The times they are a-changing

So, today is my estranged husband’s 46th birthday. Our daughter— the teenager— worked very hard on a custom gift.

She had $1.80 to her name and wanted to go to Dollar Tree and purchase wrappings.

I told her I could get her to $2.12 for tissue paper and a gift bag.

Now I keep a change purse separate from my wallet. But I usually leave it in my car. I also keep a half-pint “jelly” mason jar in center console in my car for my quarters. Because I believe in “parking quarters.” I think that shows how old I am.

I also keep a pint-sized canning jar in the kitchen for the spare change I forget to leave in the car or the coins that go through the wash or fall in the couch.

I always use that money at Dollar Tree, because even when you’re broke you can afford something at The Dollar Tree using the change from the jar.

So I took the jar with me into the store.

I gave the teenager enough change to have $3.18. That way she could also get a bow.

The cashier said she’d rather have coins than the teen’s dollar.

And then she asked what I had in the jar.

I told her that was my change.

“We buy change,” she said.

And the look in her eye was like I was gripping a golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. I was holding a jar of nickels, dimes and pennies.

The line was getting very long but I counted out a dollar in small change and took my daughter’s paper money back.

Manic Monday … Nan and Angel style

Second week of Band Camp for the teenager and somehow I not only volunteered to drive her and the marching baritone to the high school but I also conned my good friend Nan, my crazy blind compatriot, into breakfast before our regular work session.

So I got up at 7:10 a.m., after the teenager did all the work with the menagerie, slapped on some clothes, took my last antibiotic and headed out the door by 7:40 a.m.

The routine with Nan is simple, yet deliciously complex, I pick her up and we drive to a shady spot in the parking lot of her apartment building to peruse coupons and loyalty deals on the various apps.

Now, Nan loves chai. We both love food, the worse for our health, the better. Okay perhaps that is a joke. Maybe. It’s free coffee Monday at Dunkin. And we have coupons for $2 off a breakfast combo at Wendy’s.

I plot a plan.

I really want to try the chicken biscuit at Wendy’s. Nan and I know we love the seasoned breakfast potatoes at Wendy’s.

So, our first stop was Wendy’s. We ordered a chicken biscuit with honey butter combo, making the potatoes a medium (which honestly was too many potatoes even for the two of us) and an unsweetened iced tea. The bill was $3.70. I had $3 cash and Nan had the 70 cents.

Now, I know, that’s only breakfast for 1 person. We then headed to Dunkin for my free medium iced coffee and to see if they still have chai— you see they took it off the menu.

We got the iced tea in case Dunkin really didn’t have chai.

I used the Dunkin mobile app to order the 2 for $3 sausage-egg-and-cheese wraps because Nan likes them. They are easy to eat in the car. And then I could get my free coffee. So that was $3.18. We saved the last egg wrap for the teenager.

Then at the speaker of the drove-thru we asked if they still had the chai, and they did. We ordered a medium hot chai and a cup with ice so I could ice it for Nan. That cost $3.79, as they had to charge us for the second cup.

They total for all the food was about $11 and we had breakfast for three people.

I loved the chicken biscuit with honey butter.

Phase One of our morning complete. Nan and I returned to my house to submit some essays and strategize future creative endeavors.

And then our friend Joan joins us. Neither one of us has seen Joan in a decade. Joan is another wickedly smart and multi-talented woman, dabbling and exploring the so many ways to express the beauty of this world: short stories, photography and music.

Joan, Nan and I all met as members of the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group when the teenager was still “the baby.”

A lot of my good friends came from that group.

Angel, Nala, Misty

And Joan also brought the sweetest, ripest smelling melon I have held in my arms in months. Did she notice how much fresh fruit cup I ate in the hospital?

The teenager came home for lunch break (from band camp), Joan departed and we crated our three male fosters for neutering tonight. Except Zeus looks like a girl now.

Apollo

Apollo and Hermes both still have infected eyes and coughs so we were told to bring Artemis instead since she was ready for a forever home.

I went into the teenager’s room and Hermes had escaped his crate!

I let Apollo out, and cleaned cat boxes while on hold with Capital One Auto Financing to finish my application to refinance the last 40 months of my auto loan and drop $50/month from my payment without extending the life of the loan. I owe $7,690 and some odd cents.

With my auto loan approved, I slipped sweet little Artemis into the crate. Remember if she charms you, you can apply to adopt her through Feline Urban Rescue and Rehab.

Artemis purring

On the way to Artemis’ rendezvous point, I received a phone call from Capital Blue Cross, my medical insurer. This was my second medical phone call of the day as the hand specialist overseeing my case called me to request a follow-up even though my hospital discharge instructions said I only needed to see my family physician at Medical Associates of Bethlehem.

