Christmas Gifts on the Brain

Mid-October may be the earliest I’ve ever bought a Christmas gift. Last night, I was surfing on the Toys R Us website and happened across this neat art desk from Step 2.

Step2ArtDesk

We saw it at a friend’s house over the summer, and I really liked it — so did Emily, who kept wandering away from the party to try to play with all the art stuff they had on it. (“Accessories not included,” naturally. But of course we have all the markers, paints and crayons needed to make a mess… uh, I mean, make art.)

I wasn’t really looking to start my Christmas shopping. While I’m not a last-minute Linda, I will get a good jump on gifts sometime in mid-November, and then get caught up in the holiday madness that descends upon my professional and personal life this time of year, and forget to complete my shopping list. An unfortunate side effect of the “early” gift-buying is that I tend to forget one or two of my stashed presents. Good thing I have time to find the lost gift and re-purpose it for Emily’s birthday 6 weeks later…

This year, we’ll be celebrating Christmas with our newest addition, Jenna. As she’ll only be 5 months when the holiday rolls around, we won’t be doing a ton of shopping for her. She’ll be barely able to sit up by then, forget about being able to play with most toys.

Emily, on the other hand, has reached the age where she wants everything she sees — on TV or in the multitude of toy catalogs that have hit the mailbox in the past week. I’ve had to hide those suckers to preserve my sanity. Not that it’s stopped her from asking where they are — the kid has a memory like an elephant.

All in all, it will be a fairly lean Christmas since I’ve been on maternity leave since July (and returning to work mid-November), but I’m pretty sure the kids won’t even notice. Unless I manage to lose even more gifts this year.

Scrooge McDuck, I Am Not

It’s a given that everyone has different financial priorities. Some people have hobbies and enjoy spending their hard-earned cash on something as simple as crocheting supplies, or as complicated as wine-making. Others get a kick out of scouring the sales racks for high fashion finds. Still others travel as much as they can.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are the folks who won’t spend a dime on anything they don’t need for their day-to-day survival, or they’re socking away their extra funds for a rainy day or for retirement.

Me, I’m somewhere in the middle. I’ll (likely) never be able to buy a $400 purse without going into convulsions and wanting to return it for a full refund RIGHT THIS SECOND. I can’t even bear to gamble, because it’s an almost guaranteed loss thanks to my crappy luck at the slots or the roulette table. (Blackjack? I at least stand a chance.)

I don’t want to judge anyone who chooses to spend their money differently than I do. We all have different expenses, different incomes, and different financial outlooks. Some people want to save it all for old age. Others say you can’t take it with you. I will occasionally cringe if someone tells me how much they spent on a pair of new shoes, but I swear I’m only thinking about how much it would hurt me to drop a few hundred bucks on a pair of Louboutins.

I just hope I don’t come across like Scrooge McDuck.

 

Less Time, More Money Spent

Time isn’t something I have a lot of anymore. What used to be “free time” is now spent playing with and caring for our 2-year-old, cleaning up toys and doing more laundry. I’m planning her meals and ours — when I have the time. Coupons? Only if I have the time to cut them from the fliers or load them onto my club card. Or if I remember to do it before running out to the store. If I don’t have coupons for stores other than grocery stores, I just don’t go.

I also have less time to compare prices. Sometimes, I just have to run out and pick up baby wipes, coupon or no coupon. Diapers, I have those covered — I’m enrolled in the Amazon Mom program, and those boxes show up at our front door like clockwork. We’re out of cat litter? In the pre-child days, I’d check out which store had it on sale. That rarely happens anymore.

Now that Miss Frugalista is 2, I’m hoping I can get back to my old penny-saving ways, because a buck here and a buck there adds up. Just don’t count on me turning up with a new pair of Louboutins on my feet anytime soon.

Looking for Ways to Cut Expenses

I think our spending is getting out of hand. Thanks to my Mint app (which I’m finally paying attention to), I can see where all my money goes to, and it’s eye-opening. Not to mention cringe-worthy. While we’re not buying anything ridiculously expensive, all of the little things are adding up.

