Thursday, December 31, 2015

Changing my Mindset

My First Mindset Change. It wasn't a New Year's resolution, but in early 2013, I vowed to not incur any new credit card debt. It took a few months, but by the summer, I knew I could keep it up and didn't look back.

My Second Mindset Change. I can't pinpoint this one exactly, except maybe to say when I started using YNAB. Obsessing over the budget screen helped me to look at my spending differently. Suddenly, making my lunches felt like a better plan. Then, giving up cable. I focused on decreasing my monthly have-to bills so I could spend more money on things I really enjoy, like going to see live theatre.

My Third Mindset Change. I loved when I got off the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle and started living on last month's income, but I still couldn't see the value of a large chunk of money in the bank...except it was nice to think about ways to spend it.

This year, my mindset change has been to appreciate the concept of letting money sit, something that we discuss on the YNAB Forums frequently. I don't know exactly when it changed, but I did realize that suddenly, even though I have more in my Emergency Savings than I've ever had before, I'm more focused on making that account grow than I am on thinking of ways to spend it. I have mini-goals planned that I'm working towards, but I also plan to just keep letting it grow indefinitely.

This mindset change has also affected my retirement planning. I decided to increase my 401k contribution and then was so excited to discover that it had a way for me to automatically increase it annually! I was a little frustrated with myself that this didn't occur to me before, but I'm trying to accept that as long as I'm moving in the right direction now, I just have to keep doing what I can do now.

But the point of this post is not to boast or brag. None of this has come easily for me, yet I am discovering that the longer I keep at this, the better I'm getting at it. Certain lifestyle changes which seemed unthinkable in years past have become a part of everyday life. And most importantly, certain ways of thinking about money have also changed, slowly but surely.

And that, I think, is the key. Start slow. Pick one thing. Here are some ideas.

If credit card/consumer debt is consuming you, do not incur new debt. period. Just that.  Of course, pay what you can, but don't try and pay it all off in one month or something crazy like that. Just get used to life without incurring consumer debt.

If you're drowning in monthly bills, pick one area per month to focus on. Maybe in January, you try to find a better rate for your cell phone bill. In February, you try to get a lower auto insurance rate. In March, you focus on eating out. And so on.

If you need to save more money, try Afford Anything's one percent challenge. If that's too intense, just up your automatic savings by $5 per pay period. Then, try $10 per pay period.

Again, don't try to do them all at once. Just pick one. After it becomes easy, then move on to something else. 

Seriously, if I can change my mindset, anyone can.

Wishing you a prosperous New Year!

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Guest Post at Logix

I was honored to be asked to write a guest post for Logix: A Financial Fresh Start.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Xmas 2015 post

Long-time readers may recall that I generally prefer odd years over even. This year was no different.


Sylvia graduated high school, turned 18 and is taking on more and more adult responsibilities. She’s working, she’s auditioning and keeping me entertained. She got a tattoo, but it’s a Sondheim quote so it’s kind of okay. She dyed her hair. Again. She’s a redhead as of this writing.

Riley is still thriving at school (sophomore year), and she’s back in LAPD’s Cadet program, hoping for a promotion soon.  She still wants me to let her shave her head, but like Sylvia’s tattoo, she’ll have to wait until she’s 18. She’s not as into social media and selfies as her sister, so the pic of the two of them will have to do. 

And in case you somehow missed it :), I published an eBook on Amazon: Balancing the Single Mom Budget, and got to make two podcast appearances to talk about back-to-school budgeting and holiday budgeting. Our family was also featured in a real book, How We Live Now by Bella DePaulo.

Family outings included Newsies at the Pantages and the annual Sound of Music Sing-along at the Hollywood Bowl. Sylvia and I had a couple of date nights, including Idina Menzel at the Hollywood Bowl, and Riley and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me. I also got to see If/Then at the Pantages with 4 members of the original Broadway cast (Idina Menzel, Anthony Rapp, LaChanze and James Snyder), which was so incredibly special and made me laugh, cry, and Idina's 11:00 number gave me chills.

I know I should probably be sentimental about the girls growing up, but every year, I enjoy their company more. My only complaints are that Sylvia is not obsessed with Hamilton like me and Riley, and Riley won’t watch Gremlins (which I really think she would love…and it’s not because she doesn’t like scary things, because she totally does). Otherwise, I’m pretty okay with who they are.  They’re not perfect (like, at all!), but they are closer than I ever got. So mostly, they just make me smile.

I hope there are plenty of smiles for you in the holiday season and year to come.

Happy Holidays,
April (and Sylvia & Riley)

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Balancing Fear

Like every other family with school-aged kids here, we were affected by the closure of LA schools yesterday.

I'd already dropped my daughter off. Since we don't have cable anymore, I actually enjoy my news-free mornings and Riley and I listen to music on the way to school so we had no prior knowledge of the threat (the breaking news emails didn't come until later).

About 5 minutes away from work, Riley called to let me know that "1S1S"* had called in a bomb threat and school was canceled. She'd arranged for a ride home already and said, "guess I'll have to take my math final tomorrow." I commented that it may have been a student trying to avoid finals, but I heard from many that it was deemed a "credible" threat. (Later news states that the threat was a hoax after all.)

