Not “Mint” To Be

When I started looking into different apps I could use to help keep track of my budget, there was one that consistently showed up on blogs, articles and google searches for finance tracking.

Mint and Mint Bills & Money.

I thought this was fantastic because I had actually set up a Mint account (several years) before and never utilized it, although I would periodically receive emails encouraging me to update my information.  So one day, as my hand was cramping from writing out my monthly budget and my brain was fogged with numbers, I decided perhaps there is something to the digital era.  I dropped everything and started to revamp my Mint account.  I downloaded the app as well as the suggested Mint Bills & Money.  I updated all of my information and deleted what was no longer applicable.  Everything was streamlined and I was excited to get started!

Oddly, the only bill I was unable to download was my Gap Visa.  This was incredibly disappointing because I have so few credit cards and I loved the idea of being able to view everything in one place.  Apparently, Synchrony Bank refuses to cooperate with Mint.  Not a team player, I guess.

It was so easy to read and identify what money was going where.  I actually felt a little silly for insisting on going back to an “old school” system for a few months.  Mint had everything I wanted right at my fingertips.  But … for me … it was too good to be true.

I found that I would be alerted to up-coming bills after they were due.  Payments and deposits wouldn’t appear for several days or even weeks after I had done them.  The few bills I had paid through Mint took even longer to arrive than if I sent them from my bank.  I would get an email from Capital One or Citibank alerting me of something and (up to) a few weeks later, Mint would text me the same information and it would appear in my account.  I found myself double checking with the actual credit card companies and banks to confirm funds or balances because I didn’t trust that Mint was accurate.  And sadly, the majority of the time, it wasn’t.

I think it has a lot of great potential and will be a fantastic app one day.  Perhaps if you aren’t interested in the day to day activities of your account being current, it would be perfect.  I know it receives a 4 or 5 star rating across the board and I can only assume that is people voting on the potential not the actual performance.  I would rate it a solid three and cheer the developers on for more advancements.  Until then, it just did not fit my needs and I couldn’t rely on it for up-to-date information.  So I deleted the apps.

I did leave the account open and plan on checking back at the end of the year and see if the necessary improvements have been made.  In the meantime, I will continue the hunt for an app that fills my needs!

I hope you’re having fun exploring budget tracking as well!


Beginning the Grocery Cleanse

A grocery cleanse.

That’s exactly what our household needed.  I didn’t have to go over our finances to know that we spend a lot on food.

A lot.

And not just on eating out food.  We maybe eat out once a week and even then it’s usually inexpensive because dinning out with little ones isn’t as fun as it was when it was just the two of us.  So somehow we were spending maybe $600 – $700 on groceries we were bringing home.

I didn’t even know how we were going to budget groceries because I really didn’t feel like we wasted food or ate extravagantly.  We do have an extra freezer that I’m afraid becomes a bottomless pit of “out of sight, out of mind” of frozen entrees.  But it can’t be harboring hundreds of dollars worth of food each month … can it??

I did a lot of research on food budgeting and how to meal plan (apparently this helps … who knew??).  I’m really excited to share what I’ve learned and also see how much I save by having a plan and a grocery list.  :)  That’ll be another day and another post.

But what I do want to share today is how I prepared for all these changes.  Because one thing I’ve learned is that when you’re making huge changes in your life, you can’t always jump into them immediately.  Sometimes it takes planning just to start planning!

I immediately made an inventory of what we had in our deep freezer, house freezer and pantry.  I wanted to make sure that we took advantage of what we had before I began the meal planning since it would require a lot of room in the freezer and being a lot more organized than I am now.

So for the last few months I have only purchased perishables, fruits and vegetables.  I am utilizing everything in my freezer and pantry.  And the most I’ve spent $300.  I even splurged on expensive cheeses for entertaining and we purchased some of our favorite beer and wine.  I still haven’t gone through half of the meat in the freezer so I’m hoping that I am able continue this really low cost food budget for another month because I have been able to put over $600 in savings just since I started!  Not to mention I’ve been putting money in a separate account just for groceries and carry over the balance each month so my current grocery budget is also over $600!

Saving that much money by just utilizing the food we already had, has really invigorated me and motivated me to continue our adventure in budgeting!

I hope you’re having amazing budgeting adventures of your own!


