Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Thanks to Living Almost Large

If you haven't been reading Living Almost Large, you're missing an interesting and thoughtful financial blog. I'd say that even if she hadn't bribed me. But bribe me, she did. I received in the mail today, a copy of "Investing in an Uncertain Economy For Dummies," which I won by responding to a contest on her blog. Never mind that there were only two entries. Maybe if the title had been "How to Survive in an Uncertain Economy," there might have been more interest?

I doubt investing will be much on my mind during the next year, but I'm still glad I won the book, and I DO plan to read it. Thanks, LAL.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Christmas Confessions

They say that man plans, God laughs.

I should have kept that in mind when I made my Christmas budget.

This year, God not only laughed, S/he decided to give us WEATHER. I realize that folks who do not live in the pacific northwest already have WEATHER, but we residents of the rainforest just have wet or wetter. We do NOT usually have 14 inches of snow! The entire city shut down for the week before Christmas. I couldn't go to work, which was fine by me. But I couldn't get much else done, either.

Financially, there was weather-related good news and bad news. I saved a bundle on gas since I could not get my car out of the driveway. However, I spent way more than I wanted to on groceries since the only stores within walking distance were a local mini-mart and Whole Foods (what some accurately refer to as Whole Paycheck). We ate well for Christmas, but it was expensive.

Some of my adult children and their children couldn't get to my home at all. Others wore out their welcome as I played host for over a week--about five days longer than any of us wanted! More unanticipated expense.

Then there were the gifts that I had not yet purchased. Forget sales. The only thing that mattered was whether the store that sold what I wanted was reachable by bus. Then I paid whatever the price was. Naturally, that price was generally higher.

Interestingly, none of this bothered me too much because I still had some of my "garage fire" money. Funny thing about having funds that have not been earmarked--they not only give one a sense of comfort, but they are far too easy to spend. I did much better at sticking to my budget last year when I was worried about every penny.

Ah well--onward to 2009. My year-end wrap up and new goals are coming tomorrow.

In the meantime, I finally updated my links. Thanks for your help.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Use It or Lose It

My house is a mess due to the painters. I can barely walk in my living room where all the bedroom furniture is currently hanging out.

So, unable to keep things clean at home, I'm, instead, determined to tidy up my blog--specifically my links to other blogs.

Can I just say that when I like a blog, I like to read NEW posts in that blog? Some of you have fallen by the wayside. I miss you. Where did you go? I want you back.

Solitary Dancer at Bare Bones Living is gone, though she assured me in a private e-mail that she is still tracking her finances, just not so publicly. The guys at Engineering My Finances and The Platinum Years haven't posted since February and July respectively.

At any rate, if you're still alive and haven't posted in awhile, let me know.

If you have a blog that you think I should be reading (and therefore adding to the list), let me know that, too.

I'm giving it a week, and then--

Ruthless pruning will ensue.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Hidden Costs Behind the Free Gifts

I was thinking about this as I marched through Walgreen's picking up several packages of Double A and Triple A batteries. (They are "buy one, get one free" this week.) Once the grandkids run through these batteries for their electronic Christmas gifts, their parents will be stuck supplying the "free" gifts with expensive batteries.

And then there's Grace. My baby sister is paying for my interiors to be painted--it's an expensive and welcome gift. BUT. . .

Who knew all the hidden costs?

For example--the drapes in the master bedroom. I've been here sixteen plus years and have never done more than occasionally vacuum them. But when I took them down for the painters (and recovered from the dust-induced sneezing fit), it was painfully obvious that they needed a professional cleaning. How is it I have survived 59 years on this planet and didn't know that dry cleaners charge by the pleat for draperies? Two sets of clean drapes later, I am out $180!

It also turns out that once the closet doors were painted, their hardware looked shabby. For a mere $48, I combated shabbiness throughout the bedrooms!

Yes, I love my free gift. I'm just a tad less enamoured of the unexpected expenses that came along with it.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Ah Warren--Say It Ain't So

A rather disturbing blog entry concerning Warren Buffett and his granddaughter appeared this morning on AOL. I don't know what bothered me more--Buffett's casual assumption than an "adopted grandchild" was less than a "real"--read that, biological--grandchild, or that one of the richest men in the world would allow a grandchild to go without health insurance.

As the mother of five daughters adopted from the foster care system, there is no question in my mind that these are my "real" kids. Nor do/did my parents, sister or friends ever question that. They didn't get a vote, either. What the heck does Buffett mean when he says HE didn't adopt her as a grandchild--um, Warren? YOU didn't have to--YOUR SON adopted her, and that makes her YOUR grandchild. Don't you have lawyers who can explain that to you?

Of course, the grandchild in question is an adult and apparently makes $40,000 a year, so it's not like Buffett owes her health insurance, but you'd think it would concern him that she doesn't have any.

I know it concerns me when my adult children or my grandchildren don't have health insurance, even though I am not in a position to provide it for them.

I dunno--even assuming that Buffett has more reason than a documentary film and an Oprah interview to dislike his granddaughter, his statements about adoption and his lack of assistance to her are disturbing. It's not like he's being asked to give her a Corvette--it's HEALTH INSURANCE, for Pete's sake.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Freemarket Kharma

Fortunately, I have never said I was a nice person. Or if I did say it, you should probably know not to trust me on the subject.

It's not nice to have warm, fuzzy feelings over the misfortunes of others.

But. . .

Mea Culpa. I couldn't help myself.

There I was, thumbing through my new issue of Vanity Fair (purchased frugally for a six dollar annual subscription rate on E-Bay) and I happened on Michael Shnayerson's article about the cutbacks the super rich are having to make in the wake of the Wall Street crisis.

I particularly liked the trophy wife gazing at shelves of $6000 handbags bemoaning the fact that she will have to cut back her maid service. She couldn't just sell one of those fancy bags? Pardon me if I'm feeling sorrier for the maid than I am for Ms. Trophyette.

Actually, it is the personal trainers, the nannies, the charities who depend on monies from the well-monied, the waiters and the real estate agents who are the real losers here. But the very wealthy, down to their last ten million or so, seem more worried about the upkeep on their summer homes than the fate of those they employ.

Poor, pitiful them.

And shame on Grace for having a laugh at their expense (both literally and figuratively!)

Sunday, December 7, 2008


This is a list of bits and pieces that don't warrent an entire post but are too good not to put somewhere on this blog.

1. My total indebtedness went down in November, though not by much. I'll do a more thorough analysis at the end of December.

2. My 401(k) is back over $100,000 but the roller coaster is giving me a headache. I have made a decision NOT to increase the monthly amount I put into my 401(k) in 2009 but I'm not going to reduce it either.

3. On the job front, I will not be getting a raise this year, but I will get a lump sum payment in January. We are unionized and have a salary scale. I've been at the top of the scale for years, so rather than keep adding steps to the scale, I am more likely to get a lump sum that is a percentage of my annual wage. The truth is, I rather like this, though I would not want it to continue forever. I could get $120 more per month which winds up being about $42 more per paycheck or I could get one larger check. Sad to say, I am more likely to put the lump sum toward debt reduction than the regular monthly increase.

4. I did hit the major sales on Black Friday, and if I do say so myself, I got a lot of great deals and no lives were lost. In fact, it seemed to me that there were not as many folks out at 5:00 a.m. as I've seen in the past. One local store puts all their socks and bath towels on sale at half-price--I stocked up for the year. Another had comforters for $9.99. I got several since I never seem to have enough blankets, especially when I have guests. For whatever reason, GPS units are on everyone's Christmas list this year, so I bought several TomTom 125 units for $99 each--the lowest price I've seen for those. I also got 60% off on children's winter jackets, so guess what the grandkids are getting from Grandma Grace this year.

5. My sister (the rich one, and the provider of major gifts to moi!) came for Thanksgiving and gave me my gift early--a great gift it is, too! She is paying for my entire home interior to be repainted and rewallpapered. I've been in this home 18 years and have repainted only two rooms. After assorted children and grandchildren, some with serious behavior issues that impacted (literally!) the walls of my house, it badly needs refurbishing. Not to mention that the previous owners thought that blue plaid wallpaper would look good in the kitchen. Ahem! Since when is blue plaid wallpaper a good idea for ANY room? So Grace is knee deep in color chips and wallpaper samples. Pray for her, and keep her away from magenta accent walls!

6. I love cranky bloggers, so I particularly appreciated this one from Becoming Debt Free in 2009. The woman who griped about new hubby's child support debt annoyed me the most, especially because she may well be in the old wife's position some day.

7. Gas is $1.69 and my 100 gallons of heating oil is now $189 rather than the $307 it was I paid the last time I put oil in the tank.

That's it for the small stuff. More, later.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Some New Blogs--Well, New to Me

This is essentially a wannabe retiree blog. As a result, most of my posts and much of my blog-reading is geared toward those saving for retirement, close to retirement, or already retired.

Thanks to Syd at Retirement Is A Fulltime Job, I have two new blogs to add to my blogroll:

First up is Analise,in Financially Free to be Me, a retired educator in her mid-fifties. I forgive her for being younger than me and for having larger savings than me. She picked a tough time to retire, but so far, isn't regretting the choice.

