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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

30 Day Challenge: No Eating Out

In the process of returning to sanity (for any newbies: divorce + lots of death = cray cray), I've found myself wandering back to things I used to adore. Blogging, being all anal about my money, walking through the halls at work shouting WU-TANG MUTHER FUCKERS!, and other assorted joys. It's kinda fun. So, I decided I needed a new 30-day challenge. Those used to delight and frustrate me to no end.

The biggest and most bat shit drain in my budget is eating out. During the height of what shall henceforth be known as The Lunacy (the 2+ or so years of divorce, death and crappy health), I spent about $800-$1000 a month eating out. Yes, in addition to my monthly grocery bill. Yes, that is absurd. Thank you for feeling the shock with me. Anyhoo, I decided to knock it down to $200 a month to see if I'd survive.

Surprisingly, I did not die. Something else pretty interesting happened--friends started buying ME lunch and dinner. Part of the reason why my spending was so out of control in the eating out arena is that I had a combination of annoying asshats who would never pay their full share (seriously, I attract these blowhards like flies to poop), or if I was dining with someone I loved, I would take care of the entire bill (always booze and dessert , y'all. Go big or go home!). But when I got honest about my debt and my ridiculous spending, some friends decided to take care of the bill for me. I used to resist that kindness. I wanted to prove that I was doing just fine, thank you very much. I was happy to give but had a hard time receiving. (Word to women like me: This is why your love life sucks. Learn to receive. It's the best thing you can do for the entire universe.)

That kindness helped ease me into my $200 per month budget. Thanks, friends. But I found that the biggest drain on that 200 bucks wasn't socializing with friends; it was a "quick bite" because I had worked too late, again, or felt too tired, again, to really deal with dinner. Then I remembered a little tidbit I read from Jackie over at MoneyCrush eons ago--going through a drive through, or running to pick something up, or waiting on delivery didn't actually save me time or effort. There was still waiting and fetching involved. Still some form of clean up. And, of course, I was supporting (via fast food) food systems I absolutely hate. Ain't nothing convenient about any of that.

So, my 30-day challenge will be not eating out in August. Due to a flexible summer schedule, I get three Fridays off in August. I'm going to use that time to create my own convenience foods galore, so that in coming months I can use that $200 towards social outings with friends and not sad 11pm, I-just-finished-work-fuckit-Imma-eat-a-shitty-burger drive through adventures.

I will have dinner with friends, if the opportunity arises, but I doubt it will. August is a hell month for me at work, and very few of my friends venture to restaurants at 10 or 11 at night. But there's no eating out on my own, definitely no fast food, etc. I'll put the $200 in my couch fund, and hopefully call it a win.

To help me, I'm going to browse recipes over at Barefeet in the Kitchen (I love Mary so), rip out my Working Class Foodies cookbook that a friend bought me, and revisit Casual Kitchen. Do you have suggestions for food blogs that are simple, easy, and locavore focused? I need to expand the number of go-to dishes I can make.

Feel free to swing by and make me dinner though. ;)

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Getting Out of Debt...Again

Kinda felt like calling this post, WTF, You Idiot? but someone told me I needed to learn to talk more kindly to myself (eye roll. Hippies, amirite?), so I'm going with the softer version.

Four years ago, I wrote a post about being credit card debt free. I felt pretty fabulous. To have that devil off my back! Praise The Lawd! (Henceforth known as PTL.) At that point in time, I vowed that it would never happen again. I did none of the things to help prevent it from happening, of course (save, save, save, save). Well, I did some, but I did them half-assed. So, when shit hit the fan, as it always does, I was unprepared.

At some point, I'm going to get smarter. I'm a late bloomer. And other cliches to help ease my sense of shame.

