Sunday, January 25, 2015

Free Strategies

Last week I got way-laid by a dinner with some complications, so I postponed discussing budgetary matters until now. I have a fairly well-regulated financial plan, but I almost always do at least a little reconsidering at the beginning of a new year. This year, though, I had to do more of an overhaul than usual because I have some special plans for this summer.

Last year my friend, Mrs. L, called me up and said, “We’re moving to Norway!” After I had picked up my jaw off the floor, we talked about the reasons (her husband’s Norwegian; their kids won’t get to enjoy their two cultural backgrounds unless they actually live over there for a while; etc.), plus gossiped about lots of important girl matters. At the end of our conversation, though, she said – half-joking, “You’ll have to come visit me in Norway.”

Well, besides the fact that she’s one of my three closest friends, Mrs. L also did me the honor of choosing me to be godmother for her oldest child. My goddaughter is a beautiful, smart girl with a quirky sense of humor and a love of adventure (some of her favorite story and movie characters are Iron Man and Darth Vader, so you can see what I mean!). It’s harder to stay in touch with her when she’s in Norway, of course, so I’m taking matters into my own hands.

I’ll be flying over in late June to stay for a whole week.

Now, last time I went to Europe, my trip was completely paid by the school for which I was working, since I was the homeroom teacher for 11th grade and they needed me to keep an eye on my students. Free trips are awesome, I can attest, but hard to come by. This time I have to pay for the plane tickets myself, which meant some budgetary juggling.

As I said, my finances are quite well-regulated, which is good for keeping me out of credit card debt, but not so good for finding extra money to save for trips. Most everything is already accounted for, you see. However, back in late November (in fact, when I began my KonMari project – I promise I’ll stop talking about that someday, just not quite yet!), I had an idea. You see, I’d been selling DVDs which I no longer wanted on Ebay, and I made about $15 in the process. That’s not a lot, but it was free money, so I put it into my trip fund.

Then it struck me: I actually have quite a few sources of random income that count as ‘free money.’

For example, I like to grocery shop at Fred Meyer and at least where I live, the store has a very generous gas discount program connected with its rewards card. I signed up once I began shopping there regularly, and then realized that the other benefit is a cash rebate program. If you spend $500 or more in a quarter, you get back 1% of the total. This rebate arrives in the form of a coupon four times a year.

Up until now I had simply spent the coupon the week after it arrived in the mail. I’d not thought about it except as a nice discount on my grocery bill here and there. Then I realized: that coupon is income. Not very much, granted, but every little bit helps. Since it's basically equivalent to cash (even if I can only spend it in one place), I started treating it as if it really were cash. Last time a rebate coupon arrived, I deducted the amount from my grocery money. Then I transferred the same amount from my checking account to my fund for the trip to Norway.

Since I have a cash rewards credit card, the same process gets applied there. I’ve also made some returns recently where the credit was applied to a store card which I couldn’t use anywhere else. Every time I spend part of the credit, I transfer the equivalent amount to savings. This has made my home-banking a little bit of a juggling act, but by dint of regarding every free thing (rewards rebates, return credit, work bonus, consignment sales…even free movie tickets from a Regal Cinemas card!) as a source of income to be deposited into the trip fund, I’ve collected about $1000 in approximately two months.

Of course, some times of the year are more generous for random income than others. December through January are probably particularly lucrative, due to end-of-year work bonuses, or tax returns, or gift-cards in one’s stocking, etc. My rapid savings has also been affected by the fact that I cleaned out my belongings and consequently consigned books and DVDs and kitchen wares. However, even without those favorable factors, I’d say that any person could put aside a fair amount of random income in any month.

The basic strategy is to change one’s perspective on free things.
I guess what I realized was that in the past when I received ‘free’ income in the form of a gift-card or rebate or what have you, I ended up spending that money in addition to my usual budget. However, if instead I regard my budget limits as absolute (no more than $100 a week for groceries, for example), then when I suddenly receive an extra $6.48 for groceries as a coupon, that automatically goes into savings. This can applied to everything; if you want to be incredibly strict, you could go so far as to use the strategy even when friends and family are nice enough to treat you to something!

