The Easiest $180 I’ve ever made

I’ve been behind on everything — work is crazy, money is crazy (the shopping ban is going fine now, but I’d already overspent so much that I’m going to be in the hole at the end of the month just through buying groceries and gas), jam-making is going great but is time consuming…. It’s all ok, but I’ve been giving myself a break on blogging, obviously. Work ought to die down a little once the major project I’ve been shepherding finishes a week from Monday, but it’s going to keep me really really busy all this week and next weekend. C’est la vie. I love the project, so it’s ok that it’s taking up so much time.

Anyway, this post is actually about how I made $180 in 30 minutes on Friday. Not bad!

I did this by getting a “health screening” (blood draw, blood pressure check, measurements) at the health center on campus. Having done this, I get a $180 discount on my health insurance premium for next year, which will show up as about $5 extra in each individual paycheck. (Actually $7.50, but after taxes….) Not revolutionary, but as we know, every little bit helps!

I paid close attention to the HR packets when I took this job, because at my last job, I didn’t do that, and at the end of the year after I had my financial awakening, I realized that if I’d been focusing, I could’ve made up to $300 for participating in various health-related thingies that would not have occupied much of my time. I was so mad at myself! My current employer’s deal isn’t quite as good, but it was certainly worth the few minutes it took for me to do it.

I know a lot of you are freelancers, but if you’re a regular employee, do you check closely for this kind of thing? Anyone taking financial advantage of it?

On the plus side

Before I got derailed yesterday by realizing just how much I’d been spending recently, I was going to write a post about what a good week I’d had — which is still true!

1) I got paid, and pulled my emergency fund up to $4500. I have just under one month until it’s finally at goal. I can’t wait!

2) The Great Attic Cleanout of 2015 went really, really well. I had no idea how much of my old stuff was up there — I knew I had “a few boxes of books,” but oh my lord. Then, there’s my parents’ and my brother’s stuff. In the end, I cleared out:

  • Nine (small, but still) boxes of books (donated to library)
  • Four boxes of books (taking back with me)
  • Two ancient computers, one giant heavy monitor, one dot matrix printer, and two bags of misc. paraphernalia — speakers and keyboards and whatnot (going to electronics recycling this weekend)
  • About a dozen empty boxes (no, seriously, they were just up there empty; now in recycling bin)
  • Three falling-apart plastic hanging clothes bags (replaced by one nice new hanging clothes bag)
  • One large box of dolls/clothing/etc (taking back with me so I can repair/mend/clean and pass on to my goddaughter)
  • Two large boxes of children’s and adult clothing (donated to Goodwill)
  • My great-grandmother’s wedding china service (taking back with me; long story, but my family ended up with three generations of china, and this is my allotment. It’s service for 12 so I’m going to have to give more dinner parties.)
  • Some miscellaneous other things

There’s still a lot up there, but I think I either am taking, or have donated, pretty much everything that was mine. And you can now see all four walls! And not trip over things trying to walk around in the middle aisle! It was a hell of a lot of work, but I feel so much better now that I’ve done everything I can possibly do for the moment.

I’ve Been Backsliding

Is it summer? Is it being ultra-frugal for a while and then letting up? I don’t know, but one way or another, I know I’ve been spending a lot lately and I need to figure out what’s going on and rein it in. I just feel like I’ve been reaching for my credit card way too often the last couple of months.

Let’s start with some accounting.

In the last six months, here’s what I’ve bought (by month) in the non-essential type categories. I’m leaving out rent, my cash draw, car repairs, medical stuff, and the like; this is just the “stuff.”

January

Sistema lunch container, $6.33

February

Clothing (jeans and a skirt), $88
Kitchen (spatula), $9.24
Clothing (bra), 35.00
Spices, $25.00

4 transactions, total of $157.24

March

CDs, $30

April

Music (Sufjan Stevens CD), $13.06
Clothing (tshirt), $22.00

2 transactions, total of $35.06

May

Clothing (three dresses, sandals), $200
Sistema food storage containers, $42

3 transactions, total of $242

June

cookbooks (Amazon), $11.05
rice cooker, two books (one gift and one I wanted for work), and a paring knife (Amazon), $80.24
clothing (skirt, sweater, blouse), $175.91
gifts, $71.09

4 transactions, total of $338.29

July, which is only half over!

Blueberries for freezing/canning, $50
Three CDs and a sieve (amazon), $39.41
canning gear and stockpot, $79.95
canning gear and a few misc things at grocery store, $44.12
clothing (two cardigans and a tank top), $60.24
skin care, makeup, etc (sephora), $90.00

6 transactions, total of $363.77

OK, yes, I think I have some reason to be concerned here.

