Coffee heat rising

Freedom’s just another word…

Continuing the project to declutter every room in the house, so rudely interrupted by my job, today I attacked the office and cleaned off all the work surfaces, the bookcase, and the file cabinet, built new hanging files for the various projects that have been stashed in mounds here and there, and tossed or shredded whole trashcanfuls of miscellaneous pieces of paper with old notes on them. Interesting. I’d forgotten the desktop is made of wood.

I’m determined to put away or throw away every dust-catcher that does not have some real, useful reason to occupy a surface. No junk on the surfaces! The goal is to be able to dust without having to pick up and wipe off any more pieces of junk than absolutely necessary. This is part of the stress reduction scheme: simplify housecleaning.

As I was tossing large quantities of paper, outdated reminders, and meaningless keepsakes, it struck me once again that a desire to be free of clutter is characteristic of a frugal mind-or even a miserly one.

My father, who could at times raise frugality to a high art, loathed having junk around him. When we left Saudi Arabia, where I grew up, we took almost nothing with us but our clothes-he never allowed us to buy anything of value while we were there, on the theory that Americans could be evacuated at any time and all the elaborate European and Asian furnishings our compatriots filled their homes with would have to be left behind. Each time we moved (and I realized one day that my mother had moved house on average of once every two years during their 32-year marriage), we threw stuff away. We never carried anything with us that we didn’t really need. I guess he set an early example of voluntary simplicity: a simplicity motivated by a determined bent for frugality, not to say tight-fistedness. He didn’t want to own anything we didn’t need and he didn’t want to pay to move it.

Onward to the two hall closets, repository of two years’ worth of free sample toothpaste from the dentist, the lifetime supply of Costco AA batteries, and several jars of pills of unknown age and provenance.

These closets are like archaeological digs, filled with strange artifacts. Lessons from the remote past:

  • Never buy jackets from catalogs. Out with the pumpkin-colored wool jacket that I’ve kept for years because it looked so good in the Land’s End catalog it ought to look good on me. The truth is–and has always been!–that the thing never fit right, it doesn’t keep me warm, and it’s just plug-ugly.
  • Never buy things out of desperation. Out with the hideous red car coat from The Limited, purchased in an attempt to remedy the Land’s End fiasco. What was I thinking? I hate double-breasted coats!
  • Refrain from sleeping on the ground. Out with the man’s waterproof windbreaker acquired during the three long months spent hiking, bumming rides, and camping in the outback of Canada and Alaska.
  • Don’t get silly about men. Rescued: The clothes hangers that SDXB,* incredibly, smeared with black marker, lest they be confused with mine and he lose those handy pieces of blue and pink plastic when he moved out of my house.

The three-foot-tall “To Donate” box is chuckablock full. It will take half the weekend to haul all the valuables to St. Vincent’s or Deseret Industries. Somebody out there will be happy to get those coats, with the weather nipping down to the 20s. But the gift to me is greater: freedom from junk!

*SDXB: Semi-demi ex-boyfriend, aka “The Emperor of Cheap”

Life in the big city

For the second time today the cop copter is buzzing the neighborhood. This morning it was over the fierce apartments to the west; now it’s racing back and forth above the two-block-long residential street to the north of me. For this mission it’s been up there almost an hour, and because it’s so close, my stereo can’t drown out the racket.

Cop flyovers are among the chronic stressors that go with living in this neighborhood. Every now and again, the airborne police will chase a fleeing perp into someone’s yard. A couple years ago, my ex- and his wife, who live about a mile and a half from my house, watched a teenaged boy jump the fence into their backyard with the cops and their copter in hot pursuit. When they caught up with the kid, they grabbed him and slammed him into the fence so hard it broke the gate. Another friend and her family moved into a house not far from here. On their first night in the home, they heard a helicopter parked overhead, its loudspeaker shouting. Unaware their street was a dead end, the perp had driven into the cul-de-sac, jumped out of his car (leaving it running, so that it climbed into a neighbor’s front lawn), leapt the fence, and was cornered in their backyard by police officers with their guns drawn. The children were terrorized, and you can bet the parents were less than thrilled themselves.

