2010 Tweaks To My Monthly Budget

I just updated my Budget page to reflect assorted changes to my lifestyle over the past few months. Overall, my monthly expenses are down $140, which sadly does not reflect some fairly significant cuts I’ve made.

THE CUTBACKS

$90 – I no longer have a cleaning lady. After going through the bedbug nightmare, where I had to wipe down everything in alcohol and pack it up, and then vacuum twice a day for 3 weeks AND sterilize the vacuum’s bagless compartment after each use…well, cleaning up after myself just didn’t seem so daunting. Plus, she was missing a lot of stuff completely. Annual savings: $1170.

$100 – My take-out/restaurant budget has been scaled back from $250 to $150 a month. Bear in mind that I visit my mother once a month and pick up the tab for a meal, which ranges $25-50. Take-out 3x a week instead of almost daily for a weekly savings of $20. And the rest is for odd bits and pieces, like a snack or a can of iced tea on the go. Annual savings: $1200.

$50 – I’ve reduced my monthly grocery budget from $150 to $100. This time last year, I wasn’t into supermarket couponing because supermarkets in Manhattan just suck. But now I go out of my way to stock up in NJ – when I visit my mom, or by taking mass transit across the river for exceptional deals, or by mailing coupons to Dani when she’s able and willing to help me out. Annual savings: $600.

$65 – Utilities are down. When my cable/phone/internet bill leaped up from $134 to $148 for no reason I could discern, I called up and asked about shutting down my landline. It turns out that most of the nonsense fees, charges, taxes, etc. are associated with the telephone, so what I thought would be a savings of about $30 turned out to be $65. Shame on me for not doing this sooner. Annual savings:  $780.

Gross Annual Savings:  $3750

THE NEW EXPENSES

$100 for Advertising – In June 2009, Craigslist started charging $5 per post to place an ad on the Therapeutic Services page. I’m still incredibly pissed, because it puts a once-daily ad out of the reach of people like me. Spas have multiple treatment rooms and slave labor (well, the ones that advertise on Craigslist), and prostitutes are obviously getting more moulah per client than I am. Sadly, that’s the case for most paid advertising options. I am hoping to cut back on my paid postings and redirect the funds to other advertising venues, but I’m not sure how feasible that will be. Annual expense: $1200.

$40 for Weight Watchers – This monthly expense replaces my $600/year gym membership that I just wasn’t using. Plus, I’ve been through the ups and downs of weight loss often enough to know that for girls, it’s WAY more about food than exercise. Weight Watchers is about dealing with food, so here we go. Annual expense: $480.

Gross New Annual Expenses:  $1680

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Thanks, 2am Infomercial (sort of)

Last night I was up until 2:30am hunting down my health insurance card for my doctor’s appointment this morning. I left the TV on in the background, which means I subjected myself to theta/beta-wave influence of The Late Nght Infomercial. Usually it’s the Magic Bullet blender or that odd-looking young man with a high voice hawking real estate investment secrets, but last night it was someone selling what he claimed to be the first edition of Napoleon Hill’s “The Law of Success”. I don’t mean one of the originals (apparently there were about 100 made), but a book containing the original transcript. No, not the mildly revised edition that came out two years later in 1927! Not even the revised-beyond-recognition version currently in bookstores! This is the REAL “Secret”!!! Ohhh, dear readers, I don’t know how I resisted the lure of Infomercial Man, but I did not call for my copy at the unbelievable price of $49.95.

But it got me thinking….

I’ve had it fixed in my mind since the stock market crashed that my minimum income target to make my bills was $800 a week. And all through this recession, I have hit that target more often than not. When I’ve missed it, it was usually by less than $100. And then there’s be the occasional spurt of wondrous busyness (October!).

However, that $800 figure does not take into account my whole life policy commitment. Silly me, I thought my premium had some flexibility, but it doesn’t. If I don’t pay the full amount, then the cash value gets decreased retroactively (e.g. if I paid $9K the first year and $9K the second year, but only $6K the third year, the value is reduced as if I’d paid $6K for all years and $3K x 2 is essentially flushed down the toilet).