Of course, the approach may not work for everyone, and I admit that sometimes it’s a bummer to be so strict, since a free movie ticket doesn’t mean an extra movie, just a deposit of $10.75 in savings, but in the end I think it works out. After all, the things for which we save tend to be special: trips abroad, possessions that will either be extremely useful or very important to us, down payments for investment purchases. The satisfaction of being able to build up a fund for such a goal – perhaps of reaching it sooner – is well worth avoiding a few indulgences here and there.

So anyway, I’m curious. If you’ve made it through my whole post I’d love to know what your saving strategies are. Everyone has different ones, and I’m always looking for good tips!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Not Quite Right

I was going to write about some budgetary discoveries that have been helping me in the past two months, and which I plan to follow all year, but then I had another idea. The budget will have to come later, it turns out, because I cooked dinner tonight and realized there was an immediate topic which needed addressing.

You see, my dinner did not turn out quite right.

Everybody has cooking flubs, where the recipe doesn’t quite work for whatever reason, or the diners muscle their way through the dish out of politeness, even though it really isn’t good at all. I have actually had a fairly low percentage of these in the eight years or so that I’ve been cooking seriously, perhaps because I am not an innovative cook. I follow recipes quite faithfully the first time through, and only on the second or third try will I make adjustments.

I was beginning to feel sort of fail-proof, thanks to this low percentage of flubs. I’ve even served entirely new recipes at parties, just because I’m pretty confident that what I make will turn out reasonably well the first time through. (I realize this may sound insufferable, but I have to explain in order for my story to make sense!)

For Christmas this year, I received the marvelous and beautiful ‘Kitchen in France’ cookbook from Mimi Thorisson. I’ve been following her blog quite avidly for about two years now, and while I don’t use a lot of her recipes, just because the ingredients can be hard to come by, the ones I have used are now favorites (see Gratin of Asparagus with Cheese B├ęchamel…best asparagus preparation ever).  I was making Sunday dinner for my family this week, so I decided to treat them to a wonderful dish from her collection of recipes: Mustard-Roasted Cornish Hens.

Smitten Kitchen, my favorite cooking blog because the directions always work, also had posted a new Key Lime Pie recipe. This is one of my absolute favorite desserts, so I knew it had to be the the last course of my dinner. Deb Perelman has mentioned in the past that she doesn’t like desserts to be TOO sweet (a concept I do not understand at all, since I’ve never met a dessert that was too sweet or too rich for me), but I decided to follow her recipe unaltered, and use the full amount of lime juice.

My dinner was practically received with applause, since it at least tasted delicious, but in fact it was kind of a mess.

I set the lovely little hen in its nest of roasted potatoes at my place; I cut into the thigh; I realized it was pink and stringy; I successfully resisted the urge to hit my head against the table. Instead, my family proved themselves to be good sports. We reset the oven at a higher temp and popped the four birds back in to roast for another quarter hour, while we staved off starvation with salad and potatoes. I’ve never had a roast bird not be done when I served it, so I admit to feeling a substantial amount of chagrin. I almost think there is a typo in the cookbook, since it called for a 350 degree oven – almost a hundred degrees below the usual temperature suggested for roasting.

The salad and potatoes were a hundred percent successful, and luckily the mustard rub for the Cornish hens was fabulous, so once they were actually done, everyone loved the food. It was nonetheless a definite lesson in humility when I first cut into the bird and found the underdone meat staring rudely back at me. That wasn’t the last lesson, either, because the crust for the pie stuck, crumbling the slices into delicious blobs, plus the full amount of juice was a bit too sharp (even for me, and I adore tart fruits and desserts).

So do I feel depressed over my (moderate) failure?

Not particularly. You see, I’ve had a few reversals of various kinds recently: no response for job applications; no results from writing contest submissions; some personal struggles; a dinner that wasn’t quite perfect – silly as the last may sound. I’ve been learning from such things that I come out of every such situation with a clearer picture of what I want. Yes, I may have messed up this time, but now I know what went wrong and what to do in order to fix it. 

I talked in my new year’s post about wanting to live a mature life, rather than a haphazard one. I think that struggles and failures and trials can actually help someone achieve that goal, whether as a person or specifically as a writer. Granted, in the midst of the painful thing, it may be hard to suppose that in a month or two understanding and clarity will come, but every time I’ve discovered that’s exactly what happens. Even in the case of my dinner, next time I know to roast the birds at 425 degrees and to reduce the lime juice by two tablespoons. Sometimes it’s good to be forced to stop. One can reassess and learn, instead of traveling onward with the kind of over-confidence that can get a body in trouble!

