off in between uses for a few more days. I'm also comfortable with purchasing a new bottle of bathroom cleaner so I can clean this weekend. It needs it, plus scrubbing bathrooms can be oddly therapeutic.

You'd think that budgeting this year would be easier because I moved to a new place where rent is $87.50 lower, but it isn't. My new roommate is terrific, and having a friend and fellow science teacher to come home to at the end of the day is doing wonders for my sanity, but living here isn't cheap. Some of the savings is being eaten up by the cost of cable television that my roommate already had, but spending large amounts of time with someone who seems to like going out and doing things with me is proving even more costly. Plus, now going out and spending money whether roommate is involved or not seems to be becoming a habit.

Wednesday, Roommate and I had quiz bowl coaches training in a town half an hour away, and afterward she suggested we take advantage of the rare opportunity to have Taco Bell for lunch. Taco Bell bean burritos have been a weakness of mine for several years so I agreed, and we had an enjoyable meal together before heading to the hardware store for our toilet part.

Next I decided to ignore the budget and go to the traditional gathering Thursday night gathering of TFA teachers at a little Mexican joint in our town. The food's mediocre, but the company is good. I'd be just as happy if we could start a bring your own peanut butter sandwich gathering in someone's living room, but I suspect it might be a hard sell.

Today I carpooled to the professional development session over two hours away. The junior high teacher drove to this one, and I'll do the next one. This cut gas costs and added sociability, but after spending the whole morning with her, I opted to continue hanging out over lunch. The sandwich I bought was tasty, but I wish I'd had the guts to just eat the Clif bar I'd packed, especially since we ended up eating on a bench on campus anyway.

My new social spending trend is likely to grow even worse this weekend. Most TFA folks are recent college grads who're trying to some extent to replicate a few aspects of their lives before they were teachers. Getting out of the house is a high priority for a lot of people. In the north delta, there's a fairly robust potluck culture that helps with that, but there isn't a potluck this weekend. My roommate and a couple of other friends are talking about heading to Tunica to go to the Paula Deen buffet at a casino today, and I said I might go even though I'm already over budget and my eating habits have been atrocious lately. Could someone please give me the speech about how succumbing to peer pressure is bad?

Friday, September 25, 2009

To go generic or not?

After reading J.D.'s post on the money you can save by buying generics or store brands and skimming most of the comments I thought about my own decision making process and thought I'd chime in. First of all, I agree wholeheartedly with the people who argued his methodology was flawed because he refused to consider sale prices for brand name items, even those on sale during the week when he conducted his study. If brand name items are cheaper, they are usually the way to go. Aside from that circumstance, I've concluded that most of my consumable purchases fit into one of three categories.

For most items, generics are fine. A quick look around my bathroom reveals generic mouthwash, dandruff shampoo, salicylic acid astringent, maxi pads, and anti-itch medication for those pesky mosquito bites. I don't think I've ever bought name brand medications when there was a generic equivalent available, and my fridge and pantry are usually stocked with generic milk, pasta, oatmeal, etc. I'm definitely in favor of trying a generic if it is available.

For a few items, I stick with name brands because I've yet to find a generic option that isn't pretty bad. There's a bag of shredded Parmesan cheese in the refrigerator that looked convenient but is actually nearly tasteless. I gave up on cheapo deodorant years ago after trying a Suave version that was very ineffective at fulfilling its sole purpose. For all I know, it could have been reformulated several times since then, but since deodorant is nonperishable and I'm not tremendously picky about what kind I use, I can buy brand name whenever it is cheapest so it isn't worth experimenting with generic again.

For a handful of items, I've concluded that a specific brand adds enough value to be worth the extra cost. All frosted shredded wheat are exactly the same from what I can tell, but once in a while when I want oat cereal, I want it to taste like actual Cheerios. I know it is largely a matter of conditioning, but the other kinds just taste off somehow. It's a small indulgence. The same goes for conditioner: I've tried lots of things, but nothing leaves my hair quite as soft and shiny as Pantene for curly hair. So for these items I keep a close eye out for sales and coupons, remind myself of the trade offs associated with spending my money on them, and then try not to worry about it if I decide to go ahead anyway. That's all subject to reassessment if I ever find myself in need of a stricter budget, but it seems to work for now.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Not that it is really any of my business...