I have that appointment scheduled for Wednesday, and now the hand specialist for the following Monday. On the phone was my case manager from the insurance company. She sounded pleased that I was healing well and on top of everything. She will call again next Tuesday.

Upon delivering Artemis and retrieving the teenager, we came home and I finally had Brussel sprouts. When I was admitted to the hospital last week I had missed them by a couple hours as part of the Monday lunch special.

Discount Cookies

Today’s haul

Sometimes your days don’t go as planned. I thought I’d get up, feed the pets, and head to the Dollar Tree to get our foster kittens some sardines to soften their tender feline hearts.

The thunderstorm scared the cockatoo, and the rain must have slowed me down as I finished feeding the pets and having a coffee on the porch at 10 a.m.

But Sunday is the day of rest, so that’s okay.

I headed to the Dollar Tree and spent $9.

  • Three cans of sardines
  • 1 small box of generic golden crisp cereal or “sugar crisp” as it was called in the 1980s
  • 1 four-pack of individual boxes of cereal
  • 2 packs of Chips Ahoy sandwich cookies
  • 2 bags of Cajun gator dill potato chips
  • 1 jar mayonnaise

Then I went to the Grocery Outlet where for $14.75 I got everything else in the photo. Now, note, this is all processed breakfast foods and various snacks as the teenager starts band camp tomorrow and I know she will need to get something in her system at 7 a.m. and she will come home starved.

So snacks. And cereal. And Pop Tarts.

When I got home the teenager and I decided to try the Doozie cookie bar and the Sour Patch Kid cookies.

The results were exactly as I expected.

The teenager loved the Doozie bar. It was a cookie dough bar— so if you love edible cookie dough this was a nice treat. I thought it was too big for one sitting, that the sweetness got to be too much. I’m sure the teenager disagrees.

Doozie Birthday Cake Edible Cookie Dough Bar

I purchased three of these for 29 cents.

Now the Chips Ahoy cookies, with Sour Patch Kids, were definitely a purchase for me. I bought them at the Dollar Tree.

They tasted like sugar cookies with candy in them.

I liked them. The teenager did not.

Chips Ahoy Special Edition Sour Patch Kids

CVS magic

I am not an “extreme couponer” and I hate the whole concept of “extreme couponing.” Life experience has taught me to be frugal, but *living* life has taught me that reading 5 newspapers to get a few extra bottles of Tide raises the question of how much is my time and my happiness worth?

When stores first starting using loyalty cards, I hated the concept. I still hate cards. But customer loyalty apps are different. I already have my phone. These apps also allow me to shop and plan my shopping trips. Target Circle, like many others, combines their coupons, payment options (even when in the store), circulars, and stock all in one place. I can scan items to see if there’s a deal while in the store and, of course, they customize offers to cater to my shopping habits.

The Lidl app allows me to make a shopping list (as does Target but I like Lidl’s list organization system better) and rewards me based on how much money I spend. Last month I earned a 30% off sliced cheese coupon! So I bought extra cheese. We might be living on toasted cheese sandwiches with my upcoming job loss.

I sign up for the emails and while a lot of them get annoying, some of them alert me to major deals on my household staples.

And that is what happened with CVS. They sent me a coupon for the gallon bottle of Arizona iced tea for $1.66 cents. The teenager has a weakness for Arizona iced tea so I let her buy some as an occasional treat.

I texted her the offer, and asked her if she wanted to walk to CVS to redeem it. She declined.

CVS sent a 40% off one item coupon. I loaded it to my card because you never know when you’ll end up in CVS for a health emergency.

The teenager also loves Cinnamon Toast Crunch and had a craving for Honey Nut Cheerios. Now I view cereal as an occasional emergency snack, not as breakfast. But the teen is a convert to the cereal-to-start-the-day camp.

Now I know CVS regularly has regular cereal sales.

Yesterday they sent me a coupon. “One day only! General Mills Cereal! $1.99!”

And the photo featured Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Honey Nut Cheerios.

I texted the teenager.

She came downstairs. When I told her that I would buy both cereals, she volunteered to walk to CVS. I handed her my debit card. She refused it. “Mom, it’s $4.”

I asked her if there was anything else she needed. She said no, but she might buy iced tea. I thought, “drats. We missed that iced tea offer.” I told her she could use the 40% off coupon if the iced tea was full price.

She came home with the gallon of iced tea, the two boxes of cereal, and a bag of Doritos. I asked her how much she spent.

“$7,” she said, “but that doesn’t make sense. This is $14 worth of stuff. At least.”

Apparently I also had a snacks/drink coupon I forgot about that also saved us 85 cents.

So we talked about it, and I asked her if she was starting to get my system. She said no. Not at all.

As far as she understood, she merely said she wanted to go to CVS, I looked at the app and put coupons on, she randomly grabbed what she wanted, and told the clerk at the register to use all the coupons.

