I’m at six months today!

Here is my first post, and here is my second, which I’m still pretty pleased with. The metaphor seems apt.

A couple of weeks after I started, I made a guest post on Girl Meets Debt, one of the first PF blogs I found. That was when the first people who weren’t me read the blog 🙂 Maybe I’ll celebrate six months by finally getting a twitter account and trying to raise my profile slightly? But I really am grateful for everyone who has been reading and keeping me on track. It is way more fun to think about this out loud with an audience!

I’ve made a lot of financial progress since I started the blog. My retirement account has grown and my debt has dropped. I’ve gone from negative net worth to a number that is steadily climbing towards 5 digits, even with my various small missteps (still too many coffee purchases) and murphy-ish events (I need a new car battery.) But more than just the progress by the numbers, I feel like I’ve gotten a much greater sense of control and planning out of this, and that’s been really important to me.

So, thanks again, everyone who is reading this, and also thanks to everyone who blogs themselves — you all make me feel like I’ve got companions on the journey.

FFFFollowup #3

This is going to be kind of a weird week/end of the month — I’m doing a little traveling, and a bunch of transactions are processing their way through the system so my end of the month update will probably be a bit late as I wait for everything to go through so I can get a more realistic picture. However! For now:

A couple more FFF questions:

The Intentional Penny wanted to know “how did it feel to knock out that student loan debt?”

Short answer: Really, really, really good. 🙂 Longer answer: It was a big relief. I’ve been talking all along about my unstable job situation; it’s year to year for the moment, and while I’m now pretty confident that I’ll be able to keep doing that as long as I need to, it was something that initially really scared me. It took me until right before I graduated to land my first post-grad school job, and for a while there it was looking like I wouldn’t get one at all (let alone one that ended up paying me as much as that one did.) So, I was facing unemployment with $19K in loans, which was not a good feeling at all. 

Paying them off fast became a really high priority for me because of that. Now, no matter what happens with my career, at least I’m not going to be also in debt. It makes situations like an extended period of un or under employment more feasible, because I can go to my break-the-glass emergency plan (move in with parents) and just have to deal with a few small immediate expenses, like my car insurance. So mostly what being out of debt provides is a much better sense of security. It rocks.

Debt Debs (orchestrator of the whole thing! Thanks!) wanted to know “Why did you move to the MidWest? What do you like about it there and what do you not like?”

I moved for a job, but I’d spent some time in this particular city before. What I like: it’s wayyyyy cheaper than the big coastal cities where I’ve lived before. It’s also quieter. Even Chicago feels much more chill, less crowded, less loud and overwhelming, than New York — let alone the much smaller city where I actually live. As I get a little older I get more low-key, so that suits me! I also like the strong sense of regional identity and cohesiveness; people here want to support their communities in various ways, buying local food, going to see local artists, etc. What I don’t like — well, the persistent and generally unacknowledged racism bothers me. There’s a bit of a superiority complex (but God knows the coastal cities have that too! I guess all places are a little smug about how awesome they are.) THE WINTER WEATHER. And finally, my closest friends and family are all far away, some on the east coast and some on the west. I do have a good support system and group of friends here — they’re just not my absolute closest. So that’s something that’s bothersome. But basically I do like it here.

Wednesday Food Post + FFFFollowup #2

Conveniently, Huy Tran wanted to know, “Where/how did you learn how to cook? Are your parents good cooks or was it more of something you learned on your own?”

Kind of a combination. My parents are both decent cooks, although I recently realized that my mom doesn’t like it or really care that much. She likes to eat, but she’d much rather have someone else cook, whether that’s me, my dad, a restaurant, or a frozen dinner. Anyway, they always made dinner from scratch when I was growing up; not many convenience foods, although they mostly did use frozen instead of fresh vegetables.

I still mostly taught myself, though, out of cookbooks. I’ve picked up a few techniques from my parents, but I don’t cook like them at all. They tend to be “meat, vegetable, starch” people, for a variety of reasons, whereas I don’t eat much meat and I like one-pot meals that hold up well to multiple meals over the course of a week. So my cooking style has developed and evolved in conversation with cookbooks and blogs more than with my family.