After reading Dog's post about how she thinks it is hard to believe that someone would find it difficult to find a job in this economy, I finally decided to post about the boy's employment situation. He quit his job earlier this summer without having anything else lined up. He debated for weeks and finally just jumped, a decision I thought was short-sighted at the time, but it wasn't my choice to make. After taking about a day off, he started calling the electrical contractors he'd heard were hiring. They weren't.

He proceeded to contact every other electrical contractor in the region. A couple accepted applications to keep on file, but there have been no nibbles. In the ensuing weeks, the boy pounded the pavement, putting in applications for just about anything to tide him over as his savings dwindled: janitorial work, maintenance, retail, fast food. So far, nothing. He's done a little illegal electrical work for his family and some friends (apprentices can't officially work on their own), discovered that a laminated social security card isn't accepted by BioLife for purposes of selling plasma and ordered a new card, has two roommates scheduled to move into his two bedroom apartment early next month, and is vehemently refusing to accept money from his parents.

So he's stressed, and I'm stressed. Note that long distance makes this a bit worse; he wants to drive down to his parents' place some weekend to visit, but I don't think he should spend the money on gasoline. He feels judged and emasculated by the situation. I feel frustrated that he won't just let me pay for gas while simultaneously worrying a bit about establishing a precedent of trying to bail him out of his own decisions. If it were our life and our money, the situation might be less of a problem, but his latest plans for the rest of his life all but guarantee that we won't end up together so I guess he's lurching toward the realization that he's never going to get past the point of thinking that I'm easily replaceable.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

At least tonight wasn't quite as expensive as I'd expected.

After my department head asked me the sixth time, I concluded it would probably be in my best interests to go on the school's dinner cruise on the Tunica Queen. $20 doesn't sound so bad, but my budget was already a little strained this week due to some dumb splurges this weekend so after paying for my ticket I had $6 and a $8.32 gas card left in my wallet to get me through until Saturday morning. The $8.32 will definitely be needed since I have to travel to a workshop a couple of hours away to go disaggregate test data on Friday. (I'll get reimbursed for the mileage, but I was hoping to add that to the house fund, along with at least half of the incidental money I get this year.)

The food wasn't half bad, but the dinner cruise still seemed to combine the most uncomfortable aspects of a wedding reception and a faculty meeting. I was charged with the task of keeping my somewhat inebriated sexagenarian department head from falling overboard, and in that respect the evening was a success, although he expressed his disappointment that I declined his invitations to dance. Other than watching one of my dear friends attempt to learn the electric slide, the high point of the evening was when they held a drawing for door prizes. I was quite pleased to win a $10 Wal-Mart gift card, which was by far the most useful thing they gave away.

I'm toying with the idea of making the next week a low spend week and trying to make the $24.32 in my wallet right now last until next Friday afternoon. So my response to unexpected extra money is to try to save even more.

Monday, September 21, 2009

I need more bank accounts.

Six bank accounts spread among five banks, one brokerage account, and some paper savings bonds just aren't doing the trick when it comes to keeping my financial life on track. Ok, to be perfectly candid, cashing out and closing out the HSBC and ING accounts or making my Roth contributions for the year would actually have been a better first step, but I needed something that fit into a weekend full of ProSat and a Confluence of Special Events pasta potluck celebrating both Rosh Hashana and Eid al-Fitr, plus a couple of random Catholic and Wiccan events thrown in for good measure so I focused on a smaller goal. Having over $20,000 in one account does nothing for my motivation to save.

Fortunately, FNBO has been touting the option to create multiple accounts lately so I decided that breaking that undifferentiated chunk of money into more specific goals was worth a shot. Because FNBO only lets you have one account opening request processing at a time, I only got one of the two new accounts done and scheduled for funding, but the other should be up and running soon. My new savings accounts will look like this:

Car fund (for replacement or major repairs): $8,000
Long term savings (for funding retirement accounts, etc.):$5,000
House fund: $7,683.41

That's all well and good, but now I have to figure out which account new savings should go into. They won't start taking out union dues until next month so I don't know exactly what I'll be bringing home every month, but it will be very close to $2,000 a month. I'm once again setting a goal of saving half of my take home pay. The challenge is to allocate $12,000 in a sensible way that keeps me motivated enough that I actually manage to save $12,000.

