Pocketing Away Tax-Deductible Money at the End of the Year

It’s December, which means that the 2010’s are almost over! What else is almost over? This year’s chance of lowering your taxable income by taking advantage of pre-tax investments. Personally, I’ve been crunching my numbers to see where I can throw an extra hundy or two. Here are some places that I’m trying to stash away some more pre-tax money before the end of the 2019 calendar year.

Homer knows what’s up.

Please note that I am 100% not an accountant or tax adviser and that you 100% should do your own research and double-checking before you do any of these things. In other words, take this advice as being worth a grain of salt. I’m not an expert. Don’t listen to me. Don’t do as I do or say.

A Traditional IRA

A Traditional IRA is a retirement account that allows you to deposit pre-tax money. You’re not taxed on what goes in, but you’re taxed on what comes out. Generally, a Traditional IRA is a good choice if you anticipate being in a lower tax bracket when you retire. For the 2019 tax year, individuals are able to contribute up to $6,000 if you’re under the age of 50 and up to $7,000 if you’re 50 or older. 

All your contributions to a Traditional IRA can be tax-deductible, if you meet the eligibility requirements. If you’re filing single and have a retirement plan at work, for 2019, you can only deduct the full amount of contributions to your Traditional IRA if your adjusted gross income is $64,000 or less. Once you hit $64,000, your deductions start to fade out, and they disappear completely if you earn $74,000. 

This is the category I fall into. If I’ve calculated correctly, my adjusted gross income should fall somewhere within the $62k range for the year (although I may have not calculated correctly, ha ha). As such, I anticipate being able to deduct all my contributions. However, I have not deposited my maximum $6k into my Traditional IRA; I won’t be able to meet that much money, but I’m going to try and squirrel away another $1k before it’s all said and done. Additionally, you have until April of the next year to make contributions that count toward the previous year’s taxes. 

One should keep in mind that any withdrawals made before the age of 59 ½ are subject to tax and early withdrawal penalties. You should be comfortable with essentially saying goodbye to these contributions until you reach that age.

And, please note that, in order to deduct your contributions, you must be making them into a Traditional IRA. Roth IRA contributions cannot be deducted from your taxes (instead, you won’t have to pay taxes when you withdraw from this account in retirement).

Student Loan Interest

Oh, student loans, how I loathe you, let me count the ways… about 42k. There are about 42k tiny green ways I loathe you.

It me.

As I’ve mentioned before (and will continue to mention until the universe puts me out of my misery or I sell a kidney to pay them off), I have about $42k in student loans. This was to pay for a degree to get a job in a field I genuinely enjoy (and has given me a small pay bump). I only kind of regret this degree, although I 100% regret not trying to first get a job at a school that offers this degree so I can go for free (THAT’S A SPICY HOT GRAD SCHOOL TIP RIGHT THERE, Y’ALL)

Fortunately for me, student loan interest payments can be deducted from one’s taxes provided they meet the eligibility requirements. For 2019, the maximum amount that can be deducted from taxes for student loan interest is $2,500. Please note that it doesn’t matter if you’re filing as single or married–$2,500 is the maximum for a return, even if you and your spouse both have student loans (Luckily, I’m still living in sin, so I can keep all the benefits to myself.). 

Student loan interest payment deductions have income requirements as well. Like the IRA deduction, student loan interest payments can only be deducted if an individual has an adjusted gross income of $65,000 a year or less. There are also a few other restrictions regarding who took the loan out, whether or not someone can claim you as a dependent, etc.–check to ensure your eligibility! 

By the time this post hits the internet, I’ll have made $2,500 worth of interest payments for the year, which I should be able to deduct from my taxes. Hooray!

HSA

As I’ve explained before on the blog, a Health Savings Account (HSA) is an account that allows you to pay for medical expenses with pre-tax dollars. These accounts are associated with insurance plans that have a high deductible–the idea is that you pay lower premiums in exchange for a higher deductible, but you have the opportunity to save money to meet that deductible. When you contribute money to an HSA, you lower your taxable income.

Unfortunately, I don’t have an HSA–long story short, for the plans my employer offers, the monthly premiums and high deductible more than negate any potential tax-offset I would get from having the HSA plan. As such, I’m sticking with my HMO (although in my opinion all monthly health premiums should be tax deductible, BUT I DIGRESS). 

However, if you have the option of setting up an HSA, you should consider doing it. As stated above, money contributed to an HSA is pre-federal-tax, which lowers your total taxable income for the year. Depending on your state, it may be taxed at the state level (thanks for nothing, California). Optum Bank has a list of states in which HSA contributions and/or earnings are taxed. So, while not available for everyone, HSAs provide one more option for lowering your taxable income. 

Be Amazon

Or you could just be a multibillion dollar corporation/”job creator” (*coughcough* *eyeroll* *finger-in-mouth-to-simulate-throwing-up*) and never pay federal taxes again. If you’re not comfortable being Amazon, harbinger of all our dooms, then consider being pretty much any other super large corporation. Either way, you’ll have enough politicians in your pocket to avoid paying taxes, but you’ll also get to do fun things like take away health insurance from part-time workers

Your Mileage May Vary

Naturally, these tips aren’t for everyone. No student loans? No interest deduction. Already maxed out a Traditional IRA? I’m very proud of you. Already CEO of Amazon? For the love of god, give part-time Whole Foods employees their health insurance back. 