Most posts I've read about this are talking about the fear. Riley had no fear. Instead, she was occupied with planning what she'd do today in lieu of school. While she did believe that the threat was credible, she also seemed confident that the police and others would handle it.

Of course, I feel a sense of melancholy that she's accepted terrorist threats as part of life, but I also think she has the right attitude about it: she's not letting fear prevail. She acted responsibly by getting a ride home so she was away from the threat, but then went on about her life.

We can't change this particular aspect of the world we live in. But we can also keep living every day we're alive with abundance and gratitude. And making peace where we can.

*Yes, I do know that's not how it's spelled, but trying to avoid a certain kind of traffic here.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Consider CoAbode

I've previous mentioned CoAbode here, and told Bella DePaulo about it for her book, How We Live Now. CoAbode helps single mothers find shared housing with other single mothers and their children, which can really help both financially and emotionally.

Now, CoAbode needs our help. They need to revamp their website, hire staff to expand their services, all while keeping it free for single mothers using their services. To be clear, I'm not gaining anything by posting about this. I just think they're a great service and want to help their efforts.

Go to their indiegogo page to contribute to CoAbode's campaign.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Never Blow Your Budget Again

I was talking to someone recently about budgeting programs, and why I'm a huge fan of YNAB, but not so much Mint or some of the others.

The problem with Mint (et al) is that it only tells you when you screw up. It makes you feel bad about going over-budget. You find yourself on the defensive, talking back to the spreadsheet or screen shot or whatever, exclaiming, "but I didn't know ___ was going to happen!" From having to attend a funeral to saying yes to a spontaneous get-together with a friend in town unexpectedly to simply not knowing you were going to have to buy your kid new shoes this month, there are many ways where your best-laid plans can go awry. Instead of red numbers or emails telling you, "you screwed up!" (okay, maybe not so harshly, but that's how it can feel), I like YNAB's Rule 3 philosophy to roll with the punches.

And you don't have to use the software to implement the strategy. Just change your numbers.

I know! Who knew it could be so easy? But that's really all you have to do. Sure, you might freak out for a moment, going, I don't have enough money to cover this! My experience, however, has shown me that there is always a way.

Earlier in my journey, when I still didn't quite have a handle on my non-monthly expenses, it was Sylvia's dance recital fees. I remember stressing in the car on the way home, thinking that the only way I could cover this was to add debt to the credit card. But when I got home and looked at my budget screen, I saw that I could instead pay less towards my outstanding debt and still not incur new debt. (I still could pay the minimum plus, just not as much as I wanted.)

Every month, I put $25 in my Mayhem category (for stuff I forgot, unexpected, etc.). In the beginning, I was using that much more often, but now, I've got close to $200. If you leave excess unbudgeted, you will be more inclined to buy yourself something fun (or at least, I would). By having a category for it, it's there for you when you need it.

Your budget should not feel like a straight-jacket. Most budgeting software does. If you don't want to pay for YNAB, use pen and paper or a spreadsheet so that you can feel in control of your budget and change as necessary. (Of course, much more detail available in my eBook :)

Change your budget as necessary so that instead of feeling like a failure, you feel empowered.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Balancing Frugality

I read and participate on sites and forums dedicated to personal finance.  Sometimes, people post about things that I personally won't do to save money.

Complain about fast food service to try and get a coupon or freebie. Now this one's personal since my daughter currently works in said industry. She tells me stories of people recording interactions or complaining about a tone of voice or lack of smile. Dude (or lady), you're at a fast food restaurant. Calm down! Now, this is not to say that we won't speak up if our order is incorrect. My daughter felt really bad, but she still spoke up when her order wasn't right. But as long as you get what you paid for, there's no need to create drama.

Open credit cards or bank accounts for cash back/rewards. I only open credit cards or accounts if I actually need (or want) to do so. With Costco/Amex's impending divorce, I started keeping my eye out for credit card deals, and of course, I chose one that had rewards and a sign-up bonus, but I don't plan to open any more because I don't want the added hassle of another card to manage. I'm really happy with my credit union, and now that I'm signed up with one online bank for savings, I'm done. I had to call that online savings bank recently for one matter, and of course, they tried to sell me a checking account, but I politely declined.  I suppose I could chase $50 here or $100 there, opening up checking accounts A-Z, but it just doesn't seem worth it to me.

Buy 2 to get 1 free, or spend $x to get free shipping. I always consider it. And almost always decide against it. As an Amazon Prime member, I am used to free shipping, but if I do happen to be on other sites, it's almost always less to pay for the shipping than to get to that $ threshold. If I need 1 of an item, I don't need 3. I will save money by not buying the 2nd.

Clip coupons. When we moved, we got the Sunday paper for free for a few weeks so I went through the practice of looking at the coupons for the first couple of weeks. And found almost nothing that I'd use or want or try for 40 cents off! Needless to say, I'll never be on Extreme Couponing!

Shop on Black Friday. I've never understood the appeal of getting up in the middle of night (or whenever it starts these days) to buy a TV or whatever. I mean, I know they're supposedly great deals, but I much prefer Cyber Mondays...or just buying such things when I can afford them at the best price I can find.

