budgeting · Managing Money · money challenge

August Money Challenge

Oops, I did it again. I spent waaaay too much money on groceries last month ($291.11 to be exact) and my food hoarding stash is getting out of control again. I decided it’s time for another pantry challenge.

You may recall my April Pantry Challenge that I tried out earlier this year. I didn’t exactly pass the challenge, but I didn’t do too badly either. With a few little tweaks and some newfound motivation, I’m sure I can achieve my goal this month. This time around, I will not be including cat-related items or wine in my budget. Hey, I don’t need to starve myself for my cats’ sake. As for the wine, we’ll make that another challenge for another month, but summertime is not the time nor the place to skimp on a nice, cold pinot grigio.

My goal this month is to spend only $50 on groceries. I have plenty of the staples in my pantry, a plethora of frozen fish and shrimp in my freezer, plus my herb garden has been growing like crazy this year. Realistically, I should only need to spend on produce and protein.

We’re currently 4 days into August, and I did go grocery shopping today. I spent $16.91, which leaves me with $33.09 for the rest of the month. Let’s just hope the ice cream and fish taco stuff I bought today lasts me a while!

budgeting · Earn Money · Lifestyle

Easy Travel Hacks Anyone Can Use

We’ve all heard about those people that travel the world for free or next to nothing using a ridiculous amount of airline mileage and hotel points. But if you’ve actually looked into it, it can be as complicated as trying to figure out your own taxes or calculating the next digit in pi. Even so, there’s still plenty of ways to travel hack that the common non-mathematician can easily do without having to spend hours reading or watching online tutorials.

Everyone that knows me knows that my favorite thing on the planet (next to cats and wine, of course) is traveling and exploring new places. In fact, I side-hustle and work several extra jobs just so that I can afford to travel (read my previous article about side-hustling here). Even though I haven’t figured out how to completely beat the travel system like those crazy awesome travel hackers, I’ve still managed to earn plenty cash back and even fly to Hawaii twice for free.

My favorite way to get free flights is by signing up for credit cards that offer airline miles. Seattle is Alaska Airlines’ home city, so naturally Alaska Airlines is my airline of choice. I signed up for their credit card several years ago when they were offering 40,000 miles just for enrolling mid-flight. That got my Hawaii trip #1. I regularly use my Alaska Airlines credit card as my debit card (paying it off every month, of course) so that I can earn one mile with every dollar I spend. It’s an easy way to rack up frequent flier miles without doing a damn thing.

I signed up for a credit card with Delta Airlines once when they were offering 50,000 miles after spending a certain amount within x number of months. They also waived the annual fee for the first year, so it didn’t cost me anything. Because I used the credit card for my every day purchases, I easily hit that mark and earned free Hawaii trip #2. Side note, just remember to cancel your credit card after your trip but before your year is up so that you don’t have to pay an annual fee.

Most recently, I’ve been saving to splurge on a big family vacation for my mom, brother and I. (I won’t say where though, because it will be a Christmas surprise for them). Once I had the money saved up, I looked online for cards offering airline miles with purchase, and found the American Airlines AAdvantage card with Citibank which was offering 60,000 miles when you spend $3000 in the first three months. (Again, please keep in mind that I will pay the balance off in full once I receive the statement in the mail.) So while I paid full price for my tickets this time, I’ll be able to take another free trip again in the near future. I’m sorry to say there won’t be a free Hawaii trip #3 though…I’m ready to explore somewhere new!

In addition to earning miles, most airline credit cards offer other perks for travel, simply for participating in the program. For example, many airlines will give cardholders and their travel companions free checked bags, complimentary travel insurance, complementary auto insurance for car rentals, and discounts on food and drinks while on your flight. Make sure you check your card’s website so you don’t miss out on any awesome perks like these!

I also will never book any type of travel online without using Ebates. I just go to the Ebates website, then click on the link to Expedia or hotels.com, my two favorite websites to purchase travel on, then it reroutes me to those websites. The websites look exactly how they would look if I had instead typed in the URLs, but somehow Ebates keeps track of my purchases and gives me a percentage of cash back. For example, I spent around $4000 purchasing this big trip on Expedia yesterday, and Ebates gives me 10% cash back on purchases made at Expedia. Voila! I just earned $400 for booking a vacation. The only downside is that they won’t send me the check until after I’ve completed the travel, but I’m still totally OK with that!

