Monday, June 30, 2008

How Does My Garden Grow Week 14

June has been a rainy month. The upside to this is that we've had to hand water less than usual, and the garden is growing beautifully. The downside is that the weeds are growing beautifully too. It's time to mulch the garden in earnest.

I ordered some sheets of red mulch for the tomatoes, and I'll be putting them down next weekend. I have read that tomato plants thrive with red mulch, and produce bigger and better tomatoes, so we'll be testing that out. The cost of 8 square sheets was less than $2. If it's effective, I'll get more next year. I plan to reuse the sheets year to year.

It's nice to see small tomatoes on our tomato vines, and equally small peppers on the pepper plants. Our lettuce has doubled in size, and I planted more lettuce seeds yesterday (Mignonette Bronze from Baker Creek Heirloom Seed We should begin eating lettuce from the garden in a week or so, and I hope to cycle through new lettuce from now through the fall.

Our fingerling potato plants have started to flower, so they will be ready pretty soon. They seem to enjoy their environment. Unlike the sweet potatoes - most of those became fodder for the chipmunks. We've had good luck with our deterrent efforts, but the adorable little pests are still frustrating us. My husband has started to look from the hose to their den holes with a gleam in his eye.

We have wild blackberries growing over into our yard, so my husband harvested a few to munch on this weekend. They were tiny, but delicious.

Since the vegetable garden is in, we've paused on building more garden beds to weed and mulch the flower beds.

In addition to everything we expect to harvest from our garden, we picked up our 2nd week of CSA, and split a subscription to an 11-week fruit share with some friends. We are inundated with veggies. This week we dropped some of our excess at my Mom's, and we're going to have to do some intensive menu planning to use all the greens, but I'm looking forward to that.

Soon we'll be eating, and preserving food from our garden. Summer is flying by, it's hard to believe tomorrow is July.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Thursday Money Tips: Jingle Bells in June Edition

Each Thursday Ms. Moneypenny publishes 5 money tips. Have one you would like to see listed? Post it in the comments, and I'll file it for possible future use.

I know what you are thinking "Moneypenny, toots. Get a grip. It's June 26th. Why on earth would I be thinking about the holidays? Come over here and have a margarita. And shut up about winter."

Good point. It is June 26th. And it's the perfect time to be thinking about the holidays. Why? Because then in December when everyone is mad at the other people in the parking lot at the stores or the Fed Ex guy, or fighting a mall full of screaming kids, you get to kick back with a hot buttered rum and smile. Because those poor planners are suffering, but you've been ready for ages. No last minute dashes to the mall for you, my little early planners - the stockings have long been stuffed.

So, here's 5 tips to get you ready for the holidays, and take all the stress off shopping.

1. Casually watch what catches your give-ees eyes
This goes year round. Want gift ideas? Skip the list and just see what interests them over the year. Then shop accordingly. Someone asking your advice about gardening or stamp collecting? Use that as a basis for a great gift.

2. Summer is sale season
Summer is yard sale season. Estate sale season. And all sorts of sale season. Thinking about getting your nephew a bike for Christmas? Why not refurb a cool bike that cost $20, instead of a new one (which will soon look exactly like the used one) that costs $100.

3. Homemade gifts take time.
I have a rule. If my project gifts aren't done by October 31st, they aren't getting done for the holidays. So I start them in January. I usually complete about 1/3 of my planned gift projects, but those gifts often cannot be found in a store. And a family book of recipes or special scrapbook is a great gift.

4. End of season sales are great times to get things for next year
Got a friend that loves to throw parties? Guess what: those fish-shaped plastic ice cubes and margarita machines are all going on sale now. Stick 'em in a closet for a few months, and voila, they are prepped for next summer. All at a low, low price, of course.

5. Slow and steady wins the race
It's far easier to spend $20 here and $10 there than $1000 in a month. Spread the costs out - it just feels better.

Oh, and don't forget to check that gift stash before you run out and shop in December!

Monday, June 23, 2008

How Does My Garden Grow Weeks 10-13

It's been busy in the MoneyPenny garden the last few weeks.

The garden beds have taken much longer than expected.  Of the 8 we have planned, only 3 are complete.

The tomatoes are in now, as are all the peppers, potatoes, and the fruit trees, bushes and plants. Some of our herbs are coming up, others, like the basil plant, got frostbite and died. So our basil will be late this year, the freshly planted basil is still tiny.

We have 5 more garden beds to go.  Only one or two more will get done this year, and then we'll prep new beds over the next two years while we plant in the existing space. 

We recently made a decision to postpone the rebuild of our small barn in order to finish more of the garden space. Our garden will be smaller than we hoped this year, but a large portion of it will be ready to plant for us next year, and once summer rolls around, we will be able to focus entirely on the barn. We're stopping the barn rebuild after the old building gets knocked down and the foundation gets poured.