Magic.

We have a jumper! (This post jumps around)

I’ve been allowing myself to sleep in a bit and these days I’m waking up between 6:15 and 6:30. I lay in bed sometimes until almost 7, but I’m always dressed, with pants and everything, and at my desk with a hot cup of coffee by 8:30.

I’ve enjoyed sharing an office with my birds— three budgies and a Goffin’s cockatoo—all of whom must be enjoying the electronic swing I listen to at my desk and the bird playground I have assembled for them.

Yes, that’s the teenager’s kitten who refused to get out of the cockatoo’s cage.

Now, when Nala the cockatoo destroys toys I save the salvageable pieces and put them in these spare dishes and she plays with them and throws them at the cats.

I think I have some new toys coming for the parakeets, and I also need to order them more ladders and perches because they have suddenly destroyed everything in their cage.

Work passed easily, I feel like I was quite organized and productive. And I’m off tomorrow. I took an unplanned paid time off to take care of some health issues. So it will be part trip to the pharmacy, part virtual doctor visit and part mental health day.

There’s a contact we have at work at a local company that is the point person for a rather large food drive that benefits our agency. Because of the state lockdown, they can’t host this food drive so the employees contributed cash instead, but she didn’t want to mail it and our offices are closed.

So the teenager and I took a road trip. It’s strange when a 25-mile round trip to the next town and back feels like a major outing. I donned my mask, put on my gloves and we exchanged an envelope of cash in the parking lot.

That might be the closest I will ever come to feeling like a drug dealer. Nope, scratch that. I’ve driven around with a trunk full of Girl Scout cookies.

My teenager and I have the best conversations while in the car. We talked a lot about financial responsibility and budgeting and how important it will be for her to determine her own style of fiscal management. She admires my discipline, chicanery and creativity with making my money work for me.

I taught her about different ways to trick yourself into putting money into savings. The first of course is to set up automatic transfers. Another is to have a portion of your paycheck direct deposited into savings.

The easiest is to always, as soon as you take a new job, decide on a number of how much goes into retirement if your job offers a retirement plan. That way before you even see how much your take home pay is, the money goes into your future.

And if your job doesn’t have retirement options, go to your bank and contribute to an IRA. Every year. Because money saved when you are young goes far.

That motivated me to go ahead and take the plunge and use that last $1,000 of my stimulus check that I had put into savings and use it to prepay for 400 gallons of fuel oil for next winter’s heat at $2.199.

That was painful. But at least it’s over. Next I need to contact the dentist about the $859 bill they sent me for my crown. My insurance company didn’t cover anything but $17. I’m annoyed because the dentist thought they’d pay 50%, the tooth still isn’t right AND the bill they sent didn’t include the credit for the $394 I already paid.

But paying for the fuel oil was enough adulting for today.

The teenager made an amazing steak dinner.

And Nala loves onion rings.

The teenager discovered, because I sent her an Instagram post, that The Attic thrift store has an online sale and bid on a red dress. That she won.

I love the ingenuity our local small businesses are showing. I hope it continues after the lockdown ends.

Go follow AtticClothes

Last but certainly not least, I tried this Cascara tea which is supposedly full of antioxidants and it tasted really good.

Budgeting, part 2

Part one is here: Budgeting

Today I will discuss my budget worksheet.

Ideally, I sit down once a month to work on my budget and I usually budget for two to three months at a time. This helps me plan for the quarterly utility and life insurance bills and the twice a year car insurance. Plus, in late June I typically pre-pay my fuel oil for the winter.

That is a financial gamble, but honestly I don’t even look at the oil prices once I pay. For me the convenience of not having an unexpected fuel bill or an extra monthly commitment is worth it.

So even though I have just paid March’s bills, I am planning April and May and trying to find money to hoard for summer as once I get that fuel oil bill paid, the teenager will be headed back to school.

As a salaried employee who gets paid every other week, if I plan carefully I can use the “extra” pay period twice a year to pay those larger bills. If I had myself on a strict four-week budget, that money could be used to go on vacation or pay down my mortgage but alas, I am not that good.

But what I do do is sit down with a blank sheet of graphic paper, jot the current date on it, and write “start balance” on the top. That is the balance of my checkbook rounded down to the nearest $25 increment.

Last night it was $508 and some-odd cents. So I rounded to $500.

Now, bills, regardless of how it seems, come in predictable cycles. So let’s just start with the concept and not continue with the budget I started last night.

I would start writing due dates and who I need to pay in a chronological list.

3/1 car payment

3/5 mortgage

3/7 electric

3/10 American Express

3/13 PAY

3/15 life insurance (quarterly)

3/20 water (quarterly)

3/20 sewer (quarterly)

3/24 cell phone

3/27 PAY

3/28 savings

3/28 Discover

My first pay day in April is 4/10 so that means not only due I have six months of car insurance due before that check, but I also have car payment, mortgage and electric. This is why I plan so far out.