Maybe if I lay out all of our major expenses here, it’ll be easier to figure out if there’s any room to cut our costs. We can’t change our mortgage or property taxes, so I’m not even going to lay those out here – we don’t qualify for a good refinancing deal at this point, and we have a decent rate — 5%. I’m also not going to lay out our babysitting costs, but they’re a great deal cheaper than daycare thanks to my friend’s mom, who’s like another family member to us. So that expense won’t change, either. A third budget item that can’t be changed, and is increasing: our health insurance. Starting in January, the same coverage will cost an additional $75/month (pre-tax) out of my husband’s paycheck. Awesome.

 

Our Current Monthly Expenses

$530: The monthly payment and insurance on Mr. Not-So-Frugal’s truck (my car has been paid off for years. Read: old)

$280: Gas for two vehicles

$175: Cell phone bill (3 phones: two smartphones and a simple phone for my dad)

$185: TV/Internet/Home Phone (yes, we really have one of those)

$225: Average utility bill (ranges from $150-$300 monthly, depending on the season)

$300: Cigarettes for Mr. NSF

$400: Groceries/food. Includes takeout once a week, about $25

$500: Credit card debt payment

$475: Pre-tax deduction for employer-provided health insurance

$60: Diapers & veggie pouches for Miss Frugalista

$50: Lunches (I brown-bag it 95% of the time; Mr. NSF grabs a small salad or a cup of chili from the work cafeteria now and then)

$20: Netflix – 2 DVDs plus streaming

$9: Newspaper on Thursdays and Sundays

 

Minimal wiggle room:

Utilities: I installed a programmable digital thermostat earlier this year, which definitely helped reduce some of our heating bill costs. I also have insulated curtains on our large front windows in the dining room and living room to keep the sun out in the summer and the cold out in the winter. Now that Miss Frugalista isn’t an infant anymore, we can keep the thermostat set a few degrees cooler and layer up (sorry, husband).
SAVINGS: Varied, but a few bucks a month

TV/Internet/Home Phone: The home phone would be a logical cut, since we both have cell phones and only telemarkers call our home line, but we’re in the beginning of a new contract with Verizon FIOS and I can’t do anything about that at the moment. My husband loves his movies, so we’ll be keeping the $30/month full movie-channel package.
SAVINGS: None

Cell Phone: We recently upgraded to smartphones, and the data packages upped our bill by $40/month. Nothing to cut here, as we’re using everything except the darned minutes – and we’re already at the “cheapest” family plan.
SAVINGS: None

Car Payment/Insurance: We’ll finish paying off my husband’s truck in April 2014. It’s already at 0% financing. As for car insurance, I (reasonably) raised the deductibles on my 9-year-old car.
SAVINGS: $10/month

Credit Card Payment: I don’t want to reduce this because we owe $3500 on our credit cards. We’re just not going to add to it any more. Instead of buying something (usually a larger purchase; soon, will be Christmas presents) on a credit card, we’ll use our debit cards instead. We may have to reduce our credit card payment, but at least we won’t be adding to the debt.
SAVINGS: None

 

Where we can cut:

Newspaper: I’m being a bad journalist when I say this, but with the Internet, newspapers are useless to me. I don’t even need the Sunday paper for coupons anymore, since I can get them online and either print them out or load them on my grocery store’s club card.
SAVINGS: $9/month

Takeout: We don’t need to order food for a dinner every weekend — maybe limit it to twice a month.
SAVINGS: $50/month

Lunches: Sometimes we’re just in a pinch and need to buy something for lunch, but I’d like to see us cut this expense in half.
SAVINGS: $25/month

Shopping: Miss Frugalista needed some new clothes and shoes for the fall/winter (we finally ran out of hand-me-downs!), but she should be set until spring now. I also bought myself some winter clothes to augment my post-baby-body collection (ugh), and spent $250, with coupons. I probably could have done a better job of looking for cheaper clothes, but fall/winter stuff isn’t on clearance yet, and I needed stuff now. I don’t plan to buy clothes again until spring.
SAVINGS: Varied

 

Wish we could get rid of:

Cigarettes – $300. Mr. NSF wanted to quit a few weeks ago, but some bad news got in the way and threw him off track. I hope he can really try to quit soon, both for his health and our budget.

