Becoming Jill: Adventures in Adulthood


Chapter 6: In Which I Enjoy Domesticating Myself. Surprise Ensues
March 26, 2010, 5:28 pm
Filed under: Food, frugality | Tags: , ,

So, I have spent the last week working on a post about all my different financial goals, but you know what? That post is pretty much boring me to death! Of course, it’s important for me to get that one finished, as it’s a key component of this whole financial reformation of mine, but on this pretty Friday, I find that what I really want to write about is baking.

WHAT, you may say? That’s right, baking.

I’ve never been much of a baker… it’s always required too much attention to detail for me. When cooking, I can pretty much choose to ignore or improvise large parts of recipes, and I pretty much measure by saying, “hey, that looks like a cup!” If you have any acquaintance with baking, you realize that it’s actually a SCIENCE, which probably has a lot to do with why I have never liked it.

Baking and I have never gotten along very well. I think it all stems from the traumatic summer when I decided to master… BOXED BROWNIES. I probably wasn’t even 10 yet, and this seemed like a REALLY BIG DEAL. I specifically remember at least 2 flops in a row– one time, I forgot the eggs, another I forgot the oil. Being greeted by pan after pan of completely flat, burned brownie pancake can really do a number on a young baker’s psyche!

In middle school, I decided I didn’t hate making cookies quite so much if I listened to Green Day on my Walkman at the same time! This led to the disastrous incident in which I used 2 TABLESPOONS of salt instead of 2 TEASPOONS. Details, details. Let me tell you, there is no recovering from that kind of error!

In high school, there was the infamous time I decided to double a batch of chocolate chip cookies, but forgot to double the FLOUR. Those were some really rich cookies!

As you can see, my relationship with baking has been rather fraught, and since my family is filled with excellent cooks and bakers, there’s never really been a need to overcome this slight imperfection in my make-up. However, my financial situation since I started AmeriCorps hasn’t really left me with a lot of money to spend on yummy things! I eventually came to the conclusion that making my own would be cheaper, and healthier too, since I could control what goes in them. I have a lot of free time on my hands, since I can’t really afford to be out spending money all over the place, so I eventually found myself… BAKING. Weird, right?

And here’s the thing– I actually LIKE it! I have discovered a lot about myself in the past year or so, but this has been one of the more unexpected things. Baking (and to a lesser degree, cooking) has always stressed me out, irritated me, and made me feel inadequate. I have decided that this is because I a) set impossibly high standards for myself in all things, and b) treat baking (and to a lesser degree, cooking) like I am competing for the prize in a Top Chef Quickfire Challenge. Why have I always approached baking and cooking like someone is timing me with a stopwatch? I have no idea!

Living in a studio the size of a shoebox with a kitchen the size of a postage stamp has effectively forced me to stop behaving like a Tasmanian devil in the kitchen, and as a result, I enjoy the whole process a lot more! My kitchen is set up in such a way that there are no counters at all (I repeat, NONE) and really limited space to move, store things, or what have you. I do all my food prep on top of the stove (precarious!) or on the small walnut table that previously belonged to my step-grandma. If you’ve looked at any of the pictures of food I’ve posted, you’ve seen this table. It’s pretty much the most useful thing in my apartment! Since my prep space is so limited, I am forced to only do one thing at a time, and then clean it up before proceeding to the next step. This makes the whole process take a LOT longer than I was used to, but I eventually started to relax and realize I am enjoying myself!

Here’s a list of some of the things I have baked FROM SCRATCH(!) in my tiny kitchen:

  • Chocolate chip cookies
  • Brownies
  • Ginger-Molasses cookies
  • Gingerbread
  • No-Knead Bread
  • Banana Bread
  • Cherry-Chocolate Chip Scones
  • No-Bake Chocolate-Oatmeal Cookies
  • Cornbread

There are lots of things I still want to try!

