Friday, November 30, 2007

The What If Game

I really enjoy playing The What If Game with my finances. The game basically involves thinking up some scenario that could happen, and determining how that would affect my life and my finances. It often goes as far as using Excel to calculate the exact costs or benefits of the scenario.

Case in point: Debt Reduction
I play The What If Game on this one at least twice a week. I’m constantly thinking of new scenarios that would affect my income, and therefore affect my debt payoff. If I get a raise, how long will it take to become debt free? If I change jobs, how long will it take to become debt free? If I get a second job, how long will it take to become debt free? If I win the lottery, how long will it take to become debt free? The list goes on.

Case in point: Retirement
Right now I’m working on getting out of debt, so I haven’t started contributing to retirement yet, but I wanted to make sure that waiting till I was debt free to start contributing wasn’t going to keep me from saving as much as I’ll need. I whipped out an Excel spreadsheet, assumed a few things like starting contributions at age 30, getting a small employer match, getting a 9% rate of return, and starting to use the money at age 65, and then did some calculations. I was relieved to find out that this will give me plenty of time to build up a nest egg of over 3 million dollars. Even with inflation, this will be more than enough to get by on, and if my income gets better than assumed, I could even retire early.

The What If Game is a fun way for me to look toward the future and contemplate how little things that happen now could affect my future in a big way. The plan I have in place will get me where I want to go in a reasonable amount of time, but it’s nice to think that things could get even better with one little change.

How about you? Do you ever play The What If Game? What sorts of scenarios do you play with?

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Spread Thin? Spend Less and Earn More (and Get a Bonus)

I’m feeling a little spread thin this month, and it’s making it hard to have patience. I really want to be throwing all of my money at my debt snowball, but unfortunately that’s just not possible right now.

A big reason for this is that I bought two plane tickets for much more than I budgeted for in the past two months. I had budgeted to spend about $300 on each, but I ended up spending about $400, and my plane ticket fund is now in the hole. I have enough in savings for other categories to float the difference so I haven’t overdrawn my bank account, but I do need to remedy the situation.

I know the smartest thing to do is to not only replenish my plane ticket fund, but also rebuild it enough to buy the next plane ticket very soon. Part of the reason I spent more than I budgeted for the previous two was that I waited too long to buy. If I throw a lot of money at that fund right now, I can buy my ticket for spring for about $250. That would save me money overall, so that’s what I’m going to do.

Still, it’s hard to have less to throw at the debt snowball than I’ve had in past months. I really want to keep making significant progress, so I need to find more money somewhere. As anyone who’s been around the PF blogosphere for long knows, there’s only two ways to get more money: spend less and earn more.

My lessened spending has come mostly from my Christmas budget. Not buying anything for myself on Black Friday gave me $40, and spending under budget on a few gifts for other people brings the total up to about $60 so far.

In the earn more category, I went through some boxes of stuff I’d left at my parents’ place when I moved last July and found some things to sell. I took eight boxes of books and CDs to Half Price Books and made $57, and I brought a few of the nicer books and CDs home and listed them on Amazon, but the big find was a piece of unopened graphics software that will probably net me about $200 on eBay. I’m also contemplating selling a few of my TV on DVD sets that I really like, but don’t rewatch often (or at all).

I’ve also heard from a very reliable source that my company is giving out a $200 bonus at the Christmas party in a couple of weeks. I’m not sure I really qualify that as “earning” more, but money is money and I’ll take it any (legal/moral) way I can get it.

My goal is to have an extra $600 from a combination of spending less and earning more (and getting a bonus) to add to my plane ticket fund and debt snowball by the end of December. That’s bigger than my usual snowball amount, so that will make me feel really good about my progress. I’ll update you at the end of the month on how I did, but if I forget to post about it, poke me and ask.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Time Flies When You're Not Spending Money

Whew! Where did the week go? I spent Thanksgiving weekend at my parent's place, and I thought I would have time to post while I was there, but intentions got me nowhere. Things were hectic (but fun) and being away from home put me off kilter. I'll be sure to let you guys know before I leave the next time a take a trip so I don't leave you hanging.

I still feel like I'm playing catch up after being gone. I looked at my budget last night, entering a few receipts from my trip and finalizing the numbers on some of my variable bills. I feel like I've spent a ton of money lately, but that's mostly because I've been buying Christmas presents.

Besides gifts for other people, I did a really great job of staying on budget over the weekend, especially on Black Friday. I ended up not spending a dime on sales that day because there wasn't anything I was particularly interested in, but I did still go so I could keep my mom company in line at 3 a.m. There were a couple of things that I might have bought in years past, but they were more than I'd planned to spend, and I didn't really need or want them that much anyway so I resisted. Now I'm really glad I did because I can snowflake that money to my debt.

I did have one frustrating financial conversation with my mother that will probably merit it's own post, but all in all it was a good trip and I'm glad to be back.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Black Friday: A Tried and True Strategy

After shopping on Black Friday for several years now, my family and I have come up with what we consider the best way to get the most out of our time and money that day. Here are a few tips for first time shoppers and seasoned veterans alike.

Make a Budget
Decide ahead of time how much you’re willing to spend on Black Friday. You should already have a budget for Christmas gifts, so if you purchase things for other people you can take the money from that fund, but anything you purchase for yourself should be in cash. The rebates often don’t come till March or April, so don’t pay interest on your purchases by putting everything on a credit card and waiting for the rebates to come. Know how much you’re willing and able to spend upfront before rebates, and stick to that amount.

Get Organized
It’s a good idea to look at sites like to find out what deals are available ahead of time, but since the site doesn’t include all stores and deals are sometimes different in various regions of the country, the best thing to do is grab a newspaper on Thanksgiving day. Look through the ads, make a list of what you plan to buy (within your budget!), then note the store each item is at and what time that store opens. I find it helpful to use a spreadsheet or even just draw a grid on a piece of paper to keep everything straight.

