Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Taxes Done!

I stayed home from work yesterday because of a pinched nerve in my shoulder (fun, fun). It sucked, but on the bright side, I used the time to do my 2011 taxes. I knew I'd be getting a refund, but it's exciting to know the exact amount and to start playing with different scenarios of how I'll use it.

I'm getting $2,300 back in taxes. Holla! So, I'm going to put $1,700 toward my student loan (to make $2,000 above my regular payment this month with the $300 allotted for that in my budget). The remainder is going into my Travel fund, which puts me on track for my goal.

It's interesting, I'm not tempted to go and buy anything with the money...I am tempted to leave it in savings to boost my E-fund, or to put it all towards my trip fund as a "just in case" amount. But my old routine was to splurge on something big with my taxes. Now, I want to do something significant with it...whether it's savings or paying down debt, I want it to go towards something. I like that most of it is paying off debt, while the rest is going towards something that is memorable and I will be glad I did forever.

Now, I just have to wait for the direct deposit to come in! My loan sidebar should be getting more blue in a couple of weeks!

What are you doing with your tax returns?

Monday, January 30, 2012

My New Addiction

A few months ago I got a notice from SoCal Edison (electric company) that I can track my bill online throughout the month. I can also set it up to email me a weekly update of where I'm at and if I'm on track to stay within my goal for how much my electric bill will be.

That sounds cool, I thought. Then I didn't do it for two months.

But, I finally set it up a few weeks ago, and I LOVE it. I can log in and see what my current bill is and how much they predict I'll owe at the end of the month. I check it a few times per week, and it's really made me more mindful to unplug different things when they're not in use. I resisted the temptation to use my space heater the other night, and instead grabbed an extra blanket. I've been opening windows and turning off the lights during the day. I've also been letting my laptop charge all day at work, and then not plugging it in when I use it at home (as much as possible). I think this is making a big difference, actually.

Right now, I'm on track to be $4 under my goal for the month. I set my goal on the lowest end of what we've paid in the past. So, if I can keep consistent for the rest of the month, my electric bill will only be $16 this month. No, it's not saving me millions of dollars (heck, even hundreds). But it's nice to be in control, and it's also good for the environment.

And I'm really nerdy, so it's even kind of fun.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Weekend Update: +/- Edition

--I woke up with a really bad crick in my neck. It still hurts, but it's slowly improving...I really want to run today, so hopefully it's better by four or five. BF even offered to jog with me, so I really want to go.
+BF brought me breakfast on a tray since my neck hurt.
+Got seven of the 92 hours I need to accrue to get my summer bonus for National Boards.
--Had to go to a 7 hour training yesterday in LA. The follow up is this Thursday from 4:30-8:30. Yuck.
+I'm under budget in a few areas, so I should be able to put a little money in my travel fund for Europe.
+My W-2 was in my sign-in sheet on Friday.
--I didn't sign out, so I didn't get it yet. But I'll be doing my taxes tomorrow night!
+This is the last week of the semester, and my classes should get smaller for second semester, which will be GREAT.
--Lots of work to finish and grade this week!
+Went to a USC basketball game with BF and his friend last night. Fun to do something different.
+I'm cooking dinner with all ingredients we have on hand, since I don't want to go to grocery store 'til I get paid on Friday. We'll see if I can make it!

Overall more plusses than minuses. How was your weekend?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

New Money, Old News

Because I am at a brand new school, we didn't get all of our funding right away. But now that it's second semester, they've released some of our funds so I'm actually going to start getting paid for some of the extra work I'm doing. Whoo-hoo!

So, I'm getting paid to do an after school tutoring session once a week. I will get about $50/hour. I've been doing tutoring every Wednesday from 3:00-4:00 all year, so it will be nice to get compensated for that work.

I am one of the Lead Teachers for my academy, which means I lead meetings, help handle discipline, and attend admin meetings for our whole school. For this job, I'm getting $25 per week flat, as well as $25 every other week for the meeting I attend.