Another retiree's blog I've added to my list, is My Wealth Builder, a much more investment-oriented blog. I haven't read it long enough to know if I agree or disagree with the investment advice, but I particularly like this post regarding retirement during tough economic times. The author, having retired in October, 2007,(the peak of the market as it subsequently turned out) recounts mistakes made as well as what has worked out so far.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Color Me Cranky

Here's how NOT to be a good guest.

I've had an out of town friend spend the last three nights at my home while attending a training session. Understand that I like this person immensely, and I doubt she has any clue as to how she drove me crazy during her stay.

First thing: She came downstairs to my warm living room, threw open the french doors that close off the living room from the upstairs, and said, "It's cold upstairs. Let's get some heat up there."

Umm--let's NOT!

I deliberately close off the upstairs because I don't see the need to heat the bedrooms, especially when they are not in use during the day and there are down comforters for the night. I have oil heat, and though oil is coming down in price, it is still expensive. Why couldn't she see that all the doors were closed, and obviously I did not want the upstairs heated?

Then she took a shower, and suggested I get the water pressure checked because the shower was "slow."

Again, umm NO!

Both of the bathrooms in my home have low-flow showerheads. Get used to it. I have.

She picked up the phone to make a call, but discovered I was online. Yep--Grace still uses dial-up. My friend proceeded to tell me how much better a dedicated computer line is. Well, yeah, but it also costs a heck of a lot more.

Finally, she looked in my refrigerator for a Diet Coke. There was none because none has been on sale since I got back from my vacation. To be fair, every other time she has stayed with me, I've had soda but when I said it was too expensive, she made a comment about "not taking the current crisis so seriously that I deprive myself of small pleasures."


I know she means well, but I still found myself resenting her remarks. I wish that she had kept her observations to herself and assumed that I had rational reasons for doing or not doing what she thought should be done.

I'd be even crankier, if she hadn't treated me to breakfasts in restaurants three mornings running! Feed me, and I'll forgive almost anything.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Financial Limbo Rock

I'm probably showing my age here, but I still remember all the words to Limbo Rock, including the chorus:

"How LOW can you GO?

Do the Limbo rock!"

Not that I was ever much of a dancer, but financially, it's clear I can go pretty dang low.

Today when I checked my 401(k) balances, they were below $100,000.

Did I mention that on October 9, 2007 they stood at $174,518?

Did I mention that I've been faithfully depositing $1000 per month through December, 2007? And after that to this very day, I have been depositing $1025 per month?

Did I mention how very scary this recession is? And how worried I am that my projected recovery time of 9 years might not be enough?

I'm ready for THIS dance to be OVER!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Where Were You During the Last Financial Crisis?

This is NOT our nation's first financial crisis. This is NOT our nation's worst financial crisis.

So why does it prey so heavily on my mind?

Well, it IS the first financial crisis where I've been paying attention to my personal finances.

I wasn't around for the great depression of 1929. My parents were, of course, and it affected the rest of their financial lives in a positive way. But their caution did not rub off on their daughter. Maybe a financial crisis is something you have to live through in order to learn from?

But I was present for the oil price surge of 1973-1975 where stocks slumped 45%.

Of course, 1973 was the year I finished graduate school and got my first real job--I joined VISTA, the earlier incarnation of Americorps, and set out to save the world while earning $200 a month (and getting food stamps!). Being poor was noble, I had no savings, and nothing going on in the stock market really affected my personal life. If there was an internet, I had no knowledge of it.

The leveraged buyout bust (and subsequent 36% drop in the stock market) occurred in 1987. Where was I? Not saving for retirement, that's for certain. I was deep into motherhood, caring for a seriously disturbed child (with all the attendent psychiatric bills) and merrily charging up my credit cards. I vaguely knew there was a crisis out there, but, again, it didn't seem to affect my personal life.

Then there was the tech collapse of 2000-2002 during which stocks dipped 38%. I heard about that one, but I wasn't invested in tech stocks. In fact, I had just started serious retirement savings and was sticking close to index mutual funds. I got quarterly statements, but had no easy way to check on my 401(k) balances daily.

Then came 2007-2008. Suddenly, I'm worried about retirement, blogging intently, and really, really paying attention to the stock market and my personal expenses.

I need to remind myself that the cyclical return on stocks will occur whether or not I'm watching, and that what goes down, will (assuming the historical record is correct) eventually go back up.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Sticking with the Program

It gets harder and harder to just keep putting $1025 into my rapidly-dwindling 401(k) each month.

Intellectually, I understand that this is exactly the program I must maintain throughout our recession.

Emotionally, not so much.

But it helps to have Money Magazine on my side. In particular, I liked this response from senior writer, Janice Revell to a question by a similarly concerned reader. It helps to know that "in scary markets you tend to underestimate the risk of being out of stocks. In the long run - and that's what you care about - the risk of missing the upside poses a graver threat to your wealth than taking hits on the downside does."

Elsewhere in the December issue (but not online that I can find), the "Mole" (a regular columnist) writes, "Risk tolerance ebbs and flows. From 2003 to 2007, U.S. stock prices nearly doubled and international shares nearly tripled. During such good years, you tend to believe that you have a high tolerance for risk. At times like these [i.e. the current stomach-churning market], your willingness to take chances drops sharply."

No kidding!

I am squarely in the crowd these articles are addressing--I always thought I had a high tolerance. And for the time being, I'm hanging in there. But it's hard to keep the emotions out of the program.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Age 89? I Could Live With That!

Thanks to Meg at World of Wealth, I took this calculator to see what my current activities portend for my lifespan.

Their answer is that I should live to age 89. Sounds good to me!

The good news is that I was scrupulously honest in answering the questions even though it meant admitting that I'm a couch potato who snacks far too much. (Maybe I should have stayed in Japan longer, where veggies and fish are always available but Snickers bars are harder to find.)

After getting the calculator results, there is a link to suggestions for changes that could lead to a longer life. One suggestion surprised me--it said that taking iron supplements (which I do, both to prevent pica which I've had in the past and because my doctor keeps telling me my bloodtests show low iron) actually lowers one's lifespan. Something to ask my doctor about on my next visit.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Out of the Ashes


Not that I recommend burning down one's garage as a way to make money (and such an action might provoke a pesky arson charge!) but. . .

I came home to a huge stack of mail. Midway through it was a statement from my insurance company AND a check. Now, understand that the company that rehabbed my garage also did an inventory, as best they could, of all the burned items they tossed in the dumpster. They got everything I could remember and a lot that I had forgotten. I was asked to price the items, which I did for those things I had either recently purchased or could remember. But with so much of it, like my deceased parents' 70's era furniture, I had no clue. So the company told me to leave those items blank and they would figure it out.

Boy, did they!

While I would happily have accepted a couple thousand dollars for everything, they paid me replacement (as opposed to actual cash value) costs, which came to an amazing $9000.

Again, WOW!

After I recovered from my shock, and got that baby deposited, I figured out where it was all going:

$2000 to two of my daughters who lost their items.
(That should teach them NOT to store their stuff at
Mommy's house);

$800 to bring my "baby steps" emergency fund up to
$1000, where it has not been since April;

$1600 to pay the property taxes on my rental house
at the coast; This will be the first time in years
that I am current on those taxes and will get the 3%
discount for paying it all off in a timely manner;

$2000 for Christmas. This is a large amount, but
I am the chief provider of presents for five daughters,
six grandchildren, two spouses and one sister, as well
as the one who buys the Christmas dinner, lights, trees,
etc.; and

$600 for heating oil--I am determined that this will be
the year I do NOT run the tank dry and incur repair
charges for clogging the lines.

So that leaves me $2000 to apply to debt.

Not to mention that my neighbor is now renting my garage from me, and providing me with an additional $250 a month in income.

Pretty good, huh?

Umm--I think you should put those matches down, NOW!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Sayonara Japan

Tokyo is our last stop--we spent five days there, but that included one side trip to Kamakura and another to Nikko.

Both Kamakura and Nikko are small tourist towns. Both were filled with Japanese tourists busy sight-seeing in their own country.

Kamakura is home to Daibutsu, otherwise known as the Great Buddha, and probably one of Japan's more famous images. It is every bit as awe-inspiring as its picture. What you don't see is that the bronze statue is hollow and can be entered, which, of course, we did. This buddha is somewhat smaller than the one at Todaiji, but because it is now outdoors (it's hall having burned down, as many wooden temples and buildings have, in Japan), it is the more breathtaking Buddha.

Nikko has many culturally significant shrines, both Buddhist and Shinto, all within a relatively small area that is easily walked (although, like many temples in Japan, they all seemed to be at the top of enormous stone staircases with no railings!). A number of families were at the Shinto shrines getting blessings for their three year old daughters. The little girls were made up like beauty pageant contestants with sprayed hair, make-up, and elaborate kimonos. But they were obviously three years old, running around and kicking their shoes off. They were having a great time posing for pictures, particularly for western tourists. Other school groups would accost me (but never my ethnically Japanese traveling companion) with little booklets containing questions with which to practice their English. "My name is Kosumi. May I ask you some questions, please? Do you like Nikko? Do you like Japan?" Of course they were so busy practicing for the next question that they didn't listen to my answers!

Tokyo is the New York of Japan--loud, lively, full of advertising. Sights are less important than people-watching. And the people-watching was great.

So what were my final impressions?

On the surface, the Japanese are wonderfully polite, their country is famously safe and clean, and they have assimilated much of western culture. But they remain inscrutably alien, which makes for a fascinating tourist experience.

