April 17, 2013

A combined budget: first quarter down!

We’re a little more than three months into living on a combined budget.  And even though this is the first time PiC’s lived on such a detailed budget, we still seem to be doing sort of ok.

I say “sort of” because:

+ we’re not fighting tooth and nail over living by a budget (yay!)
+ we’re not fighting over anything budget at all (yay!)  (yes, I assume there’s going to be some amount of disagreement and conflict when you’re learning to live in new boundaries)
– we’re not exactly ON the budget in some places (boo!)
– we still need to discuss how to offset some of the early spending highs (boo!)

It’s a wash, as far as operations go.

As far as execution … we’re having a touch of trouble staying in our budgeted amount in certain categories and not yet doing a good job of pulling back in specific areas to make up for it. This goes against the grain. I’m a money hoarder and I would much rather spend on the low side of any budgeted amount throughout the year and have some left over. This is, of course, not PiC’s style.   🙂

Nearly four months into the year, I’d expect that our spending should be at about 33% of the budgeted amount across all categories. I’m seeing spending as low as 3 and 7% (less regular/essential categories) and as high as 47 and 53% (ahem someone’s allowance).

Overall, though, we only went over our monthly total once in the last three months and the monthly averages are very close to what we expect to be spending each month.  That helps ease the sting of what feels like budgetary failure.

Management is….

a bit complicated right now: we primarily use my American Express, and his Southwest Visa when it’s a non-American Express establishment. Then we have the odd cash or check expenditures. It all gets tallied into a spreadsheet on a (we try) weekly basis.

We’ve also finally opened a joint checking account to pay the bills from so that’ll help smooth out the problem of taking it turnabout to pay bills.  And, happy day! I may be able to start closing out some of my other banking accounts. I’ve got accounts across four banks right now.

Admittedly, I’ve been refusing to close my oldest checking account because it’s the one I opened when I first turned eighteen and was allowed to open my very open checking account.  (PF sentimentality!)  And I enjoy the freedom of having the choice of accessing ATMs for two B&M banks… but considering I have two branches of the other bank nearby and go to the ATM about 6 times a year, that’s not a good reason.

Observations …

We eat a lot.  Or rather, we spend a hell of a lot of money on not terribly fancy food. We don’t even buy beer (except once in several months), we only get basic (but good IMO) cheddar, we have a regular rotation of relatively “cheap” food & recipes around things like whole chickens but it’s more than offset by the handful of convenience foods that we buy for my fibro-body benefit.

Saving Money …

I’m over the moon about changing our cell phone plan with T-Mobile. SingleMa and I got into a conversation on Twitter about cell phone plans. Next day, we found the new contract-free plans and each saved a ton!  She reduced her bill by $40/month, ours should be less by $50/month.  Woot! That annual $600 will go a long way to making up for  buying a new phone a bit earlier than I wanted to. I hated dealing with the nonsense of their customer service which has gotten pretty iffy these past couple of years. It used to be rock solid but not so much anymore. A shame. I also finally sent in Mom’s death certificate to cancel her phone line, something I’m trying to be totally pragmatic about but I have to admit gives me a bit of a pang.

And after a couple months of paying too much for internet ($43) when our last promotion lapsed, I surfed AT&T’s promotions for Internet without a Phone Line while signed into my account and lo! They still pulled up the cheap-cheap plans!  I experimentally put it in my cart, put the live customer service chat on, and found that I could indeed switch to the $20/month plan without cancelling service. Check. That. Out. AT&T, making life easy for an existing customer.  Unbelievable. And I love it.

Total to be saved this year (8 months of each line being cheaper): $400 + 160 = $560!

Tax Time …

We got bitten by AMT this year. Sonnuva … it wasn’t terrible, insofar as the money’s concerned. My headache was another thing entirely, trying to learn everything specifically relevant I could about AMT on the fly. There was definitely cursing associated with this year’s taxes.

I managed to get all the forms in for an April 14th filing but then found out afterward that one of the forms was an estimate and the “responsible” (@$$shole) accountant didn’t bother to say so until well after the fact.  Again: cursing. Bitter? Yes.  Now I have to file amendments for this year as soon as those new forms are in.  Another hour and a half of my life re-committed to doing unnecessary taxes. Still, the bulk of it’s done and that’s something to be grateful for.