Anyhoo, the shit that hit the fan--health issues. I paid a great deal of those expenses out of pocket, but managed to save myself from surgery in the process, so go me. Followed by divorce. Then pure insanity. Now, I find myself deeper in debt than I have ever been. Can you believe it? Could I possibly be more of a ridiculous stereotype? I've been obsessed with personal finance for years. I've even coached people through this crap. Yet here I find myself. Again. I could easily blame lack of quality health care or the insanity that divorce causes and blah blah blah, but I'm afraid that's not the problem. The problem is, has been, and always will be (let's hope I get it this time around, eh?) my spending. I could have saved mightily and not found myself in this mess. I didn't do that. I saved half-assed, ate through it, and spent some more. That, my friends, is some horseshit.

So, here I am. 41 years old and $18,500 in credit card debt. Yes, you heard me correctly. $18,500 in revolving, dipshit debt. That is not a good place to be. I confess this to not only cleanse my soul, but because I never want to be one of those people who professes expertise in the very thing she can't conquer (life coaches and motivational speakers, I'm looking at you). After I found myself debt free, I assumed I would have plenty of time to save for any rainy days, so I played it up. And played some more. Fear not! I'll get to that aggressive savings plan just after I buy yet another ridiculous purchase and/or expensive meal out. Over and over and over again.

Then my health went into the shitter. Then I got divorced and lost my goddamned mind (bonus: after years of having clothes I hate, because fat girl clothing manufacturers are blind assholes, I finally found an American-made, plus size clothing line that I love. I have a closet full of clothes I adore! And the debt to prove it!). And now I'm looking at credit card bills that make me want to weep.

Consequently, I had a conversation with myself that I've had with others. Time to get real, chica. Stop using the cards. If you can't pay for it with the cash you have in hand, you can't have it. Figure out how much you actually owe and plot a plan to pay it down. (I absolutely love this Debt Calculator from It helps you to see a light at the end of the tunnel.) Find the  holes and plug them. And most importantly, remember your mantra for this year: Calm The Fuck Down.

New budget constraints I've placed upon myself after a couple of years of orgy spending:
1. Eating out budget reduced to $200/month (folks, I was spending that in a week. I shit you not);
2. Have the bff's girlfriend start cutting and coloring my hair ($20 a pop instead of $200);
3. No more new clothes, unless it's bras and undies. Tailor things that don't fit (have done most of the alterations myself at $0);
4. No longer allowed to go over the grocery budget weekly with an "oh well" attitude. I take a calculator with me and back off the novelty crap I don't need;
5. No more gadgets, etc. for the house. Job is to purge. Nothing new comes in until all the purging and decluttering are done;
6. Nothing goes on the credit cards. Nothing;
7. All major items (I need a new couch!) must be purchased through a fund set aside specifically for its purchase (see #6);
8. No more crafts spending allowed. Use what I have;
9. No more paying for other people's crap. No more meals out for friends, no more fundraising drives for other folks, no more "oh, don't worry. I'll get that;" and
10. Start using the library again for books, music and DVDs.

The one saving grace in all of this is that I did not take out of my retirement account to pay this off.  I paid for three different trips for family members to come see me with a complete fuckit attitude. I know I shouldn't, but I'll just pay this off  with my 403b since I'm switching jobs. I'll be able to start off with a clean slate. 

PTL that I came to my senses before making such a huge mistake. The penalties would have eaten more than the debt payment would have, and I'd have a clean slate alright. No debt and a decimated retirement savings. Oh, PTL, PTL, PTL that I did not do that.

More importantly, I wouldn't have done the work necessary to relearn how to live below my means. That's the key. If I don't get back to center and learn to live on far less than what I make, I'm just going to find myself right back here again. If I don't see being out of debt as an opportunity to develop a substantial savings and instead decide to "support" all the shit I love (aka buy stuff I don't need), I'll end up back here. If I don't develop a hefty savings to help weather the next round of Shit Just Hit the Fan, I'll be right back here again. I do not, under any circumstances, want to end up here again.

