The Infinitely Refreshing Emergency Fund

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I’ve wrestled with the idea classic emergency fund pretty much since the beginning of my financial journey a few years back. First I wondered if I needed one at all, then I decided to save $5000 over the course of a year, and I did and bored myself to tears with the boring-ness of it all, then I put most of that into the stock market and started over again on the cash savings, then finally this year I decided to do the 52-week challenge and have been genuinely enjoying that. But I think I may finally have come up with a real solution to my psychological e-fund woes.

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Net Worth Update: September 2016


Every now and then I really like to go look at my net worth graph in Mint. (For a long time I did this multiple times a day! Now it really is “every now and then,” maybe twice a month.) Here it is, beginning in May 2014, my last month with a negative net worth. I was still in debt, but was getting much closer than I had been to being out of it; I date my official debt-free point from December 2014.

I’ve never reported a net worth decline on the blog but there are a few here — mostly artifacts of having a lot on my credit card in certain months because of work expenses that hadn’t been reimbursed yet. Mostly what I see, though, is actual progress. Sometimes it’s slow and steady, sometimes there’s a huge uptick in one month due to an income and/or market quirk. But it feels pretty good to have come this far in less than 2.5 years.

For this month’s update see below! Continue reading “Net Worth Update: September 2016”

It’s finally fall

The weather hasn’t been great this summer. It’s been more humid than usual, leading to more mosquitoes and more sweaty days when I just wanted to lie around and do nothing, or, alternately, was really cranky, which is even worse than lazy. Also, we had an extended late summer, which has gotten to the point where I was almost tired of fresh tomatoes.

A few days ago, though, the weather finally turned, all at once. It is lovely. It’s raining right now, and I have wool socks on. The last few days have been cool and crisp and I’ve actually enjoyed the cardigan I had on, instead of sweating my way through the class I’m teaching. We pulled the tomato plants out yesterday to prep their bed for winter, and production of green tomato salsa and fermented green tomato pickles is underway. And the evenings are starting to close in, so we’ll have cozy nights. By March, I know, I’ll be wild for long summer evenings and shorts, but right now it’s great to be settling in for winter.

Significant chunks of change

So, my salary is restructured right now because I’m getting paid for most of my work through my normal job, and then they broke the teaching out because another department is paying for that. We weren’t sure how it was going to get structured, but it turns out the university decided to pay for the teaching in one lump sum. So my paycheck that I’m getting on Thursday is massive. After taxes and deductions, I’m taking home around $4000. (I may get some of that taxed money back in February, but I’m not worrying about that right now, just looking at the income I have tomorrow.)

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So, how’s the fair-trade sugar thing going? (and tomato jam)

Back in April I wrote about how I’d decided to focus on less-refined and/or fair-trade sugar. Since then, I haven’t bought any non-fair-trade sugar — though I’ve certainly eaten some in baked goods purchased out, etc.

I think the experiment has been a rousing success so far. The extra cost hasn’t stopped me from doing anything, really; I bought a whole bunch of sugar back in April (including several more pounds of Alter Eco, which I think is my favorite of all the ones I tried, though they’re all good) and I’m nowhere close to finishing it. I haven’t baked a whole lot this summer but when I have, I’ve just used some of the unrefined sugar and it tastes wonderful, richer and more complex. I’ve also mostly switched to white whole wheat flour, instead of all-purpose, and that helps too. Everything just has a deeper flavor. I really like it. I made one batch of cookies with all-purpose earlier in the summer because I wanted a lighter color for aesthetic reasons and they were just more boring!

The one thing I haven’t been using the un- or less-refined sugar for is my extensive jam-making operation. I didn’t want all the jams to come out tasting like caramel, and I was worried about the colors, too. Maybe next summer I’ll experiment a little more; I made a tiny batch this afternoon (really tiny, I got just two quarter-pint jars out of it) out of scuppernong grapes that someone at the farmer’s market had, and the grapes are so fabulously wine-y and rich that I think some brown sugar undertones could work well there….

Anyway, instead I’ve been buying the vegan sugar from Whole Foods, which is fair-trade. (For some reason their regular non-vegan sugar is not.) (How, you will want to know, is normal sugar not vegan? Apparently there’s something called bone char involved in filtering it. I’m not a vegetarian so this doesn’t really bother me, but I do want the fair trade label, for all its complexities, so.) This is about as cheap as you can get fair-trade sugar — it’s $7 for 4 pounds — and it tastes, you know, like sugar, so that’s all good. (I am also slightly concerned, re jam making, that the less-refined sugars might be weirder to work with because they might melt/crystallize in unexpected ways. I need to do some research.)

