Intentions

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I’m in such a happy place.

It’s not often that I say that – more out of fear of exaggeration than out of accuracy – but I am so currently happy.

It’s 65 degrees outside for the second time since October. As I type this it’s 6:48 p.m. on a Wednesday, and the sun is STILL OUT, and I’m sitting in a coffee shop because I’m done with work for the day and I almost risked being bored tonight, which is also HAPPY. Let the record show there is room to breathe as myself. 

Also, hi again. Let’s be friends, shall we?

I’ve been wanting to share my intentions for this year with you. Continue reading

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A Clean Slate

I so often feel that to start something – usually a new habit or routine – I have to have a totally clean slate: a fresh start. And this makes sense. It’s really fun, for example, to start the new year with a few resolutions. The clean slate that the new year brings – out with 2013 and in with 2014! – brings a feeling of possibility.
But life is messy, and I mess up. I falter and I don’t follow through with intentions, and then instead of picking myself right back up and doing the Good Thing, I wait because I feel like I have to have my Clean Slate, whether that’s a new day, a new week (most often), a new month or year.

But while the idea of a Clean Slate is lovely and often empowering, it is also enabling: If my Clean Slate doesn’t start until next week, then this week I’m free to make as many poor decisions as I’d like.
So I want to be done with the Clean Slate. I want to make good decisions all the time, and if I can’t do that, then I want to forgive myself and make them next time. Not tomorrow, not next week, but next time. I want to strengthen my Good Thing muscles so I can keep making the good decisions without thinking.

…And want to know something cool? 
I started the practice of dropping the Clean Slate with this very blog entry, which is defying the odds of being written, as I had earlier today thought to myself writing this week was a lost cause: I hadn’t planned anything out, so the plan was to start fresh on Sunday. 
It’s not perfect, but it was the right decision: I’m flexing my Good Thing muscles!

Reflections on budgeting: What I learned to live without

So it’s over.  My one-year stick-to-the-budget plan.  Did it work?  I believe so.  Was it difficult?  Actually, no.  While each of these categories could make a post of their own, I wanted to share with you a summary of the year I spent oh-so consciously spending my money, and provide you a new (and improved!) 2014 budget.

Where I spent less:

food (2013: $5,000; 2012: $5,800)
grooming (2013: $1,200; 2012: $2,800)
clothes (2013: $900; 2012: $3,100)
alcohol and entertainment (2013: $1,100; 2012: $2,500)

I managed to save $5,800 in these categories alone, more than double the value of my vacation to Israel and Turkey.  Not coincidentally, these were also the areas where I had the least trouble not spending.  What do they have in common?  With the exception of food, all of these purchases are luxuries; purchasing them is a choice.

To be honest, I would have told you a year ago that I “had” to get a new pair of jeans.  I “had” to get my haircut every six weeks and I “had” to get a manicure when my nails looked tattered.  But in 2013, something amazing happened, and through this budget I learned that what I thought were needs were truly wants.  So I found my old jacket would do, waited longer for my haircuts, and did my own nails.

Where I spent more:
transportation (2013: $2,700; 2012: $1,600)

Considering I spent half of 2012 living in New York, it’s no surprise that I increased my spending by driving around Houston in 2013.  But ugh, this hammers home that I need to get a grip on how much I pay for parking.

The habits I cultivated:
I looked at my credit card statement every week (but more often daily) and manually tracked my expenses. There was nothing that hit home harder than having to manually type in “$120” to record a fancy dinner, or see that all my Starbucks lattes added up to $40 for a month.  This was by far the most useful habit I cultivated this year.
I stretched everything out.  I used hotel shampoos until they were done.  I checked my pantry before I went grocery shopping.  I didn’t buy anything if I already had it.
I limited my exposure to wants.  I love shopping.  Love it.  But I knew I couldn’t do much of it in 2013, so I removed the temptation.  I didn’t buy magazines, I didn’t peruse the internet out of boredom, and I didn’t find myself walking into Ann Taylor just to see what they had.
I didn’t buy Groupons.  I’ve almost never seen a Groupon for something I would have already bought.  None for me this year.
I stuck to my list, especially at Target.  I’m a sucker for Target, or really any store where I find myself realizing that I “need” something that’s not on my list.  This year, if it wasn’t on the list, it wasn’t going in the cart.