This is not to say that there's anything wrong with doing those things if 1) you enjoy them, and 2) you see value in them. Ah, see what I did there? I put enjoyment before value! Because one of my friends thinks I'm crazy with my grocery spreadsheet. It's not crazy to me because I enjoy updating my grocery spreadsheet every week...and I see the value in staying on or under budget. But I don't think I'd have kept it up this long if I didn't enjoy it, too!

So this is a really long-winded way to say (again) that your values should align with your spending...and saving.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Surviving the Holidays on a Single Parent's Budget

So honored that Mandy Walker asked me back on her Conversations About Divorce podcast to discuss budgeting for the holidays as a single parent.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Avoiding Impulse Buys

I've never been into brick-and-mortar shopping. I don't even much like going to movie theatres in malls. I am, however, a big fan of online shopping. It's just so easy and convenient!

In the past few years, I've learned how to keep the ease and convenience while still remaining debt-free.

Amazon Prime is a priority for me, and I don't mind paying the annual fee (I budget $9/mo to cover it). I've decided that I will let my Costco membership expire next year, and I use Amazon Subscribe & Save in place of wandering that huge, always-crowded warehouse! And, of course, I budget for that.

Still, there are times when retail therapy sounds nice, so I may browse Amazon, but instead of adding items to my cart, I add them to my wish list. When I get my monthly cash back from my credit card, I can use that to buy something on my wish list.

Whenever I peruse my wish list, I delete those items that I don't even remember why I wanted them! If something costs more than what I have available in rewards, then I have to check the budget to see if there's enough in the relevant category to cover the difference. If not? Not buying that item this month! Things on my Wish List range from $10- hundreds so there's usually something on there that meets my rules.

If I'm on a site other than Amazon (which does happen from time to time), I may add the item to my shopping cart, but then I have to check the budget. Sometimes, I'll move things around to make it work, but most of the time, I look ahead to next month and x out of that tab with a mental note to come back on the 1st (and sometimes I do, sometimes I don't).

Just this weekend, I learned about a new product I really wanted to try that wasn't available on Amazon and frankly, it was overpriced. I added it to the Cart anyway, but then deleted it when I saw it would take 6-8 weeks to ship and really, what's the point of an impulse buy if I won't have it in 2 days? If I'm still thinking about it next month, I'll figure out a way to add it to the budget.

What I find fascinating is that clicking that "Add to Cart" or "Add to Wish List" generally satisfies that impulse for me. I don't actually have to pull out my credit card or click "complete Purchase" to feel complete. This little mental game has been effective for me almost every time. (I honestly can't think of a time where it hasn't been, but that may also be a mental trick!)

While I recommend waiting at least 24 hours (preferably 30 days) before making an impulse buy, at the very least, check your budget (or your balance) first. You will enjoy it so much more if you know you can afford it!

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Balancing the Bonus (or other windfall)

It's that time of year where you might get a bonus! Or money as a gift. Or next year, a tax refund.

In such situations, I prefer the 1/3 windfall rule I learned from The Debt-Free Spending Plan: 1/3 towards debt, 1/3 towards savings, and 1/3 towards something fun or even frivolous. I like this method because it means you're not blowing it all, nor are you "being good" with it all. You get a little closer to your financial goals and still get to treat yourself!

Since I'm now consumer-debt free, however, I don't use that exact rule. Instead, I use 1/3 towards my Emergency Fund, 1/3 towards my Car Purchase category (to stave off future debt), and 1/3 towards something fun - usually my theatre tickets category, but sometimes retail therapy. I opt not to put it towards my student loans because the interest rate is so low, I'm better off saving myself from a future car loan.

If you have more than one kind of debt, the 1/3 should go towards the one with the highest interest rate. If, however, it's enough to pay off a debt completely at a lower interest rate, by all means. Or if you could pay off a debt completely using more than 1/3, then go for it! Then split any remains evenly towards savings and fun.

Even if it's a relatively low amount left for fun, enjoy the game of getting the most bang for your buck: a manicure, a bottle of wine, even a latte! Something that feels completely indulgent to you that you can enjoy debt-free.

I know that many implore treating any debt as an emergency, but it was important for me to be able to give myself these little treats every so often to maintain a debt-free lifestyle. Further, growing that savings is just as important to living debt-free.

If you haven't yet gotten off the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle, the savings should go towards getting yourself a month ahead. First goal: $1,000. Then, a month's worth of expenses. Then another. 

If you don't have any debt, congrats! Consider investing 1/3 in something like Betterment. Or put 1/3 towards a savings category that will help you avoid debt in the future, like your kids' education (in which case, it should go into a 529), a down payment towards a house or car, or a potential large purchase in the future (like replacing your fridge, computer, etc.).

Windfalls are great for making progress towards your goals, and should also be enjoyed!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

My Fiscal Year in Review

In my day job, the end of the fiscal year is kind of a big deal so it felt like a good time to look at my personal financial life for the past year.

Here's my Net Worth report (sans numbers):

Even though there's still some red after March, that just shows my credit card balance before I pay it off. I usually send at least 2 payments a month to keep my debt to credit ratio under control. The actual debt was paid off March 1.

The spike in February marks my tax refund. Alas, since Sylvia is turning 18 soon, I don't expect these kind of returns from now on, but I feel like I shouldn't need them anymore, either.

Because I continue to grow certain categories every month (Emergency Savings, Rainy Day funds), this has helped even in the months where I have large bills to pay (like the car maintenance last month). I'm sure a month or two without an upward trend would still be okay, but I admit, I like the current look of it!