And The Budget Begins …

It took me a lot longer to create a working budget I felt comfortable with than I thought it would.  I foolishly underestimated how difficult it would be to switch from never balancing my bank statement to accounting for every penny.  But I am proud to unveil my proposed system today, April 1st!  No joke.  Well, April 3rd because I had problems uploading the pictures.

I haven’t actually started using it, so April will also be my trial and error month; where I can fine tune anything I don’t like or don’t feel works.

One of my biggest issues was battling with my love of gadgets and my need for old school accounting.  I downloaded (free) app after (free) app and tested each for a week before abandoning them.  Not that there weren’t some really great ones out there, but none of them motivated me to stick with a budget.  Which is something that I really needed since it goes against my very nature.  I just wished there was something I could do to incorporate both the old and the new systems.

I finally turned to Amazon and began a search for a household finance book.  Wow, are there some really elaborate finance books out there!  It just seemed wasteful for someone like me to use because only about 12 of the 50 entries applied to my household.  I was feeling a little discouraged and came pretty close to tackling creating my own budget book when I saw it …

It looked perfect.  Spunky, simple, organized … everything I was looking for!  And it was pink.

Check out the Mead Organizher Expense Tracker on Amazon.  I was barely able to contain my excitement for the two days it took to receive it.  I was not disappointed when it arrived.

It has a thin plastic decorative cover and these unique rubber, seamless rings that allow you to fold the pages behind itself just like a notebook.  It comes with a clear plastic sleeve in the front and back to stash important documents.  Each month has its own folder with a pocket on either side and a proposed finance tracker/budget list.

Right away, I decided I wanted to create my own finance sheets so I could tailor it to my household’s needs and not just have a generic list that would only partially be utilized.  Plus the paper was really thin and that just annoyed me.  Once I started this task, it dawned on me that if I didn’t use the calendar printed on the folder pocket … I could re-use this organizer for years to come!  Money saver!

My Household Budget: I used the Organizher forms (I just have to take a moment to applaud the cleverness of the marketing on this name … perhaps it is sexist but it sold me!) as a template and created a Household Budget.  I made sure to include all the expenses I could think of as well as add additional lines in each section.  I created columns for the estimated budget, the actual budget and how much we went over/under budget.  The estimated budget for each month will be based on the final column in the previous month.  I also made it as cute as possible.

At this point, I discovered a flaw in my system.  Since we had gotten the Citibank Double Cash credit card and had begun using that in lieu of our ATM card … I couldn’t also have the Citibank card listed on the budget because whatever was charged on the card would have already been accounted for in another category.  Which made me realize I would also need to somehow keep track of what we purchased on the card so we could get an idea of how much we spend in each area.  So a second form was created.

Citibank Double Cash Credit Card Sheet: This form would be used to track all the charges on the Citibank card (I feel like I should rename this to something like Money Maker or Cash Card) and which category the expense would be applied to.  I also added a column to check off that it had been paid.  I liked the idea of this system being so meticulous about receipts because I do a lot of on-line shopping.  I never check to see if my card has been compromised or if I was accidentally charged more than once for something.  So this actually forces me to pay attention to that!

Monthly Calendar:  I have seven bills that are set up for automatic payment through my checking account.  Five are insurance related and two are credit cards.  I wanted to be sure that I had an idea of how much money I needed to keep in my local bank at each paycheck and how much was available to transfer out.  So I used one of the pre-made templates on Microsoft Word to create a portrait calendar.  I typed in when each bill was coming out and when our scheduled pay days are.  I can always handwrite any notes or unexpected bills as needed.

Ideally, how my system will work is to keep the time I need to put into budgeting at a minimum.  My goal is to devote 10 minutes (or hopefully less!) at the end of each day checking balances and reviewing receipts and 30 minutes once a week (Friday) to review and pay the Citibank card as well as transfer funds if needed.  This may seem unrealistic and perhaps it is, but if I am tied to a system that takes longer than that, I know I will burn out and give up.

Here is my proposed Household Financial Tracking System (or HFTS – I gotta come up with a clever acronym)

  1. At the beginning of each month, review the last month for proposed budget on each expense category.  Add extra $5 or $10 to bills that have a set amount each month to allow for a little “wiggle room” with expenses.  Make sure calendar appropriately reflects when automatic payments will be removed and record any one-time payments.
  2. All purchases are to be made with the Citibank card when possible.  This will maximize the cash back rewards.
  3. Receipts for all purchases are to be placed in the front envelope of the existing month.  These are unprocessed receipts.
  4. At the end of each day (or several days if no purchases are made), go through each receipt and confirm it was deducted from the appropriate account.  Mark it on the Citibank sheet if applicable.  Put all processed receipts in the envelope on the back side of the folder.
  5. Every Friday, check all accounts for accuracy.  Pay off the balance on the Citibank card and mark sheet that receipts were paid.  Transfer any extra money into appropriate account if applicable.
  6. At the end of each month, calculate how much was actually spent for each category and what the difference is from the estimated amount.  Any additional funds, transfer to appropriate account.  Double check all receipts have been accounted for.  Staple all receipts for the month together and leave in the folder for each access.