Decide Where to Go
Pick the store that carries one or two of the most important items on your list and plan to be at that store well before the crack of dawn. If it’s a major electronics chain like Buy More—eh, I mean Best Buy—you’ll want to be there at least three or four hours before it opens, especially if you’re after a big ticket item. If it’s an office supply or department store, you can usually get away with being there only two or three hours before opening.

Recruit a Teammate
We’ve found that the best method for shopping on Black Friday is to have one two-person team per store. This makes it easy to leave your spot in line if you need to, and you can cover more ground when you get inside the store. If you have more than one major store you want to hit, send a second team there.

Waiting in Line Is Not Idle Time
Yes, much of your waiting time will be spent idly, but there are things you can do to make this time productive. It’s great to bring a project to work on or a book to read, but it’s even better to use the time to scope out the competition and get the lay of the land. Store employees will often come by prior to opening and hand out vouchers for certain big ticket items. When they come by, ask them about the store layout and find out where the items you want are located. It can also be helpful walk up and down the line and listen to the chatter to find out if you’re likely to get what you want.

Man Your Positions
Each person will pick one thing to head straight for when you enter the store. As soon as you’ve acquired that item, one person will head to the register line (maybe grabbing another item or two on their way to the front of the store) while the other person collects the remaining item on the list and brings them to the person in line. The line at the register will get very long very quickly, so sending someone there almost immediately will reduce the amount of time you have to wait.

Stay the Course
Don’t give in to impulse buys. Stores know they’ll have more people come through their store on Black Friday than any other day, so they’ll entice you to buy more by putting rebate items in hard to reach places while placing regular price items on prominent display. You’ve done enough research beforehand to know exactly what you’re after, so if it’s not on your list, don’t pick it up.

Accept Failure
Even with all the planning in the world, it’s entirely possible that ten college guys will camp out in front of the store for two days to grab the entire store’s stock of the item you want. That’s just the way things go on Black Friday; sometimes you have to admit defeat.

Skip the Cart
A cart will only slow you down as you try to maneuver through the massive amounts of people and stuff in the store. If you can’t carry everything you’re buying, the second person can make several trips to the front of the store, grabbing list items and bringing them to the person in line, who pushes the stack along as the line moves forward. After you check out and you need to get everything out to your car, you can grab a cart then, or just leave one person watching everything at the front of the store while the other person makes a couple trips to the car.

Rounds Two, Three, Four, and More
After you’re done at the first store, head to the second one on your list. It’s best if this is an office supply store or a department store because those tend to have a smaller crowd. The electronics stores will be out of anything you want, I guarantee it. Repeat the process here, then head to the third store, and so on.

Triple Check
Check first that the product you’re picking up is the one the rebate or sale price is for. Check again that the product rings up correctly at the register. Check a third time that your receipt shows the right amount for each item. There are no substitutions on Black Friday, and returning things is a pain, so make sure you’ve got what you want and you paid the right amount for it. If at any point you realize there was a mistake, however, go to customer service (another loooooooong line) and have it corrected as soon as possible.

Do the Paperwork
When you get home, fill out your rebate paperwork immediately. Fill out the forms, cut off the UPC symbols, and make sure to follow the rebate instructions to the letter. These companies are infamous for denying refunds for the simplest things, but if you read carefully you’ll be fine. It’s also a good idea to make a copy of everything for your own records, and check off the rebates as you get the checks in the mail to make sure you get everything you’re entitled to.

Have Fun!

Even if you don’t normally enjoy shopping, Black Friday can be a fun adventure. We like to think of the whole thing as a game; you play hard, but sometimes you lose, and that’s okay.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Another Refund Experience: Learn to Get What You Want from Customer Service

A couple days ago I posted about asking for an eBay fee to be refunded to me. Well, today I've done it again. I signed up with a couple months ago, but I didn't have much luck with it so I decided not to renew. Apparently not paying them wasn't enough to stop the subscription, because when I looked at my bank account today I saw that they had auto-renewed my subscription and charged me for it.

Well, that was just not going to happen. No way was I going to sit back and let them charge me $70 for something I didn't need, want, or use.

I found a customer service number on their website and gave them a call. I was incredibly nice in explaining the situation and asked that they please cancel my subscription and refund my account. The rep explained that I agreed to their terms of service, which explains their auto-renew policy, and the best she could do was cancel my subscription as of today so that I would only owe for one additional month and she could refund me the difference between the three month subscription and the one month subscription. The difference was about $28 meaning that I would still be paying $40, which is just not in my budget.

At that point I knew she was technically right. I had agreed to the terms of service so I did owe the money, but I still wasn't ready to give up. I politely asked for a supervisor and she put me on hold. A couple minutes later she came back and said that her supervisor had authorized her to extend a one-time courtesy and refund the full amount.


There are several things to learn from this experience. The first is don't give up. Even if they've already charged your account or you're technically in the wrong, they'll often extend a "one-time courtesy" that will get you what you want.

The second thing to learn is to be incredibly polite. Overly so. Be more polite than you've ever been in your entire life. No one likes rude people, so being rude will work to your disadvantage no matter the situation. The only time I would ever be rude to a customer service rep is if they are clearly in the wrong and are blatantly refusing to right the situation. Be polite first.

The third thing to learn is to be persistent. Ask twice. Ask for a supervisor. Explain yourself clearly. If you still don't get what you should, thank them for their time, hang up, and call back immediately to get a new person and try the process again.

Two Reasons Why My Frugal Self Will Still Participate in the Black Friday Madness

This year will be my first Black Friday as a frugal gal on a budget. You might think this would deter me from participating in the usual madness, but no. Here’s why.

Family Fun and Togetherness
There’s nothing like sitting on cold concrete in the middle of a line wrapped around your favorite electronics store at 3 o’clock in the morning to bring the family closer together. Black Friday has become a tradition in my family over the last few years, and I really look forward to it. We plot out a game plan the night before and then attack the sales like a well-oiled machine. The real challenge of the whole experience is attempting to retain some sense of dignity as we (politely) shove our way to the goods among the throng of frantic shoppers.