So among my…not resolutions, but let’s call them hopes for the new year, is the determination that when things go wrong I will remain patient. I want to see what’s happening as a chance for human and artistic growth, not as a source of embarrassment and unhappiness. I doubt I’ll succeed every time, but  at least I can try! I’d also love to hear any tips my readers might have for surviving the little difficulties and bumps in the road which life - and especially the writing life - throws our way. 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

A New Year

I was talking to the Fashionista early last week and we agreed that 2014 was a strange year. I don’t know if anybody but we two shared this experience, but I can definitely say that for myself everything seemed discombobulated. Comparatively speaking, I did very little writing, and when I could bring myself to edit, it was mostly due to imposing a strict schedule on myself.

It’s strange, because in college, I wrote almost every day – at least every other day, for sure. Besides, I had a part-time job, a 15 credit course load every semester, plus cooking and other household chores. I had a reasonably active social life, since I had weekly girls’ nights with friends, occasional outings with classmates, and (for the last 3 semesters) a boyfriend. I was very busy, but everything seemed to work out smoothly.

In some ways, I think I’ve been looking to rediscover the personal balance I felt in college ever since.

As you know from a recent post, I spent about a week at the beginning of December using the KonMari method on my personal belongings. In her book, the author of the method said that almost everyone she’s coached through the process has moved on from cleaning out their personal belongings to reordering their lives. Perhaps because the method requires a very clear picture of the self you want to express through the belongings you choose to keep, you end up motivated to work harder on realizing that picture of yourself.

Strangely enough, when I was formulating the reason behind my overhaul of my possession, the reason that emerged was, ‘I want to be an adult.’ For example, I have a predilection for interesting knickknacks, but my room was overwhelmed with them. I cleared out a plethora of little figurines and decorations because I had no particular attachment to them any longer, plus I felt like the crowded surfaces said ‘teenager’ to visitors. This was misleading, as I’ve not been a teenager in close to a decade! I’ve also cleared out everything from my wardrobe which didn’t fit with my current style vision, because I want to look like a pulled-together and chic person – an adult.

Of course, externals aren’t the only things which make maturity. It is true, though, that the home and wardrobe which reflect the self I want to be are encouraging me to come out of my 2014 slump with a better attitude and a clearer sense of what I want to achieve.

I have spent the last week and a half since New Year’s Day thinking about changes I need. I have a calendar with notes written all over, because I’m the (nerdy) sort of person who is more likely to complete something if I get to check it off on paper. However, my plan is working. I’ve started going to bed a bit earlier so I can get up at 7 AM every morning and take care of small tasks that were often relegated to the bottom of my to-do list last year. I’ve also written two poems, done some editing, started a new story, and composed a blog post in the past eight days.

My younger brother works in construction and he’s visiting home now, since his next round of jobs won’t start until February. One of my stipulations for leading a more grown-up life was that I didn’t want to sacrifice time with him while he’s around, or with other family members and friends. There are also obligations like walking my dog and contributing to housekeeping. My goal was to achieve the sort of balance I had in college, where I was busy, but also happy because everything fit into its place in my life.

The KonMari method, in fact, encourages you to choose a place for everything you own. What I’m finding is that it has also prompted me to choose a time for everything I do.

Last year I only managed to post to my blog an average of 1.5 times a month. Considering that the previous two years featured at least 2.5, and sometimes as many as 4.5 posts a month, that was pretty pitiful. It indicates something about my general attitude toward life, in fact. When I can’t find anything to write about, it means that my mind is not in a good place.

I have made some big personal changes in my life lately, though, and I think they are leading to a new peace. My brain and body feel awake again. Granted, it will take me a little time to shake off the bad habits of last year, but my calendar will help with that. And as part of my attempt to set a new pace for myself, I hope to return to a once a week posting schedule for the blog (yes – I’m penciling it in on my calendar!). My overarching topic will be a return to balance on the tightrope of life.

I hope everyone else is enjoying a good start to 2015 also. I’m looking forward to spending time with you in the blog-world this year!