I did a lot better on the shopping front last weekend, which is good because I’m trying to conserve a little cash to get me through the last weekend of the month before my budget resets. Here’s what I bought:

Grocery store:
Farro — $5.09
Marinated artichoke hearts — $2.09
Chocolate bar — $2.89
Butternut squash — $2.18
Garlic — $.39
Red onion — $.73
Yellow onions — $.43
3 lbs apples — $2.99
Red pepper — $.34
Milk — $1.59
Feta cheese — $1.54

Grocery store total with tax: $20.20

Farmer’s market:
Yukon gold potato: $1.50
Plums: $4.00

Total shopping: $25.70

Using these along with pre-existing pantry items (eggs, pumpkin seeds, and stuff like flour and sugar) I made:

Butternut squash, farro, and feta salad with pepitas to take to work for lunch (4 servings)
A potato, red pepper, and artichoke tortilla to take to work for breakfast (4 servings)
–and an olive oil plum cake for snacks and desserts.

As you might be able to tell, I use Smitten Kitchen a LOT. I find that her tastes and style vibes with mine pretty well. The squash/farro salad is in the regular rotation for my take-to-work lunches, and I’ve made the tortilla before too. It’s a fair amount of work/dishes the way that I made it (sauteing a red pepper rather than using one from a jar, and having to boil a potato just for this rather than using a leftover) but I’m trying to have breakfasts that have more protein and oomph in them, because I’ve been getting hungry too early in the day lately.

The plum cake, I can’t really recommend. It’s edible, but it’s just not that great; the plums taste slightly medicinal and the cake itself is a little stiff and dry.

I have several dinners I have to go to for work this week, so I just decided to have cheese sandwiches and apples for dinner the other nights, which since I already had bread and cheese decomplicated that part of the shopping trip.

Frugal Fincon Followup #1

Whew, that turned out to be an unexpectedly crazy weekend (in a good way — I was just verrrrrrrry busy with my social life.) But I’m looking forward to making a few posts over the next couple of weeks that answer the questions y’all asked!

First off, Femme Frugality wanted to know where I worked as a historian. Which, actually, I can’t say 🙂 Not that my cloak of anonymity is that dense or anything, but I want to stay a little less google-able than I would be if I mentioned my employer or exact field within history. Let’s just say that I currently work at a large and very recognizable midwestern university. Like a lot of other young academics, I’m currently caught up in the de-permanentization of university teaching jobs; my particular field has been especially hard hit by the financial crisis. (Of the six people I know in my subfield that have left their jobs in the last few years, none have been replaced. It looked like there was going to be an opening this year…and then the dean of that university decided they couldn’t justify a new hire after all because of X reasons and…. Well.) So, for the moment, I’m going on one-year contracts. Pretty soon I’ll either get a permanent job in my field (not that likely!) or give up and look for something related to do. What might that be? Well, I have some ideas, but I’m not totally sure. 🙂 It’s one reason why I want to focus on various kinds of savings right now — a retirement fund so that it can grow even if I can’t contribute for a while, and an emergency fund that I could draw on for some expenses if I need some transitional months.

Oooof, that was a depressing answer. I work…but maybe not for long. However, I’m trying to stay fairly cheerful about it, recognizing that I have strong skills and a decent network of contacts; I’ll never be rich, but I think I’ll probably manage all right no matter what.

Following up on that question, Brooke & Genevieve from PFTwins wanted to know why I wanted to get a PhD and whether I thought it was worth it. The first part of that is relatively easy to answer — I knew I was really good at scholarship, better than I was at anything else. And I thought I’d be good at teaching. I chose my particular field because of personal interest, but the general idea of going into academia came first. Whether it was worth it…no, probably not. Don’t get me wrong, I really like what I do, and I am indeed good at it. But 7-8 years for a combined master’s and PhD is just too much time to spend being miserably underpaid and with so much uncertainty at the end of it. That was hard for me to recognize in my early 20s when I decided to go; I was interested in serving humanity, you know? And I still am. But I also feel that 25-year-olds are ill-equipped to understand what it will really mean, to try to change fields in their mid-30s. When I was 25, I’d already had jobs in about four separate professional fields (this isn’t counting stuff like babysitting and retail.) Switching often seemed normal. It gets a lot harder to do that later on, and I really just don’t think someone in their early-mid 20s can understand that in their bones. So: I’m really proud of the dissertation I wrote (that hopefully will be a book in the next couple of years) and of the classes I’ve taught, the students I’ve helped, and I guess it was worth it in that sense, but in the sense of being a stepping stone to an actual career, nah. Should’ve opened a fancy coffeeshop and served homemade pastries instead 🙂

