Monday, February 09, 2009

Money Monday: February 9

Is it just me, or is time speeding up? Granted, the vacation last week sort of through me into a fugue state; every day of the vacation was Sunday to me. Sunday = Sunday. Monday = Sunday. Tuesday = Sunday.

You’d think I would have gotten tired of it being Sunday by then, but ooooooh no. Wednesday was also Sunday, and then I was stunned to discover that the next day was Thursday and the work week was over.

Also, I was most displeased to discover that we couldn’t take three days off and still have at least thirty hours billed to clients. Stupid space-time continuum!!

ANYWAY. This week, I’m returning to a pretty cut-n-dry budget. I’m taking away my extra forty bucks from the holiday season, which leaves me $200 a week for all the things that are not automatic payments – food, gasoline, entertainment, etc.

However, I don’t want to continue using cash. First of all, the one (1) free ATM in town is in a darned inconvenient location, and secondly I want to be getting that 1 to 5% cash back my UPromise-branded card puts into the Denizen college funds each month. I already funnel as much as I can through that card, paying for everything from cable to life insurance with it…but every little bit helps, so I’d like as much of that $800 ‘everything else’ to go through the card as well.

Credit cards are a great example of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they are convenient and can have wonderful reward programs. I’ll admit it, a lot of the cooler stuff I own I only have because of credit card reward programs – like my Roomba and Scooba floor cleaning robots. I would never have been able to pay $300 for one with, you know, cash. But redeem 25,000 points for one? You betcha.

But the very things that make them helpful tools also make them dangerous. They are so convenient that it’s easy to overspend. They can make your spending “invisible,” because you go around charging and charging and charging, and don’t necessarily realize how it’s adding up until SURPRISE! that big old statement arrives in the mail, with fourteen pages of ‘negligible’ $20 and $30 purchases. Ouch.

Even the rewards can become a pitfall, giving both a rationalization for the spending and an encouragement to spend more. “But I’m getting 5% back, which makes this an even better sale!” or “…I need 3,000 more points for that plane ticket…” can somehow make spending $3,000 to get the points an excellent idea. Or at least an acceptable one.

I thought I’d share a credit card trick I use to help prevent that “SURPRISE!” thing from happening at the end of the month. This trick is made much easier if you use financial software, like Intuit’s Quicken or Microsoft Money or Mint.com (which is free, and I’ve been hearing pretty good things about it, too).

Instead of waiting for the bill to come in, I keep close tabs on it – daily.

Yeah, that’s right. Every single day. Now, Quicken makes this painfully simple – a couple clicks, and all my transactions for every account we have download straight into the program; my version even downloads from my brokerage, handling everything from simple dividends to those complicated deals where Company A splits into Company A, B and C and now you have 1:1 of A, 2:1 of B and 6:1 of C…of it tax-exempt because they went with the blah blah blah method of whachamawhizzit (sometimes, I’d swear the stock market came straight from Alice’s Wonderland).

Before I had Quicken, I just kept my receipts in my wallet and added them into an Excel spreadsheet. Well. Actually, at the time it was a Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet, but you get the idea. (I also used WordPerfect and swore I would never, ever switch to that most pffffffbt! of Made For Idiots ‘Word.’) (Seriously, no ‘reveal codes’? How, pray tell, were you supposed to fix formatting when it went horribly awry?!) (And then I wonder why basic HTML seems so, well, basic to me…all that ‘bracket-i-bracket’ WORD ‘slash-bracket-i-bracket’ stuff was just how you did that back then. Good times, people, goooood tiiiiiimes…)

Right after I’ve sent last month’s payment, I open up a new transaction in my checking register for next month’s payment. Every day, I update that total to reflect the new balance on the card. I can see the money coming out of my checking account right away – even though it won’t technically leave until the end of the month.

The daily reminder that the money I’m spending with my little plastic card is real, hard-earned money (as opposed to the ‘maybe I might want to ponder the possibility of paying for this someday’ kind) goes a long way toward helping me take my daily spending seriously.

This week’s meals are super-simple, which is good because I am not in the mood for anything that will take more than a few minutes of hands-on time.

Monday: Beef stew, slow-cooker style. This is beef stew meat plopped into the Crockpot with some carrots, potatoes, a can of tomatoes, some dried herbs and water to cover. Cooked all day, it makes for a “fast” and easy meal. I’ll probably make biscuits or dumplings to go along with it. If I feel like it. If I’m feeling fancy (snort! Ya, I suppose it could happen…), I’ll brown the beef and onions before I put them into the Crockpot. (Don’t hold your breath.)

Tuesday: Pork chops (rubbed with salt, pepper and paprika), rice and broccoli. Broccoli is in season around here, and being sold on the cheap by most of the supermarkets.

Wednesday: Roasted whole chicken, mashed potatoes and corn. Can you say, ‘comfort food’? If I’m feeling the love for it, I might make some butter rolls – like the Pillsbury crescents, only, uh, homemade for about ten thousand dollars less.

Thursday: Chicken casserole, ‘shepherd’s pie style.’ This is the leftover chicken put into a creamy homemade white sauce with a bag of frozen peas and carrots, topped with mashed potatoes and a generous handful of cheddar cheese. More comfort food…although made with low or non-fat milk and margarine, it isn’t nearly as fattening as it sounds.

Friday: Spaghetti night!

Saturday: Beef roast, baked potatoes and hey look! There’s that broccoli stuff again!

Sunday: Individual beef pies – not soupy pot pies, but beef crescent “pockets.” Make a regular pie crust, but cut it into smaller circles. I usually use an inverted bread plate, which should give you an idea about the size. The filling will be diced leftover roast, thinly sliced onions, mushrooms, diced potatoes and carrots. Put a scant quarter cup of the filling slightly off-center on each circle, brush one edge with milk or melted butter, and fold in half. Ta da! Crescents! Crimp the edges with a fork and bake at 350 for 30 to 45 minutes, until they’re nicely browned.

7 comments:

Moorecat said...

Sounds like the last item on your menu should be called Cornish pasties (pronounced "pahsties" Down Under, as opposed to those little bits of sequins exotic dancers are supposed to wear):

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cornish_pasties

Yes, my Dad is a descendant of the Cornish miners who ended up in South Australia, why do you ask? :)

Elizabeth L in Apex, NC said...

Sigh... I loved WordPerfect, too. (And I still hate Word. Hate. It.)

Thanks for the Mint.com idea. I am needing something that helps my hubby understand the atm card actually impacts, you know, the cash flow. :)

PipneyJane said...

I just wanted to echo what Moorecat said, although around here they're just called pasties (they have to fulfill a checklist of ingredients to get the "Cornish" title).

- Pam

Steph B said...

You made me hungry.

Lydee said...

good dinner suggestions! thank you!

Kathryn said...

Did I hear you say homemade butter crescents? Do you have a recipe? or hints to make it do-able?

RM Kahn said...

Can I come and eat at your house?