The obstacles I didn’t (quite) overcome:
Vacations.  The spending on these was soooo hard to predict.  While I tried my best to adjust mid-year, and while I used points wherever I could, I went over my budget in this area.  I don’t have a solution yet (except take less of them!) but I’ll be even more conscious of this going into 2014.
Restaurant eating.  I spent 2013 having an internal battle over whether or not to eat out.  I only had $400 a month to spend on food — plenty if all my meals came from the grocery store, but far from enough if I was going to eat out the way I did.  Restaurants are hard to avoid for me mostly because of the social aspect: I like hanging out with my friends, and I like trying new food.  Ultimately, I had to up the budget a bit for 2014.

…And what we’ve all been waiting for, the 2014 budget.  I’ve already started using it and think the new formatting is easier to follow than last year’s!  You can also find this on my latest Rich Life post.

I’m hoping 2014 will be just as successful in the budgeting arena as 2013 was.  Here’s to the new start!

Click here for my 2014 budgeting template! (Make sure to download as an Excel file.)

2014 Resolutions

Happy 2014!  As always, the new year brings new intentions.  For this coming year, I resolve to…

…get in my best shape.  I know this may seem silly with last year’s marathon (how was that not my best shape?) but as I’ve said before, marathon training doesn’t equate to great shape, just the ability to run farther.  This year I want to be in my very best shape – running included – and plan to do that through a lot of cross training.  I’ll be doing a 40-day yoga program early in the year (so excited about that!) and after that plan to keep up my 4x/week workouts via more bagel runs, yoga, and even swimming.

…ramp up this blog.  Rather than post haphazardly and sporadically, I want to organize this space and follow through on writing what I intend to.

…freelance.  I’ve been thinking more and more about my passion for writing, and while I don’t want to do it as my job, I have a fear that if I don’t get my foot in the door, the door will slowly close.  So this year I’m determined to take a risk and pitch myself as a person who should get paid to write.  I’m not sure how to do this exactly, but it’s my most ambitious goal.

…invest in myself.  This year I’ll give myself the freedom to take classes I enjoy — I’m already set up with a wine tasting class and four photography workshops — despite the money it costs.  I’ve built it into the budget!

And a few things I resolve to keep doing:

Budget!  I’ve built a newer and better budget, which I’ll share over the next few days, along with reflections on last year’s savings.  I’m excited to keep this one up!

Eat like a qualitarian.  I want to keep enjoying quality food, and learning about where my food comes from.  It’s amazing to me that I never knew so much about this vital part of my life, and I want to keep learning.

2013: How did we do?

A year ago today, this blog didn’t exist.  I was getting settled into Houston, and had recovered from — but was still bitter about — the canceled marathon.  I was beginning to strike a balance between living close to my family and boyfriend, and having me time, something that had been strangely difficult in my first few months back.  But I was getting there.

Today I write this from a lived-in apartment.  I just had breakfast with Holly, and tonight I’ll ring in the new year with my Big Bend crew, the we-have-no-shame-we’re-a-band-of-couples couples friends.  A lot happened this year — the marathon, a baller Lights in the Heights party, Michael’s MS150 ride, a million weddings including Israel, San Francisco, and upstate New York… and without sounding like a giant jerk (because let’s face it, this was a self indulgent year, to say the least), it all makes me want to take a deep breath and sigh in exhausted relief.

Before I greet 2014, I want to revisit how 2013 wrapped up: How about those resolutions? …you know, the ones that started this blog?  How did I make out?

Resolution #1: I resolved to spend less than my budget this year.  Yes, and no.  
Yes — I spent less money than I made overall, and saved a whopping 16% of my income!  
No I did not come under my budget in every category.  Here’s a final look:


These percentages represent the money I’ve spent this year in each category as compared to its allocation.  (For example, I allocated $800 to “home,” but ended up spending $1,066 over the course of the year.  1,066 is 133% of 800.)   As you can see, I went over my budget in several categories — vacation, food, transportation, alcohol & entertainment, clothes, miscellaneous, and home — and per these categories, I did not come in under my budget. Fortunately (per planning and monitoring), the total of my over-spending wasn’t enough to push me over my total income, thanks to a little extra money I earned over the year.

I learned a lot from my budget this year — reflections that could make a post of their own — but mostly I learned that it’s possible to live the way I want, when I consciously think about my priorities, and more than that, I enjoy the stuff in my life a lot more when there’s less of it. 
  
Resolution #2: I resolved to become a “qualitarian.” I did!  This was the year of the farmer’s market, the year of consciously choosing my meats and veggies.  I didn’t go the whole year without junk food (or even fast food — Dairy Queen and McDonald’s both made their way into my diet more than once), but I definitely moved to making quality food my baseline, my everyday.

Resolution #3: I resolved to get in shape.  I didn’t specify the marathon when I wrote this resolution a year ago, but… check.