  • Pumpkin Bread
  • Pumpkin Scones
  • Zucchini Bread
  • Flat bread
  • Sourdough bread
  • Buttermilk biscuits
  • Truffles
  • Double-Chocolate Candy Cane Cookies
  • Shortbread
  • Pound cake (for Trifle!)
  • Pizza dough
  • Whole wheat No-Knead Bread

One problem I haven’t been able to overcome is the lack of equipment. I only have 2 small cabinets to store things in, so when I was packing to move, I had to be really careful about what I brought with me. Really useful things like the blender and muffin tins didn’t make the cut. I had to send home my pizza pan and cookie sheets because they didn’t fit in my tiny oven! I definitely don’t have the room (or money!) for wonderful things like a food processor or a stand mixer. I do have a hand mixer, but due to space limitations, it’s kind of a pain to get to. I have to rule out some recipes I would like to try if they involve equipment I don’t have, but I can figure out how to work around it a lot of the time. I just wish I could make pesto and hummus! Alas.

I am proud of one thing, though! I knew I wasn’t going to have any room for pantry goods once I stored all my dishes, so I came up with quite an ingenious solution, I think! Since I am such an insane reader, I have tons of bookshelves, and since my studio is so small, many of the books and shelves would be staying behind. I decided to bring one of those cheap 5-shelf Target affairs and turn it into a pantry! Larry was able to wedge it in next to the stove, and Mom and I used a small suspension rod and the curtains she made for my very first apartment to disguise the contents. It works wonderfully, and I don’t know what I would do without it!

To keep the chaos under control in such a small space, I have to keep everything pretty organized, but I guess that’s good for me anyway. For me, being really poor has had a lot of unexpected upsides! I get lots of free exercise on the way to the bus, I’ve discovered I am much more resourceful than I ever knew, and I’ve found new, useful, and yummy ways to spend my time! I think this year is really going to influence how I live the rest of my life. While I am looking forward to a less-precarious financial situation, I have discovered that it takes a lot less to make me happy than I ever believed.

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Chapter 5: In Which I put myself on a schedule. Things Get Done.
March 20, 2010, 8:27 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

So, remember how a few weeks ago I decided to become an adult? One of the first things I decided to do was construct some sort of daily schedule, because as much as I hate to admit it, I really do function best with structure. Lame, I know. In the old days (ya know… two weeks ago…) my mornings went something like this:

6:45 Snooze

7:00 Snooze

7:15 Snooze

7:16 Mmm, the bed is nice and warm, maybe I’ll just stay home!

7:18 No, I really should get out of bed and go to work. OK, here we go!

7:21 OK, I’m up. Now, I need to get in the shower immediately.

7:22 Maybe I’ll just check my email right quick

7:29 Well, it’s important to know the weather forecast

7:31 Maybe I should get in the shower… Oh, look at this article on Slate.com!

7:45 Really should take shower

7:55 OK, seriously

8:00 Oh, look, time to call mom!

8:15 SHOWER!

8:25 Make breakfast/lunch

8:35 Feed cats, give Pip his insulin

8:45 Leave house to walk to bus

Clearly, this is not a very useful way to spend one’s morning. So, I reformed the entire system, and now I basically do the same thing at the same time every day. Let me tell you, it’s REALLY boring. I get up the moment the alarm goes off, something I have never done in my ENTIRE LIFE! I get immediately in the shower, and then I take care of kitty litter, kitty food, and kitty shots, and then make breakfast and lunch, and then it is 7:30, and I don’t leave the house until 8:45!!! Being an adult is quite dull. Of course, I have infinite capacity to entertain myself, so I spend the rest of the morning reading the news online, sweeping kitty litter, washing dishes, and the like. But still, it’s a big change, and I’m not quite used to it yet.

***

My schedule also contains lists of chores I have to do every single day, OR ELSE! Things like checking the mail, and actually opening it and dealing with it, instead of checking it weekly and then leaving it sitting on the table. Weird. Also, I have to make sure all the dishes are washed before I go to bed. I’ve been a little lax about that one in the last day or two, but I’ve generally been doing pretty well! Since I don’t have a dishwasher, I really need to stay on top of the dishes, or I won’t have anything to cook or eat with, which is how one ends up eating bagels for dinner for a week. Not that I’ve ever done that… So, anyway, dishes get done, and then I am actually motivated to cook because I don’t have a pile of dishes staring me down! You might think that living in a studio the size of a shoebox would mean that you need to clean LESS, but it actually means you need to clean MORE. Since it’s so small, it gets cluttered very quickly, and there’s no where you can go to escape… which leaves you the option of staring at the clutter, or cleaning it. I’ve discovered that if I do some basic chores every day, I don’t have to spend the entire weekend cleaning! I still give everything a good going-over, but it’s not nearly as arduous as it used to be.