Netflix DVDs – $11.99. With the full-out movie channel TV package, plus streaming through Amazon Prime and Netflix, I don’t understand the need for DVDs, too. I’m also the person who could live without TV. I don’t see a compromise here, because it’s unfair to my husband, who really, really enjoys watching movies and doesn’t spend money on any hobbies. I guess TV *IS* his hobby.

 

In the end:

Our liquid emergency fund would last about 5-6 months, which is fairly healthy, but we haven’t been able to add to it much this year, with the bathroom renovation and unexpected car repairs eating up our free cash. My husband also needed his first-ever pair of glasses, which followed getting an eye exam for the first time in nearly two decades. And we rarely go out.

So we’re living almost paycheck-to-paycheck, without extravagance. Seems like this is the price we pay for having a child and living in Northern New Jersey.

Splurge: My First Name-Brand Handbag

My new Coach bag — gasp.

Actually, the title of this post should really be “My First Name-Brand ANYTHING.” Especially when it comes to clothing and accessories.

I’ve never fallen into the name-brand trap. Initially, it was just because I was young and living paycheck-to-paycheck and out of necessity, but as I got older, I still didn’t desire anything with a big, obnoxious logo on it. No Chanel, no Fendi, no Ralph Lauren, nothing. I still believe spending more on something just to show off a logo is pretty ridiculous.

That’s why this next sentence is completely hypocritical: I bought myself a Coach bag.

Yes, you read that correctly.

While on vacation in the Outer Banks, I discovered we were two blocks away from an outlet mall. Mr. Not-So-Frugal, Miss Frugalista and I took a ride over there with another friend, and my husband suggested I check out the Coach store. I figured I’d just browse, laugh at the prices, and walk out empty-handed.

As I crossed the threshold, a sales associate handed me a 30% off coupon. A few steps further into the store, I saw sale signs announcing 40% off retail prices for handbags in that section. I asked another associate if I could stack the 40% off sale price and the 30% off coupon, and the answer was yes. That’s when I seriously considered looking at the merchandise.

I’m not one for Coach’s traditional tans, browns and gold accents (and forget about the multicolored patterns accented with hot pink), but I found a tote bag that was right up my alley: blue “denim” with silver accents and handles. I did the math, and it wasn’t that bad – $138, from an original retail price of $328.

Sold.

All told, it cost me $147 (including sales tax). I really like the bag, and I’ll admit that buying a famous-brand purse kind of gave me the giggles, because it’s so unlike me. But I know I’ll use the heck out of this Coach purse, and will probably still be carrying it 5 years from now.

Fuel Pump, Part Deux

It’s been barely two years since I need to replace my car’s fuel pump after an embarrassing breakdown in the middle of the street on my way to work in August 2010, but last week it was “deja vu all over again,” as Yogi Berra would say.

To be honest, the issue with my car — a 2003 Pontiac Grand Am GT — had been going on for more than a month. The damned thing wouldn’t start when I turned the key in the ignition. Sure, it would crank, but it would take a number of times to get it going before it would start.

A helpful mechanic neighbor mentioned the fuel pump wasn’t “kicking in” — advising me to turn the key to “on” and wait for the buzz of the fuel pump before trying to start it.

That seemed to do the trick, but that buzzing noise didn’t always come in a reasonable amount of time. And I’d get impatient and crank the engine again and again. Or I’d come up with ridiculous “methods” for getting the engine to turn over:

1. Open and close the car door, then try to start it.

2. Put it in neutral, foot on brake, then try to start it.

3. Lock the car using the key fob, then try to start it.

Invariably, one of these would work, and I’d latch on to the routine for the next few starts. When it failed, I’d come up with a new, even more ridiculous routine. It was the equivalent of blowing on dice for good luck while playing craps.

Fuel Pumps Have a High Repair Cost

After playing Internet mechanic, I was hoping it was the fuel pump sensor — but alas, it was not to be. I’m not sure it would have been cheaper to repair, but surely I wouldn’t have paid close to $1,000 ($935, to be exact) to fix it this time.

