Jana Says

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Author Archive: Jana

Money Tune Tuesday: Downeaster Alexa

Having just finished David Shipler’s The Working Poor, I could not think of a more beautiful, poignant song to accompany that book than Billy Joel’s Downeaster Alexa. It’s not a long song, less than 4 minutes, and I really encourage you to watch it. I am literally moved to tears each time I hear the song and watch the video:

My little grocery budget tip

There are dozens of websites and books and blogs devoted to saving money on grocery shopping. Money Saving Mom has a 31 Days to a Better Budget series, which is far and away the most comprehensive I’ve seen. 5 Dollar Dinners is another outstanding resource for frugal cooking and smart shopping. For a good view of one family’s healthy and comprehensive menu on a very tight budget, check out Another Housewife. And I cannot even begin to assemble a list of couponing websites!

Those are all resources I use for myself. If I had to classify my style it’s this: I’m a sometimes couponer, a frequenter of Aldi, and a lover of store brands and menu planning. I shop on a budget that’s sometimes a little looser than it should be, but we get by. I guess my point in mentioning all of that is that I am no expert when it comes to grocery shopping. However, one tip that I use that I don’t see mentioned in most frugal grocery information is this: portion sizes.

Portion sizes are, for obvious reasons, a popular point of information for diets. But they work for frugal groceries as well. Let’s use this scenario: you have $50 for groceries for the week. With that $50 you must buy food for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. For lunches, it’s just you and your husband because your child gets lunch at school. You buy peanut butter, jelly, bread, carrots (the whole ones, not the pre-cut baby carrots), and grapes for lunch. You’re left wanting something salty and crunchy and you only have $2 left; however, nothing that you and your husband can agree on is on sale and you’ve left all of your snack coupons at home. You find a bag of store brand snack size rice cakes in a flavor that you both love. You see that the bag has 8 servings–enough for each of you to have a nice, crunchy chip-like snack for 4 of 5 work days for only $1.50! You compromise and on the 5th day you each bring leftovers, plus you walk out with $.50.

It can work the same way for cereal. A box of Cheerios may cost $5 but if you get 15 servings out of it, and you measure those servings, you’ve only spent $.33 per serving and you’ve fed your family of 3 breakfast for an entire week (excluding weekends). If you were to just haphazardly pour cereal into a bowl, the box may only last 3 days which means your weekend breakfasts now become your weekday breakfasts or you have to run back to the store to buy another box; either way, you’re spending more money. Which is not a good thing, especially when you’re working with a fixed budget.

I will concede that many serving sizes are not intended to make you feel stuffed. But adhering to the portion sizes on packages will leave you satiated and satisfied, in your stomach and your wallet.

What unusual dollar stretcher tips do you use at the supermarket?

Going on a snowflake hunt

As I’ve been navigating the personal finance universe, one term keeps showing up: snowflaking.

Snowflaking is a derivative of the Dave Ramsey concept of the debt snowball. This is the method we’ve used to pull ourselves out of the massive crater of debt we found ourselves in several years ago. It works, too! It’s nice to be able to check off one debt after another, knowing that you’ll have that much more money to put towards the next one. Snowflaking, though, was a new idea for me.

The idea of a snowflake is that you can add every little bit of money you can towards your debt. There’s an excellent explanation over at I’ve Paid Twice for This Already. I love this idea! It really is proof that every little bit helps. But where can you find the money to create a snowflake?

Snowflakes are everywhere! The Family CEO offers a good list of ideas, and, if you look closely in the comments section, you’ll see my contribution: rounding up payments. We do this with three of our remaining debts–car payment, student loans, mortgage. It’s a really easy idea and doesn’t require any extra work except at the budgeting phase. Here’s how we do it: We take whatever the payment is and round it up to the nearest whole number.