Great Deals
There are the usual deals on big ticket items like video game systems, big screen tvs, and computers, but my favorite Black Friday items are the simple pleasures. There are always a few small gems to be found for the best price of all: free. I’ve gotten lots of paper, CD-Rs, DVD-Rs, jewel cases, and small electronic accessories like microphones and thumb drives over the years. It can be a bit of a hassle to obtain them, and sometimes they aren’t items that I really need (this is how I came to own a purple lava lamp), but spending time with my crazy family makes it all worth it.

So this Friday I'll be lined up outside a major electronics store to score some sweet deals on free stuff and gifts for the holidays. The only thing I'll wish is that my family had flown South for the holidays, rather than me flying North; 3 a.m. is a lot colder in Seattle than it is in LA.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Stress Relief Tip: Get Your Finances on Auto-Pilot

The past couple of weeks have been pretty busy for me, so I went about ten days without looking at my finances. This is the longest I’ve gone without looking (and adjusting and obsessing) since my financial revolution. During those ten days, I kept thinking that I needed to look at my budget and my online bank balance to make sure that all of the bills were getting paid and that nothing odd was going on.

I was sure I’d have some sort of mess to clean up. I wasn’t even sure what that mess would be – maybe some bill was late (or close to it), or maybe there’d be a transaction error in my bank account. The thought was stressing me out more and more as the days went on, but I just didn’t have a second to sit down and take care of things.

When I finally got a chance to look, it turned out that there was really nothing for me to do. All of my bills are on auto pilot, so everything had been taking care of itself. All I did was check off a couple bills that had been paid and enter a grocery receipt. That was it!

It was a great feeling to know that I’ve gotten everything so streamlined that it can pretty much take care of itself without me for a few days. It’s always good to keep a close eye on things, but it’s nice to know that even when I’m not being very vigilant, things aren’t spiraling out of control. All it took was a little organization in the beginning, and now I can relax when I don’t have a chance to get to things for a few days.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Weekly Wrap-up - Week 4

Another week, another Weekly Wrap-up. I've had a cold for the past couple of days, so I've been home from work, feeling pretty crappy. The only upside is that I've been getting a lot of use out of my DVD collection as I rewatch some of my old favorites while I'm at home in bed all day.

On the financial side, I bought a plane ticket to visit my family for Christmas, which cost me about $400. I probably could have gotten it for less if I'd bought it much further in advance; I'll keep that in mind for my next trip.

Favorite posts from the past week:

Preparing for a Frugal Holiday Season

I bought my plane ticket to go home for Christmas yesterday, which means it's officially time to start preparing for the holiday season. As this will be my first frugal holiday, I've been busy reading about how others are being frugal during this time of year, and thinking about how I'll stay on target too. Here are a few things I'll be doing:

1. Sticking to a budget. I've had a rough budget in the past, but it was always in my head, which made it easier to stray from. This year I'll be keeping an Excel spreadsheet with a list of each person I'm buying for and the amount I plan to spend. As I purchase things, I'll mark the actual price in my spreadsheet so I know exactly how much money went out.

2. Exercising restraint. Around Christmas time, I usually find myself succumbing to Just One More Thing Syndrome. This is a condition that finds me buying "just one more thing" for each person in my family (five people). It's usually because I spent a couple dollars less on that person than I did on another, but the "one more thing" often ends up overcompensating, which leads to more compensating to make up for it, and the cycle keeps going. The budget will help me immensely on this front.

3. Giving it a lot of thought. Because I'll be spending a bit less than usual, I want to make sure that each present I give will truly be enjoyed by the recipient. My family is big on lists, so I have a list of ideas from each of my family members, and I'll be looking through those for ideas and choosing gifts that they'll love not only when they open them, but also as they use them in the future. I think this will also alleviate my tendency to overcompensate.

4. Shopping around. After I've chosen a thoughtful gift, I want to make sure that I get the best price. I'll be using the internet to shop around and find the best price for each item.

5. Paying cash. This will be my first Christmas without a credit card in a long time. I've saved up enough money over the past couple of months to cover what I'll need, and I'm really looking forward to not seeing a big bill in January.

What about all of you? What will you be doing to keep Christmas frugal and fun at the same time?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Squeeky Wheel Gets the Grease

The old adage is true, and it saved me $15.

I got an email from eBay yesterday saying that my seller fees were charged to the bank account on file, but the money was returned to them because the numbers they had on file were old or incorrect. I'm usually very careful when I input information like that, so it was hard for me to believe the number they had on file was incorrect. Still, people make mistakes, so it's entirely possible that I'd entered it wrong.

When I went to correct the information, however, I discovered that after the funds were returned, eBay had erased my account info from their system. I also discovered that they had charged me a $15 returned funds fee. Since there was no way to know if the returned funds were even my fault, I really didn't want to pay the fee.

I figured the least I could do was take five minutes to contact their customer service and ask for it to be removed. Even if it was my mistake, sometimes just asking will get you what you want, so I shot off an email and hoped for the best. They replied yesterday afternoon reiterating why the funds had been returned and stating that the fee was $15 because that's what the bank charges them when funds are returned.

I still didn't want to give up. I emailed again and basically said that because they had erased my account info, there was no way they could verify that the info was incorrect, so they shouldn't charge me a fee if they can't prove it was my fault.

Yesterday evening, I got an email saying that they would "extend a one-time courtesy" and refund the fee. Yay! A little persistence will get you a long way.

How To Create a Budget That Actually Works

This is a new series covering basic financial topics for beginners. I'll post a 'how to' like this one from time to time.

This is my take on how to create a budget. I'm not a financial expert, but I went through this process recently and it's had nothing but positive effects on my life, so I want to share my thoughts with you.