::How are you folks doing with your money these days?

February 20, 2013

$500: What a difference a day makes!

Y’ALL.

DISCOVERY! I’m super excited about this.

I’ve been booking travel, lodgings and car rentals for the year’s upcoming travel. “Seasoned” traveler that I am, you’d think that I would have remembered to try something like this before but nope, honestly, it was really just a mistake, a fluke.

My flight was originally booked for a Thursday instead of a Wednesday because once a year or two, I make a stupid mistake like that and book a flight or a hotel or the like for the wrong day. Luckily for me, United has instituted a 24-hour fee-free change period after purchase or this would be a very different post, full of chagrin and grumpy.

This time, my brain fizzle worked out wonderfully. The wrong dates, starting on the Thursday instead of Wednesday, were the dates I left entered into the car rental search page and just left there a few weeks back.

This was what I expected to pay:
HICarRentalB

Flipping through outdated tabs to close them out, the search page reloaded itself with new rates.  My eyes about popped out and did a do-si-do.

Instead of the outrageous $40+ per day I had budgeted for, there was a quote for about $10/day! Even after all the ridiculous taxes and fees that get tacked on, we’d save about two thirds of the expected cost when all’s said and done just by doing without a car the first day.

I thought the difference was either: renting a car the day after triggers the special week-rate instead of a daily rate, even though it showed a much-improved daily rate and they even charge that for the extra day at the end there; or that special rates become active on that specific date. I’m leaning toward the week-rate thing, personally.

The full rental is still more than two full weeks but changing how it’s booked does this:

Start the rental on Wednesday, pay about $53/day every day.

Start the rental on Thursday, pay about $20/day every day.

This isn’t usually a luxury that can be enjoyed while traveling but thankfully, we’re booked to stay at an AirBNB place where the hosts are willing to offer a ride or two. That flexibility lets us spend a bit more for the first days and still come out way ahead.

The new rate:

HICarRentalA

You’d better believe I jumped on that with both feet.

Of course, before booking, I made sure to double check Fatwallet and Ebates to see who had greater cashback to help defray the surcharges and whatnot. It was only 3% from Ebates but that beats the 1% from Fatwallet. It’s not like I’ll see that money for a long while since the account just paid out and it has a minimum payout threshold but it’s nice to bank a little something for later.

Know what this means? MORE FOOD.  Ok, it’s not like I didn’t already budget daily spending money but it’s nice to know there’s some flexibility in the budget now. I only anticipate spending on food and more food.

Pardon me, I’m going to carry on dancing a completely uncoordinated jig over here.

February 13, 2013

J.Crew pants and working from an allowance

An Ebates email touting “an extra 30% off Jcrew.com” caught my eye earlier and I casually meandered over to check it out. Much of the time, this poking about never turns up anything so it seemed harmless.

But now that an allowance for each of us has been established during the formation of the budget, my hoarding (money) habits came to the fore and insisted that I calculate exactly how much was left for the month before making any moves.

Of course that meant entering all transactions for January and February into the spreadsheet because if I’m already in there, why not?

After subtracting the cost of the second dress (not pictured), my allowance stands at $160 right now. These pants I liked so much are available in pinstripe and at $75 (before tax and shipping), a fair bit less than the original $98 paid.  Even knowing that next month will bring another month of allowance money, and even after having said I’d get a second pair when they were on sale again, my gut says: no! Wait until you have more to spend so you’ll always have over $100 in allowance!

Of course. Because a spender cannot be made out of a saver, no matter how laissez-faire you get.

There’s been a lot of banter back and forth so far about what we’d be willing (he, really) to take out of our respective allowances so this imposed limit on spending has been both hilarious and instructive in forming more conscious spending decisions.

It always niggled at the back of my mind that deal sites were going to be the death of our savings goals; PiC orders from them 8-10 times more frequently than I do.  But this is good, we’re figuring out that territory.

As for the pants: these are supposedly their most popular pants, it can’t be stupid to think they will absolutely go on sale, for this much, again later in the year, right?  (I’m counting on it. Plus, like SewPetiteGal, I hate paying  for shipping.)

February 6, 2013

Married Life: crafting a combined income budget

It’s only taken a year and some, but PiC and I finally sat down and hammered out a working spending and savings plan for the year.