Before I go to bed at night, I try to make sure I have everything ready to go for the next morning: veggies and fruit cut and packed for lunch, clothes picked out, work bag packed, clutter dealt with appropriately. I am finding that I am sleeping better, which is probably a combo of knowing that everything taken care of, and not having the constant dread of not knowing when I am going to run out of money. Now that I know I don’t have enough money, I can stop worrying about it! 😉

I’ve always been an all-or-nothing kind of girl, so while it might seem really ridiculous to put myself on this kind of routine, it works for me. Things actually get done, I get to work on time, and my whole life functions more smoothly. I do sometimes struggle with motivation, but I know that if I cut myself some slack, the whole system will go to hell, so that tends to keep me going.

***

I also made some financial rules to go along with all of this. I know that I need to give myself a little leeway in my very tight budget, or I will soon be a VERY unhappy camper. Since I am not really the world’s most cheerful camper to begin with, that could be a situation! So, here are the little indulgences I am planning to allow:

  • Pizza delivery once a month, from Pizza Luce. If you’re going to go, go all out!
  • A yummy scone from my neighborhood coffee shop every other Friday morning
  • Netflix subscription that gives me one DVD at a time, plus unlimited online streaming
  • High-speed internet– I negotiated a pretty sweet deal with Comcast!

Of course, when Karen and I run the numbers again, some (or all…) of these might need to go away. That would be sad, but I guess part of being an adult is dealing with not having what you want. I am really reluctant to get rid of the internet, because it’s pretty much my chief source of information and entertainment. The previously mentioned coffee shop is only a block away from my apartment and has free wifi, but I have never been comfortable with using wifi without purchasing something, and that’s not really an option. Sigh.

***

In summary, being an adult is kind of a drag, washing dishes daily is a useful thing to do, and I love the internet. Also, I love everyone who sends me encouraging messages and comments! Thanks for being so wonderful and supportive– it really helps me get through the hard moments! 🙂



Progress Report: Week One
March 16, 2010, 12:23 pm
Filed under: money | Tags: ,

So, I’ve been at this whole blogging and accountability thing for a week now, so I figured I’d let you all know how I’ve been doing with getting my life in order.

Happily, there’s a lot of good news to report!

As I wrote earlier this morning in my cathartic rant, my food support was re-established! This is great news, as until I had my inaugural trip to Aldi’s last week, I hadn’t gotten food since early January. I am looking forward to once again being able to have fresh food and veggies in my diet on a regular basis!

I found a cheaper cell plan! My friend Chandra helpfully commented on my earlier post, and told me to look into Credo Mobile. I had never heard of them, so I did a bit of investigating, and came up with all kinds of good news. Credo is paying the fee to break my contract with Verizon ($155!), giving me a free phone (with 2-year contract), and reducing my bill by about $60 per month. They lease air space from Sprint, so I am not concerned about having bad service. I’ve spoken to their customer service people about 5 times this week, and every single person has been very polite, knowledgeable, helpful, and a native English speaker! I am really excited to get started— my new phone should arrive in the mail tomorrow. I will miss my fancy Android phone, but beggars can’t be choosers! 😉 Another great thing about Credo is that they donate a percentage of their profits to non-profit organizations, and the users get to vote for their favorites!

My forbearance request on my student loan was finally approved! I am not quite sure why it was never approved the previous two times I applied, but hey! If it saves me 80 bucks a month, who am I to argue?