Some general notes:
  • I'm a single gal, so I don't have any experience doing this with a spouse or partner, but many of the concepts are the same. Just follow the steps together and work through your differences without fighting. Yeah, probably easier said than done, but I'm a single gal so what do I know?
  • I recommend using Excel or a similar spreadsheet program. It offers immense flexibility to create something that makes sense for each individual person.
  • Feedback is much appreciated. I'd love to hear how you implemented this, how it worked for you, and if you have any tips for improving the system.

Preparing to Budget

1. Take a deep breath. It's not as bad as you think, I swear. If I can do this, you can too. In fact, I actually think it's fun, so you can too.

2. Be brutally honest. No budget will work if you aren't honest about what you put into it. Do not lie to yourself (or anyone else) during this process.

3. Accept that your budget will be wrong. Don't worry, this is what will make it incredibly useful. Your life is never the same from month to month, so your budget won't be either, and whenever your budget is wrong, you can fix it to make it right. Your budget will be as flexible as your life.

Create a Template

1. Write down every source of income you have and assign an approximate dollar amount to each one. Even if your income varies a little, write down the average amount.

2. Write down everything you spend money on. This will probably take a few days to complete as you think of things to add to the list. Be sure to include irregular things like car registration, gifts, and travel. It can help to look around your home to jar your memory.

3. Assign a dollar amount to each expense. Use a new column to note this info. Some will be easy, such as rent or a car payment. Others could be more difficult to approximate like groceries or clothing. When in doubt, assign more than you think you'll need, and remember that you can always adjust things later.

4. Assign due dates. In another column, note the due date for each recurring bill. This will serve as an excellent reminder to keep you from paying any late fees.

5. Find a common denominator. You've probably got several units of time in your list: Monthly bills, bi-weekly income, yearly expenses, etc. Re-write all of the amounts into their monthly costs.
  • For yearly expenses such as car registration or property taxes, do not divide by 12. Instead, divide by the number of months between now and the next time that bill is due. Example: if your car registration is due in 6 months, divide by 6; if you divided by 12, you'd only have half the amount you needed when it came time to pay.
  • If you're paid bi-weekly, use the total amount of two checks to get your monthly income. You'll have two months a year when you get three checks, but you can treat the extra check as a windfall.
6. Categorize. Take a look at all of your expenses and sort them into categories. There are several methods you can use for this. I sorted them by type, i.e. Housing, Transportation, Entertainment, etc. You can also sort them into Fixed and Variable, or Necessities and Non-Necessities. Do whatever feels natural to you.

7. Do the math. Add up your income. Add up your expenses. Subtract your expenses from your income. The SUM formula in Excel is fantastic for this, and it's especially helpful as you adjust.

8. Adjust. If you have a negative balance after doing the math, you'll need to adjust or you'll go further into debt. If you have a positive balance after doing the math, you can to adjust to get the most out of your money. Take a look at everything you've allocated money for, and see if there are ways you can save that won't be painful.
  • Are you paying for things you don't use, like a land line phone, a gym membership, or cable tv? Cut them out.
  • Are you paying interest to anyone? Call your credit card company and get them to lower your interest rate. Consolidate your student loans to a lower fixed rate. Refinance your home at a lower fixed rate. Caution: Be sure to do your own research before doing any of these things; they aren't the best options for everyone.
  • Can you get the same product for cheaper somewhere else? Shop around for insurance and internet access to get the best price.
9. Adjust again. If you started with a negative balance, keep adjusting until you get to a zero balance. You may need to start cutting some more painful things, but make sure that you keep the necessities first, and the non-essentials that make you happiest second. Beyond that, cut away non-essentials that don't enrich your life as much. If you started with a positive balance allocate the balance to savings, debt repayment, or investments.

10. Save your work. This is your template to come back to time and time again. You can always adjust the template in the future, but keep it general so you can start there to create a budget for each specific month.

Make It Useful

1. Create this month's sheet. Right click on the sheet tab and create a copy of it. This will be your budget for the month you're in right now.

2. Get exact figures. In the new tab, start at the top and work your way down, changing each amount to the amount for this specific month. Your phone bill averages $40.00, but this month it's $37.41? Your income averages $2,000, but this month it's $2,013.49? Change the amounts to reflect the current month.

3. Adjust. After putting in your exact figures, your balance is probably not zero anymore. Readjust some of your categories to get back to a zero balance. Make sure you know where every dollar is going before it comes in.

4. Live life. This is the fun part. Spend your money! Pay your bills! And do it with the confidence that comes with knowing you have enough to cover everything.

5. Adjust. Yes again. You'll do this a lot, especially in the first couple months. As the month goes on, stuff will come up. You'll have to buy something you weren't counting on because life happens and you have to go with the flow. Your budget will flow with it too. When an unexpected expense comes up, put it in your budget and then take that amount from another category that can afford to be a little smaller.

6. Use discipline. Don't fritter away your balance. Lattes, DVDs, and video games are not unexpected expenses that you can spend your savings or debt repayment budget on. If you want those things, that's completely fine. It's up to you what you spend your money on as long as you budget it in to start with.

7. Repeat. Next month, copy the template to create a new sheet for that month and start all over. Each month is more practice, and practice will make perfect. Eventually you'll be a pro, I promise.

As you go through these steps, remember one very important thing: You can have anything you want. You just can't have everything you want. This mantra has made budgeting so much easier for me because I know that if I truly want something, I can have it. Money is only the tool we use to live life; it shouldn't drag us away from things that really fulfill us.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

ING Direct: Get Your Free Money Here!

I'm still doing some tweaking on the budget post I promised yesterday, so I'm putting it off till tomorrow. I could post now, but I think it'll be a lot more useful if I take a little more time to polish it up.

For today, I'm letting all of my readers know that I have ING Direct referrals available.

ING Direct is a great online bank with interest rates currently at 4.2% for savings and 3.2% for checking. I've had my savings with them for about two months, and I've found their interface to be very easy to use.

Best of all, they give away free money just for signing up. If you sign up with a referral from me and at least $250 initial balance, ING will give you a $25 bonus and me a $10 bonus.