I spent almost nothing on “stuff” during the first four months of the year. In May, I discovered zulily, but I’m very pleased with everything I bought then; I’ve been using all of it extensively and I really needed to refresh my work wardrobe with those dresses and sandals.

In June, I was clearly starting to slip. I’m not as pleased with the clothing I bought from zulily in my second order. The rice cooker is nice to have, but essential? No. I did want to buy a housewarming gift, but it ended up costing what I think is too much money. I should have been more cautious there.

July’s just been a mess. It’s mostly at least somewhat justifiable; the canning stuff and fruit is being well-used (I bought a stockpot that I’ve wanted for years, a silicone jar rack, and multiple boxes of jars); the CDs had been on my want list for several months, were for a long road trip, and I don’t regret them; the sieve isn’t really necessary, but is nice to have; the cardigans are replacements for two that I wear constantly at work and which are starting to wear out after two years of regular use. The only really questionable thing here is the Sephora order, which I feel a little bad about, but it’ll all get used. The point, however, is that the month is only half over and I’ve already spent more money on “stuff” than in any single other month this year. Look at January and March, in which one item each entered my house! Also, I’m concerned about the number of times I’ve used my credit card for purchases. 10 times in June and July, vs 11 times in the first five months of the year combined.

It’s not that any of this is so terrible, either individually or even collectively. It’s that it feels dangerous to me, like the way I used to be before I started budgeting, where I just bought things and paid my credit card off regularly. The good thing here is that I’ve really been keeping my eating out and general food expenses under much better control, so I’ve still been spending less overall. But I need to tighten up on the “stuff” spending. I think I’m going to institute a shopping ban for the rest of summer; I’ll still buy fruit and vegetables and, if necessary, more canning jars for preserving, so my expenses will stay higher, but I’m cutting out anything else — no more clothing, books, gifts, and general “stuff” until at least September and maybe longer.

Also, I’ve learned from this that before next summer I need to set up a savings line for produce. I’m clearly going to want to spend lots of $$ on fruit and vegetables for preservation over the summer and I don’t see anything wrong with that, but I can’t take it out of my general cash without causing a lot of problems. I think I’ll aim to save up $300 for produce and supplies (more jars, etc) before next July rolls around.

Wednesday Food Post: Give My Mom Advice

zero food waste challenge 2015Since I’m traveling this week, no grocery post. Instead I figured I’d ask for your best tips. My mom eats a lot of refined carbs and Lean-Cuisine-style frozen meals for lunch. She’s gained a fair amount of weight and wants to lose some, and also feels like she’s in a total rut on the lunch thing; she used to like the frozen meals but now finds them boring. But at the same time, she doesn’t really like to cook, especially in the summer when it’s really hot here.

As you might see from this info, I don’t eat much like my mom 🙂 We actually have quite different tastes. She doesn’t like salty or strong flavors, and isn’t a huge fan of acid (vinegar, lemon juice, etc) either. She basically likes sweet stuff.

So, when I was trying to come up with some easy, healthy, filling lunch options that don’t require standing over a hot stove, I was struggling! Help my mom out: what are your best ideas that might fit those parameters?

No, I didn’t go crazy! (A followup housing post)

Thanks y’all for the comments and opinions on my last post. It took me longer than usual to reply because I was, interestingly enough, en route to visit my parents — I’ll be working remotely much of this week so I can hang out at their place and also do some massive, massive attic decluttering (more on that later in the week.)

Some very reasonable thoughts and concerns came up a few times so I figured I’d do a bit more of a group response. So, here goes:

1) House?! What?! It really is only hypothetical right now. I’m not rushing right off to stop retirement contributions (I liked Hannah’s rule of thumb that I should be closer to 75% sure before I think about that more seriously.) Also, guys, I was kidding about the idea that I’d raid my emergency fund for a down payment. No way I’m wiping that thing out, after I’ve worked my butt off to build it this year. If I do buy instead of continuing to rent (see below), the only real options are borrowing a little, or a lot, from my parents.

