Thursday, August 9, 2012

25 Ways I Save Money

Hello. Should we just pretend it hasn't been five months since I posted? Good, let's do that then. I'm inspired to write because I was online yesterday looking for advice on getting my budget under control. I'm actually in a pretty good place, financially-speaking. Better than many people are in fact. God knows it wasn't always this way. In the past, I had some bad money habits (and two husbands who were even worse), and so I spent the majority of my adult life in serious debt and struggling each month to make the bills. Sometimes we didn't make it and then I had to deal with late penalties and bill collectors. And of course, the grinding worry that comes with never having enough money. Not fun.

Then Ely died, and I got some insurance money as a consolation prize. (If you're wondering if insurance money comes with a big steaming helping of survivor's guilt......the answer is yes. Yes, it does.) So right away, I was able to pay off all my debts except for the mortgage, and still have some left over. (No, we didn't have enough coverage. If you're married and reading this, go check your insurance right now and make sure that you have enough to pay off your house!)

Because Ely was the main provider for our family, my son and I also qualified for survivor's benefits through Social Security, which will continue for Logan until he is 18, and for me until he is 16 or until I remarry, whichever comes first. That income is thankfully enough to pay for all my fixed expenses, groceries, and gas, which is a very good thing because my part-time waitress income sure as hell wouldn't cover it. Without that safety net, I probably would have lost my home, so I will be forever grateful for it.

But what about all the rest? Theoretically, my waitress income is for all the "extras"--in other words, everything that's not bills, groceries or gas. That's a lot of stuff. (This doesn't include expenses for big-ticket items like vacations, laptops, my dental implants, school tuition, home improvements, etc. I'm using the ever-dwindling life insurance money for those kinds of things, which obviously can't be paid for with tips!) My problem at the moment is that what I'm spending for extras is starting to exceed what I'm bringing in. This past month, for the first time in almost a year, I had to move money over from my savings to cover everything and that's no bueno. Granted, I'm hardly working this summer, but even during the school year when I was working more shifts, I was spending everything I was making. Also no bueno. If I don't start saving again, eventually I'll be right back where I started: broke and in debt.

So in my internet travels yesterday, I found this inspiring (albeit 6 years old) blog roundup over at Frugal For Life asking bloggers to share 25 ways they save money. Well, I already do a lot right in that department, so I thought I'd list all the ways I do save before I list the things I need to start doing.

So without further ado, here are 25 things I already do to save money:

1. I use a cash back rewards Visa card for groceries and gas and pay it in full every month. There are a few caveats, but the first two months I used it I earned almost 30 bucks in free money right back into my checking account. Gotta like that!

2. Speaking of my checking account, I enrolled in Bank of America's Keep the Change program, which rounds up all my debit purchases to the next dollar and automatically deposits the difference into my linked savings account. The only requirement is that you have to have $25 automatically deposited from your checking into your savings each month. Easy peasy, and so worth it. (Although, if I'm dipping into my savings to pay my bills it kind of defeats the purpose!)

3. I refinanced my mortgage from 5.375 to 3.75 and went from a 30-year-term to a 15. This will save me tens of thousands over the life of the loan.

4. I buy generic and store brands for almost everything. I'm not brand loyal at all.

5. I replaced almost all of our lightbulbs with CFLs, which last a million times longer. (Just don't break any; you practically need a Hazmat suit to clean it up.)

6. I track all my income and expenses every single month. I literally write down every penny that comes in and goes out. This is how I know that I spent 900 bucks on groceries a couple months ago. (Ack!)

7. I also balance my checkbook to the penny the day the statement arrives, and have my checking account linked to my savings for overdraft protection.

8. I pay almost all my bills online to avoid using stamps and envelopes.

9. I got rid of my landline.

10. I don't have a data plan or internet on my phone. I can't even receive photos so don't send me any. (So far, I have managed to resist the siren song of the iPhone, although I'm due for a full upgrade in December.)

11. I got rid of some movie channels to reduce my cable bill, and every so often I call them and threaten to go the other guy unless they give me a better package. (But no, I'm not like some hardcore frugalistas who give up cable--or god forbid, their TV--altogether. Yeah, that's not happening.)

12. As soon as I paid off my car, I dropped collision coverage. I also have the highest possible deductible. Hey, I live in New Jersey; desperate times call for desperate measures.

13. I have a member discount card at my grocery store (Almost every grocery chain offers one and if you don't have one you're throwing money out the window).

14. I do use coupons but only for brands I would normally buy anyway. Like I said, I'm not really brand loyal, so I only use a few per trip.

15. I would never in a million years buy designer anything. I do the majority of my clothes shopping at Target or Kohl's (Kohl's bucks, woo hoo!).

16. I stopped buying microwave popcorn and now buy the old-fashioned kind and use an air-popper.

17. I buy almost no packaged snack foods, and no sweetened drinks. My kid gets plenty of that crap at his friends' houses, and water is free.