So there you have it! Super easy ways to earn free trips and extra money without doing anything too crazy. Happy travels!

budgeting · Clarity Money Articles · Managing Money

4 Budgets You Can Actually Use

This article first appeared on May 26, 2017 on the Clarity Money Blog

 

Let’s take a minute to talk about the “B” word. No, not that B-word. I’m talking of course about a “budget.”

For most people, living on a budget is synonymous with sitting at home alone on a Friday night and eating Top Ramen—while your friends hit up the hot new sushi spot in town.

In actuality, a budget is a sound financial tool to carry you from where you are to where you want to be.

When you’re in control of a budget, you’re telling your money where to go, instead of wondering where the heck it all went.

But before you attempt to go it alone, here are four different types of budgets you can try on for size before sticking to one. Here are the four budgeting methods to try:

Zero-Based Budget

In a zero-based budget, the goal is to take the money you earn during a specific time period, say a month, and then subtract your expenses until you end up at zero.

Start by subtracting all of your fixed monthly expenses such as your rent or mortgage, car insurance, Internet service, minimum payments on credit cards, and any other fixed payment monthly bills.

Then, subtract all of your variable expenses that change each month, such as your phone bill, groceries, and gas.

Anything left over should go toward debt repayment or savings.

Cash Envelope Budget

cash envelope budget describes the physical management of allocating cash spendings across labeled envelopes. For this type of budgeting system, you would only use your debit card or automatic withdrawal for fixed monthly expenses, such as your rent or mortgage, utilities, or your car payment.

For everything else, create separate envelopes for expenses such as groceries, gas, and eating out, and place your monthly budget for each in the corresponding envelopes (in cash, of course).

If you exceed your budget in one category, you’re out of luck,  or you’ll have to take the money out of another envelope’s budget for that month. Any cash left across your envelopes at the end of the month means you’ll have a little extra to really treat yourself the next month, pay toward debt, or give your savings a boost.

While this method may require more manual, hands-on involvement, the tangible act of spending only what you physically have may help prevent you from going overboard with buying on plastic.

50-30-20 Budget

The 50-30-20 budgeting system is as straightforward as it sounds. For this method, you would allocate 50% of your earned income on needs, 30% on wants, and 20% on savings or repaying debt.

This method is fairly cut-and-dry, but can give you a baseline for prioritizing actual needs versus wants, while also helping to boost savings.

A tip on establishing needs versus wants: Imagine you need a pair of sensible nude pumps. You may want the designer label, but you exert control by acknowledging the difference between what you need versus want, and you end up buying a great quality shoe from a more affordable designer.

If you find it difficult to categorize between needs versus wants, the 50-30-20 budget can be especially helpful to remove the emotions associated with choosing.

Once you’ve identified your wants, challenge yourself to spend half of what you would normally spend, or if you’re feeling super motivated, spend even less. Nailing this strategy can not only boost your savings or your debt repayment potential, but also provide a practical approach to budgeting.

The Savings Snowball Method

Personal finance expert Dave Ramsey coined the debt snowball method as a debt payoff strategy, where you would pay the minimum due on all of your debts while throwing anything extra at the debt with the lowest balance until paid off. Then, move on to  the next lowest debt balance, pay it off, and repeat.

You can use this same theory for budgeting. Create your list of monthly fixed and variable expenses, paying those first, then throw anything left over toward a savings goal, for say, an emergency fund of three months of your monthly rent or mortgage.

Once you’ve met this savings goal, move toward a second aspirational goal, such as a dream vacation for the family, or a down payment toward a new home. The savings snowball is highly effective reverse method on the debt snowball, and an excellent way to gain momentum as you see your savings increase.

Tips to Get Started

Before you attempt to establish a budget, get a sense of your current spending habits.

Budgeting apps are much easier than tracking everything in a spreadsheet. You can link all of your accounts and track your spending in real time.

Following a good budget practice doesn’t have to be frustrating, nor should you have to suffer and neglect yourself from having any fun. Rather, it’s a learning opportunity to prioritize areas of your life so that you have more resources to experience or have the things you love most. If you resolve to give it a shot and stick with it, you won’t look back in regret. And who knows, you may even have a little fun in your newfound financial empowerment.