My favorite new recipe this summer is from a book called Preserving by the Pint, which is by the woman who writes the foodinjars blog. I got this out of the library last summer and liked/used it so much that I bought it earlier this year. I’ve made a lot of stuff out of it and it’s all good (I like that the batches are small, so they don’t take much time, and the technique is really easy — no messing around with pectin or freezer tests or anything.) This recipe is one I didn’t try last summer and it is spectacular. I’ve been spreading it on toast (with or without a schmear of goat cheese) for lunch, and it would go really well with grilled chicken, I think. If you don’t want to bother with the canning, you can just use it right away (it’ll keep in the fridge for at least a week or two, probably longer.)

Orange Grape Tomato Jam with Smoked Paprika

(this can be easily doubled. As written, I got 5 1/4 pint jars (those are the smallest ones, which I like since I don’t take forever to go through them)

2 lbs/900 grams of orange grape or cherry tomatoes [You could do something like this with other kinds of tomatoes too, but orange tomatoes have lower acidity than red ones, so if you use a red variety, you might want to cut the vinegar.]

1.25 cups sugar

1/4 c lemon juice

2 tbsp apple cider vinegar

1.5 tsp salt

1.5 tsp red pepper flakes (or less to taste)

1 tsp fresh grated ginger (or 1/4 tsp ground dried ginger)

1 tsp smoked paprika

1/4 tsp cayenne (I skipped this, figuring the red pepper flakes would be plenty)

  1. Cut the tomatoes in half (if grape/cherry) or chop roughly (if large) and combine all ingredients in a wide skillet or pot. (The more surface area there is, the faster excess liquid will evaporate and therefore the faster the jam will cook.) Bring to a boil over medium heat and stir every few minutes until it’s jammy — maybe 30-45 minutes, though depending on how liquidy your tomatoes are it’ll vary. About halfway through, I used a potato masher to just mash everything up a bit, which I find creates a slightly more even texture and helps the jam firm up once it’s cooled down. You want a texture thick enough that you can drag a spoon along the bottom of the pot and the liquid doesn’t immediately rush to fill the spot. Be careful towards the end and turn the heat down/stir more often so it doesn’t scorch; you can leave it for longer stretches earlier in the cooking time.
  2. Meanwhile, in a separate pot, cover your jars with an inch or so of water and boil. (My water is hard, so I add a slug of white vinegar to the pot, which keeps the jars clear; otherwise I get a mineral residue settling on them, which is harmless but looks bad.)
  3. When the jam is ready, pour it into the jars, leaving a bit of room at the top for “headspace.” (A jar lifter and wide-mouthed canning funnel are extremely useful here, and only cost a few dollars, though it’s possible to manage without.) Wipe the rims of the jars to remove any stray bits of jam that might prevent a seal from forming, apply lids and rings, return the jars to the boiling water, and boil for 15 minutes. After you pull them out, they should all “ping” (that’s how you know the seal’s formed.) Let them rest on the counter overnight and, before you store them, remove the rings and check the seal (if you pick up the jar by the lid, and it doesn’t open, you’re in good shape.) If any jars haven’t formed a seal, you can put them in the fridge and eat normally over the next couple of weeks. Otherwise, store without the rings for up to a year and give to very lucky people for Christmas.

Net Worth Update: August 2016

Oh my gosh. Is it *really* that time again? I cannot believe the month is over. I took a short trip with my housemates, and spent a lot of time working really hard (teaching started last week; I only have one class, but it’s big and it’s taking up a lot of time). But I still feel like the month shouldn’t have gone by quite as fast as it did. Another one in the rear view mirror.

Here’s my spending for the month:

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 8.33.08 PM

Nothing too outrageous. The travel spending was expenses for the trip I took with my housemates to a music festival — basically I paid for a tank of gas ($20) and the rest was for food. We stayed with friends local to the festival, which was free, and I paid for my ticket months ago.

Slush spending was mostly at grocery stores, now that I look at it! And I bought some stamps. Medical was my share of having two fillings in my teeth (after insurance paid for part of them.) Clothing, a pair of sandals; professional expenses, membership in a professional association; and gifts, $100 to a gofundme for a friend whose husband was seriously injured in an accident. All basically pretty normal stuff.

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This is super boring! It’s a good thing I have my automatic retirement contributions because otherwise there’d be hardly any movement at all. The markets were essentially flat for the month; the increase in the EF is a little big because I moved September’s contribution over a few days early. My income is temporarily lower than usual because I don’t start getting paid for the class I’m teaching until September, so things are tight — I cash-flowed the month, but didn’t have much extra to put into savings. I’m glad I managed $100 into the life fund as well as the planned EF contribution, though. Anyway, I did have an increase, even if it’s not thrilling, and September will hopefully look better!