I did my taxes all by myself! This may not seem like a big deal, but I have never done my taxes before. I always thought it was scary and complicated, but it’s really not, especially if you don’t have much income! I was able to e-file my federal taxes for free, but I have to do my state taxes by hand to save money. Karen says that I don’t get to spend money to make my life easier, and since she’s the financial guru, I have to do what she says… I was putting off doing the taxes because I was afraid I would owe a bunch of money I couldn’t pay (sound familiar?) but instead I actually get a pretty nice refund! Minnesota refunds renters a percentage of their rent payments, which helps. Go Minnesota! Instead of just throwing my refund at my credit card bill, I will divide it by 12 and use a portion of it each month to pad out my budget.

There’s a little bit of not-so-good news, too, but the good happily outweighs the bad. I was hoping to sell plasma to earn a little bit of extra cash each month, but when I went in for my first appointment, I was rejected because my veins are too small! It was quite frustrating, because I was really counting on using that money to balance my budget. Unfortunately, I can’t really will my veins to increase in circumference…

I still have two big tasks on my plate: I haven’t gotten in touch with my car insurance company yet to discuss lowering my rate, and I haven’t figured out what to do about my credit card. Karen advised me to leave the credit card to the last, as I would need to have all my ducks in a row and know exactly how much I could afford to spend each month on a payment before I negotiated a lower interest rate and monthly payment. So, after I talk to the insurance people, I’ll be ready to start on that.

I’ve been looking at several options with the credit card. At first, I considered working with a credit counseling agency, but decided not to, as they all charge a monthly fee. At the suggestion of my fellow VISTA Desirée, I am considering applying for a personal loan. I could pay off the credit card in full, and then pay back the bank or credit union at a much lower interest rate. I’d love to hear more suggestions!

OK, I am sure there’s more, but that’s all I can think of right now… Thanks for all the great suggestions I have gotten so far, and please keep them coming!



Chapter 4: In Which I am Frustrated With Judgmental People
March 16, 2010, 9:39 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

I found out this weekend that my re-application for food support was accepted, which was a huge, giant, enormous relief. I don’t earn enough money to purchase food and pay my bills at the same time, and the VISTA program prohibits any additional forms of income, so without food stamps, I would really be up a creek.

Which is why when I read an article like this one on Salon.com, I get really frustrated! Yes, I choose to use my food stamps to buy healthy, fresh foods. Sometimes I even buy organic ones if the regular ones don’t look very fresh.  Since the point of the program is to allow people to purchase food and stay healthy, I can’t really see what is wrong with buying fresh fruit instead of fruit roll-ups.  I also purchase dried beans, rice, flour, and oats and cook nutritious food from scratch. I don’t do it to be a “trendy hipster,” but to be healthy and eat food that I think tastes good. Maybe my notions of what tastes good are informed by growing up eating fresh, healthy food from my mom’s garden, but that hardly makes me an “overindulged slacker” as one of the commenters on the article wrote.

I just don’t understand why people judge each other for the choices they make, but I find it to be especially irksome in this instance. I take my benefits and spend them in the way I think will best feed me for the month. I always keep in mind that this money is not some hand-out, and I try to spend it responsibly. Do I buy the occasional chocolate bar? Of course I do, but I try to keep indulgences to a minimum. If I choose to eat beans for a week so that I can also afford to buy a bar of high-quality chocolate, why should anyone care?

I am conscious of the fact that I am not the “typical” food stamp user, but if my income qualifies me to receive them, why should I be judged for coming from a middle-class family and having an education? Yes, my parents paid my tuition in undergrad, but I also had scholarships. All of my graduate degrees were paid for by a combination of scholarships, assistantships, and student loans I took out myself.

Should my high level of education mean that I should be earning enough to NOT qualify for food stamps? Believe me, that’s my goal. I chose to do a year of service with AmeriCorps for many reasons, not least among them with the intent of establishing myself in the non-profit sector, and gaining valuable work experience. When my term of service is ended, I hope to find a job that will pay enough so that I no longer need to rely on food stamps to feed myself. I eagerly look forward to the day when I can pay my own way, and I see this blog as a valuable tool to help me get there.

Luckily, the primary people in my life are smart enough to understand all this, and certainly haven’t made me feel like I am ripping off the government. Unfortunately, my food support case worker has lectured me for “taking money away from people who actually need it.” I guess this is just my silly way of saying, I do need it, and please keep your nose out of my business. The End.