If I wanted to be really responsible, I would funnel everything into long term savings and make sure I'm able to either keep funding my Roth at a reasonable level throughout graduate school or start doing some taxable investing. I'm not sure I could remain motivated to do that, though. Saving for retirement is about saving for not having to eat catfood or live on the streets, about not winding up a burden to others or on government aid if I can avoid it, about saving enough now that if twenty or thirty years from now I have to scale back my savings to help my parents, I won't be hurting in my own dotage because of it. It isn't something to daydream about.

I want to drive my car until it dies, but I also want to be prepared to replace it tomorrow if that becomes necessary. If I had to, I could. However, I know from my brief, abortive attempt at car shopping that $10,000 opens the doors to far more options than $8,000 so I'm considering boosting the fund a bit, but cars aren't my passion. Sure, I drooled over Ferrari convertibles in my dad's Auto Weeks and Road and Tracks when I was younger, but I can think of plenty of things with a better pleasure to money spent ratio.

A downpayment on a house is something of a goofy goal at the moment, given that I have many years before I'll know where I'll light. I'm probably going to be renting for a long time. Still, that's the goal I dream about, the one that I care enough about to sacrifice some short term fun. I want four walls to call my own.

I also know that I'll be much more motivated by seeing big changes in one account balance than by a slow and steady progression in all three. Looking at what I'd like to have in each account a year from now, subtracting what I already have, dividing the difference by 12, and putting that away each month isn't likely to work. I think this tentative plan might work better:

September and October: full second paycheck goes to car fund. This tops the car fund off so I no longer have to think about it, a quick victory.
November and December: 1/2 of each second paycheck to long term savings & 1/2 to house fund.
January-May: full second paycheck goes to long term savings (or directly into Roth)
June-August: 3/4 second paycheck goes to long term savings and 1/4 to house fund

If I can pull this off, by the start of next September I'll have fully funded my Roth for 2010, saved an additional $3,250 for retirement, increased my car fund to $10,000, and boosted my house fund to over $9,000. Does that sound ambitious enough? Feasible? Nuts?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Where I stand

I'm still feeling unmotivated about finances these days. I feel like I've been spending with wild abandon these past few months, but I'm still socking away a decent amount. The picture wouldn't be quite so pretty if it weren't for stipends from a couple of great professional development sessions this summer, however. (Does attending science teacher training count as a side hustle?) I know it is time to get serious about living beneath my means again.

As of yesterday, my financial picture looked like this:

Life Happens fund (in USAA savings): $1,000
Personal escrow (in USAA savings): $260.83
Emergency fund (in I Bonds): $8,050 + accumulated interest
Roth IRA (in Vanguard Balanced index 60/40 Total U.S. Stock/Total U.S.Bond): whatever remains of the $5,000 I put in in May of '08 (I've put a moratorium on checking.)
Main savings (in FNBO): $20,683.41
Account I only use in summers (Hometown bank checking): $1,000
Account opened to get sign up bonus (ING): $275
Account I really ought to close (HSBC): $1.79
Paycheck I got on Friday and haven't cashed yet (all going to some sort of savings):$1,071

I don't count my main USAA checking account because as far as I'm concerned, that money is as good as already spent on daily living. I should probably exclude personal escrow for similar reasons, and $5,000 of my main savings account will be 2009's Roth contributions. By that methodology, I'm a twenty three year old with a salary of just over $35,000 who has over $27,081.20 in addition to fully funding an IRA for two years. That doesn't look so bad.

Except that I won't be making $35,000 for long. Teaching is going much better, so much so that I'm leaning toward spending a third year in the Delta, but after that I still think graduate school is the right path for me. My feelings of missing research aren't diminishing any. Getting that Ph.D. is going to mean several years of probably making just enough to get by. I need to regain my sense of urgency now so I'll still be in decent financial shape when I'm thirty.