Tuesday, November 29, 2011

{Check-In} November Fitness Report

Friends: I weigh 108.25lbs.

I am only 3.25lbs away from my goal weight.


November was easier and harder than month one of this. I know you're sick of hearing about calorie counting, but since I'm still working on it, I'm still writing about it. This month it was easier, because I'm starting to get a feel for estimating calories and portion sizes, so I don't have to look everything up or measure/weigh everything quite as much. But I also got tired of watching what I eat. I love to eat. It was hard.

That said, I am kind of shocked that it is still working. I always thought weight loss was this mystical thing--some people exercise and fat melts off, others can't seem to kick it. For no apparent reason. And I was really stubborn about not wanting to count my calories, because lets face it--it sounds intense and obsessive. And kind of like a party-killer. But its not. I was wrong. It is the "magic" solution. Even if I didn't exercise, I could still lose about a pound a week just by knowing how much was going in and how much I used up during the day. It is crazy. Anyway, if you are trying and failing (like I was FOREVER) to lose weight, consider learning more about it.

Calorie-Counting-Without-Imploding Strategies

This month I noticed just how crazy I was going trying to stay within my 1200 weight-loss-calories per day, so I came up with some strategies to help me be a normal person but still get these last darn pounds off my body. Here they are:

  • Save Them Up. I love eating with the hubs. I don't know why, I just do. Especially dessert. Seriously, what could be better than eating dessert with a cute guy, right? So I save up my calories for the meals I'm eating with him. I keep it low-cal for breakfast and lunch (under 300 if I can) so that I've got a good 600 calories waiting for me for dinner/dessert.
  • Work Out. Obviously. Earn more calories by exercising. Totally worth it to me to go 30 minutes on the elliptical so I can eat a Ghiradelli brownie. I think I've said this before.
  • Take a Day Off... Sort Of. Some days you need to have a smoothie without feeling bad about it. (Or, okay, a package of Reese's cups.) So on those days, I eat my "maintain your weight" amount of calories, which is 310 more (or even MORE if I exercise!) So like, Thanksgiving weekend? Every day was a 1510 day. I didn't lose an ounce--but I didn't gaine one either. And I got to eat lots of yummy things.
  • Remember Why. When I'm reaching for a cookie and hesitate, I think about why I'm doing this. Part of it is because I want to look good, but most of it is because I've never gone this far before. I've never bothered to take care of my body this well, or been on the track to look & feel this good. Some days I still need the cookie. But most days, I don't.
I don't feel that Kate Moss is a good role model as far as healthy weight goes, but she did say one thing that stuck in my mind, "Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels." We should probably replace "skinny" with "healthy" or "fit" but other than that, its an interesting thought. I think it to myself a lot when I'm fighting my stubborn I-want-to-eat-all-day side.

The Rest

I'm glad I got off my butt and tried to do this, even though I thought I couldn't. It has been really empowering. I'm thankful for a husband who treats this as a real, legitimate goal--he goes to the gym when he can and high-fives me for going on my own when he can't. He counts calories when he cooks so I can enter my numbers, instead of treating that like an obnoxious woman thing that he doesn't want to deal with. I'm glad he's got my back.

I'm glad I started here, glad I've stuck with it, because this first victory is really gearing me up to feel like I can do the other things I want to do. Still scary to stretch, but it feels good once you get past the scary.

Monday, November 21, 2011

{Money Smarts} Saving on Groceries - The No Coupon Edition

With the feast-of-all-feasts coming up, I thought it an appropriate time to talk groceries. I've done a lot of learning-the-hard-way over the years, and many of you shared awesome grocery tips.

I'm going to be sharing your couponing tips in the next post, but this one is just for those days/weeks/lifetimes that you can't deal with coupons, but still want to save!

1. Meal Plan!

I'm using that as a verb. Sorry if that offends you. I started meal planning a few years ago, and now I can't imagine NOT doing it. What on earth would I do at the grocery store before that?!

We are too fickle to plan out what we're going to eat on a specific day, so I just plan for the number of days between shopping trips (usually 7, because we run out of fresh fruit by then). I come up with 8 meals--7 that I'm planning on, and a back-up easy one in case we're fickle AND too lazy to really cook.

