January’s theme

Looking back over resolutions posts from past years, one of the suggestions I saw was to focus on one thing each month.  I’m making January about money.  In January, I have to fill out financial aid forms for Geeky Girl’s school, which involves doing my taxes and figuring out how much goes out vs. how much comes in.  It puts a lot of things in perspective.  Before I quit my job in 2008, our finances weren’t too bad.  We had some savings.  Our debt wasn’t crazy and we usually more than made ends meet.  Then I quit.  We ate up our savings. We added on to the house and we added tuition for Geeky Girl and Geeky Boy to our spending needs.  Without my income, there were months we needed to put groceries on the credit card and we couldn’t pay that off.

We didn’t necessarily make the best of decisions then, but quitting my job was the right thing to do.  I’m much happier now.  My family is better off emotionally for it and that’s something money can’t buy.

But now, we’re paying a bit for that.  And while I’m sure there are things we could cut, we are not really extravagant spenders.  According to Mint’s lovely pie chart, last year most of our money was spent on our house (33%), followed by education, food, car (which includes insurance), and bills.  So we spent on necessities mostly. Any cuts we make have to come from those.  I reduced our homeowners insurance and actually our mortgage payment is going to decrease slightly because we escrowed more than we needed to for taxes.  Food costs could be reduced by not eating out as much.  And I’d like to do that, though I’d love to spend our eating out money better.  It tends to be for quick meals when I don’t feel like cooking.  I’d rather be spending it on date nights or going out with friends.

We’ll pay off our second car in July.  That will help tremendously, but that’s six months away.  Bills aren’t too bad really.  But cable takes up a big chunk, as does the mobile phone.  We have a land line, of sorts, through our wireless company.  Our plan is to get rid of that, which will reduce that a bit.

There are a lot of costs we have little control over.  Gas for our cars, for example.  Barring driving less, there’s not much we can do.  But I’ll try to see where we can save some money here and there, maybe even build up some savings.  By the end of January, I’d like to have a better path set financially.

Losing weight, trimming debt, and data

As I write this, I’m halfway to my goal weight, something I honestly wasn’t sure I’d accomplish. But I’ve really replaced some old habits with new ones that are healthier. I’m certainly not perfect, but I’m hoping that I’ll mostly stick with these habits long term. Data has been a big part of that, at least for me. I’ve tracked every calorie in and every calorie out. Just knowing that grapes have very few calories compared to chips is huge. I mean, you could guess that. You know that intuitively, but to really see that every time I eat a handful of grapes, it’s less than half the calories as the same handful of chips. And, according to an article I read a while back (whose link is lost to the black hole that is the Internet), it’s likely my body actually burns calories to process those grapes while it doesn’t have to burn as much for the chips, netting fewer calories overall. Here are just a few things I’ve done that I’ve found helpful:

  • Eat the healthiest thing on the plate first. Salad, vegetables, etc. then you’re less hungry for the things that pack more calories or fat.
  • When going for seconds, get the healthy stuff. Again, get veggies or salad not potatoes or fries or meat.
  • For dessert, eat fruit. It’s sweet and tasty, better than chocolate cake.
  • You can have a beer or glass of wine or cocktail and still lose weight. Consider it a treat.
  • Count everything as you go. You don’t want to get to dinner and find out you’ve gone over your allotted amount of calories. If you have a big lunch, there’s still time to work off those calories before dinner.
  • Move. Every day. Just get up and do something. Walk, go up and down your stairs. Garden, wash the car, chase the dog.
  • Wear what you have. You don’t need fancy clothes to exercise in. You can walk in your street clothes even.
  • If it’s less than a mile, walk. If it’s less than two miles, walk or ride a bike.
  • Weigh yourself (or measure your waist or whatever you are concerned about). I weigh every day even though it’s very up and down. Some people prefer once a week. I just like the data I get.
  • If you’re hungry, eat, but eat healthy. Never go hungry. It’s not going to stick if you’re starving all the time. When you’re hungry, you’re more likely indulge in those chips or the cake. I keep fruit, granola bars, carrots, cheese, etc. around for snacks.

None of these things take that much time. Some days I walk longer than others. Some days I make more elaborate meals than others. When I’m pressed for time, I make something easy and I only walk for 1/2 hour.
On the debt front, things are moving more slowly because I just started and, unlike weight, I can’t track my debt reduction day by day. It’s a month by month thing. But I can track my money. The main way we got into the debt we’re in is overspending. Knowing how much we have in our bank account means we are less likely to overspend. I was never good at tracking money. I think there was one year where I actually wrote everything down. But everything’s online now and we don’t really write checks, so it’s easy to keep track of.