This graph, btw, is brought to you by YNAB. I spend most of my YNAB time in the budget screen, but the reports, particularly this Net Worth report, can also be helpful.

Incidentally, being a month ahead also recently helped me. I don't know why I even try to multi-task anymore because it never works, but someone called when I was entering my time, and I thought I could both carry on a conversation and enter my time. When I checked my paystub the following week, I found that I'd missed a day. Oh, well, not the end of the world  - just went back and entered it and it'll show up in the next paycheck. But I did think about those many years in the past when such a mistake would have completely stressed me out while I scrambled to figure out how to pay that week's bills and groceries. We would've been fine, but I don't need - or miss - that kind of stress.

When I first started YNAB (almost 2 years ago), I had a (very) negative net worth. I knew it would be a slow and steady race to get me to the positive, and even though I still get impatient sometimes for certain categories to grow, I know if I just stay on this path, we'll be okay.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Balancing the Lifestyle Creep

Happens to everyone. Some new service comes along and you think, "oh it's only $_ a month, I'll subscribe!" Or the ones you didn't choose, like a rent or child care increase. True story for me.

Actually, it wasn't a new service, but an upgrade. HuluPlus now offers a commercial-free option for $11.99 a month (instead of $7.99). I resisted for a whole week before I couldn't take it anymore - I think the commercials got more obnoxious just so that I would do so! But hey, a half-hour show now only takes 22 minutes.

Then I got the notice of my rental increase of $20/month. The same amount I was going to increase my savings each month. Oh, well, it's a wash.

Then it was my iCloud, which is full, and now I'm paying 99 cents a month for a bigger cloud.

Okay, so it's a lifestyle creep of about $5 a month, all in. But I have to stay mindful of these things so I don't turn around and find it's $100 a month because I wasn't paying attention. And I still want to increase my savings by $20 a month, so this month, I'm taking a closer look at my budget categories to try and make it happen.

Costs will continue to rise, so it's important to have a little breathing room in the budget. It's also an opportunity to take another look and see if the expense still aligns with your values.

Of course, increasing income should always be considered, too. It doesn't have to be 2nd job, but there may be opportunities to freelance or even MTurk. There's only so much a budget can be trimmed so if there are ways to increase your income, that's even better. So long as you can avoid the lifestyle creep, that is! 

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Balancing the Emotions as a Single Mom

I think I already mentioned that I joined a private single moms group on FB (email me if you'd like an invite), and there are some themes coming up that I've written about before, but it's been so long, I thought it's a good time to revisit.

Loneliness is just another emotion: it has a beginning, a middle and an end. I know there can be times when it feels unbearable. But you know what? It actually isn't. It passes. Usually when a kid or work email distracts you, but it always passes. Fighting it, however, will usually make it worse. Just sit with it, maybe with a good song, and then get back to real life.

Accept your life as it is today...with an eye for what you want in the future. In the introduction of my eBook, I mention that you need to budget for your life as a single mom. You can't expect that your marital status will change before you have to deal with your debt. Similarly, you can't live your life simply biding your time. First, you have kid(s) to raise. Today, right now. But even more than that, you are free to think about what you want, what your dreams are outside of a relationship. You might not be able to pursue them at this moment, but you can start dreaming!

Seek help, accept help.   This was one that was hard for me, but essential. From therapy to a friend's offer to talk or babysit, accept the help. If you're in a situation where you can't go out with friends due to lack of babysitting (or money), now there's Skype and Facebook and all kinds of "places" to explore from the comfort of your own home. I'm not going to bother finding the link but I skimmed an article about how podcasts are also really good at filling the void of a social life. I think it was written as a criticism of "these kids today," but I see it as a more creative alternative for those who need or want it for one reason or another. (I posted about some of my favorite podcasts here.)

Your kids will be okay. I should add the caveat: if you take care of yourself. It's true that the more okay I felt about myself, the happier my kids were, too. It's not going to be easy, but it's not easy for any any situation. And, of course, taking care of yourself doesn't mean outrageous self-indulgence because that's not good for you, either. No, self-care is looking out for your mental well-being, your health and your wealth. Your kids will absolutely follow your lead. That doesn't mean they will listen to you the first time you say it, of course, but your lessons are coming through...the good and the bad. In that same vein, it's okay to let them know when you're wrong.

Take it one day, one hour at a time. Because really, what's the alternative? It can be overwhelming at times, particularly when you're worried that this one thing will permanently affect your child. And yes, divorce probably does permanently affect your child. But my girls will be the first to tell you that they're grateful for it. Yes, their dad still affects them, but usually, it doesn't interfere with their daily lives. Every family's situation is different, of course, but together, you will navigate it. Because really, you don't have a choice.

Honestly, the first few years, I wasn't sure I was going to make it. But I did, and the girls did, too. And more days than not, we are content with our lives today. And always with dreams for the future.

Monday, September 28, 2015

One of My Favorite Phrases

One of the things I did to lower my monthly bills was to switch to Republic Wireless. When Riley's contract expired, I switched her, too. We decided that Sylvia would get on her own account after her contract expired, and I provided some funds to get her started. She didn't want to go on Republic Wireless, though. She didn't like our phones and that's the one "catch": you have to buy their phone.