For a while before I got pregnant with Charlie I was crazy and would only grocery shop every two weeks. The second week we just ate canned or frozen fruits/veg. Part of it was I wanted to resist impulse buys, and part of it was, I hated Wal*Mart. (Now I just don't shop there.)

2. Plan Around Sales

I'm still not great at this, because we are picky eaters, but some of you mentioned that you do your meal plan based on what is on sale that week--beef v. chicken, pasta v. rice, fruits/veggies. Brilliant! I am adding this my list of financial to-do's. (It is getting long.)

3. Stock Up

From my limited couponing knowledge I can tell you that grocery stores put things on sale in cycles, with the lowest price happening about every six weeks. Sites like Southern Savers are great for this--they only post items when they are at their lowest, so you don't have to track it yourself. When things are super cheap, stock up! We go through cereal and pasta like crazy, so I always snatch a bunch of that up when its cheap, and then it is always in my pantry ready to go.

4. Get a Raincheck

If the thing you want that is on crazy good sale is wiped clean off the shelves, get a raincheck! (Rainchecks are a little certificate the store issues saying they will honor the sale price for you at a later date when they have stock back in.)

This can work out GREAT if you coupon, but is wonderful even if you don't. I bought 6 jars of Prego last week for less than $1 each a couple weeks back, because I had a BOGO raincheck, and then they went on sale. So I paid the sale price of 3 and then got 3 more free. It was awesome.

5. Stick to the Budget

A lot of you mentioned this (wait, do you want your names dropped? Nicole, Jenna, and Madeline!) and I think it is key. First, budget an amount that you think you can actually keep yourself under (not the amount you WISH you could handle--there's time for that later). Then, stick to it. That means if you're two days from the end of the month and there is $0 in the grocery budget, eat out of the fridge, freezer, and pantry.

This is one of those things that I've never done. If we run out of food, I've always just gone to get more. But that makes no sense considering how much we have already. This month, we're going for it, and so far, so good!

6. Batch Cooking/Freezer Meals

My friend Melissa is a mother of 6 kids, all 8 and under (yes, she is amazing), and she is one of my guru's for everything motherhood. (I've emailed her about everything from budgeting to getting a baby to sleep through the night--she always seems to know the answers.) Anyway SHE WOULD KNOW, right?

She said freezer meals save a bunch. I started doing this mostly because I hate cooking at the end of the day, but now I will also do it because it saves money. Two ways: first, it is usually cheaper to buy in bulk. Second, having something on hand to defrost means we are FAR less likely to order pizza instead. Which we did waaay to much in September. Just saying.

What I do is just make dinner for that night, plus 1 or 2 more batches of it, then freeze. Some stuff gets frozen before its cooked (like pizza dough) others after (like I just made a huge batch of chili and we ate it and had 2 meals worth left).

7. WIC

Okay this is a little off-topic, but I'm going to mention it because (a) lots of people don't know about it and (b) it really helps our grocery bill. WIC stands for Women, Infants, and Children, and it is a state-run grocery supplement program for pregnant or nursing women, babies, and children under 5. If you are under a certain income level and are one of those things, you qualify.

You go in once every 3 months to get "re-certified" which means they do weight check and an iron-level check, talk to you about eating habits, and occasionally you take a short nutrition class. It usually takes about an hour and a half. Then they give you vouchers for things like fruits/veggies, milk, eggs, cheese, bread, cereal, beans, and peanut butter. For babies, they provide formula, grain cereal, and baby food.

I know some people feel iffy about using WIC, because they feel like they are mooching off the system, but here is how I see it. Right now we are in a situation where it really helps our family. That is what it is there for. I know that I pour my girlie more glasses of milk than I would if I had to foot the bill on my own. It is a great program, and I am really glad it exists. Someday we will not need it--we'll be making more money and we will be paying more in taxes, and I figure some of our tax money will go toward helping someone else get more milk for their babies.

Also, I usually don't pick up things I won't use just because they are on the voucher. For example, we don't eat tuna, so I never got it. Charlie is just about done with baby food, so I probably won't be getting that anymore, either, even if they give me a voucher for it.