Chapter 3: In Which I Get Over Being A Snob and Shop at Aldi’s. It’s Amazing!
March 13, 2010, 9:30 am
Filed under: Food, frugality | Tags: ,

Due to the cancellation of my food support, I hadn’t purchased groceries since mid-January, and other than the occasional bottle of milk, I was getting by with increasingly odd meals from my pantry. Last week, the pantry began to fail me, and I was seriously wondering how I was going to feed myself until my food support is (hopefully) re-established.

Luckily, my wonderful grandma swooped in and saved the day! She sent me fifty dollars to buy food, which is amazing beyond all belief. Now that I had the cash, I had to figure out how to get the most bang for my buck. Since I don’t know if or when I am getting foodstamps again, it was key to get as much nutritious food as possible, and to get things that I could use in lots of different ways.

I recalled the advice of my excellent friend of Candace, an inveterate Aldi’s shopper. She’s been trying to get me to shop at Aldi’s for years, but I had severe middle-class hang-ups about it. I was lucky enough to grow up in a family that had never needed to shop somewhere like that, and in my snobbish opinion, I wasn’t the kind of person who shopped at Aldi’s.

Luckily, in the past year or so, I have been forced to confront all kinds of my middle-class hypocrisies, and it hasn’t hurt me a bit! Is riding an inner-city bus a thrilling experience? No. It’s been a wonderful growing experience, however. Yes, some of the stereotypes are true—some of the people are clearly homeless and just looking for a warm place to spend the day; it’s very crowded, and often uncomfortable for me, as I tend to be a bit claustrophobic; sometimes there’s a crazy person holding forth at top volume about the impending demise of the human race. On the plus side, if I take the 50 cent bus and walk, it’s crazy-cheap; the people-watching is unbelievable; my carbon footprint is smaller; I get to learn all kinds of interesting things. For example, I learned from the above crazy person that a gigantic “tuhsumi” is going to wipe out half the population! Good thing I live in the middle of the continent.

Anyway, back to the point at hand. As it turns out, I am the kind of person who shops at Aldi’s! One trip was all it took to make me an enthusiastic Aldi’s shopper. I was afraid that the lack of choices would be depressing, but I actually found it quite soothing! No need to try to figure out which of 8 brands of canned corn I wanted to buy—there’s only 1 or 2! I often find grocery shopping to be overwhelming, but this was the easiest, most stress-free shopping experience I have had in years!

Despite arriving at 4:45m, the store was not a complete zoo. Of course, there were other people there, but nothing like the chaos that you would find at the SuperTarget a few blocks down the street. The store was clean, and although all the items are arranged in their shipping boxes on the shelves, everything was neat and well-organized. I was initially disoriented by the lack of signage I am used to, but since the store itself is so small, it was pretty easy to find everything I wanted.

I went into the store with the idea that I would look around for the items I wanted, and if (as I assumed) they didn’t meet my standards, I would just go on to Target. I was especially apprehensive about the produce and dairy stuff, as I am the first to admit to being a huge food snob.

To my amazement, the produce was the freshest and cheapest I had seen outside of the Hmong farmer’s market! I got 2 lbs of carrots for 49 cents! 2 crowns of broccoli for $1.50! 4 lbs of oranges for 2 bucks! I could go on, but really you should just hop on over to your nearest Aldi’s and see for yourself! All the fresh stuff I bought is high-quality, and tastes delicious.

Look at this haul!

At the end of the trip, I had spent nearly 43 dollars, and got a huge amount of food, almost all of it healthy! I was disappointed that I couldn’t find steel-cut oats, but decided to stop at the fancy co-op on the way home to see if they sold them in their bulk bins. To my amazement, in the store where oranges cost a buck each, I can get steel-cut oats for 99 cents a pound! I bought 3.5 pounds, which will last me quite a long time.

Even if my foodstamps get approved, I am going to keep shopping at Aldi’s. In a lot of ways, I feel like my experiences in poverty are making me a better, less-judgmental person, and that can never be a bad thing!