1a) Wait, job?! What?! I haven’t said much about this lately but longtime readers will remember that I’m currently working on a yearlong contract at a major university (I just started my second yearlong contract, actually, so this one will be up at the end of June 2016.) I don’t want to go into much detail because all these discussions are ongoing, but over the last six months it’s developed into a certainty that I could shift into a different role at the same university and stay more or less indefinitely. It’s not tenure track, but it would be a very good deal, better both financially and in terms of workload than the t-t at a lot of places, and it’s work I’d enjoy. I’m excited about it. At the same time, I’m going to poke around at a few other possibilities, so I’m not signing up right now to stay in my current city. Sorry for all the mysteriousness — the upshot is I’ll either stay, or move somewhere else, but either way I won’t be unemployed, which is a good thing 🙂

2) Why not just rent for another year while you save for the down payment?/Why not just skip the whole house buying thing altogether? Yeah, I know, and actually I don’t have anything particular invested (heh) in the idea of home ownership. I wouldn’t be expecting to make money if I bought in my current town, just hoping to break even over time. However, there are a few problems with the idea of renting either another year, or permanently, in this situation.

The first is that when I moved to this city, I wasn’t expecting to stay two years, let alone indefinitely. So my current situation is that I rent a spare bedroom in someone’s house. My clothes and about half of my cooking equipment are there. Meanwhile, everything else I own is boxed up in a friend’s basement across town, or in my parents’ attic. By the time we get to spring 2016, I will more or less have been living out of suitcases for two years. Every time I want a book that I didn’t anticipate needing, I have to drive across town and dig through all these boxes to find it. Some of my lesser-used kitchen equipment is inaccessible and I do miss it. I miss sleeping in my own bed with my own mattress. None of this is going to kill me, and there are real positives (I like my housemate and her house, I like the cheap rent) but this situation was never really meant to be a long-term one, and I don’t particularly want to do it for more than two years.

I could, obviously, move out of the spare bedroom and into my own rental apartment/house. This would actually be my preferred option if it were a nice enough and cheap enough space that I could see being there for 5+ years. I’d definitely look around for situations like this. However, they can be very difficult to find in my current city. It’s a college town and the vast majority of the rental stock is wildly overpriced and kind of cruddy because it’s aimed at 4+ undergraduates and/or master’s students sharing the space. Grownups here, including even PhD students who will be in town for five years or so, buy houses, which are plentiful and cheap enough that I actually know several people who are renting out their spare rooms and making more than enough to cover the mortgage just from that. (I would also look for a renter to share my hypothetical house, probably.)

So, that’s why I think it’s more likely I’d find something to buy than to rent, and why I’d like to make a move next spring rather than a year later. (And I really don’t want to move to another temporary apartment for a year while I save up for a down payment — if I had to I’d probably rather stick out the spare room thing for another year!) On top of everything else, houses tend to come up for sale on the academic schedule because, again, college town. By far the best time to buy here is during the late spring and early summer; even if I waited six months to save more, it would be hard to do that.

3) Borrowing from family is always a terrible idea/if you have to borrow you can’t afford it. It’s interesting to me, the way people think about this. I find it tends to be highly conditioned by the person’s previous experience, which makes perfect sense. In my family it’s fairly typical. My parents borrowed from their parents for their down payment (it was kind of a sudden emergency house-buy, as it turned out a fourth floor walk up was not a great idea with an infant), and they’ve always said they’d do the same for us if they could afford it. They paid my grandparents back religiously and, while they couldn’t have afforded to help me much when I was in my early 20s, their circumstances have changed a lot and they really could now. I’ve never wanted to have them support me — I toughed it out in New York on $12000 of freelance income one year! — but I think it’s actually my track record of financial independence that makes them want to help me (I didn’t spend my 20s siphoning off $$ from them, so they trust me) and makes me feel confident that I could and would pay them back in short order.

This is getting really long so I’ll stop there. The short version is: no need to worry, I am not off the deep end and signing a contract tomorrow, just looking ahead and trying to lay out various options, and there are some actual reasons why buying might end up being a better life choice (not necessarily a better financial choice) than continuing to rent, but on the other hand, it also might not! So I guess we’ll see. I’ll obviously get more serious about thinking through this stuff if I commit to stay here.

Borrowing from Family: a semi-hypothetical

Morning y’all. Today’s dilemma: not really whether to borrow from family, but how much to borrow.

It’s a hypothetical because it would only happen if some up in the air job stuff happens and I have a good reason to buy a house approximately a year from now. I am definitely going to have a job after this contract ends, which is the good news; the question is where will this job be located, and a house may or may not be plausible depending. But let’s assume for the sake of argument that I am in fact going to be in a small city where I could buy a very nice house in the $90-110,000 range. It could be a bit less, but again, let’s go with the middle figure there, and assume I want a $20K down payment.