What I learned that I didn't know--the Japanese drive on the left side of the road, like the British; their western toilets, whether in private homes or hotels or ryokans have heated seats, bidet functions, and will play sounds (rushing rivers or music) while being used; virtually every car has a GPS system, which in addressed-challenged Japan, has been very useful (some neighborhoods have houses or buildings numbered by the order in which they were built); and being treated with great courtesy everywhere makes one, in turn, more courteous. It just felt good being in Japan, which I attribute to the high level of politeness, whether or not it was genuine.

Financially, I made out like a bandit. I spent less than my budgeted $2000, due entirely to housing and meals provided by my friend's relatives. While Japan can be expensive (first-run movies are $18!), meals weren't, and splitting the hotel costs (which ran from $50 per person per night to close to $100 but often included dinner and breakfast) helped keep costs down.

I did wind up spending about $200 to buy Yukatas (Japanese cotton bathrobes) for all my kids.

I am so glad I went, even if it wasn't the most budget-conscious decision. I don't know when or if I'll get to the far east again, but even if I do, it is unlikely to have the same opportunities to be in local homes that this trip afforded me.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Sushi Chronicles, Parts One and Two

These entries will be short, and may be incoherent, given that Japanese keyboards are just different enough to make me crazy.

Part One:

I`m in Kobe, Japan, having spent two days there, and one in Himeji at an onsen (natural hot spring) Ryokan. I should probably put some links here, and if I get a chance, I will, later. In the meantime, both cities are intriguing.

Kobe`s recent history is forever colored by the huge earthquake that devastated the city and killed nearly 6000 people in 1995. Thirteen years later, the city is almost entirely rebuilt, but the earthquake is certainly not forgotten.

This is where my traveling companion`s relatives live. An aunt and two cousins died in the earthquake. The relatives that are showing us around have very strong memories of the quake.

We visited the quaintly named Disaster Reduction and Human Renovation Museum which is staffed by quake survivors who are anxious to tell their stories. There is also a highly effective movie, complete with special sound and motion effects to convey the chaos that the city endured.

Almost as good was another earthquake museum on the nearby island, Awagi, which is actually built over the faultline, which is covered with glass, so that one can follow it over the course of a hundred feet or more.

Using Kobe as a base, we visited Himeji Castle, which you may have seen if you watched Tom Cruise chew up the scenery in The Last Samurai. The six-story wooden castle was very impressive, even without Mr. Cruise.

In terms of money, I`ve spent fairly little so far, given that my friend`s relatives have been taking us everywhere. I should also mention that when it comes to food, the cliched Jewish mother has nothing on a Japanese housewife determined to make sure her international guests don`t starve.

Part Two:

I am now in Kyoto, having spent the previous day in Nara. I saw no women in kimonos in Kobe or Himejii except for employees of the Ryokan who wore Yukatas (cotton bathrobes) everywhere, as did we while staying there. But in Kyoto, there were a surprising number of women of all ages, wearing kimonos. And carrying, and using cell phones. Quite the ambiguous image!

The emperor was in Nara the same day we were but we were too busy trekking to various temples to see him. It is difficult to describe the combined effect of the temples in Nara and Kyoto. I expected to get templed-out at some point but it never happened. The spareness, the size, the sense of foreignness was impressive and awe-inspiring.

My Japanese language skills (dusted off after 30 years of non-use) have been laughable but I have yet to meet one rude person in Japan. Everyone has been kind and several strangers have gone out of their way to keep two middle-aged ladies on track.

This part of the trip, my friend and I have been on our own, so I`m spending more money. The exchange rate has not been in our favor. But I am still well within my original budget. I could, if I have to, use my Bank of America debit card, but with a five dollar fee plus a three percent foreign transaction fee, that`s one card I`ll avoid.

Next stops: Kamakura, Nikko and Tokyo.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Off on an Asian Tangent

For the next three weeks, this space will be devoted to GRACE--the Asian Edition.

It's not my intent to bore folks with a travelog and I will try to keep my focus on the financial aspects of foreign travel during a recession. I'm also thinking it will be interesting to watch the US election from foreign shores. (Yes, I already sent my ballot in.)

This trip is a dream for me, but the timing could have been a whole lot better.

Fortunately, I did save for it. Unfortunately, I may not have saved enough. We'll see.

My airfare was prepaid last March. My sister gave me a $500 prepaid VISA card for "fun stuff." I have $1600 of my own to cover lodging, train travel, food and expenses. I'll be gone 18 days, but lodging is covered by my travelling companion's relatives for six of those days. To the extent there is a cost for this, it's $180, my share of two Pendleton blankets we're bringing as gifts to the two families taking us in.

The most important thing, for me, is not to become obsessed with how much I'm either spending or not spending. That's my tendency, and it can ruin a vacation if I let it.

The Japanese Yen is very strong against the dollar. That's good for the Japanese, less so for Grace. I bought $800 worth of yen yesterday at a rate of 97 yen to the dollar. Two days ago, it was 107 yen to the dollar.

The Japanese know about recessions. They were in one for ten years and it destroyed the retirement plans of many individuals. So I don't begrudge them their current prosperity. In fact, I'm eager to see it.

Sayonara for now. Watch this space.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Festival of Frugality is Up

The Festival of Frugality, hosted by Mighty Bargain Hunter is up and running.

My Tracfone post is included, along with a multitude of great money-saving posts.

Friday, October 17, 2008

On Track with Trac

I'm something of a Luddite when it comes to cell phones. I didn't even have one until my oldest daughter gave me a Tracfone for Christmas, 2006. She was so excited for me, she actually snapped a picture as I unwrapped it--capturing forever a shot of me with my best "What the heck am I supposed to do with this?" look on my face.

Over time, I have come around--no longer would I want to be without my cell. I particularly like the idea of having it available for emergencies.

Still, I'm not one of those folks you'll find chatting away on the bus, on the street, or even (much!) in my car.

I pretty much use my cell only to keep track of my kids (or to be more accurate, they call me to keep track of me!) or when I'm running late for appointments, or to be in contact with my office.

I don't routinely give out my cell phone number.

I apparently have the capacity on my Tracfone to text. I wouldn't really know because I've never done that.

I don't have a fancy phone--the $9.99 price for the Motorola phone is the first clue! It doesn't take pictures, it doesn't have fancy ringtones and I can't have George Clooney as my wallpaper.

But what it does do, it does well. It gets reception virtually everywhere. I notice that when I return to my old hometown on the coast, my daughter's Cricket phone stops working about an hour out of our city. And in spite of all those "Can You Hear Me Now" ads, her husband's Verizon phone doesn't get reception in many places in that town either.

Another of my daughters has replaced her phone three times while mine was only replaced once and that's because I ran it through the washing machine. (This is NOT recommended). Then, of course, my replacement was still $9.99. I have dropped the phone innumerable times and even cracked the back plate, but a small piece of duct tape later, it still works just fine.

The per minute price is high. A 60 minute phone card retails for $19.99. There are always codes to be found on the internet that will add anywhere from 20 minutes to 60 minutes to this time. The nice thing about the codes is that you can "try them out" if you use Tracfone's online site to refill the minutes. You can ignore everything Tracfone says about codes being 'only good for one use' or the dates they say the codes can be used. I always try the old codes and often, they continue to work. Oddly, last month, when I couldn't get my minutes credited on the website, I called Tracfone. The operator used the bonus code I gave her, which was supposed to give me an additional 30 minutes, and it gave me an extra 60 minutes. Go figure.

Target sometimes offers the 60 minute cards for $18.99. E-bay is often cheaper than that. My lowest price on E-Bay was $14.50 but that was some time ago. Lately, I haven't been able to get better than $17.50 at auction. I have never been burned buying cards on E-bay for my Tracfone. After the auction, and once my paypal account makes the payment, the seller e-mails me with the code off the card and I use it. I don't bother asking for the card to be mailed because that adds to the cost and so far, it hasn't been necessary.

But with any Tracfone, and even with discount prices and bonus codes, the per minute price remains high, around 16 cents a minute.

That would never work for my kids and some of my colleagues, who seem to run around with their cells glued to their ears--literally, for those addicted to Bluetooth!

However, for me, not having a two year contract or overage charges, actually saves me money. I've been tracking my expenses since January of this year. During that time, I've spent $74.50 for four 60 minute cards that have actually given me 400 minutes. Depending on my use, I need a new card every six to eight weeks.

Trac is keeping me on track with my money.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Syd Gets it Right--I Hope

If you're not reading Syd's blog, Retirement: A Fulltime Job, you're missing some interesting and timely posts. Her latest one on the current market (Syd did pick a spectacularly inauspicious time to retire) is one I particularly appreciate.

Of course, I do look for posts and experts that back up how I prefer to see what is happening in the stock market.

But I think that it is an advantage to have been on this earth for 59 years. It gives me perspective.

I have witnessed the stock market and the economy in general do a lot of crazy things. Heck, I remember having CD's that earned 15% and I remember thinking that was not nearly enough interest! I remember when a mortgage rate of 10% was not considered unreasonable. Finally, having worked in non-profits dependent upon public funding for many years, I am all too familiar with the ups and downs and political whims that have governed my paycheck.

This, too, shall pass.

