Saturday, May 30, 2009

Why I Save My Gift Cards

I love gift cards. So much so that other than cash, that's usually all I want as a gift from my parents at Christmas or on my birthday.

I never use them right away, though. Some people rush out and buy something immediately. Not me. I've been known to hold gift cards for almost a year, saving up for a rainy day. For me, a "rainy day" is when I've got the strong urge to buy something but don't have the cash. I can fix my case of I-Wants without my savings (or debt) taking a hit.

Yesterday was just that sort of day. For years I've wanted a portable speaker/docking station for my iPod. My fantasy, of course, has always been the Bose system, for its aesthetics and quality. But at $300, it's too expensive. Target recently had them on sale, and I'd just about talked myself into splurging and getting one -- even took out a credit card (gasp!) -- but I behaved. Instead, I went with a decent JBL speaker. Not as pretty, no, but similar functions for half the price.

After two Visa gift cards and one Target gift card, I owed 8 cents. Yep. 8 cents. Gotta love that. My case of I-Wants has been assuaged and now I can enjoy my music collection. Win-win.

The monthly update (is it that time already?) is almost here. It's going to be brutal, but ... well, it's gotta be done. That's the point of this blog -- to show the good and the brutal. Stay tuned.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Buck Stops Here

I know exactly when it happened. It was when I decided to go to the Cape. It's not that I couldn't use a vacation. Believe me, I was thankful to go and I needed the break.

The beginning of the end was when I didn't move my friend's half of the plane ticket over to my savings. Since then, I've turned a blurred eye to my finances. I've used my savings as an easy backup to cover my misdeeds. And the effects have started to show. What was once a snag has become a tear. If I'm not careful, if I don't reclaim control and soon, that tear is going to be a hole.

So it's time to do just that -- reclaim control. For example, another friend invited me along for a trip to the Minneapolis. There's an exhibition she wants to see, and she has a friend who lives near there. I was all set to go along when it occurred to me just what it would cost. Sure, the airfare wouldn't be too bad, but then there would the three nights' charge for a hotel room. And then there's the car rental, food, and shopping expenses.

What was I thinking?!

So though it would've been fun, I can't do it. I've got to get back on track.

My original goal for December 31 was to have $7,500 in savings. Unless I win some money (which would be just fine with me, by the way) or am bequeathed an inheritance from a rich relative (an impossibility since I have no rich relatives), that goal won't be met. Salaries are frozen and my rent's about to go up. If I manage to have $6,000 by then, I'll be grateful. (How I'll meet my $10,000 goal by October 10, 2010, is beyond me, especially given the possibility I may go to Italy next June for a week. More on that later.)

In the short term, the important thing is that I go back to taking it one day at a time. I have to reconsider my purchases -- even groceries -- and stop with the impulse buying. If I'm bored, well, I need to stay home and craft. Or read one of the 50+ unread books on my bookshelves. Running to the store for this and that isn't doing me any favors.

The buck stops here -- literally.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sunday, Money Sunday

Today was the kind of day that made me thankful to have savings.

It started innocently enough. I woke up early to meet a friend to go to a neighborhood festival in another city. (She drove.) While I spent a little here and there -- a corn dog, a (fairly expensive) frozen lemonade, and a Father's Day gift for my dad -- I kept things pretty much in check.

Back at her place, I commented that I'd thought about doing a little clothes shopping but wasn't sure I was up to it. We'd been out for a while, and I was hot and tired and ready to head home. But then I figured, well, it wouldn't hurt to look around. Besides, I had a coupon for the store.

So shop I did. I found a very cute shift, some leggings to wear under it, and (finally!) some white jeans. High-end designer jeans on sale no less. (I'm a very hard fit, so finding jeans that fit is akin to, say, spotting a white buffalo in the wild.) The shift and the jeans were on clearance; the leggings were just inexpensive. Still, it came to a hefty 100 bucks for the three pieces. Not cheap, but I figured that since I haven't bought any clothes in a while, why not?

I left the store, got into my car, and put my key in the ignition. Click. Click.

My car wouldn't start. Yep. That's right. There I was after my splurge with a car that wouldn't start.

I knew it was the battery. I called Triple A and a mechanic was there in 30 minutes. He was a very sweet young man -- thorough and patient. He ran some diagnostics and it turned out that my battery was completely fried. Even after being charged, it wouldn't start up without an outside power source.

So I had to buy a new battery. Yep. It has been an expensive Sunday. Days like this remind me of why it's I must stick to my savings schedule. I'd briefly considered going on savings hiatus to put it all toward the debt, but now that this has happened, I think it's more important to keep up with the deposits. Period.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Cheap Friend

All my life, I've chosen quality over quantity in my friendships. Now, in my 40s, I have a wonderful group of fascinating and diverse people in my life. I revel in their differences. But despite all those differences, they share one thing in common: They all have or make more money than I do.

That's right: I'm the poor friend.

They all have homes or condos. They redo their kitchens and go on fabulous trips. One went to China last year, another went to Ireland last month, and still another is vacationing in the south of France next week. One friend's husband bought her a BMW for her birthday a few years ago.