I have no opinion on the Law of Success, the Law of Attraction, The Secret (a la Oprah), the Power of Positive Thinking, or whatever you want the call the concept of thinking about something so much that you make it happen, but hell, I’ll give it a shot. I spent 2009 thinking “Must Make $800 a Week” and it happened. So for 2010, because I’m 5 months behind, it’s got to be….let’s see, 30 weeks until my premium is due… “Must Make $1100 a Week”. And that’s totally skipping my Roth IRA contribution for 2009. Oh, sh*t.

So thank you, Infomercial Man, for reminding me to revisit my budget and my goals. Sort of. It needed to be addressed, but I really don’t like the math 😦

New Addition to Sidebar: Ask Me Anything!

Krystal over at Give Me Back My Five Bucks recently introduced me to Formspring, which allows you to anonymously ask me (or her, or any member of the site) a question. So you’ll find a link over on the left sidebar to use whenever you feel the urge. Perviness will be deleted, holier-than-thou tones will bring out my snarkiness.

Supermarket Couponing for Non-Couponers

Okay, okay… a lot of you have been asking me to post more details about how I do this. The thing is, a kazillion other bloggers have outlined this stuff better than I ever could. Heck, I couldn’t pull off these deals without them! So instead, this post is for people who understand the concept of a coupon and use them from time to time, but would like to score some great deals without turning it into a major event. Here’s a quick rundown of how to do it with the minimum of effort for the maximum return.

Familiarize yourself with the coupon policies of your local supermarkets
First, look at the front page of the weekly circular and see if it notes “Double Manufacturers’ Coupons”. You can do this online – pretty much every chain in the country puts their circulars on their website. Then call or stop by their Customer Service desk and ask the following questions:

  • Up to what value to do you double?
  • Is there a maximum number of coupons that will double per transaction?
  • Do you accept coupons printed from the internet? If so, are there special rules for those?

Find a good coupon blogger or forum that covers your store(s)
For forum activity, I use A Full Cup because it’s the only one I’ve found for the supermarket I patronize (ShopRite). Plus, they have a pretty good searchable database for the printable coupons. Other good deal websites if you have access to the more popular coupons supermarkets – Publix, Meijer, Kroger, Harris Teeter, Safeway, Giant Eagle – I highly recommend DealSeekingMom and CouponCravings (who posts her weekly shopping trip every Saturday morning – she’s a stockpiler who feeds her big family on $40 a week). For others, well, google your little fingers off.

Stockpile
Some things go on sale in conjunction with coupons and promos quite regularly, while others are available on super-special just once or twice a year. You’ll figure this out over time, or you can ignore it and just do what you can. Your shopping cart will look strange – 8 lbs of Oscar Mayer bacon might raise an eyebrow, until you coupon it down to $3.04 for the whole lot (yes, this reflects a recent transaction). Then both of those nosy eyebrows will shoot skyward. And for the record, this was an exceptional deal, but plain old decent deals on bacon are fairly easy to find.

Use a coupon service
Don’t have the time or interest in collecting and clipping multiple circulars? No problem. First thing, look at the store circular as soon as you can get your hands on it, be it online or off. I can only get the online version in advance, usually 2 days before the new week begins. Check your handy coupon-crazy websites to see what deals they’ve identified. Now go back to the online circular and click on the products you plan to buy – it creates your shopping list (printable). Then go to a coupon clipping service like Coupons By Dede, The Coupon Master or The Coupon Clippers and get multiples. eBay is also an option, though the seller fixes the quantity, which may or may not suit your purposes. Like, who really needs 20 coupons for mayonnaise? That’s a 5+ year supply for most households! Since you can’t actually sell coupons legally, the coupon is free but you pay a “handling fee” that works out to be roughly 10% of the face value of the coupon. Shipping is about $1. You might spend $5 a week on this, but it will yield about $80 worth of savings.

Anatomy of a simple deal
Ragu tomato sauce is on sale 3/$4 and there’s a .75/2 coupon floating around. Pay attention to limits, eg. “4 per variety” and “must buy 3” and “Limit 4 deals per transaction”. Buy 6 coupons for 12 jars. Only like 2 kinds of sauce? Do two transactions of 6 jars each, just as long as they’re in multiples of 6 (price is based on 3, coupon is based on 2), you’re good. So 12 jars at the sale price is $16. Use 6 x .75/2 coupons, which double because they’re under $1 (that’s a fairly common rule)….so 6 x $1.50 = $9. Pay $7 for 12 jars of tomato sauce. Awesome. And this is the kind of information/organization you can obtain from the supermarket forums and blogs so you don’t have to figure it out yourself.