I check our account every day and figure out about how much we need to spend before the next paycheck: what bills are due, what food we need, and what other items we need (clothes, home items, etc.). Food and bills are non-negotiable, though I can trim the grocery budget usually. It might mean we stay in versus going out. And seeing what we have, I can better decide if we can buy school clothes or get some books we want or go out to dinner. In other words, I can plan! Right now, things are a bit tight as I try to put a little extra toward debt and savings. My hope is in a few months, it will feel less tight as the debt dwindles a bit. It’s going to be a long haul, but weirdly, having had success on the weight front makes me feel like I can succeed on the debt front, as long as I keep track of things.

Trial of Cutting the Cord: Some Observations

Mr. Geeky and I are now seriously debating whether to cut the cable cord, which would save us close to $100/month.  That’s some serious grocery money for us.  As an experiment, starting this past Sunday, we’ve relied only on Netflix and HuluPlus, which we’ve had subscriptions to for a while.  We’ve used Netflix for years and Mr. Geeky, especially, watches it a ton.  We’re also Amazon Prime members and we own Tivo boxes (one of which is a lifetime subscription, so no fees; the other is $100 something/year).  We’d get rid of the Tivos in our cable cutting extravaganza and probably get Rokus.  But for now, Tivo gives us access to at least Netflix and Hulu while Amazon Prime we can only get on our computers and mobile devices.

Here’s what I’ve noticed so far.  I am far too willing to plop myself in front of the TV and watch whatever is on HGTV or TLC.  I’m a sucker for those shows, which suck a lot of time out of my day if I’m not careful.  Just one more “Love it or List it”.  This is usually daytime, usually around lunch or late afternoon when I’m taking a break.  Obviously, during the school year, this isn’t going to happen.  But, another time I’ve devoted to TV is just before bed.  We usually watch All In and/or Rachel Maddow, usually not live, but shifted an hour or two.  I can get both of those online but shifted a whole day.  Not a huge deal, but still.

So, what I’ve done instead is I’ve either spent more time online at these times, often fairly productively, or I’ve watched something completely different.  I’ve watched TED talks on food, Ken Burns’ Prohibition, last week’s episodes of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, and I dove into Community, starting with the pilot.

From my perspective, I recognize that some habits will have to change, but I think that’s a good thing.  It also got me to thinking about the stranglehold distribution companies have on TV and Movies (or whoever is in charge).  So I found a couple of shows on Hulu that I wanted to watch, but they were only available on the web for licensing reasons.  How stupid is that.  There isn’t a huge difference between me watching something on my computer and me watching it on my TV, except that I have a remote and the screen is bigger.  Why do it that way.  I think the TV landscape will continue to change.  We got Tivo way back when no one had really heard of it and it changed how we watched TV.  Our habits are beginning to shift once again, and it doesn’t make sense to us to pay $100/month for a couple of shows that we watch regularly.  I’d rather use that money to buy whole seasons when I want or go to the actual theater or buy clothes or whatever. I wonder what cable companies and tv networks will do in the future, if they’ll move to a more Netflix/Hulu/Roku model or if they’ll stick to the time specific format they’re stuck in.


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Big Goal Number 2: Debt

Three years ago, we had nearly eliminated our credit card debt.  We had at least gotten it down to some level that could be paid off in the forseeable future.  Now, not so much.  There are a number of good reasons why we ended up here: school expenses, medical expenses, home repairs and improvements.  But there are bad ones, too.  A “need” for new things. Travel.  We spent a ton of money going to see family last year.  Kind of necessary, but we could have probably done it cheaper.  Instead, we charged it.

I’m not proud of this fact, but I’m not alone.  Many Americans out there face this same situation.  It doesn’t help that there’s a lot of shame (sometimes) surrounding credit card debt.

I’m trying to whittle away at it.  And despite having a kid going off to college this year, I think I can make some significant progress, but it’s going to take work.  It’s like the weight loss thing in many ways.  Things go up and down, but you want the trend to be down.  My trend has been up for far too long.  It’s such a slow process.  While I can see progress for weight loss in weeks, progress in this area will take months at best (barring some kind of windfall).

