Wednesday, February 25, 2015

My Month-Long Experiment: Dining Out

I mentioned in a previous post that I like to have goals of many varieties. One of my most recent goals was to go a full month without spending any money on food outside of groceries. That meant no restaurant or fast food meals, no stopping at a coffee shop for a snack (although I did make an exception for coffee with my pre-loaded Starbucks card), no popping in to 7-11 to buy a candy bar. I didn't do the best job setting up what my rules would be, but all things considered, I think I did pretty well.

Going into the month, I had one planned exception - a coworker and friend was leaving the office, so if a bar or restaurant celebration was planned, I was going to attend. As it turns out, we're still in the planning stages for said celebration, so crisis averted!

Here's how I did:

From January 21 to February 20, I spent $28.59 on restaurants.

February 5 - $19.30 - this was the day before a major event at work, and although I planned to stay a little late, I did not plan on working as late as I did. I took a break with a colleague and went out for Thai food. I knew at the time that I was breaking my own rule, but I felt like it was worth it. Otherwise, I'd have worked for another hour, taken 45 minutes to get home, and arrived at home hangry beyond belief. I'm a delight.

February 17 - $9.29 - my other "failure" during this experiment followed a three-day weekend where I did not leave my apartment. R was on a trip out of state, and we had yet another blizzard so the MBTA wasn't running and I couldn't get anywhere. I didn't really see another human for three days, so when my regular Tuesday night play date rolled around and we were concerned about getting home (neither of us live on lines of the T that were running at that time) we agreed to meet up downtown for dinner. I know we could have brought food and eaten at one of our offices, as we've done in the past, but after three days of solitary confinement, the idea of sitting in a sad dark office eating soup out of tupperware was too much. Worth it.

So, technically, I failed. That said, I did a lot better on food spending than I have in other months, so I'm not feeling too badly about it.


I realized that with a bit of planning, I never need to spend money on dining out. There are certainly going to be days that I don't plan for, but for my regular routine, I can plan ahead and be just fine. I need to stop using "failed to plan" as a legitimate excuse for dining out.

A lot of my social life revolves around restaurants and bars. There were many reasons that this month was isolating. During the month-long period that I was conducting this experiment, we got about 8 feet of snow. That said, even when things were running as usual, I didn't reach out to people to make plans as I didn't really know what to suggest we do. I'd like to work on this in the future - there's no reason that all of my group outings need to take place "out."

Finally, because I did it a lot less often, the two times I ate meals out felt like special occasions, and it was kind of awesome. I didn't grab lunch somewhere and eat it at my desk. I didn't go out for dinner three times in a week and never really enjoy it. Each time I made a special exception to go out to eat, it felt more special.

So even though I may have failed, I learned a lot from this experiment and will be carrying on with limiting my dining out spending.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

How do you value time v. money?

For anyone not living in the arctic tundra formerly known as Boston, you may not be aware of how crazy things have been lately. We've received over seven feet of snow in less than a month, and our aging public transit system, the T, has not been able to keep up. I won't speak to the policy and politics behind all of this - I'm not well informed enough on those issues to speak with any authority - but it's brought to my mind a major question: How do I value my time?

Look, snow!

Rewind to Tuesday night.

I live on an above-ground line of the T, and after our most recent blizzard, the above ground trains weren't running. I run-commuted (ran-commuted? ran?) to work on Tuesday morning to avoid dealing with the transit mess, but Tuesday evening I still had to get home, and running again wasn't an option. Instead, I figured out which busses were running and were most likely to get me home efficiently. I walked to a bus stop, waited about an hour for the bus, got on and rode to the next destination where I waited another half hour or so, and finally boarded a bus that would take me within half a mile of my home. All told, it took me close to three hours to get home.

I commute in style
All the time that I was standing in the cold, in the dark, with one very wet foot (I had run to work, so I didn't have my boots and was instead wearing running shoes. Stepping in a freezing puddle in running shoes is not something I'd recommend, and standing outside for an hour after doing so is what most people would call "foolish."), I found myself thinking about time and money.

On the occasions that I've taken a cab home from the office, it's usually cost me about $20. I haven't done this in many months as I've been focused on getting my spending under control, and it hasn't seemed worth it to save half an hour by spending that much. On Tuesday night, though, I think I should have changed my tune. Admittedly, with traffic as bad as it has been, a cab probably would have cost me a lot more, but I also probably would have been a lot less miserable and that is worth something. Actually, I think that's worth a lot.

Let's assume a cab would have taken about half an hour to get me home, and cost $40. It would have saved me two and a half hours. I would have paid about $16 per hour saved. So the question becomes, would that be worth it?

I don't have an answer for you. This is a question that's been on my mind a lot this week. We have student employees in my office who are so desperate to get to work they're paying $60 for Uber rides, when they'll only earn $30 during their shift. We have other student's who've opted to get to work 3 hours early to avoid the morning rush, or who have walked 4 miles through the slush to be on time. None of it is necessarily wrong or right, and after living in this mess for a while, none of it seems crazy to me. It just makes me think.

