Friday, January 30, 2009

Feeling much more in control of things.

When I first started my new job I tried to map out exactly what would come out of each paycheck, and made an Excel list to try to keep track. I thought $100 a week would suffice for all random expenses and sent the rest to debt and savings.

That didn't last very long. There were of course expenses that I did not plan on (such as a $39 per month prescription) and I kinda sorta flipped out. Since a large chunk of my income is going to debt repayment and to emergency savings, and I didn't want to cut back on either of those things, I got very upset about how I was going to be able to afford the things that I want, and how I would save for anything other than the emergency stash.

Part of what I was flipping out about was that I hadn't planned my deductions very well and sent too much money to debt and savings, and didn't really think about the recurring expenses other than that. So I pulled out my Quickbooks CD and made myself a ledger (business name: Me) and started entering all transactions. It's been about a month and I think I'm doing well with it. It's nice to know how much I am able to spend, and I also enter in transactions ahead of time that I know I'll have (for example, entering in the cell phone bill weeks ahead) so I don't get any surprises. (Except of course for Maggie's dog daycare place, which seems to pride itself on never cashing a check that isn't two or three weeks old. Don't you people want my money?)

Today I went the extra step and set up automatic bill pay for all credit cards, and my student loan, and automatic transfers to the two savings accounts (one for actual savings and one where the bills money stores up.) So now on payday all of that will disappear and what's left is the money that I can use. Chase is very useful in that regard, because you can pay bills to nearly anyone and set up a weekly, biweekly, monthly, etc schedule. I'm also counting on the fact that biweekly is not quite twice a month to help pay things down faster.

Switching to this wacky every-two-weeks thing is weird for me, since at my previous job it was once per month. That was super easy - just pay everything on payday, and you're done. But here's hoping that doing everything automatically means I won't get behind on anything. (Plus, I'm terrified that I'll accidentally miss a payment and get hit with universal default rates on everything - which is about the worst thing that could happen, financially.)

One odd thing I did notice - my paychecks are apparently not exactly even, because it alternates between $1240 and $1239.99. =)

On the other side of things, I'm trying to increase my discretionary money by making more and cutting expenses. Maggie's daycare got the ax, going from five days a week ($75 per week) to two days ($40 per week). They sell discount packages where you buy 10 or 20 days at a time, and once I have a little more in savings I'll buy her a 20 day package to save money on the average price of a day.

I've also been signing up for more mystery shopping - I did a dozen alcohol compliance checks last weekend for $8 a pop (plus lots of snacks!) and signed up for a restaurant shop ($35 reimbursement at a place that that usually covers the bill - not making money, but hey free steak!) and several grocery store shops. I use a free job site right now, but I used to have a trial subscription to a paid one that I'm thinking about renewing. It's $60 a year for a silver membership, but there really were a lot of shops on there that never show up on the free one. So that might be worth it. Perhaps another thing to wait until I have more in savings.

I also tried a new avenue - back in October I worked a one day event, and the company had the damndest time getting me paid. First they never sent it at all, and when I called to check where it was a week later, she told me that she didn't have my address. Really? But you had my telephone number, so that seems easy enough to get. Then (theoretically) she FedExed the check to me, but mysteriously FedEx failed to find my house - twice. I find this suspicious as we've never had any other package unable to be delivered, and she wouldn't give me the tracking number, or say if I could pick it up at the facility. Finally I just came to the office in person and she left me a check. Which, naturally, bounced.

I called the office and talked to her and she was very apologetic and said she'd get me a money order. That was, um, four weeks ago. I've tried her cell and the office several times since then as obviously no money order has been forthcoming. This is especially sad since the office is literally two doors from a post office. So I finally got fed up and sent the check to a bad-check processing company (who monitors the bank account and re-processes it when there's money.) So hopefully that'll come through soon as it was for $109 and that's nothing to sneeze at!

I also applied to grade tests online but don't know when I'll hear back on that - that would be nice, as I've done it in person twice before, and certainly have plenty of free time!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The best purchase I made last year.

The last year was not good to me financially. This year looks to be shaping up much better, thankfully. In 2008 I worked at four different jobs (that gave me a W-2), and continued working on my own business, but was basically unemployed for more than half of all working days last year. (Although I did get unemployment from mid-July to December.) This was a pretty depressing time for me personally and financially and I am pretty in the hole now from covering living expenses and household things with credit.

If I could re-do anything I did financially last year, it would be only through the magic of 20/20 hindsight - I'd cut spending back more, and also I'd apply for unemployment sooner. Last year, I kept almost getting jobs - to the point that it became farcical, and I was wholly surprised when my new job that I'm at now actually came through. I had multiple other jobs that I almost got (one's grant fell through, one's company instituted a corporation-wide hiring freeze, a few loved me except that I won't draw blood, etc) and so it seemed like the entire time I was unemployed, I wasn't worried about spending because it always seemed like a job was right about to start. (Plus I did actually get a job in June, but it was horrible and I was fired after three weeks. Thank God for getting fired or I would have quit.)

