Thursday, April 29, 2010

April Update

The debt is down by $690.74. Not a huge number, but I'm proud of it given the number of extra expenses I've had this month. These included the $145 I owed on my state income taxes, the $334 for one third of the property taxes and $587 for insurance on my rental property, and $139 for the new-to-me dryer.

I learned that I will probably have to re-roof my rental home this summer, but at least for the moment, my debts are going down.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Errata--Stuff Too Small for Its Own Post

Learn something new every day! As in, what "Errata" really means. Obviously, I'm using it to mean "all the extra stuff." But apparently, I'm incorrect. It really means a "page of corrections." Well, dang! I like my definition better.

At any rate, in the Gospel According to Grace, here's MY errata:

1. I added a new blog to my blogroll. Mein Taglich Brots (Is that German? The Blog, however, is in English.) It's by a 60 year woman who has faced bankruptcy and foreclosure during the past year and is fighting her way back to fiscal soundness. I found this blog when I was checking where my readers come from--do those of you with blogs find your Sitemeter statistics to be as utterly fascinating as I do?

2. The 227th Festival of Frugality is up at Money Obedience. Grace and her English Muffins are there, along with many other even more interesting posts.

3. The guy who rents my garage is pretty sporadic about paying me. I don't lose any sleep over this because I'm not otherwise using the free-standing garage, and when he pays, he catches up the back and pays a couple of months ahead. So yesterday he caught up two back months and paid two months forward. YAY!!! At virtually the same moment, my clothes dryer, purchased in the early '90's went Kaput! BOO! HISS! Is there some kind of cosmic code that says when money comes Grace's way, so shall some unexpected expense? At any rate, since I know I'll have to replace the washer in a few years (the two appliances were purchased as a set), I decided to just get a used dryer for the moment and then get a completely new set when the washer follows its dryer-mate into laundry heaven.

That's it for now. I'm off to look for a more accurate word to replace my use of Errata!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The English Muffin Epiphany

Last week a neighbor who was going on an extended vacation emptied her refrigerator and asked if I could use the food that would spoil before she returned.

Free food? You bet I said yes.

One item was an unopened package of Thomas' English Muffins. Now I love English muffins. I eat at least two a day, with butter and strawberry jam. But it's been years since I've purchased the Thomas brand because they are several times as expensive as the sale-priced store brands I normally get. I'm the kind of person who stocks up when a store sells its own brand at three for a dollar, and freezes the extras.

The store brands are serviceable. I like them.

BUT, they are SO not as good as the Thomas' variety.

I was forcibly reminded of this as I worked my way through the package left to me by my neighbor. These muffins were fluffier, fresher, with all kinds of nooks and crannies to hold the butter and jam. They were so good, I actually had a dream about them one night.

Still, they didn't last forever and now they are gone.

What's a cheapskate to do?

Would it have been better not to have had the finer brand when I will have to go back to my usual mediocre brands? That doesn't sound right. Why would I deny myself the occasional treat just because I can't have it all the time?

Should I change my frugal habits and start purchasing the Thomas brand? Not likely since I eat too many of them per week.

In the meantime, I read far too many articles on frugality that tell me store brands (of almost anything) are just as good. Can we admit that this is often NOT TRUE? Sometimes I just don't care. For example store brand tomato sauce may not be as good as something more expensive, but once it is in my spaghetti sauce, I don't find that any difference is worth the additional expense.

But for my daily English Muffin fix? Hmm--tougher question.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Ups, Downs and Surprises in Obama's Health Plan

First of all, politically, I have always supported President Obama in his quest for national health care. I think it is outrageous that a country as wealthy, both monetarily and intellectually, as ours, doesn't have universal health coverage for all of its citizens.

The Plan that recently passed is hardly perfect.

But it is a start, and for that, I'm grateful.

Still, it's going to be an interesting ride as we get used to the effects of this new legislation.

I mean that in both a good and a bad way.

For starters, my 19 year old daughter will now be covered under my employment policy until she's 26 instead of 21. I'm sorry I couldn't have offered that coverage to my four older daughters, only three of whom have any health insurance at all. Unfortunately, by this fall, when the coverage starts, all but one of my children will be over age 25.

That's the good news.

Then today, I discovered that not everything about the health bill is going to be healthy for my bank account.

One little-advertised effect is the impact on flexible spending accounts.

Beginning in January, 2011, over the counter drugs will no longer be covered. For me, this is a minor bummer since I currently get reimbursed for all my antacid, aspirin and cold/flu medications. Also, pre-tax deductions will be capped at $2500 a year. It only takes orthodontia for a couple of kids to reach that amount in the blink of an eye.

I am still in favor of universal health care. But I am also wondering what other surprises, helpful to me or not, are contained therein.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Pinch Me

I don't read Salon.Com on a regular basis, but clearly I should.

