Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Gift Cards an Unpopular Gift in 2008

During past Christmases, I have always gotten a few gift cards from relatives who weren't sure what to get a twenty-something. I can appreciate the relatives who felt it was better to allow me to pick out my own purchases, rather than guessting at my clothing needs and tastes, or buying me something useless.

This year however, my relatives, like many others, avoided the gift card trend, and went with either actual presents, or cash. There is a fear going around that many business will be declaring bankruptcy in the upcoming months, which may affect the ability to redeem gift cards. I received several forwarded e-mails with dire warnings about future store closings. With all of the pre-holiday sales, there was also a potential to get more for your money.

According to a recent article from the Associated Press, lower gift card sales could affect the stores sales throughout the year.

Consumers figured out that for the $100 they would ordinarily spend, they
could get far more merchandise than before. Or get something far more expensive
that had been deeply discounted. And for those really watching their spending,
they could give a $100 gift marked down to $25 and pocket the savings.

That behavior could be bad news for retailers well into the new year,
since they don't record gift cards as sales until they are actually redeemed.
Fewer people redeeming the cards could also hurt future sales, since people
usually spend more than the gift card total.

I am glad that I didn't receive any gift cards this year because, I often either don't spend the gift card at all and forget about it, or I spend significantly more than the gift card, on items that I might not have purchased anyway. I can better brave the holiday sales, without the incentive to spend a gift card. My Christmas money can instead go towards paying back purchases that I have already made. When someone comes up with a "Credit Card Payment gift card," let me know. I'm in.


Mint.com Offers Free Online Money Management

Growing up, I remember my parents tracking all of their finances diligently. They would balance their checkbooks regularly, and utilize Quicken to keep track of their monthly and yearly budgets. Apparently budgeting is not genetic, nor is it a skill that I've picked up along the way.

I was reading through a magazine a few months ago, and I found a blurb on Mint.com, a web site that allows you to track your spending, bill payments, and account balances all in one place. I signed up for an account, and let me tell you, it is fabulous! Mint.com has you input your login information for your different accounts, and then it keeps track of everything all on one screen and let's you see your overall financial picture (my overall "net worth" isn't so hot right now). I can see where I am at with my car and student loans, my credit cards, and my checking and savings accounts. If you have investments, it will let you track those too.

One of my favorite features of the site: Mint.com catagorizes all of your transactions from your accounts, so that you can easily see what you are actually spending your money on. At first it was a little bit scary to see that one of the largest pieces of the pie in my pie chart was Food, but it has allowed me to be more realistic and try to cut out all of those trips to McDonalds and coffee shops.

Mint.com also provides some easy Budget tools, which then track where you are at with each budget item throughout the month. I also have mine sent to send me e-mail updates. Towards the end of the month, it will tell me "checking account has a low balance" or "you have overspent in X budget area." This has really helped me to be more conscious of where my accounts are at throughout the month. I also feel a lot less likely to have an overdraft, which is always a good thing.

One concern that you might have is security. I know I was a little bit scared when I first thought about storing all of my account information in one place. Here is a link to their privacy and security info, in case you are curious.

Mint.com is definitely worth looking into. And if you also have an iPhone, they do have a new iPhone application which can be purchased from iTunes. I know I'm going to look into it!


Becky Bloomwood on the Big Screen!

If you haven't heard, one of my favorite books, Confessions of a Shopaholic, has been made into a movie and is going to be released on February 13!

Check out the preview below:

Isla Fisher is going to be an amazing Becky. And the way the movie is shot kind of makes the clothes look like candy...this could be dangerous. I can't wait to check it out!

Unexpected Expenses and Major Updates

I haven't posted in awhile due to an unfortunate event....the loss of my laptop. It first started having problems in September, and after several attempts to repair, the blue screen of death (complete with the "fatal error" message), showed up on my screen just after Thanksgiving. This has been a difficult loss, and I'm still debating what I am going to do. I will definitely need to purchase a new one, but I'm going to see who has the best post holiday sales before making any quick purchases. I would love to get a Mac Book, rather than another Dell. I have heard that Apple will sell their older computer models at a discount, even though they only advertise the newest ones. I'm going ot look into it, but I think that the price tag might be a little too steep no matter what. For what I'm using it for, probably better to stick with the cheaper options.

