Where is it all going?

When you start to feel your pants get a little tighter you may realize that it’s time to go on a diet. The same can be said about your financial situation; when times get tough you might start using a “money diet” (more commonly known as a budget).

But what is a budget? A magic money saving technique that will provide you with the extra cash you were unable to hold onto in previous months? No! Budgets, like diets, are fixes for temporary issues, but they don’t get to the root of the problem. Reduce caloric intake, lose unwanted fat. Limit the coffee shop trips, have more in the bank.

A standard budget spreadsheet will show all of the income received in a given month. Then bills are subtracted out, leaving you with your disposable income. That’s it.

More advanced budgets will break down disposable income into categories (ie. Groceries, Restaurants, Gas, Clothes). Let’s say you gave yourself $300 for the month to eat at restaurants. More than likely you will think to yourself “this money has already been allotted toward dining out so I might as well spend it all”.

The Moneyseeds were notorious with this, even until recently. We were just putting $600 into an account labeled “Want”, allowing us to spend that money freely throughout the month. It was great! We went to coffee shops, restaurants, department stores and bought whatever we wanted. As great as it was, we found ourselves spending just to spend. Were we failing our budget? Or was our budget failing us?

You’ve already been tracking all of your expenses to the penny. After about a month of doing this, you’ll have a decent idea of where you normally spend money. But, why do you purchase the things you do? Tracking your expenses doesn’t really answer that question.

Next to every transaction you should begin to write down the category that it would represent. An example would be:

Chipotle, $10.50, “Fast-food”

Notice that this is more specific that labeling it as “food”, because “food” could mean groceries, restaurants, or non-food grocery items like beer. The same idea would hold true with clothing:

Kohl’s, $20.43, “Clothes for work”

A separation may be necessary in heavy spending categories. Now you can see what part of your budget goes towards clothes for work, specialized apparel (golf shoes, dress for an event), or clothes to make you feel like the hotness in public.

Personally, I accomplish all of this by using Mint.com. I don’t write out a budget of what I can and can’t spend money on, but I do closely follow our transaction history. Since Mint is able to logically display all of your credit and bank accounts in one place, you can easily see what your big spending categories are, or in other words, where your problem areas are. Obviously Mint can’t help you log any physical cash transactions, but if you are one of those people that never carry cash, like me, then it shouldn’t be an issue.

The final step is to divide the total spent in each category by the value of one hour of life energy.

To pay my mortgage alone I have to spend 251 hours of life energy. Child care runs me about 126 hours of life energy. These are two inflexible categories, because their rates don’t change from month-to-month. But you can see how much life I have to give up to be able to pay for my house and our daughters’ day care.The mortgage for our home is about $2200 a month. We had calculated that my life energy is worth $8.75 (by subtracting the cost of working from take home pay). Just for this post we won’t take into account our other streams of income (Mrs. Moneyseed’s income, blog income, etc).

It’s eye-opening to see how hard you might work and how little it actually gets you. Next time you’re about to buy something, do the math out. How many hours of life energy are you willing to spend?

Your Money or Your Life: Part 2

This is a continuation from: Your Money or Your Life – Part 1

In Step 1 the authors asked us to think about all of the money we have ever received throughout our lifetime, whether it be from work, babysitting, tips, or even by illegal means. They encourage us to be as specific and thorough as possible through this process so we can truly come to terms with our past and our present financial situations. This is accomplished by calculating our current net worth (Assets minus Liabilities). So now we know how much money we’ve come in contact with, and how much of it we still have (if any). It is necessary to look at the past when planning for our futures, so we can have a clear understanding of what our relationship has been, up to this point, with money.

Being in the Present – Tracking Your Life Energy – What is money? Is it the paper in our wallets or the change in our pockets? Is it just a physical representation of something we can exchange for good or services?

In essence, money is worthless. True, you can buy things with money, but you can’t eat money, you can’t wear it, and in certain regions of the world it has no value whatsoever. When we sit down and truly think about what money is, we think about currency, about what we would spend it on if we had it, or what mistakes we’ve made with it throughout our lives. We don’t contemplate what money truly is.