18. Speaking of which, no bottled water! Tap water tastes just fine to me.

19. If the temp drops below 85 in the summer, I turn off the air and open the windows. If the air is on, I keep the thermostat set at 75 during the day and close the shades in the afternoon to keep the sun from heating up the house.

20. I had an attic fan installed to suck out the heat and help the air conditioner work more efficiently.

21. I'm low-maintenance. I don't buy perfume, or fancy skin cream, makeup, or shampoo. I'm good with Dove, Cover Girl and Suave. I only get my hair cut about once every six months (if that), and I have never in my life had a manicure or pedicure.

22. I don't shop for recreation. I have one purse, one coat, fewer than five pairs of shoes, and my closet is half empty. I don't buy new anything until the old one wears out or falls apart.

23. I drive a tiny fuel-efficient car. So much easier to parallel park than my old gas-guzzling minivan!

24. I make home-cooked meals most nights and almost never get take-out. I can't remember the last time we ordered a pizza or got Chinese food (which we used to do a lot). And if we have leftovers, we eat them for lunch or dinner the next night. I love leftovers! No cooking, and no spending more money. Win-win.

25. I stopped buying expensive cleaners and switched to using vinegar and baking soda for almost everything.

So as you can see, I already do a lot of things right. But it's clearly not enough. Time to take frugality to the next level. In my next post, I'll write about all the things I still do wrong, and publicly admit my major addiction.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Pitching to the Universe

Every now and then I read a book which illuminates something so clearly for me, I can't imagine how I didn't understand it before. It's that moment when all the pieces fall into place, and I slap myself in the forehead and yell, "Of course! I get it now." There have been a few books like that for me (A Return to Love by Marianne Williamson, and Simple Abundance by Sarah Ban Breathnach are two of them) but this time the book is called Leveraging the Universe by Mike Dooley and in it he provides the missing puzzle piece (for me) to the Law of Attraction.

Now, I've been reading about the Law of Attraction for close to 20 years but have never managed to make any real changes in my life. I've used positive thinking, and written down affirmations, and made gratitude lists, and created vision boards, and practiced feng shui, and none of it ever really made much of a difference. I've been stuck in the same crappy job for 16 years, been living in the same tiny house for 20, and still apparently haven't learned a damn thing about attracting a healthy relationship. Obviously there was something I wasn't getting.

Well, yeah. According to Mike Dooley, the missing ingredient was me. It's all well and good to trust in the Universe to create abundance in our lives, but first we have to make contact, by doing what we can, with what we have, from where we are. We have to engage the magic, start the ball rolling. We have to take a baby step in the direction of our dreams. Then and only then will the Universe move to do its part, and kick in a string of inspiration and synchronicities and right-people-at-the-right-time coinkydinks to keep things flowing along.

When I look back at the last 20 years, I realize I've done almost nothing different, all the while praying for my life to change. Well you know what they say: if you keep doing what you've always done, you'll keep getting what you've always got.

Time to do something different! 

About two-and-a-half years ago, I became aware of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, a New York-based holistic nutrition school. This was right around the time I discovered the primal/paleo movement and got serious about changing the way I eat. I loved the school's approach because they incorporate spiritual nourishment as a vital part of a whole, healthy lifestyle--an approach with which I very much agree. I attended a webinar and pored over their website and knew the school was a perfect fit for me. I knew that being a health coach would be an ideal career for me, combining my passion for healthy living with blogging, teaching and counseling. And then.....I did nothing.

All the doubts and fears started creeping in: "It's too expensive." "What if I can't get any clients?" "There's no market for that kind of thing here." And so and so forth. I defaulted to the same script that's been running in my head my whole life: "I can't ______ because ______"

Ely was all for it. He encouraged me to enroll and offered to take money out of his 401k to pay for the tuition. But I had already managed to talk myself out of it. Besides I was afraid to borrow from his 401k. Afraid, afraid, afraid. Looking back, I can see so clearly how fear has ruled my entire life.

I was entangled in what Mike Dooley calls "the cursed hows"--worrying about how it's all going to work out. How will we pay back the money, and how will I get clients, and how will I advertise.....I thought I had to figure it all out ahead of time.

What I didn't understand is that's all the stuff I can trust the Universe to handle! My only job was to take the baby step and enroll in the school. That would be my pitch to the Universe. Maybe it will end up being a home run, maybe it won't. But what it will do is line up a whole new set of circumstances, people and places that I can't even imagine right now. Things that definitely won't happen unless I just trust and take that first step.

So that's it. Tomorrow I call up IIN and enroll. Batter up!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Is It Love....Or Addiction?

There's no denying that I miss him. The same guy that hurt me so badly just a little over a week ago is the one that I'm craving, the one that I wish would wrap his arms around me and make it all better. For the last 10 months, he has been my "home." His face, his voice, his touch, his smell....I instinctively turned to him for comfort and affection. We used to snuggle up together on the couch and I would stroke his hair and sigh and say to him, "All is right with my world."