I created a reasonable plan that allows me play money. The true zealot would go bananas paying off the debt. Been there, and it just made me binge spend. So, not gonna do that. It looks like it will take me about 2.5 years to pay it off, barring some windfall miracle. If I'm still blogging by then, I hope we can all celebrate. Most importantly, I hope this round of idiocy is my last. Say a prayer, y'all.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Heartbreak #487,000 (Alternate Title: Veternarians Suck)

My tale of woe continues. 'Cuz, yanno, life just does its thing, regardless of our need for a break from bullshit. My friend Rosa passed away in May. Dead from malpractice, essentially. But I'm not going to address that now. Or maybe ever. It's just unreal. Instead, I'm going to talk about my dog Daphne, who died in June. 'Cuz in doing so, I can bitch about money and my deep loathing of veterinarians.

This is Daphne after "helping" me in the garden one summer. Pretty adorable, eh?
I got both of my fur kids via a dog rescue agency that has since been closed for animal cruelty. The owner, like many well-intentioned folks, lost her mind and just took things too far. But that's another tale. Anyhoo, I had Daphne for 11 years. She was about three years old when I brought her home. Her brother is an attention whore and loves anyone who pays attention to him (yeah, he loves Mom most though), but Daphne bonded with me like no other pooch I've ever seen. And she could manipulate me like crazy. She knew I loved this face most of all:
She was begging for steak in the above shot. It worked. Every time.

Little Daphne had problems when I first got her that the rescue agency, due to having too many dogs, just didn't catch. Worms and a fucked up back leg were the first two issues we had to address. Her previous owner didn't take care of an injury, so she spent her days with bone fragments on a nerve, which caused her pain. She never complained though. Just would sometimes not use one of her back legs. The vet (seed of loathing #1) wanted me to put her on a pain med that required liver panels. I refused. If the drug knocked out her liver, she was screwed. She seemed to do alright without meds, so I figured we'd just continue on as we had been. I got a hefty guilt trip from the vet, but stood my ground. Less than a year later, the drug was taken off the market for killing dogs. (Never trust someone who pushes a drug like a used car salesman.)

We had lots of fun together over the years. She was a great kid. A living terror (bit one of my neighbors, whom I loathe, so WAY TO GO LITTLE GIRL!) and sweet as pie. In hindsight, I can see where things started going wrong, but no one else but me could see it. She started "falling" when walking. I thought I was just crazy, since my ex never noticed on her daily walks. Then she started having other issues, so I decided to take her into the vet.

$500 later, I came out with a diagnosis of a herniated disk and some meds. On day two, she had what I thought was a reaction to the muscle relaxant she was given. Turns out, it was a quick seizure. A couple of weeks later, she had a massive seizure and was no longer able to walk normally. She stumbled around like a drunk person. I took her back into the vet, who sent me to a specialist--a neuro vet. Never even knew such things existed.

This is where I went dumb. I was scared and worried about my little pooch, so my brain froze, and I just said "ok" to his suggestions, instead of asking questions and digging deeper. He thought her problem could be one of three things, and wanted to do a spinal tap to rule out the first potential problem. She was 14. Rule 1 of being a pet parent: don't put old dogs under anesthesia. He said she would only be under briefly. So, I went for it. Dumb move.

She had two major seizures after the procedure. I brought her home on day two. It took her four days to recover from the anesthesia and the anti-seizure meds he gave her, but she was worse for it all. Didn't recover the ability to walk in any capacity. The test revealed that she didn't have what he thought she most likely had. He suggested an MRI, to the tune of $1400, to see if it might be a tumor. At this point, my brain unfroze. What was the treatment protocol for both issues he thought it could be? Same meds, different dosage. So, why do we need an MRI then, doc? Well, to know for sure. Ok. So we'd know for sure. What would her prognosis be if it is a tumor? Well, at that point, we would be looking at comfort care for a few months, at most. How about we just put her on the higher dosage and go from there, since an MRI isn't genuinely going to help anything? So, we put her on the meds.