So, for those of you keeping score, this means I'll be bringing home an extra $350 per month before taxes. Add this to the $200 or so I'll get for having my National Boards, and I'm looking at a pretty amazing monthly bump! For now, a lot of my extra money will go toward my Europe trip, and then I'll use it to meet my 2012 goals. There is a chance that we'll have to take furlough days at the end of the year, so the extra money could also help compensate for the loss of pay.

Also, the old news is that I know I will be getting a pink slip again this year. I hope that it will be rescinded before school's out, but there is a definite chance that I will be laid off for the summer and have to go on unemployment. I'd most likely be brought back before school starts, and be back-paid for the unnecessary layoff. But, time will tell for all of that.

My goal is to try not to freak out about the pink slip thing...it's awful, and stressful, and frankly insulting to the job I do each day. I have been teaching for seven years. My classes are huge, so the thought that we can layoff more teachers is a crazy thought. I am National Board Certified, I am a lead teacher, and I do a million other things each day. But, rather than focus on all of that for now (and hopefully in the months to come) I will enjoy my trip to Europe, and then start stocking money into my emergency fund. I can't control what will happen next; but I can be prepared.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Taking Time for...

After a conversation about fitness/weight loss with the BF yesterday and reading Jolie's post about health, I decided to focus on taking care of myself today, and hopefully in the days to come. So, I'm not committing to doing this regularly (I'm terrible with doing series of posts), but for today, I'm counting how I cared for myself, in hopes of reminding me to do this more often.

*I tried a new church, and though I didn't like it, I made the effort to go=taking care of my soul.
*I ran two miles and then came home and did the Active 2 workout for today=taking care of my health via exercise.
*I am drinking a cup of green tea and eating a nectarine as a snack instead of having a soda and chips=taking care of my health via diet.
*I am about to start grading papers=taking care of my stress level later this week by getting ahead. This will hopefully enable me to make time for exercise later in the week, as well as some other professional goals.
*I am making dinner in the crock pot, with ingredients I had, using up some things that were about to go bad=taking care of my finances and not wasting food, which connects me to the Earth (wow, that one sounded new agey.)
*I opened the shades and am working by natural light, so I am not using extra electricity=taking care of my finances and the planet.
*I plan on cleaning the bathroom and vacuuming=taking care of my home, which makes me feel more at peace when I am here.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Europe Hotels Booked!

This week Shelley and I talked on the phone three or four times, mostly about where we should stay in Amsterdam and Beligum. We finally decided to stay at Bed & Breakfast Jordaan in Amsterdam. It gets great reviews, comes with breakfast, the owner is said to be super helpful in planning your days, and it was a reasonable amount. In American dollars, we'll each be paying about $80 per night.
Street view

Doesn't this look lovely?

For our two nights in Beligum we decided to stay in Bruges at Hotel Ter Reien. We're paying about $75 per night each there. It also got good reviews, and we spent an extra ten bucks per night for a canal view, where apparently swans come up to your windows and you can feed them bread. (shut up!) This one also comes with breakfast.

Right on the canal...
Yes, we could have found cheaper places to stay. But I'm over hostels, and I wanted my own bathroom (something many of the cheaper hotels in Europe didn't offer). I think we struck a good balance between getting a good deal and staying somewhere nice.

Now that we have our hotels booked, it's starting to feel real! Whoo hoo!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Thanks ING!

Over Thanksgiving I opened a Sharebuilder account in order to earn a $100 bonus once I did two trades. Today, the bonus showed up in my account, so I transferred it to my ING Savings, which for now is my Europe fund. I was also able to sell a book on Amazon, so I transferred another $9.20 into ING. That brings my Europe fund total up to $210. Slow and steady, baby.

I looked back and thanks to taking advantage of sign-up bonuses, I earned $135 in free money this year from ING. Score! That's enough for the roundtrip train ticket from Brussels to Amsterdam and back. Or a night in the cute B&B we found in Amsterdam. Thanks ING!