But there is one purchase that I made which required significant and continuing outlays all year, and usually when I was least able to afford it. I made this purchase of course right before I started to become aware of the circumstances that would force me to quit my last (full time) job in February.

And that purchase is my dog Maggie. Picture at the bottom to avoid spoilers. :)

Now those of you who have read this blog in the past (or cheated and read the archives) know that my pets seem to have a special ability to come up with terrible health problems that incur large veterinary bills. (For the newbies: I have two guinea pigs, both of whom have had uterine cancer, one of whom has recurring kidney infection problems, and the other has recurring cystic growths that occasionally need removed. I also have a cat which had to undergo bladder stone removal and several accompanying diagnostic tests of various types.)

The dog is no exception and she incurred her very first vet bill the day after we got her, because she was coughing and we though it was kennel cough but it turned out that she had scratched her throat eating a biscuit. This summer she also required about a thousand dollars in emergency care because she ate something at the park that caused her to not poop for a week. (Somehow the vet students at the hospital decided erroneously that my thin dog who doesn't like to eat had Cushing's disease, an endocrine disorder which causes you to eat a lot and gain weight. Luckily our regular vet said that wasn't so, and gave her stool softeners and IV fluids and she was just fine the next day.)

If I had known when I got the dog last January 24th that I was going to be unemployed for a good chunk of the next year, I would never have taken her. Because I would have known that that was an expense that I shouldn't take on when my income is about to be slashed. While she is a healthy dog other than the abovementioned, she still goes through kibble, special dog food sticks, lots of treats, a bzillion toys, and (recently) homemade dog cookies.

But having my dog at home with me really kept a bad period from getting much, much worse. Having Maggie in the house meant somebody to talk to, somebody to go places with me. Because a girl wandering around in the park by herself in the middle of the day might be a weirdo or homeless, but a girl with a leashed dog is obviously out for a stroll. And realistically I probably would have never gone to the park and never taken a walk without the dog. Going to the dog park gave me a chance to interact with others, and also gave me something to talk about with them. Having a dog also meant I had someone to think about other than myself - what she would like, where we could go, what should I feed her. She gave me something to think about and a built-in activity during the many days where nothing happened, and no one called.

I do feel a little annoyed with myself that I didn't put my time off to better use - while I did do a lot of mystery shopping, I didn't start any of the new businesses that I've been mulling over, I didn't take up running and get in shape, I didn't keep the house tidy or get everything unpacked after the move. But I'm pretty sure that without Maggie, I would have done a LOT less.

Here's a picture of Maggie, taken the day we brought her home. She is at least half husky (perhaps part Border collie?) and is now four years old and approximately 50 pounds. For the curious, she cost $95 at the Capital Area Humane Society.

Here is a crappy picture I took with my cell phone when she was in the river at the nearby park. She really likes going in the water and never gets cold. This was probably in August.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Annoyed but also amused by Chase. And other notes.

So I logged onto my Chase account a week or two ago and found that they had reduced my credit limits. To within a couple hundred bucks of my current balances on each card. This really pisses me off - the thing I'm working towards most right now is to get each card below 50% utilization so my score will improve. I tried to apply for credit cards about six weeks ago, to try and get a balance transfer for the higher rate cards, but no one would bite. Which is really upsetting to me because I've never had a problem getting credit in the past, and I've never missed a payment, and I do have an income now. So shaving thousands of dollars off my credit limits on my two highest balance cards means that it's going to take practically an extra YEAR to get everything down.. especially since I'd bet you that they will reduce my limits more as I pay it down more. I guess I should be grateful that they didn't reduce my limit below my current balance. None of the other cards have had the credit limit reduced although no one wants to take balance transfers right now. Unsurprisingly I do get cash advance checks sent to me in the mail, but yeah I am not going to pay the high interest on that.

Amusingly though, Chase sent me my 1099 for the $125 reward I got for signing up for a checking account - and apparently, they've already sent $35 to the IRS on my behalf to cover it. This wasn't mentioned and if tax was required to be withheld I would have assumed they would have made a bigger deal out of it (ie made it a $160 promotion, with some diverted, as opposed to a $125 promotion that people might not even find out about the $35 credit until months later.)

In other news I am trying to find a few days to make the ol' budget a little roomier.. I did a lot of mystery shopping while unemployed, and because I am young I can do compliance checks. I only do alcohol - while I neither drink nor smoke, I don't feel stupid trying to buy a can of Mike's Hard Lemonade, but I feel like I would be picked out instantly as someone who's never bought cigarettes in her life. Lately I have only done restaurant shops (free food!) but I applied for 11 shops to do this weekend. I did 23 in 2 days in August, that was fun. =P So I'll get $8 per, plus $1 for a candy bar or whatever (basically so I'll get a receipt) and try to buy alcohol without an ID. I get $8 per shop, so $88 plus 11 bags of Fritos. Or whatever. I try to vary it so that between Boyfriend and I we should eat all of it.