Chapter Two: In Which I Become a Cheapskate and a Trendy Environmentalist at the SAME TIME!
March 12, 2010, 9:42 am
Filed under: Food, frugality | Tags: , , ,

I didn’t get into this position by spending money with wild abandon. Mostly, it’s a combination lifestyle choices (eternal grad school), unemployment (what happens when you quit grad school during a recession), vet bills (when diabetes strikes!), an extremely low income (join AmeriCorps, receive foodstamps!), and poor money management (you mean you really need to PAY your bills? What’s that all about?).

I’ve been living on a fairly low income for years, but when I made the decision to join AmeriCorps, I knew I was going to have to make some changes to get by. Clearly, not enough changes were made, which is why you are reading this blog, but I think I have hit upon some fairly decent ideas in the past year or so.

On the plus-side, I have also found that being broke is really eco-friendly! So not only am I poor, but I am also “green,” which immediately makes me cool. I’ve never been cool before— it’s kinda weird.

  • Instead of wasting money on paper towels and paper napkins, I started using the great collection of cloth napkins I have, but had only used on special occasions. I had always been a big user of dishtowels in the kitchen, but now I use them for even more things, like using a terry-cloth towel to clean the floors (more on that later). I do keep some paper towels on hand for cleaning up things like cat barf that I want to throw away instead of throw in the washing machine (gross! ). Instead of disposable Swiffers, I dust with re-usable microfiber cloths. I kill fewer trees and save money, hooray!
  • Buying regular fruit and veggies and chopping them myself. No baby carrots in my fridge, but carrot sticks. Takes time, yes, but saves cash. Also, during the warmer months, there is an amazing Hmong farmer’s market near my apartment, which is incredibly cheap and delicious. I come away with huge bags of amazing local produce for less than 10 dollars! I just wish they took foodstamps! Yummy, trendy, eco-friendly. Go me!
  • Along the same principle, grating my own cheese. Not only is it cheaper, but it tastes better, too! I have grated my knuckles a few times, but that’s mostly because I am a klutz.
  • I clean pretty much everything in my apartment with white vinegar, baking soda, and lemon juice. It’s pretty much the best thing ever! Good for the wallet, the lungs, and the environment. My studio apartment is really tiny (about 250 sq ft) and has wooden floors.  I mix some vinegar and warm water in a re-usable spray bottle, and just kneel on the floor and clean with a terry cloth towel. Works great!
  • I work in downtown St. Paul, where the parking rates are exorbitant. For example, in the parking ramp across the street from my office, the daily rate is something like 17 bucks. No thanks! Taking the city bus system is a better option, but at up to $2.25 per one-way trip, not exactly  cheap. Luckily, I live very close to downtown, so instead of getting on at the closest bus stop, I walk half a mile to the edge of the bus system’s designated “Downtown Zone.” If you get on and off within the downtone zone, the trip only costs 50 cents! So I get to work and back for a dollar a day, and I get to walk a mile, too! Again, better for my wallet, my health, and the environment.
  • OK, this one isn’t a win for anyone but me, but I’ll include it anyway. The lovely and amazing Karen and her wonderful husband Jeremy generously let me do my laundry at their house for free! This isn’t without its hassles, since they live about 20 minutes away, but the savings far outstrip the annoyance of lugging around huge bags of laundry. I try not to abuse their generosity, and still do some laundry in my building’s coin machines, but it is a HUGE budget saver.
  • I have started cooking lots of things from scratch, which saves a ton of money, and generally tastes better. I do use my Crock Pot once in a while, but mostly I just do things on the weekend. Here’s a list of things I have learned to make all by myself:
    • The world’s best tomato sauce- very flexible, very cheap
    • No Knead Bread! It’s really easy and yummy.

    • Corn bread- it’s almost as easy as mixing a box of Jiffy, but tastes way better!

    • Dried beans- I was scared of dried beans for a long time, but it is so simple, cheap, and fairly yummy. My advice: add a little bacon, serve with sour cream and cornbread.