In order to answer the question “what is money?” we need to take a look at it from multiple perspectives, since the concept of what it is seems to change at every angle.

  1. The Practical, Physical Realm – Here we have a ground level view of money where we learn about its physical form. What it looks like. What you can purchase with it. This is where monetary transactions occur. Shopping, opening bank accounts, buying a house, investing. All we really know about money from this perspective is that if we have problems, more than likely a personal void can be filled by making another purchase.
  2. The Emotional/Psychological Realm – This perspective has us look at how money makes us feel. Secure? Powerful? Grateful? Do you feel like money is evil? Or do you need it to be accepted among your peers? The truth about money brings us back to the original point that money itself is worthless. You may feel secure or powerful with tons of money, but would your money make you feel secure if you were being attacked? If money = power then how would you explain the power of Harriet Tubman, Ghandi or Mother Teresa? Surely they didn’t derive their “power” from money.
  3. The Cultural Realm – The concepts of “more is better” and “growth is good” sharpen into focus at this realm. We start to see how the economy as a whole functions. Inflation, recession, cost of living, and the laws associated with money are all apparent here. It is here that we decide what social class we belong in from the things we buy to the houses we live in.
  4. Personal Responsibility and Transformation – In the final perspective we discover what money truly is. We’ve already determine what it isn’t. It isn’t security or power. It has no intrinsic value, as in your can’t wear it or eat it. Without a society to assign a monetary value on it, it is as worthless as a common pebble. So what is it?

“Money is something we choose to trade our life energy for.”

In the developed world, money is what keeps us alive. We work jobs to bring in more money to sustain our lifestyle. If we don’t have jobs we beg, borrow or steal to “get by” however we can. In this sense, even most homeless people “make a living”. Depending on how old you are and what physical condition you are in will have an impact on your longevity. It can be estimated in hours, how much time you might have left to live. I, for example, am (for approximation’s sake) about 30 years old. Judging by the handy chart in the book, I have about 49.3 years left to live, or 432,164 hours.

About 430,000 hours to live, and you can assume that, like any normal person, I’m going to spend 1/3 of those hours asleep. Leaving me with about 290,000 hours of living, awake time. If I chose to work a 9-5 job through retirement (age 65) I’d be out another 73,000 hours.. Now I’m left with just over 217,000 hours of me time from age 30-death.

But, even though we only clock 8 hours of the job at a 9-5, we’re putting a lot more time and life energy into working. Think about all of the external factors that take away from your time and money when you go to work. Work starts at 9? Better get up at 7 so you can shower, get dressed, shave, eat breakfast, warm up the car, commute, sit in traffic, and arrive a few minutes before the clock hits 9. At noon you walk or drive to the nearest restaurant to have lunch with your co-workers. Back to the grind, you look up and the clock hits 5. Back into the car, back into traffic, burn that gas, get home and sit on the couch. Decompress. Beer? After an hour, you’re ready to deal with the house, the kids, the wife, the husband, your real life.

All of these factors take away from your actual hourly wage. You may be told you’re going to make $20 an hour, but when you factor in all of your job-related expenses (including your most precious expense: your time) then you aren’t making exactly as much as you were promised.

The following equation should make more sense:

(You weekly paycheck) – (Cost of appropriate work clothing, including makeup, razors, etc) – (Commuting costs, gas, wear and tear, time in traffic) – (Cost of child care or babysitter) – (De-stressing time) – (Time complaining or worrying about work outside of work) – (Cost of things to take your mind off work, dinners, movies, vacations) – (Sick time that was caused by office stress) – (Any other amount you may have to pay!) = Your Real Take Home Pay

Hours/Week $/Week $/Hour
Before Adjustment 40 $920 $23
Commuting 6 -$100
Child Care (Dropping kids off and picking them up) 4 -$255
Going out/Vacations 6 -$75
Total 56 hour work week! $490 after paying work related costs! $8.75 my real hourly wage!!