And that’s that!  I will do an update after this month to report on how the system worked and what adjustments (if any!!) I had to make.  I already have my husband on board (and trained!) to deposit any receipts in the front pouch of the current month.  We are hopefully on our way to becoming even more budget conscious and living a simple life!

Happy Adventures!


Cleaning Up the Books: Phase 2

Credit Cards.

They are my weakness.

“Sign up & get 15% off your purchase”  OKAY!

“Consolidate your debt with zero interest for 24 months!” SIGN ME UP!

“Rewards for using your <insert card name here>” FANTASTIC!

“No interest for 12 months!” REALLY? WONDERFUL!

I’m a sucker for anything that seems like I might be saving money.  So I open cards here and there and … yup.  Everywhere.  Which may not seem like a bad idea … unless you use them for retail therapy.  Like I do.  And then you lose track of what you charged where and pretty soon without realizing it, you’ve got 5 (or maybe 7) credit cards with $100 or more owing on each.

So this was the next phase of our Adventures in Budgeting.  Getting rid of extra credit cards and paying off those that had small balances.  This seems like it should be the end of this entry because how hard is that to do?  Well, pretty easy, sure.  But there are some things to think about and consider.  I am going to be brutally honest here about some cards we had and (approximate) balances we owe.  Don’t judge.🙂 First off, we made a list of the credit cards we had with balances on them.  I was actually surprised (embarrassed) there was as many as there were.

  • Husband’s Discover – $7,000 (no interest for 24 months – debt consolidation)
  • My Discover – $5,000 (no interest for 24 months – debt consolidation)
  • HomeDepot – $230.00 (no interest remaining for 4 months)
  • Best Buy – $190.00 (no interest remaining for 3 months)
  • GapVISA – $340.00 (I know, I know … I’ll explain in another post)
  • American Express – $450.00 (darn Costco trips!)
  • Amazon Card – $178.00 (one of my weaknesses)

Yikes.  When we actually wrote everything down I was pretty ashamed of myself for letting it get so bad.  I tried to justify what everything was for (as I’m crying) but my husband just patted my hand and said it didn’t matter now.  What mattered is what we were going to do about it and what we are going to do to keep it from happening again.  He is pretty amazing.  It didn’t help with the crying though …

It’s January.  We had just gotten our end of the year bonus from our (former) amazing boss and were expecting a nice chunk back from taxes. SIDE POINT: I realize not everyone has this luxury so for those who don’t or who live on a fixed income, when you are looking at paying off credit cards always start with the smallest ones first.  If you have decent credit and can consolidate your bills to one (added bonus if you can sign up with a “no interest” for X months) then that is a great money saving option.  If you have a few cards with $100 balance, think of something you can live without for the next month that is a luxury.  Use the extra money to pay off that card!  This could be not eating out, cutting back on alcohol, making coffee at home or renting instead of going to the movies. Instead of using the extra money to buy the new couch we’ve been wanting because our old Craigslist leather one had been clawed by our cat and was quickly ripping open from our daughter’s furniture gymnastics, we decided to use it to pay off those credit cards with the small balances owing.  Then we could SAVE for the couch we wanted. That knocked out the bottom five.  And the majority of our bonus.  Leaving us with just the two large Discover bills.  Since we would no longer have the monthly payments of those other bills, I decided to increase the amount that we paid each month on my Discover bill so we could (hopefully) get it paid off quickly.  This is nice because it allows flexibility if we end up having an unexpected bill we need to pay.