If couponing is a completely new concept to you, stop reading here. What I’m about to write could fry your brain. I’m great with mental arithmetic and I still found it intimidating at first…

Anatomy of a more complex deal
A lot of big chains have offers like “Buy 6 of XYZ Manufacturer’s Products Pictured, Get $3/$5/$7 register coupon off your next order” from time to time. Back to the Ragu example, let’s say there’s a Unilever offer for “Buy $15 of Listed Products, Get $5 coupon”. Well, your tomato sauce came to $16 before coupons – and for almost all supermarkets, the deal is triggered by the pre-coupon total. So pay your $7 and get $5 back. Turn around and spend it on the rest of your purchases in another transaction – I use it for milk, fruit, meat, etc. Anyway, the net cost for 12 jars of sauce is then brought down to $2 (+ .48 in coupon costs), or 20 cents a jar. I must admit, the downside to doing a deal like this is that you hate spending more than a quarter on a jar of tomato sauce in the future, when in the past you were happy with anything under $2. However, I think it’s worth the high.

The Ragu example is a deal I did a few weeks ago. It was such a rush, especially since I didn’t realize the $5 register coupon was going to happen. I went back on the last day of the sale and did it all over again. I wasn’t a fan of Ragu and just planned to give it all away, but one snowy night, it was the only tomato sauce I had in the house for making ziti, and I was very pleasantly surprised by their reduced sugar variety (I remember their sauce as being overly sweet). I’d been committed to Classico for years, but now I’m not so picky (and yes, I’ve done Classico deals too – not so easy though).

What about real food?
Well, yeah…coupon offeres for fresh fruit, vegetables, milk, meat, etc. are not in abundance, but they do happen. Dole occasionally makes a .75 coupon available online for their pineapples – the whole kind, not the can of rings. It doubles and goes nicely with a 2/$5 sale. Right now I’ve got a bunch of coupons for Cutie clementines that I look forward to using! I consider cheese and yogurt “real food”, and coupons are put out constantly by Sargento, Cracker Barrel, Yoplait, Activia, Land O’Lakes, etc. The egg industry occasionally puts out a printable Buy One Get One Free coupon for a dozen eggs, any brand. LOVE that one! And there have been spice coupons recently that give you .50 (double-able, remember) off meat if you purchase their product. Over the holidays, both Shady Brook and Butterball had $2 off a whole turkey coupon available on the major coupon sites. Right now, I’m gunning for an opportunity to use my “Buy One Special K cereal, get .50 off fruit” coupon.

Complex real food deal: I did a deal a few weeks ago that snagged me a coupon for a free gallon of milk for every 3 boxes of Kelloggs cereal that I bought. I bought 10 boxes on sale for $2 each, using $1 coupons. And it gets better – I also used a $1.5o off coffee when you buy 3 boxes of Kelloggs coupon against a can of Maxwell House that was on sale for $1.99. So I paid about $11.50 for 10 boxes of cereal, 3 cans of coffee and 3 gallons of milk. Since I also do rebates, I submitted for $10 back from Kelloggs too, but that’s too fiddly for a non-couponer to get into. “But what do I do with 3 gallons of milk?” you ask. Well, the coupons are good for 2 weeks after the cereal purchase – just turn around and get your gallon for the week, use one for next week’s milk, and then swoop in for the 3rd close to the coupon’s expiration date. No need to get them all at once, on the spot. Or if you’re me, you give them to your collection of Broke Folks.

Questions?
Hey, that’s what the comments section is for. Happy to answer…but this post is really for those who occasionally use coupons but want to step their game up without having little bits of paper cluttering up their handbag, coffee table, or brain. You can find the basics here.

Creative Christmas Challenge – MET!!!