While I admire, and in some ways covet, the non-combined strategies that other folks have (@mochimac, @nofearingthemon), it doesn’t feel as feasible for the two of us. A) Hi, I’m a control freak. B) See A.  You’d think after surviving a year letting go, Ms. C Freak could give it up but I’ve done all the laissez-faire that I can stand and it’s time to get back on the horse.

We are temperamentally so different in our money attitudes that even if  we agree on our goals and are on the same page about our priorities, we simply need to be on the same page on the details for a while because otherwise, the full picture between the two of us feels obscured.

Super Bowl Sunday, we sat down and hammered away at collected spending records from last year and talked through the money allocation for this coming year, section by section.

For the kind of money we make, despite the Net breaking down to considerably less than the Gross, I’ll be damned if we can’t commit to saving at least 25% net plus 10% gross (retirement). The interesting bit here is that my new company doesn’t offer a retirement plan so he’s increased his contributions for the year to aim at maxing out at least his plan. That’ll be close to what the two of us would have done separately, with benefits on both the savings end and the tax-deduction end of things.

My paychecks will be the cash cows: taking care of most bills and another chunk of savings.

I must say: the process was hugely uncomfortable during the first half. It felt like we were teetering on the cusp of a disgruntled outburst or tiptoeing over an abyss of resentment. Maybe it’s just me projecting. Something visceral deep inside hates being questioned about how I manage, organize and allocate money if he’s going to follow up that question with not agreeing with me. Again, hi, Control Freak. And it’s also the result of never ever talking about money details in real life with anyone. This was the first real delving expedition and for the first three hours, I was hating life.

As the hours wore on, we worked through the placeholder amounts that had been filled in while I was futzing around with the spreadsheet and setting up categories and approximate amounts; like deep breathing, negotiating the numbers and talking through expectations, definitions and other thoughts released the extra tension released.

On Entertainment:
R: What are we planning to spend on? This probably doesn’t need to be $1500.
PiC: Well, we are a cultured people…
R: No. We are not.

On Fees:
PiC: Does “fees” mean credit card annual fees?
R: And stupid tax.
PiC: ?
R: Parking tickets, late fees, stupid stuff you wouldn’t plan on paying but get hit with anyway.
PiC: Oh. Let’s just not do that.
R: Yeah, let’s just don’t be stupid.

On Categories and Budgeting for Spending:
R: We spent a ridiculous amount on this category last year.
PiC: *mulling* Let’s put savings down here (in the list of spending categories)
R: NOPE. Savings are first and non negotiable. Cut somewhere else.
PiC: This is GDocs, everything’s negotiable!

On Entertainment and Eating Out:
PiC:  We’re going to need to really keep an eye on that.
R: …yeah….
PiC: I’m going to defrost a chicken.

Discoveries:

Our disposable income still doesn’t account for some of the trips we wanted to take this year but we’ll figure that out as it comes. PiC was surprised to see how much we’re already committed to spend even before satisfying the Trip List.

Our total combined income, after taking about 30% off the top, does not stretch as far as I expect it to. This triggers the money-hoarding instinct until I remember that I still pay for much of my dad’s costs. Even though this is the lowest the Extra Household costs have ever been,  it’s still significant.

The total amount of money planned for spending still strikes me as obnoxious, even if I know intellectually that 50% or more of the budget is dedicated to fixed/non-discretionary spending like rent, mortgage, food, utilities and gas. My donut-loving cash-poor self didn’t go away, she’s just trapped in the body of an otherwise generally reasonable person.

I keep remembering daydreaming six years ago: If I earned 100K/year, do you know how much I could save??

A wistful part of me still wants to be able to save like that.  Staring down the barrel of Dad’s increasing years and contemplating children, I still feel wholly frighteningly unprepared. (Strong finances and a huge emergency fund are the fuzzy blankie that lets me sleep at night.)

Objectively, we’ve got a fairly solid budget that sets up our savings and spending plan cohesively and generally fits what we think is both reasonable and important.

January 28, 2013

Irony, in follow-up and business breakdowns

I almost have to laugh.

Immediately after my health and fitness update, feeling like stopping all my pain meds including the anti-depressant intended to reduce and manage the pain was actually working out pretty well, everything hit the skids.