I hope.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Trying Hard NOT to Hyperventilate

I knew better than to look, but it's kinda like being ordered NOT to think of a pink elephant--once someone brings it up, you just can't help yourself. Pink elephants are ALL you can think about.


I looked.

There were my retirement funds: the ones that were at $174,518 last October; the ones where I've been contributing an additional $1000+ every single month since then;

And there I found my retirement funds as of yesterday: $129,626.


I just keep telling myself to stick with the program; I'm getting a bargain on purchases of my mutual funds; I've got nearly ten years until I want to retire; It will get better. It will get better.

It had dang well better get better!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Credit Card Weirdness

This did not happen to me.

I don't have an American Express credit card.

But a colleague of mine does. Her husband is a physician who flies all over the world setting up temporary emergency hospitals, particularly in third world countries.

They use their American Express card alot. They tend to charge several thousand a month, particularly in airline fees for which they are reimbursed.

They have never been late with a payment. They are nowhere near their credit limit.

Yet this past weekend, my colleague received a telephone call from American Express demanding an additional payment (she had just sent in a payment the prior week) or their card would be suspended.

When she objected and pointed out their excellent payment record, she was told that American Express was calling on many of their "good" customers to make additional payments.

My first thought was that this was a scam, but my colleague called American Express this morning, and verified that the weekend call was genuine, and so was the threat to suspend the card.

I'm just amazed that this could possibly be legal.

What is going on? Fall-out from the credit freeze? Credit card companies running scared?

All in all, it seems foolish of American Express to tick off their "good" customers. And my colleague is plenty ticked off!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Silver Linings

The bad news should be that there was a fire in my stand-alone garage last month that caused considerable damage.

Oddly enough, burning down one's garage is turning out to be just fine financially!

Say what?

Well, not only is the entire inside reframed and painted (fortunately, the stucco outer walls and the two-year-old roof survived the fire) but my badly-graffitied garage door has been replaced with a pristine new one. While I wish the white panels didn't scream "Come On! Your gang sign belongs HERE!" quite so loudly, it really does look nice at the moment.

Who knows how long it would have taken me to replace that door otherwise?

To top it off, my neighbors across the alley approached me about renting the garage to park two of their vehicles. Don't ask me why the two guys who've lived there for years have six vehicles between them while I've been driving my solitary Dodge Caravan minivan for almost ten years.

I will probably go ahead and rent to them since I only use the garage for storage anyway.

So, far from being a financial disaster, I'm winding up with a newer, better garage and possibly, a new source of income.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Quarterly Net Worth--Yes, I'm Cheating and No, It's NOT Helping!

I'm computing my net worth as of today, rather than waiting until the true end of the month tomorrow.

From what I hear, now that the House of Representatives has turned down the bail-out plan, the stock market was way off today. So I'll cheat, and use Friday's closing rather than today's.

Not that it helps that much.

For the first time since starting this blog, my net worth is down: $12,680 to be exact, or (because somehow it sounds better when I put it this way!) I'm down two percent for the quarter. My current net worth stands at $587,096.

I'd feel worse about it, if much of it wasn't rather "phony" to start with. How can I seriously feel like I lost $14,000 on my home, which means that it is worth $378,500, when I purchased it in 1992 for $95,300?

And how about my first home, which I now rent out in a small coastal town? It just keeps going up in value. Beats me why that should be, given that the town's economy is so tied to timber and fishing, both of which are dying industries. Inexplicably, the house is now worth $7000 more this quarter than last.

Then there's my debts--nothing to be proud of, there. I am down slightly from last month (that's good), but last month I was up from the previous month (that's bad), and I'm still not back to where I started (that's really bad).

Onward to October! How could bats, witches and black cats make things any worse?

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Red Light

I opened a letter yesterday from the city in which I reside.

It contained three pictures--two of my vehicle, complete with license plate; one of the driver that was impossible to identify.

Oh, and there was a citation for running a red light, with a price tag of $242!

My problem is threefold: I have no memory of ever running a red light, and certainly not on the day and time in question; I never let anyone else, including my children drive my car; and I do NOT have an extra $242 laying around!

I've gotten speeding tickets before--while I don't like them, I've never felt that they were undeserved. But running a red light? That's just something I can't believe I did or would ever do!

My court date isn't until November. I will appear in court because that almost always results in a lowered fine. I won't plead "not guilty" because my memory notwithstanding, I don't see how it could be anyone else driving my car.

Still I'm ticked off. The difficulty is, my anger doesn't have a target!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

More Bad News About Retiring During a Recession

The best advice in Liz Pulliam Weston's latest column for MSN, How to Retire in Bad Times can be summed up in one word:


I have a number of friends who are in the midst of plans to retire. I must admit that I don't understand why they are so unwilling to put off those plans for another year or two to wait out the recession. These are not people who are being forced out of their jobs, nor do they have health issues so severe that they must retire. It's more that they have been planning for retirement day, they have their eyes on a particular date, and they are unwilling to let the current economy change their plans.

I understand the motivation. I understand the desire to be done with full time employment. But if working awhile longer would assure me of money to last through the NEXT recession and the one after that, while leaving the job field right now might endanger it--heck, I'd be working past that theoretical retirement date!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Are We Sure Our Banks Know What They Are Doing ?

I realize this is extremely small potatos, BUT. . .

I don't get my bank's attitude on the following siutation:

I was using my Bank of America debit card, as I usually do--this time to purchase time on a parking meter. It "declined" my card. I tried again. It "declined" again.

Then I took a closer look at my card, and saw that there was someone else's name on it! (The first name was Venus. Trust me on this one--I ain't no Venus!)

Then I searched my purse, and located MY debit card. Apparently I had been handed back TWO debit cards sometime in the last few days.

I had purchased coffee earlier that morning with Venus' card. I may well have been purchasing things for several days on her card. When I checked my account online against the receipts I had kept, I found about $30 worth of charges that did not appear on my account. I could only assume those were charges that came out of the mysterious Venus account.

So I called Bank of America to report the error. It was my intent to let them know what charges to transfer to my account.

But they were not the least bit interested.

I was told that the card had already been reported lost or stolen, and that Venus--whoever she might be--was not being charged for any withdrawals in the last three days. I was advised to cut up Venus' card, which I did.

OK--good for Venus.

But here I am, ready to actually pay the items I accidentally charged.

Apparently the bank has no way of doing that!

So the end result is that neither Venus nor I are paying for those $30 worth of items.

A good deal for both of us, I guess. But it doesn't make me confident as to how things are run at my bank!

Maybe Bank of America is too busy with their take-over of Merrill Lynch?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Grace Goes Textbook Shopping

For the past 18 months, I've been paying for my 20 year old granddaughter's community college tuition and books. I quickly learned that I would save a lot of money if I took the buying of textbooks out of her cute, young hands and did it myself.

As one example this term:

My granddaughter is enrolled in Accounting 101. The text for this particular class retails for $94.80. Her college bookstore sells it new for $81.00 or used for $60.75. Amazon Textbooks lists it used for prices ranging from $53 to $75 and in various conditions. Half.Com has it listed (also in various conditions) new for $65.00 down to very used for $35.00. I settled on a text in "very good" condition for $45 plus $3.99 in shipping.

Now that I've ordered textbooks over the course of four terms, here's what I've learned:

Don't trust the student to tell you what book is needed. If you're the student, don't trust yourself. Almost all college bookstores are online and list their books by class and teacher. Go there!

The ISBN number is crucial. Just having the title and author does not make it clear what edition is needed. The first time I ordered a math text, I wound up buying the teacher's edition! My granddaughter didn't mind, since it had all the answers in it, but I suspect that's not what the teacher had in mind when he told the kids what book to use.

Stick with booksellers who've had a lot of sales. While this is probably unfair to students who are reselling their used books on and don't have much of a seller history, these same students are not always qualified to evaluate the condition of their books. One English text that purported to be in "good" condition came to my student with extensive highlighting on every single page. It was usable, but the experience has made me leery.

Remember to count in shipping costs when evaluating an online deal. I've seen sellers charge $10 for shipping and handling. Personally, I consider $3.99 fair, and that's the maximum I will pay.

All in all, I saved $174.22 buying three books online. It would have been more but one class had materials assembled by the teacher that was available only at the college bookstore and only at their price.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Grace and the Green-Eyed Monster

For starters, let me say that I love my baby sister.

Which is not to say that I am not jealous of her a lot of the time.

There is a history to this. She's barely a year younger than me. Growing up, I was the chubby and smart kid while she was thin and popular. You better believe I would have given up "smart" for "popular" any day of the week. Add to this the fact that my sister is a genuinely nice, generous, and all-round wonderful person. It is not easy being related to such a paragon, and it doesn't help that she's nice, generous and pretty much an all-round wonderful sister as well.

So she and her husband were in town last week-end for the wedding of a mutual friend. My sister is an upper-echelon banker. (Somewhere along the way, she became "smart" though I never did become thin or popular!) Neither she nor her husband have children. What they do have is an utterly enviable lifestyle. While in town, they treated me to brunch and dinner at two of this city's better restaurants. They gave me leads for my trip to Japan--though I never wrote down many of their recommendations, knowing that the cost would be out of my league.