What do you do at the end of the year (and throughout) to reduce your taxable income? Please feel free to put your plan (or suggestions for clarifications!) in the comments. 

As I said in the intro, this is not advice and you shouldn’t do as I say or do. Consult with your own tax genius to find the best ways of making your money work for you.

Open Grocery November 2019

It’s the first Tuesday of the month, and you know what that means–it’s time for the monthly Open Grocery post! What’s Open Grocery? Open Grocery is a series of posts that include detailed information about all of my grocery purchases for the month. The spreadsheet I’ve included has a dated and itemized list of all my grocery purchases, down to the poundage. 

The November numbers have been crunched, and out of my total budgeted $200, I spent: $198.51.

Hooray! I’m in budget for the month!

Hooray for me, indeed.

This is great, because last month I went $18.84 over and spend a total of $218.84. It’s good to see that I’m moving back in the right direction. This month’s total is much closer to September’s, when I spent $196.12.

(I should note that at the end of last month’s post, I put that I had a goal of $175 for November. I then promptly forgot about that goal. Let’s put it on the docket for January 2020, shall we?) 

For a full breakdown of everything I bought, when, and where, please check out the Open Grocery 2019 Google Sheet

So, what changed in the last month?

For one, I bought more alcohol. What can I say? It’s the holiday season. While last month I spent $13.28 on alcohol for the month (from a grocery store, anyway), this month I spent $31.97. 

One major purchase accounted for this change–on 11/26, I bought a box of wine. It was on sale for $18.99 compared to the usual $24.99, and supposedly it contains three full bottles of wine. Now, I enjoy a glass of wine every now and then; however, since I live alone and don’t like to have people over, my problem was that I would buy a bottle and then feel obligated to drink the whole thing before it went bad. The magic of boxed wine is that it can last much longer after being opened than bottled wine. According to the Black Box website, their wines stay fresh up to six weeks after opening. This means I don’t have to chug a glass and a half every evening for three nights straight (more than I want to drink anyway) just to avoid the guilt of throwing away what didn’t get finished. 

I plan on nursing this box for as long as possible and not buying any alcohol for my time at home in December. Uh, we’ll see how well this plan works out…

The biggest victory this month came from avoiding coupon errors! In September, I lost $14.06 to coupon errors. In October, I lost a whopping $27.25 to coupon errors. I count this as “lost” money because most of these products–October and the disastrous carrot cake ingredients in particular–would not have been purchased without the coupons. This month, I avoided this problem by (a) avoiding a lot of coupon-required purchases altogether and (b) reading the coupons more closely to understand if only specific sizes or flavors were covered. 

Me and you, Honey Boo Boo. Only I think you’re referring to success, and I’m just referring to avoiding failure.

Additionally, for the two months I stayed in budget, I made one less trip to the grocery store. In September and November, I made seven trips to the store (which seems like a lot, but in my defense, I eat a lot of fresh veggies!), while in October I made eight. I’m trying to make a conscious effort to ask myself–can I go just one more day?–before running off to the store. I’m trying especially hard to do this for December, since I’ll be out of my apartment for twelve days (and as such need to eat anything that may expire during that time!). 

What can we expect for next month? Well, the budget will need to be adjusted–I will be traveling from December 19th to the 30th, so I’ve calculated a monthly grocery budget of approximately $130 dollars (the usual $200 divided by 31, multiplied by the 19 full days and two half-days I will be home, and rounded up to look better). I’m also trying to purchase zero alcohol and concentrate on mainly buying fruits, vegetables, and yogurt, while eating up all the rest of the food in my house.

That’s all for this month! Shorter than the previous two posts, but honestly, I just don’t have that much to say. They’re groceries, y’all. December will be a lighter month, and then hopefully in 2020 I can discipline myself down to $175/month!

Holiday Gifts: Eatable Edibles!

Welcome to the second post in a series of holiday gift ideas. With Black Friday just around the corner (or, for myself and hopefully lots of other people, Buy Nothing Day), I wanted to explore some perhaps unconventional gift ideas for you to show your loved ones that you really care. 

The theme for this week’s post…

EATABLE EDIBLES

Me too.

I’m a big fan of edible gifts. For one, they don’t stick around forever. Your mom isn’t going to put it on a shelf to collect dust for like seven years before she’s ready to throw it into a Goodwill box or set aside for a yard sale. Food is liminal; you have it, you eat it, you enjoy it, and then you have the freedom to move on with your life. 