But here's the kicker--I called to let him know that she wasn't improving. He suggested the MRI again. At this point, between the two different vets, I had already spent $2300, mostly for fruitless tests. But when I asked this time what we would do if it was a tumor, he said something about chemo and radiation. Previously, he let me know it would be a losing battle. But when I called, crying, because she wasn't getting any better, the outcome seemed to change. No talk of "comfort for a few months." No! Chemo! Radiation! 'Cuz that's what an old, sick dog needs, amirite?

I told him I didn't think that was a good idea, particularly given that he mentioned previously that a tumor did not have a good prognosis. She was unable to walk, could barely move, could not stand, needed to be carried and held to potty (which I did every 30 minutes to two hours for about a week), and started having bloody stools. So, we agreed that we would put her to sleep at her follow-up appointment, which was scheduled two weeks after her spinal tap, if nothing improved. She didn't survive to her follow-up appointment. Died in the car at 1:30am on the way to the emergency vet. Oh lordy, that sucked.

Yes, I am one of those people who loves their dogs more than they love the people in their lives. Sorry 'bout that y'all, but you just aren't this cute:
Losing a creature you love is tough stuff. And I believe the vet I worked with was more than happy to exploit that grief to line his pockets. Expensive diagnostic tests that would not actually change her treatment plan? Seriously? Talk of chemo and radiation when they would probably only lessen her lifespan and quality of life? Oh, suck it, specialist. And the first diagnosis? Yeah. Crap. There was no herniated disk. Instead of saying, "I don't know what the problem is. Let's try this," the original vet simply made shit up. Fun times. Fun times.

I had her cremated and a mold of her paw print made. That was the cheapest part ($260) of the process and the only bit that really made any sense in the end. Her brother is still kicking, my perpetual Peter Pan who doesn't know he's an old man. At least now I'm better equipped to handle things when it's his turn to kick this mortal coil. (Please lawd, no.) And of course a friend posted a notice from the local dog shelter that has a pooch I want to rescue. (Oh lord.) Dunno about that at this point, but I do know that I will be sure to not let my grief overpower my better judgement.

Most importantly, I'll be hunting for a vet who doesn't suck.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Spent: Looking for Change (a free documentary film)

I recently stumbled upon another documentary about personal finance called Spent: Looking for Change. You can watch the film for free on the Spent website or via YouTube. I would embed it here, but y'all can click a link, right?

The documentary shares four different stories of people locked out of the traditional banking system and the ridiculous hoops they must jump through, at tremendous cost, to take care of bill paying and other financial chores most of us do with the click of a mouse through our banks and credit unions. The film pays special attention to the shit stains known as "payday lenders" and other exploitative businesses that feed off these folks. Watching it made me want to drop kick someone in the balls. Luckily, I was alone. Balls were safe. (You're welcome.)

Unfortunately, the judgmental hag in me popped up a couple of times--"why did she make that decision? That was stupid. Why didn't they just..." blah blah blah. As if I know anything about the totality of someone's life from a brief look inside of a carefully edited film. As if my decisions would be any better. As if I know better. I don't. But lo, how easy it is to jump into that mindset of, "Well, if you'd just do as I say..."

Despite brief moments of my own idiocy, I was impressed with the film. It demonstrated how easily any of us could fall into these traps and how difficult it is to get out once you've slipped into the grips of a system designed to keep you down. It also made me grateful that check cashing and payday loans weren't really prevalent when I was younger, broke and in some desperate financial days. Had I found myself utilizing the services of one of those places, I may have never been able to get out from under it, build good credit and have the perks of free banking that I have now.

However, the film is lacking in its description of solutions. This is a pretty common thing I've seen among documentaries that highlight social injustice. They are very good at naming what's wrong, but not so good at highlighting solutions. Generally, they gloss over a few happy happy joy joy activities and tell us to "get involved," as if that phrase actually means anything.