At first, she tried to switch from the family account to her own individual account. After at least an hour (!), she couldn't because she wasn't 18 yet. A few weeks later, she said, "fine. I'll use Republic Wireless."

She set up her own account within 5 minutes. A few days later, she had her phone and called me to say one of my favorite phrases: "you were right, I was wrong." She went on to say she loves her new phone. She went with the more expensive phone than what Riley and I have, and that was probably what makes it much better than she thought it would be. Her number was transferred within 24 hours, and she is happy as a clam. Plus, she feels very "grown-up" to have her own account.

And, I might add, she is now paying less for her own plan than I was paying for hers, getting more services, plus she says the service itself is better and works in more places than her former plan.

Before she made her decision, we searched many, many plans and of all of them, we both recognized that Republic Wireless was the best value. I don't get any referral fees or anything for this, but I really didn't write this to be an advertisement anyway.

Mostly, I just wanted to brag that Sylvia said (and repeated) that I was right and she was wrong. Moments like that need to be recorded somewhere!

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

It's National Singles Week!

Can't believe I almost missed it, but Sept 20-26 is National Singles Week! In the linked post, Bella writes about reasons why this is necessary, in case you're wondering.

I missed it last year, but wrote 2 posts the prior year:

Tips for the Single Parent

National Singles Week 2013

In 2012, I posted every day of the week!

There are others from 2011 and earlier, so honestly, at this point, it's hard to come up with something new to say on this subject! But I'll try :)

Last weekend, Riley and I were rather productive taking care of the household. We installed a new spice rack (it's very cool, it lowers so you can see all your spices at once), and we switched the doors on the fridge/freezer to open the other way. This is something I've wanted to do since we moved (almost a year ago), so I can't claim we're quick with this...then again, I've heard plenty of wives complain about husbands taking their sweet time, so maybe being single has little to do with it!

When it comes to this kind of stuff, I really wish I were more willing and able. If you know me or have been reading for a while, you know how much I value my independence! But I don't mind leaning on Riley when it comes to this stuff.

I'd asked for her help with the spice rack, but it was at her suggestion that we tackled the fridge, too. That's the kind of job that once you've started, you can't really quit, and she was the one who kept it going. She did most of the work, too, quite honestly. She definitely earned her allowance this month because without her, there's no way I would've gotten these things done.

There are more times than I'd like to admit where I've had to rely on others to get things done, and I've gotten much better at asking for or accepting help when offered.

But here's the thing: every time I've been in a relationship, I've never been able to count on my partner to be there for me in times like that. They've either not been willing or available to help when I needed it. This was quite a culture shock after growing up with my dad, who was always (and continues to be) there when I needed him!

While it might be challenging to get everything done by oneself, it's less so than expecting help from someone who either can't or won't help.

I wondered aloud during our project what I would do without Riley, and she assured me that she will continue to be available to help me out with things like this even when she moves out! Worse comes to worse, I can always try TaskRabbit.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Involving Your Kids in the Budget

At this stage, my daughters are fully aware of the budget and YNAB, and Sylvia is using YNAB for her own budget. I talked about this in the Conversations About Divorce podcast, but not sure I've covered this here. I know I would not have been able to change budgeting course without involving my kids.

Now let's be clear: this is not about making your kids worry about money or feel bad about what they need, but about using everyday opportunities to teach money lessons.

I don't think there's anything my girls don't know about my money life these days, but of course, it didn't start that way. Here's a basic guide for introducing age-appropriate money lessons:

Pre-school: Choices. You're at the grocery store and they ask for this, that and the other thing in every aisle. Let them choose one item. Of the multiple things they want, they'll have to choose one. You don't have to bring up prices at this point - of course, if they want something outside of your budget, that'll have to be a "no." I always claimed veto power to control this. But overall, at this stage, you just want to bring up the concept of prioritizing and that you can't have everything by giving them the power of choice.

Elementary School: Now, you can introduce the concept of a budget. At the grocery store (or Target or the amusement park): they have $x dollars, and it's up to them how many items they get for that amount. This is when they start learning about value.  My own daughters would make different choices, depending on the situation, but I could see that they were figuring out the value set by the "invisible hand" for the items they liked. This can also work for special events, buying gifts for friends' bday parties or teachers, maybe even helping to plan a family vacation. This is where they start wrapping their head around the concept of money.

Middle School: Around this time is when the girls started understanding the household budget. They would often see it on the computer and they would ask me questions about categories. I would also tell them when there were changes that would affect them, and sometimes they would help me re-prioritize based on new information. Again, this is not about making them worry about it, but understand how to balance it all. For instance, if they wanted to start a new activity that would cost money, they would have to make a sacrifice somewhere else in the budget. This is also when they started paying for their own "wants" out of their allowance, while I continued to take care of their "needs."

High School: Once they have their own job, they should have their own budget. I'm a stickler for making Sylvia save at least 20% in her Emergency Savings. (And this is also when she learned that a broken boot was not an "emergency." Instead, she paid for shoe repair.) I even make Riley save 20% of her allowance. Ideally, they should also start learning about investments and retirement savings, too, but those are more abstract concepts that still may be hard for them to grasp. But if you can at least make savings a regular habit for your kids, that's a good start. Also, Riley and I talk regularly about how to pay for college. It's a fine line between stressing them about college loans/savings and helping them think proactively and realistically about it, and there's only so much information you can work with until acceptance and financial aid has been sorted, but it should definitely always be part of any conversation about college choices.