Frugal Fincon Fiesta: Ask Me Anything! + Versatile Blogger Award

…ok, wait a minute, let’s have a little more fun with this…

That’s better 🙂 I am a last-minute participant in Debt Debs’ blog-hop (why last minute? Because I do everything last-minute, including starting to work on financial health. I guess that is one fact about me) for people not going to FinCon.

It sounded like fun! And also a good chance to respond to Alicia’s gracious nomination of me for a Versatile Blogger Award, which requires me to tell y’all 7 totally random things about myself. So let’s celebrate good times, and here we go.

Seven Random Things About Me

1) I was the best double-dutch jumper in my entire preschool, but then we didn’t play in kindergarten or first grade, and by the time girls got back into it in second grade, I’d totally lost the knack. My rhythm is better now than it was when I was a kid and I sometimes wonder if I could do it again now.

2) I took an LSAT practice test my junior year of college for fun, because it was offered free by the school. I got a nearly perfect score, but I wasn’t interested in practicing law then so I didn’t take it seriously. Now, though, if it didn’t mean another 4-year delay on starting a career plus $$ for tuition, I’d probably jump at going to law school, because as a historian I’ve grown fascinated by the impact the legal system has on our everyday lives.

3) I have a younger brother who I adore. We spend a lot of time talking about Marx and racism and also cooking elaborate and delicious meals. At least we used to cook together before we both moved out of NY. He’s the main thing I miss about living there.

4) I have a really clear visual memory of the passbook for my first savings account, which my parents helped me open at the local bank when I was in elementary school. It was super hard to take money out of it because you had to walk to the bank and get a parent’s approval to do anything, so I did build up a little bit there, a few hundred dollars, I guess, over time. At some point in high school I got a checking account with the same bank, though, and that made it much easier to access my money (and spend it alllllllll, which I did.)

5) I can parallel-park a 14-foot truck.

6) I own 5 sizes of tart pans (those flat, fluted pans with the removable bottoms.)

7) I don’t wear makeup. I’ve always thought it made me look really fake — possibly because I’ve never learned how to apply it properly — plus I’d rather spend the money on expensive food, so there’s that 🙂 I used to sometimes wear mascara and eyeliner, but I even quit that by my mid-20s.

Want to know anything else about me? Please ask! And visit all the other blogs participating:

Wednesday food post

I didn’t do as well last weekend on the food-spending front. It was shaping up to be another tight month as I recovered from the two big expenses (books and new phone) that blew up August’s budget, but then I realized that I had $90 set aside for an expense that was not going to materialize after all and transferred $80 of that into my cash budget…and relaxed a little too much, really. For some reason I was just starving all week; I ended up spending too much on going out for coffee/treats in the middle of the afternoon because of it. I don’t know what was up with that, but hopefully this week will go better. [I scheduled this post for Weds but am writing it on Sunday.]

Groceries for this week:

Farmer’s market:
$3.00 — pretzel (put this down under “could not eat enough all week, I don’t know”)
$1.50 — donuts (gift for my roommate)
$4.00 — nectarines
$2.00 — brussel sprouts
$3.00 — spices (whole coriander and cumin seeds; ground pepper)
$2.50 — jar of tomato sauce

Total: $16

Grocery store:
$2.69 tater tots — see, I told you I was weirdly hungry all week. I ended up buying these to have for dinner on Friday night (I know.)
$2.39 milk
$1.55 rice
$6.23 sweet potatoes
$3.42 broccoli
$3.50 ice cream — another “I caved to a weeklong craving” item
$0.33 ginger
$6.99 olive oil
$3.19 1 lb butter

Total grocery store (with tax) $30.29

Total food shopping: $46.29 (or about $6 over budget, with the extra coming from my “general spending money”)

This isn’t really good. I impulse-bought about $10 of treats, which if I’d stuck to just eating what I had at home, would have meant I was $4 or $5 under budget. Annoying. And none of this even counts the coffee and muffins and whatever that I paid for out of my general spending money this week either.