But! The website comes to the rescue in that regard, as it provides concrete ways in which we can help dismantle a destructive financial system by building alternative options. It also highlights specific organizations that are working towards leveling the playing field in banking. There are a few resources not noted, like TimeBanks, simple living movements and organizations like The New Road Map Foundation's free Financial Integrity resources (of Your Money or Your Life fame).

I know Jackie over at Money Crush once successfully used a payday loan. She is the only person I've spoken with who used one of those places and didn't get completely screwed in the process. She's also a financial planning guru, so that's not too surprising. For the rest of us mortals, those places are a slippery slope into financial hell. Yet they continue to persist and are even growing in numbers. Consequently, I'm thrilled to see this documentary and the good work folks are doing to create alternative pathways for people who have been pushed out of traditional banking systems. I'll keep investigating to see what goodies their website has to offer. If you've worked with any of the organizations they mention, or have your own payday loan/check cashing story to tell, please share in the comments.

Saturday, July 5, 2014


Affluenza remains, in my humble but ever-so-correct opinion, one of the best documentaries out there about overconsumption and the social sickness it causes. Lucky for us, it's available to view for free on YouTube. If you haven't seen it, here ya go.

(Side note: the grief and loss train does not stop, hence my lack o' bloggin'. But more on that later. I'm writin' up a few posts, so you haven't gotten rid of me yet. Yanno, the four of you still reading this.)

Monday, May 12, 2014

Systems vs. Personal Responsibility

The Onion recently had a hilarious and painfully spot-on piece, "Woman a Leading Authority on what Shouldn't be in Poor People's Grocery Carts." I've been guilty of being that asshole and have been equally annoyed by listening to that asshole. Oh, people. We are judgmental turds sometimes.

When it comes to issues of poverty, there seems to be this dichotomy between "this is your fault" and "the system is rigged to keep you down" as if it's an either/or scenario. Make no mistake about it--the cards are stacked against the average Jane and Joe. Our tax system is fucked, we reward wealth and punish work, our pay over the past few decades has remained stagnant (at best) while the wealthy have stolen all the gains (yes, I said and meant "stolen")...on and on.

So, yes. The game is definitely rigged, which means that when you're living on the edge financially, you have to be ever vigilant. 'Cuz the slightest misstep can take you down and lawd knows no one in power is going to give two shits to help pull you back. We all make stupid decisions financially. Some of us can afford to do so without feeling much pain. Others among us could end up homeless over one misstep. That's a tremendous amount of pressure to live under, but it's reality. And that's where the dichotomy of "systemic vs. personal responsibility" drives me insane: it ignores practical reality in favor of some utopian vision of how things should be.

We absolutely need to fight for living wages. We need to dispel the myth that the rich have worked hard for their gains (newsflash: they haven't. Employees and technology have created tremendous gains that the d-bags on the top tiers have completely stolen. That ain't hard work, friends). We need to change the tax code so that it stops punishing work while ass kissing wealth. We need to get big money out of politics. Collectively, we have a great deal to do to help even the playing field and stop the blatant theft that has resulted in unprecedented income inequality.

But we also have to live in reality. That means we have to take personal responsibility when it comes to our finances. And if you're poor, that means you have a more difficult burden to carry and you have to be far more diligent than the next guy. For some, it's not possible to afford all the expenses life requires. Yet, somehow, we have to find a way. We have to make difficult decisions. We have to say no a thousand times more than someone who has more money, despite the fact that we may work 100 times harder than they ever have. It's bullshit. It's unfair. It's immoral. It's also reality.

For most of us, it can be done. In this great op-ed piece, Mark Bittman does a decent job of dispelling the myth that junk food is cheaper than real food. Groceries are the one area I see discussed on frugal living blogs more than anything else. Food security is a big issue in our affluent nation, as baffling as that might be. What Bittman notes in his article that I see very few people wanting to address is the personal responsibility portion of it, because we don't want to be that asshole that The Onion mocked. Bittman basically says that it's not about cost; it's about convenience. That's the real issue. It's cheaper to cook real food, but that takes time and energy.