What I coveted most was their laissez-faire attitude toward money. They wanted to see my city's Chinese Gardens. Without thinking, I offered the Two-for-one Entertainment Book coupon. They just looked confused. In their world, Entertainment Books do not exist, and who uses coupons. They could go where they wanted, eat what they wanted, get in taxis, whatever--all without any concern as to what the cost might be.

Is it whining to say that I want that, too?

Mind you, I just want their money.

I cannot imagine working for 30+ years at a bank, even a prestigious international bank. I cannot imagine NOT having children. I cannot imagine having to wear high heels and designer clothes. I cannot imagine making small talk to people who bore me.

So I don't want my sister's life. Nor her job. Nor, much as I like him, would I want to be married to her husband.

I just want her money!!!

And I want the lifestle having her money would bring me!

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

A Girl Can Dream

Today, Syd reviews her first six months of retirement in her blog Retirement: A Fulltime Job.


Gotta get me somma that!

Double sigh.

Gotta get a boatload of debt paid off first!

But her life in retirement, at least for the first six months, is exactly what this girl's dreams are made of. Although I see she left out Sean Connery, who figures prominently in MY dream retirement!

Sunday, August 31, 2008

August Wraps Me Up!

I am NOT going to post my total indebtedness for August.

NOT gonna do it!

And you can't make me!

But suffice to say, there was not only no reduction this month, there was an increase. I'm going back over my expenditures to figure out exactly how that happened. I do have a general idea, but my general idea was in smaller figures than the reality--isn't that always the way?

The only good news is that there will be some extra money coming in for September, all of which I intend to put on my debts.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Second Thoughts from Early Retirees

Thanks (maybe!) to Boston Gal for steering me toward this article from USA Today titled Some Early Retirees Have Second Thoughts.

I would think that anyone considering imminent retirement might postpone those plans for a year or two to see if the economy recovers, or at least move to part-time employment rather than give up one's income entirely. But what about those who retired a few years ago? Especially, what about those who retired prior to eligibility for Social Security or Medicare?

It is unrealistic to think that there won't be downturns or even recessions after retirement. We can choose not to retire during one of these times (provided our health or a job loss hasn't dictated our retirement) but we will still have to face them at some point during our retirement years.

I haven't completely thought out what I will do. Obviously, I will try to keep my draw from my 401(k) to 3% or less during the lean years. But the catch there is the cost of health care. I was shocked to find that one couple cited in the article is paying in excess of $1300 per month for medical coverage. I haven't done much research, but in my fantasy retirement budget, I've always used the figure of $1,000 and secretly assumed that that was too high and I'd probably get by for less.

Oops! Maybe not.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The 167th Carnival of Personal Finance is Up

My last post, "Money Isn't Everything" is one of the many posts listed in the 167th Carnival of Personal Finance.

Broke Grad Student uses an Olympics theme to separate out the selections. I do wish that instead of just listing titles, he would have given us the name of the blog and, maybe, a little bit about the posts, but given the large number of submissions, that may have been too much work. Notice that Grace submits to carnivals, but you don't see her volunteering to run one!

I particularly liked Hazzard's thoughts on What are my Options for Retirement? from Everybody Loves Your Money. Though, once again, I can't help wondering why people spend their lives in jobs they find only so-so. No work is all fun all the time. But given how long our work lives are, why would one choose to spend so much time hungering for retirement day?

Friday, August 22, 2008

Money Isn't Everything

Two recent news items have left me both depressed and thoughtful about the loss of financial security and the subsequent impact on one's mental health.

The first was the death of 53 year old Carlene Balderrama who could not face the debt she had hidden from her family nor the impending foreclosure on their 4-year old home.

The second and most recent was adoptive mother, Sylvia Sieferman, age 60, in Minnesota. She not only tried to kill herself, but her two 11 year old Chinese daughters as well.

Sylvia's story struck me the hardest. She is closer to my age, she has adopted children, she is a single parent, and she is participating in an age-discrimination lawsuit against her former employer. She was having trouble finding a new job, her home was in foreclosure and she was severely depressed. It was a lot for one woman to bear.

And yet. . .

Maybe it's me or maybe it's because I was reared in a working class family that toppled into poverty whenever work was not available, but I just can't imagine getting suicidal if I were suddenly poor.

Frustrated? Sure.

Depressed? You bet.

But suicidal? Or worse yet, homicidal?

How did money ever get to be more important than life itself?

It's not that I would want to lose my job or lose my home. But if I had to, I could work at McDonald's. I could be a greeter at Wal-Mart. I could live in an apartment. I could move in with one of my kids--oh, on second thought, scratch that one. I could live in a shelter.

I might be poor, but I don't think I would consider that enough of a reason to check out of life.

Shouldn't there be more to our imprint on this world than the money we make in it? Shouldn't we have some level of satisfaction in our lives that is not dependent on whether we have money?

For Carlene and Sylvia, weren't their families enough? Wasn't life, itself, enough?

And if not, why not?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Love Them Class Actions

Not that I understand much about class actions, but I sure as heck understand unexpected checks that arrive in my mailbox, courtesy of someone else's class action lawsuit.

Yesterday, I was sent a copy of a legal settlement, and informed that I would soon be receiving a check for $327.38. Unless, of course, I objected. Say what? Grace is not about to object to getting $327.38.

As it turns out, back in 2003, my state got the not-so-hot idea of cutting back adoption assistance payment by 7.5% in order to help balance a budget shortfall--nothing like saving money on the backs of foster children or children adopted from foster care. To whom are they going to complain? Foster parents and adoptive parents were given a choice--(1) sign papers "voluntarily" allowing the reduction; or (2) lose their entire adoption subsidy or foster care payment.

Gee--that was some choice! So I signed. Most families did.

But several braver families sued instead.

First, they lost.

Then, they appealed.

Then they won.

Then the state appealed.

Then the state lost.

Then the state appealed to the US Supreme Court.

Then the Supreme Court said "We've got better things to do, so go away."

Ergo--five years later, Grace will get back money for the nine months her payments were reduced.

Actually, this isn't the first time I've taken advantage of someone else's class action. Back in the '70s, I bought a prep course put out by Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich to study for my licensing exam. For reasons I never understood, HBJ was sued. I was offered a choice of $12 cash or two books from their inventory. This is how Alice Walker's "The Color Purple," and "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens" wound up on my book shelf.

And Qwest gave me a $5.50 cent credit on my phone bill for four months as part of another class action settlement.

Gotta love it!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Life is Kidding, Right? MORE Murphy

Actually, this will probably NOT turn out to be as bad as it sounds.

But I was awakened by a neighbor pounding on my door, yelling "Fire!" When I opened the door, he said, "Do you know your garage is on fire?"

Um--NO! But I could certainly smell the smoke by that time.

Fortunately, it is a free-standing garage. I don't even use it for my car, which I park on the sidewalk in front of my home. And, also fortunately, I do have homeowner's insurance.

So I provided the community excitement, and got to see an assortment of nightclothes on various neighbors, since all of this occurred just after 3:30 in the morning. I also got the benefit of sirens, two fire engines and an assortment of very cute firefighters. Is there a rule somewhere that firefighters must be young and good-looking?

Now, some ten hours later, I have an alleyway full of melted TV's, soggy mattresses and blackened surplus furniture that was being stored in the garage. Included in that was my deceased father's huge 1983 stereo (those were the days when the bigger the speaker, the better the sound) and his vinyl record collection. I think he owned every Connie Francis album ever made. I was keeping them because I couldn't bear to throw out things that meant so much to my dad. But other than that, I didn't lose anything important to me.

I now have a burned out garage that, maybe, can be salvaged. The building was reroofed two years ago, and appears to still be in shape. All the wood in the walls burned, but the building itself is stucco.

It looks like the cause may be teens smoking in the garage (one of the windows appeared to have been opened).

So I guess you know where Grace will be spending her Monday--on the telephone with insurance agents and appraisers!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

When it Rains, It Pours, and No One Believes Us

Personally, I have no trouble believing all of life's little tragedies that befall JW and family on the Need to Be Debt-Free blog. But according to the comments, his voluble and judgmental readership sure does.

Once again, I am reminded that most personal finance bloggers are still in their twenties and thirties. They think they know life, but many of us who are coming from ten or twenty or (ahem) even thirty more years of financial experience than that, may be experiencing a slightly different take.

We don't just have one child, usually young. We have teenagers, or we have adult children. Or we have both. We have grandchildren. We have cars that we hope will limp along just one more year. We have houses upon which we have deferred maintainance. We have appliances that implode with regularity, and why not, since all of them are more than ten years old.

We have retirement funds that demand a whole lot more than $100 a paycheck if we're going to have any kind of life after work.

Mostly, though, we have had a lot more time to screw up our finances, accumulate debt, and rear families that impact our spending in large ways and small.

JW tithes--something that seems to set many of his readers' teeth on edge. I'm not that religious so tithes aren't an issue for me, but I do finance community college for my children and grandchildren. There are lots of reasons why JW would have more money available if he didn't tithe, and I could contribute more to my debt reduction if I didn't have quarterly tuition bills to handle.

Somewhere along the way, certain expenses have become non-negotiable for both JW and myself. I think we both have personal commitments to honor. And I think that's fine.


Which is not to say that life doesn't hand out financially destructive, random events that make me want to scream.