 

This article first appeared on May 26, 2017 on the Clarity Money Blog

Lifestyle

Work Life Balance: When There’s Too Many Plates Spinning

Have you ever been to a circus and watched someone spin plates on a stick? Of course it’s quite impressive, and it certainly took the performer plenty of practice (and many failures too) to get their personal plate to spinning ratio perfect. But even he or she will reach a point where they just cannot add any more plates without all of the others crashing down.

My plates recently came crashing down to the floor.

Thankfully none of them shattered. I did learn, however, that I, the crazy lady that thrives on constant side hustling and very little sleep, do have a tipping point.

Adding the Final Plate

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I enjoy side hustling and I constantly have several gigs going on at once. I have my full time job working in the senior living industry, which consumes over 40 hours per week (not including the 2-3 hours I spend commuting each day). I work at an espresso stand several times during the month on my days “off.” I’m doing some freelance writing and also trying to keep this website updated for you. And I also recently completed a 2 month stint working as an usher at the circus in the evenings. I usually have no problem managing my time, and actually feel pretty energized by the amount of work that I do.

Until I decided to cater overnight high school graduation parties. I just spent the last three weeks working all week long, then working from 9pm-6am serving pizza and donuts to newly-graduated high school seniors 3 nights on the weekends. The company I worked for was created out of a mission to keep seniors safe from drinking and driving on what is statistically the deadliest day of the year for teenagers, and I highly value their vision. Unfortunately, these parties were almost deadly for me.

The multiple, consecutive days of sleeping just an hour here or there left me feeling worse than terrible. My concentration was nil. My social life was non existent. I couldn’t get anything done at home. I gained a few pounds when this pushed my Weight Watchers diet out the window. Plus I ended up calling in sick twice at work because I physically felt so ill. And what do I have to show for it? Five hundred measly dollars.

Don’t get me wrong, $500 is absolutely nothing to sneeze at. But everything comes at a cost, and to me, my physical, mental, and emotional well-being is worth way more than $500.

budgeting

Paying Yourself First: What, How, and Why

Don’t forget to pay yourself first. You’ve likely heard this old adage, but have you ever wondered what it actually means? And more importantly, why it’s so important? Paying yourself first essentially means placing money into savings before spending it, and there are two very easy ways to accomplish this.

Direct Deposit

If you have a direct deposit option in regards to your paycheck, take advantage of it and have a portion of your earnings deposited into a savings account while the remainder is deposited into a checking account used for paying bills. You could choose to have a percent of your earnings deposited into savings, or you could choose a set amount.

Along those same lines, having a percentage of your earnings deposited into a 401k retirement account is another great way to pay yourself while saving for your future. Trust me, your RV travel-loving 70 year old self will thank you.

 

Writing Yourself a Check

OK, physically writing a check to yourself is definitely a dated way of paying yourself. You could choose to withdraw cash from an ATM and either deposit it into a separate savings account or stash it under your mattress (which is definitely not advisable). You could also choose to transfer the money to a separate account via computer or smart phone. In order for this method to be successful, you will need to discipline yourself to transfer or withdraw the money as soon as your paycheck hits the bank. Otherwise, you’ll have spent your monthly savings budget on a new Summer wardrobe before you even realize what you’ve done.

 

Why Bother?

Have you ever looked at your bank statement at the end of the month and wondered where all of your money went? That is exactly the reason why paying yourself is vital to financial independence. It is far too tempting to overspend when you have extra money burning a hole in your checking account. It is also far too easy to mindlessly spend that extra money on lattes or margaritas if it isn’t already accounted for.

Paying yourself and not allowing that money to ever sit idle in checking is a surefire way of bulking your savings or getting yourself better prepared for retirement. Figure out which of these two methods works best for you, then start envisioning all those exotic vacations or that dream house you’ll be able to afford!

Earn Money

17 Easy Ways to Make Money Without Changing a Thing

I don’t think there’s a single person out there that doesn’t want to make more money. But let’s be real, the thought of slaving away several extra hours per week at a second job is less than appealing to most people. Wouldn’t it be great to earn more money by doing practically nothing? Surprisingly, it’s totally possible! Here are 17 ridiculously easy things you can do to make more money without barely lifting a finger.