What is your time worth? These days, I think my time is worth more than $16 per hour, especially if it means getting me out of the cold. That said, I still haven't been willing to bite the bullet and pay for a cab, and the T is slowly returning to normal.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Mid-Month Mint: February

Let's take a look at my Mint pie chart for February so far:

As you can see, this month looks a little different than previous months. First off, it's worth mentioning that my student loan payment hasn't happened yet, so that will shift things around significantly. Second, there's a category here that I haven't seen in a while: travel.

I've mentioned a few times that I have a dedicated travel savings account, and this month was the first time that I put it to use, as I booked a cross-country plane ticket for May! I think this was the first time I've booked a trip with dedicated funds set aside to pay for it, and it felt pretty great. I don't have to worry about cutting down in other areas to pay my credit card bill this month; instead I can focus on continuing to contribute to my travel fund for the other trips I want to book and the expenses outside of the literal travel to get places. This feels like a huge step!

Health and fitness also makes an appearance here, as I've signed up for my second half marathon, taking place in late May. It was a less expensive race than my first one, and I think it will be fun. If my travel fund allows, I might even go a day early to the town where the race is taking place to avoid having to rent a car and deal with driving and parking. I'll have to see what work looks like that weekend, but it would certainly be more enjoyable that way.

Food and dining is a smaller piece of the pie this month, as I've been focused on not eating out for any meals - I'll talk more about that in a later post.

In all, February is going well spending-wise, and I'm hopeful that I can keep up the good work!

Friday, February 13, 2015

What I've learned about risk aversion by playing Farkle

When I was a kid, I went to the after school program at my elementary school every day through fourth grade. By the time I stopped going, I was almost always the oldest kid there, so naturally I had developed something of a rapport with the day care teachers. Basically, I was super-cool and awesome because instead of playing tag at recess (I was way too lazy for that), I played Farkle with the teachers.

I didn't know it at the time, but I was learning a lot about myself, and my comfort when it comes to risk.

Farkle, for those of you who maybe think I'm talking about a made up game, is a dice game. Played with 6 dice, you roll at the start of each round - any 1s are counted as 100 points, and 5s are 50 points. For three of a kind, you get 100x that number (three 6s would be 600 points), and there are additional rules that can earn you more points. The risk comes in next. After you've rolled once, you can either take the points you've earned and stop playing, or you can set aside at lease one scoring die and roll again. When you go that route, you can either win big, or lose all your points if you don't roll any more scoring dice.

When we play, R and I play to 10,000 points. I've noticed a few things about both of us in playing Farkle a lot over the past few weeks:

  • We're both pretty risk averse. If we have five dice that we can roll, and we're only gambling 50 points, we'll probably go for it, but if there's only one die left, we'll take the points we have rather than risk them 9 times out of 10.
  • When we're falling behind, we look for big wins. This is probably not the right move necessarily, as we lose a lot of smaller point accumulations in the process!
  • We'll also take bolder risks when we have a comfortable lead, but comfortable means something different to each of us. To me, a comfortable lead is when my score is around one and 1/2 times his!
  • We're both very competitive.
I can't speak to R's attitudes outside of Farkle, but I'd say that mine are pretty much in line with my attitudes in the game. I don't like to take big risks or gamble with any quantities that I'd be upset with losing. I'm a "what if" kind of thinker, and I know that can do a lot to both help and hurt me, in Farkle and in life.

One thing that I can absolutely point to in Farkle that relates to my attitude toward finance is the idea that I want to get as far ahead as possible, as quickly as I can. Right now, that means paying off my loans, but in a couple of years it might mean saving aggressively for retirement or other goals. The more I do now, when I know what my circumstances are for the immediate future, the more opportunity I'll have later on down the road to take reasonable risks. If I have a 8,000 point lead, I'll probably roll the one die left over, even if it means I might not score any points that round.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Snow Day, take 5

As we are now on our fifth snow day in the past three weeks, I thought I'd change things up a bit here and share what a typical snow day looks like for me. Enjoy!