My current saving schedule would have me at only about $3000 in the down payment fund (as opposed to my various other savings funds for repairs, emergencies, travel, etc) by then. Uh….

So, options:

1) Raid the emergency etc funds. Not only do I think this is a bad idea in and of itself, but it also would probably only get me up into the $10000 range, which still isn’t $20K.

2) Borrow $17K from my parents. Given the salary I’d be at, I could plausibly pay this off, while paying minimums on the mortgage itself, within a couple of years at the most, possibly faster if I had a renter share the house. I could very easily get it back to them before they’d need it themselves for the later part of their retirement. (We have a very good relationship, their own mortgage is paid off, and while I definitely would not take $17K from them as a gift, they could probably afford to do that, even. But I’d rather they have it back and spend it on themselves, at some point if not now.)

3) Stop contributing to retirement (which, to recap, I do at the rate of $1000 a month) either immediately, or beginning later in the fall, and bank that money instead. Depending on when I started and when I actually bought the house, I could have my own down payment savings account at about $13-15K, meaning that I’d only borrow about $5-7K from my parents, which I could repay in say six months in addition to the mortgage itself.

I’m leaning towards Option 3. I could stop contributing in September — by then my retirement accounts should be over $20K. I’d have about 7 or 8 months to save all the cash I possibly could, and if I did end up not buying after all, I would put that cash (1) an IRA til I maxed out and (2) a taxable investment account. And of course I’d restart my contributions as soon as I either bought, or decided not to buy.

However, maybe I’m wrong about this. I’m old, after all, and maybe house or no house, it’s just not a good idea to stop retirement contributions for any reason right now when I’ve only even had an account for a year. I’m really seeking thoughts on these scenarios — what am I not thinking about?

 

Zero Food Waste, Weeks 24 and 25: Fall in Love (plus chickpea wraps)

zero food waste challenge 2015Yes! I’m in love! No! It’s not with some dude! It’s with something admittedly less cuddly, but in its own way very, very, very, very satisfying.

I’m in love with a cookbook.

I’ve shared recipes here a few times adapted from the blog 101 Cookbooks, and I finally decided to buy one of her books, Super Natural Every Day.

I’ve bought far far fewer cookbooks (and weeded my old ones a lot) since I’ve been cooking from blogs so much. But the ones I do still own are used often, and this is clearly going to be one of them. In fact, it’s the only cookbook I can remember where I’ve literally wanted to make every single recipe — though granted, I’m not a fan of seitan or tempeh, so I might make those dishes with tofu or even chicken instead. I’ve had it for two weeks and so far I’ve made lemon-zested bulgur wheat with coconut milk, honey, and toasted almonds; millet muffins (also with honey); hardboiled eggs with dukkah (a spice mix); and, twice, the chickpea wraps (see below.) I love that it’s a cookbook that includes a section on lunch that is full of recipes that really are the way I actually eat lunch (salads, soups, and sandwiches that are creative, with multiple components, and deeply flavored, but not fussy or weird), a section on snacks that focuses on protein (but also includes popcorn with mustard, thyme, chives, and butter, which I intend to make the second it’s fall), and a lovely selection of drinks that are mostly not cocktails. She uses a wide variety of grains, flours, nuts, seeds, and beautiful dark sugars, doesn’t kill produce with overcooking, has great sturdy sauces that are often yogurt rather than mayo-based, so they’re both lighter and less prone to spoiling…. This is exactly the way I want to be cooking right now and I’m just loving it.

So, uh, my grocery bill went up a bit 🙂

Continue reading “Zero Food Waste, Weeks 24 and 25: Fall in Love (plus chickpea wraps)”

Let’s Talk Preserving

Uh, hi guys. You might have noticed — ok, you probably haven’t noticed — that I haven’t been around much the last week or so.

That’s because I’ve been spending basically all my time either hunting and gathering fruit, or preserving fruit 🙂

I promise this isn’t turning into a food blog, although I am so excited about the recipe I have to share on Wednesday, but hey, canning and preserving are kind of frugal topics, right? Except for the parts where you have to acquire equipment in order to do them 🙂 But as far as I’m concerned, anything to avoid paying for and eating unseasonal berries in February. And actually the equipment’s not so bad. I’ve bought three flats of half-pint jars for about $7.50 each (for 12 jars) and, while I intend to give away a lot of my jams for inexpensive hostess and holiday gifts, I’ll be able to reuse any jars I do hang onto. Other than that, I just use a stockpot, and a jar lifter and wide-mouth funnel that I’ve had for a while now.