What the hell! I hadn’t actually done the math out until I made that table. I’m working “40 hours” every week for less than $9 an hour? If you were to calculate what one hour my life energy were to equal it would be the same amount as my hourly wage: $8.75.

15 minutes of my time is worth about $2.20. So, I thought I only had 73,000 working hours left until retirement, and I just realized that the number is closer to 98,000! What’s worse is that my 217,000 hours of me time left on Earth is really only 192,000. That’s a HUGE difference! 2.85 full YEARS worth!

The authors then tell us to track every expense in our lives, every purchase to the penny. To the penny. The reasoning behind this is that:

  1. If money = life energy, then you should be conscious of when you are utilizing it.
  2. If money = life energy, then you should treat it with the utmost respect. It’s the one thing you can never buy more of.
  3. You will realize how much you spend on certain things, such as convenience.
  4. It provides perspective when making purchases. If I buy a $2 cup of coffee, I am really spending 1/4 of an hour of life energy.
  5. Cheating here and there, or using round numbers, can lead to carelessness, the same way that cheating on a diet can.

Do the math to see how much your life energy is actually worth. Is it worth as much as the real energy that you spend to earn it?

Continue reading : Your Money or Your Life – Part 3

Your Money or Your Life: Part 1

I recently picked up a copy of “Your Money or Your Life” by Vicki Robin & Joe Dominguez at my local library. It came highly recommended from the financial independence/personal finance blogosphere. And for good reason!

The book describes the “9 steps to transforming your relationship with money and achieving financial independence“.

Making Peace with the Past – Have you ever sat down to think about how much money you’ve already earned over the course of your life? Probably a lot more than you realize. Think back as far as you can remember. Birthday money, part-time jobs, salary income, selling things on Craigslist. I haven’t officially calculated my to-date life-earnings yet, but I would ballpark them to be around $350k-$400k easily. Couple this with my wife’s lifetime income and we’re looking at three-quarters of a million bucks!

Keep a balance sheet going of all of your income, and total it (to the nearest penny, if possible) to start the process of making peace with the past.

Next, find out your true net worth. This can be accomplished by adding up all of your current real assets and subtracting your liabilities.

Assets include (but are not limited to)

  • Checking/Savings accounts
  • Brokerage/Investment/Money Market accounts
  • Houses/Property
  • Cars/Motorcycles/Other vehicles (KBB values)
  • The value of every item you own (how much you could get by selling an item on Craigslist or at auction)
  • Savings bonds, jewelry, furniture, etc.
  • Life insurance

Liabilities include (but are not limited to)

  • Mortgage
  • Vehicle loans
  • Personal loans
  • Gambling debts/IOUs
  • Student loans
  • Et cetera

Hopefully after all of your careful addition and subtraction you end up with a positive number. Whether it is positive or not, this number represents your current real net worth. If you were to drop dead today (and hopefully you don’t), your net worth represents the amount of money that will either be divided between your estate, or the amount of money that your relatives may have to pick up the bill for.

Now that you’ve been able to identify the amount of money that has come into your life and your current net worth, you can let go of any negative feelings you may have accumulated over the years about your financial life. It should become apparent to you that much much more money will find it’s way into your life. Probably more than you could have previously imagined.

You now have a choice to: continue down the path you’re on now, or start building your net worth.

How does your relationship with money affect your future plans?

Continue reading : Your Money or Your Life – Part 2

Lowering the grocery bill

Some line items in our monthly budget are non-negotiable: mortgage, child care, insurance, among others. We have little to no control over these costs, as they are fixed, or we have done everything we could to minimize payments (ie, refinancing, raising deductibles on insurance).

One area where we have almost full control on how much we spend is food. Last year we overspent on groceries, restaurants and coffee shops. We used 2012 as a learning experience, as we tried to find the perfect way to save money on food, that was also the least impactful on our time.

$450 was our total grocery bill for January. This is for two adults and one 18 month old. Our other daughter is under 6 months old and doesn’t affect our monthly food budget. We also spent about $100 at restaurants, most of which was before I started this blog.

The following are the rules we follow to save money at the grocery store.