One small word of caution: ING pulls your credit score a couple months after you sign up for a checking account, and they've been known to close accounts after getting the score. Unless your credit is good, I don't recommend getting a checking account with them.

All of that said, if you'd like to open an account, email me at tvgirlandmoney [at] gmail [dot] com, put "ING Direct Referral" in the subject line, and tell me your first and last name and if you want a savings or checking account. I'll email you the referral, and we'll both get some free money.

Next Time on TVG&M: How to Create a Budget That Actually Works (I promise!)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

My Financial Revolution - ... To Sum Up

Whew! We've reached the end of my financial revolution story! Now you know how I got here, where I am now, and where I'm going. I'll continue the story in leaps and bounds as I share my continuing story in the months (years?) ahead, but right now I want to do a little reflecting on how I've changed and what I've learned.

I have a lot fewer fears now than I did three months ago. I no longer dread getting the mail (for fear of bills) or using my debit card (for fear of 'rejected' messages). Facing $120,000 of debt on a $45,000 salary should scare the crap out of someone, but I was going to have to face it with or without a plan, and facing it with a plan is a lot less frightening.

I find myself hoping and dreaming a lot more than I used to. Or at least a lot more specifically. I've always been goal-oriented when it came to my career, and I've spent a lot of time looking toward what the future would bring, but these dreams have always been fairly vague. Now I have a very specific vision of my future, and even though I know that not everything works out exactly the way you plan, I know that whatever happens I'll have the financial wherewithal to face it with confidence.

That brings me to the most important change: I've learned to have confidence in myself. I always approached finances with an "I Can't" attitude. It's no wonder that I never succeeded financially; you can't succeed if you don't try. Now I know how to be one step ahead instead of two steps behind, and I know that I can do what needs to be done to keep accomplishing that. It may not be easy and I may not do it as well as someone else, but I can definitely do what I need to do for me in my life.

As I move forward from here, I encourage you to keep tabs on me. Asking questions and creating conversation is a great way to motivate me to move forward and keep learning about personal finance, and I hope it does the same for you.

This post is part of my Financial Revolution Series, which is my personal financial story. Each post gives a piece of the story, detailing how I got into debt and how I turned things around.

Next Time on TVG&M: How to Create a Budget That Actually Works

Monday, November 12, 2007

Where Am I Going? – Part II: My Plan of Attack

In my crusade to pay off all of my debt, I’m combining basic strategies I’ve learned from PF blogs, Dave Ramsey, and Suze Orman into a plan that will work for my situation.

I’ve already got a small emergency fund ($400) and I’m contributing $25 a month to it indefinitely. This is a pretty small fund, but I’m very healthy, my car is in good condition, and I rent. Murphy can certainly come knocking on anyone’s door, including mine, but these things make it pretty unlikely I’ll have an emergency that my insurance and a few hundred dollars can’t solve.

My debt snowball is currently at a solid $250 a month, but I’ve been able to get it above $300 most months through alternative income.

First on the endangered debts list is the AES student loan. Of the debts with an interest rate, this one is both the smallest amount and the highest rate. It’s also the company that I despise the most because they’ve been difficult to work with in the past. I’ll be thrilled to rid myself of this one.

Next up is the US Bank credit card. This card is currently at 1.9% interest, but the rate expires in September of 2008, so I want to eliminate it before then.

After that I’ll pay off The Bank of My Friends. This is a small debt that’s technically at 0% interest because I sort of borrowed it from myself. As soon as the credit card debt is gone, I’ll knock this out with my next snowball payment.

At this point my parents’ patience will finally be paid (literally) off. They’ve been incredibly nice about the money they lent me; they aren’t charging interest and they’re letting me stop payments until the credit card is eliminated. This is the debt I’ll feel the most satisfied about paying off.

During the course of paying down the previous three debts, I’ll have been paying the minimums on my car loan and the Chase credit card, which was an eighteen-months-same-as-cash LCD TV purchase. The Chase debt will get eliminated by the time I write my last check to The Bank of Mom & Dad, and the car loan will be gone within a month or two after that.

At this point, which is about a year and a half away, my debt snowball will be at least $600 a month and the only thing left will be my two monstrous student loans. The private loan has a higher variable interest rate, so I’ll attack it first and have it gone in about three or three and a half years (five years from now).

Depending on what my job/salary situation is at that time, I’ll probably back off on the debt repayment slightly so that I can split my focus a little. I’ll use half of the snowball, which will be upwards of $1000 at this point, to pay down the federal student loan. I’ll use the other half to save a larger emergency fund, contribute to my 401(k), save for a car, and save for a down payment on a home (in that order). There’s a long road ahead before I get to that point, however, so for right now I’m taking it one step at a time.

I’m planning on being debt free except for the federal student loan in five years, and debt free except for the mortgage in twelve years. I can practically feel the weight lifting off me already, and I know it will feel even better when I actually (finally!) get there.

This post is part of my Financial Revolution Series, which is my personal financial story. Each post gives a piece of the story, detailing how I got into debt and how I turned things around.

Next Time on TVG&M: …To Sum Up

Friday, November 9, 2007

Where Am I Going? – Part I: Goals

Here are the goals I have set up for myself:

Immediate term (Present – 2008)

  • Pay off AES student loan by January 2008
  • Increase Emergency Fund to $1000 by March 2008
  • Pay off credit cards by March 2008
  • Pay off The Bank of Friends by May 2008
  • Increase net worth to -$93,000 by December 2008

Short term (2009 – 2010)

  • Pay off The Bank of Mom & Dad by April 2009
  • Pay off car loan by October 2009
  • Increase net worth to -$60,000 by December of 2010

Mid term (2011 – 2013)

  • Have no high-interest, unsecured debt by December of 2012
    • Includes everything except federal student loan and mortgage
  • Start contributing 15% to retirement investments by January 2013
  • Increase net worth to -$30,000 by December 2013

Long term (2014 – 2022)

  • Increase net worth to $0 by December of 2015
  • Save $30,000 for house down payment by December 2016
  • Pay off federal student loan by December 2019

I’ve always been a very goal-oriented person. That trait is how I got to law school, which is how I got so far into debt, and I plan on using the same trait to pull myself back out. The goals I’ve set up are both attainable and measurable, and they have the added bonus of being things that I want very badly. The charts in the sidebar are a huge motivator for me, and I’m looking forward to watching them go to the right, pixel by pixel.