My tomatoes have begun to flower in earnest, and there are teeny buds on the pepper plants. Two pumpkins are thriving and blossoming, as well as a couple of melons and acorn squash.  
Only one cucumber survived our planting delays, unfortunately, so it's going to be a light cucumber year.  Same with the beans.  But oh well, there's always next year.  The cabbage plants from my Moms are growing strong, along with some asian cabbage we planted from seed - as long as I keep chasing off the cabbage moths.  

Add to that the rhubarb that seems to be settling in for the long haul, and it will be a productive garden indeed.  

On a fruit front, our apple and cherry tree are turning from sticks into real trees, and the transplanted raspberries and blackberries are budding up nicely.  Our strawberries have not survived the chipmunk infestation we're experiencing, so we're taking measures.  Right now, just some deterrent, but if they keep eating my berries, and digging up my sweet potatoes, and chomping the herbs, they may find themselves in a more precarious position.  

Note to other gardeners: chipmunks are cute in someone else's yard.

We are hoping to begin harvesting a few munchies in just a few short weeks.  It's amazing that July is almost here.  Summer seems to just fly by.

In addition to the vegetable garden, the flower garden is also blooming.  While we worked on our 'garden of eating', we neglected the poor flower beds, which have become infested with weeds, so this past weekend I started working on weeding and mulching the flower beds.  We've had 4 yards of mulch sitting in the driveway for about 7 weeks, but really, you can't rush these things.  It's slow going, but well worth it.  

Something's gotten to our rose bushes, so I'll be taking a few leaves down to the garden center this week for their help and expertise.  I love roses, and I'd hate to lose ours.  

The first garden bed my husband built was for our potatoes and sweet potatoes.  There are three now.  I'll add pictures of it's current state when it stops raining.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

An In-Season Meal Plan

This weekend, our CSA (community supported agriculture) farm share started up at our local farm and farmstand, Green Meadows Farm  For the next 18 weeks, we'll receive in-season veggies for 2 adults for one week, plus pick-our-own flowers and herbs.  We're splitting a fruit share with some couple friends of ours, which kicks off in August.  We'll each get about 2.5 lbs of peaches or apples a week for 11 weeks - in addition to the raspberries and blueberries that Sander and I get as part of our CSA membership.  

Even though we've made efforts over the last year to buy local fruit, vegetables, eggs and milk (all available at the farmstand), this is the official start of our local food transition - ultimately trying to get 30% of our diet locally in 3 years.  That's a big number, 30%.  But this is one of those journeys of a thousand miles that begins with one step, and hopefully goes no further than a couple hundred miles from home.  We're trying to lessen our footprint on the earth, and that means putting some effort into our food - and putting our money, quite literally, where our mouth is.  

We decided to join a CSA this year even though we planted a garden.  Why?  Because it is the first year of gardening in our new home, and we knew that it was unlikely we would get enough planted to provide us with seasonal eating, plus food to preserve.  Given that we're still building permanent garden beds and it's late June, I'd say we made a good call.  Still, between the CSA and what we've planted in our garden, I fully expect to be absolutely inundated with vegetables.  

The challenge of eating in season, with whatever is ripe is that it takes some creativity and thought.  Which is odd, because just a few generations back, in-season eating was the norm. There was no such thing as Whole Foods, and strawberries shipped in from Chile in January. People ate according to what they had at hand.  

But for 2 professionals who spend their days in hermetically sealed office buildings breathing recycled air, and able to buy whatever they feel like at the grocery store, it's a change.  
This first week, our share included the following items:

Bright Lights Swiss Chard
Sugar Snap Peas 

When we got home, I immediately went to work in the kitchen, while Sander went to work in the yard.  

First, I made salads for lunches.  I can safely make salads for two to three days in advance, so today I prepped for Monday and Tuesday.  I had a cucumber and some tomatoes on hand, and I added in some olives, hot peppers, chick peas, avocado and wild rice to the arugula, snap peas and lettuce from the CSA.  I also hard boiled fresh eggs I'd gotten right from my parent's chickens, 6 miles away.  While the majority of the salad wasn't local, it was a really good start.

While I worked on the salads, I sauteed some vegetable potstickers for lunch with some of the swiss chard.  It was delicious.

About half of the kale and the rest of the swiss chard got chopped up to be added to tonight's dinner - shrimp curry over noodles.  I'll use some of the fresh parsley in there too.

The turnips, spinach, and the rest of the kale, along with the bulk of the snap peas went into the crisper. Tomorrow Sander is the dinner cook on deck, and we're thawing some chicken, and he'll use the rest of the peas.  

The kale will last for a bit, so I'll either add it to a soup over the weekend, or get a little creative, not sure yet.  And the turnips will get roasted with some garlic and be part of Friday night's date night dinner.  The spinach will either get added to salads or sauteed later in the week with dinner.  