Two days of flu symptoms: fatigue, sore throat, cough and dizzy head, enough so that I, le Workaholique, called off work early both days, followed up by the most incredible fibro flare I’ve had in months.  Tiny trains of pain running over my limbs, taking one out at a time so that by 10 am I was a sniveling wreck. And lest wandering right off the balcony was on my mind, the better to end my misery, my brain would quite literally tighten up and spin every time I stood for more than 90 seconds. Timed.

The most I could handle was a few episodes of West Wing, bless PiC for figuring out that’s what I’d want because heaven knows I was barely forming real words, and then trying to sleep it off.

I’d like to redeem a coupon for one lost Saturday, please. 

Sunday was blessedly slightly better, standing upright was not proscribed so the massage previously scheduled for noon stayed on. This is the first time I’ve had one so close to a flare and it was a bit worrisome how it’d work out.

As usual, she hurt me. But it was for a good cause. My usual mental litany of “what the crap is going on with my muscles?” and “how do you get knots like that?” lasted for about half the massage, and half was just good and relaxing. Which meant I had time to start thinking about things like money.

I pay an astronomical $95/hour. I buy gift certificates at 10% off, but tip well so it may as well be $105. The base cost of the service is reimbursable from our FSA because this is for a documented health condition, so the money is pre-tax after reimbursement. Oh, how I love FSA!  (And how I hate that it’s been capped.)

I was paying half that for a lot of places in the area but none of them were any good, I always came out of the appointments feeling vaguely dissatisfied and rumpled. Here, I have the services of one amazing masseuse who tailors every single treatment to my needs, pays attention to what I say, asks how the pressure is every single time, and exerts an amazing amount of pressure. She’s working hard for her money! And, I think I mentioned the luxury of the spa itself before. It’s non-essential, obviously, but the lotion, hot towels, lounge with snacks, water and tea, and a shower with fresh towels are all perfectly lovely. And cost money. As does the hire of the person to attend to the laundry, cleaning the shower after each person and stocking the snacks in the lounge. After a good maundering think, I supposed that it’s quite possible the masseuses are really taking home about $40-60/hour at most, because the business has more overhead than a more spartan establishment and has to make a profit as well.

The things that make me feel better, honestly.

As upset as I was on Saturday, the breaking of the good streak, the feeling that no good streak will ever last, the fear that I’ll have to keep living in fear or worry no matter how hard I work at eating healthy and keeping fit … I do really have to be grateful that I’ve only been feeling ill and in pain on and off for about four days so far this stretch and the fibro part relented after a couple days. It really could easily have gone for ten times that long. Knock wood that it doesn’t but I will be grateful for every improvement, no matter how temporary. Not cheerful, but grateful.

January 21, 2013

Housekeeping: keeping up and clearing out

Funny About Money’s ruminations on the one-day, one-housekeeping task approach reinforces the idea that simple /= always easy. For a little over a year now, I’ve been doing a similar thing with our housework despite my preference to do big-clean-days which are both time and energy monsters.

More sensible, it seemed, to take it in turn: do the routine things that will drive me batty if not done regularly, and insert one other chore. It’s like a special housekeeping menu.

Routine: dishes every day, trash and recycling when it’s more than half full, picking up the kitchen after cooking.

Insert one: Brush the dog, human laundry (full wash, dry, fold and store), dog laundry, vacuuming. Full counter wipedown (instead of the clean as you go). Clear out the fridge or freezer. Clear the dining table of the inevitable pile of things. Pick up the bedroom and living room.

It doesn’t seem like much but there are plenty of days where I’ve worked 13 hours, cooked dinner and cleared up afterward only to curl up in the corner, refusing to do any more. And any time I tackle more than one optional chore, I find myself sucked into a snowball of more related chores. Well heck, that happens anyway.

  • Clearing the table leads to needing to file and/or shred paperwork. Which leads to filling up the recycling that needs to be taken out. Which also means I’d need to pick up all other recycling because why not take out everything?
  • On the other hand, properly starting a chore like laundry means all the clothing, or towels or toys shed randomly in various places gets picked up so it goes both ways.
  • Vacuuming, oh vacuuming. As we get more things, we have more things the dog can shed on. So the decision: do a half-arsed job or go whole hog? Whole hog means pulling out everything he might have shed on, vacuuming and wiping them down, vacuuming behind, under, and over everything.  Three guesses how often whole-hog turns into half-arsed? 🙂 There are times I’ve considered vacuuming him. Like when my pants are so furry from crawling about and hugging Doggle that I take a few passes at them.

