Category Archives: Money Management

Hack Your Personal Budget for Success

I'm always down for a good budget hack!

Today’s post is contributed by Ms. LLC, founder of Lovely Life Cents.

Budgeting is boring and hard–right?

Well, it can be, but you can hack your new budget for extra excitement to make it a little more interesting. Maybe this time you actually stick to it!

Give yourself some ‘fun’ money

When someone sits down to budget seriously for the first time, whether they’re trying to get out of debt or save for a holiday, that first sacrifice is always ‘fun’ money. It might seem optional when compared to Food and Rent, but if you’re going to stick to your budget, fun money is the number one category you shouldn’t short yourself on.

It might not make sense logically, but consider this: Not having fun in life can put some strain on your mind, and you’ll be more likely to break your budget.

Don’t go overboard by giving yourself $1,000 a week, but if you’re used to spending a hundred bucks a month going out to dinners and bars, then setting your fun money budget to zero is something you’ll never stick to.

Consider cutting your current spend in half, or lower it by $10 a week of it for a couple of months. That way you’ll still be enjoying yourself without feeling completely deprived. After all, $10 a week is just a couple of beers. You can still go out with your friends. You’ll just have to take advantage of happy hours and house specials to keep the budget on track.

Get your friends on your side

Speaking of friends, no one likes doing things alone. Get yourself a budget buddy to keep you accountable. If you’re saving to go on vacation, the best budget buddy is the person coming along with you. That way, they’ll be right with you on the saving journey.

Of course, support is all well and good, but what can step your budget hack up to the next level is competition. Instead of a buddy having your back to make sure you stick to your budget, consider challenging your buddy to see who can do better.

What ‘better’ means is up to you and your friend. Maybe you want to see who can spend the least on booze in a month. Maybe you’re looking to see who can shovel the most money into the vacation fund, or pay down the most debt.

Choose a challenge that works for you, and check in with your buddy regularly.

Track everything

Lastly, there’s no point in giving yourself ‘fun’ money, or getting your friends on your side if you don’t actually track how your spending is going. Sitting down each night to log your spending can be arduous–which is why you should take advantage of the super high tech device in your pocket.

Multiple phone apps exist that will track your spending for you. Apps like Mint and You Need a Budget can be linked up with your accounts and will track and categorize your spending. Mint is even free.

With just a few button presses, all your expenses will be right there in your pocket, broken down into categories. You can see at a glance whether you’re winning at your budget, or whether you should skip that third pumpkin spice latte for the day.

With all the information at your fingertips, you’re ready to hack your budget for ultimate success.

Phase Two of Moving: Things You’ll Need to Do Once You’ve Moved

Am I glad I read this before we move! I never would have thought of these, but there's still so much to do after you unload the truck.

Anyone who has ever moved before knows exactly how stressful it is. The idea of having to put all your belongings into boxes is daunting and requires a lot of preparation. Hiring a moving company, deciding which things you don’t want to pack, packing your things securely into boxes, and everything in between needs to be done to pull off a successful move. However, having your belongings loaded onto the moving truck is not the end of the moving madness.

After months of planning, you’ve finally arrived at the front of your home or apartment. Once everything has been unloaded from the truck, the quest to get comfortable and acquainted begins. Here’s a look at some of the things you’ll need to complete once you’ve moved into your new place:

Setting Up Services

If you haven’t done so already, you’ll need to start setting up common utility services. This may or may not include the need to have your gas, electric, and water turned on, as well as cable, television, and internet services.

Fortunately, a lot of this can be done online. You can browse the web for service providers in your area and choose an option that works best for your needs and budget.

Locating Medical Services

If you’ve moved far from your old town you’re going to need to find new medical services near you. This can include locating a dentist, eye doctor, physician and pharmacy for any prescriptions you’ll need filled.

You can check with your health insurance provider to find medical practices in your area that accept your insurance.

To find a pharmacy, you can complete an online search using terms like ‘find a pharmacy near me.’ You should be routed to several options from which you can choose the most convenient.

Updating Address

While you may have already notified the post office of your address change so that mail can be routed to your new address, there is still one more step you’ll need to take. In most states, you have approximately 2 weeks to change your address with the local Department of Motor Vehicles.

You can complete this online in most cases by providing an updated address. You’ll receive a sticker to place on the back of your license with the new address on it.

Registering for School

If you happen to have children, you’ll need to get them registered with the school district. You can contact your local board of education to determine which district you’re in and which school your child will need to register with. Parents will likely need to fill out a ton of paperwork and have the children visit the doctor for a physical and updated shots.