I know my days of bonus sign ups for myself are over, but hopefully I can get sign up bonuses from friends and get some more free money from ING as well. I'm definitely happy with their customer service when I've called, and you can't beat a bank that gives you free money!

Anyone else taken advantage of ING's bonuses? What did you use them for?

Friday, January 13, 2012

Resisting Temptation

I recently posted on my rules to help me save for my trip to Europe. As usual, temptation abounds...

Temptation: Had to go to mall to buy gift for White Elephant party last weekend. Walked by VS semi-annual sale AND Limited sale on dresses (40% off). Looked at both, but did not buy anything.

Temptation: Hungry after work, knew I wouldn't eat for another hour or two at book club. Had a granola bar from my purse instead of stopping to get something to eat.

Temptation: Saw delicious tacos and giant burritos friends were getting at book club for $11. Ordered kids meal and spent $6. And the guy must have thought I was cute, because he gave me a full-size drink with the kids meal. ;)

Temptation: Wanted something sweet after boyfriend made at-home happy hour the other night (he's the best). Almost went to Yogurtland, but had Skinny Cow ice cream sandwiches in the freezer, so we had those instead.

Temptation: Wanted to plug in heating pad while I napped since I had cramps. Instead, found toe warmers my grandma gave me for Christmas and stuck two on them on my t-shirt in appropriate spot. Saved electricity and no risk of burning this house down while I sleep. (Using electricity isn't banned, but I'd love to get that bill lower, since all snowflakes go to my trip!)

So far, so good. Reminding myself that I actually get to go to Europe for Spring Break is a pretty good motivation to resist temptation. I'm hoping to have close to $200 extra out of this months budget to put toward my travel fund at the end of the month. Fingers crossed!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Down Ten Pounds by April!

I joined the 10-pound Challenge hosted by Newlyweds on a Budget. Lose 10 pounds in 12 weeks, win $$$. Are you in?

There are some great prizes at stake, but also ten pounds would put me exactly where I want to be weight-wise. I could technically lose more after that, but I know where my body likes to stay, and what it looks like at that weight. The contest ends in April, so I'd have to be good in Europe to stay on track (eek!). But, I think know I can do it!

Who else is in? How are you planning on taking off the ten pounds?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Going to the Next Level

On Friday I met with my financial adviser to finish switching over my 403(b) to him, open my Roth IRA, and start being more aggressive with my savings. It ended up being a two and a half hour meeting, and I learned a lot.

The Roth is pretty simple. I'm doing a monthly contribution in order to max it out for 2012. I'm having it deducted from my checking every month, so it will happen automatically and I don't have to think about it too much. However, since I asked a lot of questions and seemed genuinely interested in how it worked, Steve (financial adviser) helped me plan out four different types of investments for my Roth. Each investment has lots and lots of stocks in it, but I did three international investments and one domestic. There is a range of risk, but overall it's pretty aggressive. I feel good about not only starting a Roth, but learning more and having a say in where my money is going.

We also set up investments in California Municipal Bonds to try to earn more interest on the money that's sitting in my Emergency Fund. I kept about one fourth of my E-fund money in my credit union account, so that it's easily accessible. The rest (and $500 from here on out) will be invested in bonds. On average these are earning about 6% and the growth is tax free. :) The money is completely liquid; I can access it at any time. But, the longer it stays in the account the more I can earn in interest, so I want to leave it alone as much as possible. I am also thinking that this will be my house down payment fund, since the interest is so good. I can always deposit more or less, but I like that it's set up with an automatic amount. Any extra savings can go in my CU emergency fund, which will also help me grow that savings as well. There is a small amount of risk in the investments, but bonds are very stable and Steve was able to show me data on how the accounts I'm in have performed, so I feel good about it.