For two, food is budget-friendly. This means you can spend as much or as little as you like and still have a good gift. Whether it’s a pound of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups or a $350 Gift Trunk “For The Extreme Foodie” that contains some booze-soaked chocolate-covered cherries, wine-soaked salami, Italian goat’s milk cheese, and Jamon Iberico (none of which I’ve ever eaten in my life). One of the great things about food is that, if it’s delicious, no non-assholey-person seems to care about what it costs (and if you’re the type of person who thinks expensive food is the only kind worth eating, let’s go to the fair and get some deep fried oreos. I can show you a good time). 

And finally, for threesies, while it takes some degree of knowledge of the person to whom you’re gifting, for the most part, food gifts are a no-brainer. There are a couple of questions to which you should know the answer–is your giftee allergic to something? Do they have an absolute food dislike? Do they adhere to a special diet?

(The special diet one is very important. A secret santa once gave me a salami and cheese basket. I’m a vegetarian and have been so for many years. Pretty much anyone in the office could have told him that, but to be fair, he was going through a pretty heinous breakup at the time. I secretly passed off the salami to another coworker, but the cheese was, in fact, delicious.) 

Comically-Oversized Candies

I’m an American, and you know what we say over here–BIGGER IS BETTER! BOY HOWDY! 

Just kidding. That’s a gross generalization, although I would say Americans are obsessed with “value,” which we interpret as crazy giant portions at restaurants. But I digress…

I’m a fan of anything that’s a size it shouldn’t be. Teeny tiny cooking show? Check. Giant Pikachus dancing? Yes please. And the fact that these videos have over 1.6 million and 2.8 million views respectively means that I’m not alone. People love things that are the wrong size.

In steps comically-oversized candies.

Like the aforementioned Reese’s Cups, these comically-oversized candies are sure to elicit a laugh and shouts of good cheer when they’re unwrapped on Christmas morning (or pulled out of a stocking or wooden shoe or whatever it is your family does for the holidays). Does your brother love the taste of creamy nougat with delicious peanuts? Try this one pound Snickers bar. Want to give your significant other the biggest kiss ever? How about one that’s 12 ounces

And let’s not forget the mother of all giant candy bars, the five pound Hershey bar. Is there a better way to thank your mom for putting up with your shit for so many years than giving her a candy that could also double as a child’s sled? 

A Bevy of Meats

For those of us that are looking for something a little more practical, there’s always meat. While I’m a vegetarian, the rest of my family are not; and my brother was definitely the favorite gift-giver in our household when he got my mom and her husband a whole bunch of meat from Omaha Steaks

My brother went for a set that is currently called “Tasteful Gift.” Tasteful, indeed. This set comes with two each of filet mignon, top sirloin, and boneless pork chops, as well as four burgers, potatoes au gratin, and caramel apple tartlets, and a “signature seasoning packet.” 

What’s really great about this gift is that these are all things our parents would eat, if they were willing to spend the money on it. My mom is a saver, and as a single mother of two kids for our early years, she had to be; however, sometimes I worry that her penny-pinching (a trait I admire, truly!) stands in the way of her allowing herself to enjoy some nicer things. That’s why gifts like these are great–they’re something she likes but would never spend the money on for herself.

That, in my opinion, is the definition of an ideal gift.

Pre-Made Meals

Are you looking for the perfect gift for someone who is very busy and perhaps may not have the time to make their own meals? Someone who is experiencing some sort of crisis or hard time, like a temporary disability or unexpected medical care for a relative? Or someone who appreciates food but doesn’t feel like cooking is totally “worth it”?

In these cases, a pre-made meal might be a much-appreciated gift.

Not just for those who’ve recently had a baby, pre-made meals can be appreciated by everyone. There are a lot of different ways you could go about this–the aforementioned Omaha Steak route includes meat and sides that require some cooking. Or you could look for something that just essentially needs to be heated up. 

Harry and David have 93 premade meals listed on their website. 93!!!! They have a chicken pot pie that serves six and just needs to be heated up. They have a fancy filet mignon dinner for two that includes two six oz bacon-wrapped filet mignons, mashed potatoes, green beans, 36 (36!!!) pastry appetizers, and a chocolate cake. They also have a boatload of vegetarian (but not vegan) sides and appetizers as well. 

Food of the Month 

Ah, a subscription food plan–the gift that keeps on giving. A ‘Food of the Month’ plan will send food in quarterly or monthly installments to your loved ones. A Food of the Month plan is a great option for practical reasons or for people in your life who you think might need a little extra help, but don’t want to admit or accept it. I’ve given a few examples above–busy families or caregivers/those experiencing medical issues/emergencies–but they’re also just great for people who love food and getting packages.

The Spruce has already made a list of the 8 Best Food-of-the-Month Clubs of 2019. The include options for snacks, fruits, gourmet ingredients, and even a breakfast of the month club. 

Frankly, I’m partial to the monthly clubs from Murray’s Cheese. While a full year is definitely on the more expensive end ($790!!!!), the Cheesemonger’s Picks Cheese of the Month Club looks frickin’ amazing. 

(One of my greatest life regrets is leaving New York before I got to take one of their cheese-making classes.)

In Conclusion

Food is delicious. It doesn’t stick around for years, there are options to fit every budget, and pretty much everybody loves food. Happy holidays!

