Friday, December 29

Paying For Christmas - The Credit Hangover

I'm hoping that most regular readers of my blog won't be the ones that end up with credit hangovers after the Christmas season. However, it is a very common occurrence.

So, just what is it that possesses us to spend every dollar we can get our hands on at this time of year? Is it the ridiculous volume of commercials? Is it the consumer guilt trip about making sure our children aren't the only ones without the most expensive junk on the market? How come so many of us get fooled year after year?

Personally, I don't really do Christmas. I'll go to family dinners here and there, happily spending time with family and friends, but only bringing a whopping card with me when I show up. Hey, nobody says you have to invite me over for dinner!

I don't really exchange gifts at all anymore. When I was unemployed a few years back I simply could not afford to. Since then I have been free. Free of the maniacal traffic and frantic drivers. Free of the wind, rain and snow while I am forced to go out in search of gadgets and junk. Free of the irksome crowds always managing to get in my way while I am shopping. Free of the buyers remorse that comes when I spend all my cash or eventually get the credit card bills.

As for the rest of you... perhaps it is time to get around to budgeting? You see, you need to get rid of that accumulated debt just as fast as you reasonably can. If you don't, it's like throwing money out the window. Why on Earth would you want to do that?

Budgeting is pretty simple really. It's more a matter of discipline than anything else. If you don't already have a budget, then start writing down your expenses. Put categories like rent, mortgage, food, credit payment, electricity, heating, phone, insurance, parking, car payments, and repairs in a colum. Put the corresponding costs beside them and add them up. If you haven't forgotten anything, you now have a budget that you can follow. Don't forget to add categories such as entertainment, clothing and so forth.

Now, if this is a new budget, spend the entire following month, perhaps January, comparing your real expenses to your budgeted expenses. You'll find that the $15 per week you spend on coffee and donuts will suddenly show up. You'll find that the raffle tickets and chocolate bars that you buy for your childrens school funding drives will suddenly show up. You find that parking tickets, dry cleaning, lawn mowing, snow shoveling and other minor items continually show up to suck money out of your pocket.

At some point one of two things will happen. You'll either adjust your budget to reality or you'll adjust reality to your budget. Usually they meet somewhere in the middle! Regardless, once your budget gets fairly accurate, you'll see that it highlights, in unfortunate detail, exactly where your money is going. While it can be sad to see, at least it is a powerful tool to help you make better decisions. At the very least it will point out the effect that your decisions have on your financial situation.

To wrap things up, look for things you can forgo, without ruining your credit rating, so that you'll have more money left over to pay off your credit cards. If you don't have credit card debt, then you can make additional payment on your car loan, mortgage or whatever else you might owe money on. Heck, if things are going the way they should, perhaps you can simply put more into your savings or investments. An example budgeting tactic might be to cut entertainment and miscellaneous expenses from $300 per month to $200 a month. Just don't make the mistake of cutting fun out of your life entirely, it is in fact a necessity.

Good luck!

NOTE: Included in this week's Festival of Frugality post.

Tuesday, December 19

Big Pork Report

Not too long ago I created a post discussing my purchase of a pork shoulder. After a lot of procrastination, since the expiration date spanned an incredible amount of time, I finally cooked up this big pig.

The shoulder was huge! Well, maybe no bigger than normal, but it was a little bit too big to fit into my crock pot. So, I had to scour through the cupboards and find the monster 12 quart stock pot kept around just for such emergencies. I prefer using the plug in crock pot but the stove works just as well if you can find the right temperature.

Here's an important tip. On some stoves, even on mininum, the bottom of the stock pot can get too hot and scald or burn your food. However, I did finally manage to find a little cooking implement which helps solve this problem. Basically, a small metal wire, in this case shaped like a star, keeps the bottom of the stock pot away from the burner. This keeps the burner element from directly touching the pot and seems to distribute the heat more evenly.

To cook the pork I simply unloaded some cans of appropriately flavored soup. Oh, I did also add some cayenne pepper. Not much of that flavor made it into the pork itself, but it does add a nice touch. I did have a bit of trouble getting the right setting on the burner, so, late at night I'm fiddling with the burner, trying to get the water too hot to touch without actively roiling and boiling.

To make a long story short, upon waking the next morning it was time to turn off the stove and let things cool down. I spent a good portion of my evening with a huge pork shoulder in a bowl, pulling chunks of meat off the shoulder, and then pulling those apart into small pieces. The pork was very tender so this was quite easy, if a little messy. However, I moved the operation to the living room and was able to "watch" a movie while thusly occupied.

Of course, lately I've been eating a fair amount of pork. Because there was so much I've frozen small bowls of it. Strangely, one of my favorite uses for this is to eat it like cocktail shrimp. I'll take a bowl out of the freezer overnight, so it will be thawed, but just barely, the next day. Then, I'll grab one strip at a time and dunk it in mustard, BBQ sauce, whatever and munch away.

It's really good!

Sunday, December 10

Winter Season Frugality Tips

Is it winter again already? I don't know about you but I'm certainly noticing the colder weather! Due to rising energy costs this winter is sure to cost us more than ever in home heating expenses. While these tips aren't groundbreaking I'm sure they will be helpful for those that have never been responsible for heating bills before.

Plastic Window Wrap
If you rent an apartment, or otherwise can't afford to undertake larger projects, then window wrap might be just the project for you. Basically, windows are sealed under a plastic film to reduce the flow of cold air from a window into a room. This cold air could flow directly through cracks or simply from the window pane itself via convection.

Heavy Curtains
If your windows are too large to wrap, or if you aren't willing to look out of your windows through a thin plastic film, then perhaps you could put up some heavy curtains. These will reduce the flow of cool or cold air from a window fixture into the rest of the room. You can open the curtains during the day to enjoy the view and close them at night while you sleep.

Dress for the Season
No, I am not talking about when you go outside. In the summer season it is common to lounge around your home wearing shorts and a t-shirt. While this may be a comfortable habit you should work towards wearing pants and long sleeved shirts. Track pants and a sweater are certainly suitable if you aren't expecting company. Keeping your home a little cooler can save a lot in heating costs. Of course, it goes without saying, but get out the heavier bedding as well.

Humidity Management
Have you ever noticed that you feel hotter on a humid summer day? Sure you have. Well, this is true year round. If you don't let your house get too dry in the winter you may be more comfortable at lower temperatures. Use a cool water humidifier for maximum safety and energy efficiency.

Screen Doors
On many homes you'll see defective screen doors. Windows may be cracked, corners may be gone or perhaps the whole door is missing. Perhaps it is just heavy summer use, but these doors often seem to be abused, especially in areas populated by students. Fix up the screen door, make sure it closes properly, and fix any holes, cracks or leaks.

Seal Cracked Caulking
We don't often inspect the outside of our homes. However, while we may easily spot cracked and peeling paint, window caulking is something we may overlook. Cracks in caulking can allow hot air to escape and cold air to enter your home. Before it is too late in the season take a look at your windows and see if you are due for some minor repairs.

Adding Insulation
This is a big ticket item. If your home does not have adequate insulation then you should consider adding insulating to your attic or exterior walls. See if your utility provider offers free home assessments. They can measure how much heat is being lost and identify how much you can save on heating costs.

Conclusion
While some of these projects are more complex or more expensive than others they are all worthwhile. However, if you don't own your home or don't plan to live there for a long period of time, then it may not make sense to invest in all of these solutions. If you do own your own home you'll find that rising energy costs make it quite easy to get your money back over time.

NOTE: Included in this week's Festival of Frugality post.