  1. Eat a lot of fruits, vegetables, meats, seafood and dairy.
  2. Avoid the “middle-aisles” of the grocery store (basically avoid the cracker, chip, soda, cookie aisles).
  3. Only drink milk, water and coffee. No sodas, no juices.
  4. Compare similar items by unit cost, cost per ounce, per pound, etc. This is huge, because sale items aren’t always your cheapest option.
  5. Rice or pasta go with almost every meal. They’re cheap. Avoid “minute rice” as a huge bag of enriched or thai jasmine rice is super easy to make and will last a month or two.
  6. DON’T buy any personal hygiene items at the grocery store. Buy them at Rite Aid (or whatever pharmacy you prefer). This will also help you categorize your transactions easier with Mint.com.
  7. Buy store brand items if available, they’re pretty much the same thing (if not better) and usually cost way less. We shop exclusively at Safeway, and we love their store brand equivalents.
  8. Utilize a grocery store cash back card (American Express Blue Cash will earn you 3% cash back on groceries, or 6% cash back with the preferred version of the card). I don’t get paid to push this card, but we use it and it’s amazing!
  9. At the beginning of the month we purchase a grocery store gift card for the amount we intend to spend on groceries for the month. Typically for us it’s $500. Our store rewards us with gas points for every $100 we spend, so we are able to save at the gas pump as well. Plus we earn $30 cash back by using our AmEx Blue Cash.
  10. Always make a list and EAT before shopping, this will prevent impulse buying.
  11. Add digital coupons to your store card after you make your list (if your store has a program like this). This is as far as we go in terms of “couponing”. We tried the whole coupon thing, and it was a bigger pain in the ass than it was a money saver.
  12. Cook bigger dinners, and pack leftovers as the next day’s lunch!
  13. If you have a family member that is a picky eater try to have them help cook dinner. They may be more inclined to eat it if they had something to do with it’s creation. This will prevent having to cook separate meals for everyone.
  14. Just remember brand names almost never matter (besides Coke or Pepsi), but if you avoid soft drinks then you don’t have to worry about that either.
  15. Stock up on the things you use most often. Buying things when you run out, or when you need them will put you at a disadvantage because you may have to settle for a higher price than you could have paid.

Reddit user LibertyVanguard had these tips to help save even more money while grocery shopping:

  1. Potatoes, Rice, Beans, Onions, Carrots, Mushrooms (non-exotic) are good cheap staple foods.
  2. For fresh fruit, buy what is seasonal. Certain fruits can be frozen well, so stock up when in season. Frozen fruit is good in smoothies. Bananas and melons provided a lot of food for their price.
  3. Meat, Seafood, and Dairy are actually quite expensive when compared to fruits and vegetables. Buy what is on special and take advantage of good prices that you can store in the freezer. I cut dairy out of my diet and I save quite a bit of money. Consider buying meat on the last sale date (usually stickered) and freeze it.
  4. Consider alternatives to your more expensive purchases. Instead of dairy milk, try making your own rice or almond milk with a blender and strainer.
  5. Grocery stores like Aldi or ethnic markets can be half as expensive as big brand name stores. Ethnic markets are good places for cheap spices.
  6. If you live in a climate that is good for growing and you have access to a place to garden, try growing green onions, peppers, and tomatoes.
  7. Make your own snacks like popcorn, chips, and cookies.
  8. For baking mixes, nuts, and other dry, non-perishable goods, try buying online from Amazon. From experience, I can usually find most items cheaper and with free shipping.
  9. Try cooking a meal that will store for 3-4 days after, so you don’t have to cook each day and less food is wasted.
  10. Have a plan. Make a budget, analyze what you buy each month, identify expensive culprits, and identify methods for lowering cost. Focus on coupons, alternative foods, or bulk buying ahead of time for expensive culprits.

What tips do you use to help save on your grocery bill? I’d love to hear some other methods that you use to keep your grocery bill down. Our method works pretty well for us, but we are by no means perfect shoppers.