HOLIDAY GIFTS: APOCALYPSE, NOW!

Welcome to the first post in a series of holiday gift ideas. With Black Friday just around the corner (or, for myself and hopefully lots of other people, Buy Nothing Day), I wanted to explore some perhaps unconventional gift ideas for you to show your loved ones you really care. 

The theme for this week’s post…

APOCALYPSE: NOW!

Wildfires will be a huge factor in the upcoming climate wars.

Last year, my theme for presents was ‘Apocalypse: Now!’ Everyone in my family got items that would be useful in the event of the grid going down. I know this sounds crazy, but most of my family lives in North Carolina–aka prime hurricane country (for example, my high school was pretty severely damaged by Hurricane Florence). While my family currently lives far enough away from the coast to miss a lot of the damage from all but the category fours and fives, they still live in areas that receive a lot of flooding. In the event of an emergency (aka the upcoming climate wars), I want them to be prepared. Here’s what I gave to my family:

LifeStraw

Each member of my family got a LifeStraw. A LifeStraw is a water purification device that is essentially a straw with a large filter. As per the website, the filter removes:

• 99.999999% of bacteria (including E. coli)

• 99.999% of parasites (Giardia, Cryptosporidium, etc.)

• 99.999% of microplastics

You can drink directly from a lake or stream if you want to! And it filters 1,000 gallons, which (according to the website) is enough to let one human drink for five years. It’s super lightweight, so it’s great for throwing into your go-bag when you’re running away from floodwaters or fires. 

(Just kidding. It should be in your go-bag already. CONSTANT VIGILANCE!)

This gift is also great for the explorers in your life (and feel free to use that as an excuse if you think your loved ones don’t take your fear of a total global meltdown seriously). I bought one for my partner when he went off to spend a year living and working in Bhutan. He drank the water there with his LifeStraw and didn’t die of dysentery, so it seems like it works.

Additionally, it also removes microplastics, so I’m thinking of getting one just for everyday use as well, since apparently there are 7 million microplastic particles in San Francisco Bay

36-Hour Candle

When the grid goes down, your lights will go out (unless you have a back-up generator…but that too can fail if you don’t have enough fuel to run it!). What can your family turn to when they need to light their way in the darkness? The SE Survivor Series 3-Wick 36-Hour Emergency Candle. It has three wicks to ensure the candle evenly burns (please note each wick lasts 12 hours, so don’t light them all at once), and it comes packaged in a reusable aluminum tin. Reusability will be a valuable asset in the upcoming zombie apocalypse, so this candle makes a great option for people who want to see but also want something in which to store their remaining ammunition. 

Heirloom Seed Pack

My mom and her husband live on a fairly large parcel of land (“large” by suburban standards). Straddling the line between suburban and rural (a subdivision next to farmland), she has the space to grow food and already has a large vegetable garden. However, she limits herself to just a few varieties of vegetables–tomatoes, peppers, etc. While she’s covered on the Vitamin C front, what about all the other nutrients that she will need to survive? 

I gave her the Survival Garden Heirloom Seed Pack from Open Seed Vault. This package contains 32 different seed varieties. While this clearly isn’t every vegetable or fruit that exists, it should keep the basics covered. For example, she’ll be able to get her protein (beans, peas, and sunflower seeds), greens (kale, spinach, and three kinds of lettuce!), and even get a little bit of fruit (cantaloupe and watermelon). 

Supposedly the package is air-tight and moisture-proof, and the seeds should last for at least 20 years. I’ll mark on my calendar to get her some new ones in 2038, provided we still have a civilization then. 

Emergency Biscuits

However, your family is going to need something to munch on while they’re waiting for the produce to grow (and as emergency supplies for when a mob tries to take over their compound). At this point, they’ll probably be so hungry that it doesn’t matter what they’re eating. However, you can save them from resorting to boiling shoe leather and then viewing each other as delicious entrees with some emergency biscuits. 

These Emergency Food Rations consist of 3600 calorie bars. They are cut into pre-measured 400 calories bits, and supposedly can sustain one person for up to three days. They’re kosher and halal (hooray!) and, according to the description, have a “pleasant lemon flavor.” Better yet, one reviewer describes them as being the “Best emergency ration [they] have tasted so far.” 

Think of it like lembas from the Lord of the Rings. You can finally live your fantasy of being a hobbit on a quest to throw the One Ring into the fires of Mt. Doom. It’s like LARPing, except you might actually die if something goes wrong!

These come vacuum-sealed but with a shelf life of only five years, so you’ll probably have a chance to taste-test them before end of days. Just don’t forget to order more!

First Aid Kit

So what happens when you accidentally burn yourself with your 36 hour emergency candle or injure yourself with a farm implement when you’re working on your heirloom seed garden? The hospitals will have long since been looted for opiates, so you’ll have to take the doctoring into your own hands.

Depending on the size of your survival colony, you’re going to need some serious supplies. That’s where the Lightning X Extra Large Medic First Responder EMT Trauma Bag comes in. This kit has everything*–a finger splint, two types of sheers, a CPR barrier kit, an airway kit…It even has a goddamn stethoscope! I could go on and on, but it’d be easier if you check it out yourself.