So this aerial presence is not soothing and not comforting. Sometimes I think I’d like to retire to a small town or enclave where the natives don’t feel under siege all the time. However, in Sun City not very long ago a couple and their house guests suffered a home invasion. Sun City is a place where most people leave their doors unlocked and feel confident in the knowledge that the sheriff will show within ten minutes of a call. The thugs grabbed the male guest, dragged him into a bedroom and shot him to death—just for the hell of it.

So. . . It may be better to be reminded regularly that you’re not safe, that you really should keep the doors and windows locked, and that an 80-pound dog with pearly whites to match has something to recommend it than it is to lull yourself into a false sense of security.

What does living in your city or town contribute your overall sense of angst, and how do you deal with it?

Round-up: Colder than a bigawd edition

Okay, okay, a mere 28 degrees is as nothing compared to winter in the Midwest. HowEVER . . . a Myers lemon, a lime tree, a cape honeysuckle, a bougainvillea, a queen palm, a lavender plant–they know nothing of snow, ice, and temperatures in the negative numbers. So I’ve spent the afternoon hauling paint-flecked old sheets, doggie quilts, and threadbare towels out to the garden, making scaffolding out of ladders and cheap wire fencing, and trying to cover the most frost-sensitive plants. Under the coverings I’ve stashed as many shoplights as I could plug into the outdoor electrical connections, in hopes of warming the plants to the survival point.

A brisk wind is wailing toward California, where it will scale the coastal range and, in dropping hundreds of feet in altitude gain enough heat to call itself a Santa Ana. For that we feel sad. Locally, it will lift our best tied-down frost covers off our trees and shrubs and carry them toward Death Valley. And we are worried.

If the weather predictions are accurate (a long shot), this will be our second year in a row of hard frost, bracketing a summer that brought us 31 days of 110-degree-plus heat. We’re glad to be rid of the mosquitoes that were killed by this unholy weather, sorry to lose the black widows (who eat the mosquitoes and the cockroaches and the crickets), and mad as the dickens to see our most spectacular bougainvillea and prettiest lantana already dead after a single night of this stuff.

Some of our food plants will live: lettuce and carrots and beets and grapefruit certainly will make it; if the temperature doesn’t drop too much below 28, the oranges probably will be OK. In Yuma and other points agricultural, the growers are beside themselves because Arizona’s xenophobic anti-immigrant law has robbed the fields of the workers who pick the crops to take them to market at a price Everyman can afford, and so, my friends, expect to see the cost of produce soar into the “luxury” category. Sure would be nice to keep those backyard winter crops alive through the winter.

In the Warm Up a Cold Night Department, Wise Bread has six ideas for New Year’s resolutions that will improve others’ lives and yours too. Mrs. Micah gave a special Christmas gift to raise funds for Alzheimer’s research. Over at Money and Values, Penny Nickel posted four good ideas for things to do with gifts that are more clutter than welcome. Flexo at Consumerism Commentary explains how charitable gift funds work, and Trent at The Simple Dollar proposes six ways to beat the post-Christmas blues. All good ways to start the new year and to keep the frost away from your heart.

Seven ways to save money on clothes and cut shopping stress

Like a shot, it was out the door to the mall to buy some much-needed office togs on mega-sale. Talbot’s, my favorite vendor of grownup-appropriate clothing, provided two pairs of washable wool slacks – 40-freaking-PERCENT off! – plus a beautifully designed blouse and a very snazzy blazer at the same markdown. Chico’s sold me a very pretty gray sweater (also washable) at half price to go with the dressy gray Talbot’s slacks, and of course no trip to the Biltmore is complete without a stop at the Apple store. . . .

So smug do I feel about these little coups that I presume to offer my pointers for saving dough at the mall:

1. Shop the sales around major holidays, especially the post-Christmas season. Never pay full price for anything.

2. Reconnoitre your wardrobe before leaving the house. Have a clear idea of what items you need and in what colors. If more than two or three items are needed, make a list. Shop only for those things; don’t spend time window-shopping or browsing through racks of tempting but irrelevant items.