  1. Ask For a Raise

When trying to make more money, the easiest place to start is at the job you already work at. So ask for a raise! If you’re as valuable to the company as you know you are, they should be happy to oblige. It costs employers a ridiculous amount of money to hire and train employees, so smart employers will do what they can to keep good employees.

2. Adjust Your Federal Tax Withholding

Most people look forward to a windfall every year courtesy of Uncle Sam himself. Unfortunately, this isn’t the government’s way of being generous and giving you a bonus. This is money that they took out of your paycheck all year to give themselves an interest-free loan. The fewer allowances you claim on your W-4, the more taxes will be withheld. If you claim a higher number on your W-4, you will have a smaller refund but will have more money on your paychecks each month — money that you can put away and earn interest on!

3. Online Surveys

By filling out short surveys online, you can earn gift cards or even cash. You definitely won’t get rich filling out online surveys, but if you’re consistent you can make a little extra spending money. My Survey, Swagbucks, and Global Test Market are my personal favorites.

4. Swagbucks

Swagbucks, as I mentioned in the previous section, is much more than just an online survey website. You can also surf the web, play games, and watch videos to earn money.

5. Install Data Collection Apps

There are companies out there that will pay you just to install an app on your phone. These apps analyze your phone habits: what apps you download, what websites you visit, how much time you spend on certain tasks on your phone. All you do is download the app, let it run in the background, then collect money or gift cards for letting it run. Nielsen Mobile Panel and Smart Panel are two that I have used with success.

6. Download Digit and Acorns

Digit and Acorns are apps that don’t actually make you more money, but they save money for you, making you feel like you’re making more. Digit analyzes your spending and earning habits and skims a little money here and there to deposit into a separate savings account. The idea is that by taking just a few dollars every few days, you never miss the money and you wind up saving money that you didn’t think you could save. Acorns is similar, but it rounds your transactions up to the nearest dollar then deposits the difference into an investment account for you.

7. Take Pictures

Are you always snapping cool pics on your phone? Sell them to stock photo websites!

8. Freelance Writing

Do you enjoy writing? Become a freelance writer and sell your writing!

9. Get Crafty

Remember those Pinterest DIY and craft projects you constantly pin but never get around to? Start getting crafty and sell them on Etsy!

10. Ebates

Ebates is an awesome website that I’ve been using for years. Every time I shop online, I pull up the Ebates website first. From there I find the website I planned on shopping at and click the link to that website. For example, I love online shopping at Nordstrom. Instead of typing in Nordstrom.com, I type in ebates.com, click on the link to Nordstrom, and it pulls up the Norstrom Website. I shop as normal, then Voila! Ebates sends me a check for a percentage of what I spent on my order.

11. Spring Cleaning

Start selling things around your house on Craigslist, Offer Up, or at a local consignment store. Hey, you’ll be doing your spring cleaning anyway. Why not get paid for it?

12. Lose Weight

I kid you not, there are companies that will pay you to lose weight! Now if that isn’t motivation, I don’t know what is. I recently joined Weight Watchers while they were running a promotion offering to pay me $100 if I lost 10 pounds within 90 days. (I’m happy to announce that my $100 Visa gift card is en route as we speak). Healthy Wage is another company that pays users to lose weight.

13. Start a Housesitting or Dog-Walking Business

You need somewhere to sleep, so why not get paid to sleep over at someone’s house while they’re on vacation? Or if you were already planning on going for a walk or walking your own dog, get paid to take someone else’s dog along!

14. Rent Out Your Spare Room

If you have an extra room in your home, find a roommate and charge them rent each month. Or rent it out on AirBNB for a few days at a time.

15. Switch to a Credit Union or Online Bank

Credit Unions and Online Banks tend to have much higher interest rates on checking accounts, savings accounts, money market accounts, and CD’s than your typical big, for profit bank.

16. Claim Your Unclaimed Property

Ever wonder what happens when you move and someone sends a check to you? Check with your state’s unclaimed property department (every state has one) to see if they’re sitting on some of your old checks.

17. Sell or Trade Old Gift Cards

We all have old gift cards we’ve been sitting on but never plan on spending. Like the $25 Coldstone gift card I’ve had for the last 5 years, which I’ve apparently been holding onto in case I ever decide to say a big eff you to my lactose intolerant stomach. Using websites or in-store kiosks you can either sell your gift card for money or trade it for a gift card that you’re much more likely to use.

budgeting

Why I Use Budgeting Apps

Have you ever had someone tell you all about how much they love spreadsheets? Maybe they’ve told you what a great tool they are when comparison shopping. Or maybe they love to use them to track their spending and budgeting. Perhaps you’ve listened to someone tell you how much spreadsheets have simplified this person’s life and how organized they are because of of this very precise type-A hobby of theirs.