Most importantly, it comes with a First Aid Guide, so you know what the hell you’re doing with all that gauze.

You can get a first aid kit for your pets too! After all, all pets will become working animals once shit hits the fan.

In Conclusion

While we can be optimistic, let’s face it–shit happens. Climate change is real. Severe weather events are getting more extreme. The best way to show your loved ones you care is helping them prepare for the inevitable Mad Max future. Happy holidays, and stay safe!

* Ice sculptures, winos, Germfs – German smurfs – a Teddy Ruxpin wearing mascara, an old lady wearing Kid ‘N Play hair, and none other than DJ Baby Bok Choy…He’s a giant 300-pound Chinese baby who wears tinted aviator glasses and he spins records with his little ravioli hands.

A Month of Expenses in a HCOL Area (on a Non-Engineer’s Salary)

As I’ve mentioned about a million trillion times on this blog, I live in a high cost of living (HCOL) area. This area, the San Francisco South Bay, is known for Silicon Valley, computer engineers, and start-ups that make a shit-ton of money. I go to the gym with people who work for companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook (and Z-berg himself showed up on Sunday). The parking lot is full of Teslas, and I recently overheard a guy who couldn’t have been more than 23 talking about buying a house for his mom (which–that’s really nice–but also–23??? Dang!). Lots of people move to this area to take high-paying jobs at these companies. 

I am not one of those people. 

I work in education. And while I get paid more than the average public school teacher* in the United States ($60,483), I don’t make the type of money a Google person does ($112,849 average, as per payscale.com). I thought it would be fun to do a breakdown of what life can be like here on $72k/year.

RENT – $1351/month or $16,212/year (EXTREMELY LOW for this area)

I am very lucky in that I was able to get an apartment in a building owned by my employer.

Although this has come with a number of problems (for example, lying about available parking, having a July 1st lease start date but not actually getting into the apartment until August 8th because the unit was being renovated and no one bothered to double-check the unit # with the new leases, showing up on a Friday afternoon after being assured I would have keys and then waiting to try and hunt down someone who could help us find temporary housing, finally being told we could move in and then being given the WRONG KEYS, having the toilet installed incorrectly–BUT I DIGRESS), the savings in rent more than make up for the parade of problems I had just trying to move in.

I currently pay $1351 a month for a 417 sq ft studio that is walking distance from my workplace (1.3 miles or about 25 minutes depending on traffic lights). The average monthly rent of a studio or one-bedroom within a reasonable walking distance of my job (reasonable = less than 1.5 miles) is currently hovering around $1800 on craigslist. As such, I’m paying about 75% of what I would have to pay if I wanted to move somewhere not owned by my organization

And to be clear, that $1800 would be going to a real piece of work, if you get my drift. I’ve heard horror stories from others who live in the area about what basically sound like dorms owned by slum lords. My unit has at least been newly-renovated, even if I did have to wait five weeks for it to finish. 

This sweet living situation does come with some caveats, though–because of my rank, I’m only technically eligible to have this apartment for one year. Although some of my neighbors in the building who are of a similar rank have been able to stay from three to four years, it’s not something that’s guaranteed. I hope because of the very small size–studio–that not many other new hires will be interested. There are three open units in the same building, and I think they all have at least one bedroom. Because of this, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I’ll get to keep my apartment for one more year. I should know for sure by June, but I’m making sure I have enough money stashed away to cover moving expenses, just in case. 

If I lose the unit? Well, that just further cements my decision to limit myself to about two years in my present position before moving on to somewhere else. 

Why two years? That’s how long it takes to be fully vested in the organization’s retirement program. If I stay for two years, I get my ten percent–that’s ten percent free money, not even a match, that I walk away with if I stay here for that long. But if I leave before those two years are up? Zero. Zilch. Nada.

I also got paid a moving reimbursement to bring myself over here. And by reimbursement, I mean they took out payroll taxes as if it were a bonus (which, had I known, I would have overestimated–nothing like paying payroll taxes on purchases I paid sales tax on that were bought with money I already paid payroll taxes on!).

Additionally, the phrasing of the moving reimbursement document was something about how I may have to pay back the moving reimbursement if I leave my job before two years are up. I’m choosing to interpret that may as a will.

TRANSPORTATION – ~$1160/year including two oil changes but not including major service or tires

Last month I had the joy of switching over my license and registration to the great state of California. This whole process, from smog check to license fees to registration fees, cost a total of $368. Luckily I won’t have to do this every year, but it was quite a bit more than the $100 it cost me in Colorado. 

Gas is also much more expensive here–according to AAA Colorado, as of last week, gas was going for about $2.73/gallon in Denver (although, since I’m not actually there, I can’t confirm this). Gas at the cheapest gas station in the area here in CA is around $3.90 a gallon. So, it costs $1.17 more per gallon, or about $14 more per tank, for gas. And while I can walk to work, a lot of other places–the gym, for example–require driving. 