As for the rest of the herbs, some of the oregano will get added to a pasta dinner this week, and some will be dried.  We'll probably dry the bulk of the thyme as well.

I didn't have a plan for how to use everything before we went and picked it all up.  I wasn't sure exactly what would be there, honestly.  But when I got home, and headed for the kitchen, it all started to fall into place.  The nice thing about chopping and slicing is that it's a good time to mull over ideas (as long as I continue to pay attention to my fingers, that is). 

This week wasn't hard at all - it was a great start to our local food efforts.  And nothing tastes better than fresh from the garden food.  I don't even like peas, and I'm going to eat the sugar snap peas we picked.  And probably enjoy them too.  

 I have never felt as good as I did about our food supply as I did today.  Mostly I worry about what goes into our mouths, what pesticides were used on it, and whether we really should be eating it. Today I knew for sure we were eating well, and I had hope for the future of our food supply. 

That's not something that can be bought in a store.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Thursday Money Tips: Not-So-Well-Spent Edition

Each Thursday, Ms. Moneypenny provides 5 money tips. Have a tip you'd like to add? Leave a comment and I'll add it to a later edition.

Last week I talked about things that were worth the money to us. Here's a few things I've spent money on that just weren't, and the lessons they have taught me.

1. Wasted food
It happens. No matter how hard I try to stay on top of things, an open jar gets forgotten at the back of the refridgerator, or something rots in the crisper. I don't have an estimate on how much food gets wasted per year in this way, and perhaps I don't want to know. Most of the time it's not much, but tossing that asparagus a couple weeks ago hurt.

Lesson learned: We need to stay on top of what's in need of eating better, and plan our menus around it.

2. Shoes and clothes that don't get worn
I used to be something of a clotheshorse. I'd buy things because they looked good, not necessarily because it fit well. I shudder to think of all the money I wasted over the years on uncomfortable shoes and clothes that weren't practical or wearable. As part of my de-Stuffing efforts, I'm working on getting rid of some of the things that I just don't wear or use. Consignment shops and donation bins are my friend.

Lesson learned: Buy what's comfortable, usable and serves a purpose. Useful and attractive are not mutually exclusive, but buying those shoes just for looks ensures they will sit in the closet so I don't get blisters.

3. Skin care products that don't work
I have sensitive skin. Over the years I've bought about every product on the market. Most of these purchases I've regretted quite a bit, especially the super expensive cleansers and creams. Now I use just a few reasonably priced products that work great.

Lesson learned: Just because it's expensive, doesn't mean it works better. Get samples before sinking big dollars into skin care.

4. 20 yards of grey silk velvet
I bought it years ago. I won't get into why. It's still sitting in a storage bin in the attic. I'm not yet able to part with it.....although I'm getting there. I still have this idea that maybe I'll use it. For something.

Lesson learned: buy project stuff for only identified projects. Don't just buy it because of someday. It will sit in your attic. Or mine, as it were. Need some velvet?

5. A really expensive bag
A couple years ago, I bought a Coach bag. I was consulting, making good money, and I wanted to spoil myself. I bought it on sale, but still. Honestly - I love this thing. Why do I regret it? Because it's a cranberry color, and suede. Good for the fall. When the weather is perfect. A single drop of rain....well, not so much. So for about 10 months of the year, perhaps more, it sits in the closet. Sure, I use it. I love it.

Lesson learned: for 2 months a year, I could have gotten a cheaper bag.

Confession - I had a hard time getting to 5 on this list. Not because I've never bought things I've regretted, but because I had to think about how much money I've spent foolishly.

Honestly, I'd rather not. But it was good for me. Now I just have to figure out what to do with that darn velvet.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Is Grocery Shopping on Amazon.Com Worth It?

Recently, another blog article mentioned ordering groceries on Aside from the occasional order from Penzey's Spices, I rarely consider ordering food online, although I am pondering ordering some grass-fed beef. Having some friends that registered for their wedding at Amazon, and needing to come up with gifts at some point, I wandered over there. And while I was there, I clicked over to the grocery section.

I wasn't impressed. Everything I might order was either more expensive or comparable to the prices I find at BJs for bulk foods. And most items weren't things I purchased regularly - or ever. For example, one boxed item we do keep on hand is Annie's macaroni and cheese. We both like it, and it's an easy, cheap meal.

The price at Amazon was:
Annie's Homegrown Shells & White Cheddar Macaroni & Cheese, 6-Ounce Boxes (Pack of 12)List Price:$26.32Price: $18.80
You Save: $7.52 (28%)

Whereas the last time I bought it at BJs, it was $16.99 for a 12-pack. Even with the free shipping, not such a great deal.