Well, you blogosphere folks are pretty freakin’ awesome. I put $60 in the pot to see how far it could go, and next thing I know, Jillian wanted in on the action. And then Little Miss Moneybags jumped right in and matched my $60! Throw in some shopping guidance and on-the-ground (or, more accurately, in-the-stores) assistance by Dani and A. from Webhunting, and we put together a rockin’ Christmas for Maribel and her huge tribe. Amazon and eBay, couldn’t have done it without you either.

Here’s the loot (prices include tax and shipping) ….

$53 – 4 Reborn Berjusa/Berenguer vinyl baby dolls. Just the kit to make these dolls goes for $60, so bagging 4 gently-loved dolls for less than one kit is pretty freakin’ awesome. Bonus: it turns out one of them is exactly the doll that had been “kidnapped” by one of her kids’ friends. It’s really special to her because one of her daughters died and was revived as a newborn, and the hospital gave a pair of these dolls to her as a gift during the ensuing 2-month hospital ordeal – they were an anatomically correct boy and girl. The girl was stolen, and now she’s getting replaced. Also, I only ordered 3 dolls, but when I opened one of the boxes, there were two instead of one. Score! They’re going to Cheska, Gladys, Priscilla and Jacqueline.

$14.50 – 5 Bakugan balls for the price of 3, basically. Turns out the seller is in Hong Kong, which makes me think they were stolen straight off the factory assembly line, heh. They’re going to Ricky, who even my doorman remarked was exceptionally helpful towards his mother.

$28 – Insignia 7.0 MP digital camera for Maribel the Mom. Used, but in box and comes with the USB cord (most don’t). Photos have always meant a lot to the women in my family, to the point where my mom taught us that if the house was on fire and we could only save one thing, grab the photo albums because they can’t be replaced. Of course, that was the pre-digital era, but the sentiment lives on.

$0 (but really $25 – tab picked up by Jillian!) – Dora the Explorer Sleepy Dreams doll, a replacement for one that melted in a laundry accident. The doll was brand-new and cost $25. A friend on Long Island picked it up for me at her local Walmart – it wasn’t available online or within 30 miles of my mom in NJ or me in NYC. The doll is going to Kristi, who at the moment is glassy-eyed with fever (I saw her on Friday).

$0 – Disney blanket sleeper, size 3T Tigger design. So its true cost was $8 ($6 + tax + pro-rated shipping), but it came from my Amazon Swagbucks gift card balance. It’s for the baby, Alex. He’s also getting a Playskool whistle thing and Mr. Bubbles bubble bath that I picked up on clearance last year after Christmas.

$0 (but really $7.50 + postage) – Moon Sand Treasure Kingdom (direct from Jillian – shipping costs were probably hideous, blech, but still a great deal). This is going to all of them, since it’s this great crafty kit along the lines of Play-Doh but even better – it doesn’t dry out. I’m telling you, it makes me want to be a 5-year-old again, this stuff is cool! Anyway, there is one kid without an individual present on the list, so Francois’ name might be on the tag. He’s one of the two stepkids, not really sure if his mom (her sister) helps with Christmas at all.

$0 (but really $20 recycled) – 2 packs of 3 WWE Micro Aggression wrestler figures. They are 2″ caricatures of actual professional wrestlers and qualify as ugly-cute. I “paid” $15 of the price with 2 Disney sleepers that a friend put in on my order to take advantage of shipping cost limits – but it came from my Amazon Swagbucks gift card balance. The other $5 came from a Kellogg’s rebate I submitted using her address for cereal I paid a total of $5 for. Net cost to me is therefore $0. Fernando is on the receiving end of these.

$13 – clearanced clothing from Target. It was actually more than that, maybe double, but Dani very kindly did a money-making deal on Glade scented oil products with coupons I sent that earned back about $10 more than was spent in the form of gift cards. Most of the clothes were the right sizes for Stephanie, Priscilla and Fernando, with a few pieces for Kristi and Ricky. Cheska isn’t allowed to have new clothes because she is the Tazmanian Devil Child (that’s what her tantrums are like – bouncing off walls, damaging everything in her wake) and destroys her own clothes.