Most kids aren't getting any financial education in school so it's crucial that it starts at home. Sylvia didn't have an  economics class until her senior year, and Riley hasn't had any to date. Sylvia said she felt ahead of the curve in her class because she was already familiar with YNAB and budgeting.

Not all the conversations go swimmingly, of course, and they're practically guaranteed to make some poor spending choices, but the earlier they learn these lessons, the sooner they can recover. And, hopefully, avoid some of the mistakes that I made!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Lunch Ideas

I resisted taking my lunch to work for years. Years. And the first time I tried, I only lasted a week...if that. But I finally reached the point where I resented the cost of buying lunch so much that I was willing to try something new. I went from spending an average of $5-$7 a day on lunch (well over $100 a month) to about $25 a month. 

What I knew from my previous attempt was that trying to think about lunch every single day was not going to work for me.  I decided I'd make a big batch of something on Sundays and portion it out for the week. The thing that doesn't make that too boring is that it changes every week. (Though, admittedly, I was the girl who always had my dad make me peanut butter and jelly every single day for school lunches all through elementary school!)

I'll share some recipes I've collected on Pepperplate, but I started with something really simple that I knew I'd love.  Pasta, artichoke hearts, olives, sun-dried tomatoes. I'd usually just drizzle a little olive oil, but sometimes Italian dressing or a vinaigrette.

Here are some other ideas:

Spicy Panzanella Salad from the Kitchn. Had this last week, and it was awesome!

Quinoa, Black Bean and Corn Salad from Let's Move. I made the quinoa in my rice cooker, and the black beans in the slow cooker.

Summer Nectarine Salad. I think last time, I used tangerine slices instead of nectarines and it was still really good!

Spicy Hoppin' John Salad. This is what I'm eating this week. Love the sriracha in the dressing!

Southwest Cornbread Salad, also from Budget Bytes. I've mentioned before how much I love this site, right?

Antonia's Rice Salad. I totally remember when Antonia won a Quick Fire on Top Chef with this one.

You can probably sense a theme here. You pick a base (rice, pasta, beans), add a few favorite things (cheese, veges, fruit, chicken) and dress it.

Another great site is supercook. You enter the ingredients you already have and it finds recipes you can make! 

(BTW, I don't get anything for recommending anything in this post.)

Of course, you can always change it up even during the week with leftovers. I'm lucky that I have both a fridge and microwave at work so that makes it easier, but I generally stick with cold items. 

One thing I don't change is I always pack tortilla chips. I really don't care what it is I'm eating, I say tortilla chips go with it.

Every now and then, I still just want a peanut butter and jelly sandwich!

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Guest Post up at Single at Heart

I wrote a guest post for author Bella DePaulo at Single at Heart.

Monday, September 14, 2015

$450? Okay.

On this blog, in this podcast, and in my eBook, I've told the story of how car maintenance changed my budgeting life.

Last week, I spent over $500 on my car...and not a tear was shed, not a freak-out was had, and I even got a little kick out of knowing this would increase my cash back on my credit card this month!

Honestly, I'm not trying to brag, but to point out that having a living, breathing budget makes all the difference.

I wasn't expecting to need 3 new tires at this service...but the reality is, cars need new tires. This is why I've kept $500 in my Car Maintenance category. The total for the tires, oil change and smog certification came to $452 (this is for my old car, not the new).

The other $101 was for my car registration. That came out of my Car Registration category that gets funded every month, based on the last registration fees for both cars, divided over 12 months.

I got somewhat lucky that this happened this month because next month, I get a 5th paycheck, which will mostly go towards replenishing the Car Maintenance category for next time. Because there will be a next time.

And that's my point. Call it the Power of Negative Thinking or Realistic Budgeting or simply getting through life. Kids need new clothes, holidays and birthdays happen every year, and anything of value you own will need servicing at some point. When your monthly budget reflects these realities, budgeting is actually easy.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Totally Easy Savings

I signed up for Paribus about a month ago, and it took just about that long before it found any savings for me. But it did, and Labor Day weekend alone, it saved on 3 purchases for me without me having to do anything beyond signing up for the service in the first place.

It uses fancy algorithms to find savings available on your purchases. You give them access to your email account so that it can find your purchase receipts and if there any savings available that you didn't receive. You link your credit card, too, but of course, the company uses all kinds of security measures to keep that info safe. Also, you should be checking your account regularly so that if any funny business happens, you can fix it quickly.

So it tracks your purchases and prices for that purchase, and it writes an email for you to the vendor to request the savings. Most times, it'll get refunded to your credit card, but once, I got a gift card from a vendor I use regularly anyway so I'll get use out of it. Paribus keeps 25% of your savings, but hey, a small price to pay for savings I most likely would not have found on my own. And, of course that means if they don't save you any $$, they don't get any $$ either.

