Monthly Archives: October 2014

Cooking in Advance: Saving Both Time and Money

I’ve been cooking a lot lately.  The normal division of labor in my home has my significant other doing most of the cooking.  He enjoys the task and he has free time before the dinner hour.  It just makes sense.  But he currently has his leg in a cast and cooking doesn’t mix well with his non-weight-bearing status.  So I have been appointed chief cook and bottle washer.

When I get home from work I’m generally both hungry and exhausted.  It would be really easy to slip into the pattern of buying takeout and convenience foods.  But that’s a path that is bad not only for the budget, but also for our health.  But I’ve learned that with some advance planning, I can keep our convenience foods to a minimum.

Crock potCasserole

I’ve taken to making my weekends (when I have a lot more free time) food-centric.  On Saturday I sit down and plan out the menu for the week.  I browse through cookbooks (Yes…I still enjoy using old fashioned cookbooks.  I’ve had them since before the internet became pervasive, and they’ve never steered me wrong.).  I pick out some things I’d like to eat.  And I make a shopping list for any ingredients I don’t have in the house.

On Sunday, I start the day at the grocery store.  I get the things on my list (which I’m sure is saving me money because I’m not just wandering around the store picking up things that I think might be good or that I think I might need).  And then the cooking adventure begins.  In addition to preparing dinner for Sunday night, I also put together meals for both Monday and Tuesday.  Monday’s dinner is always a slow cooker meal.  I assemble everything and put the crock into the fridge.  On Monday morning, I just have to plug it in, and a delicious meal will be ready for me when I get home from work.  Tuesday’s dinner is always a casserole.  I put it all together, cover it with foil, write the baking instructions right on the foil so I don’t have to look it up later, and set it in the fridge.  On Tuesday after work, I just have to heat up the oven, pop in the casserole, and an effortless dinner will be ready in half an hour.  As a bonus, these meals generally provide leftovers.  This means Wednesday’s dinner is the best of Monday and Tuesday, heated quickly in the microwave.  Throw in a night of soup and sandwiches and one pasta dinner, and I’ve made it through the work week with a minimum of effort and a minimum of processed foods.

Once my boyfriend is back on his feet, I’ll be happy to relinquish the kitchen to him.  But in the meantime, I feel like I’ve got a plan that saving me both time and money.

Budgeting: There is Help Online!

Budgeting is hard.  It makes me crazy.  Paying bills make me stress.  And I should know better.  I should have my spending under control.  I do this for a living, for crying out loud!  But I struggle.

I understand the concepts.  Know how much money you have.  Know how much you are spending on what.  Spend less than you earn.  It sounds so simple.  Yet it’s not.

It’s just like dieting.  Consume fewer calories than you burn and you will lose weight.  It sounds so simple.  But I like chocolate!!!!!!

I’ve had some success in the past using online trackers to help with weight loss.  So it makes sense that maybe I’ll do better with budgeting if I get some online help in that area.  I’ve reviewed a lot of different online tools.  A lot of people like Mint.  I’ve had mixed experiences with it.  It’s ok for tracking where the money goes, as long as it works right.  But I’ve had some trouble with it tracking some of my expenses multiple times.  Tired of the disappointment, I moved on.  A lot of people rave about You Need a Budget.  I like the concept of this site, but rejected it because it requires an actual software installation on the computer.  I want something more portable than that.  I finally decided to try something called Mvelopes.

Envelope Budget

Mvelopes is the modern online version of the old tried-and-true envelope budgeting system.  I watched my father use the envelope system throughout my childhood.  On payday he would go to the bank and come home with cash.  He would then sit at his desk and dole out that cash into its designated envelopes.  When my mom needed to go to the grocery store, she took money from the Grocery envelope.  When I needed new shoes, it was time to hit up the Clothing envelope.  When the car needed fuel, we tapped into the Gas envelope.  And if there wasn’t any money left in an envelope, we had to either make do without, or figure out what envelope we could afford to move money from.

The concept of envelope budgeting is really solid.  You can’t spend cash that isn’t there.  But the idea of working with actual cash is kind of antiquated.  I don’t want to have to deposit cash into my checking account every time I need to pay a utility bill.  But Mvelopes brings that concept into today’s age, where life works with plastic transactions and online bill paying.  I have online envelopes, designated for my budget line items.  I can move funds from one envelope to another.  Every time I get paid, I fund my envelopes.