Here is the national WIC website if you want to learn more about your state's WIC program.

Phew! We're done.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

{Money Smarts} Generating Random Income, Part 2

A while back I talked about some really random ways that I generate income, like contests, surveys, and cash back sites for online shopping. Today I'm going to talk about how your bank can pay you more for things you already need.

Earn Interest on Savings AND Checking

Banks want your money, and if they're going to enjoy the benefits of having that cash on hand, why should you give that to them for free? Obviously you want to earn interest on your savings, either in a savings account or a CD, but why not earn interest on ALL the money you have at a bank?

Lots of banks are now offering interest-checking. The interest rate is lower than a savings account, but still--every little bit helps, right? Even 1% interest is as good as a lot of credit card reward rates.

Online banks, like ING Direct (who I've banked with for several years) and Ally often offer better rates, but you can easily shop savings, checking, and CD rates at all kinds of banks & credit unions online at sites like BankRate.com.

Wait for Sign Up Deals

Banks are businesses, and they want to attract new customers just like any other business--which is why they often offer sign-up deals. So when I decided to get an interest checking account with ING Direct, I waited until they had a $50 signup deal. I got a referral link from someone, signed up, paid 3 bills in the first month, and BLAM-O, $50 credited to my account, for something I was going to do anyway.

Right now they have a $25 account opening deal through a referral (I will email you one if you want one), but I suggest waiting until Black Friday--they have great deals and bonuses on sale days sometimes!!

Note: Okay while you may be tempted to open a new account any time you see a bonus, keep in mind that in some cases, opening a bank account can effect your credit score, so, you know, do your research, and don't go overboard. :)

Watch for Bill Pay (or New Service) Deals

A while ago two of my bank accounts (yes, we have money at more than one bank... is that weird?) sent emails offering a bonus if I used their bill pay service. All I had to do was pay from there instead of my credit card or using a check, and I got a $10 bonus from each bank. $20 for paying some bills that I had to pay anyway. Are you noticing the trend? :)

A Few More Things

And while we're talking about banks, just in case you don't know this, you should know that:

  1. You don't have to pay a fee for banking. You can make one of those calls to your bank and ask them how to get rid of a charge, or you can switch to a bank with no fees (which is what I did, because our original bank kept sneaking fees back in for other things!)
  2. Lots of banks offer free checks. So look for that if you are a check-person.
  3. Many also offer free ATM transactions. Those add up fast. Online banks, which usually have no physical branch you can go to, usually offer free ATM transactions at ANY bank's ATM.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

{Money Smarts: Saving} Making the Call

It all started out so well.

At the beginning of the month I updated my calendar with all my bill due-dates. We put everything on our credit cards (for points + airline miles) and pay them off every month to skip out on finance charges. Anyway, my calendar said two of those big bills were coming up on the same day, so I transfered $1000 from our savings account to our checking and set up my bill pay for each card. Easy peasy.

Except that two days ago we got an email notification that we'd over-drafted our checking account by $900+.


After a moment of panic, then embarrassment, I hopped online and verified my fears: I had transfered $1000 the wrong direction, from the near-empty checking account to the savings account. Ugh. Oh, and p.s. how about a $20 fee.

Making the Call

Okay, all insurance ads aside, a few minutes on the phone really can save you a bundle of money. Since I'd been a moron and had a (moronic but) legitimate reason for this horrendous overdraft, I called my credit card company and explained. I'll spare you the full dialogue, but suffice it to say I used the words "embarrassed" and "bonehead," both to describe yours truly. I apologized and asked if there was any way they could knock off the overdraft fee. A few keystrokes later Denise (my service rep--I always call people by name, it evokes good rapport!) said yes.

A few minutes on the phone and I saved $20.

Make Some More Calls

The hubs and I are big proponents of phone calls (or face-to-face contact) to save cash. We've gotten lower rates on our cell phones and internet, a free DVR for my parents, and even stopped our rent from rising by hundreds, just by talking to someone about how much we wanted to pay.

If you've never done it, here's how to do it...

Be Nice

Always, always be nice. Call your service provider, and lead in with a compliment about what you like about their service. If you've been with them for a while, let them know you're loyal by sharing how long you've used their service. Let them know you'd like to stick with them, but you're concerned about the cost.