The interesting thing is, while I’m in favor of exchanging money for time, and just as importantly, money for energy, within reason, it seems more obvious to the outside observer than to me that hiring a cleaner would be as a good an investment in protecting my health and sparing PiC’s energy as any other thing we’d try. Priorities, right? After all, do I need to be the one vacuuming or could a good cleaning service do it just as well?

Obviously, a good cleaner could do just as well.

My three objections:
A) It’s work but not that much work. Especially when I lower my cleaning standards.  😉  So is it really worth it? (maaaayybe)
B) I don’t want to hire a cleaner and then spend time cleaning before they get here. That’s annoying. I have better things to do with my paid for time. But I know PiC would be inclined to do this. This is a houseful of neurotics.
C) Cost: I’m not prepared to give up something to afford a cleaner just yet.

The assumption is that we have plenty of Disposable Income between the two of us. We do have enough to live comfortably now, with a few luxuries like eating well and traveling occasionally (on a budget of course), but that’s about it if we’re going to keep saving because I still pay a good chunk of Dad’s living expenses.  I spend about $20K/year right off the top for his regular expenses,  excluding medical or emergencies, and that’s less than ever before.  He’s been working himself to the bone to make enough to pay for the utilities, gas, groceries, and any necessary incidentals. I can’t and don’t begrudge what I do still pay but that’s also money not available to pay for cleaning.

Still, I wonder whether it’d be worth stretching or wiggling the budget to make it happen.

Does anyone have help at home? What does it entail and how much does it cost?

October 16, 2012

The Chase British Airways Card, Avios Points and flying British Airways

When I started traveling and doing business overseas, I knew right away that  I would have a hernia over paying stupid fees like foreign transaction fees. No sirree, traveling and traveling for work may appear to be a fun “perk” to some but no way am I paying what I consider stupid tax for the privilege – nope.

Preparing for the trip to Thailand had me thinking on the BA card, ruing having  missed the better bonus offer, then had the premium offer offfered when I needed to book another ticket so I figured that it’d be worth the exchange of an annual fee ($75) for the cost of a ticket. I kept that card for a year longer than I had originally planned, racked up another ticket’s worth of point so we’re now at about 120K points, paid another $75, and I’m thinking about canceling the card once I confirm I have another Chase card in the wings that serves the no-foreign-transaction-fee purpose.

Having flown BA a couple of times, I’d call the service is middling-fair. I’ve always been economy class and don’t expect much from the cattle-prod section. The food’s been nearly edible, the seats are sittable and you can generally get some rest even despite the lights-on-lights-off acts.

The thing that infuriates me, however, is the discovery that my points may well be worthless for the very reason I earned them.  The point of earning mileage points and paying the fersnicken annual fees was to redeem for two free flights with a modest fee attached.

Would you believe that a search for two seats on a reward flight to London out of a local international airport costs 100K points and nearly $1400 each?!

For the same itinerary, the same cash would buy 70% of the seats. It’ll cost another $675 to buy the rest of the two tickets.

It seems I might as well save my reward points and upgrade, because why waste that many reward points and pay the majority of the price to get exactly the same seats? If I’m going to burn points and cash, I had better be getting something of value, hadn’t I?

Needless to say, this had made me incredibly cranky and though I was willing to be persuaded into keeping this card long-term as a secondary card, carrying an annual fee though it does, this ridiculous scheme firmly set my mind against keeping it. Though the service provided by some of the major domestic carriers is subpar, I will say that redeeming rewards from them has always been reasonable as long as the flights were available. Most times, if it wasn’t at the last minute, they were available.

Of the domestic carriers I use most frequently, only United has implemented a tiered fee schedule that charges higher fees for late bookings or changes to the itinerary, close in to the departure date.  The highest fee is $150 per ticket to change a booked flight, which is fairly high but doesn’t touch the egregious fees of British Airways just to book.

Eventually, I’ll get around to making a decision on these points: either we’ll use the points to book some domestic flights at much lower fees or I’ll save them for a really nice upgrade when we have the time and money to travel for a little while.

What would you do? 

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