5:30am - Alarm goes off; double check if snow day hasn't yet been announced, then back to sleep 6:00am - Wake up, make coffee, drink coffee
6:30am - Exercise. Usually some form of body-weight exercises. This morning, I did this Jillian Michaels yoga video. Ouch.
7:15am - shower
7:45am - Eat breakfast - today, breakfast was one of the banana muffins I made yesterday; while eating breakfast, start looking for recipes for more snow day baking
8:30am - Wake R, mix 12-hour Lazy Pizza Dough for later
9:00am - Watch Friends while R eats breakfast, and keep watching Friends for a while because Netflix is dangerous that way
10:00am - Check work email, realize there are things that need to happen since I haven't been at my desk since Thursday, get sucked in to work
11:30am - Bake brownies
12:00pm - Write blog post while brownies are in the oven! Alternatively, read other blogs
1:00pm - Go on a walk, because I haven't left the house since Sunday morning
2:00pm - Come home from walk and commence feeling very grateful for our over-heated apartment; defrost while watching Friends and eating brownies/lunch
3:00pm - Check back in to work email, respond to things as needed and add items to tomorrow's to do list via todoist; hope that school is open tomorrow
4:00pm - Whine about being bored until R agrees to play games with me. Start with Farkle, move on to Spit, accuse him of cheating when I lose
5:00pm - Check work email one last time, then read the internet for a while
7:00pm - Make pizza with mushrooms and garlic and way too much cheese
8:00pm - Eat pizza while watching Parks and Rec, then eat brownies while watching Parks and Rec; think how glad I am that I did yoga and went for a walk
9:00pm - Begin wondering if it's too early to go to sleep
9:30pm - Alseep

It's an exciting life. At least I'm avoiding online shopping? Here's hoping this is the last of the snow days...

Friday, February 6, 2015

Frugal Hobby Highlight: Games

I'm trying to get out of the habit of coming home every night, putting on Netflix, and binge watching Friends until it's time for bed. This isn't really even an issue of spending, but quality of life - I sometimes let myself believe that I "can't afford" to do anything else, so I may as well fuse myself to the couch. The worst part is, sometimes I'm really not even enjoying any part of it!

When I talked with my boyfriend about wanting to change our routine a bit, we thought it would be a fun idea to try playing more games. Board games, word games, dice games, card games. You get the idea.

What a fun change! Because I'm fiercely competitive, I've been petitioning for a new house rule which states that I always win at games, but so far, that hasn't worked out. Even so, we're enjoying literally sitting down to play together every couple of days. We were both off from school/work for a few days in the past couple of weeks due to snow, and playing games was a nice way to change up the pace of a day spent entirely inside our small apartment.

Right now, we're playing a lot of Farkle and Ticket to Ride. I'm also a big fan of Boggle. I recently learned about the best perk of R's weekend job at the toy store - he can borrow certain games and toys in order to learn more and be better able to explain them to customers. Which means we can test out games before we decide if we want to keep them! Like a library of games!

What are some of your favorite games? Would you let me pass a house rule stating that I am always the winner?

Monday, February 2, 2015

Resolution check-in: January

In order to hold myself accountable, and make sure I'm actually making progress on these resolutions, I'm going to try to check in here at the end of each month with a little recap of how I did.

January was not my best month financially. That said, I still managed to put a good amount of effort toward these goals. I'd say I'm making good progress. Let's take a look:

Get my stafford loans under $9000
I paid a total of $719.50 toward my Stafford loans last month, which is just what I planned on. As of today, my total amount owed is down to $19,898.92. I'll need to up the ante on my payments to make this goal a reality, but for this month at least, staying on track felt like a major accomplishment.

I was also able to raise my automatic payment with Navient, so paying less than my planned amount of $719.33 is not an option anymore. To automate this even further, I set up a second checking account and scheduled half of my loan payment to come out of each paycheck and go into that dedicated account. Although I know the money is there, that account isn't linked to anything else, so getting to it would be a major pain, and it's highly unlikely that I'll be temped to use it for anything other than loans.

This month, I'll focus on throwing a bit of extra cash at my loans - I'm going to aim for $30 extra. Every little bit helps, right?

Find a way to earn from a creative side hustle
This was probably the least thought out of my goals. I haven't made any progress on this yet. While it seemed like a nice idea in theory, I don't really know what I had in mind. Open an etsy shop for knit goods? That's about all I can come up with.

This month, I'll try to spend some time brainstorming on this goal.

Learn a new skill
This is real! It's happening! Actually, a few times over. I may have been a bit over-zealous here. I'm working on the following:

  • Learning some basic code at  Code Academy
  • Brushing up my French skills on Duolingo in preparation for my trip to Montreal this summer
  • Taking a copyediting course
I've been somewhat consistent with the first two. The copyediting course is perhaps the most concrete of these. I receive tuition benefits from work, and decided to finally take advantage by enrolling in at least part of the copyediting certificate program we offer. Of course, the first classes were supposed to be last week, both postponed due to snow. So now the first class is supposed to be today, but we have yet another snow day. The class is bound to start eventually, right?

Take advantage of my employer 403(b) match
Well, I can't do anything much toward this except stay at my job until July. We'll call it a work in progress.

Don't spend beyond my travel budget
I'm continuing to save into my vacation account, and think I should be on track for this. In the next couple of months we'll begin actually booking travel, so that's when the real test begins.

Open a holiday/gift savings account
Done! And I set up a small automatic transfer from each paycheck. I think we can officially cross this one off the list.

Continue tracking expenses in Mint

So, things are moving along just as expected. I'll check back in next month with more updates!