    • Banana bread- I am super-picky about my bananas, and won’t eat them once they get a single brown spot. I used to throw them away, but now I just make banana bread!
    • Soup- you really can throw a bunch of random things in a pot and make a pretty tasty meal. Triumphs have included potato soup made of things from the Hmong farmer’s market, and what I called “VISTA Foodstamp Surprise,” made out of random canned goods from the pantry.
    • Steel-cut oats are amazing! I have always hated rolled and instant oats, but I recently decided to give the steel-cut variety a try, and they knocked my socks off! Great texture and taste, and a batch only takes 30 minutes to make. I make a batch every weekend and eat it for breakfast every day with some milk and jam stirred in. Yum!
  • Instead of plastic baggies, I store most things in reusable containers. I already had some pretty high quality Rubbermaid things, but I also repurpose things like empty glass pickle jars.  Again, cheap and green. I am so cool, I can hardly stand myself.

That’s all I can think of now, but since I am increasingly interested in frugality, I am sure to write about it again. Please pass along your own tips!



Chapter One: In which I create a budget. Pizza is eaten. Tears are not shed.
March 11, 2010, 5:22 pm
Filed under: money | Tags: , , ,

After making the choice to turn around my life, I instantly realized that I was going to need some help. Now, I have never liked admitting to needing help, or asking for it. I prefer to do all things well, and to just not DO the things I don’t do well (which, as it turns out, is a bad idea). I realized that I had an amazing resource in the person of my best friend.  After I worked up the courage to admit to her that I was in over my head, the lovely and amazing Karen generously agreed to be my financial guru and sort through my monetary pit of destruction.

After I made some attempts to figure out my sources of income and expense, we sat down together for a few hours on Sunday afternoon. I learned all KINDS of things!

  • Who knew that one could include annual expenses like car tags and gasoline for trips home in one’s budget and save for them all year long? Amazing!
  • You can negotiate things like credit card payments. Again, who knew? Not me. I just don’t pay them!
  • If you eat cold feta, garlic, and tomato pizza before working on your budget, you will be in a much happier mental place to work on said budget than you were when you were starving!
  • I am actually capable of discussing money without crying. Hooray!

We made a fancy Excel chart to track everything, and now I have a clear idea of how much money I need to devote to every area of my life, every single month. It feels so grown-up and official! The end result of all this math was realizing that my expenses currently exceed my income by about $300, which could explain why I was having to pay my bills on a rotating basis… In order to make up the short-fall, I will be

  • Rethinking my current cell phone and plan. I bought a smartphone last fall, not realizing that you are unable to turn off the data plan and just use it like a regular phone, so I am currently paying $30 per month on top of the regular plan. I still have a lot of research to do in this area before I decide the best path to take. It would be pretty pricey to break the contract and switch to another carrier, so I am looking at purchasing a used basic phone and downgrading to a basic plan without a lot of minutes. Anyone have any brilliant suggestions for affordable cell phone plans?
  • Calling my credit card company to try and negotiate my interest rate and the minimum payment so that they are more budget-friendly. I am feeling pretty apprehensive about this, as I have never attempted anything like it. Ideas?
  • Calling the loan company that refuses to put an educational loan into forbearance, despite the fact that I am volunteering for a year with AmeriCorps VISTA. All the other companies cooperated, but Great Lakes Financial Services refuses. Sadface! I could certainly put that 80 bucks a month to good use, like PAYING THE RENT or something!
  • Trying to negotiate a lower premium on my car insurance.  Again, no experience with this. When I got this policy, I was told that the rate is higher because I only live a mile or so from downtown St. Paul, which apparently costs more. Boo!
  • Getting my food support re-established. AmeriCorps members are eligible for foodstamps, and the $200 per month has made all the difference in the world. Unfortunately, I am having to re-apply, and haven’t gotten any benefits since December. Beans are good?
  • Getting my taxes done and figuring out if I will get a rebate, which could go towards rounding out the budget.

Based on how all of these negotiations work out, the amazing Karen and I will looking at the budget a second time and making adjustments. Hopefully we will be able make it balance! As an AmeriCorps VISTA, I am not allowed to earn any money outside of my monthly living stipend, which makes it a bit more difficult. I think we are up to the challenge!

PLEASE let me know if you have good tips for negotiating these kinds of things— I can use all the help I can get!