Well, at this point we started talking and wondering “Why do we have so many cards?”.  I pretty much answered that in the beginning.  It’s my weakness.  So here are the cards we have and why we decided to keep or get rid of different ones:

  • American Express – This is also our Costco Membership.  We pay $100 annually to get that Executive Membership and the rewards.  That seemed like a lot.  So we checked out past rewards checks and we discovered that we would on average, receive approximately $90 for our Costco spendings and $25-30 for our “other” shopping.  That’s maybe a $30 reward just so we can get into Costco a little earlier.  Ehhhhh … is it worth it?  We decided no.  We are going to cancel this card and drop our membership to the standard $55 one and just use our checking account or cash.  This will also help with the amount of money we spend since we will feel the cost immediately.  SIDE NOTE: Costco does not make it easy to downgrade.  My husband tried once and was treated a little disdainfully by the customer service department.  He didn’t have a lot of time to spare, so we will be going again later for round two. Update: Man, those Costco people are hard sellers!  My husband was convinced yet again that we needed to keep our Executive Membership.  Since it doesn’t expire until July, I agreed to see how much we spend on our new budget and if it will be worth it.  We were able to close the AMEX though.
  • HomeDepot – We only use this card during house projects (which there probably won’t be much of in the future) and always take advantage of their 12 month/no interest specials.  Hubby was really reluctant to let this one go and I didn’t see the harm so we kept it open.  Plus I don’t have one in my name so it’s pretty safe …🙂
  • Best Buy – We opened this because they were offering $75 off on the iPad Air AND no interest for 18 months.  Once we paid it off, we have no use for it.  My brother purchases a lot of electronics and gets all kinds of rewards.  If this is beneficial for your household (and not just excessive spending) then it might be worth considering.  We closed this one.
  • GapVisa – I love my Gap card.  Not only is it also good for Banana Republic (which I honestly never shop at) and Old Navy but it has a fantastic rewards program and amazing sales!  I will actually do a whole separate post on Gap and how I save more money by shopping there for my kids than I do if I purchase clothes at Walmart.  DEFINITELY a keeper.
  • Amazon Store Card – This isn’t a Visa so I can only use it at Amazon.  But I love Amazon.  I originally signed up because right at the end of my purchase there was an advertisement that said I could save $30 on my bill if I signed up.  So I did!  Other than being attached to my Amazon account, there are no benefits to having it that I could find.  No rewards or coupons or special deals.  I have an Amazon Prime account and it isn’t attached to the card at all.  So why would I want this card when I can use my new CitiBank Double Back card?  We closed this one.
  • TJ Maxx Rewards Card – There are some great treasures to find at Marshall’s and TJ Maxx.  But I don’t shop there enough for this rewards card to be beneficial for me.  If you are a BIG shopper here then it might work out well if you pay your balance off each month.  Not great for me though.  Although … they have a fantastic “grocery” section.  Unique grocery items you can often find at a really great price.  Look for clearance items especially!  We closed this one.
  • BarClay – We closed this one.  It hadn’t been used in a year.  Customer service was very nice though and didn’t hassle me about canceling!
  • CitiBank – This was an old account that we hadn’t used in years.  We closed this one.
  • Target REDcard – This is attached to our checking account so it isn’t really a credit card.  Plus it gives us all kinds of savings and special deals!  Did you know with a REDcard you have an extra 15 days to return an item?  Awesome!  And you get free shipping on all purchases at not to mention the 5% discount on all purchases.  Another keeper.

After spending an afternoon paying off and closing credit cards my husband was so jazzed he went hunting for old cards we may have just forgotten about.  He ended up find two more obscure credit cards in the safe that hadn’t been used in ages.  We closed both of them.  It was actually invigorating to clean up our credit card mess and start to see through the dense fog of debt.  With this step completed, we could begin to work on the next phase of our Adventures in Budgeting! Happy Adventures! Heidi

Cleaning Up the Books: Phase 1

If there was an award for the worst bookkeeper ever … it would be me.  Standing ovation bad.

I never look at my balance.  I don’t bother to open the bills (they’re all on auto-pay so what’s the point?!).  I can’t remember the last time I reconciled or even looked at my bank statement.  I rarely keep receipts.  I charge on my credit cards too much.  I shop my feelings.  I am addicted to Zulily.  I don’t pay attention to when we get paid and when our bills go out.  I only save when we’re going on vacation.  I’ve never created a budget.  I always forget my on-line password because I rarely use it …

I could go on but it’s just so embarrassing.