It can be difficult switching schools, especially if it’s mid-year. So, work closely with the guidance counselor to ensure your child has an easier time transitioning.

Finding Employment

Unless you’ve relocated for a job or you found gainful employment in advance you’ll need to find a job in your new town. Make sure that you use job search tips like creating a professional social media account, researching companies in the area, attending local networking events, and potentially seeking the help of a recruiter from the area to help you get your foot in the door a little faster.

Making Your House a Home

Can you believe that after all of that running around you still have things to do after the move? One of the most time-consuming things you’ll have to do is unpack and start making your house a home. Finding a place for everything, figuring out the style, tone, and décor, and filling the space with memories can take years to finish, but the sooner you start, the better.

There’s a lot to moving that you probably never even thought of. While it can take a lot of planning before the move, getting comfortable and acquainted after takes just as much energy. Fortunately, many of the above-mentioned tasks can be completed online saving you time. Though getting adjusted to your new home and city can take some time, in the end, it will all be worth it.

 

 

This post is contributed and brought to you by Abby Locker.

Get Solar Energy Without Solar Panels

Power your home with solar energy--even if you don't have solar panels. Here's how to switch in just sixty seconds.

Back in April, I participated in the March for Science here in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is a city that has seen the very real and harsh effects of being irresponsible stewards of our environment. Our mills–which built Carnegie’s wealth and later his repentant philanthropic legacy–almost destroyed our region.

A mixture of EPA regulations and globalization leading to the weakening of labor unions eventually shut down our mills, and the city did a 180.

Today our city is gorgeous. It’s green. It’s lush. We have rivers and mountains and some of the best skyline viewing points in the world. Our two greatest sources of GDP are healthcare and education, we’re a growing tech hub, and there are free, family-friendly events all the time.

But we bear the scars of our history. Our air quality is among the worst in the nation, causing endemic childhood asthma. Our soil contains lead. In a coincidence void of correlation, many city residents’ water now contains lead, too.

Making the Environment Personal

Our environment is changing. We are causing that change in a very real and negative way. It is possible that during my children’s lifetimes, they will face daily challenges far more intimidating than setting up automatic transfers and credit card debt.

This has been important to me for a while. We’ve made small changes. We’ve tried (and failed) to cut down on how many vehicles we use.

But ultimately, it’s hard to feel like anything you do matters when the problem is so massive and systemic.

An Introduction to Green Energy

We don’t own, so I had pretty much given up on green energy in our home.

But at the March for Science, there were booths and vendors everywhere. One of those vendors was a “green energy company.” They generate green energy, and then sell it to the main utility who delivers it. Here in Pennsylvania, we have a choice of who generates our energy, but I didn’t know you could go green with it for a comparable price.

The guy started talking me up, and wanted me to sign up before I left. He was afraid I wouldn’t do it after I went home.

In a way he was right. It’s five months later and I’m only just now writing this post.

But he also wanted me to commit with limited information. I started asking him hard questions like where, exactly, was the energy was produced? How long was a fixed rate contract good for, and what did the rates go up to after our initial agreement expired? Did they offer assistance programs to low-income families like the main electric provider does?

He tried to get me away from the booth at this point. I was seriously bummed, because I did want green energy, but these people were obviously shady as all get out.

How to Get Solar Energy Without Solar Panels

I came home and started doing some research. It turns out, I was right to question the man at that booth. They used the term “green energy” for a variety of different energy sources, including dirty–or “recycled”–energy they had bought off of other companies.

I discovered there are quite a few companies touting their green-ness, but very few of them made me feel good about making the switch. If I was going to pay a few cents more per kilowatt hour, I wanted to know I was actually saving the planet.

When you switch to green energy, it’s not like you start getting different electricity in your home than your neighbors. Electricity is made up of electrons, and those electrons are bought by the company that delivers your energy. At this point, the energy is homogeneous–regardless of where it was generated.

There are laws in place requiring the utility provider to purchase a certain amount of energy from green sources. They do this through Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs.) If more customers start demanding more green energy, it is possible that utilities will start purchasing more RECs than legally required.

This is a good thing, as it moves us away from environment-destroying energy sources and onto more sustainable ones.

As a consumer, you don’t necessarily have to have solar panels to get solar energy. You just need to pick a green company to generate your electricity, encouraging demand and therefore growth in the sector.

At the Pittsburgh March for Science, I was offered a deal from a shady green energy company.

Questions to Ask Before Switching to Green Energy

I asked a lot of companies questions, and in the end I was most satisfied with the answers from CleanChoice Energy. They’re not just in Pittsburgh! They currently service a lot of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states–plus Illinois and DC.