The only feature I found fairly impressive was Subscribe & Save which allows you to receive scheduled deliveries of frequently used products at a 15% discount plus free shipping. If Amazon had items that we used regularly, I might take advantage of this. I could see where it might come in handy for new parents, as the idea of delivered groceries, plus their excellent selection of baby-care items make it a great option.

I was particularly impressed that they carried the entire line of Seventh Generation diapers, wipes, as well as adult-care items. I'm going to have to check some of the local prices for SG paper products to determine if what they offer is a good deal.

All in all, for groceries wasn't a good deal for us. But if you use a lot of the products they sell, and you want them delivered regularly - especially you sleep deprived new parents, Subscribe & Save could be a good deal for you.

As an aside, for parents going the disposables route, consider Seventh Generation products:

Monday, June 16, 2008

A Really Great Meatball Recipe

I try to do as much kitchen prep on the weekends as I can, including making meals that have enough portions that I can freeze for later. This saves us time and money on the 'We have no idea what to make for dinner' nights.

Today, since I took a vacation day, I spent a lot of time in the kitchen. One of my favorite multi-meal recipes is meatballs. I've adapted my meatball recipe from The Best Recipe, by the editors of Cooks Illustrated. The cookbook was given to me as a gift, and it's a great cookbook to own. CI is willing to test as many recipes as it takes to get the 'best recipe'.

If you have about 90 minutes, don't mind getting your hands messy, and want to have 6-8 really good meals, depending on the size of your family, this meatball recipe is worth the effort.
This recipe makes 85-90 1" polpette-style meatballs.

You will need:
4 slices of wheat, oat nut, or multi grain bread with the crusts removed
1 cup of buttermilk or 1 cup milk with 1 tbsp vinegar mixed in, let stand for 10 minutes after mixing
2-2.5 lbs ground beef and pork (I use 1/2 and 1/2. Ground beef on it's own doesn't taste as good in this recipe)
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
1 large egg
2 tablespoons parsley or a combination of parsley, oregano and basil
1 teaspoon salt
black pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Get out 2-3 baking sheets, 2 plates, and about 8 paper towels. Place 2 paper towels on each plate.
Note: I don't use too many paper towels in my daily life, but here's an exception I recommend making. You do not want to have to clean regular towels after this process.

Tear the slices of bread into tiny (and I do mean small - about 1/4 to 1/3 size of a female pinky nail is about right) pieces into a large mixing bowl

Once the bread is in bits, pour the buttermilk or milk/vinegar mixture over the bread, mix well and let stand for about 15 minutes. The mixture should resemble a paste when it is done soaking.

Add all the remaining ingredients to the bowl. Hand mix the meatball mixture for 1-2 minutes, until the ingredients are fully incorporated.

Roll the mixture into 1-1.5" balls. Place in rows on an ungreased baking sheet. Bake for 11-14 minutes. You may need to slice one to ensure they are done.

While the first sheet is baking, roll out the rest of the meatballs. I typically fill about 2 1/4 baking sheets, or about 90 meatballs.

When the meatballs are done, remove immediately from the baking sheet to the paper-towel covered plates. Cover with more paper towels to blot grease. I usually have multiple towel/meatball layers when I'm done.

Let the meatballs cool. Place in baggies or tupperware and freeze. Assume about 5 per person, per serving.

I hope you enjoy this recipe, and all the meals it makes. Coming up next: Fresh bread, the kneadless way.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Gen X Finance: Coping With Consumption Urges

I am by nature a spender.  I can get positively starry-eyed about opportunities to spend money.

That said, I don't spend much of my income on disposable things. An exception would be wine, but I'm hoping a pregnancy and early parenthood might help with that. Or maybe it will make me want to drink more. We shall see.

I am much like MP Dunleavey. I recognize myself in her words:

I have an ambivalent relationship with frugality myself. Some days I aspire to a life of financial purity and austerity -- one in which I rise above all my earthly cravings, drive a 20-year-old Volkswagen and die with the words "secret millionaire" carved on my tombstone.
The rest of the time I fantasize about being Paris Hilton -- while forcing myself to be as financially prudent as I can be in the real world.

So what do I do when the spendy little devil on my shoulder starts influencing me?

Well, it depends. I'll be honest, sometimes spendy-the-devil wins. Yes, I'm talking to you, cute little peep-toe shoes on my feet. But for the most part, I win against the forces of shoe marketers and other purveyors of temptation.

Here's 5 things I've done to make the urge to shop less powerful

1. I limit my exposure
I'm still working on cutting off the catalog valve, but I rarely go to the mall or stop by a store just to look. The way I see it, the fewer stores I enter, the less goods that I will desire.
I'm taking baby steps on the catalog front - I have so far called two of the twenty bazillion we receive to get removed from the mailing list. Not only do they tempt me, it's really environmentally wasteful for all that junk mail to be sent to me.

