Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Balancing Wants v Needs - or not

I heard an interesting concept on the HerMoney podcast: that wants may be needs after all. Author Sarah Newcomb makes the argument that what we normally refer to as "wants" are really meeting fundamental needs.

Thinking about this through my own budget lens, my Theatre Tix category comes to mind. Do I need to see Hamilton? I would joke that yes, yes I do, but of course, that's an exaggeration. But thinking about it, planning for it, imagining it when I listen to the cast recording...it fulfills my needs for participation, leisure, creation, identity and freedom.

So maybe, when looking at the categories where you tend to overindulge, ask yourself, "what need(s) does this satisfy? Are there other ways I can create that satisfaction?" And bonus: coming up with new ways to minimize these expenses will also satisfy your fundamental need for creativity!

Some people, for instance, won't listen to cast recordings until after they've seen a show. I prefer to spend $10-20 on a cast recording before I shell out hundreds for tickets to see if it's something that interests me. I tend to meet friends for lunch instead of dinner to save both time and money. Lunches are cheaper than dinners or even drinks sometimes, and it doesn't interfere with my schedule for picking up Riley after work.  I don't subscribe to music services because I have enough in my iTunes and Amazon Prime libraries to keep the music varied without another monthly bill. (Plus, I still listen to Hamilton more than half the time, anyway!)

If this sounds daunting, remember two things:

1) We adapt all the time. Technologically alone, we all try new things on a regular basis. Instead of thinking of this as a sacrifice, think of it as an adaptation.

2) This is an opportunity to get more of what you want: you get your needs met, plus you get to save money for other needs/wants.

And hey, when you come up with solutions and plop down the $$ for that "want", you can honestly say to yourself, "I need this!"

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Financial Literacy Month 2016: Budgeting Beyond Diapers & Day-Care

I was surprised when I heard a financial expert on a podcast say that she thought her costs would go down once her child was in school. Kids do not get cheaper as they age. The costs just become less fixed.

I admit, I felt the same sense of relief when I stopped paying for daycare, but reality set in fairly soon. School supplies, after-school activities, outgrown clothes and shoes, school fundraisers, teachers' presents, birthday presents, summer camp, book fairs and so on.

Granted, there are things you can do to keep these costs from skyrocketing (buying used clothes, saying "no" to fundraisers, having your child make presents), but not spending any money is next to impossible.

The easiest way to transition from the fixed day care costs to these lumpy, don't-know-when-they'll-hit costs is to budget the money you were budgeting for day care to a "kids' expenses" category. I lumped them altogether like that so that once a year, I can look at how much I'm really spending on these things and adjust as necessary. Let me tell you, that number didn't go down until one of my kids had a job!

If your budget is still struggling to keep up, it may be time to look for cheaper alternatives.

My daughter's love of art and dance really flourished at the local Boys and Girls Club. She received many opportunities there that would have cost a lot more at private dance or art studios, and had a lot of fun. Once she was ready to move on to a private dance studio, she volunteered to decrease the monthly tuition. It never hurts to ask if you or your child can volunteer in exchange for a discount. I believe that my daughter got more out of her private dance studio experience because of the hours she spent helping there. She loved working with the younger kids and received advice and inspiration from all the teachers, not just her own.

Often, she would ask if we had a certain something for an art project. Often, we didn't. Sylvia never let that stop her, and would come up with creative solutions that garnered her more pride than merely buying something. 

Once you think your kids are old enough, you can involve them in the conversation and their answers may be the best! If your child really really wants to be on the team, they may be more than willing to contribute half their allowance or set up a lemonade stand for the uniform and association fees. And if they don't, then why are you stressing about it? Toss the application and move on with your life!

Even when they're younger, you can start talking about choices. When you're at the grocery store, and your child is asking for this, that and that and that, tell them they can choose one. Or give them a dollar amount (no more than $5, probably) that they can use on a treat. (This also helps with their boredom and impatience at the store!)

The choices are not always that easy, of course, but the more your kids practice making choices, they'll be more prepared to tackle the difficult ones.

I always wanted to give my kids more than I could afford, but they usually exceeded expectations when I couldn't.