One major purchase that I made (prior to the laptop disaster), was an iPhone. You are probably thinking...if you don't have any money, why would you buy an iPhone, that's crazy! I've been wanting one for over a year, and had been weighing the pros and cons for quite some time. After consistently getting the free phones that come with the plan. I decided to treat myself to a really nice phone, with the understanding that Grandma and Santa would be covering that credit card bill. I was able to pay for the entire phone with my Christmas money. Although my monthly plan has gone up quite a bit, I have already found that the phone helps me to be more functional. Plus, it is also an iPod, something that I didn't have and was hoping to purchase. I do believe in treating myself every once in awhile, and this was certainly my big treat for the year.

Two major updates:

First, I got a roommate.

After living by myself for the past three and a half years, a friend moved in with me in September. It has been great having someone else around, and it certainly helps with the monthly expenses when you can split everything. It's amazing the other things that I've been able to focus my money towards because I have that much more income available each month...I've actually been able to save some! Living with a roommate can be challenging, and it's a decision that I thought about quite a bit beforehand, but it has been a great experience so far.

My roomie is also financially conscious, and so she and I have been trying one technique together to be more thrifty - our "End of the Month" list. This is the list of all the things we'd like to buy at the end of the month, should we be able to save our money until then. We don't entirely limit spending, but we try not to make any big purchases until after the 15th of the month. We have found that it is really easy to spend most of your paycheck within the first weekend, which can make for an awful end of the month. By waiting on the big things, it also makes for a fun challenge to see how much you can save until the end. In November, I was able to buy all new bedding, something I'd been waiting to get for the past year. Sadly, December required a payment of personal property tax for my car, so there wasn't a whole lot leftover, but I already have my list started for January.

The other big decision that I made was to register for classes at the university where I work. As an employee, we are able to take a certain number of classes as part of our benefits package each year. With the turn that the economy has taken, I don't think, that there is a better benefit than free education right now. With tuition costs continuing to rise, I'm going to take advantage of every free class I can take right now. If it means achieving another degree, I will be able to be that much further ahead when I take my next step in my career. It will be several years before I'll even be close to the PhD, but Dr. K does have a nice ring to it!

That's what I've been up to for the last few months. With this holiday break, I have all sorts of post ideas saved up from the last few months that I just might get to now!


Sunday, August 3, 2008

Challenge Two: Turning Off the TV

One tip that I found on a web site somewhere suggested turning off the tv to save some money. The rationale behind it was not only to save electricity, but also to avoid the consumerism that comes with commercials and product placement, which may lead viewers to go out and spend more money. Lord knows we all love a good commercial. I understand this argument, as a former student of journalism and media, but I’ll be honest, I love tv.

When I was younger, I babysat for a family that didn’t allow their children to watch tv during the week (not on school nights). They were allowed to watch tv starting Friday afternoon at 4 pm and could watch until Sunday before dinner. They were allowed to watch during the week when the Olympics were on. I think they watched every single sport. It’s quite patriotic, don’t you think? I can understand their parents rationale...they wanted their kids to do their homework, play outside and find other ways to entertain themselves. But I don’t know how the kids functioned, because my life definitely revolved around tv back then. Screw playing outside. Saved by the Bell after school, 90210 every week…I loved it…I still do.

I shouldn’t even say that I love tv, as much as I rely on it for both entertainment, but also noise. Since I currently live alone, my tv is on from the time that I get home from work until the time I go to bed. Even if I’m not sitting in front of it, it’s just on. Silence is still somewhat uncomfortable. I’ll listen from the kitchen as I make dinner and I time my getting ready in the morning to the commercials during The Today Show. Because I work irregular hours, I don’t always get to catch my favorite shows during primetime, but can always find something that I’m willing to watch. I get hooked pretty easily into cheesy reality tv.

I decided to explore this challenge, and vowed to keep the tv turned off for one week. Starting Monday morning (today) until next Sunday, I am not going to watch tv. I will find other ways to entertain myself, and will try to become comfortable with the silence.

You might think that it’s cheating to try and go without tv during the summer. It’s true that there are less “good” shows on, the weather is nice, and there is more in general going on. I’ll agree, it might be a little bit easier. I do think it will still be challenging for those times when I am in my apartment, because I can always find something to watch or listen to while doing other things.

I will follow the no tv thing, but I’m not going to be super strict about this challenge. For example, at the gym this morning, I did catch some of The Today Show on the tvs. However my purpose in being there was not to watch tv, but to work out, so I’m not counting that as a rule breaker.

We’ll see how this goes.


A shopping we will go...