2. I make my savings automatic
Retirement savings gets pulled out of my check before I see it. A set amount each week gets put into savings automatically. I do have to manually transfer other money to savings, but the more automatic it is, the less likely I am to spend it.

3. I limit eating out
Eating out is a great way to waste money, and wow, does it taste good. But I can make something just as good at home, and for far less money. Having a meal plan is key here. Try the menu planner at

4. I go shopping in my closet
So admittedly, this only works when I want to go shoe or clothes shopping. It doesn't help when I'm salivating over teak outdoor furniture. But still, it's a great option. I up the ante by packing away my off-season clothes, so everything is new to me when I unpack it. But I'm constantly amazed by what I find in there. I'm trying to declutter my closet, but that's another post.

5. I go to yard sales
I love yard sales. It's a great way to shop without the guilt of the environmental production costs of a new item, and typically prices are about 10% of the cost of new as well. Sure, there's lots of junk. Really, you can't expect there not to be. But I've gotten some great stuff at yard sales, including furniture. Check your local paper for all the yard sales some weekend, pick a few to check out, and go. Even if you have no luck the first day, keep trying. I once bought a $250 handmade wooden ride-on airplane (the kind with wheels that allows kids to scoot along the floor pretending to be Charles Lindbergh) for my nephew for $3.00. Yes, $3.

The urges to spend are hard to overcome, and there's a vast modern marketing machine out there to make us think we'll be smarter, better, sexier, or more competent and valued by buying stuff. But that's marketing, not reality. You can turn off the marketing machine, but it will take concerted effort to do so.

It's worth it though. Your wallet will thank you.

If you have been reading for a while, you've probably noticed by now I'm a big fan of MP Dunleavey over at MSN Money. You can check out MP's article on this topic here:

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Thursday Money Tips: Well Spent Edition

Each Thursday, Ms. Moneypenny posts 5 money-related tips. Have a tip you'd like to share? Add it to the comments, and I'll add it to the cue of possibilities for a later edition of Thursday Money Tips.

I talk a lot about how not to spend, or how to save. That's one of the major goals of a personal finance blog, after all. But sometimes the money we spend is really worth it, so this week I thought I'd focus on 5 things that were worth the money to us - because some purchases are worth every penny.

1. A long weekend away
I have blogged a fair amount about being a little (or a lot) burned out and out of balance. We booked a long weekend away this month, even though it wasn't in the budget, and it will be worth every penny. I think 'time off' is a worthy expenditure.

2. Fertility Treatments
So we're lucky - the bulk of the costs are covered by insurance. But it's still pretty pricey to spend a few hundred dollars on prescriptions each month. Is it worth it (along with all the inconvenience, medication, future college bills, etc)? You had better believe it.

3. Stone for the border of our garden beds
Sure, we tried to glean stone from our property. But there wasn't enough, it was all either too big or too small, not with in the just right category. So we bought some. Unlike wooden beds, it will never have to be replaced, never rot, and can be configured however we want.

4. New Oil Tanks
This fell into the category of something I really didn't want to spend $2k on. I mean, oil tanks? Joy. But such is the price tag of homeownership, and it was far better than spending $50,000.00 on cleaning up a spill from a leaking tank, and having the EPA fine us. But then again, most things are better than that.

5. A CSA farm share
In addition to our garden this year, we invested in a CSA (community supported agriculture) farm share. For $525.00, from June 22nd through the end of October, we receive whatever produce is in season, a week's supply, plus unlimited pick-your-own herbs and flowers. That works out to $29.16 a week for 18 weeks. The farm share, in addition to our garden, and a few days of labor in the kitchen, will hopefully provide us enough pasta sauce, pesto (okay, we're not growing the parmesan cheese), pickles, and canned and frozen veggies to last us well into the winter. If we're lucky, maybe some homemade salsa as well.

We're thinking of adding a fruit share when they become available, and my sister the farmer is raising us 10 chickens, plus the 3 chickens and a turkey we'll receive from our CSA. Not only have we invested in our local economy, we've done it pretty cheaply.

Sometimes it's good to save. But spending on the things that provide you the most value is the essence of frugality. It's good to occasional sit down and figure out what was a 'good spend'.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Sharing Finances

A few months ago, I wrote an article about having a budget meeting with your spouse here:

This topic came to mind again as I was reading a recent article on CNN Money called What's In Your Spouse's Wallet?

The article talks about the relative ignorance of many couples on what their overall financial situation is (and used poor Silda Spitzer as an example of what financial obliviousness can get you).

Even if your spouse isn't hiring $5000-a-night hookers, and I truly hope he or she is not, blindness to your overall financial situation, and lack of familiarity with your spouse's financial picture will only bring you heartache. And probably a wallet-ache as well.

The article, and many like it talk about what you need to know: assets, debt, income, all that. But how do you go from separate and oblivious to together and on the same team?