Resolution #4: I resolved to keep my eyes up!  The sad part about this resolution is that, though I swear I remember making it, there’s no written trace.  While every other resolution got its own post last year, this one — which by the way is referring to keeping my eyes UP away from my phone — was sadly cast aside.  A resolute failure.  (I guess this failure really supports the idea that writing down resolutions is the key to achieving them.)

Resolution #5: I resolved to start a blog.  Yep!

I hope you have a happy wrap-up tonight.  I hope you take a little time to reflect, in whatever way makes meaning for you.  I hope, whether you’re sipping on champagne or watching the ball drop or going to bed early, that you feel the fresh start of the New Year creeping in.

Happy New Year!

Holiday budgeting: The home stretch

There are 31 days left in the year, which means I am wildly close to seeing how my budget plays out.  I’m entering the home stretch!

But you know something about the last 31 days of the year?  They’re the most expensive.

Even Christmas presents aside, spending in December ramps up in just about every way.  We’re talking meals out, holiday clothing, charitable donations, even more expensive coffee (who can resist peppermint mocha season?).

So my last 31 days of the year – the ones that will determine whether I fall within my budget or not – are also the most tempting, the most primed for failure.  But there is no room for failure, I tell you!  So I’m making an action plan.  Below, my 5 strategies for sticking to my budget to the end:

  1. Decide what’s important.  This season is about joy, so I don’t want to deny myself the good stuff.  I do, however, decide what’s worth spending on.  Am I the kind of person who treasures buying expensive gifts for my family?  Or having a new dress at New Year’s?  This year I’ve determined that the most important thing to me is my Lights in the Heights party, which I want to be completely stocked with holiday food and cocktails.  Expensive?  Yes. Going to sink my budget?  I won’t let it happen – providing for the party is my priority, so it will mean skipping a new holiday cocktail dress, and I may need to sacrifice a few meals out.  Worth it!
  2. Reassess (again!).  This time of year, reassessing my budget a final time is extremely important.  I like to think of each budget category as having its own particular set of results, and by now, the results are starting to come in!  For example, I’m done taking vacations, so I know for sure that I (eek!) over-spent for the year, and more importantly, I know by exactly how much.  Not to panic, I just took an honest look at where I had more room in the budget (clothes and grooming) and tightened those categories.  Taking this honest look gives me a really clear idea of what needs to happen over the next four weeks and keeps my goal in sight.  (Find a full post on the steps for reassessing your budget here.)
  3. Plan and buy Christmas gifts now (if you haven’t already, my Black Friday friends).  I write down exactly what I’m going to get each person and what it’s expected to cost.  This keeps me on target and I don’t find myself wandering around the mall, wondering vaguely what I should be buying… because around the Christmas season, that’s pretty much my idea of torture.
  4. Be conscious of micro-splurges, and keep them to a minimum.  It’s the daily stuff that adds up: Starbucks gingerbread lattes, buying lunch out, paying more for a closer parking lot.  I’m an advocate of limiting these micro-splurges all year round, but around the holidays, when bigger purchases are unavoidable, saving $15/day by making your own coffee, bringing your lunch and parking farther away may just be the thing that saves your wallet.
  5. Enjoy the season!  Some of the best stuff is free (or nearly free).  Bake chocolate chip cookies.  Play Taboo with the family.  Clean the apartment while listening to Christmas music.  Take a drive to look at Christmas lights.

This is my favorite time of year, and I have every intention of living it up.  I hope you do, too, and that together we make it through the month, wallets intact.  Oh, what fun!

Budgeting 101: Reassess

It’s July and you’re probably wondering about that budget I set back in January.  And apologies to any of you on the edges of your seats just ripping your hair out wondering, “WHEN will she let us know about her spending?  I’m just DYING to know whether she’s under- or over budget!”

…It’s long overdue.

Fortunately for me, it’s only the writing about budgeting that has stopped.  I haven’t stopped tracking my spending and trying to stick to the budget, and (un)fortunately for those with whom I have any kind of contact, I haven’t stopped talking about it, either.

Recap

The biggest news is that I’m really proud to say I’ve been able to save 16% of my income since January, something I haven’t been able to do in years (or, let’s face it, probably ever).  Every day I relish my little routine of sitting at my computer, coffee in hand, visiting each of my banking websites, inputing the previous day’s spending, and watching charts like the one below tick ever-so-slightly upward or downward.