Today was my first trip to the grocery store this month and overall I feel like I did pretty well. I tried to keep in mind all of my purchases from the farmer's market yesterday and buy food items that could combine to make full meals. I did make a list ahead of time, and stuck to it fairly well. The only items that I purchased that weren't on my original list were focused towards an extra meal that I realized I had other ingredients for.

As I was shopping, it was crazy to see how inflated some food prices are. You are lucky to find a box of cereal for under $4. I can't even believe it. I was lucky to find Corn Chex on sale 2 for $5. I'll be eating them for awhile, but I'm okay with that. A girl needs a good breakfast!

I also splurged a little bit on Weight Watchers Smart Ones. I'm not a huge fan of frozen meals, but I'm terrible about packing lunches, and figure that a frozen meal is better than the $7-15 that I would spend to eat out at work. Some of the frozen meals were on sale today, so I felt okay about it. I got 6 meals for $15, so $2.50 each.

The grand shopping total: $63. 42. I was hoping to stay under $60. I was close, and none of my purchases were frivolous, so I'm feeling okay about it. Plus I stocked up on some staples - dishwasher detergent, aluminum foil, olive oil, and coffee filters (all store brand).

So what will I be eating in the next few weeks? I purchased ingredients for a crab and swiss quiche (which is usually about 6 meals), penne vodka (my favorite meal, and surprisingly not too expensive...plus about 4 servings), chicken of some sort (4 servings), and stuffed green peppers (3 servings), which I'm having tonight. All delicious meals, and fairly affordable.

I don't know that I'm still on track to spend less than $100 this month on food, since I'm already over $70 on groceries/farmer's market purchases, but I'm going to do my best.

Here's to good eating!


Saturday, August 2, 2008

Locally Grown?

One of my big goals is to try to buy local products. Saint Louis happens to have a fantastic farmer’s market. I trekked down this morning to the Soulard Public Market, which is open Wednesday through Saturday during business hours. The first time I went a few months ago, I was surprised to find a vendor selling Dole bananas. Not exactly local. A friend explained that many vendors purchase wholesale produce that doesn’t grow in Missouri, and generally they sell it for cheaper than grocery stores. I suppose that I can’t vouch that everything I bought was grown locally, but I did get some good deals.

Items on my shopping list:
Bread- $5
Tomatoes - $1.25
Shallots – $2
Grapes – 1 lb for $2
Green Peppers - 3 for $1

Total = $11.25

Not bad. I was planning to stay under $10, but $11.25 is certainly not a lot. I should also admit, I was quite tempted by the pet store in the market which had puppies for sale for $25 and kittens for just $10. When a little white and orange kitten reached out to me from his cage, I was pretty close to bringing home a tiny friend for my cat. There are a whole lot of costs that would have come with that deal though...no pet is that cheap!

I should go to the grocery store and compare prices to check out my savings. Instead I think I'll try to enjoy the rest of my weekend. Thus far, I've spent a fantastic day out by the pool. Ahh summer.



Thursday, July 31, 2008

First step in the right direction

I was amazed to discover that today happened to be a vendor fair at work, complete with a variety of free food samples. Talk about a great way to start off the month...free food! I am still way too full from the mini-sandwiches, appetizers and desserts. I have a full-size coconut cupcake sitting on my desk that is just waiting to be eaten.

If there is one thing I know, it's take advantage of any opportunity for free food!

Challenge #1 Dining on a Dime

I can't speak for others, but for me food seems to break my budget. I seem to spend a large percentage of my paycheck on food, whether it's going out for lunch at work, going out for dinner with friends or picking something up on my way home. I seem to live to eat, rather than eating to live.

Looking at my bank statement from last month, I spent 17% of my paycheck on food, whether at the grocery store or out at a restaurant. This seems a little ridiculous, especially on items that have such short term satisfaction.

I need to challenge myself to cut down, and my goal is for food to be no more than 5% of my monthly income. For me, that is less than $100 per month for groceries and eating out. I am going to see if by the end of August, I can make this goal.

So what habits can I change?

1. Cut out unnecessary purchases. The easiest things for me to cut will be the $3 coffees and snacks throughout the day. If I bring a case of diet Coke to work, I won't buy multiple 75 cent cans every day. The harder piece will be saying no to coworkers who want to eat out for lunch several times each week, or planning ahead for the nights I work late. It's easy to spend a lot on food when there are three dining options in the building.