The first is to find a reason to be. In a time of 2-wage earner families and more independence, sometimes getting both sides of a couple to agree is the hardest part. So what do you do? Do what the business world does when trying to sell a concept - WIIFM. WIIFM, short for What's In It For Me, means you find the thing that is going to make the idea appealing. Does your spouse want to retire early? Buy a home? Have a big family?

So start talking dreams and goals, not dollars. Find out how your spouse sees the future. What they want. And then share your wants and goals. Then, and only then, will you know where you want to go, and you can start figuring out a road map to get there.

Start with small suggestions. "If we did this, we could....". You catch more flies with honey than with a verbal barrage of "We need to cut out all our spending because you are going to send us to the poorhouse with your constant gadget purchases!!"

Trust me, this is not the way to influence your spouse.

Make a list of pros and cons of the options for combining (or not) your finances. Present the lists you have made to one another. Then come up with an approach you both can live with. A great way to start these discussions is to read Smart Couples Finish Rich by David Bach together.

For combining accounts, the way I see it, there are three options.
  1. Pool it all
  2. Have yours, mine and ours accounts
  3. Pool nothing

I'll confess, we went for option 1. Why? First, it's the least complicated. I don't have to track or transfer to multiple accounts. Everything goes into, and out of basically a single point. We do have some ancillary accounts earmarked for certain things, and retirement accounts, but for our day-to-day finance, it's a single checking and savings account combination.

One question that seems to come up about this sort of arrangement is a lack of financial privacy. I haven't found that to be true. When one of us wants to buy something for the other, we typically use a credit card (paid in full each month) and tell the other not to check the statement. We also have individual 'fun money' that we can use for anything from coffee runs at work to dinner out with a friend, to new shoes. That money doesn't get questioned - it's ours to use as we will.

But none of it is secret. If I buy something, I tell my husband, fun money or no. In my opinion, the well-being of the couple outweighs the right to 'privacy' in key areas, finance being one of them.

What we do have is the right to make decisions with our fun money, and up to certain amounts for other purchases, without discussion. Once we cross that threshhold, the purchase gets discussed.

The other two approaches can work as well, as long as a few things are clear to both of you: what you share and what you don't, the schedules and responsibilities for bill-paying, and where you stand financially.

That last point is the most critical. You must have access to one another's accounts. No, not to 'check up on one another' although that may, at certain points, for certain relationships, be necessary. It's far more basic than that. You need to be able to pay bills and track funds in the event something happens to your spouse. Remember - you aren't roommates, or 'friends with a kick' - your financial situation directly affects your spouse, and theirs yours.

Once you have a plan, and some goals you can share, you can get focused on the nitty gritty, which is combining, or adding each other to accounts. For this, I recommend setting some time goals, otherwise it may end up on the to-do list in perpetuity.

It doesn't hurt to revisit roles and responsibilities periodically after you have worked out your sharing system and put it in place. And I strongly recommend periodic money meetings in order to keep the team part in place. Look at it this way: The Red Sox probably wouldn't have won the World Series twice in the last few years if they didn't occasionally get together to practice. The same goes for the two of you - few teams remain effective if they don't practice and work together.

Sharing finances doesn't have to be a scary process. And you can be a team without fighting each other for control.

If you have a plan.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Poverty of the Soul

I recently got sucked into a debate on poverty.  

One of the things that bothered me about the discussion is what I saw as a complete lack of empathy for people who have made mistakes they can't easily recover from - bringing children into a precarious financial situation, for example, or people who are poor compounding their money troubles by making bad decisions - say, spending money on cigarettes and alcohol vs. putting money away.

On the surface level, the 'take responsibility for yourself' people are correct - it is a bad idea to smoke, for both you and your fellow man, under the best of circumstances, and if you can barely afford to keep a roof over your head, it's making things even worse.

But I think the holier than thou approach to people who have made, or are making bad choices is a bad scene.

I'm not saying that taking responsibility for your actions is a bad thing - quite the contrary, I believe rather strongly in it. But I do think that judging others choices through your own - or my own - lens is a fallacy. And I think it makes people less kind when 'Well I did it' becomes your mantra for other's success.

This isn't about what political party should be in power or whether spending on social programs is correctly allocated.  It isn't about who is right and who is wrong.  It's about a sense I get that our society is losing it's sense of empathy, and how much that bothers me.

I grew up with little.  My first memories are of the housing project where we lived.  Of course, at the age of 3 I had no idea we were poor - the project was full of families just like us - parents with young children.  I know that people were home a lot, but I thought nothing of it.  Through my 3-year-old lens, it was just how it was.  I know now that many of those parents were home because they didn't have jobs, or couldn't afford daycare.  Some of them planned their families anyway, some of them had unplanned pregnancies.  There were many women without visible husbands or partners, on their own.