So when I budget, I also estimate my bills, rounded preferably to $100 increments so when they come in under budget that gives me wiggle room and extra money for groceries. In my March budget for example, I budgeted $100 for electric because February is usually cold and dark and I have electric hot water. It was $80 when the bill came in.

And I do the same with my credit cards. I often use my Discover for groceries so I budget $200 a month to pay that card.

My American Express is my card for everything else, like medical bills or an order for the pets at Chewy.com or Petco. I budget $350 for that. Right now, because of my medical bills, I’m dropping $300 on it each pay period. But the point is, I look at not only what I spent on the card so far but what I anticipate needed the card for in weeks to come.

And again, I round. So I might write phone bill ($115) in the first column, but when I subtract in from the balance, I subtract $125.

Then when the teenager hits me up for lunch money I have it.

Budgeting

For the first 15 years or so of our marriage, I used Quicken to do our household finances. We have always been one of those households just making ends meet, sometimes saving up, only to have something happen to suck our savings away.

When Quicken went to a subscription based cloud product, I groaned but paid the piper because I had almost two decades of financial records in that software.

And then, in late 2018, my 2013 MacBook Air died.

I developed a system to keep my finances organized—

using graph paper.

Each square is $25 in expenses I spent in a month not part of the regular cycle of bills (mortgage, car payment, electric, fuel oil for heat, water, sewer/garbage, car insurance). That is just so I know where my moment went for future planning.

I keep one column for “cash” and one for “credit” above the graph to detail the spending.

95% of my credit expenses go on my American Express, and I keep a Discover in my wallet for those places that don’t take American Express. I typically pay off my entire balance each month (which is where all that tallying and calculating what I’ve spent comes in handy) but recently I used a free trial of American Express’s “plan it” feature to pay some medical bills and for Nala, my Goffin’s cockatoo.

Preparing to Budget

I keep a sloppy register of my checks also in the budget book, and I compare balances against my budget for the month or quarter at least once a week.

But here’s my big hack. I am known to take my credit cards out of my wallet and I never carry my ATM card.

Yes, you heard me.

I don’t carry my ATM card in my wallet. I keep it in a drawer at home. If I want to extract money out of my bank, I have to plan it. Or run to Target and use my Target debit card. This keeps those little expenses from adding up.

There is no “let’s run out and get a sandwich.” That kind of thing.

But, you say, what if something unexpected happens? Well, I do have what I call my discretionary spending card.

I have a Capital One online account where I put whatever money I think I can spare after I pay the bills. Honestly, that’s usually the grocery money. Right now there is $12 left in that account. No, make that $8. I forgot I stopped at DQ for Buy One Get One for 80 cents Blizzards. That is the ATM card I keep in my wallet.

If I get impulsive, if I drop it, if it gets stolen, if it gets hacked… it’s not the account I use to pay my bills.

Plus, I have a savings account in Capital One, so if I get really stuck, I can transfer money between those accounts on my phone. And money between my main accounts and my Capital One accounts also takes a few business days, so it does require planning.

But I’m good at planning.

So right now I’m going to update the budget as I had some more large bills come in (dental crown $400 out of pocket; furnace maintenance agreement $250) plus car insurance is due in two weeks.

I pay for six months at a time and it’s due on the same day as the mortgage.

Speaking of mortgage, when we were 12 years into our 30-year-mortgage I refinanced the house from 5.5% down to 3.25% in a 15-year loan. Too many people want to lower their monthly payment, whereas I focused on shortening the term on the loan.

I borrowed enough money to pay off the car and some credit card bills (an unexpected household repair and my daughter’s euphonium had us in for about $5,000) AND cut two years off our original mortgage length for the same payment as our original mortgage but we were saving an additional $300/month not having a car payment.

I also had them add an additional $50/month for principal curtailment to my mortgage payment. So if I ever need to I can have the mortgage company drop that and I can have a lower mortgage. In the meantime, my principal is dropping.

I do something similar with my car—once I calculate my budget for the quarter I pay anywhere from $50 to $200 extra on my car payment. I think I financed $15,000 less than 18 months ago and already my pay off balance is about $9,000.

My other tip is to have an automatic transfer into a savings account. Most banks encourage this and will waive fees and offer overdraft protection if you do it. I transfer $200 a month into my savings account and sometimes I have to transfer it back to checking the next day. Normally I can live without it, and when a shortfall happens I have that back-up.

Budgeting and financial planning when you’re in a low-to-moderate income household is hard. It’s a puzzle. Knowing what it takes to run your household is key. Planning is a must.

PS— yes that is my credit score