I’d love to take the bus more here, but unfortunately none of the routes are very convenient. It would take me an hour and a half with two transfers to get from my work to the gym, but it’s only a 20 minute drive. So, in that instance, driving wins. 

HEALTH INSURANCE – $52/month or $624/year

I get health insurance from my work. I went with an HMO plan, so my options of where to receive care are a little limited. However, one of their super complexes is within a 15 minute drive from my apartment, so making plans to receive care has been relatively painless. This is the second-most expensive plan my organization offers, and I chose it because it has no deductible. 

 Why don’t I have an account that offers an HSA, as many personal finance gurus suggest for healthy individuals? To explain, a Health Savings Account (HSA) is an account that allows you to pay for medical expenses with pre-tax dollars. These accounts are associated with insurance plans that have a high deductible–the idea is that you pay lower premiums in exchange for a higher deductible, but you have the opportunity to save money to meet that deductible. When you contribute money to an HSA, you lower your taxable income.

Unfortunately, only one insurance plan through my workplace offers a high deductible with an HSA option. INTERESTINGLY, it’s a PPO plan–you choose your own doctor, as long as they’re in-network–which are always more expensive. So, in order to have an HSA, I’d been spending twice as much on insurance premiums per month in exchange for a higher deductible, all for the sake of being able to lower taxes. 

I’ll take my half-cost premium with no deductible and $1500 out-of-pocket maximum, thanks. 

And to be fair, I’ve been totally happy with my HMO so far. I’ve had four visits for various reasons, and I’ve paid a total of $20. 

GROCERIES – $200/month or $2400/year

I was surprised at how expensive groceries are here. I remember the first time my partner and I went to the grocery store and being shocked that there were no boxes of cereal that cost less than $4.00. Food and cleaning supplies are significantly more expensive here than they were in Denver. 

After being here a few months, I’ve started discovering the best ways of tracking down my grocery deals. Trader Joe’s is good for packaged items like my coffee, English muffins, and vegan butter, although they never really have sales. Sprouts is good for produce, but only when it’s on sale; if it’s not on sale, but is something I have to buy a full pack of at TJ’s (for example, carrots or mushrooms), it’s also best to buy at Sprouts. Safeway is only good when I have digital coupons. 

One argument against piecemeal shopping like this is that it wastes more gas; however, Safeway is next to my work, Sprouts is on the way home from my gym, and I only go to TJ’s once or twice a month. The savings more than make up for any extra gas or time spent. 

UTILITIES – $30/month for gas and ????/month for electric

My house is heated by gas, and since my apartment has no insulation, I run the gas heater for about 30 minutes on weekday mornings so I don’t freeze to death when getting dressed (I run cold, and my apartment is usually in the low 60s when I wake up. Not exactly Antarctica, but too cold for me!). In the summer, heat was only $9 a month; last month, it was $20. This month I’ve budgeted $30, since I’m using the heater more. 

Electricity is the real question mark. I live in a city where the electric is municipal–this has been great, because we were not subject to the same blackouts that others in CA recently underwent. However, since it is a government agency, things aren’t always quick to happen. I called and set up my account in August; I am still waiting for my first bill. I’ve called twice, and both times I was assured that everything is fine, and that I would “receive a bill soon” that would be “higher than usual” because it would “reflect the cost of service since starting.” This was about three months ago; I’m hoping to get this bill sooner rather than later, because I honestly have no idea how much my electric is going to cost me. I don’t have a lot of appliances, but still…

OVERALL

Overall, the biggest asterisk to my budget is my rent. Because I receive such a large discount, I know my experience in the south bay is drastically different than most others (including most of my coworkers). With my partner overseas, living by myself in this area is a huge luxury. However, it’s a luxury that is not guaranteed to last; as such, I’m trying to keep my budget low enough to cover what rent will be if I get kicked out of my unit. Right now, that budgeted money is going to student loans and retirement; I have the option of re-routing next summer if I need to.

While I’m doing OK, this area is not all it’s cracked up to be. I make $72k/year, but that’s not what the job started at; originally, they were advertising my position as low as $60k (to which I said–there’s no way I could take this job for that money). That’s also the starting rate for a very similar position that my organization is currently trying to hire for.

If someone is moving here without a partner, I honestly don’t know how they could comfortably support themselves on that salary. They’d either have to live with at least three roommates or have a two hour commute everyday, I guess (both things are true of my coworkers). That’s combined with the fact that my workplace wants someone with a master’s–so there’s the issues of student loans as well.  

I know I’m lucky to be able to have this job and live in this area making the amount that I do. However, it’s only possible because of this discount on rent. If I hadn’t been eligible for employee housing and received a pay bump, I would not have taken this job. The cost of living would have just been too damn high.

* I am not a public school teacher, but I have mad respect for those of you who are. I worked in a public elementary school running a tutoring center from Jan through May, and that was more than enough for me!

Open Grocery October 2019

Last month I made the first post in a series called Open Grocery. Every month, I will share a spreadsheet with all of my grocery purchases–dated, itemized, and notated. 