I'm excited about these choices for a few reasons. One, it will be awesome to get more interest on my savings rather than just letting it sit in my CU account. Two, I feel like I'm transitioning to a place where rather than just keeping money for an emergency, I (might) actually make some money by investing wisely. I understand what I'm doing, and while I'm not blind to risk, I feel like I'm growing in my financial skill and understanding. If I can keep going with my Roth and 403(b) I should be in a great place to retire (I also have a pension). And, if my savings can earn the interest promised, I could be on the road to home ownership in the next couple of years.

I guess  what I'm trying to articulate is that I'm not the person who had a bunch of debt and no real plan on how to handle it. And I'm not even the person who just paid off debt and managed to save a little each month. I'm a person who is getting good at finances. Of course I  have more to learn (a lot more), but I left the meeting on Friday on a high, knowing that I was taking power over my financial future and present. It felt good.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

New Savings Plan

Okay, so I just announced I'm going to Europe for Spring Break. And I just tapped my E-fund to buy my plane tickets. Ideally, I'd like to fund this trip without derailing my other goals. If I were still a single gal, living alone I would go frugal-crazy and find ways to slice my budget all over the place. But, I live with BF. And since it's not his trip, I don't feel right making him suffer for my vacation. Also, he has a lower threshold for frugal living than I do in general, so that's something to keep in mind.

That's not to say we'll be eating out every meal and spending like crazy. We cook a lot, and he's trying to save to pay off his credit cards too. But, I've decided to cut in areas that only affect ME and not US.

So, the following things are banned until the end of the school year (which is after the trip, but my savings will need some recovery time afterward too).
1. BANNED: Clothes shopping. I have enough clothing, and I did some shopping over Christmas for myself, so I am all set. (The only exception would be that if I lose the ten pounds I'd like to, I can buy a new pair of jeans from Old Navy).
2. BANNED: Spending money on food at work. No cafeteria breakfasts or lunches, no $2 mini-Jamba Juices on Wednesdays. No vending machine sodas. I just need to allow five extra minutes in the morning to make breakfast, and be ready with easy lunches.
3. BANNED: Eating out alone. Basically this means no stopping for fast food when I'm out running errands. If I'm socializing, that's fine, but on my own I need to be prepared and eat at home. I'd also like to make an effort to spend less when I eat out with friends (kids meals, eating first and meeting for just a drink or snack, etc.)

BF and I will still hit up a happy hour about once a week. We'll still go out to our favorite bar about once a month. I'll still buy groceries for real dinners and buy beverages other than water (though I'll look for deals at the grocery store, of course).

I think these three choices will make a difference in my budget, and my goal is to be able to filter extra money from my budget toward my trip in each of the next three months (January, February, March). I'm also trying to hustle up some stuff to sell on Amazon and Ebay, though my apartment is pretty cleaned out, so that will be a little tricky.

Stay tuned for the actual budget in another post.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Europe Budget

Okay, so here are the dirty details. I've purchased a round-trip ticket from LA to Brussles. (We'll take the train from Brussels to Amsterdam right away and then come back to Belgium for a few days at the end of our trip before we fly home) The damage for the tickets was $889. Frankly, I was thrilled to find a round trip ticket to Europe for under $1,000. I used my emergency fund to buy those tickets, since I didn't plan on such a big trip ahead of time.

I'm budgeting another $1500 for the rest of the trip. This will include my train ticket from Brussels and Amsterdam and back, transportation once we're there, food, and hotels. We both want to keep the trip cheap, so I think we'll be on the same page. We'll share a hotel room, and we're talking about doing a hostel in Belgium in order to save a little more money. I don't do souvenirs (other than postcards, a little something for BF, and Christmas ornaments for me), so I don't need to budget too much for that.

Here's how I'll make it happen, without derailing other goals:
*My National Boards back pay should come in February's check, which I believe will be about $600 (three months worth, since I've been certified since December and have yet to be paid).
*I'll also have around $200 on National Boards money in March's paycheck, so I'll add that to my travel fund.
*I'm going to use the money in my ING Direct account as my travel fund. It's been my house fund, but I'm okay raiding it for my trip. Once my $100 sharebuilder bonus posts, that will be just over $200.
*I think I can also save at least $100 a month out of my regular budget, which gives me $300 more.