It makes me feel really secure to know that I’m on (or even off!) track — because just knowing is half the battle.  Here’s a look at my spending (as compared to budget) through June:

budget pic

Reassess

Now that I’m half way through the year, it’s important that I reassess — to take a good, hard look at how I’ve been doing, and change things up if need be.  In accounting we call this a variance analysis, but the term doesn’t matter.  No matter what you call it, reassessing how you’re doing against your budget is crucial to sticking with it. Here’s how:

Step 1: Compare your spending to your budget.  You can do this in a lot of different ways, but I find that it’s best to visually see the over- or under-spending by using a chart like the one above.  (I made the chart above within my Excel budget workbook using conditional formatting.  I like the way I can just glance to see which items I’m going over budget on.)

Step 2: For each line item, ask yourself:

  • “Does it make sense that I’m over- or under budget in this category?”
  • “Given what I know about my spending for the rest of the year, am I still on target to come in under budget?”  This is where you can ask yourself, really ask yourself, if you’re on track.  For example, using the above chart, I’m 5% over budget on clothing.  But since buying clothes for myself is totally optional, I consider myself still able to meet this goal.

Step 3: Reallocate.  Now it’s time to change up the budget.  If your answers to the above questions conclude that you will not be meeting your budgeting goals this year, you’ve got to change it up. The only rule: The total must stay the same.  For example, if I realize I’m spending too much on transportation, I then have to:

  • …ask myself if transportation is something I can cut back on.  Since I use my car on a pretty much as-needed basis, the answer in this case is no.
  • …figure out how much more I need to add to my budget.  The cool part here is that I now have data from the first half of the year to help me figure this out.  I may now see that I buy two tanks of gas per month, rather than one, as I had planned.  And within reason, I can estimate how much more money this budget would need to stay on track.
  • …add those $$ to my “transportation” budget.
  • …subtract those same $$ from elsewhere.  Yep, it’s the sad part. Need more money for gas?  Goodbye manicures.  Or a new jacket. Or eating out.  Figure out what category can take the hit, and make the cut.  Then really — don’t get that manicure, don’t buy that jacket, restrain yourself from Restaurant Weeks.  I believe in you!

Step 4: Pat yourself on the back.  You’ve successfully performed your first variance analysis, and you’re on track to sticking with your budget through the year!  Woohoo!

And in case you missed it, click here to download my super awesome budgeting template.

How to Spend Small: Put it off, Stretch it out, Reuse

I heard a quote the other day.  Actually, I read the quote on a laminated place-mat at a Tex-Mex restaurant in Midland, Texas, where I was holed up doing some work.  My co-worker elbowed me and gestured:

“The fastest way to double your money is to fold it once and put it back in your pocket.”

Ah, the wisdom.  Thank you, Midland.  And thank you, Coworker, for alerting me to how public my penny-pinching has become.

But really!  This quote hits the nail.  And as lately I’ve been doing a lot of folding-my-money-and-putting-it-back-into-my-pocket, I want to share some of the ways I’ve been doing that.  In a nutshell, it comes down to three basic rules: Put it off, stretch it out, and reuse.

Stategy #1: Put it off.

Putting it off works because when you put off buying, you usually end up buying less over time.  Follow me through a little metaphor, please:  If I imagine my wants (we’re talking purely commercial, here) as an empty jar, then when I buy something, that jar fills up.  When I buy enough things in a period, the jar is full, and I don’t want anything anymore.  Over time, the jar slowly empties until I desire again.

Well, I used to think that if I bought whatever-it-was now then my jar would stay full later.  But honestly… it doesn’t.  Next month, no matter how full it had been, my jar is empty all over again and I find myself lusting after something new — a snazzy pair of hiking boots or a chandelier #currentlusts.  If I buy something now I’ll still want something later — I just grow new wants.

So I put it off.  I don’t buy those boots this month, I wait until next.  And while you might think that by keeping my jar empty this month it would be twice as large next month, the cool thing is that it’s not!  I’m just as fulfilled by buying my boots — and only my boots — next month as I would have been today.  Even moreso, because of the happiness that is delayed gratification.

Putting off spending is effective when you do it with small spending, too!  Try these:

  1. Hold off on buying new shampoo/lotion/soap until all your hotel samples and gifts are used up.
  2. Don’t buy bobby pins and other knick knacks until you’ve cleaned.
  3. Read books you already own.
  4. Plan your meals for the week based on ingredients you already have.  Use up staples like rice, quinoa, and canned beans.
  5. Turn veggies and fruit that are going south into juice.
  6. Freeze herbs in olive oil for future use.
  7. If you can, borrow anything you’re not sure you have to own.  You can figure out if you need to make the purchase later.  ;)

Strategy #2: Stretch it out.

Oh, you already own it?  Stretch. it. out.  Use it slow like molasses.  Use it all until the very last drop.  Then — when you can see through that shampoo bottle to the other side, or when you’ve really rolled every last microliter of toothpaste out of that tube — then, and only then are you allowed to drag yourself to CVS and make a few new purchases.