I have to kind of trick myself into dealing with this, using game techniques to keep myself on track and interested.  I try to see how long I can go without spending money.  I make payments that create an even balance.  I write little programs to generate savings goals for the week.  If I don’t do things like that, it just seems boring and awful and depressing.

Anyone out there have little tricks that work for them to achieve long term goals?

Last day

I’m ready for a new year. I’ve always liked the idea of a fresh start. I get two of them: now and the beginning of the school year. In previous years, I’ve set my sights pretty high. This year, I’m only tackling one thing: money. We’ve gotten a little spending crazy, mostly by not really paying attention. To tackle this issue, I’m checking my accounts every day, and I’m checking physical mail every day. I used to do that once a week or so, but until I get some things under control, I’m checking every day. Mr. Geeky is on board as well.

I’m paying off debt, which will give us some more discretionary spending, and I’m trying to save a little as well. Having a kid about to go off to college puts some things in sharp relief. We have a little saved for college but a lot that is going to come from our available income. We have a tuition benefit through Mr. Geeky, which definitely helps, but doesn’t cover everything. And while we have no idea whether GB will head off to school, we certainly don’t want to be unprepared. So money looks tight for the next year or so, and I’m hoping to make it feel less tight.

I have so many other things I’d like to tackle this year, but I think doing one thing well is better than not doing anything all that well. Plus, my energy is mostly elsewhere.

Resolution check-in

A week mostly down.  How did it go?

  • Laundry every day: check! So far, so good.
  • Meal planning: not so good.  I had my dad visiting through the beginning of my work week.  We didn’t make it to the grocery store while he was here nor after he left.  So it’s been leftovers and frozen pizza.  Which isn’t horrible, but still.
  • Decluttering: check! I missed a day because I literally wasn’t here, but other than that, I’ve made progress. I’m trying not to think about how overwhelming it is to deal with all the crap. I’ve got a pile to keep and a pile to give away–with even a pickup scheduled today! I’m also decluttering 15 minutes a day in my classroom. So yay!
  • Yoga once a week: check! I even brought a friend with me this week.  So far so good.
  • Budget stuff: sort of check! It’s too early to tell, but I am keeping a close eye on things.  I think this resolution should be changed to something like check accounts every day.  Knowing about spending leads to not over spending.
  • Walk every day: not so much.  I have walked the dog, but that doesn’t really count.  Frankly, it’s just too cold outside.  Mr. Geeky is talking about getting a treadmill, so that might help.
  • Write a program every day: check! A couple of these have been simple examples for class, but still.  And I’m writing my own version of an old game I used to play, just for fun and practice. It’s text right now, but I’m going to graphic-ize it once I have it functioning the way I want.

So not too bad.  I’m taking it a day at a time.  How are you doing?

Refining the resolutions

Over the last 24 hours or so, I’ve been thinking about what I really want to accomplish this year, and more importantly, why?  Here’s my list so far:

1. Keeping the house cleaner, more organized.  I find it stressful to come home to a messy kitchen with no food to prepare and piles of laundry to do.  I find the complete Flylady method a little overwhelming and too much to achieve if you work out of the home.  She does recommend a load of laundry per day, which I think I can manage.  I’d also like to get better at meal planning, recruiting the kids to do a little more in this regard.  Geeky Boy got a cookbook for Christmas, so I’ve suggested that he do the cooking on the night I have yoga.  Last year, and even the beginning of this year, I did pretty well on the meal front and had 3-4 meals scheduled each week, hoping for leftovers on at least one or two days.  Mr. Geeky does the grocery shopping, giving me some time to really think through the planning. So I think I can manage this.  I also want to really focus on decluttering.  Our house is a reasonable size, but we don’t have that much storage.  I feel that we have way too much stuff.  There are boxes of things we never use.  We have old cell phones sitting around that could be donated.  There are board games and toys that we’ve held onto for some reason. So, here’s my house cleaning resolutions in a nutshell:

  • Do a load of laundry every day. Wash, dry *and* fold.
  • Plan meals for each week and stick to the plan.  Also have easy backup meals on deck (pasta and sauce, sandwiches) for days when the plan falls apart or when the hoped-for leftovers do not appear.
  • Declutter 15 minutes/day.  At the end of the declutter session, make sure unwanted items are headed where they need to go–trash or donation pile.  I will start at the front of the house and work my way back, then move upstairs from front to back.  I think this will take the whole year.  I also think this will be the hardest plan to stick with.

