Monthly Archives: February 2020

I Spend HOW Much on Food?!?!?

It’s been a while since I told you all about my New Year’s resolution to slowly create and live within a budget.  I’m thinking it’s time for an update on my process.

After trying to track my expenses without third-party help, I quickly came to the realization that I am never going to succeed without some help.  Writing down and tracking my own expenses is not so bad, but staying on top of what my husband spends as well just adds a layer of complexity that I’m not up to.   There are seemingly endless budgeting tools available online, and I feel like I’ve tried most of them at one point or another.  But when it comes right down to it, what I really wanted is a good old-fashioned spreadsheet.  I’m pretty good with spreadsheets (because they are very handy for my job), so if I could just get my account data transported into a spreadsheet I know I’m capable of manipulating it in ways that are useful to me.  Thankfully I found Tiller.  This tool connects my accounts to a customizable Google Sheet, so I can sort my transactions by date and category.  I’m on a one-month free trial right now, but I’m already thinking this will be worth the $59 a year it will cost me to continue.  I was able to get it all set up in about an hour, and quickly saw that the biggest consumption of my money (beyond housing and medical bills) is food.

I looked at my food expenses and saw that there is definitely room to cut back on dining out as well as on groceries.  Dining out is the easy piece.  We just won’t do that as often.  This will end up being better not only for the wallet, but also for the waistline.  Groceries are more complicated.  As I’ve done my tour through a few different stores lately, I’ve been paying better attention to how much things I consume regularly cost.  There are some things (predominantly pet supplies) that I sometimes buy online.  This week I compared that cost to in-store prices, and discovered that online is indeed cheaper for these things.  But it would have been easy to just never check because I enjoy the convenience of having kitty litter delivered to my front porch.  Now that I know the online price is less, I’ll make sure I have enough coming that I never have to buy it in store.

Another grocery cost-saver is whole foods versus prepared foods.  A bag of steam-in-bag brown rice is significantly more expensive than a bag of raw brown rice.  A little planning and some quality time with my Instant Pot can make that transition very easy.  A jumbo tub of old-fashioned oats is much cheaper than pre-packaged instant oatmeal or any boxed cereal.  For produce it’s important to consider the time of year.  Fresh produce is not cheap in Pennsylvania in February.  But frozen berries and vegetables can get the job done for a lot less money.  I’ll wait to enjoy fresh when things are in season.  And then there is meat.  There is definitely savings to be found from buying in bulk.  That jumbo pack of chicken breasts can easily be broken down into individual packages and frozen.  That 9-pound pork shoulder roast can be slow cooked and then frozen as several individual pounds of cooked pulled pork for future burritos and casseroles and sandwiches.  Today’s rotisserie chicken is tomorrow’s chicken casserole.  And don’t forget about the poor-man’s staples:  eggs, pasta, beans, rice, and meat that comes in a can (I prefer tuna, but I know there are still Spam lovers in the world!).

There are a lot of ways to shave the food bill.  I’ll keep exploring them and sharing what I learn.


The Levels of Need

It’s so hard to stop money from flowing out of my checking account when there are so many things that I need!  But when I stop and think about it, there are a lot of different levels of “need.”

I need to pay my bills.  Housing, my car loan, my utility and credit card bills.  These absolutely NEED to be paid.  Everything after that has some variation to it.

I NEED to have clothes to wear.  I don’t necessarily need to buy new clothes.  I may be fine with the clothes already in my closet.  If I absolutely need something I don’t already have, I may be able to find what I need secondhand.  The State College Goodwill Store and the St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store are two of my favorite shopping spots.  And if I don’t find what I’m looking for there, I check ThredUp or Poshmark for online secondhand clothing.  Most of the clothing I own came from one of these four sources.  It’s pretty rare that I buy clothing brand new.  I need to have clothes.  I don’t need to have new clothes.

Food is another need that has a lot of degrees to it.  I NEED to consume food to sustain my life.  I need that food to be healthy enough to meet my nutritional needs.  I don’t, however, need that food to be processed or pre-packaged, or ready to eat at the time of purchase.  I’ve been focusing a lot this year on buying real food and cooking it into healthy meals rather than focusing on ready to eat freezer foods.  It takes more time to cook from scratch.  I spend a lot of time on the weekends making ahead some meals for the coming week.  But for that effort, I’m getting a lot healthier food for a lot less money.  And because those meals are prepared ahead of time, I don’t spend extra money on restaurant food.  I NEED to eat.  I don’t NEED to eat out or eat prepared foods.  Sometimes a meal at a restaurant is a nice treat…but it’s not a necessity.

I NEED to get myself to work every day.  I typically accomplish that by driving my 2012 Subaru.  But the reality is that my car is not a necessity.  I could take the bus to work and back.  I could ride my bike to work.  I could carpool.  There are a lot of options other than owning a car.  I CHOOSE to own a car and I accept the expenses of fuel and maintenance and insurance and parking that come with that.  But my car is not something I need.  It’s something I WANT and I have it because the ease it provides me is a priority to me.

There are a lot of levels in between what you NEED and what you WANT.  Wherever your priorities lie will determine where you spend your money.  The next time you are making a purchase ask yourself, “Do I need this?”

It’s Not As Taxing As You Think

Just like that we’re in February.  Punxsutawney Phil did his thing.  The NFL did their thing.  And now it’s time for you to think about doing your IRS thing.

It always amazes me when I hear from students that they are “having their taxes done.”  It’s really not as intimidating as you might think to file on your own.   Here is what you need to know:

  • The Lifetime Learning Credit will allow you to reduce your tax liability if you had expenses for tuition and fees in 2019.  You will need to complete IRS form 8863 and Schedule 3 to claim this credit.
  • Student loan interest can be claimed as an adjustment to income, reducing your tax liability.  You will need to complete Schedule 1 to claim this credit.
  • Student loan disbursements that you received DO NOT count as income.
  • Scholarships that do not exceed tuition and fees DO NOT count as taxable income.
  • If your income for 2019 is less than $69,000 you can e-file for free, with assistance from one of several well-respected tax software companies.
  • If you need to locate your 1098-T from Penn State, it is available on LionPath.  Click on the “my finances” button, select “manage my account/make a payment,” then scroll down to the bottom of the page.  You’ll find the link in the right column.
  • If you are living in Pennsylvania, you will likely also need to file state and local income taxes.

Filing your income tax may feel a little intimidating.  Throughout my career I have learned that nobody comes to law school because they love math.  But filing taxes is definitely something that a law student should be able to handle on their own, without having to pay a professional (or persuade a parent).  The online/software programs available to help make it really easy.  And if you are getting a refund—that makes it all worthwhile.  And if you are NOT getting a refund, all the better.  That means that you have not been giving the federal government free use of your money all year!

There’s no need to fear.  Your “I Filed My Taxes” adulting badge is just around the corner!