Open Grocery February 2020

Hello everyone, and welcome to Open Grocery, my monthly post in which I provide you an itemized list of every single food item I purchased in the previous month.

OPEN GROCERY 2020 SPREADSHEET

In my spending plan, I usually denote about $200 a month to groceries. I live alone, so $50 a week shouldn’t be too hard to handle, right?

Oh, what a fool I was.

While I’ve been kind of successful meeting this limit in previous months, January’s spending blew this right out of the water. In January, I spent a whopping $241.61 cents on groceries, or over forty dollars more than I had anticipated.

Uh… whoops

What caused this drastic increase in grocery costs, other than my own lack of self control? 

I blame two things: January was kind of a long month, and I am focusing on getting more protein in my diet.

First off, January. Other than for some reason feeling like it was several weeks longer than it should be, January also felt long because it marked my return from vacation. Before vacation, I tried to eat down as much of my in-house food as possible. I was gone for almost two weeks, so I didn’t want any vegetables or open boxes of cereal languishing on my counter until reaching the point of spoilage. As such, upon my return, I really didn’t have much other than a box of oatmeal and one Annie’s Mac and Cheese (my usual post-travel kitchen staples).

On December 31st, I visited both Sprouts and Trader Joe’s, in an effort to refill the kitchen. They’re included on this spreadsheet because they were purchased for consumption in January. This brought the bill up a bit.

Additionally, January has 31 days, so there’s one extra day in which to feed myself.

Secondly, I am focusing on getting more protein in my diet. Amongst my New Year Resolutions’ were tracking my macros and meeting my protein goal at least three times a week. Because of my many dietary restrictions (IBS, egg intolerance, vegetarian), my protein options can be a little limited, and traditional cheap protein fixes like just eating a ton of beans doesn’t work for me. Something my dietician recommended was pea protein powder. I bought two big jugs of protein powder this month, which together cost $28.00 (I upgraded from original to vanilla, which is $2.00 more a jug, but god does it taste better). 

In an effort to fix my gut bacteria and get more healthy probiotics in my life, I bought kimchi twice this month. Kimchi is usually between $6 and $6.50 when it’s on sale at Sprouts, so two packages of kimchi were a little over $12.00. 

These two products–the pea protein and the kimchi–equal $40, so maybe my overspending can be explained by these. 

So, I went over $40 over. Am I going to beat myself up about it? Not too much. While I still focus on reducing my costs so I can throw as much money toward my student loan debt as possible, I don’t want to sacrifice my health and happiness by making too many cuts in my grocery bill. It’s worth more to me to have a healthy body than to pay off my loans early.

I’m not throwing the spending plan out the window though. For February, I am still aiming for only $200 a month, but I expect that I will blow that out of the water again. My partner is visiting for two weeks (yay!), and, as an athletic dude, he eats a lot

However, he’s totally fine with eating an entire can of beans for dinner, so maybe it will be ok. 

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: 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!

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. 

Reallocating, or, Changing Your Spending Plan Categories

When you first start reading about personal finance, there are several big pieces of advice that you’re given to follow: pay off high-interest consumer debt, create an emergency fund, and invest in your 401k (especially if it comes with an employer match–free money, baby!). 

But what do we do when our financial reality changes, and it seems that we’ve possibly met some of our goals already? How do we choose how to change our spending plans?

Much like this chimp, I have some thinking to do. Image from pexels.com.

I recently took a look at my spending plan to tweak my in-case-of-emergency expense totals. In the event that I am laid off, how much money would I need to support myself, and what expenses would be sacrificed first?

There are some obvious ones–goodbye, climbing gym membership and Netflix–but there are some other expenses that aren’t as straightforward. For example, my housing is tied to my job. The organization I work for owns the building in which I live, which means I get to live in a studio in a HCOL area that costs about 2/3 of what rent would be if I paid market rental rates. This works for me as long as I keep this job. However, if I get laid off or choose to leave this job, I have 30 days to move. 

My current emergency account is calculated based off of keeping this apartment. However, if I were laid off from my current job, I know I wouldn’t want to look for another one in this area. No offense to all of you who absolutely love the south bay, but I haven’t exactly fallen in love with the area–I miss the Rocky Mountains, and snow, and not having to take more than one flight to see my family. None of my family lives in the area, and I have no “deep connections” to anyone or anything here–as such, if I lose this job, I would just move somewhere cheaper. 

At my current rent, I have 4.93 months of expenses covered. But is my monthly rate even accurate, if I would move anyway? Do I need to calculate at my current rental rate, or could I calculate at a lower one? 

More importantly, what would I do if I lost my job right now?