3. Go straight to stores where you have had success before. Avoid departments or shops whose clothes don’t fit well or aren’t your style, and stay away from stores where staff have been rude, pushy, or inattentive in the past.

4. Never shop when you’re feeling especially cheerful or blue; either cast of mind can lead you to overspend.

5. Shop alone. Shopping is a herd activity – you may find yourself buying things for no other reason than that your friend bought something.

6. If it fits and you really like it, get it. If it doesn’t quite fit right or you’re not so sure it’s the most gorgeous thing you’ve ever wrapped around your body, leave it.

7. Learn to embroider and appliqué. With a needle and some colored thread, you can make a $20 pair of Glorias from Costco look like a $200 pair of designer jeans.

How do you feel about shopping for clothes, and what do you do to minimize shopping angst? What are your strategies for getting the best value for your clothing dollars?

Living on Biweekly Pay in a Bimonthly World: Ten steps closer to sanity

Item: Biweekly pay does not correspond to the world we live in, where bills are due monthly.

Item: Because we pay our recurring bills monthly, we naturally calculate all the rest of our budget items-such as groceries and home maintenance costs-on the same monthly basis.

Item: Biweekly paychecks move around. They precess in such a way that eventually one of them will miss coming in at a time when we need the money to cover monthly bills. This precession is the reason we end up with the two so-called “extra” checks a year, which are not extra at all but simply cover two weeks during which we otherwise would starve.

Item: This disconnect between biweekly pay and financial reality adds up to one huge budgeting headache.

After much gnashing of teeth, I finally figured out how to deal with this, based on one startling Insight: a monthly grocery and incidentals budget does not have to run from the 1st to the 31st. It can run over any 31-day cycle . . . say, over the period of a credit card cycle. A credit card represents a tool that gives you the versatility to stay on budget in the biweekly environment, and automatic bill pay lets you schedule most recurring payments so they will be covered by your salary. Here’s how:

You need the following items:

  • A paid-off credit card with a billing cycle that closes late in the month
  • Three bank or credit union accounts: two accounts you can write checks on and one a savings or money market account with the best interest rate you can wangle
  • Online access to the same
  • Automatic paycheck deposit into the checking account
  • Automatic bill paying from that same account

Your checking and savings accounts should be in a credit union or other institution that does not dream up ways to gouge you for making transfers, writing checks, or in other ways using your own money to suit yourself.

Start this process with a pay period that occurs near the beginning of a month.

Step 1. Calculate the total of your monthly recurring bills. If some, such as utility bills, change from month to month, base this calculation on the highest amount likely to occur. For example, I do not have my electric bills prorated over the year, because while the summer bills are just barely affordable, the spring, fall, and winter bills are so much lower they leave me with significantly more spending money during those seasons than I would have on the prorated plan. So, my figure for total recurring bills includes the highest probable summertime power and water bills, plus loan payments, telephone bills, etc. The total comes to about $880. In the wintertime, the difference is available for Christmas presents, purchases in holiday sales, paying down debt principal, and savings.

Step 2. Figure the amount you need to put in savings for bills such as insurance that occur annually or biannually. Because my house is paid off, I have to set aside $300 a month to cover property tax, homeowner’s insurance, and car insurance.

Step 3. Figure any amount you wish to pay toward loan principal. I try to pay $250 a month extra.

Step 4. Figure the amount to go into monthly savings toward an emergency fund to cover extraordinary expenses. In the biweekly regime, that amount has dropped from $200 to $170 a month for me.

Step 5. Calculate the amount you can afford for food, household expenses, gasoline, the dog, the cat, the kids, weekend do-it-yourself projects, repairmen, eating out, and all other ordinary daily living expenses. In other words, this category includes everything other than savings and recurring bills, and it all will be racked up on a credit card that must be paid off each month. In my case, this amount comes to $1,500 a month, or about $375 a week.

Step 6. Arrange to have your paycheck automatically deposited to your checking account.

Step 7. Arrange to have all your recurring bills automatically deducted from your checking account as late in the month as you can manage: preferably around or after the 20th.