Why did it cost me nearly $300 more this time around? Because when I took my car to my regular town mechanic, he couldn’t find anything wrong. Maybe I shouldn’t have told him the fuel pump was only two years old — perhaps he didn’t check it because it was still fairly new. Or he focused on the ignition, starter, battery, and alternator as possible culprits.

Because I thought it was an electrical issue (it was, sort of), I took it to a GM dealer, figuring they’d have more experience. I knew the labor cost would be more, and it was. I gained a minimal measure of comfort when my mechanic told me it would have cost him almost as much to replace the fuel pump.

A few days later, the car is still giving me trouble, but nowhere near as bad. I bet I’ve been slowly burning out the starter, but you’d think the dealership would have checked that out. Guess a phone call to customer service is in order.

A new car is looking better and better, but I really need to wait another 18 months or so to pay off Mr. Not-So-Frugal’s vehicle. Two car payments would be a frugal nightmare!

Spoiling Children

I now understand how parents can want to give their child the world — both figuratively and literally. Every cute outfit, every neat toy I see, I have to dig deep inside to find some restraint so I don’t wind up with a cart full of kid stuff in my cart at the store. Target, I’m talking about you here.

Between Christmas in December and Miss Frugalista’s first birthday in February, we were inundated with toys and clothes. I did think to request summer outfits in a larger size — which our little chunker is quickly growing out of already — and some small beach/pool items for our upcoming trip to North Carolina.

Toys are in abundance here, too. We have lots of little toys that play songs and teach the alphabet and numbers, along with the more traditional wooden blocks and fabric dolls. There are a few larger items, too, such as an outdoor water table and slide (two separate items), a music table, rocking horse, bouncy turtle, and a small Fisher-Price Little People dollhouse. That’s all in addition to the Little People ZooTalkers zoo and about 15 different animals that go with it. (Aside: Do you know how freakin’ hard it was to find most of those animals? They’re never in stores, so I wound up ordering many of them from the Fisher-Price website at $3 a pop.)

She has a Little Tikes Cozy Coupe, a Radio Flyer wagon complete with seats, seat belts and canopy, and, not to be outdone, a motorized mini Power Wheels car. Then there’s the stuff at her babysitter’s house.

Since her birthday in February, I haven’t bought her anything “major” besides some extra ZooTalkers animals and her Fisher-Price dollhouse. However, I do have my eye on a little outdoor playhouse for her…

Do you have trouble controlling your spending impulses when it comes to your little ones? Please tell me it’s not just me!

Bathroom Renovation Burnout

It’s been 3 weeks since the contractor started on our bathroom. Since then, we’ve had a lot of back and forth with the electrician and plumber. We still need to maneuver our new cast-iron tub (yes, really, we’re crazy like that) up two flights of stairs from its current home in our garage (ditto for the solid-wood vanity). I need to buy floor tile and accent tile for the tub area, pick a potty, and get faucets and trim kits for the sink and shower/tub. Those last two are going to come from a local plumbing supply, as the quality of the product and connectors is 100% better than the cut-rate, substandard products you get at your big-box hardware store.

I’m just ready for it all to be finished. My impatience is legendary when it comes to letting others do things that I could surely do better and faster myself. It’s not always a great thing, but it does help me get the job done!

Since I posted my budget for the bathroom renovation, I’ve found that I’ve spent more on some items and less on others. For instance, I sprung for high-quality tile for the tub surround ($450 instead of $150), spent double on an exhaust fan ($110 instead of $50) and one-third of what I thought on an electric baseboard heating unit ($25 instead of $75).

I also want to get some glass mosaic tile to accent the simple tile I’ve selected for the tub area, and have to come up with a design. I could 1) run the mosaic tiles in a straight line around the three sides, or 2) use it to make a ‘picture frame’ focal point, and have the tile guy inset some of the plain square tiles in a diamond pattern. I’m still deciding.

Making decisions for decor is something with which I’ve always had difficulty, so I’ve been waiting until the last minute to decide on things. I’m pretty sure that will continue throughout the duration of this project.