I thought that what I was feeling was love. You would think that after almost 49 years on this planet, and several long-term relationships, I would know what love feels like. But no, I'm pretty sure I'm still clueless on this topic. I just read a book called How to Break Your Addiction to a Person by Howard Halpern, PhD, and in it he describes something called "limerence." Limerence is actually what we're feeling when we feel like we're "in love." When you think about him all the time, when you can't get enough of him, when you get scared at the thought of losing him...that's not love, that's limerence. For whatever reason--maybe it's chemical, maybe it's karma, maybe he satisfies some deep longing from your childhood--you are inexplicably attracted to him. You were probably attracted from the moment you set eyes on him. You hang all your happiness onto this one person. You believe (irrationally) that only this one person is ever going to make you feel this way, that you're never going to find anyone like this one person ever again.

And so when suddenly he's gone--even though it was your own choice--you suffer major withdrawal, as surely as an addict going through the DTs. The first day without him, I had an anxiety attack. My heart was racing, I was panicking, I felt like I couldn't breathe. What had I done?? I vacillated wildly between rage and depression and just wanting his arms around me. I tried to numb myself with too much alcohol and food, and keep myself busy busy busy so I wouldn't think about him. I gradually realized that it wasn't him, per se, that I was missing so badly. It was the way he made me feel.

That's not love. That's addiction. I was able to overlook some pretty serious red flags, throughout the entire course of our relationship, because I just didn't want to lose that feeling

It doesn't help that he's actively trying to win me back. He's coming at me with both barrels, texting me from other people's phones, leaving notes declaring his undying love on my front door day and night. But I'm willing to bet that what he's feeling isn't love either.

Even now, I'm not sure I trust my ability to discern limerence from the real thing. But I'm pretty sure that real love is what I was feeling for my husband Ely in the month before he died. We had been together for 15 years, and not all of them were happy. We came very close to separating in 2008, and there was an entire year that we barely spoke or touched each other. But that last October was a good one. We were enjoying each other's company, we were recapturing our friendship and I was feeling like we were going to make it after all.

On his very last day, I hung his Steelers sign up over the TV. Now, I hated that thing. I didn't like football memorabilia in my living room. But I hung it up because I knew it would make him happy. After all we'd been through together, all the years, and the fights, and the doubts, and the stresses of raising kids and running a household together, I had still somehow ended up at a place where I wanted to put a smile on his face.

He walked in and saw it and smiled. He kissed me and said, "Aw, you do love me!"

He was right.

Monday, January 16, 2012


The other night my boyfriend PJ wasn't feeling well, and I felt like things were a little off between us. It really wasn't a big deal, but when I tried to have a rational conversation with him about it, something happened that's been happening an awful lot lately: I started to cry.

Now, I have never been a crier. Those who have known me for a long time can attest to this. In fact, both husbands accused me of being emotionally cold because I was often the only dry eye in the house at weddings and funerals. Didn't cry at my own weddings, or at the births of my children. I was the only mom not crying on the bus stop the day my oldest child went off to kindergarten. Didn't cry at any graduations either. When my late husband Ely got down on one knee and proposed to me in the middle of a busy restaurant in front of all of my coworkers, a lot of them were sniffling, but not me. During arguments, when a lot of women get upset and emotional and completely lose it, I would do the opposite: totally shut down, nary a tear in sight.

But when I tearfully try to explain all this to PJ, when I say, "I swear, I am not usually like this!" he is understandably skeptical. Because PJ has seen me cry more times in the past year than both husbands did in the previous thirty. I kind of feel bad for him; all the poor guy has to do is look at me cross-eyed and I'm suddenly blubbering. It's like a summer storm that blows in with no warning. One minute it's all sunny skies, the next it's raining cats and dogs. I have no control over it whatsoever.

At first it was embarrassing, but we're both getting used to it at this point. If the tears bother him, he doesn't show it. He even says he doesn't mind because it shows that I really care. At any rate, he knows it will blow over in a few minutes and all will be well again.

The weird thing is that I don't really mind. I finally feel like everybody else. It's like, Oh, this is what it's like to be normal. This is what it's like to actually feel things.

I think that before Ely died, something in me was frozen. I don't know why, but my heart was hardened. I sometimes felt like the proverbial Ice Queen. I had to plumb the depths of my psyche to locate my emotions, and even then, sometimes I would come up empty. Nothing there but pallid little wisps swimming near the bottom, way out of my reach.

But Ely's death knocked something loose in me. I cried hard that first week...oh, how I cried. Huge body-wracking sobs, the kind that I hadn't experienced since I was a child. The ice melted, the floodgates opened and the torrent still continues, fourteen months later.

Maybe at some point the water level will recede a bit, and I'll be able to have a rational conversation with my boyfriend without my eyes leaking all over the place. But for now....I don't think being a crybaby is such a bad thing.