Not my groceries! Photo from pexels.com.

Why am I doing this? 

For one thing, I think it’s interesting to see patterns in my own spending. Is there something I’m spending an inordinate amount on that’s unnecessary? Are certain items flukes? Am I buying too much processed food and not enough fresh food?

Also, lists and spreadsheets are fun. And it’s nice to have some cold hard statistics through this blog, which often explores topics that Gaby Dunn referred to in Season 2 Episode 1 of her podcast Bad with Money as “Finances and Feelings.” 

If you’d like to get into the cold hard numbers, they’re available on this Open Grocery 2019 Google Sheet

Here are some fun facts from the last two months:

I spent an almost identical amount on fake meat products in October as I did in September.

In September, I spent $12.67 on various meat substitutes (LightLife burgers, hi-protein veggie burgers from TJ’s). In October, I spent $12.96 on meat substitutes (more hi-protein veggie burgers, tofurkey lunch slices). Because fake meat is generally more expensive than natural vegan proteins like tofu or beans, this was something I was planning on cutting out in the future; however, $13 is doable (especially when I get 26 grams of protein from one $1.75 veggie patty). 

I spent more money on alcohol in October than I did in September.

This one doesn’t surprise me. My partner left Germany at the end of August, and I just ended up not really drinking after he left. I figured it would just make me sad. Now that I’m used to the life of a lonely spinster (ha ha ha), I’ve started drinking a teensy bit more. In September I bought a bottle of wine; in October I bought a six-pack of beer and one can of sparkling wine (WOOO). Like the fake meat, this amount isn’t so large that I feel the need to cut back. 

I discovered that Safeway digital coupons don’t always depict the correct products. 

One of my downfalls from last month were coupon errors. As in the case of the Chocolove bars, sometimes the coupon shows an item, and we think we understand what it’s for, but the fine print indicates otherwise. This also happened with my Outshine fruit bars–the coupon was for only the regular fruit bars, not the chocolate-dipped ones (even though they’re the same price, you just get one less bar). I had this happen with a yogurt too (I think it was only for one specific flavor). Anyway, I did save myself from one coupon mistake this month–for cereal. For the past few weeks, I was eating Safeway Signature Select Raisin Bran (or Raisin Granola Clusters, or whatever the hell they call it). I got a digital coupon for a Signature Select cereal, and the cereal I usually ate was on the picture. Yay! However, after reading the fine print on the coupon, I saw it was only for cereals from 11.3 to 13 oz. But my Raisin Bran was over 14 oz. And they don’t make it in any other sizes. So the picture didn’t actually match the coupon. 

IT WAS A RUSE! A CLEVER ATTEMPT TO TRICK ME!

So now I’ve learned to read the fine print on every coupon at Safeway and never take anything at face value (sigh). Also, I eat oatmeal now. 

I spent more money overall in October than I did in September.

In September, I spent a total of $196.12 out of a budgeted $200. In October, I spent a total of $218.84, which is $18.84 over what I anticipated spending. There are two things that stick out in my budget that I think caused this over spending–pea protein and carrot cake supplies.

I recently had an appointment with a Registered Dietician (yet another perk HR gives us in exchange for not paying everyone a decent living wage in the HCOL south bay). After spieling off my laundry list of dietary issues (egg intolerance, possible soy intolerance, IBS, vegetarian), she suggested pea protein. Trader Joe’s had it the cheapest at 16.5 oz for $11.99. So, that’s $12 outside of what I usually eat. If I weren’t an athlete, I wouldn’t care; however, if I ever want to send V7 (climbing grade), I need to make sure I’m fueling myself properly.

Additionally, I wanted to make carrot cake. I had some coupons for supplies at Sprouts, but I ended up not being able to access them. Like many grocery stores, Sprouts has a rewards program/coupon situation. However, unlike many grocery stores, you can’t just type in your phone number on the keypad; you have to open the Sprouts app and scan a barcode in order to access your coupons. While I was in line, the app logged out. Then the app froze, and I couldn’t log back in. There were only two cashiers and I started to get really flustered because the line was really long, so I just gave up and paid full price for everything. THANKS, SOCIAL ANXIETY!

(Also, Sprouts, seriously, just let me put in my damn phone number.) 

(Also, if you’re still reading this, the vegan coconut-based frosting was super gross. Next time I’ll just get confectioner’s sugar, vanilla, and earth balance.)

So yeah, my grand plan of trying to get my grocery budget down to $175 for the month did not go well. 

Was this a huge problem? No. The $200/month is a limit I set for myself in order to help maximize the amount of money I put toward things like savings and student loans. I am very fortunate in even having the option of overspending on groceries; many people (my family in my childhood, for instance) don’t have that option. However, I am still committed to getting my grocery bill down (which honestly, if I just ate all the crap in my cupboards, I would probably spend like $10 on other groceries).  

Can I meet my $175 goal in November? LET’S FIND OUT!

Know Your Spending Triggers

Y’all, it’s been a spendy month, and it’s not even over until Thursday.