For instance, my husband’s student loan payment is $279.23 and we pay $280. Our mortgage payment is $1164.34; we pay $1165. Our car payment varies because the minimum payment goes down each month due to the rounding up of the payment, but we pay $330 each month regardless of the minimum. It doesn’t seem like a lot of extra money but right now we are focused on paying off our home equity loan and all of our second income is going towards that. Adding the few extra pennies does make a difference and, psychologically, it makes me feel like we’re adding at least something extra to our debt payments. It also makes balancing the checkbook that much easier!

Other places we’ve found snowflakes are:

  • Part-time jobs and periodic employment (ex., test proctoring)
  • Reducing the cable bill
  • Keeping a change jar

Since you can’t have a snowball without a snowflakes, it’s important to find those snowflakes any place possible.

What are some of your creative snowflakes?

Money Tune Tuesday: The Big Money

I like to imagine that, much like my life has a budget,  my life has a soundtrack. I’m still trying to decide what my theme song should be. It’s a pretty arduous decision that fluctuates with my mood. So for now, I’ll settle on sharing the perfect combination of two of my  favorite topics: music and money. With that, I bring you Money Tune Tuesday.

Each Tuesday, I will feature a video or song lyric that addresses the topic of money. First up, a song by my favorite band, Rush. The song? The Big Money. Enjoy!

Dad’s financial tips

I know Father’s Day was yesterday but, unfortunately, I did not get a chance to put this post up until today. I think the sentiment is clear and the tips are timeless.

I grew up in a house where money was not discussed in any formal way. My sisters and I got an allowance and birthday money and at 13, I started babysitting to earn money (as an aside, I cannot believe that people trusted me to watch their children when I was 13). I had a bank account that I knew about once I turned 17, but other than that, my parents never really taught me any practical money skills: budgeting, saving, not using credit excessively–stuff like that. They just paid for stuff (my dad affectionately/sarcastically refers to himself as “the walking checkbook”) without teaching me anything.

However, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that my dad did indirectly teach me about money. Sure, he didn’t show me how to draft a budget but he did teach me some very practical money habits that I still use today:

  1. Always have some emergency money stashed in your wallet. When I first started driving, my dad gave me $50 to keep in my wallet just in case. It stayed there for many years (when the necessity for a beer became an emergency) and today, I keep a $20 folded up in my wallet. On the occasions when I’ve had to spend it on car related expenses (I’ve matured slightly), I replace it as soon as the next payday comes.
  2. Always balance your checkbook. In my house, I am the accountant. I pay the bills, manage the checkbook and, at least 3 times as week, I reconcile what the online statement says. My dad played that role in my parents’ relationship. I remember, every Sunday, my dad painstakingly going through their checkbook because my mom has the unfortunate ability to add when she meant to subtract. Had my dad not balanced the checkbook, I don’t know what might have happened.
  3. Always pay your debts. My parents are not in the best financial situation, and have been struggling for quite awhile. Given the little information I have, my parents are likely candidates for bankruptcy. Instead, they have dug deep, gotten on a tight budget and are paying off their debts. This is exactly what my husband and I have been doing for the last 4 years.
  4. Keep your financial stress away from your kids. Although my sisters and I are aware that our parents are struggling, they never, ever let us know how bad things have been. They never saw it as our burden to bear; they made sure that we had everything we needed and would do whatever they could to provide it for us. My husband and I are doing this exact thing with our daughter. Although she’s too young to truly understand what is going on, she never wants for anything. What we can’t provide, we find a way to make due. And on the rare instances where we fight about money, we never, ever do it in front of her.
  5. It’s important to work for your money. My parents were more than generous with me. They paid for a lot of things, and I feel incredibly blessed that they did. But they always expected me to work. Whether it was getting good grades in school, babysitting for my sisters, or working as a camp counselor, my parents never gave me a completely free ride. When I was in college, my parents didn’t have a problem with me joining a sorority but they made it clear I had to pay for it. So I got a part-time job and it made my sorority experience that more enjoyable. Because it was mine. I appreciate this lesson more than any other because it has given me the work ethic that I have today.

There are some other things: save for big purchases, having a savings account for your kids, and whenever possible, be generous. And most importantly, love is the best currency.  Because even if you don’t have a lot of money, you can still give love in spades.