I’m not really budgeting right now…

…and I can’t decide if it’s a problem, or rather, how much of a problem it is.

If you’ve been around for a while, you know that I’ve been a big fan of YNAB. I stopped linking to it with my referral, because I didn’t have any interest in making the transition to their subscription-based web service; instead, I’ve continued to use the desktop software, and still love it.

One of the things that’s great about it is that it lets you allocate income into a variety of sinking funds. You can set up your own categories, but I have things like “personal/health,” “maintenance/repairs,” and “travel.” So, if I make say $1000 in a month, I have to allocate $400 to rent, but I could spread the other $600 out among these sinking categories and not necessarily spend it, but let it build up until I’m hit with a car repair or whatever. Some people do this kind of thing with a million savings accounts, which also works, but I do like the simplicity of letting the software handle the categorization instead of spending a lot of time transfering $$ from one account to another. (I do enough of that with the savings accounts I DO have.)

But despite my recognition that this is a superior budgeting system, last year I quit doing it in order to build up what I was then calling my down payment fund and now call my life fund. Instead of letting the sinking categories build, I diverted any spare cash to that savings account, and cash-flowed all my expenses every month. I’m still doing that, because I want to keep building up the life account, and I don’t have enough income every month to do that AND the sinking funds. Actually, it’s been an expensive enough summer that I’m not even really doing the life buildup. I put $300 in last month and am putting $300 in this month, which is way off the pace I wanted to be going at. But if I decided I was ok with keeping the life fund at around $10,000, I could actually go back to budgeting the YNAB way — I could take that $300-500/month of ‘give’ in my budget and spread it out to the sinking funds. I guess I’m a little worried that doing this would encourage me to spend the money on things less essential than a car repair or (this month’s big expense) dental work. It’s a lot easier to subtract $50 from the maintenance budget and move it into slush to cover an entertainment outlay, than it is to actively take $50 out of my savings account.

On the other hand, when I think about budgeting properly, with sinking funds, instead of just putting all available cash in a big savings account and spending the rest, I feel more grown-up. Maybe I should let that guide me?

About Those Savings Accounts

Whoa, look at this, a post that’s not just a net worth update! Haven’t done one of those in a while. It’s been busy around here this summer, what with all the canning/preserving and with my having some big projects at work coming to completion this fall — and what with all the presidential election stuff going on, though we probably shouldn’t start talking about that on our PF blogs, really 🙂

But I have a quiet moment and I want to talk a little bit about my cash savings accounts. I have three. One is for travel, though I’ve been using my budgeted travel money at a pretty good rate, so I haven’t actually bothered to transfer cash into that account in a while.

The second is for emergency savings. My emergency fund currently consists of roughly $1000 in a taxable account at Vanguard, which I’d rather not touch but which I do consider part of my EF, and a savings account at Capital One 360 (<–referral link, just in case there’s anyone in the universe who doesn’t already have one.) Longtime readers of this blog will recall that for about a year I worked on getting this account up to $5000, by dint of putting in $500 every month. I succeeded, but I found the whole process amazingly boring. Then I raided it and put $3000 in my Roth IRA and $1000 into that taxable account, leaving only $1000 in cash. This year, I decided to try to make the savings more interesting by doing the 52-week savings challenge (that thing where you save $1 the first week, $2 the second week, and so on until you get up to $52 in the last week of the year, for a total of $1378 over the course of the year.) I’ve actually been doing a transfer every month instead of every week, but so far I’m on track to complete the challenge and it is actually more fun than just moving  $120 over every single month, which would result in about the same amount of savings, but is boring.

By the end of the year, I’ll be up to about $3500 between the two accounts — plus or minus $100 depending on how the taxable account is doing. My intention is to do another 52-week challenge next year, except in reverse, so I save $52 in the first week of January, $51 in the second, etc. Just for some variation. If nothing intervenes and I don’t have to use the money, by the end of 2017 I’ll be back up to nearly $5000, which for right now I consider fully stocked. It doesn’t really bother me that I’m re-growing this account slowly, since I also have a pretty healthy stock of cash in the third savings account that obviously I could draw on if necessary.