Next time on TVG&M: My Plan of Attack

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Where Am I Now? – Part III: The Odd Effects of Living on a Budget and Paying Down Debt

I knew that after such a serious change in attitude and behavior, my life would be significantly different. I've been living frugally and paying down debt for about three months now, and many of the changes I expected to occur have occurred.

  • I definitely feel less stressed out when I think about money
  • I no longer pay late fees or a bank fees
  • My total debt has decreased
In addition to these, there have been a few oddities, things that seem almost counter intuitive but have happened just the same.

The biggest effect has been that I have more money to buy what I need/want, and I feel no guilt when I buy frivolous things. When I started all of this, I fully expected the opposite effect: that without the use of my credit cards, I'd never be able to buy stuff I wanted, and if I did, I'd feel guilty about spending the money on stuff instead of paying down debt.

In actuality, the budget has been immensely helpful in letting me see the big picture of where all of my money is going. It has enabled me to make accurate decisions about spending, with all the facts in mind, so there's no worry or guilt. I’ve stopped randomly spending money on a bunch of stuff I didn't need or even want very much, I have a lot more money for things that I do want and need.

One specific example of this was a haircut. I’m not fashion or beauty conscious in any sense of the words. I’m a jeans and t-shirt girl (if the t-shirt has a comic book character or symbol on it, all the better), I rarely wear make-up, I don’t use product in my hair, etc. I do, however, need a haircut once in a while, but since I’m not into that kind of stuff, I don’t think about it very often, and pre-financial revolution I spent so much money on crap that I never felt like I had enough money for one. Talk about priorities out of whack. When I had my financial revolution, I hadn’t had a haircut in about eight months, and I needed one pretty badly. I put it in the budget, and voila, I got a haircut. It felt very strange to go to the salon knowing that I not only had enough money, but that the money was best spent there and not anywhere else.

Another odd effect is the amount of mail I get from credit card companies. I consolidated and/or paid off my credit cards, so the number of monthly bills went from 5 to 2, but I actually get more mail from my credit card companies now. Sometimes three or four offers a day. They miss me! They want me back! They'll give me all sorts of *special limited time only* offers if I'll start spending their money again. Consequently, my shredder has been making itself very useful lately.

Before my financial revolution, for some reason I equated cheap food with unhealthy food, but that's not always the case. In season produce is some of the cheapest food around, and grocery shopping in general is WAY cheaper than eating out all the time, especially if you shop the sales and don't let food go to waste in your fridge. I’ve lost a few pounds in the past few months, and I feel a lot better about myself for it.

My Mother
My mom is a math-brained person. She’s worked in the tax and/or payroll field for over twenty years, and if I had a nickel for every time I’ve whined for help from her on financial matters, I’d be a millionaire. Lately, however, she’s been asking me for advice. I helped her set up a budget and she and my dad have done very well sticking to it. We’ve also had conversations about frugality, retirement savings, investing, credit card vs debit card vs cash usage, etc. Over the years she’s often complained that my sisters and I are all art-brained people like my dad and that she feels left out sometimes, so it’s been really neat to share this stuff with her, and I think it’s brought us closer.

These few odd things are only some of the positive effects I’ve noticed as a result of my financial revolution. This whole journey has been an eye-opener for me, and I’ve been so blessed through it that I often wonder why I spent so many years thinking that finances were too difficult to understand.

This post is part of my Financial Revolution Series, which is my personal financial story. Each post gives a piece of the story, detailing how I got into debt and how I turned things around.

Next Time on TVG&M: Goals

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Where Am I Now? – Part II: Nuts and Bolts

At this point, I’m doing pretty well. I’ve gotten a grip on my debt, organized a budget, and pared it down to the essentials plus a few goodies. But how do I keep track of all of this stuff? What tools do I use to save and spend?

Glad you asked. Basically I use five tools: Microsoft Excel, a checking account, a savings account, cash, and a debit card.

Microsoft Excel
The most important tool I use is a system of three Excel workbooks. The first workbook is my budget, which keeps track of my monthly income and expenses, as well as my total debt and my weekly meal plan. The second workbook keeps track of irregular spending like car maintenance, magazine subscriptions, gifts, etc. The third and final workbook is a price book, which helps me lower my grocery bill by keeping track of prices.

Checking Account
I use the same checking account I’ve had for years, and the bank has been pretty good to me overall. They don’t charge a monthly fee, and their online bill pay is easy to use. They do charge $35 overdraft fees, which I used to get dinged by a lot, but that hasn’t happened since my initial financial revolution, so it doesn’t bother me anymore. It’s not an interest bearing account so I’ll probably switch to ING’s Orange Checking in the future, but my right now credit is not good, so I’m sticking with my brick and mortar national bank.

Savings Account
I recently opened a savings account with ING Direct, which is what I use to store my emergency fund and my irregular spending accounts. All of the money is in the same account, but I use my handy Excel spreadsheet system to track how much of it is for each purpose. Right now I’m working on beefing up my emergency fund, so all of the interest goes there.

I use cash for regular daily/weekly spending. This includes groceries, gas, and personal items such as soap and shampoo. I get paid every two weeks, so each pay period I get the budgeted amount for each category in cash from the ATM. My wallet has several compartments, so each category has its own compartment. This forces me to watch my spending, because when the money is gone I have to wait until the next pay period to get more.