If you've never been poor, let me fill you in on the most grating aspect of it: It's exhausting. Beloved reader and commenter Janeen once said that she'd like to see a study on how much more time poor people have to spend waiting in lines. I have easy internet access at home, work and at the library to deal with most of my business needs. Poor folks, especially those in rural areas that still don't have broadband, don't often have that luxury. So, they wait in lines. Can't afford a car? No problem! Well, IF there's public transit in your area. Just note that your trips will take twice as long. Let's not forget that you'll probably have to work two jobs just to make ends  meet. Oh, and people will assume you're stupid and lazy, so you'll have to go out of your way to dispel those myths. Shall I go on? Exhausting. It's just exhausting.Of course we'd make stupid choices at the grocery store and buy some expensive convenience crap so that we can take 20 minutes to rest. Of course. Except, natch, that we screw ourselves in the process.

All of this blathering is not to support any notion that any of us have a right to tell others how they should live if they're barely scraping by. Fuck that. The world doesn't need another asshole. But we do need to embrace reality while trying to change it, and help each other find solutions where we can. It's not an either/or issue; it's both.

I advocate working for social justice, because a rising tide should lift all boats, not just the yachts. I support bulk cooking parties so that overworked folks are cooking a few times a month instead of daily and doing it cheaper.  Your local TimeBank can provide help with cooking, child care, car maintenance (the possibilities are endless if your network is big enough) or whatever you need without asking you to spend a dime. If we keep plugging away both personally and on the greater social issues, change will happen.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Free Crafty Toys

Although I don't have spawn of my own, I am always looking for fun, cheap and crafty kid toys. I wish I could say it's because I have five nieces and five nephews, but mostly it's because I'm perpetually a 12-year old girl, trapped in an old lady's body. Coloring is actually one of my self-soothing techniques. 'Cuz crayons are always better than homicide, amiright?

I usually post these goodies around the holiday season so that we can create quick and inexpensive gifts, but why regulate awesome crafty goodness to holidays alone? I must confess I've mentioned a couple of these previously, but I have a new nifty one to add to the mix.

The Toymaker is a gloriously charming world of gorgeous paper toys, many of which are available for free. I have loved this site for years! All you need is a decent printer and some card stock. Fanciful, beautiful and so much fun. One year, I printed every toy out and made it into a book for one of my nieces. We had such a good time making the toys together. Awww!

Here's a collection of dozens and dozens of coloring pages. Just be warned--many of them are for characters that are tied to expensive toys (think Disney), but there are a quite a few educational pieces as well (e.g., countries, mythological characters).

Finally, we have a lovely memory game from Country Living magazine. I have a subscription to CL and often find myself drooling over the homes of wealthy people that they feature, but they are pretty good about providing lots of inexpensive-to-free craft ideas. They frequently highlight goodies from The Graphics Fairy, which is a treasure trove of freebies.

I'm also a fan of crochet and the cute toys you can make with yarn, even though I suck at it. FaveCrafts has lots and lots of free patterns for all sorts of crafting options. Just be warned that if you get on their mailing list, they will bomb the shit out of you. I stay on their mailing list though, because they have some great free patterns. The Crochet Geek is also a tremendous resource, providing free patterns AND video tutorials. I am a visual learner, so the videos are awesome. She taught me how to make beanies! (Sorry, family. I'll stop it. I realize you only  need so many hats. But the soldiers and marines I send shit to? SUFFER, PROTECTORS. I WILL NEVER STOP MAKING YOU UGLY, ILL-FITTING HATS.)

If you know of any other free resources for toys and crafty projects, let us know in the comments section! (Please and thank you.)