I also applied to grade tests at home with one of the test-grading companies I've worked for in the past - it really sucked to work 20 hours a week after work at their facility, but it does pay decently. Although it probably sucked mostly because I didn't have a car - so I got on the bus right after work and spent about an hour and 15 minutes on the bus to get out there. I did have a ride share home, but I'd basically be gone from 8AM till 10:30PM, and that was for about two months straight. Grading at home, especially since I can do it on the weekends, will be a lot better and I'd be able to put in more hours. But I won't know if I'm going to get put on a project or not until at least the end of February.

And one that was a little humiliating for me, but I thought it would be at least worth it to ask - I emailed my dog's daycare (yes the dog goes to daycare be quiet) to ask if they would be willing to trade my working there on Saturdays for her fees during the week. I haven't heard back from them yet, although it's hard to say if that's because they don't want to, they're thinking about it, or because nobody checks the email very often. But I don't think I can keep paying $75 a week for her to go every day and make any headway in savings. So if they don't want to do that, I am going to cut her down to two days a week and take her to the park more often. (Which would also be immensely helped by nicer weather which I hope we get some more of soon.) The daycare's fees are on a scale where the more days you go, the less each day costs - so $75 for five days, but $40 for 2. I'm probably going to get the 20 days package though, where you can buy 20 days to use anytime in any combination, which is $18.50 a day, and that would last us ten weeks.

I'm also (as usual) cooking up new business ideas - I have a couple I've been kicking around but I guess we'll have to see when I get the money to pay somebody to program the sites for me! If Boyfriend ever gets laid off, he has said he'd be willing to do it, so at this point he'd have months of backlog of ideas I've had that he could code for me. :) I guess I am a child of the Internet generation - pretty much every idea I have involves a website, and those that don't, involve specialized computer programs to make the business run more efficiently. I sort of think from the website up.. although not a bad thing I guess as I tend to stick to ideas that don't cost much to implement other than getting the dang thing coded.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

In which our heroine realizes something patently obvious.

I've been in the habit these past few years of keeping a number of different checking accounts with money earmarked for various things. I had an account just for the gas, electric, and phone bills, one for fun purchases such as online music and new books, etc. Also there were several separate savings accounts that I would put money into each month to save for whatever the account was named for. I did this because I wanted to make sure that whatever was left in the main checking account was what I could spend without having to worry, am I going to have enough left over for the gas bill?

Since I have been out of (steady) work for about nine months non-consecutively and have just started to have normal income, I'm working with a lot less money than I used to, and am trying to pay down the accumulated debt with it. Also, I'm now getting paid biweekly instead of once a month, which complicates things in my eyes. So I made up a list of what I would pay each paycheck - half of what I wanted to pay each month to the credit cards, half of the estimated bills, half the rent to Boyfriend, etc. Since my previous method of having a bzillion checking accounts involved keeping some slush money in each account, I decided to bite the bullet and do things the way most people do them - that is, having everything paid out of my main account, so I wouldn't have to continually transfer money and have that much slush - when I was working before, I usually had $500-600 in the various accounts beyond what was needed.

I was worried, however, that I would spend too much without knowing and overdraw the account.

Then it occurred to me: As long as I stay within my budget, I won't overdraw, because I have planned out how that money will be spent. So as long as I don't spend more than $100, I know that I've got enough. (Plus I have a savings account attached to the checking, so I can transfer some money in if I need to spend more one week.)

I realize that most other PF bloggers have probably realized this a long time ago, but I feel much better now.

Monday, January 05, 2009

All is, er, well-er.

I started my new job December 8th (my birthday!) by getting on a plane and going to Kansas City, MO for training by the pharmaceutical company for three days. I like to travel but was a bit sad at spending my birthday on it. I did take myself out for sushi though.

The project is a bit slow to start up but I have been amusing myself by learning about multiple sclerosis, reading lots of articles and websites. I created a bunch of documents that I'll need - but before anyone can see them, Legal and Marketing have to review them, and with everybody gone for the holiday it's taking some time. So I really hope things get going this week because I'm getting pretty bored.

On the upside, I'm generally left to my own devices. Which is nice because I don't like to be micromanaged, and I pretty much know what I'm doing regarding my own job. On the downside, I had to ask around to find out such things as how to use the telephones and what sort of training I should do. My manager is in another city, so there's a person here that's helping me get everything done, but I also don't think it's actually her job to do these things - she's just picking it up because no one else is! I appreciate it nonetheless.

People actually seem pretty happy, which is a nice change from, well, everywhere else I've worked. Everyone seems quite enamored of my plant, Rupert, and came over to see him - since we're all in cubicles, you can see the plant over the top as it's 3' tall. (Three years ago, he was a 8" money tree plant.) Somebody left me a holiday treat bag and someone else left a candy cane. I came in a tad bit too late for the Christmas party, but there was a day with free cookies, which helps!

I'm also excited about having health insurance again. I'm very glad that nothing bad happened while I was off it. :) Now I have to choose though between going back on the Nexium that I had been on while working (which will cost me $38 a month, can only get 1 month at a time, and I have to go pick it up from a not-very-convenient location), or stay on the generic Prilosec I've been taking ($3.91 per month, can get 3 months at a time, and it's mailed to me.) However, the birth control is very cheap at $12 a month despite being a non-generic - clearly it occurred to someone that birth control is less expensive than a pregnant employee.