Debit Card
I use a debit card for irregular spending. This is the money that I’ve saved and tracked in the second Excel workbook. Whenever I spend money out of those categories, I use my debit card. At the end of the month I transfer the amount I saved for all of the categories that month from my checking to my savings, minus any money I spent out of those categories. The only time I alter this is if I buy something expensive (like a plane ticket) that costs more than the amount I saved for everything that month, in which case I would need to transfer from savings to checking to cover the difference.

And that’s it. Those five things keep me in tip top financial shape month after month. They’re so easy to use, sometimes I wonder why I didn’t start doing all of this sooner!

This post is part of my Financial Revolution Series, which is my personal financial story. Each post gives a piece of the story, detailing how I got into debt and how I turned things around.

Next time on TVG&M: The Odd Effects of Living on a Budget and Paying Down Debt

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Blog Carnivals: A Few Amusing Stories and Much More

I plan on continuing my one-a-weekday morning posting schedule, but I'll be adding the occasional afternoon or evening post (like this one) whenever I have something extra to say.

A couple of carnivals held this morning included posts from right here at TV Girl and Money. A big THANK YOU goes out to the host blogs!

The 33rd Carnival of Money Stories was held at Moolanomy this morning, and my post on student loan consolidation was included.

Posts included in this carnival that I especially liked:
The 99th Festival of Frugality was also held this morning, over at Paid Twice, and my Mexican Rice Dish Recipe was included.
If you're a new reader who came over from one of these carnivals, welcome! I'm a very new blogger so it wouldn't take long to read through the whole archive, but if you just want the basics, check out the about section. If you like what you read, please subscribe via feed or email. Thanks!

Where Am I Now? – Part I: Increasing My Income

Now that I’d decreased my outflow, I’ve started looking at ways to increase my income.

When I moved from WA to CA in July, I took only what fit in my car, so there was a lot of stuff left at my parents’ place. They’d been planning to have a garage sale anyway, and my part of the proceeds was about $500.

I also found a few things I’d brought with me that I didn’t really need or want, so I listed that stuff on eBay, Amazon, and Half. I sold a few DVDs, the seventh Harry Potter, my old camera, and a few other odds and ends, all of which has net me about $200 so far.

I’ve also got a bunch of books and CDs still at my parents’ place, which I plan on bringing back in my checked luggage at Thanksgiving so that I can sell them.

My next objective was to find a second job. I needed something where the hours wouldn’t affect my current 8-5 job, and since I’m not desperate, I also needed something that I wouldn’t completely hate, which ruled out many high turnover positions like fast food.

What I came up with was newspaper delivery. The hours are about 3-6 am, six days a week, which would give me plenty of time to get home and get ready before I had to be at my regular job at 8. It’s also done mostly alone, which is a big plus for an introvert like me, especially at the crack of dawn. I’d have to adjust my sleeping schedule to do it, as well as give up watching as much TV (or at least save it for the weekend - although with the writer's strike, there may not be much to watch anyway), but it pays $16-18 an hour so I’m sure I could do it temporarily to get a good chunk of my debt eliminated.

I’ve done some research and found a couple companies that handle delivery in my area, but since I’ll be flying home for both Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I don’t want to deal with finding someone to take my route on those days, I’ll apply for a route when I get back after Christmas. I plan on sticking it out for at least six months (more if I like it and I’m not too tired), which will net me around $7000 dollars.

Total increased income so far: $700

Increased income goal for the next year: $8000

I’ll be sure to keep you updated as I work toward that goal.

This post is part of my Financial Revolution Series, which is my personal financial story. Each post gives a piece of the story, detailing how I got into debt and how I turned things around.

Next Time on TVG&M: Nuts and Bolts

Monday, November 5, 2007

How Did I Get Here? – Part VI: The Pruning Gets Easier

While working on conquering the student loan beast, I took a look at a few other things I could do to pare down my monthly payments and make my snowball bigger.

The first thing I looked at was my credit cards. I did a balance transfer to a 0% card a couple of years ago, and although I mostly paid it down during that year, I wasn’t on a plan like I am now, so I ran up my other cards in the mean time. Needless to say, this wasn’t helpful. Still, I knew I could do that again and use my newfound financial ambition to get rid of the debt before the 0% went away.

All of that was floating around in my head when I was at the bank one day shortly after my initial financial revolution. The guy behind the counter was looking at my account and said I was pre-approved for a 0% card. I was VERY hesitant to sign up because I didn’t want to act on impulse, but I figured that 0% was 0% and it would be nice to have the card at my current bank because making payments through their online funds transfer would be really easy.

It turned out that I wasn’t really pre-approved (why the guy said that, I have no idea), and after they signed me up for the card my rate turned out to be 1.9%. With a 3% balance transfer, this wasn’t as good of a deal as I’d hoped, and I wish I had done some more research before acting, but overall it’s still a much better situation than I was in with balances on four different cards at upwards of 20% on most of them. Over the period of time before I pay these off, this saved me about an average of $13 a month.

The next thing I looked at were some of my smaller monthly bills. I took Netflix down from three-at-a-time unlimited to one-at-a-time unlimited, which saved me $8 a month. I took texting off my cell phone and removed the insurance, saving me $5 a month. I lowered my grocery allotment from $240 to $200, and have since gotten it all the way down to $140, saving me $100 a month.

One last thing I did was to shop around for car insurance. Since I’d recently moved and my current policy would be expiring soon, I needed to update my insurance anyway. I got quotes from a few different companies, but my current company was still the lowest, and because an accident I got into a few years ago was no longer on my record, my payments went from $160 to $100 a month.

Total Savings: $186 a month, and it wasn’t even that painful.

This post is part of my Financial Revolution Series, which is my personal financial story. Each post gives a piece of the story, detailing how I got into debt and how I turned things around.

Next Time on TVG&M: Increasing My Income

Friday, November 2, 2007

Weekly Wrap-up - Week 2

Another week, another Weekly Wrap-up. This week was HUGE for me, as my student loan consolidation became final and I found $2200 in a forgotten retirement account.