I love this kind of lazy, no hassle savings. I am so not good at clipping coupons, plus I value my time a lot more than 25 cents off something. I'm also not good at going to sites like eBates or Groupon to check for lower prices (though on occasion, I remember to check

I'm only recommending Paribus because it's so easy to use. Having said that, I think if I get enough referrals, their commission percentage goes down for me.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Where I've Been

I wrote a post for MomsLA, covering the basic steps of budgeting.

On Divorced Moms, I wrote about holiday budgeting.

And I did my first podcast! Mandy at Since My Divorce now has a podcast, Conversations About Divorce, and we talked about back-to-school budgeting.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Values Summit - August 2015

In my book (why yes, I do like saying that!), one of the steps is a Values Summit. It's been about 6 months since my last so I thought I'd share my own here. I'm copying and pasting my list from February, and then revising here:

1. Visa Paid off! Making Rent the number one priority (you know, Maslow's hierarchy of needs)
2. Rent  Internet - because we'd be in fetal positions without it
3. Internet Electric company (it's been really hot. REALLY hot.)
4. Groceries - girls' got to eat
5. Netflix - most shows the girls and I watch are on Netflix
6. HuluPlus - for more current shows
7. Restaurants - I don't cook generally once a week. Also used for dining with friends/family.
8. Subscribe & Save - I'm surprised it was already up this high on the list, but I'm turning to it more and more as I am considering giving up my Costco membership. Subscribe & Save totally helps with that.
9. Theatre Tix - moving up a little
10. Halo - my vaping products...but I'm working on it!(moved down a little)
11. Household Expenses - lightbulbs, new kitchen utensils, that sort of thing. Not dipped into every month, but let it accrue until needed
12. Fun - mostly for iTunes, but also accruing for outings.
13. Riley allowance - I make her save 20%.
14. Sylvia allowance (since she has a job and graduated high school, we agreed, no more allowance) 
14. Freedom Fund (i.e., emergency savings, also used for Betterment funding)
15. Girls Expenses - school supplies, kids' needs. I'm going to re-evaluate the amount spent in a few months and see if I need to increase or decrease the amount since I'm not really paying for anything extra for Sylvia these days, but right now, it's working out.
16. Amazon Prime membership - probably higher on our list, but leaving as is for now.
17. Dance Studio  (Sylvia's dance classes are her responsibility now) 
17. Car Purchase - one of my priority savings goals right now to build before my lease ends in two years.
18. Cell phones (monthly) - another that should be higher probably, but leaving as is.
19. Savings Goal I used to focus on one savings goal at a time, but reached a point where the minor goals have been met, so the ones left will take tons of time to build. 
19. Major Purchases - to fund things like replacing major appliances as needed
20. Freedom Fund (moved up)
20. Student Loan. Because my interest rate is low, I'm basically just making my required payments, but throw a tiny extra in the category to make an additional payment before the year is over.
21. Electric company moving up a la Maslow 
21. Fiat (lease)
22. Gas Co.
23. Student Loan moved up
23. Charity - moved up, and want to eventually increase. Because I was doing so much volunteer work in years past, I could get away with not making financial donations, but times have changed.
24. Fiat (lease) moved up
24. April fun $$
25.  Fiat (monthly) - parking, maintenance, charging fees. Doesn't get used on a regular basis, but letting it accrue.
26.  Medical - non HSA expenses. Not used often at all, and minimal going in monthly, but it's there.
27. New Cell Phones (SG) (lumped into Major Expenses category)
27. Home Office supplies - printer ink, etc., but also accruing for new laptop/tablet, that sort of thing
30. Graduation (Sylvia) 'Cuz she graduated! I'm hoping there will be enough in the Girls' Expenses category to cover any such-related costs for Riley, but I don't have enough info now to determine.
28. Car Registration (based off of last year's bills for both cars; also a tiny bit extra to cover the smog cert for the Camry)
29.  Camry (monthly) - parking, gas, etc.
30. Car Maintenance - fully funded right now, but will replenish as needed.
Costco I'm keeping it in the budget until I decide for sure, but moving to bottom
31. Car insurance
32. Xmas
33. Birthdays - this is actually a higher priority at the moment and any extra $$ goes here to cover all the October birthdays coming up, but year long, I just try to fund it regularly and spend according to the funds available
Adobe - allows me to convert pdfs into Word. Just decided to lump into Home Office supplies
34. Gifts (other) - weddings, anniversaries, other non-Bday/non-Xmas events
35. AAA membership
36. TurboTax (cover cost of submitting taxes)
37. Mayhem - anything that doesn't fit anywhere else, or where I pull from to cover overages.
Riley's France trip She decided not to go. I decided to create:
38. Vacation category. Frankly, travel is not that important to me, but sometimes it has to be done. Very minimal funding here, but accruing nonetheless.
39. Clothing - I hate shopping, but sometimes, I have to.
Charity (moved up)
40. Costco membership (moved down)
new 41. Seed Money to eventually start non-profit. Right now, not part of the monthly budget, but putting it into Values & budget to keep it on my radar. 

It's been suggested that I lump all the annual expenses into one category (Amazon Prime membership, AAA membership, etc.), but I like to keep them separate so that I can continue to evaluate how I feel about putting money towards each.  I think overall, the number of line items is fairly average; some have more, some have less, but this is granular enough for me. It has to work for you.