Step 8. Each time a paycheck is deposited, immediately go online and transfer 1/2 of the month’s amount needed for savings into your savings or regular money market account; transfer 1/2 of the amount needed for daily expenses into the second account on which you can write checks (I use a money market checking account); and leave 1/2 of the amount needed to cover one month’s recurring expenses in the first checking account. You must do this promptly after your paycheck is deposited.

In most or all months, your recurring monthly bills are now covered, because they will not come due until after two paychecks have been deposited. You also know exactly how much you can spend for daily expenses, and you have safely stashed away your regular savings.

Step 9. Charge all daily expenses on one credit card whose billing cycle ends late in the month. Because your credit card bill is not due for a week or so after the closing date, you get a float that insures two paychecks will cover your budgeted routine spending.

Step 10. Divide your routine daily living expense budget into four periods, spanning the billing cycle (in my case, this runs from the 21st to the 20th, since the cycle closes on the 20th). Each of these mini-periods is about a week long; in my case, this gives about $375 to spend each week. Set up a spreadsheet with four columns, each representing seven or eight days of the billing cycle. Place the budgeted weekly amount at the top. As you make charges, subtract each charge from the weekly budget, so you will know how much you have left to spend at any given time.

If you overcharge in one week, you will need to cut the amount available in the following week by that amount. In other words, if I spend $400 in the first week, the amount I have to spend in the second week will be $25 less than the $375 budget, or $350. To make this work, you must enter your charges at least once a week.

If you make the final day of the billing cycle a no-spend day, everything you have charged will likely clear on the coming statement. So, when you pay your bill, you’ll cover all of one month’s living expenses.

Use the amount you set aside for daily living expenses to pay off your charge card in full at the end of the month. Any amount you have left over in the “daily living expenses” account can go toward paying off debt or directly into savings.

Here’s what timing your daily living expenses to your credit card cycle does for you: Even though you may not have a paycheck to cover groceries needed three days after the cycle closes, on that day you are not drawing from the paychecks already in your account. The amount in your account will cover the statement winging its way toward you, so the charges you make after the close of the cycle will not overdraw your checking account. The money to cover the next billing cycle will arrive before the end of that cycle, and so you’re still using your salary to cover your expenses. It means that, as long as you stay within each billing cycle’s budget, you do not have to go hungry or run up finance charges in months when biweekly pay does not cover monthly expenses.
Are you paid biweekly? If you are, how do you go about making biweekly paychecks cover a monthly budget?

Chilly Christmas Night

Temperatures are supposed to drop into the 20s tonight, after a cold and blustery day. Plants are covered, as best as they can be covered while the wind fights to carry the old sheets and drapes to California. The big old-fashioned environmentally obtuse Christmas lights festooning the lime tree are turned on, in hopes of sparing the tree’s canopy this winter. And under the bedcovers, the heating pad is tucked where my feet go and turned to Day-Glo Blast.

Indoors, though, it was a nice warm Christmas. M’hijito was thrilled with the KitchenAid stand mixer and not bothered at all that it had gathered dust in my hall closet for several years. So I felt good to have found something to share with him that pleased him so much . . . and decluttered my life handsomely, too.

M’hijito was also pleased to announce he has succeeded in paying off all the credit card debt that accrued between the time he started his Arizona job (at much less than he earned in San Francisco) and his latest raise, which puts him back in the middle class. He now intends to snowflake down the remaining credit union loan that covered his costs during the year of unemployment after the dot-com bubble burst. Since he’s been paying that down steadily anyway, he should soon be debt-free (mortgage excepted). My son, the chip off the old frugal block!

Meanwhile, unless something’s totally awry, it looks like my scheme to deal with biweekly pay by setting up a weekly spending budget is working. Just paid the AMEX bill and found $399 left in the credit-card piggy bank, plus around $150 in the account devoted to recurring monthly bills.

Hot diggety! This means I’ll have a couple hundred bucks to spend on some decent office clothes at the sales tomorrow and still have two or three hundred dollah to apply to the Renovation Loan principal. Dance to spring!

Tomorrow: How to pay monthly bills on biweekly pay.