*For those of you keeping score, that's $1300. For the last $200 I'm hoping that my tax refund will allow me enough to put $2000 towards my student loans and still have the other $200 I need for my trip. If it's comparable to previous years, I should have that and a little extra for my E-fund, to start to make up for raiding it to buy plane tickets.

When I get back, if I put the National Boards money towards my E-fund, and keep finding an extra $100 to save each month, I should have it to six month levels by August, which is only two months off of my original goal. I'm okay with this minor setback in my goals. Once my student loan is paid off in October I will focus on my house down payment fund goal for the last few months of the year.

Friday, January 6, 2012

So...I'm Going to Europe.

So, in my 2012 goals I mentioned that I wanted to take a trip with my friend Shelley. There are a few reasons for this. First, she's great. Second, she and I travel really well together. We're both Type A, list makers, itinerary writers...not relaxed travelers, but we did England and Scotland together and it was amazing. Third, she lives in Portland now, so when I want to see her I have to fly anyway...may as well pick a destination and meet there.

On Wednesday we had a phone chat and tossed around ideas. We started with Europe, but then talked about a trip to the South or Canada, trying to go cheaper. We ended up back in Europe, talking about Berlin and Prague. Then we talked again and tossed around Austria or Holland. Then I called my grandma, who's been to all of these countries and got her advice. After several days of deliberation, I can now officially announce that I am going to Belgium and Holland for my Spring Break! I'm giddy about going to Europe again, and going with Shelley!

We both have money in our savings, so no debt is required. We both have boyfriends who don't like long flights, so it makes sense to do this together. We are also both on the marriage track, which leads to the kids track, which means vacations to Europe with a girl friend probably won't happen again anytime soon. While the smarter financial choice is to go somewhere domestic, the best life-experience choice would be to go to Europe now while we are single and can afford it.

This will change some of my financial goals...or at least push them back a bit. My ING account will switch from being my house down payment fund to being my Europe fund (and it may become my travel fund permanently). Any extra money from my budget will go there. I am estimating that I will need about $2,500 for the trip ($900 spent tonight on airfare...out of my E-fund). I'd love to do it for $2,000, but I want to save $2,500 to be on the safe side. I'll do another post with ways I hope to save for the trip without derailing other goals.

But guys: I'M GOING TO EUROPE! I can't tell you how excited I am to travel abroad again. And I'm STOKED that I get to visit two new countries that I've never seen before. I just requested books about The Netherlands and Belgium from the library...hope there's no limit to how many times I can check that out.


Thursday, January 5, 2012

Selling My Stuff Online

In 2011 I made approximately $630 by selling books, DVD's and various items on Ebay. A chunk of that was because I scored ten boxes of free books via Freecycle, and then sorted through all of them and listed bunches on Amazon in February. I probably made at least $200 on that, if not more.

The other night I sold one of the last books from that venture, and right now I only have two other items listed. Honestly, I've gone through most of my books and such and listed most of the ones that are worth money that I am willing to part with. So, logically I probably won't make as much money selling items online this year.

But, I still plan on selling items when I can. In the past, that money has gone to debt repayment. My student loan requires that I make payments of at least two months worth in order for it to go towards principle, so no small payments can go there. My E-fund is on track to be funded by June, and it's in an account that requires direct deposit (not that I can't put it in my regular savings, but I kind of like it all in one place).

So, I've decided that any "snowflakes" I make from selling items online will go toward my ING Direct account. That is not getting funded right now (except with ING direct bonuses that I find ways to get) (If you'd like a referral code to sign up with them, you get a $25 bonus and I get $10...comment with your info if you want me to send you a referral). Since selling things is "found" money, I think I'll move it into that fund. Tomorrow I have a big announcement that will tell you why I'm looking to fund my ING Direct account...get excited people.