In semi-related news, my office had a chili cook-off for Halloween, and I won! My prize was a free pizza from a local pizzeria, so I'm forgoing the diet tonight in favor of a free meal, a tasty treat, and a sense of accomplishment.

Before the rest of the linkage ensues, I'd like to say a huge thanks to Paid Twice for hosting the Carnival of Debt Reduction, which featured my Financial Revolution as an editor's choice. Thank you!

I'd also like to say welcome to all the new readers who have come over in the past week. It's good to have you here! Feel free to comment on any entry or email me with questions.

And now, my favorite posts from around the blogosphere:

How Did I Get Here? – Part V: Student Loan Consolidation Is a Pain in the—yeah, that

After creating a budget and eliminating a few things from it, I ended up with a small debt snowball. Obviously the bigger I could make the snowball, the faster I could get out of debt, so I went through each item on my budget to see if I could save any more money.

The biggest monster was my student loans – the bane of my existence for the past couple of years. I had had about twelve different loans from five different companies, and it was almost impossible to keep track of them all. Some of them had nearly identical minimum payments, some of the companies had almost identical names (ACS and AES), and some of the loans would come from the same company, but at different times of the month, on separate bills, and with varying account numbers.

Before my financial revolution, the student loans were my worst nightmare. My mom and I spent hours trying to sort everything out, and I cried over the stacks and stacks of paperwork on her kitchen table more than once. We consolidated a couple years ago, but not everything got included, and I accrued more loans later, so things were still a mess.

After my financial revolution, I felt more of an attack mentality, and I was determined to not only save money, but to understand my loans and simplify things once and for all.

The combined total of the minimum payments was roughly $950 – almost twice my rent—and the amount was going to go up as more grace periods ended in the near future. Although I wanted to save money in the short term by lowering my monthly payment, the last thing I wanted to do was pay more money in the long run, so forbearance and deferment weren’t options. Instead, I looked into consolidation.

The federal loans were fairly easy. Everything was done over the computer, and I ended up with a 5.65% interest rate on a 25 year loan. The interest rate was about the same as the averages of the rates on my previously unconsolidated loans, but the longer term made the monthly payment lower. If I make only the minimum payments, I’ll pay more interest in the long run, but I’ll most likely make extra payments in the future to lessen the effects.

The private loans were more of a challenge. I researched rate quotes from a couple companies, and armed with that information, I called Sallie Mae.

I got a bit of a run around from the first person I talked to. He wouldn’t give me an interest rate quote and said that I’d have to go through the entire application process to find out what my rate would be.

I asked for a supervisor, who gave me the same story until I mentioned the quote I’d gotten from another company. Suddenly, she was all about the numbers. She gave me the exact rates for each credit level of the borrower and co-borrower, the best of which was 8.75%. I knew my parents’ (the co-signers) credit was good, and I figured we would qualify for that lowest rate.

When the paperwork was all said and done, the rate was 8.25% – half a percent lower than what she’d quoted. Fabulous!

The rate on the private loans is variable, but only based on the index – Sallie Mae’s margin is fixed. Also, if the rate adjusts, they prorate the amount so your payment only adjusts once a year, which makes it a lot easier to budget. It’s not ideal, but it’s light years better than before, and I plan to be rid of it in six years or less.

The whole process is slower than a ten year itch, so dispersal seemed to take forever, but the last piece of the puzzle fell into place on Wednesday when ACS received and processed Sallie Mae’s payment.

Both ACS and AES had accrued interest during the application process and dispersal period, so there was still a bit left on each loan. ACS had about $16 left so I sent the payment on Wednesday and I’m DONE with that one. AES was $1,008.80, so that’s at the top of the debt snowball now and should be done by January – I’ve already paid it down to $817.89.

The whole thing was a HUGE headache, but lowering my monthly payment by almost $300 and reducing my budget by ten lines was definitely worth it.

This post is part of my Financial Revolution Series, which is my personal financial story. Each post gives a piece of the story, detailing how I got into debt and how I turned things around.

Next time on TVG&M: The Pruning Gets Easier

Thursday, November 1, 2007

My Net Worth – October 2007 – ($105,058.04) – 0.55%

Since it’s the beginning of a new month, I want to pause the current series to take a look at my net worth. I’ll post an analysis entry like this one at the beginning of every month to measure my progress.

Cash $1.50
US Bank Checking: $1,363.59
ING Savings: $893.43
PERS Retirement: $2,249.08
Car: $7,000
Personal Property: $1,000
Total: $12,507.60

US Bank Credit Card: $3,409.41
Chase Credit Card: $484.73
The Bank of Mom and Dad: $7,610.24
The Bank of Friends: $526.27
Car Loan: $5,921.33
AES Student Loan: $817.89
Sallie Mae Private Student Loan: $58,746.01
Sallie Mae Federal Student Loan: $40,058.68
Total: $117,574.56

Net Worth: -$105,066.96
Change from Previous Month: 0.55%

My student loan consolidation became final as of yesterday, which made me very very happy for two reasons. 1) It’s finally behind me and I can get on with the business of paying down debt at nice(ish) interest rates. 2) I didn’t want my net worth to be screwy this month because the new loan showed money paid out, but one of the old loans didn’t show the credit yet.

My growth this month was fairly small, mostly because the consolidation brought a couple loans out of the grace period, so the accrued interest capitalized and the total principle went up. I’ve adjusted the progress bars in the sidebar to reflect this. Also note, the student loans are listed individually now, instead of all lumped together.

A big positive this month: found money. A couple days ago, I remembered that I’d been putting money into a retirement account at my last job. A web search and a phone call later, and I discovered I had over $2,000 in there. Awesome!

Overall this wasn’t a great growth month, but I’m very proud of myself for finally making it over the consolidation hurdle. In fact, tomorrow’s financial revolution post will detail that beast.

Next Time on TVG&M: Student Loan Consolidation Is a Pain in the—yeah, that