I rent. Many of my furnishings are either really old (I've had the same bedroom dresser since I was 8 or 9) or secondhand. And when it comes to vacation planning, it's usually just a drive to visit my parents. (And let me tell you, that's no vacation.) My recent trip to the Cape was an extravagance, and it was doable only because I didn't have to pay for a hotel on top of airfare.

I don't mean to sound like I feel sorry for myself. I know that in the grand scheme of things, I'm doing OK. Indeed, I am blessed. My needs have always been met.

But sometimes when I'm around these friends, I feel "less than." It's nothing they say or do; they're all genuine and generous and kind. But as I've done since I was a kid, I compare myself to others only to find that I come up short. (This unfortunate trait comes into play with all sorts of things -- even hair! -- but as this is a debt blog, I'm focusing on its effect as far as my financial situation is concerned.)

This is how I ended up in debt in the first place -- this desire to fit in, to keep up with Joneses, as they say. I've spent a lot over the years in trying to look and live like my fab friends.

Now I'm paying for those past sins. And as a result, sometimes I'm forced to acknowledge -- mostly to myself but sometimes, awkwardly, to them -- that my circumstances are different, that I can't have the things they have or do the things they want to do. Instead, I have to be mindful of the budget.

Like when I'm shopping with them and I find something I love only to see the price tag and have to put it away. Or when we're eating out and I request separate checks to avoid having to split a bill I can't afford. I go from feeling like the poor friend to something I consider much worse: the cheap friend.

It is humbling, even embarrassing.

I am halfway to being debt free. So close, but still so far away. I just want this debt to be gone so I can stop feeling like a moocher. I want to go out to eat and order what I want without worrying about how much it costs (and order something to drink other than water). I want to be able to go away for a few days without feeling like I'm breaking the bank. I want to not have to defer an educational opportunity because I can't [expletive deleted] afford it.

I know in the end this will have all been worth it. But you know what? Sometimes it sucks.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Cape Cod Recap

I'm back from the Cape. And I have to say, I did quite well with the spending. I'd withdrawn 100 bucks in cash to use for small things and food, and had set aside $200 in my checking account. I spent only about $22 from the checking account, and I brought back $20 in cash. Not bad. What few things I bought were very inexpensive. Like the $5 coat. Yeah, that's right: The $5 coat. I wasn't even tempted.

And this is good because I've learned that as part of the belt-tightening process at work, there will be layoffs. From what I understand, I'm safe, thankfully. Still, it is unnerving.

All the more, I desperately want to pay off this debt. I must.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

On to the Cape

I leave for my weekend on the Cape tomorrow. I'm so glad to be going away for a few days. It's been over a year since I've gone somewhere -- well, other than to my parents', and that's hardly a vacation. (If anything, that feels more like a job, and one I don't get paid for.)

I am a little nervous about the shopping, though. I'm not taking a credit card, so at least I won't be digging myself further into a hole. But I also don't want to be chipping away at my savings, either. So I'm going to have to find that balance between having a good time while purchasing responsibly and losin' my freakin' mind when I go to one of the very cool shops around there. The last time I went up there, I spent over a 100 bucks on a pair of shoes that hurt even before I left the store and another 100+ on a pair of jeans that I ended up having to get altered for another $30. And don't get me started on the food...

So this time my goal is to really think about each purchase. And then think about it again before I get to the register. It's not like I can change my mind later and take anything back for a refund.

I'll check in next week and let you know how I did. Stay tuned.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Monthly Update for May 2009

So, it's that time again. Some of it ain't pretty.

The Debt: $10,924.07
The savings: $5,045.16

The change in the debt isn't bad; it's a respectable difference of about $480. The savings, though, took a hit -- a nearly $700 hit.

It's because of my upcoming trip. Well, that and my irresponsibility. I'd put my and my friend's airfare and ferry tickets on my credit card (which I paid off from savings), and he paid me immediately for his share. That was all fine and dandy, but instead of putting his half into my savings like I should have, I kept it in my checking believing I would keep it there so I'd have spending money during vacation.

The problem is that I've already spent it. As I mentioned in my last post, I've fallen off the wagon and have been shopping a lot. I joked (read: rationalized) that I was doing my part for the economy. What I need to be doing is my part for myself.

And never has this been more important than now, now that I'm considering going back to school.

Which brings me to this: I'm going to defer my admission to fall 2010. I thought about it and it makes the most sense for me right now. I applied not really expecting to get accepted, and I'm unprepared for it. For one, when I first considered it, I thought I'd be able to have my employer help with tuition. But we are now "belt-tightening," and I don't think it's right to ask.

What I'd like is this: If I do decide to go next year, I want to go without any debt stress. And I don't want my decision to be based on whether my employer can help foot the bill. Sure, if they can help pay for it, great. But I want to be able to go even if they can't -- and I don't want to be stressed about it.

It's funny: I'd picked my debt freedom date before any of this came about, and now it seems the timing is pretty perfect. Go figure.

In the meantime, I've gotta get back on the wagon and stop this crazy spending that I've been doing. Period.