If you’re like most people, you’ve probably rolled your eyes and wondered how someone could actually enjoy that level of structure in their life. I have personally tried to enjoy creating budget spreadsheets, but to no avail.

I created my budget for the month, went on spending as normal, then added all of the numbers together from my online banking statement at the end of the month and plugged them into my spreadsheet. That was not only time-consuming, but because I couldn’t see my spending in real time it didn’t help me spend any less.

Then I tried keeping track of my spending by taking the numbers every few days and adding them into my spreadsheet. That was just plain confusing, since I couldn’t remember which transactions I’d already added and which I hadn’t.

Then I discovered the wonderful world of budgeting apps.

Apps that budget for me

I have three budgeting apps that I use every day to track my spending. Personal Capital, Clarity Money, and Mint. The best thing about these apps is that they are ridiculously easy to use, and make budgeting a breeze. They are all free to download, which is a great perk. All of my online banking accounts are connected to these apps: checking accounts, savings accounts, credit cards, and investment accounts. I can sign in to any of these apps during the day and track my overall spending or my spending in a certain category.

Clarity Money keeps track of my credit score, which is extremely helpful to know. It also keeps track of any recurring payments it finds in my account and makes me aware of them, in case I’ve forgotten and want to cancel old accounts. Additionally, it tells me when it finds credit cards that would be better suited to my needs than the one I’m using.

Personal Capital is helpful because it tracks my net worth. I have my mortgage and student loan accounts, plus my home’s worth according to Zillow attached, so it really does show me the whole picture of my financial well-being. Not to mention the fact that I enjoy watching my net worth slowly increase each month as my debts get paid down, I beef up my savings, and the value of my house rises. It’s also quite easy to compare my spending this month on this date to my spending last month on this date, so it really helps to keep me in check and figure out where I can cut corners.

Mint is unique in all of the resources that it offers to its users. It has a robust collection of articles to browse on various money topics. It shows me credit card or loan offers that better suit me and my situation, and it also tracks my spending in all categories quite easily.

Apps that save for me

The other type of app that I’m obsessed with saves money for me. Yes, you heard me right. These apps connect to my bank account and save money little-by-little for me so that I don’t have to think about doing it myself. I have two that I use daily: Digit and Acorns.

Digit connects to my checking account and analyzes my spending. It somehow knows how much money I will have coming in at any certain point in the month and how much will be going out. Then it skims a few dollars here and there that it knows I won’t really miss and deposits it into a separate savings account for me. I can also set up recurring payments or make extra payments at any time.

One of my favorite ways to use Digit is to deposit money into my Digit account whenever I’ve saved anything. For example, whenever I go to a grocery store the receipt always tells me how much I saved by using coupons or by getting the club member discount. Before throwing the receipt away I always deposit that amount into my Digit account. So if my receipt tells me I saved $7.38 during my shopping trip, I add $7.38 to my Digit account. Or if I really practice my self control and brew my own coffee at home instead of buying a mocha on my way to work, I deposit $5 into my Digit account. I never really miss the money because I would have spent it anyway.

The other savings app that I absolutely adore is called Acorns. It also connects to my checking account, but rather than skimming a little money here and there, it rounds all of my transactions up to the nearest dollar and invests the difference. Let’s say I had a transaction that cost $10.45. Acorns would round that up to $11 and deposit the 55 cents into my Acorns account. Once I get $5 in that account, it invests it into ETF’s. I can also set up recurring payments to give myself a little boost. I definitely won’t be able to retire off of this account, but in the last 13 months I’ve invested $997.78, which definitely isn’t bad.

What’s the point?

The point I’m trying to make here is that budgeting (or saving) doesn’t have to be as hard as some people make it out to be. Sure you can tediously pore over your monthly transactions and add them into a spreadsheet. Or you can do it the lazy way and have your phone track it all for you in real time. The choice is up to you. But if it were my choice, I’d rather use that extra time to watch some Forensic Files or catch up on my sleep.