Food plan for the week:
–I made a tomato sauce with ground beef from the meat CSA my roommate and I joined, the jar of tomato sauce I bought, and carrots I had left over from last week. I’ll eat that with pasta for lunch all week.
–For dinner, I’m going to have Miso sweet potato broccoli rice bowls
–I also made a nectarine coffee cake for breakfast/dessert. Next week I’ll have to pick up some steel-cut oats since the weather here seems to have turned and it’s about time to start making oatmeal for breakfast again.

Taking aim at the net worth of the married

[Confidential to Alicia: I will respond to your post later this week! I already have a Weds post scheduled, so probably Friday will be a good day for it.]

So, for tl;dr reasons I went back and looked at Cindy from Growing Her Worth’s first post, in which she linked to this terrifying article about how single people (especially women) need to be insanely frugal in order to ever even dream of retiring.

As it happens I haven’t written nearly as much about issues of single-woman finance as I’d intended to when I picked my blog name. But it’s not like I never think about them. I actually think (and worry) about them all the time. There are a slew of issues: no help with the rent (unless you live with a roommate, as I currently do), no backup if you get sick or are unemployed, etc. However, what caught my eye was the net worth chart. Citing the Census Bureau in 2004, she gave a median net worth of $30,026 for single women, compared to $144,580 for married couples. For ages 55-64 (that is, approaching retirement) the median net worth numbers were $62,140 for single women (oof) and $268,835 for married couples (still not great, but much better.)

I was all fired up to set some new goals for myself based on this information when I realized that the financial picture in the U.S. has changed just a little bit since 2004. It took some digging around, but I finally ended up looking at the Census Bureau’s data from 2011, which is available in some detail on their website.  There have been some net worth studies since then — like the one summarized at the Times, here, but when I looked at the data I didn’t see it broken out either by gender or by married/single (maybe I just missed something?) The upshot is that the 2011 numbers are probably a bit high, as net worth has been declining for everyone but the wealthiest. But I’ll roll with 2011 for the moment.

Median net worth numbers of interest to me, as of the 2011 census:
Married-couple households, 35-54 y.o.: $116,170
Married-couple households, 55-64 y.o.: $239,847
Female householder, 35-54 y.o.: $9640
Female householder, 65 years and older: $104,000

A couple of notes: That’s a huge decline in median female wealth. I assume most of it is attributable to housing issues (either drop in home value, or foreclosure, since I know single mothers were very hard hit by cruddy mortgage issues.) The wealth drop wasn’t nearly as bad for older single women; in the 55-64 age range, median net worth was almost identical between 2004 and 2011. Of course, that’s without accounting for inflation, so I guess there was still a serious drop.

OK then — how am I doing? I’m 35 years old and my net worth ought to hit $10,000 in mid-November (there’s a slim chance of getting there by the end of October, but I think that’s unlikely; it should be very close, though.) So, I’m right around the median for single women, and since I’m on the very low end of the age range there, I’m probably doing rather better than the median for 35-year-old women. However, obviously that leaves me in terrible shape, so I’m not going to get all happy.

I think instead I should take aim at the married couples. Damn it, why should I let not having had the good sense to either get married, or pursue some career that paid, hold me back? At my current rate of net worth growth, I should be able to hit $116,000 in about four years, by age 40. (Oh my God, I’ll be 40 in four years. I am so not ready for that.) Ideally, of course, I’ll get a better-paying job soonish and be able to increase it faster!

Paydays are the best days (?)

In my new job, I get paid twice a month, on the 15th and the 30th.(*) Thanks to the miracle of direct deposit, though, the money usually hits my bank account quite late the night before, so I can see it if I log in around 11:30 or midnight.

Do I do that? You bet I do, every time, because I love payday. 🙂

This time, the 15th is Monday. So I’m hoping that means the cash will actually show up tonight, instead of Sunday night. (Operating on the theory that payroll will go out last thing on the business day before payday. When payday falls on a weekend, we’re paid on the Friday before, so I figure the same principle will hold up.)