My paternal Grandmother owned a house, but she was one of the only relatives that did. Almost no one I knew owned a house growing up.  I thought apartments were normal.

When I was 5, we moved to Lynn, Massachusetts.  We lived in what was slowly becoming a 'rough area'.  On our street were a fair amount of families like us, but on the next street over was a fair amount of violence and gang activity.  We didn't go over there.  We were afraid to. 

The first time I became aware money was an issue was when we moved.  My Mom had $5.00 to take to the grocery store.  I don't remember how long it had to last her, or how she spent the bulk of it, but I remember we had macaroni and cheese out of a box that night for dinner.  I thought it was a huge treat.  

As the years went by, and my parents divorced, my standard of living slowly rose.  My mother and her partner rented an apartment in a safer neighborhood.  Then they saved to buy a home - a two family home that they bought with another family we knew.  My father's standard of living remained the same - a compulsive spender, he spent money to make himself feel better, which put him in a cycle of spend, go broke, make money, spend again.  It was a pattern I ultimately repeated.

When I reached adolescence, I had one driving goal - money.  I wanted nice things.  My Moms had moved to an area where we were visibly poorer than the rest of my peer group, and it hurt. I wanted nothing more than to have nice things like the other kids, like a closet full of clothes in the latest styles.  I was poor in comparison to my reference group and I knew it. 

So I got a job at a local grocery store, and I earned.  And spent every dime I earned.  And then some.  I got credit cards and ran them up in order to have nice things.  Of course, I couldn't pay them back.  So I didn't.  It was a bad decision made in desperation.  

Even after wrecking my credit, I still spent.  I was trying so hard to fill the hole in my heart with things - the hole marked 'not as good as everyone else'.  I went to college for a while, but I was better at working, because there was a visible end result - the paycheck.  And I could spend that.  And I could have the things that would make me as good as everyone else.  And I did.

I made really bad decisions.  Lots of them.  For a long time.  

I eventually picked myself up and bailed myself out, but it wasn't without a lot of help.  For one, I found a job with a boss who mentored me, promoted me, and looked out for me.  I had a community of supportive people around me.   I was a fast reader, and I absorbed as much personal finance information as I could. 

I was lucky - I had a ton of breaks.  When I might have drowned, there were people there for me, holding out a hand, and holding me up.  And I was smart enough and resourceful enough to know what to do with the help.  I could apply it.

I look back on myself, now many years later - I look back over the top of my laptop, from over the couch in the gorgeous old colonial we are painstakingly renovating, over my consulting job, over my healthy bank balance, over my adorable and adored husband - I look back,  and I know how lucky, and how blessed I am.  I have a great marriage, a great family, a great job, and I have gifts - intellect, looks, a strong work ethic, creativity - that not everyone has.  People who love you, the ability to work smart, to make connections, to absorb and process information - those are gifts.  And gifts are not distributed equally amongst us.  

I know, I watched so many just go under, or just dog paddle.  The teenage pregnancy that turned into parenthood of a high-need severely disabled child that turned into few job options for the parents which in turn became poverty.  The graduate in a bad job market that took the only job available and struggled to find another.  The retail manager that never quite managed to find a job with a better schedule and wage.   The compulsive spender, or the alcoholic who never could quite get their internal void filled, and the compulsion under control.

Sure, all of them have options.  But in many ways, they are limited by either the things that happened, or their inability to change.  They didn't end up with the same gifts I did.

Those gifts have allowed me to learn how to make something of nothing.  I can make dinner from whatever is lying around.  I can make a beautiful Christmas with little money.  I can make myself into a successful consultant and valued member of society.  I can make connections with the people around me.  

Much of the discussion around poverty and how our resources are allocated is about gifts.  Some of us have many.  Some of us have few.  Those with more sometimes fail to appreciate truly how much our gifts have given us over our lives.  

I think without empathy for those with fewer gifts we create a poverty in our own soul.  We become a harder society, one with less kindness.  We gauge worth by the car that someone drives, and the amount in their bank account.

I believe the cure for this poverty is to recognize ones gifts for what they are.  And recognize that those without the gifts we enjoy are not less than us, just different than us.  What you do with that is up to you, but I might suggest getting to know some poor people.  Go volunteer.  Talk to them.  Spend some time. Find out why they aren't getting ahead.  Offer some of your gifts in the form of suggestions and help  Maybe some money, if donating is what is in your capacity to do.  

You might just find that in return, they have gifts to give you.  

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Thursday Money Tips: Technology Edition

Each Thursday, Ms. Moneypenny posts 5 money-saving tips. Have a tip you would like me to include? Post it in the comments and I'll log it for another edition.