That third fund is what for a while I was calling the down payments fund, and then switched to calling the “Life Fund.” It was up over $13000 briefly earlier this year, but I decided to start filling up my Roth IRA for 2016 since I hadn’t touched that yet, so right now it’s at $10120. I’m trying to add about $500 a month to it for the foreseeable future, but since at the moment I don’t have a specific goal in mind for it, I’m not as motivated to hit that number every month. Last month I ended up putting in $300, and this month I think I’ll put in about $350-400 — saving during the summer is difficult for me since I love buying fresh produce and going to festivals and whatnot. Once things cool off and the farmer’s market isn’t so abundant anymore, I shouldn’t have trouble hitting that $500 figure again.

So, what is it for? Like I say, I don’t exactly know right now. I can envision several uses for $20,000 (the figure I envision getting up to with this fund, although circumstances could change that.)

–I could buy a car

–I could put a down payment on a house after all

–I could move somewhere and fund my basic expenses for a while as I get established, get a job, etc

–I could put down a security deposit on an apartment and buy furniture

–I could buy a bunch of stock if the market crashes (on top of what I invest normally every month through my retirement account)

You know, life.

What I don’t want to do with this money:



–basic medical expenses, car expenses, clothing, entertainment

I just want it to sit there until I want to do something really big — I don’t want to put it down on smaller expenses, even though they might be worthy in and of themselves.

For the moment, I’m keeping it in another Capital One 360 savings account. I could envision moving all or part of it into a CD ladder, except the CD rates are so awful right now that there’s just no point. Of course, I could also put all/part of it in the market. But I feel like I’m probably going to want to use it for one or more of those big things within the next few years, and so it would be more risky than I want to move it into my Vanguard account. So unless I can think of anything better to do with it, it’s just going to plug away earning $7ish a month for now.

Curious: do any of you all have an analogous account that’s not for emergencies but also not in the market? Are there any big life expenses I’m missing that you’ve spent on?

Net Worth Update: July 2016

networthupdateWOW, what a month. This just happens every now and then — nothing spectacular went wrong, and yet I still spent $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$. If the markets hadn’t had such a good month, I would actually have had a loss, for the first time since I started tracking. But: they had a great month, and here we are, including even inching across the $50,000 mark! Want to know all the messy spending details? Read on!

Continue reading “Net Worth Update: July 2016”

Net Worth Update: June-ish, 2016

networthupdateHello, savers and scholars! I was super busy over the 3-day weekend, hence the lateness of this post — and the numbers are kind of fuzzy, because they’re numbers from July 3, after I’d already made a contribution to my emergency fund and seen my retirement contribution go through. So the monthly gain is a bit high. But it’ll come out in the wash of the next month’s update.

Also, after the post-Brexit chaos it’s good to see an increase at all! The US stock market bounced right back, and in the meantime I took the opportunity of the brief decline to move $3500 into my Roth IRA from the newly designated “life” fund, since I’m no longer frantically saving against an immediate down payment.

The weekend was a lot of fun. I really like the Midwest in the summer; I picked fourteen pounds of sour cherries and four pounds of raspberries on Friday (which I took off from work because I’d worked through the previous weekend) at a u-pick place near here. On Saturday, I headed back to a wild raspberry patch I’d scored from last summer, and grabbed enough to make a small batch of jam. On Sunday, my housemates and I drove up to Traverse City, MI, for their annual Cherry Festival; it was a long drive for a day trip, but we had a good time, ate a lot of cherries and purchased cherry-flavored products, and took in a classic car show, a craft show, and the Blue Angels airshow while we were at it. The weather was gorgeous, too! Then, yesterday, I baked several cherry pies to take to a potluck.

Anyway, what with all that, it just took some time to crunch the numbers, but here they are:

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This is a little high, but not crazy, especially considering that I was away from home nearly all month and let myself go on spending while I was traveling. I was at a professional development thing, and I ended up eating a lot of lunches and dinners out, as well as doing some grocery shopping, and also bought some souvenirs for various friends. I spread the money around, though; some is under “cash,” some under “slush,” some (mostly book purchases) under “Professional expenses,” and some under “travel.” Plus, of course, the gifts category. On the upside, I didn’t really do any OTHER random spending — no gremlins, car repairs, clothing, or misc shopping — so even though I felt pretty extravagant during these weeks, the damage wasn’t that bad.

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 2.43.21 PM

Like I say, these numbers are a little high — maybe by $400 or so — due to having run them on July 3 instead of at the end of the day June 30, because of when my retirement contribution hits plus the markets having gone up on July 1. My EF also won’t show an increase when I do the July numbers at the end of this month because I’m counting the July contribution here — doesn’t affect the bottom line, just the EF number.

Regardless of fuzziness, I can’t help but be pleased by a substantial increase in a month where I was traveling almost the whole time!