The whole point of blogging, at least for me, is to get all these financial issues out in the open where not only I can see them for myself, but others who may be in a similar financial place can see that they are not alone. Or maybe others can see that they are a lot better off than I am and advise me as I struggle to get to where they are.

Maybe it will turn out that JW is a fake, but I wouldn't predict that on the basis of his posts so far--he's just blogging real life. Into which a fair amount of rain has fallen.

Believe it!

Friday, August 8, 2008

Could Murphy PLEASE Leave the Building

First, there was the good news.

I posted a few months ago that one way I planned to earn extra money was to write and market my science fiction short stories. So I did, and Voila! I got a check for $350.

Feeling like I should take care of some unfinished business, I dropped into my local car care clinic to see why my front passenger tire needed air every few days. The mechanic pointed out that the tread on the tire was so threadbare, it was too dangerous to even check for holes. And then (who knew?) I was told that it is better to purchase tires in pairs. So there went $142.

I'm putting the remaining $208 into my emergency savings account.

Murphy is spending entirely too much time in my life!

Monday, August 4, 2008

Ye Olde Credit Card Shuffle

My credit union VISA made me an offer I couldn't refuse: No balance transfer fees and a rate of 1.99% for 12 months after a balance transfer.

That works!

My credit line on this particular VISA is over $5000 but all I currently owe (having paid it down like a good girl) is $600. So I promptly zeroed out two of my cards, one with a 21.8% interest rate and the other with a 15.5% rate. That means that the highest interest I'm now paying on any of my cards (and it is my card with the lowest balance, so it is next in line to be paid off) is 11.99%.

It's just another small savings, but I'm hoping they will all add up one day.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Small Stuff

Not that this will equal the out-go for kitchen stove repairs, but I was particularly proud of myself yesterday. Not only did I put $100 in my pathetic baby-steps emergency account (bringing it up to a not-so-astounding $145!), but I fed myself and my daughter for 99 cents.

And how did I do that, you might ask?

First, I had two coupons for free Jamba Juice smoothies from last Sunday's newspaper. Then I had a buy-one-get-one-free coupon for Wetzel's Pretzels from my Entertainment book. Both my daughter and I are fond of Wetzel's Pretzel Dogs (hotdogs wrapped in soft pretzel dough).

Life being what it is, we didn't manage to get to the mall for dinner until 8:30 p.m., just half an hour before the mall closed. That turned out to be good news, since apparently Wetzel's puts everything in their food case on sale for 99 cents during the last half hour.

Ergo--dinner for two for a mere 99 cents!

And, since we were late to the mall, we didn't have time to be distracted by the on-going sales at any of the other stores!

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Murphy in the Kitchen

Dave Ramsay is fond of saying that when one doesn't have an emergency fund, Murphy moves into the bedroom. Got that right. Though in my case, Murphy landed in my kitchen. On my stove, to be exact.

There I was, mopping up a spill,lifting up the stovetop to make sure I got it all, when there was a crackling sound, the smell of burning rubber, and then smoke started coming out of the now-defunct LED panel. I know I'm not much of a cook, but this was ridiculous.

Sigh. My emergency fund has been defunct since April.

The repairs to the stove cost $285.

Which brings me to my current whine.

I save pennies. But Murphy brings major dollar expenditures.

I know this is an irrational feeling, but it makes me want to throw in the towel on all the penny-ante scrimping when the big money expenses wipe me out. Somehow, saving a few dollars here and there seems futile in the face of smoking stoves, worn out cars, etc.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Wrapping Up July

After two months of increasing debt, I am back on track.

Sort of.

I reduced my total indebtedness by $1,175.59, which is good.

Of course, last month, I had increased my debt by $1343.88 so I'm not exactly even yet.

And there's the rental that has to be painted in September. And my granddaughter's college tuition. Not to mention that my 23 year old daughter is thinking seriously of entering community college this fall.

But on the positive side, my 33 year old daughter, after a "month-long stay" that started three months ago, is in the process of moving her family out of my home. It's supposed to happen by Friday, and will be worth a whole post of its own!

Friday, July 25, 2008

Moving to the Country

The folks at Gather Little by Little have pulled up stakes and moved to the North Carolina mountains--20 minutes to the nearest interstate, 30 minutes to the nearest town and 15 minutes to the nearest gas station/store. They are not retiring, but planning to work remotely.

I, of course, am more interested in moving as part of a retirement plan.

Many of the books I've read on financially managing retirement have suggested leaving cities and populous states for more remote (and therefore, cheaper) areas.

It is an idea worth considering.

However, for the potential retiree, there are other considerations. A friend of mine and her 72 year old companion of the past thirty years, took a roadtrip last spring, checking out various locations. They were particularly taken with property in West Virginia.

But--there's ALWAYS a but, isn't there?

Like me, her companion has diabetes. The disease has been without complications so far, but the longer he lives, the more likely it is that her companion will face heart, vision, and circulation issues. Therefore, it is important to them to have a medical center within reasonable driving distance. Also like me, as my friend has aged, cultural activities, theatre and books have become more important. Ideally, they would like to live near a four-year college or university. And finally, they want friends, friends with interests in common with them. Whether a small town or living in the country can provide such friends depends a great deal upon the particular area they settle into.

Those are the big issues, but smaller ones exist as well. There is a 15 year age difference between my friend and her companion, so the assumption is she will always be able to drive in the event he is someday unable to do so. But who knows. As any of us age, the chances that we will come to depend upon others or public transportation to get us where we want to go, increase.

My friend and I grew up together in a town of less than 2000 people. She left at age 18 and never looked back. She now reflects upon small towns with affection. I, on the other hand, came back to that small town after graduate school. I lived and worked there for many years before moving to the big city 18 years ago. I was glad to leave, and the idea of going back, even with cheaper housing (in my case, really cheap since I still own a paid-for house in that town!), isn't all that appealing. Neither is moving to any other small town.

The truth is, 18 years in the city has made a happy urban dweller out of me. Having great public transportation relieves me of concern that there will come a time when I shouldn't be driving. I have libraries, stores, theatre and movies all within ten minutes of my home. There is a four year college in my neighborhood, and several others in the metro area including a major university.

For me at least, I'm thinking it unlikely that I will be willing to save the money I undoubtedly could save by moving away from the city. Guess I'll have to find other ways to cut costs during retirement.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

When Your Retirement Date Lands in a Bear Market

James Tzitzouris, an investment analyst with T. Rowe Price has a timely, if rather frightening, article on how to handle the first five years of retirement should one begin in a bear market, like, say, the one we're currently in.

So much for the idea that I can pick a percentage, add to it year by year for inflation, and never again have to check the stock market while I retire in financial bliss, assured that my money will outlive me. Apparently I will never get away from having to pay attention to the financial markets and acting accordingly.

To his credit, Tzitzouris has a number of ideas as to how to approach retirement during a downward spiral, and it is clear that it is most devastating when it occurs at the beginning of one's retirement. Fortunately, this is precisely the time when one is better able to postpone the retirement date, continue to work part-time, or take other steps such as not increasing the percentage taken out each year, to lessen the impact of the bear market.

Since my own retirement is still ten years away, I don't yet have to face retiring in a bear market, but that's the thing about a cyclic market--when I do choose to retire, who knows where in the cycle it will be.

My thanks to Emily Brandon and her excellent blog Planning to Retire for pointing out Tzitzouris' timely article.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Calculating the Future

I've been a bit lax about posting to my blog lately. I blame my job (since I'm not taking my vacation until October, I wind up covering for a lot of summer vacationers) and my family. At least in theory, my 33-year-old daughter and her family are due to be out of my house by the end of the month--I can't wait!

I plan to post more often in the future, but in the meantime, here's an interesting, if depressing, look at some popular retirement calculators by Andrea Coombs at the Wall Street Journal.

So far, I haven't entered my current numbers into the calculators--too scared by this economy, I guess.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

If I'm So Down, Why is My Net Worth Up?

OK, math was never my strong suit.

But given that my retirement fund is in the toilet (currently at $153,336, down from a high of $174,518 in October, 2007--and never mind the thousand dollars a month I've faithfully contributed since then!), my residence is worth $9000 less this quarter than last, and my debts have increased, how is it that my total net worth for this quarter stands at $599,775? That's $8180 more than it was on March 31, 2008.

Not that I'm complaining! This is the first positive news on my financial front in three months!

Looking more closely, I see that my rental property on the coast actually increased in value by some $11,000. I'm guessing that is because it is a modestly priced home in a good neighborhood. That rise in value offset some of my expenditures this quarter to leave me solidly in the black and on the rise--at least in terms of net worth.

Nice to leave this month on an up moment.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Interesting New Blog

Over at US News & World Report, Emily Brandon has started a new blog called Planning to Retire , though, so far, the stories are about folks who weren't planning to retire quite so soon as they had to.

This is scary stuff--who among us doesn't worry about getting Alzheimer's or some other debilitating condition during our peak earning years? For those of us just now getting our retirement funds up to speed, but who need another ten years or so to be adequately prepared for retirment, the stories Brandon recounts are cautionary, indeed.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Nothing $400 Can't Fix

My minivan thanks you for the prayers.

And I thank you.

Apparently, I have problems with spark plugs, belts, and various other pieces of equipment that keep my car running and the "Check Engine Soon" light off.

What I don't have, are problems with rods, which, according to my mechanic, is a good thing.