I realized that if we ever wanted to simply our lives then I (emphasis on the I part) needed to get serious about budgeting.  Seriously purge the depths of my bad habits and clean up the mess I had made of our accounts. I spent a lot of time researching how to make (and stick with!) a budget.  I had no idea how many options there are.  Handwritten vs. a digital format.  Elaborate vs. simple.  Using a cash system vs. using rewards credit cards.  One checking account vs. seven checking accounts.  I have to admit it was overwhelming and very discouraging.  I was starting to think there was no way I could successfully budget because I just dislike tedious details.  Like receipts. 🙂

I decided I needed to take it one step at a time and started focusing on what my husband and I are used to.  We use our debit card, Target REDcard and Costco American Express.  We never have cash.  I would prefer not to carry cash and the rare times I have it, I usually forget and use my debit card anyway.  So we are definitely card users.  I got to thinking, if that’s the case, why not use it to our benefit?  Trade our debit card for a rewards credit card.  I learned you can even use it to pay for a number household bills like gas, electric, telephone and insurances!  As long as we can pay off the balance each month, it would be equivalent to using our checking account.  Except we are getting paid for using it!

We love having the Costco American Express (AMEX) but to have it we pay the higher membership fee which severely cuts into our rewards because we just don’t use it enough.  We had decided that would have to be one of the cards that would get the ax shredder (more on that later).  I focused my searches on credit cards that would reward me for my everyday spending and that I could use at any store, a downfall of AMEX.  There are many types of rewards cards so you would need to choose the one that would benefit your family the most.  I found that Nerdwallet had the most comprehensive list of reward credit cards.  It breaks down credit cards into many sections such as travel rewards, low interest, cash back, balance transfers and so on.

I was only interested in the ‘cash back’ cards. Why?  Simple.  I can use the cash however I want.

There were three cards highlighted.  Two of them offered the same ‘6% off at grocery stores, 3% at gas stations and 1% at all other places’ deal that our AMEX has.  Perhaps this is ends up being a really great deal but I am skeptical for my household.  6% off grocery stores sounds awesome … but what if I primarily buy groceries at Target or Walmart?  Those stores don’t count because they aren’t exclusively grocery.  Frustrating, right?  That’s why the Citi Double Cash Card jumped out at me.  They offer 1% on all purchases (unbiased, I like that!) AND 1% as you pay!  There is no annual fee, no penalty for not carrying a balance and best of all … no caps!  That means if I use it for all my household purchases and bills throughout the year, I get 1% for every dollar I spend and 1% for every dollar I pay back.

I fell in love immediately.

The process was incredibly painless to sign up and now I am (im)patiently awaiting for my new cards to arrive (one for the hubby too!) so we can start making money on the things we have to buy anyway!  I will do an update later on how this first phase of our budgeting adventure is going!

Happy Adventures!


Beginning Our Adventure …

It started in January 2015.

The dreaded moment when our boss announced “I may have to sell my business”.

And we knew our life would not be the same again.

For almost eight years my husband and I have been living what we considered a simple and comfortable life.  We both worked at an office attached to our home where we could enjoy our little ones every moments.  No rent.  No utilities.  Not a huge pay check but enough for our family of four.  Our boss was amazing; he never micromanaged and loved that there was a family benefiting from his company.  It would be an understatement to say that we felt pretty fortunate in our situation.

But there is a big problem keeping all your eggs in one basket.

The new owner … not so thrilled with us having kids.  He implied that we needed daycare for our little ones during business hours.  Well, that was a deal breaker for us.  Not only did we not make enough to pay someone else to watch our kids but we didn’t want to.  We were happy to be stay-at-home parents so to have someone else raise our children and incorporate their training on them was just not something we wanted to do.

We knew we had to start making plans for our future when the inevitable “we have to let you go” moment happened.

But what would we do?  Where would we live?  How much would we need to make?  Should we leave the area?  What about jobs?  Could we survive on one income?  Is there something I could do from home?  What about the kids?

It was all so overwhelming that for an entire week I sat in front of the computer and just researched my little heart out.  My husband kept me calm when I started panicking and kept reassuring me that the most important thing isn’t having a lot … it’s having each other.

That’s when we decided that even if there never is a “we have to let you go” moment, we were going to move on.  By moving to an area with a lower cost of living and sticking to a budget, we discovered that we could live on significantly less than what we do now.  I’ll get more into that in later posts.

I originally thought about starting this blog just to keep track of the ideas and plans I’ve been frantically finding and then thought … maybe there are families just like mine who feel overwhelmed at the idea of having to start over and need some encouragement that it can be done.

I hope you enjoy our Adventures In Budgeting and it inspires you to have one of your own!