I’m hopeful that this budgeting tool is going to make a difference for me and help me pay down some debt.  But we’ll see.  I still like chocolate…

Student Loan Origination Fees: Up, Up? Or Away?

I hate federal student loan origination fees.  They’re like a hidden tax on students.  And they’re made worse by the fact that they are now tied to the federal sequester budget cuts.  Before the sequester, these fees for graduate students were 1.0% on the Federal Direct Unsubsidized Stafford Loan and 4.0% on the Graduate PLUS Loan.  As a result of the sequester, these fees went up to 1.051% and 4.204%.  And then 1.072% and 4.288%.  And now, as of October 1, 2014, 1.073% and 4.292%.  And if Congress never votes to end the sequester cuts (or to address origination fees in some other way), these rates will continue to rise once or twice a year indefinitely.

I think the thing that irks me most about origination fees is the fact that they exist at all.  These fees were first added to these loans back in the 1980’s, intended to be a temporary cost saving measure.  Now here we are, decades later, and these “temporary” fees are an ongoing cash cow for the federal government.  For example, a law student who borrows a Grad PLUS Loan of $20,000 for the year will be charged an $858 origination fee on that loan.  That’s not exactly small change….that’s a month’s rent (or more)!

Origination fees are deducted up front from student loans before the funds disburse to the school.  This means that when a student asks for a certain amount of loan funds, they actually receive less than that amount.  Origination fees really aren’t very transparent.  Even if the student knows about them up front (which they should), the reality of the reduction doesn’t really hit home until the student sees that lower amount arrive…and they realize that they have to pay back the fee that was deducted.  With  interest.  Even though they didn’t get to use that money.  Seems to me that it’s a poorly designed, not very transparent tax on students who have limited or no income.

For years the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) has been pushing for the elimination of these fees.  And finally there is a glimmer of hope that Congress might be listening.  Rep. Susan Davis from California has brought to the House a bill to eliminate these origination fees.  Finally!  I don’t have any illusions that this bill is actually going to pass in the upcoming lame duck session, but the fact that Congress is even talking about this issue is good news to me.  And hopefully it will eventually bring good news to all student loan borrowers.

Bargain? Or Value?

Lately it seems like the concept of bargain versus value keeps popping up in my life.  A bargain is something that you purchase for a really amazing low price.  A value, however, is something that you may pay a pretty penny for, but over time that item pays for itself many times over because of how much it is used.

For example, I have two pairs of brown cowboy boots.  One pair I bought about ten years ago for a bargain price of about $15.  I’ve probably only worn them three times.  They’re not that comfortable, they’re hot because they’re not real leather, and the soles are pretty slippery.  The other pair I bought this past July when I was at a conference in Nashville.  It caused me a little pain to fork over $130 for them because I almost never make splurges like that.  But since July, I’ve easily worn them at least twenty-five times (many times during the summer months that are not exactly boots weather), and I’m always looking forward to the next time I can put them on my feet.  They’re really comfortable, and I adore them.  And if you figure out the cost per wear, right now they’re only a little more per wear than the bargain boots.  Within a month I’ll have worn them enough times that the cost per wear is less than the bargain boots.  That makes them a value.  My beloved boots have already given me lots of use.  And I’ll be wearing them for years to come.  The expensive boots are clearly the better value.


Similarly, last week I went shopping for a new suit (after somehow getting away with just not having one for several years).  I had to choose between an all-black skirt and jacket and a suit made up of a black skirt and jade jacket.  The jade suit was 40% less expensive than the black suit.  And I bought the black suit anyway.  The versatility of being able to mix and match the skirt and jacket with other items in my already existing wardrobe made it the better value.  I can see myself wearing either the skirt or the jacket to work at least once a week.  That simply wouldn’t have happened with the other option.

For a bargain lover like myself, it’s hard to admit that sometimes it makes sense to spend more money for something that will provide better value.  But time and again, when I invest more money than I want to in a purchase that I know will provide great value, I do not regret that decision.

When faced with a purchase decision it’s always a good idea to think about the value you will receive from the item you are purchasing.  It’s hard not to love a bargain.  But a value is your better bet.