I had a lot of expenses pop up this month. Some planned, some unplanned. And the biggest one is yet to come–on Wednesday, I have an appointment at the DMV to register my car and switch my license over. I’ve used the online calculator on the DMV website, and it’s going to cost a pretty penny. Or about 30,000 pretty pennies. 

I’ve gone over on my grocery budget for this month as well. Last month, I was officially diagnosed with IBS, so I’ve been trying to live that low-FODMAP life. I’m a vegetarian, and protein has always been a challenge for me; now, however, it’s even worse, because I’ve discovered my triggers include beans and soy (and eggs, which I already knew about). So, this month I’ve been investing in more yogurt and pea protein powders, protein bars, etc. than I usually would consume, in an effort to meet my protein goals while also not feeling like my stomach is going to explode (fun!). 

I also got my first haircut in about two years, which put me back about $108*. I got my hair cut at the mall–which was a BIG MISTAKE. BIG. HUGE.

Julia Roberts calling me out for getting my hair cut at the mall.

I’ve been needing a couple new sweaters for work, so I figured I’d just pop into a few places to see if I could find any I liked. Well, I needed socks too (I told myself), so I got a pair of those. And I don’t really go to the mall that much (or, really, ever), so I guess I might as well stop by Sephora while I was in the neighborhood and get a new eyebrow pencil. My eyeliner is a little low as well, so I might as well pick up some more of that too…

You can see where this is going. Please, learn from my mistakes.

If we want to save money, it’s important for us to know our own triggers. 

I have two main triggers that I’m aware of. The first is plunking down a large chunk of money at once, especially at the beginning of the day or month. The second is ‘being in the neighborhood.’

Let’s address the first one. If I spend a lot of money at once, it’s like a switch gets flipped in my brain. I’ve already been bad by spending more money than I had intended; so, at that point, I might as well be as bad as I want to. After spending $108 on a haircut, what’s the matter with throwing $12 at an eyebrow pencil? Additionally, knowing that I’m going to have a big expense at some point in the month–for example, a cool $350 for everything associated with getting my car registered–seems to throw me off the savings track as well. Instead of keeping me ‘good’ for the rest of the month, my brain has gone into ‘fuck it’ mode. ‘Well, fuck it, I’m already spending more than I want to this month, I might as well get X, Y, Z.’ 

Being ‘in the neighborhood’ is also an excuse that I’ve used to much recently. I go through stages of being a hermit locked up in my apartment spending all my time watching Netflix, followed by highly productive phases of going out on long hikes, visiting friends, getting errands done, etc. When I’m in my hermit mode (which is probably default mode, if I’m being totally honest), I’ll start my day or weekend with the best of intentions of hitting up the grocery store after work or finally going to get an oil change. However, by the time work is over or I’m done at the gym, I usually want to go home. I’ll put it off for another day, I say to myself, and weeks go by without me going anywhere unless I have an appointment. I’ve been needing a new eyebrow pencil for a couple weeks now; I haven’t purchased one because I would have to make a special trip for it. However, because I was in the neighborhood, I went ahead and bought one. But then I thought to myself, when will I really be at the mall again? I’m in the neighborhood, so I might as well pick up x, y, z…

Me vs. Sephora, on a bad day.

That’s when whims turn into losses. I’m definitely an advocate of combining errands to save time, money, and fuel, but not when those ‘errands’ turn into ‘grazing,’ a behavior which comes out in full force when I don’t make a list. 

Being in the neighborhood also causes problems in my more extroverted phases. If I’m out and about and find myself close to Trader Joe’s (which is across town from me), I’ll just pop in because I like their english muffins and cheap coffee. I did this the other day, when I was getting my smog check. However, I didn’t really need to buy groceries. I would have been perfectly fine if I had waited until my regular weekend shopping trip. But I was thinking of a mindset of time scarcity–well, I don’t know if I’ll have time to go later, so if I’m in the neighborhood, I can get these things now. Even if I didn’t need english muffins, because I still had half a loaf of bread at home. 

These are just a few examples of my spending triggers. By identifying my issues, I can be more mindful of them in the future. 

In the instance of my car, if I know I’m going to have to spend that much money on such a purchase, perhaps I should consider putting it in a separate account and saving up over time instead of taking it all at once. If I know I’m going to have to make one major purchase in a month, I should consider scheduling other major purchases for the next month. And if I find myself just in the neighborhood, I should reflect on my purchases–do I really need more english muffins, or am I just buying them because I’m feeling a false moment of scarcity provided by locational opportunity? This is where sticking with a list, and with set grocery shopping days, comes in handy.

So how bad was this month, really? Although I haven’t registered the car yet, according to my calculations, I should still technically be in the black for the month, and I’ve already made my trifecta payments. However, if I want to save more for my future, I need to get my spending (and my reactions to my triggers!) under control. 

What are your spending triggers, and how do you avoid them? Feel free to let me know in the comments!

* I just want to say that this was totally worth it, though. The lady who cut my hair did a lovely job, and I’m really glad I don’t have the hair of a neglected third-grader anymore.