Still, there will be those times when $$ just has to be spent. If you never count on costs going down, you'll be better prepared for those times.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Financial Literacy Month 2016: Balancing a Realistic Budget

Sure, there are plenty of blog posts, articles and books out there that may convince you that you don't need a budget, or that budgets are constricting, or maybe you've tried "anti-budgeting." I can only say that my financial life has improved drastically once I started working with a realistic budget.

So we have to talk about how and when a budget isn't realistic, and therefore, doesn't work.

An unrealistic budget believes that the numbers are set in stone, and if you overspend, you fail.

A realistic budget allows you to change the numbers.

An unrealistic budget assumes that the same amount of money will come in and go out every month.

A realistic budget knows that there's no such thing as a normal month.

An unrealistic budget believes that you can eat Ramen every day, and if you really scrimp and save, life will be wonderful.

A realistic budget has room for fun money most of the time, but if something goes wrong, the sacrifice to that fun money is temporary.

Even before YNAB, I changed my budgeting ways using the method I learned in The Debt-Free Spending Plan. Both are based on the zero-based budgeting concept and both (finally!) gave me a realistic budget.

Sylvia felt the effects the other day when I was getting the car serviced, and the total came close to $400 (we split the costs). Or rather, she felt no effect, because she knew she had double her share in her Auto Maintenance category.

Before you throw in the towel completely on the idea of budgeting, try a realistic (preferably zero-based) budget. It just might change your financial life!

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Financial Literacy Month 2016: Why I Rent

The delightful Paula Pant wrote the end-all, be-all post on why renting may be financially prudent, which I can't recommend highly enough, but the overall message bears repeating as often as possible.

Of course, I can only speak about why renting is best for me, but those reasons may resonate.

About a year and a half ago, I got the dreaded notice from our landlord that my rent was increasing by $100 a month. Granted, my rent had not increased at all for years, but $100 is substantial so I started weighing my options.

First, I considered buying. It didn't take too long to discover that there was nothing in my price range in good ol' Los Angeles. But I'm still glad that I went through the process to know that for sure.

I filled out an application with my credit union, and was approved for more than I thought I could reasonably afford. It still wasn't a lot by L.A. standards, but there were a few possibilities for condos (no houses). Very few.

One by one, each of those possibilities stopped looking feasible. They were either in neighborhoods where I didn't want to live or required work or were in developments that were questionable.

It actually wasn't that much of a disappointment to discover that buying wasn't going to happen. The more I thought about it, I knew that I couldn't handle it financially or emotionally.

It would have stretched my budget so dang thin, I'm not even sure we would have been able to keep Netflix! Even though I'm still not at Warren's recommended 50%, this would have put our living expenses at well over 70% of my income.

Living that close to the financial edge would not have been good for my state of mind. Not sure how much sleep I would have lost, worrying about my job stability, trying to find extra income, never having lunch with a friend, dreading holidays and birthdays...I've been there, done that. I don't want to go back.

Things might possibly have been different if we lived somewhere else, but I don't want to live somewhere else. My job is here, my friends and family are here, our lives are here.

We did end up moving, finding a place we like even better for the rent I was paying prior to the increase. I had the funds to handle the moving costs, and even buying a washer and dryer.

Just the other day, Sylvia was telling me that she's glad we moved and she likes our current place so much better than the last. So do I.

Americans are far too wonderfully varied to have just one American dream. Some things to consider before buying into the home-ownership aspect:

  1. Down payment +: Don't just have the amount required for your loan. You will also need more set aside for closing fees, moving expenses, and the unexpected repairs/necessities you don't discover until the keys are yours. 
  2. Plus...: Do you plan on buying new furniture for the new place? Do you need appliances? Will you still have enough in your emergency savings if your car needs new brakes the same week you move? Will you still have at least a few months' worth of income if you get unexpectedly laid off the next week? 
  3. Stability: If you're married, what if your spouse gets offered a new job with ten times the income the following month? If you're divorced and the other parent is still a part of your child/ren's lives, what if your ex moves across country? Are you prepared to stay in the house for at least five years?
  4. Peace of Mind: I know, everyone wants to dream about the possibility of saying "all mine" when it comes to home ownership. But how will you feel if the roof is leaking? If your mailperson slips on your front walk? When your debt is six figures? When the property taxes are all yours? 
The farther we get from the financial crisis, the more people start to use the phrase "throwing money away on rent."