Living on less: Cutting the cord

It’s time to get serious about spending less, and saving more. Take a look at your monthly expenses. Hopefully, you have less money going out than coming in, but for now it’s okay if you’re not quite there yet. There is one item in particular that can drain your bank account, $100 at a time, and the funny thing is: you don’t need it.

I’m referring to cable, of course. If you live in America, odds are you have some form of network television being broadcast into your house. 90% of all U.S. households subscribe to either cable or a dish equivalent. This is because of two reasons: 1. We’ve been conditioned to believe that we need it and 2. Bundling cable/internet services makes each individual service cost less.

We currently have Verizon FioS as our Internet Service Provider. Until recently, we were also receiving cable television service through them as well. When we moved into our house in November of 2011, the first thing we did was call Verizon to have these services installed.

$100 a month! Hey, that’s not bad at all, we thought. That included a free DVR, 200+ channels and 25up/25down internet speeds. With all of this great news, and shiny new services, we tuned out the part of the conversation with the Verizon rep when they said “2 year contract” and “introductory price”.

Our bill was steadily around $100 for the first entire year of our cable/internet subscription, so it never really occurred to us that we were wasting money, since internet alone through Verizon would run us about $80/month without the bundle.

But then, our November 2012 bill came in the mail: $134.88. This price increase was attributed to one simple fact, which was that we were no longer “new customers”. The DVR went from free to $14.99/month, and our new customer discount ($15/month) expired.

I called Verizon immediately and pleaded with them to lower our bill, because it was out of the range that I was willing to pay. They told me to call back in January, as this is the month they receive incentives to pass out to customers in need.

Long story short, I called back in January and they still couldn’t do anything to reduce my bill. After a heated conversation I told them I wanted to drop my cable service altogether, all I wanted was internet. They tried to keep us from dropping cable by saying, “Internet alone is $74.99/month, if you keep your cable service it’s only $84.99*/month”.

Why then was I paying almost $135 for an $85 service? I told the guy to screw, and shortly thereafter we returned our $15/month set top box to the Verizon store. The shitty part is that we had to pay an early termination fee of $120, but it was worth it and we would make that money back within 2 months.

I realize that $75/month for internet isn’t stellar, but this area is duopolized by Comcast and Verizon, and a lower price can’t be obtained without a new contract. Either way, without our cable service, we’re currently saving $60.00 every month. Or $720.00 a year. Or $9,153.82 compounded over a 10-year period.

While cable added $60 to our utility bill every month, alternative media sources that provide nearly the same exact content are available at significantly lower costs (and without contracts!) Three simple and cost effective additions to your TV can make it a media powerhouse: HD antenna, DVD or Blu-Ray player, and a streaming-media box.

We already had an Xbox 360 to play DVDs, so all we had to do was purchase a Roku streaming-media player and an antenna (starting at $10). Installing the Roku was extremely simple. Plug it into the wired network or connect to the wireless network. Open an account at roku.com. Authorize the device.

Then pick the channels you want (Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, Vudu, Pandora, Spotify, etc) and add them to your device. Some of these require paid subscriptions, others like Pandora only require you to have a free account.

There are a ton of options if you choose not to use Roku: Boxee, AppleTV, and Slingbox are some of the other big names. You might also choose to set up a Home Theater PC instead, which is an all-in-one solution.

We have a subscription to Neflix ($8/month), Hulu Plus ($8/month), and free access to Amazon Instant Video with our Amazon Prime subscription. If you’re a sports fan, you aren’t going to have very much luck with these subscription-based services. That’s where the HD antenna comes into play. These aren’t the same crappy antennas from years past. New HD antennas produce crystal clear images and are extremely reliable. They give you free access to NBC, CBS, ABC, FOX and PBS among others (list of channels for your area).

You don’t have to be embarrassed about having a Super Bowl party at your house, because no one will know that they aren’t watching cable (unless you tell them).

With our optional services we pay $75 (for internet) + $16 (Netflix/Hulu) for a total of $91/month. This is at least satisfactory, and the service so far has been terrific. I would highly recommend switching away from cable, even if you have to pay a termination fee you will make your money back tenfold in the long run.