First, I went sour-cherry picking again. I loved doing this last year and this year was also really good, though really different. This time, I went on the second day of the season with a friend of mine and a friend of hers. So it was social, and also the cherries were practically dripping off the trees. It only took us about forty minutes to pick as much as we each thought we could handle — I ended up with 16 lbs, one of my friends with 19, the other with 8.

16 lbs of clean sour cherries

16 lbs of clean sour cherries

They’re super cheap because you provide most of the labor. Only $1.50 a pound!!! Once you get them weighed, it’s off to the cleaning room, where you dunk them in icy cold water and get rid of any remaining debris (stems, leaves, etc.) They end up in a bucket, and then the main event, the industrial cherry pitter.

Isn’t that cool? The cherries get sorted into a kind of metal honeycomb, and then pins push through them. My 16 pounds took all IMG_20150703_114040104of two minutes to get pitted! Then I took them outside to bag. I learned a few things from last year, when I didn’t realize you had to bring containers; the orchard has plastic trash bags that they’ll put all your cherries in as a backup and that’s what I did last year, but this year I was prepared not only with quart-sized ziploc bags (exactly the right size for the six cups you need for either jam or a pie filling) but also a cup measure to use as a scoop. Then we had lunch (we’d brought a picnic) and drove home.

At that point, I headed over to a park where someone had told me there were wild blackberries (I figured my fruit-picking mojo was good) but actually it turned out they were wild black raspberries! I ended up paying in blood — so many mosquitoes, oof — but I picked about a quart and they’re currently in my freezer. They really were just starting to ripen so I hope to go back in a couple of weeks and get more (with bug spray. On me, not on the berries.)

Then I came home and made jam. Lots of jam!

The next morning, July 4, I woke up and went straight to the farmer’s market before I’d even had my coffee (!!!) because I knew it’d be crazy later in the morning. I got rhubarb and carrots, among other things, and at the grocery store I got local sweet cherries and a daikon radish. I came home and made cherry pie to take to the party I was going to later, but also sliced the vegetables and rhubarb and pitted the cherries to freeze (I plan to make cherry butter with them, but I’m going to wait a few months because it doesn’t keep as well, once canned, as jam does.) Then, off to the party. The pie lasted all of about five minutes, after taking hours of prep and baking time, but hey, that’s what it’s for 🙂 Someone else had made a truly awesome pulled pork shoulder and there was good homemade coleslaw and all in all, although I was there for the company as much as the food, it was a lovely afternoon.

I decided I preferred a quiet evening to going fireworks-hunting, so I headed home around dusk and got back into the kitchen, pickling the daikon and carrots together with coriander and mustard seeds. By the time I was done cleaning up from all of that I was more than ready to crawl into bed! Today after church I went and bought more jars, having run through my entire supply of half-pints, and then this afternoon I made rhubarb jam with Earl Grey tea and vanilla, which wasn’t much trouble seeing as how I’d cut the rhubarb up yesterday — once that’s done it’s pretty much simmer, stir, and can.

So, at this point I have 12 half-pints of sour cherry jam, 6 half-pints and 1 pint of rhubarb jam, 4 pints of vegetable pickles, and, in the freezer, three quarts of sour cherries, a quart of black raspberries, and about three pounds of pitted sweet cherries, along with two quarts of strawberries that I put up in simple syrup a couple of weeks ago. And blueberries haven’t even come in yet! I hope to have a lot of U-pick blueberries both frozen plain, and jammed, and I also want to get more rhubarb to chop and freeze since it’s good in baked goods. I need to investigate the apricot situation around here, too; I really want to put up apricots in some form, but I don’t know if they grow here. In New York I used to get the most beautiful apricots at the farmer’s market and I’d hate to have to use “imported” ones.

In case you were wondering, I got the recipes I used for all the canning from Food in Jars by Marisa McClellan. It’s a really handy book, but the author also writes a blog, Food in Jars, and she gives out a lot of free advice and recipes there (in fact, I found her last year searching for a basic, unfussy recipe for cherry jam.) It’s really fun to finally get to can, which I’ve wanted to learn to do for years and years; it just never made sense when I lived in New York and had no storage space to spare. But I’ve got plenty of it right now! I’m looking forward to figure out more stuff to preserve in the future.

Some of the goods! cherry jam on the left, carrot pickles in back, rhubarb jam on the right.

Some of the goods! cherry jam on the left, carrot pickles in back, rhubarb jam on the right.