Our new rate is going to be 2 cents more per kilowatt hour, which raises our bill by $12-$14 per month. The slight increase is something I’m willing to prioritize in my budget.

You can check and see if they serve your zip code. Right now they’re running a promo where they’ll give you a WakaWaka Power+ Solar Charger for your phone and devices when you sign up.

Here are the questions I asked them, and the answers they gave.

Does all of your energy come from solar and/or wind farms?

Do you use “recycled” energy stored from nuclear, natural gas or any carbon-emitting sources?

“One hundred percent of our energy comes from wind and solar farms,” said Kate Colarulli, CleanChoice Energy’s Director of Retention Marketing. “Our Standard Clean Plan is Green-e certified and meets the environmental and consumer protection standards of the Center for Resource Solutions.”

“We meet or exceed all EPA guidelines for renewable energy,” she continued, “and we apply strict standards to ensure that we source our energy from as close to our customers as possible. If you burn it, we don’t supply it.”

CleanChoice Energy was the only company in my region that gave me such a clear and straightforward answer.

How long is a contract? Do you offer fixed rates?

Colarulli told me that you can choose between fixed and variable rates. I recommend the former, personally, as you’ll know what to expect out of your electric bill month after month.

The fixed-rate plans came with a contract. Your rate stays fixed for that entire term. Our contract offer was twelve months. You can, conceivably, switch between fixed and variable rates as there is no fee for doing so, but that’s a lot to keep on top of every month.

CleanChoice contacts you before your renewal date with the new rate offer for the next twelve months. I’ll be interested to see what happens at that point, and will update you all on any pricing changes. The worst-case scenario is we switch back to the standard utility if we hit a huge price hike, but I don’t anticipate having to do that.

Do you participate in CAP, LIHEAP or any other low-income programs?

CAP is a low-income assistance program. Funds are used to pay a part of your electricity bill if you fall below a certain income threshold.

LIHEAP is a program that assists low-income households with their heating bills in the winter. If, like us, your heat is run through electric, they can help with your electric bill instead.

This was the most frustrating part for me. I couldn’t find a single company that participated in these programs. We’re not on either of these programs at this time, but if you’re trying to save the world, wouldn’t you want to make solar and wind energy available to low-income households, as well?

I found out that it’s a little more complicated than that. Colarulli was the only one who took the time to explain that while they can participate in some states, they cannot participate in others. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania is not one of those states.

Switching to Green Energy is Easy

After I had done all the research, I was surprised at just how simple it was to switch. It took me literally one minute.

First, I entered my zip code.

Then, they asked for the name, service address and customer number.

I gave it to them, and I was done.

I’ll let you all know how this foray turns out. I’m feeling pretty psyched about it right now, though, as it enables us to do solar without the panels, and gives us more control over our carbon footprint.

If we all took one minute to make a simple switch, essentially pledging $10-$20 per month to save the planet, maybe we could actually make a noticeable impact. Lord knows we need to.

 

 

My debt is getting drowsy.

It’s been about a month now since I shared that I’m carrying some debt. As promised, I wanted to update you on my progress towards putting it the eff to sleep.

The Progress Chart

Paying off debt visual

I was able to put a nice chunk of change towards Debt #1. I was fortunate that last month was a month of low expenses and relatively decent income. I prioritized debt as a goal, and made sure that after I had all of my other bills covered, I threw every extra penny at it.

I paid minimum payments towards Debts #2 & #3.

Debt #4 had a puchase sitting on it that wasn’t on the promotional 0% rate, so I paid that portion off in full plus a little bit towards the 0% interest portion.

Debt #5 stayed stagnant–I don’t owe minimum payments on it for a while, which is why it’s last.

Debt Goals for the Next 30 Days

I’d really like to get rid of Debt #1 completely by the end of October. Looking at my budget and projected income, I’m not confident that’s going to happen.

So it’s time to hustle! I’m going to be doing some stuff unrelated to blogging to bolster this.

  • I’m going to be looking up medical studies I may qualify for.
  • I have some creative content I’d like to get up on Etsy and maybe out in any community art fairs I’m able to find.
  • I have a bag full of stuff I need to send into ThreadUP.

I don’t know how much of a profit those things are going to turn up before the end of October, though.

So.

I’m looking for side hustles!

If you know anyone who needs content or social media work done, I’m taking on extra clients until this beastly debt is paid off! Looking at that bar graph, I’ll be pursuing this route for a while.

I’m okay with that. Because the more green on that chart, the happier my finances get.

Go the Bleep to Sleep, Debt.