Like putting off purchases, stretching out what you already own feels really good.  And when it comes to stretching out what you have, I’m not just talking about toothpaste and shampoo: The best thing to stretch out is anything that needs to be maintained.  I’m talking haircuts, manicures, car washes, the frequency the maid visits… anything that needs to be kept up on a regular basis.

The thing about maintenance spending is that, once you do the spending, whatever-it-was immediately starts to retreat into its former state.  Hair grows back, nail polish chips, cars get dirty and apartments gather clutter.  So the earlier you get that haircut, the earlier you’ll have to get the next one.  If you get your car washed today instead of tomorrow, then it has the rest of today to start getting dirty again.  …You get my point.

You can wait another week to get a haircut… stretch it out.

Strategy #3: Reuse!

You used it once.  Now take the extra step, clean it, and use it again.  Then give the environmentalist in you a pat on the back.  This applies to:

  1. Ziploc bags (the sturdier the better)
  2. Plastic containers you get from restaurant to-go orders, from buying pre-cut fruit at the grocery store, etc.
  3. Gift bags/ribbon/bows
  4. Printer cartridges (if you actually own a printer)
  5. Coffee filters… just kidding.  (I think that was a joke from Friends circa 1998.)

February: The Good, The Bad and the Panicky

A February recap of my resolution progress:


The good

  1. Saved 27 percent of my February income!!  Cannot tell you how good that feels.
  2. Worked out four days a week everyweek in February – no cheats.
  3. Started doing tempo runs as a way to push myself without having to give my whole evening over to a long workout.  Even though they’re short, I think they’re helping with both speed and endurance.  Case in point: I ran a 10k in 58:48, shedding almost five minutes off my previous best time. Woot!
The bad
  1. I overspent on food, entertainment, alcohol and clothes… basically, all of the fun categories.  :/ The biggest culprits?  A few Lululemon tanks (gahhhhhhh they’re so cute), these JCrew flats, and the Houston Rodeo.
  2. I ate out, then out, then out again.  I spent a whopping $218 eating out this month (and it was a short month!) as compared to January’s pious $119.  Ouch!  That’s money andcalories.  It got to the point where I was actually sick of restaurant food.  The lesson?  Say no!

The panicky*
I had a little computer incident.  It was a little spill that turned into a little computer-not-turning-on situation for about 48 (panicked) hours.  Yes, I was panicked because I wasn’t backed up.  Yes, I hope I’ve learned my lesson.  Now my computer is working like a champ but I’m afraid to turn it off.

 

*Okay, you caught me.  This actually happened in March.

Dollar Dilemma: Alcohol and Going Out

Whenever I’ve revealed how much I’m budgeting, the most ubiquitous reaction I’ve received is this: “You think you can limit yourself to $42 a month for alcohol?”

My reaction until now has been to give a little scoff and say, “Well I don’t spend THAT much time at bars!”  (I have to admit I’m sorry that my implication is a little too much, “And you DO?” :/)

When I set my spending limits, my budgeting for this category was well intentioned.  I figured 1) I don’t spend that much time at bars, and 2) setting a low limit would stop me from going to get a beer for the sheer sake of having nothing better to do.  Which, at this age, is honestly too often what happens.

With only $42 to spend, I thought I would hold out for experiences that were really worth it – grabbing an artisanal cocktail at Prohibition, perhaps, or having a beer at Front Porch on the first hot Friday afternoon of the season.  In my book, the money and calories that go toward outings like that are always well spent.

Well… things aren’t quite working out that way:

Yikes!

When analyzing what was going on, it seems like my plight to enjoy a good cocktail has backfired: I do limit my time in alcoholic settings – in February I went out just four times – but two of those times were to Uchi and Prohibition, two of the hottest (can I use that word to refer to a Houston bar?), most expensive venues in this great city.  I certainly enjoyed myself, but at $15/drink… worth it to do both?

I wish I had an answer.  I wish I could wrap up this entry with a silver bow and say, “But I learned that time with friends is worth it!” or “But I found the key to under-spending!”

I don’t think so, not this time.

I limited this budget for a reason – every dollar comes from somewhere and I need to learn that – have to learn that before life gets a lot messier and lot more expensive.  So my resolution in March is to simply come under.  If you did your math, that means I have $3 to spend out!

Is it weird that I’m excited about this?  If I’m doing well to re-frame the situation, it’s KIND of like a cool, healthy bonus I’m going to get from being cheap.

So here’s to a cheap March!  And crossing my fingers that someone will be throwing a house party on St. Patty’s Day!