I also like to use the person's name whenever possible, so they know I'm listening to them.

Make a Comparison

Shop around! See if the provider is offering good deals to new customers, or if their competitor is advertising a great price. Offer this info to your phone rep, and see if they will match or beat the offer for you, the wonderful, loyal customer.

"Is There Anything You Can Do for Me?"

This phrase is key. I explain my situation (we're poor), make my comparisons (your competitor is having a sale!), and then ask if there is anything they can do.

Take it to a Manager

If they can't help you, kindly ask if they think their manager might be able to assist you. Keep being nice.

Be Willing to Walk Away

If you're just not willing to pay, and they're not willing to budge on price, tell them you'd like to cancel. They will most likely send you to their Customer Retention department, where you may finally get the price you've been looking for. If not, be willing to move on to someone new. I'd say 9 times out of 10, I get a better price. The tenth time I move on and find a service that's a better fit.


Still not sure how to do it? Here's about what the free-DVR conversation went like.

Me: Hi. My parents have had satellite with you for 10 years. I noticed you're offering free DVR to your new customers. My parents would love a DVR.
Rep: Great. They can get two DVRs for $38.99 per month.
Me: Well, they really don't want to pay anything.
Rep: Oh, I'm sorry. $38.99 is actually a really great price for two.
Me: Yeah, but they really don't want to pay anything. They're really happy with your service, and I don't want to have to switch them over to another company, but it seems like if your new customers get free DVR there might be some way my parents could get that, too. So is there anything you can do for me?
Rep: Let me check a few things. (hold music) I see a promotion that would give them the DVRs free for a year.
Me: Great! What would happen after a year.
Rep: Then they would have to pay the regular fee.
Me: They really don't want to pay a fee. Is there any way we could keep this service for free?
Rep: Sure. Call us back when the promotion runs out and we'll try to find you a new one.
Me: Great, lets do that then.

They sent someone out the next day to install the DVRs. Free. :)

Monday, November 14, 2011

Real Quick

Okay people. I'm sorry. I have NOT forgotten about my financial fitness goal, nor about my promise to share all the good advice I got with (from) you. I got a nasty cold last week and nothing really got done until Friday, when I started feeling better. Oh, also the hubs was on night shifts. This may sound very 8-years-old, but I just do not sleep the same when he is not around. My house makes scary sounds at night!

Anyway I neglected a lot of things like cooking, cleaning, doing my hair or makeup or even sometimes getting out of pajamas, working on my book, and blogging. My bad.

Stay tuned this week for my most recent financial EPIC fail, a peek into my new motivational strategy, and tips from you guys that I'm excited to try out.

Friday, November 4, 2011

{Money Smarts} Generating Random Income, Part I

Up until about a month ago, I had a work-at-home job working for the company I started with right out of college. I was in-office until I had Grace, and then they kept me on to work from home, but it started getting more demanding than my mommy schedule would allow. Steve and I also decided that if I was going to really do the whole writing-a-novel thing, I needed to free up some time. So after 5 years, I gave notice, and here we are.

Now that I don't have my little paycheck every month, I'm looking for new, easy ways to generate a little income where I can. It's not steady, but every little bit helps, right?

3 Ways I Generate Random Income

At the beginning of the month I sent an email survey to a few people who had offered to share their money knowledge (and okay, a few who didn't offer, but I wanted to know anyway). At the end of the survey was an open question where I just asked people to share their favorite money-related tips, whatever they may be, and one of the things my clever friend Nicole wrote was:
Play contests! It sounds silly, but I win stuff all of the time. I won a year's supply of Tide and Bounce during medical school! It was an online game on the tide.com site. I did it every day for a month- took 3 seconds a day. Totally worth it. People say they aren't lucky, but they usually never enter anything. In the last week, I won lotion, hairspray, and a nail polish (from allure.com/freestuff).
Couldn't hurt, right? So I decided to add that to my list.

1. Play Contests. I started simple: just chose three contests of things I actually wanted (no need for a year supply of meatballs over here), added their links to a bookmark folder titled "Sweepstakes", and then just clicked through and entered every day. It really did take only a few minutes. After only three days of this, I clicked submit on one of my chosen contests and VOILA!