That’s pretty easy. I already have a ticket to Germany for December; I’d probably max the 30 days in my apartment here while putting in as many job applications as possible, throw all our furniture into monthly storage, and then fly out to the east coast to hang out with my family* for a month before heading to Germany to see my partner. And if I didn’t have a job by then–either back to mom’s to help her prepare her house to sell, or maybe spend some time job hunting while traveling in some low-cost locations.

Long story short, I had several numbers in my head. The first was six months of living expenses at my current rate. The second, which was higher, was $15,000. Why 15k? It covers a little over six months of my expenses, is enough to buy a new-to-me car if my 2007 Yaris decides to finally call it quits, and, frankly, it just seems like a nice big round number. But is that excessive, and is there a better way in which I could be using my paychecks? I’m currently throwing all this into a high-yield savings account, but at 1.8%, it’s not exactly the ideal place to make my money work for me. Additionally, I’m already on track to max out my IRA contributions for the year. So where should it go?

The way I see it, I have three main choices: put this money toward student loans, retirement, or invest. 

Student loans seems like it should be the obvious choice. I have over $40k of student loan debt at an average interest rate of 6.3%. As many financial advice books say, paying off student loans early is a guaranteed return–I won’t be losing any money, and I’ll have to pay these off eventually. At the current interest rate, though, it’s hard to decide–is my rate low enough to make me comfortable paying through the full 10 years, because the gains I would make in my other accounts would be more? Or would the money I lose to interest eat up anything I would make elsewhere? 

But there’s the psychological effect too–this $42k is hanging over my head, dragging me down and making me feel like I am in a financial panic, even though I know, logically, that I am not. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m pretty high strung, so maybe the sense of relief that would come with removing this debt faster would be worth the potential losses in other accounts. 

Another place my money could go is into retirement. I currently have a 401(a) retirement account with my employer. I do not receive any matching; they just give me 10% of each paycheck into that account. As long as I stay for two years, all that money is mine. I do, however, have the option of also starting a 403(b) account. This would use pretax money, so not only would I save for retirement, I would also lower my taxable income (which would be great, because, as I’m discovering, CA has a shit-ton of taxes–the highest income tax in the nation, to be exact). I just have to be comfortable knowing I can’t touch this money for about 27 years–although retirement savings is a long game, is it not?

Finally, this money could go into a non-retirement investment account. I would love to FIRE or FIOR, and an account like this would let me withdraw money before 59.5 without any penalties. As such, I could invest and know that I could access this money at any time. However, with that freedom also comes responsibility–namely, things like tax-loss harvesting and capital gains tax and a bunch of other shit that I have no idea what it is. Even though I keep trying to read more books, I still have no idea what I’m doing. So the thought of investing in an account like this still seems very overwhelming. I’ll get to that point… one day. But right now, I have a lot of other things on my plate to deal with. 

Besides, I have my Roth IRA. And though I know I shouldn’t touch that money until 59.5, knowing that I can access the deposits I’ve put into it, in case of emergency, does make me feel a little better. 

So what should I do? Loans, retirement, or non-retirement investments? 

I’m going to open a 403(b) for half of my emergency fund money, and put the other half toward student loans. I guess I just want to have my cake and eat it, too.

Realistically, though–with my interest rate, it’s hard to make a confident call. And although paying off my student loans early would give me some sort of psychological comfort, I would also have to face the reality that I put my retirement savings on hold, so when my loans are paid off, I wouldn’t have anything left to show for it. 

I currently have $500 going toward my emergency fund–I still plan on funneling $100/month toward it, but $200 will now go to a 403(b) and the other $200 will go to my student loans. This $200, plus my 401(a) money, plus my IRA, puts me at retirement savings of about 29% of my take-home pay. And $200 added to my current student loan spending plan amount is about $750, or about 150% of my estimated required payment**. I’ll be able to make a payment and a half each month. 

The whole point of this post is realizing that your financial goals may change–and that’s ok! Checking all your accounts every day might not be the healthiest thing to do, but every once in a while, you should look at your accounts, look at your numbers, and ask yourself: What would I do if I got fired this instant? 

See how you answer that question, and adjust your financial goals accordingly. 

* I recognize that the ability to just say I would go hang out with my mom is definitely a privilege–a lot of people don’t have that as a viable option, either because they don’t have any living family, or they have a bad relationship with their family, or their family simply couldn’t help support them. However, not only would my mom be absolutely thrilled to have me back for a little bit, but she would also get a bunch of labor from me in regards to cleaning and fixing the garage, painting, helping put down new carpet, etc. etc. etc. 

** This payment is estimated because my loans are still in their grace period. I graduated in June but won’t be required to make payments until January. However, I’ve used some calculators to estimate what my payment will be and have already budgeted for it/started paying these loans back. Once January rolls around, I’ll know the actually payment amount, and maybe consider refinancing with a lower interest rate.