When we did the Values Summit on the YNAB forum, people used pieces of paper, post-its or index cards to look at each item one by one. I didn't do that this time around. I think that method is a little too overwhelming for me, but visual learners may prefer it - heck, you could even draw pictures to symbolize each line item! I may be obsessed with budgeting, but not so much with the crafts.

Personally,  I'm grateful to not have to do this with someone else, but if you are coupled, I strongly encourage you to do this exercise with your partner. Sure, in some cases, you will find differences, but by working together, you can collaborate on a plan that will eventually help you meet all your financial goals. If your finances are separate, then those values where you don't see eye to eye, you can take on individually.
Note that there is a Fun and an April Fun category. Fun is for family fun, and April Fun is for those times when I have lunch with friends or when I want to buy myself a little something. 

And of course, I have to close with another plug for my eBook, Balancing the Single Mom Budget. It's less than $5, so you can use your fun money :)

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Balancing Choices on How We Live

Graduate college, get married, buy a house, have kids, retire and die. That's the American dream, right? For some people, sure. But it's also quite presumptuous to think that in a country this vast with this many people, all people would want the same things.

As America has gotten older, with each generation, more and more citizens are exploring other possibilities. 
Author and social psychologist Bella DePaulo has a new book out, How We Live Now, about the variety of ways everyone else is living. In the chapter on single parents, you'll find a few pages about our family. I'm thrilled and honored to be a part of it, just as it was a thrill and honor to be interviewed by the warm and smart Bella DePaulo herself!

DePaulo's skilled writing brings all of these people and their stories to life. I was particularly intrigued to read about those who have created intentional communities, as it remains my dream to build a community for single parent families.

 But I confess, I had a hard time picturing my own family in such a community. As I said in the interview with Bella, we are quite happy with our lives as we live them now.

We came about this less intentionally than others profiled in How We Live Now, but sometimes, you find that making the best of a situation really is the best situation for you. Or us, at least.

I've tried (a couple of times now) to fit the mold of one who wants the American dream, but it just never felt right.

Not long ago, I came across some papers written in a former life (when I was a teenager) about my dream life. Even in my yearbook, I predicted a 2nd divorce. Okay, so the fantasy about a Flashdance-style warehouse apartment was not all that original, but it was just the backdrop for the ultimate fantasy of my own space. And by that, I don't even mean owning it. Not that anyone dreams about mortgages, but I also don't recall wanting to claim property as "all mine!" Rent, for me, has just meant the price one pays for the benefit of a roof over your head. I never wanted to fix the roof itself.

DePaulo's book tells many stories of many others with their own dreams of 'happily ever after' that don't bear much resemblance to the fairy tales. Not that everyone is single. There are plenty of couples and even families, but they've chosen different life spaces than the picket fence in the suburban neighborhood. There's also a chapter on senior living, featuring many who did live the nuclear family lifestyle, but now have chosen other ways or places to call home.

I don't find the book to be preachy or in any way trying to sell readers on one way of living. It's not even dismissive of the more traditional nuclear family choice.

What the book does is open the doors to many homes that are merely different than what we normally see in movies or on TV. The readers are welcomed to explore new ways of thinking. The only "lesson" is to be intentional and think about what's best for you and your loved ones.

As for our family, we will continue to enjoy our abode for now. I think changes may be coming soon, and if and when they do, we'll figure out how to make those changes feel like the best situation for us at that moment.

Visit Bella's page to learn more about the book - or just go buy it on Amazon.  And oh yeah, my book is also available on Amazon! 

Monday, August 17, 2015

eBook Now Available

I've done it. Published my first eBook. Now available on Amazon.

While bits and pieces of my financial journey can be found through this blog, I thought about putting it all together in one place. Honestly, I've always wanted to write a book, too. I'm quite terrified, but I'm taking the plunge.

I still can't claim to be a financial expert, but I do have some things to say on how to change directions and can boast a few accomplishments:

  • My credit score is now 804.
  • I've gone from living paycheck to paycheck to living on last month's income.
  • I paid off $8,000 in credit card debt in less than two years.
  • I've paid in cash for my daughters and I to enjoy some wonderful experiences like seeing Newsies, going to the Hollywood Bowl, and some good meals with friends. 
  • I've paid in cash for car repairs, insurance premiums and moving costs.
  • I started investing in Betterment
If you or someone you know :) could use help in managing their budget, I hope you'll consider my new book, Balancing the Single Mom Budget.  And, of course, this link is associated with my Amazon account - though I have no idea if I still get a referral fee on a book written by me!

OMG, I wrote (and published) a book!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Letter to My Daughter on Her High School Graduation

Well, here we are! You made it! I am so incredibly proud of you, and not just for graduating, but for how you’ve used this time to learn as much as you can about everything, and take advantage of almost every opportunity that came your way.

You are as ready as anyone can be to enter this new phase of your life. 
More than anything, I hope you know that you are not alone, and never will be alone, for as long as I’m around. And even longer, when you consider your sister, your family and friends…you will never be alone. 

While you know I’m a firm believer in independence, I hope I’ve also taught you that independence doesn’t mean you’re alone. It means you’re strong enough and wise enough to figure out what kind of help you need. Because we all need help, and the mature among us know how to ask for it and accept help. And to say please and thank you!

You have so many possibilities for your future, and I’m so excited to see what happens next! 

I love you fiercely and completely.

Love always,
Your mom