I feel like I'm speaking a foreign language here--I don't care about the description. Just tell me you can fix it and that I don't have to get a new engine or a new vehicle.

So, for a mere $400, my long-suffering van will be fine. Or at least drivable for another year.

Sad that I'm so grateful for that, even when I don't actually have the $400. It's going on my Firestone credit card, which accrues no interest provided I pay it off within 90 days. I actually had to go home and dig the card out of the ice-cube tray where I put it so I won't use it!

Monday, June 16, 2008

Pray for Grace's Car

Not that I'm particularly religious (I was reared as an Episcopalian, and still attend church, but only four or five times a year), but my 1999 Dodge Caravan could use some serious prayers.

My minivan has not been pretty for a long while. The first time I drove it off the lot (It was bright and shiny and new!) I went to pick up my daughter at school and scraped the side on those yellow concrete poles intended to keep one away from heat pumps. The poles worked fine. My ability to turn the vehicle tightly worked less well. But notwithstanding some yellow paint smears on the otherwise green van, it has been a workhorse these past 9.5 years--carrying me around for 152,000 miles, hauling furniture and grandkids, taking us on vacations, etc.

For the last five or six years, it's had a slow oil leak. No problem--I buy oil on sale and put it in when necessary. A few months ago, I had to replace the battery--and amazed my mechanic that I was still using the original battery that had come with the car. The brakes went bad after six years, but a neighbor helped put new ones in, so the expense was not outrageous.

Now, however, we may be coming to the end of the road. Over the week-end, my engine started knocking and the "Check Engine Soon" light came on. After putting in two quarts of oil, the knocking subsided and eventually the light went off.

But I have that sinking feeling that all is not well with my baby.

Sigh. The timing leaves a lot to be desired. I cannot add another payment, especially not a large car payment, to my already over-burdened budget. I have been operating without an emergency fund since April.

All I can really do right now is pray for my car to keep running for at least another three or four months. And keep my fingers crossed!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Just Another Bit of Not-So-Cheery News

Trust the Wall Street Journal to send along another dismal report, this one on spendthrift boomers.


That would, undoubtedly, include Grace, though my sin was less about being a spendthrift and more about not being a saver.

The report says our parents (whom they designate as "the matures,"--I guess you know what that makes us!) were better savers than we, boomers. No surprise there. My parents were in much better financial shape at my age than I am. Of course, they were also smart enough not to have had five children. In addition their world was more financially circumscribed--by the standards of the small town they lived in, the state of their health, and their limited expectations.

The authors of the report list the solutions one would expect: work longer and retire later. These are both options I will be pursuing. The average age at retirement is 62.6. Health considerations aside, I would not consider retirement until age 67. As it is, my current plans are to retire at age 69.

The report does not mention the one resource I don't have, but any number of my boomer contemporaries do--parents who WERE good savers who will leave them sizable inheritances.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Not the Entrepreneurial Type

OK--that header says it all.

Can I just come out and say that Grace is NOT ever going to be an entrepreneur?

It's been 59 years, and with the exception of one 8-year period in the '80s, I have never run my own business. Those eight years were not a marked financial success. I loved the work itself. But. . . I hated estimated taxes. I hated quarterly healthcare payments for myself, my partners and our staff. I hated billing clients. I hated NOT being able to do everything for clients that needed to be done because they couldn't pay what I needed to charge.

Eighteen years ago, I thankfully jumped ship and moved into the non-profit sector where I could do the same work I'd always been doing, but this time, for a regular paycheck, great medical coverage, a 401K, and the ability to go home at 5:00 p.m. without obsessing over the money I wasn't making.

When I listen to Dave Ramsey or read many of the personal finance blogs, it seems as though everyone believes the road to riches lies only in the direction of being a private entrepreneur. Whether it is advocating the buying of real estate, or owning one's own business, there doesn't seem to be room at the top for folks who work 9 to 5, save part of their money and invest wisely.

So where does that leave folks like me? I'm not management. Except for the higher pay, I have no desire to be in management. I tried running my own business and disliked the experience intensely. I actually do own rental real estate, but that came about by accident, and I've been extraordinarily lucky in my choice of tenants--if I had to do any of my own repairs or I had tenants who didn't pay, I'd unload that house immediately.

Is running one's own business the only way to seriously acquire wealth? At this stage in my life, I'm looking only to acquire a comfortable retirement, but I can't help thinking that with better saving and investing habits, I could have had more than that, WITHOUT being an entrepreneur.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Disturbing New Trend

Thanks to Boston Gal's blog, I came across this article in The Boston Globe: More Dip Early Into Funds for Retirement.

Now that's scary.

Having made just about every other mistake, the one sacrosanct financial given, for me, is "Thou shalt not touch thy 401K until retirement. Ever!"

From time to time, I have considered not putting as much money into my 401K each month, but my plan allows such reductions only at the beginning of each quarter, and then the decision must stand for the next three months. So far, I've been unwilling to take that route.

What disturbed me most were the reasons people gave for taking out money. At least if they were doing it for unanticipated medical expenses or some emergency, I'd get it. But because gas prices are higher or living expenses are tighter? Come on!

The advice to file bankruptcy rather than raid one's 401K may come as a surprise, but it IS an option. IRA and 401K funds are exempt from a bankruptcy, which means it should at least be considered prior to sabotaging future retirement.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

It's Been a Year Already?

Apparently it has! I blogged my very first post exactly 365 days ago.

I was hoping that I could report a great debt reduction over that time, or some significant increase in pay, or, at least, some noble thoughts on the subject of retirement.

It is not to be.

Mostly, this year has been a learning experience about the ups and downs of real life impacting my financial life. While that situation has been brewing for years, this is the first time I've actually paid attention. My conclusion is that there is something to be said for the maxim "Ignorance is Bliss." Knowing the exact state of my finances has not made for a happier Grace.

Apparently that is true of some bloggers as well. Everyone blogs and gives advice when things are moving in the right financial direction. It is harder to keep posting when we're making mistakes or life has hit us with financial challenges our $1000 baby-step one emergency fund doesn't begin to cover. I miss the King and Queen of Debt whose blog, We're In Debt seems to have gone south. Some of my other favorites, listed in my blogroll, have not posted in months, which I interpret (perhaps incorrectly) as meaning that they are not on target with their financial goals.

Right now, I'm in the middle of a number of financial mistakes. My emergency fund was depleted in April, and now has less than $100 in it. I increased my debt by borrowing on my HELOCC in May. I am locked in for a vacation to Japan in October that I desperately want to take but isn't the brightest financial move. I am convinced that things will get better for me in the next few months, but the waiting is killing me.

Still, there are bright spots.

When I started this blog, I committed to making regular contributions to my 401K, and I have not wavered during the past year. I started out putting in $1000 a month. In January, though I did not receive a pay raise, I increased my contribution to $1025 a month. In spite of the stomach-churning stock market, I am sticking with the plan.

I have also reduced my dependence on credit cards. I got hit with a number of high-cost needs during the past year, including repairs to my rental house, college tuition for my granddaughter (I should have budgeted for that one since I knew it was coming), and my daughter's graduation (ditto). These expenses would have happened whether I was trying to reduce my debts or not. But by being more attentive to my everyday expenses (meals eaten out, gas, utilities, etc.), I am positive the damage to my budget was less than it would have been in past years when, if I wanted anything, I just pulled out the nearest VISA card.

I am reading and thinking more about retirement, and exploring things like long-term care insurance, housing needs and costs, and inheritances for my children.

I feel like this past year has been preparation for the actual work of reducing debt and saving for retirment. I finally have a handle on where I am. Now I need to move forward.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

What Goes Down Sometimes Goes Up

For about two weeks, I managed to get my total indebtedness, including my mortgage, under $100,000. Then, in order to handle all the expenses that May threw at me (property taxes, high school graduation, college tuition, summer camps) I borrowed an additional $1800 from my HELOCC. By month's end, I had paid some of that back, but overall, I have increased my debts by $1,136.88 and now my total is once again over $100,000. To be exact, I owe $100, 941.42.

Grace is NOT a happy camper at the moment.

Friday, May 23, 2008

My Baby Turned 18 Today!

My fifth and final child turned 18 years old today.

Empty nest, here I come!

Although the nest isn't exactly empty. The baby doesn't graduate until next week, and I've agreed that she can stay home up to one year while she figures out what she is going to do with the rest of her life. But she has a six-week job with the National Forest Service (building trails and cleaning up campgrounds) which will get her out of the home, some fast cash for summer, and an inkling as to whether community college or a job is in her immediate future.

Financially, there are plusses and minuses to having no minor children. My household budget immediately goes down by $485 a month, which was the adoption subsidy I have been receiving since I adopted this daughter ten years ago. Her medicaid card is cancelled as well, but fortunately, I can cover her through the health plan provided by my employer at no extra cost. That does mean I will now have co-pays for her monthly medications which will add, maybe $30 a month to my costs.

I will no longer be providing an allowance or buying clothes or make-up. This was part of the agreement we arrived at in negotiating free room and board for a year.

I still have tuition payments for another year, due to the very nice deal I made with her private school at the beginning of this year when she did not receive the tuition assistance I'd been expecting. But I will not have the multitude of other school expenses such as daily lunches, athletic events, outings, yearbooks, photos, dances, and bus passes.