That's an actual screenshot, so you know I'm legit. Free full-size mascara! Pretty sweet, right?

2. Cash Back for Online Shopping. A couple months ago I started using Ebates and ShopAtHome, websites that give you a % rebate when you buy online after clicking through their sites. I thought they were kind of sketchy at first, but I just got my first cashback check from Ebates for a little over $7. Not much, but its money I already spent, and enough for a FroYo date. :) You just go to their site and click through to whichever store you want--I have bought from Barnes & Noble, Crocs, and plane tickets through Delta.com. Only downside is they don't give cashback at Amazon. (Um disclaimer, if you sign up through my links I may get a referral credit IF you buy something, so if you don't want that to happen, just google the site.)

  • Shop At Home is doing a $5 referral sign-up incentive right now, where you & your referrer get $5 when you sign up, so if you use my link you get $5.
  • Ebates doesn't have an incentive running right now, but sometimes they do sign-up giftcards, so you could wait for that unless you're planning some big online shopping sprees for Cyber Monday.

3. Consumer Surveys @ Pinecone Research. I did a dumb survey site called MyPoints for a while. Don't do it, it is more work than its worth. I did some research and finally found a legitimate company called Pinecone Research. They only send you 1-2 product surveys a month, and you get $3 per survey loaded onto a little debit card. Usually it is about new product on the market. They ask what you think of an advertisement, and sometimes even send you some of the product (things like soap, diapers, TP, etc.) to try. If that happens, you get another $3 after you review the item, and you get to keep the rest of the stuff. They don't accept new people very often, but they are accepting new people right now.

If you want to sign up, I would be happy to send you the registration link. I do NOT get anything if you sign up for this, but I really like doing it. I just used my earnings since summertime to buy baby boy some winter clothes. :)

What do YOU do to get "random" income?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

{Money Smarts} Our Budgeting Basics

We've always had a budget, but staying on track has been a learning curve.

I'm sure most of you are already in on the basics--you know your monthly income, you know your expenditures, and the second needs to be less than the first.


So, first, income. Since the hubs is in school and I stay home with the kiddos, we have an atypical situation for people our age. Our income comes mainly from three places:

  1. A stipend from the Air Force (we are doing their health scholarship program, which means they pay for school and a stipend, and we pay them back with 8-ish years of service during and after residency),
  2. A scholarship (but this obviously isn't a dependable income source) and
  3. A small student loan (which gets broken up monthly).
None of these things alone are enough to support a family of four, but we've worked out a budget based on these income sources that should be fine. A few factors have contributed to our inability to budget without the student loan, mostly my undergraduate loan payments and our car payment.


Expenditures we've been working on. At first we tried to live an intensely frugal lifestyle, but we noticed that after a couple of months we'd both feel this pent up tension, which usually ended up in a big financial splurge. Not good. So over the past couple of months we've come up with a number of categories and numbers that will keep us honest (so to speak) but still keep the reigns on the spending. We have a LOT of spending categories, but it makes it easy to track stuff without putting anything into a "miscellaneous" category. If you're interested, here they are:
  • Jamie Student Loan
  • Health Insurance
  • Medical Expenses (Dr. visits, Rx, etc.)
  • Rent
  • Car Payment
  • Car & Renter's Ins
  • Gas
  • Groceries
  • Baby/Kids (Supplies/Diapers/Wipes/Clothes)
  • Cell Phones
  • Internet
  • Utilities (Water, Trash, Sewage)
  • Electricity
  • Play Money - Steve
  • Play Money - Jamie (we each get an "allowance" each month)
  • Dates
  • Family Outings
  • Gifts/Christmas
  • Household
  • Tithing
  • Fast Offering
  • Netflix
  • Gym Membership
Our Strategy

In theory, I love Dave Ramsey's cash envelope system, but it just doesn't work for us. The structure would be fantastic, but we'd miss out on other money saving opportunities--which for us is points (or miles, depending) on our credit cards, which help pay for us to fly cross-country to see our family. I also have a Target card, because I shop there a ton and it gets a 5% discount.