2. Getting fit, developing an exercise habit.  For now, I’m not going to worry too much about eating.  Over the holidays, I’ve indulged in chips and snack food, chocolate, too much wine and beer, but during “normal” times, I’m much better and my eating habits are not that bad.  We eat mostly vegetarian and fish, not a lot of red meat and I try to incorporate vegetables as much as possible.  Though I think I should add more fruits and veggies, especially as snacks, until I’m set in my fitness routine.  Here’s my plan for that:

  • Yoga once a week, with a plan to increase to twice a week after 3 months.
  • Go for a walk every day.  I feel like I need to do something every day, and I like walking.  I don’t even need to put special clothes on.  I’m going to start with a mile, but work up to 3.  Time-wise, I’m not sure I can go further than that.

3. Sticking to the budget.  I must admit that I often hate dealing with money.  Always have.  In times when we had no money, we checked our accounts all the time, making sure we didn’t overdraw (not that we didn’t on occasion).  Now, we’re less careful, and though we don’t often overdraw, we do end up charging things or not buying things that we wanted to because we overspent.  So here’s the plan for that:

  • Reduce spending by $100/month in each of these categories: groceries, eating out (including fast food), and shopping.  The plan is to increase the reduction if possible.
  • Put the amount saved in these categories (up to $300/month) into savings.

Well, I think that’s enough to start with.  I have at least one more that I’m contemplating.  It’s kind of work-related.  Back in September, I promised myself I’d practice programming every day.  Though I’ve come close to that, it’s not perfect.  I need to make time at work to do this.  So I’m still thinking about how this would work.

Moving forward

So I went to a yoga class last night run by my old friend with whom I used to do yoga 10 years ago.  It was fabulous.  I am actually sore today, but in a good way.  I think I worked every muscle in my body.  The class is offered every Wednesday, so I think I’ll start going at least to that, and then maybe add another class later.

Another area I want to work on in the coming year is money.  We suck at budgeting.  We usually manage to come out okay, but every once in a while, we find ourselves resorting to a credit card, and, in general, we’re not saving enough.  I have made a good effort to pay off our credit cards, but need to do some work in that area.  One thing I keep talking about doing is canceling cable and our land line.  That would save us over $100/month.  We subscribed to Netflix streaming, and have used it a lot.  Geeky Girl and I spent our time over the break watching How I Met Your Mother from the beginning.  Though we’d seen most of the episodes, we enjoyed watching them in order.  Mr. Geeky watches whatever movies it throws at him.  He’s on a foreign film kick at the moment.

I have no problem canceling cable.  We have TiVo and frankly, if we didn’t, this decision would be a lot easier.  We’d just figure out whether to go with Apple.tv or Google.tv or Boxee, etc.  As it is, we’re trying to figure out things that will work with our existing box.  We can access Netflix and Amazon.  We could also go with Hulu plus, which is available on TiVo as well.  But newer services like Vudu are not available and you can’t really just go to a web site like Clicker.com to connect to your shows of choice.  We could connect a computer to our tv, but then we need remote control.  We’d actually lose some of the shows we watch regularly.  At least, we’d lose the convenience of being about to watch them in one place at the click of a button. So I think we’ll keep looking and thinking about it.  And I know, we could give up tv altogether.  Not outside the realm of possibility.

Mr. Geeky and I went over our budget the other day and most of our money goes to food (both groceries and eating out) and shopping (mostly for clothes).  We’re going to try to cut back a little in those areas.  I think that will have a bigger impact than getting rid of cable.  I’ve proposed cutting those by a couple hundred each.  We may have to start slow, but maybe we’ll get there.  We definitely like our food!

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Corporate Money and Education

If you’ve been reading me for a while, you know that I’m an open source kind of person.  I like to use open source software whenever I can.  I’ve donated to OS projects and paid for some outright because they’re good.  But it’s not just about the money.  It’s a philosophy about how software is created through collaboration, and that anyone can change that software as needed, hopefully in a way that contributes to the improvement of that software.  That being said, I am often willing to pay for and use propriety software.  I pay for Apple software, for example.  I pay for Weebly for school.  Honestly, I’d pay for Google docs.  Often I do this when it’s something I don’t need to alter or for which there isn’t a good open source alternative.