Money Manifesto wrote a couple of years ago about emotions on payday. (I got to that by googling “excited about payday.”) He is doing well enough that he falls in the “indifferent” camp, apparently, which is obviously not me. I would say I’m not in the “relieved” camp either — I don’t have debt collectors chasing me down, and I have enough stability with my current job that I know the money for rent, etc, will in fact show up. I am definitely, however, happy (his third posited emotion.) I’m excited to see my net worth go up, along with my savings accounts; currently, I have the first paycheck of the month earmarked for rent, utilities, groceries, e-fund, and travel fund.(**) So as soon as I can get the money transferred over, I’ll see those two savings balances rise, which will be fun. It’s just a good day.

On the other hand, apparently mortality goes up on payday, so I suppose I should keep that in mind and not get too excited!

*until Alicia asked about it, I hadn’t thought about how I’d been paid just about every way possible over the years, from cash on the same day I worked, to the weekly check I got when I worked in the theater, to what I think of as the typical American bi-weekly schedule at most of my jobs, to the monthly check I got during my year of research funding in grad school and also last year. I think this is my first time being paid twice a month.)

**The second paycheck, which arrives on the 30th, is for debt payment, gas, insurance, and “slush.”)

How to be not cheap about food when you’re on a strict budget

Gather round, everyone! I have a rule of thumb to impart. 🙂

As I’ve previously mentioned about 6000 times, I really like to eat, and I like to eat well. If I were truly in the poorhouse, I could eat for probably about $25 a week (basing my diet around dried beans at $1 a pound and cheap vegetables and fruits.)

But usually I spend substantially more than that — but not anything like as much as many people who eat a much less delicious diet than I do. (I know, because I watch people ahead of me in the checkout line!)

Here’s the secret:

I buy expensive versions of cheap ingredients, not cheap versions of expensive ingredients.

In practice, this means being largely vegetarian is a good idea. Instead of buying meat (which, if raised correctly, is resource-intensive and therefore costs a lot) I focus on high-quality beans, lentils, and grains as the centerpiece of most meals. I generally add sparing amounts of something else (cheese, bacon, an egg) to round it out, and cheese and bacon are some of the most expensive items in my regular rotation. But really good farmer’s market bacon is about $6-7 a pound, and I can make a pound last for a month or even two, by cooking just a few strips at a time to crumble into salads. Eggs are amazing; I buy them at the farmer’s market for $2.25 a dozen, so if I have two for dinner, that’s $.37 for the centerpiece of a meal.

As for the beans, etc: I love the beans from Rancho Gordo. They are expensive, yes: $6 a pound, six times the cost of the beans on my “broke and unemployed” shopping list. But that’s the basis for about 12 servings of soup or bean salad or whatever. And they are good, fresh and creamy and interesting.

I use green lentils (sometimes called French lentils or lentilles de Puy) a lot for salads. They’re more expensive than the ordinary brown lentils, but they hold their shape well (which is what makes them so good for salads and for soups if you’re not going for something that falls apart.)

I buy high-quality wheat flour and make my own bread. Last year I was lucky enough to have a local mill I could buy flour from, and man, it was good. Typically, however, I buy King Arthur organic whole wheat flour at the supermarket. It’s twice as expensive as the supermarket brand, but it’s noticeably better, and since I’m making my own bread rather than buying bread, I think I still save money overall on this one.

Ditto on cornmeal. I like to buy it local when possible, but Bob’s Red Mill makes good cornmeal too.

Once you have flour, cornmeal, beans, and lentils, if you add some spices, vegetables, and good olive oil (I buy it from California Olive Ranch because studies of olive oil have shown that anything on the inexpensive side is usually adulterated with cheaper vegetable oils, and California Olive Ranch, while not the absolute cheapest thing on the shelf, is apparently the real deal. It’s available in most supermarkets) you are in good shape.

Meanwhile, the other side of the equation is avoiding buying cheap versions of expensive things. No point in being frugal only to eat badly. I avoid cheap versions of “parmesan” [real thing only!], balsamic vinegar [I would not have believed how much of a difference it made until I finally tasted the real thing last year. Farewell, $5 bottles of random something or other calling itself balsamic], meat [seems unsafe and unethical as well as not good tasting], olives, etc. If I want to eat one of these things, I either have to wait til someone gives it to me as a gift, or until I’ve created room in my budget for it.