What do you do with unexpected money?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Why I Won't Be Renewing My Gym Membership

I prepaid a gym membership a while back, and still have some months left. However, it expires this year. I already know I won't be renewing it. Why?

1. I (almost) never use it.
2. I have taken up running, which I can do for free, outside (God bless Southern California weather). I use my boyfriend's GPS watch, so I can track my pace and mileage, which is awesome. Also, I'd rather put my money toward various 5k races than a gym membership.
3. I'm addicted to the Active 2 game for PS3. I cannot recommend this game enough! I wrote a review of it on Amazon, so if you want to read more, click here. This is how I plan to tone up this year, and based on how sore I am, I'd say it's working.
4. We also have Everybody Dance for the PS3, which got me sweating and moving on New Year's Eve. This could definitely count as a cardio workout.
5. If I want more workout variety, I can purchase Zumba for PS3, more dance games, or rent workout DVD's on Netflix.

Will I miss going to an occasional Spin class? Yes, but honestly, I can get a good workout in my neighborhood and at home for cheap/free. So, I am still hoping to hit up one class per month (see my goals for 2012) for the rest of my current membership, but when it expires, I'll say goodbye to the gym. And I honestly don't think my fitness will suffer.

No Spend Dinner

Tomorrow is my payday, and BF doesn't get paid until Friday...and we are brokety-broke-broke because of  Christmas, mini-vacation, and various other things. So, today I stayed home and organized the house (lots of stuff for Goodwill), and made dinner with all ingredients I had on hand. And for once, it's not a totally bizarre combination of convenience foods! I'm so excited that I had to share:

Appetizer: Hummus with crackers and sugar snap peas
Meal: Boneless pork ribs (bought when they were on clearance for $3.96) in crock pot. Used two small onions I had in drawer and the last of the BBQ sauce. My house smells great! Ranch beans (can in cupboard) and Macaroni and Cheese (from a box in the cupboard).
Dessert: Strawberry Jello with mixed berries (bag in freezer) and low-fat cool-whip.

It definitely helps that I've been buying meat when it goes on manager's special and keeping it in the freezer...made it a lot more do-able to create a real meal, rather than just random side dishes.
What's the best improvised meal you've come up with lately?

Monday, January 2, 2012

Music to My Ears

BF is selling some furniture that was being stored in my mom's garage for the last six months. (While we were/are totally committed, we both knew that s*** happens, and decided to keep some big items for a time, while we adjusted to living together). He is currently listing the items on Craigslist, and when I asked about maybe giving the couch to a friend who could use it, he said twelve words that were music to my ears:

"I want to use that money to pay down my credit card."

YES. This is not how he used to roll, people. He is used to carrying a few thousand in CC debt, and just paying it and reloading it. He even said that if he weren't with me, he would just leave it there. (Which could be trouble down the line, because I want it to be HIS choice. But I'll take what I can get.) He's also been putting a pretty impressive sum toward his CC each month, so I think it will bit the dust in the first quarter of this year.

I am especially excited about this choice, because one of my goals is to be debt free by my thirtieth birthday in October. And in the back of my mind, I sometimes think, "What's the point? When/if BF and I get married, I'll just be taking on his debt."

And I will. He has a car payment and some student loans as well. But, I can deal with those if there's not a credit card debt in the picture, and if his habits and goals align to mine. He'll always be the spendier one, but I've seen changes in how he handles money that are encouraging.

They say you can't change a person in a relationship. And that's absolutely true. I can't make him do anything he doesn't want to do (trust me, I've tried.) BUT, people can change. Something that I love about BF is that he has changed in his adult life. He's made mistakes along the way, but I admire that he has grown past them, and keeps growing. We both do, and I think that's part of what makes things work.

Have you had your partner grow in financial choices because of your influence? Have you been influenced by your partner?