I just discovered that site's "Pinched" series. It's a fascinating group of articles examining the effects of the recession. I came across it because the author of another blog I follow, The Boxcar Kids, wrote one of the newest columns about her trials as a nearly homeless mother of four.

I particularly enjoyed the articles and all the comments about foodstamps, the one by a cleaning lady, and especially the one by a former real estate agent who wonders what part she played in the bringing on the recession. Then there's the guy who refuses to go into debt to pay for his Duke education--he's living in a van in one of the college parking lots!

No, I won't give you links to the above--read ALL of the articles. They are that good.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Retirement Bond-Aid?

It's my week for spotlighting Walter Updegrave at Money Magazine. In this week's column, he addresses an issue that has confused me for years.

Namely, whether bonds have a place in my retirment mix, and if so, how much?

Ever since I first started seriously saving for retirement, I've avoided bonds. This comports with what Dave Ramsey teaches, and fit my own perception that I didn't have enough time left to have my earnings held back by conservative bonds when I could be investing it all in equities.

Ramsey suggests mutual funds divided evenly among growth, growth and income, aggressive growth and international funds. Note that he does not recommend buying bonds at all.

But I started getting cold feet in late 2009 as the recession was decimating my equity portfolio. At that point, while I left my equities alone, I divided future payments so as to put 50% of them into bond mutual funds. Right now, about 7% of my 401(k) and 403(b) monies are in bonds, and that percentage is growing.

Updegrave says that is typical of those of us who "fly solo" as we invest. We tend to take much more risk than we should or that we would be advised to if we got professional help.

I guess what I really want to know is if the professionals are correct? The obvious downside to a portfolio containing only stock mutual funds is if we have to retire just as the market is at a low, we won't have as much money available to us. But over the longterm, won't we be better off?

In the end, I just could not handle the level of losses my accounts were sustaining, and I am now opting for slower growth but less stomach-churning drops.

I have no clue if that's the right position to take or not.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Ethics of Overdue Books


Apparently, I am guilty of a major ethical lapse, when it comes to my overdue library books.

Take a look at what NY Times ethicist, Randy Cohen has to say about it in this article.

Mea culpa!

I have been in love with libraries since I was three years old and my mother found out that the perfect way to keep me quiet was to turn me loose in the children's section but allow me to pick out only two books to take home. I could and did spend hours picking out the two BEST books I could find. (My younger sister was less selective, so I always picked out two for her, as well.)

I have never NOT had a fine at the local library in the past forty years. I go in, I check out books, I hand over a couple of dollars and all my loose change, and everyone's happy.

Currently, I owe the libary $11.35. At its highest, my bill was around $40, but when the library instituted a policy of not allowing one to check out materials or renew books if the fine was over $20, I learned to keep the fines under the disqualifying amount.

Until now, I've never considered my overdue books and movies a moral issue. And, to be honest, I never worried much about "keeping the books from other patrons." Like the person who asked Cohen the question, I figured the fine was the "rent" I paid for keeping a book out of circulation longer than expected.


I dunno--I'd like to say I've taken Cohen's words to heart.

But I suspect the day I owe no fines, or get all my books back to the library on time, isn't coming soon.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Go-Go, Slow-Go and No-Go

Walter Updegrave is one of my favorite columnists at Money Magazine. He has an interesting article on the three stages of retirement. These are catchily characterized as Go-Go (meaning the first stage of retirement where volunteering, maybe part-time work, traveling, etc. are high priorities), Slow-Go where staying home more often becomes attractive and less exhausting, and, finally, No-Go, where health concerns for oneself or spouse may to put limitations on retirement activities.

Updegrave does a nice job of setting out the financial issues at each stage, though he provides no real answers. I get that. Just what we will personally face in retirement is too unpredictable for there to be a "one size fits all" formula.

I have a particularly hard time trying to forcast my retirment future.

My plan is to retire at age 69. I hope, of course, that my health will be generally good throughout my sixties and seventies. But I do have to be realistic. I'm diabetic and I've already had major heart surgery. There is a good chance I won't be a really active retiree. On the money side, that could mean less expenses for travel. But perhaps more for health care?

Or, given the very real possiblity of health issues, will I want to travel a lot and do more during my first years of retirement, in anticipation of a more sedentary lifestyle becoming necessary?

And what about my home? If I keep my current residence, which is ten minutes from the urban center, with three different bus lines nearby, will I have to spend money retrofitting the home? I probably will, given that my house has three stories. My parents bought a home when I was a teenager that had been remodeled specifically for the prior owner's wheelchair-bound wife. It turned out to be great as my parents aged because everything was on one floor, there were grab bars everywhere, and the kitchen counters and shelves were accessible. (My parents were both short, and greatly appreciated the lowered shelves even while they were perfectly healthy.)

Once I reach the No-go stage, comfort is going to be my highest priority. Plus there is the possibility of long term care.

All of which requires differing amounts of money.

So much to think about and plan for.