2. Plan more cost effective meals. When I do get around to cooking, I tend to try to make recipes that require a lot of ingredients I don't have on hand, which means I am going to the grocery store more than once each week. It's also how I end up with things like fish sauce and other random ingredients in my cupboards, but no sources of protein or staples. Allrecipes.com has a great section of their web site, Cooking on a Budget. The recipes still seem to be flavorful, but may save some money.

3. Eat leftovers. I'll be honest, I'm not a big leftover fan. I'll usually eat a meal for a second time, but you can't talk me into the third or fourth. One suggestion that I got (from my mom, who else), was to immediately freeze 1/2 of the leftovers right away, rather than planning to eat the same entree for a full week. Now I just need to talk myself into getting that lasagna out of the freezer at some point down the road.

4. Plan ahead for grocery trips. My plan is to plan out my menus ahead of time and stock up towards the beginning of the month so that I don't have to make multiple trips. I am also going to try to make sure that I go both with a list and not when I'm hungry. I know that's a big no-no. I'll also have to start checking coupons. Hopefully this will also help me waste less.

5. Eat local. I am going to try to hit up the farmer's market this month. I've been fairly good about it in the past and have found some fantastic deals there. Plus the fresh produce is delicious.

This is my plan. At the end of August I will have to add up all of my purchases and see if I came out ahead of July. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A Little Financial Humor

One of the experts in the financial field, who we are all too familiar with is Suze Orman. I actually did read her book, The Money Book for the Young, Fabulous, and Broke. It's pretty good!

Suze has become a popular subject on Saturday Night Live lately, and the sketches about her are pretty funny. I found one of them online at Hulu.com, a web site that shows tv shows and movies for free online. Check out this Suze Orman parody.

Let's Calculate

For those of you that need/choose to budget, a skill I lack, check out You Can Deal With It .Com. They have a pretty useful budget calculator for coming up with a monthly budget to cover bills and all of your other expenses.


Still figuring it out...

If you asked me at age 15 where I would be at 25, I probably would have said something about having a good job, a husband and a family. I probably wouldn’t have described a white-picket fence, because my suburban neighborhood didn’t have too many of those. At ten years old, with a limited concept of life, I had no idea that at 25 I’d only just be starting off my adult life. I didn’t know anything about student loans, car payments, rent, or any of the other amazing features that are my current life.

As a recent graduate from a masters program, I have a job that I enjoy, a decent apartment…heck, I even have a pet. I’ve been living in St. Louis for just about a year, and am enjoying all that the city has to offer. Having spent the past few years in a small college town, the move meant a lot more to do, but also higher costs for pretty much everything. I certainly have my favorite splurges…eating out seems to have become more of a habit than a treat. I have an unhealthy obsession with Target, and never seem to get out of there without spending at least $50. I also love seeing live music, but concerts are not the most affordable entertainment. As I haven’t quite found that special someone yet, there is also a cost attached to dating and/or exploring the singles scene...except who has time for that?!

For those of you that read chick lit, Confessions of A Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella is one of my absolute favorite books, probably because in many ways I am Becky Bloomwood. Like Becky, I seem to be able to rationalize any purchase at the time. Unlike Becky, my financial misteps aren’t always so comical, and I haven’t gotten to my happy ending yet with the handsome billionaire boyfriend, but I’m working on it.

With the economy in such a volatile state, it’s a scary time to be a young person. The bills seem to pile up endlessly. I am currently sitting and waiting for my paycheck to go through at midnight tonight so I can pay all of my bills right away. And yet, I am never willing to give up my grande skim vanilla latte. At 9 am each morning, the $3.49 always seems worth it, regardless of whether or not my credit card can handle it. As a 25 year old, I enjoy having a social life and exploring my new city, and I want to be able to do so without feeling guilty about it. If there is one word I hate…its “Budget.” I just can’t do 'em.

So why am I blogging? I would never pretend that my experience as a young, broke person is all that different than everyone else’s. I would imagine that most of my peers also struggle to make their paycheck last, no matter what their salary is. I am also the first to admit that I’m not an expert….I don’t have any special tips or secrets as to how to save or make good financial decisions – ask my bank manager or credit card companies.

Really, I decided to start writing a blog to challenge myself. I want to learn to be creative about saving, while still having fun. Do I think that I will quickly go from being a shopaholic to a thrifty saver? No. That’s just not realistic. But rather than wallowing in self-pity when I reach the end of the money before the end of the month, I’d like to live with a little-less guilt and a few more dollars. Plus make a dent in some of those student loan and credit card payments.

Here begins my journey, we’ll see how it goes.
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