If she goes to community college, I will have tuition and books to pay, but we're talking $1200 a year as opposed to the $17,000 a year her high school cost.

The truth is, she is anxious to have her own money and to move out. The other truth is, not every young adult is a candidate for college. I suspect she is not. But I've been fooled before. My oldest daughter, who, like this child, suffers from fetal alcohol effects, graduated high school, got a job as a grocery clerk, and then decided, at age 30, to go to college. She completed three years and would have graduated, but the internship she had between her junior and senior years became a full time job that she still has and loves at age 40.

As with many things, I still have to wait and see.

But it is with some joy that I can say, all my daughters have survived their childhoods. Now I'll see what this one does with her adulthood.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Social Insecurity

I've never been one to believe the hype surrounding a possible demise of our Social Security system. But I've operated more on faith that our government would not allow the system to go under, than any personal understanding of the economics or math involved.

So, thanks to Bob at The Platinum Years Network, I was glad to see this article by Dr. Irwin Kellner.

It's always nice to have some numbers to back up my gut feelings.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Forget the Bag Lady--I'm Afraid I'll be Lillian

The Oregonian newspaper, out of Portland, Oregon, profiled 64-year-old Lillian Witherspoon. Having suffered a stroke and heart problems, along with asthma, Lillian is struggling to make do with Social Security of $750, a widow's pension of $86, and whatever she can scrounge babysitting or delivering newspapers. One small thing, like a check overdraft, can throw her into a financial tailspin.

I read once that many women (But not men. Who knows why?) harbor a deep-seated fear that they may one day become a bag lady.

I'm pretty sure that will never happen to me. But I do have fears that I could wind up like Lillian. All my current plans for retirement are based upon the assumption that I will work for another ten years, that I will have my home and my debts paid off, and that I will have saved money at an accelerated rate in my 401K during that time.

But what if I didn't? What if I had a stroke tomorrow? It's certainly possible. My father had a heart attack at age 58 and a stroke at age 68. All my mother's maternal aunts as well as her own mother died of strokes in their sixties. Or what if I'm in a car wreck and injured too severely to continue work?

I wish Lillian all the best. But I also wish she didn't scare me quite so much.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Prom for Pennies

A bit of hyperbole in that title, but having reared four daughters to adulthood and now coming down the home stretch with daughter #5, I'm here to say that senior proms are among my least favorite graduation events.

Everything about a prom costs money, big money.

This year, I'm in no mood to spend it.

The first piece of good news is that my daughter's school does not charge for prom tickets. But tickets to the dance are just one of many prom expenses--there's still the dress, nails, make-up, hair, shoes, dinner and transportation.

My daughter's first choice of dress was a lovely rose-pink sheath that costs a mere $300. That was about $250 over my personal budget for a dress that would be worn just one time. VERY reluctantly, my daughter agreed to check out high-end resale shops. We trudged all over town last week-end to no avail. But two nights ago, we decided to try plus-size thrift shop (my daughter wears a size 16). Lo and behold, there was the perfect sphagetti strapped light blue gown that looked wonderful on her, and the price was $39. We stopped off at K-mart to buy a pair of white flat, back-strapped flipflops on sale for $7.

The kids wanted a limo to cart them around from restaurant to dance (with numerous stops in between to show off). On an individual basis, the cost would have been prohibitive, but by sharing with nine other prom-goers, the cost was $79.

Make-up could be done at Nordstrom's for $50, but my daughter checked with our neighbor, an esthetician at a local spa, to see if she'd be interested in helping out. Indeed she would. In fact, she agreed to do both make-up and hair for each girl for $25 each.

I asked about pictures, but all of these kids have digital cameras and none of them felt the need for expensive "official" pictures.

And finally, the pre-prom dinner? One of the young men's parents who run a catering service offered to cater a formal dinner for all five couples at their a very nice home at no cost.

So, my total prom expenditure was$150. Pretty good, when the average expenditure in North Dakota (North Dakota for Pete's sake!! Let's not even think about the west coast!!) is at least $300.

If $150 doesn't sound cheap to you, you don't have daughters in high school!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

God Bless the Mothers. And the Sisters

It was a good Mother's Day, notwithstanding that my own mother has been dead for the past 18 years.

Four of my five daughters made brunch at my house. (This was a consession to my budget. Last year, we went out for dim sum--my daughters paid for me and I paid for them. Hmm--something seriously wrong with that picture!)

But one of the nicest surprises was when my sister and I had our weekly telephone call. I did, in fact, ask her if she would cover my grandson's summer camp. She agreed. Then she inquired as to what kind of gift to give my 17 year old for graduation. I told her I was getting my daughter a laptop computer, but that the graduate could really use the Microsoft Works software package (which runs anywhere from $119 to $149) since computers these day come with a rinky-dink word processing program when the kid really needs Microsoft Word. Instead, my sister proposed that SHE buy the computer and I buy the software. That really, really works for me!

So I'm feeling much better about my finances this month (even though I still have that $1800 loan). And I'm feeling good, indeed about mothers, daughters and sisters!

Friday, May 9, 2008

One Giant Step Backwards

I promised myself that this would be a "warts and all" blog as I wend my financial way toward retirement. So stand back for the warts portion of the program!

Yesterday, I borrowed $1800 from my HELOCC to help meet this month's expenses. It may or may not cover all the extra expenses. I can justify $358 of it because it is for property taxes on my rental. The HELOCC, while on my residence rather than my rental, was originally set up to meet deferred maintenance costs on the rental. At 6.75% interest, the HELOCC is my cheapest way to get a loan.

I understand the danger of paying bills with a second mortgage where my home is at risk, but my combined mortgages are around $80,000 on a house that is worth over $400,000. (I'm always amazed at that figure for my beloved circa 1929 home that I purchased for $95,300 in 1993--I like my house a lot but I can't say that I'd personally ever pay nearly half a million dollars for it!)

I have decided to ask my sister for assistance with my grandson's summer camp ($595). He's 15 and having some problems at home. I think 4 weeks away will be good for both he and his family. He's a good kid, and his issues are normal teen problems, but because he knows he's smarter than his fetal-alcohol damaged mother, it makes for a rocky adolescence. The same issues came up with his older sister, whom I now support in college, so I know both my daughter and my grandson will get through this intact. Still--some time apart is a good idea. At any rate, my sister, who is rich and childless, will often come through for my grandkids.

So that's the plan--go deeper into debt and hope to dig myself out by summer's end.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Poverty Does Not a Nicer Person Make

I do know that "poverty" is relative.

I also know that by any measure other than my own, my life hardly qualifies as "living in poverty."

Nonetheless, this month, the demands of property taxes, six extra people (an adult daughter with boyfriend and their four kids) in my home, my youngest daughter's high school graduation, my granddaughter's college tuition, my grandson's summer camp and that same youngest daughter's clothing and equipment costs for her summer job (building trails in our state park system) mean that May is not only tight but it is likely I will go into more debt covering all those costs. The baby emergency fund was used in April and has not yet been replenished.

That's not good. But what is worse is how I'm handling it emotionally.

I am stressed and I am onery.

I suppose another person might handle it better when they don't have funds, even minor funds for minor pleasures. But I find it affecting so many other areas of my life. It takes away some of the joy I have with my kids and grandkids. If they want ice-cream, it's not their fault that I don't have the ready cash. When my 9 year old granddaughter brings home the summer day-camp brochure and asks if she can attend a couple of sessions, it is not her fault that I don't want to hear about it.

When my best friend calls and suggests brunch, I decline. She reminds me that I have declined for the past three weeks. Ultimately she pays, and we have a good time, but now I owe her.

I wake up in the middle of the night, obsessing about a pending debt. I dread opening my mail at home for fear it will be some bill I've forgotten.

When I am paying off debt and I can see it go down, the deprivations don't bother me nearly as much. But when I'm just treading water, and I'm getting hit with all kinds of expenses that I did not anticipate or for which I did not set appropriate amounts aside, there's no feeling of satisfaction. It just bums me out.

And when I'm bummed out, it colors every other thing. For example, I still have my trip to Japan in October planned. The tickets have been purchased and it's too late to back out now. The truth is, my finances should straighten out around August or sooner, and I have budgeted for this trip, but I don't know that I will have caught up on the increased debts by then. It's hard to get excited about something that far off (which will have expenses of its own) when I'm struggling here and now.

Yet in the end, it's not the anxiety or situational depression (which, in spite of the tone of this post, isn't all that deep) that bothers me--it is the frustration and attendant crankiness. It's not like I'm buying plasma TV's or eating out at gourmet restaurants. There's no one to blame except my younger, non-saving self, no one I can point a finger at. It's just life, in all of its unpredictiblity.

Still, it's also true that misery loves company. Have I made you miserable yet?

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

April Financial Update

I am so glad to finally be getting April behind me! I have felt financially strapped and oppressed all month.

So, it comes as something of a surprise to find that I am still making a small amount of progress in reducing my indebtedness.

Best of all, I have (once again!) gotten my total debt (which includes my mortgage) down to under $100,000. Overall, I reduced my indebtedness by $881.14. I now owe $99,804.54.

If I remove my mortgage from the equation, I reduced my debt by $446.60. Not exactly a giant step, but at least it's moving in the right direction.

May has got to be more promising, right? Never mind the high school graduation expenses for my youngest child, right?