$0 – Glade plug-ins and refills from Jess VonWallenstein, one of my Twitter followers, who had a ton of these products that she’d gotten for free or better-than-free on drugstore deals and was ready to throw out. So glad she didn’t! When asked what she’d like for Christmas, Maribel mentioned the Glade Sense & Spray I’d given her in September – said she’d like to have a plug-in for every room in her house. So Jess, you granted that wish!

$3 – Candy and cute containers to put it in. I got all of it for nearly free, so that $2 is mostly the tax. Grr, tax. 3 bags of different Hershey’s Kisses, a bag of Butterfinger Bells, and then a ton of CVS candy that came individually wrapped within the bag – bubble gum, laffy taffy, caramels. Oh, and some clearanced Russell Stover chocolate marshmallow Santas at Walgreens last week.

$0 (but actual cost of $23) – A 12-pair pack of ankle sports socks for little girls, paid for with my Amazon Swagbucks gift card balance ($5). I babysat Ricky, Alex and Kristi last weekend and the baby’s socks were fine, Ricky had no socks (and it was hideously cold out), and Kristi was wearing 1 black and 1 white crumbly boy’s sweat socks with no elasticity left. I ordered these after my mom called to let me know she’d picked up 10 pairs of socks ($18) for the boys and the older girls at Kohl’s and Target.

Total cost of Christmas:  $195
Total paid with free money: $33
Total cash cost to me:  $52
Cash cost to blog readers + my mom:  $110
(+ about $18 in shipping)

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On a Christmas sidenote with regards to this family… because of the extreme bitter winds and temps last weekend, I agreed to watch 3 of her 4 youngest (NOT the Tazmanian Devil) because they were ill-equipped for the cold and she had to go out to some unfamiliar neighborhood in Queens to pick up donated clothes for the baby. Thanks to weekend subway maintenance and rerouting, a trip that should have taken no more than 2 hours took over 5 hours. I was miserable – the kids are normal, active kids, but my apartment is a studio and not at all childsafe. But my vinyl Thai mat became their tumble area, I threw a sheet over the massage table to make a fort, and damned if they didn’t wolf down my bananas as soon as my back was turned (I didn’t mind, I just thought it was funny). Anyway, after nearly 5 hours of dealing with bad public transit and walking to someone’s home that was a mile from the subway stop, Maribel decided to take a taxi for the first time in her welfare life – and didn’t know what she was dealing with. Now, don’t click away – this story has a happy ending!

She hired a gypsy cab, thinking it was a non-yellow taxi car service (which can be cheaper). For those who don’t know, a gypsy cab is just a guy with a car who trolls the neighborhoods outside of Manhattan where you can’t get a regular cab looking for someone willing to pay for a ride. I went to college in the Bronx, I only took one once, with a friend who used them all the time, but then never again. You are basically getting in the car with a strange man. In the Bronx. Anyway, as soon as she had the kids out of the car and paid him, he tore out of there – taking with him the clothes she’d busted her skinny butt getting on a bitter day, all the chicken and eggs and other food I’d given her, and worst of all, the baby’s stroller. It was a really good stroller that I think she had recently bought second-hand on craigslist. It goes for about $200 new and $50-80 used. She was heartbroken. She and her son, Ricky, chased the minivan down the street and even a few of her neighbors joined in after she took a header (yeah, running with a 25-lb baby on her hip was not smart) – but the foul excuse for a human being ran the light and got away. She reported him to the police, but didn’t have a license plate number, and none was visible on my building’s security tapes.

Now for the happy ending… Two days later, I found the same make of stroller (an Inglesina Zippy) that she’d had stolen on craigslist, being given away by a woman on the upper eastside for free. Free! And the owner threw in one of Maribel’s Christmas requests that I hadn’t fulfilled: a snuggly, fur-lined sleeping bag-like thing to keep the toddler warm in the stroller (blankets always move around and get caught in the wheels). I picked it up because I knew it would go to whoever could get there first and I was a 20-min subway ride away, so for the cost of two subway trips and some Krazy Glue (my fault – I broke off the lap bar trying to clean it, lost my balance), Maribel ended up with better than she had lost. Except maybe for that broken lap bar. What can I say, I’m not used to being this chubby, so I weebled right over while simultaneously scrubbing and squatting. Yeah, really should do something about this weeble thing. But I’ll save resolutions for another post.