It’s been an interesting couple of years for our finances. I’ve essentially switched career fields. Income has gone up, but is variable. My family’s needs have changed as my children get older.

Oh, and I’ve racked up what looks like consumer debt.

It makes me sick to my stomach. I hate debt unless it can be leveraged to make more money. And now I’m sitting in the thick of it.

Appearances Can Be Deceiving

I say it looks like consumer debt because of where it’s held: across five, zero-interest credit cards.

But I didn’t rack up debt buying super cute clothes or going on super luxe vacations. We do travel, but most of our travels in the past couple of years have been free or ridiculously frugal.

No, this debt comes primarily from paying health insurance premiums, which have increased by 200% since I took out my first Marketplace plan in 2015.

A Note on Health Care Premiums

Yes, I am blaming a decent portion of my debt on health care costs. I wouldn’t be the first person to do so: fifty percent of debt collections arise out of medical debt in the US.

The ACA needs to be reevaluated and tweaked.

But I am so grateful for the legislation. Without it, I wouldn’t have access to health insurance. I’d be in a high-risk pool–as I have been since birth during periods where employer-sponsored insurance wasn’t available.

Though I’m paying high premiums now, without the ACA I wouldn’t even have the ability to reconfigure my finances to accommodate the costs. My premiums, when a health insurance company would actually take me on, would be at least double the rate they are now. This is assuming no increase since I last shopped high-risk pools in the days prior to the ACA.

I also pay for a health plan with good coverage. Thank goodness I do. We’ve had to use the plan in the past few years more than I would have liked, and without it, we would have had a much more difficult time getting access to the care we needed. If we had bought a lower-tier plan, the difference in copays would have easily outweighed the increased premiums.

I’m also self-employed, and any time you run a business, you have to account for overhead costs. Health insurance is one of those costs.

Would I appreciate even lower premiums? Yes. I hope our government starts having a constructive conversation around that very topic without burning our system to the ground.

But please don’t use this post as fuel for an argument against government intervention in health insurance marketplaces. It’s not the conversation I’m trying to inspire with this post.

I’m open to differing opinions on the topic when expressed respectfully without stripping my family of their humanity, but today I just want to talk about debt.

How Did This Happen?

I’ve not been as proactive as I could have been with this debt. When premiums rose again at the start of 2017, I freaked out a little, but thought I’d get a plan together.

Obviously, I did not live up to my own expectations in a timely enough manner. We kept spending as usual. We aren’t lavish people, but there are expenses we could have cut. We needed to hustle more–even though time is at a premium.

But I got kind of overwhelmed with life and froze up. I tried my best to pay for things without credit, and when I had to finance, I made sure it was at 0% interest.

Recently, I got sick of being overwhelmed. So I turned my debt into a visual, hoping it would help me see things in another way. Hoping it would fire up some inspiration.

Personifying debt in the right way can be motivating.

Go the Bleep to Sleep, Debt.

It wooooorkkkeeed! When I saw that chart, I instantaneously became determined to turn the entire thing green.

I thought, “Goodnight, Debt. I’ll most likely kill you in the morning.”

It was this weird mixture of The Princess Bride and this bedtime story my mom used to read to me:
Goodnight Moon

I even thought about titling this post “Goodnight, Debt.”

But then I remembered two things:

  1. There’s already this fantastic personal finance blog called Goodnight Debt that I highly  encourage you to go read.
  2. I don’t want to tuck my debt in and kiss it on the forehead. I’m frustrated and angry with it.

In fact, this is the bedtime story that more closely relates my emotions towards my total balance, and was the inspiration for this post:

Go the Fuck to Sleep

What Am I Going to Do About It?

I have this plan. It’s called: Watch My Expenses More Carefully and Hustle My Butt Off.

I think that’s really at the core of every personal finance goal ever.

It’s simple, but it’s something I’ve taken too long to pursue in 2017. I’m going to pay this off before the 0% interest periods expire. I’m not going to allow this to cripple me. I’m going to change my behavior, even though it’s inconvenient.

And, as before, I’m going to throw every spare cent that comes my way, whether through hustling or my budgeting strategy, directly at the debt before it hits my bank account.

Stay Tuned for Updates

I’ll be updating my progress at least once monthly. I rarely share specific numbers on this blog, but I will be posting my bar graph as it turns more green and less blue. If you want to stay in the loop, I highly recommend subscribing to the newsletter so you won’t miss any updates.

I’d love it if you joined me. Let’s eradicate our debt together. Let’s tell it:

Go the f@%* to sleep, debt. You’re not long for this world.

UPDATES

Month 1: My debt is getting drowsy.