So right now we mostly use credit cards, except that Steve likes his "allowance" in cash. We pay off the balance each month so there is no interest charge. And I track everything on a kind of intense spreadsheet I made. When we stay on budget, this works really well for us. If we can't get it together over the next month or two, though, we might have to try switching to cash only, just to get ourselves focused.

So here's where we're starting from. If you haven't already told me, I'd love to know your take on budgeting. :)

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

{Money Smarts} The Starting Point & Goals

November is my Financial Fitness month!

Are you guys so excited???

I actually kind of get a rush when I do a good job saving or score a really good deal, so I actually am pretty excited. I'm excited to learn more, save more, and get my butt kicked by budgeting as hard as it did by getting healthier last month (that goal is ongoing, so you'll see stuff about that when I check in on that, too!).


So we did a little trial run last month, just to see how we'd end up if we spent normally. We have had a budget for a while, but when the end of the month rolled around (or if I wanted something extra like a new lamp to replace the one my sweet baby boy broke by trying to climb it) we just kind of let go. So, the final numbers went in yesterday and we didn't do so hot... In fact we were over by about 20%.

Um yeah, oops. Which is why financial fitness needed to be the big next goal. The frustrating thing is that none of this came out of some huge purchase; it was all little things adding up.

The Mini Goals

1. Stick to the budget. If I only do this, I'll be happy. Steve and I have laid out our budget for this month, figuring in some overages, and we should have about $100 left at the end of November, but I will be happy if we break even.

2. Look at the finances every day. Everything is online, this is easy. I want to pay bills as they come in, track spending as it happens, and basically just stay on top of things.

3. Learn more ways to save (or earn). I've dabbled in couponing, but I'd like to do a little more. We're also in the process of changing banks (for better interest rates). I like when I can save on little things, because they add up quickly, especially on a budget as tight as ours. I'm also trying to figure out if we can save on any of our big expenses like heating/cooling the house, cell phones, etc.

That's pretty much it. Basically self-control and getting creative. :)

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

{Fitness} A Personal Trainer's Flat-Belly Advice

I thought this photo of leaves would be better than another look at my non-flat belly. ;)

When I walked in to the Y last Thursday I saw a sign up for free Q & A with their personal trainers. Yay! Except I felt really shy walking up to someone and saying "How come I still have baby fat when even my baby doesn't have much baby fat?"

So I went and did my cardio, came back to the lobby, pretended to read some other signage, and finally went to the member's desk and asked. Trainer-Luke gave me some great advice after I said something almost unintelligible about my belly being "floppy" (classy, I know) and even, if you can believe it, grabbed a fistful of said floppy part to demonstrate. (Hi, my name is Jamie, and I am socially awkward.)

What I Was Doing
  • Elliptical 3-4 times a week for 30-ish minutes, occasionally other cardio
  • 2 sets of 4 different kinds of ab exercises, 20 reps each
  • Counting calories (ugh)
Turns out that was only sort of okay, but not great.

What I Should Do

Here's what you (I) actually need to do to burn belly fat.

Alternate different types of cardio. You can't target-reduce fat, so cardio is it for fatburn, people. And your body adjusts to exercise if you do it too frequently, growing more efficient (and thus burning fewer calories. DOH!). He suggested alternating between bike, elliptical, and treadmill, and there are also some great classes I could do.

Count calories. Booyah. Still trying to do this. I forgot to share my strategies; I'll have to do that later.

Strength train. I have been ignoring it, because typically it doesn't burn a lot of calories. BUT apparently muscle mass increases your metabolism which burns more calories! There are also many other benefits, obviously. So, need to do that, either with machines (they'll show you how to use them for free at the Y) or classes like Muscle Max.

Work out 5+ times per week. He said typical recommendation is 5x week for... I think he said 30 minutes. To burn this off faster, he said I need to do more than that. I'm probably not going to. But I could definitely log more time at the gym when I go, so maybe that will help.

I'll keep you posted as I go along. :) Right now my weight loss has flatlined at around 111ish. (I am short. Remember this.)

Oh! And November's focus is finances! I've got some really great tips to share (my own and a bunch that people submitted via a little email poll I sent out). If you have some, too, please email them to me!