Just for fun, here’s my grocery shopping for this week:

Farmer’s market (all from local growers):
$2.25, 1 dozen eggs
$4.00, nectarines
$6.00, tomatoes
$5.00, cucumbers (to pickle)
$0.75, three ears of corn
$1.00, red onion

(total: $19.00)

Grocery store:
$0.59, scallions (locally grown)
$0.99, dill (for the pickles) (locally grown)
$0.50, garlic
$0.99, 1 lb brown sugar (stocking up)
$2.19, 5 lbs regular sugar (ditto)
$3.69, 2 lb bag of lemons
$1.58, 2 cans of chickpeas (store brand, not organic; if I hadn’t been running so close to the line this week, I would have paid about another $1.00 for the organic version)
$3.99, Cabot cheddar cheese (on sale) 
$1.69, quart of milk

(total, $16.47, including tax)

(grand total: $35.47)

Notes: I still need to buy green lentils before I can call this week’s shopping “done”; that will probably add another $3 or $4, bringing me pretty close to my budget of $40 for this week. Cheddar, which is a basic cheese for me (I put it on sandwiches and in scrambled eggs, etc), seems weirdly expensive here; even the store brand, which I won’t buy, is $6. I guess I just have to keep an eye out for sales, since it keeps well. The only thing I’m not happy with here, quality-wise, is the milk. For years I’ve bought milk mostly at the farmer’s market, but this one doesn’t have anyone selling milk. So I’m stuck with a variety of less than great options; this is just the store brand, as nothing else there seemed noticeably better. I don’t like it, though. I’d rather be spending more.

More notes: Things I didn’t buy this week because I was using cash include: ice cream, chocolate bars, more fruit than I could realistically plan on eating, more tomatoes, kale. I probably kept myself from spending $10 or $15 more, just by sticking to my pair of $20 bills.

Meaning and Numbers

So, when I was in high school, we had two kinds of physics we could take: one which was math-heavy and targeted at better overall students, and one that was more “conceptual” and targeted at weaker students. It’s a long story how this happened exactly, but I ended up taking both. I did much better in the supposedly harder class, because identifying the right time to use an equation and then doing the math, that I could do. Not a problem. Actually understanding the meaning behind all the numbers…that was difficult.

I was reading My Debt Emergency the other day, and she had a post with a link to a contest where you could win $10,000. She’s got $118,000 in student loans, so I assume she’d use the $10,000 to make a big payment on that. I would have done the same, last year. (As long as we’re at this, here’s a link to enter the contest yourself. Heads up: if you use that link, I get some extra entries.)

But then I stopped and realized, you know, $10000 would have been more than half of my entire student loan debt. It would barely make a dent in MDE’s. I know both those things, intellectually, and I realize our situations are very different. And yet: I can’t really get my head around that difference. $10,000 is over 1/5 of my yearly salary. $10,000 is 1/12 of MDE’s student loans. $10,000 is not quite 50% of my (now paid off) student loans. I could go on like this, but honestly, I don’t really process $10,000 as anything but “a lot of money.” Once you get me past $100 or so, it’s all conceptual physics.

In thinking about this, though, I realized that there was a hack, something I could do that *does* make sense to me, that makes money seem “real” enough that I can actually understand it. I can think in terms of “expense months.”

Take my retirement account. I’ve read a bunch of articles about having 8x your salary saved up, or drawing down at the rate of 4% a year, and so on, and I nod along, but they don’t really mean much to me. What I can do, however, is look at my account and say “I think my living expenses will be about $3000 a month when I retire. Social Security should cover — being very conservative here — $1000 of that. So, if I have $2000, that is one month of retirement.” A little envelope math showed me that, in the very optimistic scenario where I retire at 65 and die at 95, I need 360 “expense months.” (240 is probably more accurate, but obviously it’s better to be conservative and have a little something to leave to my nieces/nephews/godchildren.)

As of right now, I have three months’ worth of retirement saved up. Well, three months down, 357 to go! And hey, if I win that contest, I’ll suddenly have five more months in the bank.