But what I’m starting to get the heebie-jeebies about is corporations making money (and lots of it!) off of schools.  Most schools’ budgets are stretched pretty thin, but many of the products sold to schools are way expensive.  Microsoft, Blackboard, student information systems, even Apple, charge schools a ton of money to use their products.  They often sell you their products by suggesting it will help you teach better, make your life easier in some way, or help you students learn.  As you might imagine, I see this a lot in Computer Science.  The two biggest robotics competitions both require the purchase of not just equipment (which I don’t have a huge problem with), but also software.  I’m going to pay $1000 to get software.  They also sell curriculum packets for a ton of money.

I give Microsoft some credit in that many of their products for CS education are offered at no cost, but often to go further, one has to purchase a more robust package, for a few hundred dollars.  Google, of course, provides many things for “free” but they’re not open, and they’re selling off your info in one way or another.

And then there’s the publishers, many of whom sell not just books to you and your students, but online “experiences.”  And I’ve seen other companies that sell whole curricula to schools.

Now, I get it.  Building curriculum is hard, and sometimes you get thrown into teaching something you’ve never taught before and you need some materials, stat.  But I just don’t trust companies to not have some kind of self-interest.  Microsoft, for example, wants employees, so it’s willing to give away some products in exchange for potentially loyal employees.  Nothing wrong with that, but I don’t buy that their desire to create more computer scientists is about “bettering the world.” It’s about bettering Microsoft, which may or may not be bettering the world with their products.  Ditto Google.  The textbook publishers just seem desperate, like they know they’re not going to last and so they’re trying to squeeze blood out of a turnip.

I know that some of my students might go off and work for Microsoft or Google or some other giant corporation where they’re going to be very successful.  But I worry about conflicts of interest.  I’m not teaching CS for Microsoft’s benefit.

I also hate corporations that sell products/curriculum with the suggestion that they want to help students learn when it’s clear that what they really want to do is make money.

I’m not opposed to companies making money.  Audrey Watters recently posted about some good education startups.  Many of these companies are filling gaps left by larger corporations.  I happily support some of these companies.  Yes, they want to make money, but many of them are also hoping to help teachers and students. They started as tools for education, not as general software companies who saw an opportunity in the education market.  I know education can’t be (and maybe shouldn’t be) completely separate from the corporate world, but a little distance wouldn’t hurt.

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The door to the walk-in vault in the Winona Sa...
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Earlier this year, my bank was bought out.  This is the third bank buyout I’ve been through.  The last one was rather painless in that I wasn’t paying all of my bills out of the account that was at the purchased bank.  This time, very painful.  Of course, the new bank “transferred” everything over to its online banking system, but I am still dealing with the fallout.  The transfer happened in late May/early June.  For those in academia/education, you know what those months are like.  I kind of did triage at the time, but did not do a careful reevaluation of what was where.  The new bank had warned me–a little–that some things might need to be tweaked, but they didn’t really give me an inkling of how bad things might be.  First, the transfer did not transfer over the names of the account, and instead, I was staring at a list of account numbers.  I had to go through each one and edit the name.  Then, many of my automated payments disappeared.  In some cases, I had been receiving electronic bills from companies, and I then paid the bill automatically.  I had just checked a box to say, “Pay this bill automatically”.   Many of those were now gone and automated payments had to be set up manually.  I had a very nice system going that had bills going out so that they got paid on time, and we still had money left over to buy groceries and go to a movie once in a while.  Now that system is completely broken.

When I was fixing all of this a couple of months ago, I should have gone to each account, checked due dates, etc. and set things up accordingly.  Instead, I made some educated guesses based on what I had set up before, and so, I got some phone calls.  These people call if you are a day late, or $6 under the minimum (yep, I got these).  And while it wasn’t that difficult to say–every time–I’ve taken care of that–it was a pain.  I can’t imagine what people who have real issues have to put up with.  I hung up after one call and thought, “that cost them a lot to recover my $6.”  It’s also very frustrating in that none of this is really my fault.  Another bank bought my bank and their online system messed everything up.  I have literally spent hours trying to fix everything and still, I’m sure something is falling through the cracks.  Partly, it’s that the system doesn’t have all the same options as my old one did, so I have to figure out how tweak things to work the way I want them to.  The lack of e-bills for many companies drives me nuts.  I either have to refer to a paper bill or log in at another site to find out how much is due and when.  I find that particularly annoying.  I guess it’s my own fault for relying so much on online banking but boy, do I wish there were more standardization.

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