So I'm married to a gadget-head. My husband loves gadgets, the more cutting edge, the better. While I'm not a luddite, I don't like the new new thing. It's expensive, it's often buggy, and, well....let's just say I still use a paper day book to record my appointments.

1. Don't buy cutting edge
I say this knowing what an abyss the urge for the new new thing is. After all, for his 35th birthday last year my husband got the a-ok to go stand in line for an iPhone on that first day. But for the most part, husbands with 35th birthdays not withstanding, my take is that the technology will still be there tomorrow. And the next day. And the next. And guess what? It'll get better - and cheaper. Talk to the people who spent $900 on a beta max about this.

2. Become friends with compulsive upgraders
There is always those folks - you know the ones. When MP3 players came out, they dumped their CDs. When DVDs came, they dumped their videotapes. Sure, all of us eventually experiment with the technology (iPods, are, after all, far more awesome than portable CD players, not to mention they don't skip as much) but see point #1. Stick with the cheap, proven technology, and get it for free from your gadget-head friends.

3. Look for the free deal
I love the free phones that are given away with cell phone contracts. Why pay when you can get one for free? My most recent phone cost something - $19.99, but only because I wanted a flip phone, since I was costing us minutes with 'accidental dialing' when the phone was in my purse and my wallet dialed my sister or something. Still, until that big splurge, my phones were always free. Take the free DVR instead of the expensive TiVO. And so on. No, maybe your phone won't walk the dog for you, but I bet it works great for making phone calls.

4. Don't rule out technology that can really improve your life.
For frequent travellers, I think the Kindle is fabulous - we were fortunate enough to get to play with a friend's recently. This is from someone who packs 5 or 6 books on an average trip - I read fast, and I bore easily. My back, however, kills me from the weight. Technology has made medical devices that improve and extend lives. You couldn't pay me enough to go back to the outhouse days, especially during January.

But evaluate it for it's genuine benefit to you. Ask people how they like theirs. Think about how you might use it. Then buy.

5. Evaluate the true cost.
It's a fact that modern LCD TVs draw more electricity. That iPod batteries are going to end up in a landfill somewhere. And so on. So take a look at what you are buying and the cost to the world around you. Having all the iPod models may be fun, but what does that mean to the earth from a pollution perspective? So think about it. If it's still a good spend, okay, do it. But know that our everyday actions have a price tag.

Technology has improved lives. It's also made the world more expensive, both from a wallet and an environmental perspective. So choose wisely and carefully.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Real World Money: Gen X Finance

A casual perusal of the topics on a typical finance website comes up with a list of categories that looks like this: Boomers, Just Starting Out, Family Finances, Retirement, College Savings, Debt. Let's take a count at how many of these categories are for boomers: Retirement, Boomers, College........hmm. I've said it before - I think the personal finance media is a little biased towards this generation.

Did I say a little? Wait, I meant completely. Sure, some of these articles have broad application across generations, but I'd love to see someone like Dan Kadlec focused on folks just a little younger and with a tad fewer assets. MP Dunleavy over at is the only one that truly comes close to focusing on the issues my generation faces.

The boomer-focus does make sense - they are the ones with the most assets - and the most likely demographic for perusing personal finance websites and magazines right now. But there's a whole other group, one who is just starting to see traction for 'their' news. The somewhere in-betweeners.

I'm talking about people like my husband and I - far away from just starting out, not yet parents, and a long while to go before the traditional retirement age. Or like my friend Jay, a 30-something tech writer who owns his own condo, is dedicatedly saving for retirement, doesn't really have any consumer debt, but hasn't yet found Ms. Right.

Us in-betweeners have accomplished some of our goals, but we have more, and they often feel daunting: how the heck is my generation going to successfully pay off their college debt and still save for our own kids to go to college? Save for retirement when the real value of wages is falling, and Social Security is on the rocks? Pensions have gone the way of the dinosaur for most of us, and those who have them are often afraid to count on them. Daycare costs an astounding some of money ($1300/month in my area), paid family leave is basically nonexistent, and costs of consumables are rising.

Add to that the pressures and demands of our consumer society make purchasing vs. savings decisions difficult. Ever tried to be the only one in your working group without a cell phone and broadband internet? Right.

Okay, so that's what's facing the in-betweeners. What do we need?

I think we need more information on 5 basic things:
  • Guidance on setting priorities
  • A clearer picture of how the rest of our generation really lives (note: it's probably not like the folks portrayed in 'The Hills')
  • A lot of clear discussion around how to cope with our consumption-based society
  • A realistic picture of how to reach our goals - and what the options are if we don't
  • A better understanding of the implications of politicians money decisions on our future

Over the next few months, I will be posting blog articles and links to articles on GenX finance, focusing in these areas. And I'd love to hear from you - what do you think Gen X should do differently? What do you think is missing for personal finance guidance?

Gen X isn't as young as it used to be....and it's time we got serious about our money.