I don't think of it like that at all. Every month, I pay for the privilege of the roof over my family. Just like someone with a mortgage does. I also get to call the landlord if my HVAC stops working. I get to explore the possibilities again if I don't like my rent increase. 

Of course, this is not to say that no one should own a home, but like most things in life, it is not for everyone. And it's certainly not for me.

Monday, February 8, 2016

1st Financial Update of 2016

You Need a Budget (YNAB) came out with a new program that is web-based, which I started using Dec. 30. Personally, I like the technical changes.

I decided to start fresh, update my categories, and this new perspective showed me that, hey, I actually have spending $$ available! Now, I didn't go nuts, and I'm still pretty focused on building my Freedom Fund...but I also didn't stress about buying new boots when I saw how worn mine had gotten. I didn't stress about buying a new laptop because my old one was going. I planned outings with friends without stressing about $$.

Sylvia's budget has also gone really well (and she too prefers the new YNAB). She decided to start community college and, for the first time ever, got my seal of approval to dip into her Emergency Fund :) Of course, I told her this can't be a regular habit, but given the timing, it was the best option. Now, we have a better understanding of how much she'll need each semester, and can budget accordingly. Neither of us regret that she took some time off before starting school again, and both of us are confident that community college is the right place for her right now.

She is also budgeting regularly for car maintenance, car insurance, registration, gas/parking and her insurance deductible. There's no way she could afford to live on her own right now, but she is developing good habits and staying out of debt.

Meanwhile, Riley and I have started a car/driver's license fund. As with Sylvia, she will have to wait until she has a job before she can really get going on driving (or anything else), but at least we're on the same page about things.

The new YNAB has an "Age of Money" feature. The goal is for the money you spend to be at least 30 days old. Sylvia and I both have "35 Days" as our Age of Money.

I decided to use my most recent 5th paycheck to fund one annual category in full to alleviate the "monthly" budget (as well as beef up my Freedom Fund), which I'll do again with the next 5th paycheck.

I'm also beefing up Theatre Tix to see Hamilton at least twice and Something Rotten on their national tours. And I have a really lofty goal for my Freedom Fund, but it's more than a decade away.

I'm not sure if it's truly financially viable, but it's a really great motivator to continue cutting costs where I can and dream about being able to afford what I really want!

But in the meantime, I'm making sure there are enough funds to not only cover our needs, but some of the more reasonable wants, too.

I think I'm even starting to believe that we are in the middle class after all!

Thursday, February 4, 2016

eBook now available in Paperback!

It's a little more expensive this way, but I decided to make the book available in paperback form. You can buy it on Amazon or CreateSpace. And, it should also be available in public libraries soon so feel free to ask your local librarian, too!

Also, MyGreenFills is sponsoring a contest for a free washer and dryer! Enter here by Feb. 28:  Samsung Activewash Contest- MAIN

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Admiring my Daughter's Independence

Riley really wanted to see this recently-released movie. So she did. By herself.

I don't think I realized that it can be great doing things by myself until my thirties.

It wasn't until after I dropped her off that I even realized that she was doing what she wanted to do alone. Sylvia and I have both experienced the struggles of trying to make things come together with friend groups and sometimes, it feels like more trouble than it's worth. Riley didn't even bother trying. She had this window of opportunity to see this movie on opening weekend, and we picked the time and theatre and that was that.

Afterward, I told her that I was proud of her for doing this, and she acknowledged that she felt a little awkward when she saw she was the only one by herself (and when the theatre's commercial promoted "togetherness at the movies"), but once the movie started, she was glad that no one was trying to talk to her during the movie and she could just relax and enjoy.

I remember when we were in NYC, I went to see Next to Normal by myself...and was really glad that I was alone. The show is so emotional that it took me several minutes to collect myself to just stand up! And walking back to the hotel was a great time to reflect on what I'd just seen. I didn't need to worry about whether anyone else enjoyed it, I got to have my own authentic experience (and I loved it).

Now, I also enjoy seeing things with friends and the girls. I remember when the girls and I saw The Book of Mormon with two of our friends, and at intermission, my friend Nancy and I just giggled with delight that we were finally seeing it! It's great to have a conversation after about what we liked, what we didn't, what it made us think about.

But when it's too much of a hassle, when you're afraid no one else will get it/like it, when you have this window of opportunity to do something you solely want to do, it's great to just go do it by yourself.

I love that it didn't take Riley decades to discover that.