Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 Review and Looking Ahead to 2014

I hate resolutions - but I do love a good excuse to look back and look ahead.

I have two teenaged girls now and don't talk about parenting them here on the blog as much as I used to, but suffice it to say it's much of the same. Some days, I feel like we're doing great, and others I worry that I've completely failed them. Most days, however, I recognize that we're all just human and I'm doing the best I can as a mom, just taking it one day, one problem, one hour at a time. So every year, my parenting review is much the same - mixed. As long as we get through 2014 without me feeling like a complete failure as a parent, a mixed review is the best I can really expect for the new year.

This was a rough end-of-year for my family. My uncle died and I just got back from his funeral. I've never seen my grandma in so much pain before and that was difficult. I saw men in my family that are almost always so even-keeled break down in tears. I will miss my uncle very much, but I am comforted by the fact that he's no longer in pain. Thanks to Sylvia, we all had a "uniform" for the funeral in memory of my uncle's favorite outfit. Seeing us like that reminded me that we are indeed a force that cannot be denied, despite any pain or trivial battles, and we will continue to be strong and united for whatever 2014 brings.

I always feel at the end of a year that I did not spend enough time with the friends I truly love. This year is no different. Having said that, there are always opportunities during the year that bring me new loved ones and reunite me with old friends. The best I can do is continue how I have been - saying yes when I can, and remaining open.

2014 will be the last year of school - for now. January - May will be busy completing that, and then June - August will be crazed with producing the musical. I need to remember to take breaks when I can, and try not to complain too much.  I love school, I love producing, and even though neither of them are easy, that's why they're so rewarding.

I am learning that balance means some things have to go by the wayside every so often, and priorities constantly need shifting. I just hope for a year where I succeed at that more often than not.

My best wishes for a 2014 that is filled with love, laughter and music.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Financial Update: 2013 Review and 2014 Goals

So 2013 was the year that I began to take control of my financial situation. While we have been emotionally thriving as a single parent family,  financially it's been a paycheck-to-paycheck slog.

In March, I started a new plan. When I first started, I thought it would take me until this month to pay off my high-interest credit card. Instead, I did so in September. Looking back, I think the reason I didn't feel elation was because while I had made significant progress, I knew I was somewhat stuck.

I started seeking out more personal finance info and in November, came across You Need a Budget. The first few times I read about it, I thought, well that's great, but I have a budget. But, as the founder always says to wrap up his podcasts, I hadn't budgeted like this.

As of January 1, 2014, I will be living on last month's income. And I still have a Baby Emergency Fund, as I have come to learn is a Dave Ramsey recommendation of at least $1000. (Still not a Dave Ramsey fan, but since I already had that - I considered at least one goal complete.)

This Christmas was the first in 10 years where nothing was put on a credit card. And everyone seemed happy with their gifts. I also did something I would not have even considered just a few months ago.  I canceled my DirecTV.

It's just been a couple of weeks, but the girls and I are all quite content with the decision. I did subscribe to HuluPlus, but even with that, I'm still saving over $75 a month.

I am un-stuck.

There is still a long way to go. Sylvia has started driver's ed, and insurance will be a new (expensive) bill soon, there is still the low-interest credit card debt of about 8 grand to pay off, and I need to accrue more Rainy Day funds for car repair, unexpected expenses, and also to fund fun. 

So the 2014 Goals, financially speaking, are:

1. Let the emergency fund continue to build and forget as much as possible that it's there. A (very) small portion of every paycheck goes directly into my savings account so I can't really touch it without transferring funds. That helps.

2. Continue to live on less than my income and focus any "extra" funds towards the car maintenance and car insurance Rainy Day funds.

3. Continue to pay the monthly minimum towards credit card debt, plus 1/3 of any income outside of my weekly pay (child support, tax refund, etc).

4. 1/3 of any extra income will go towards car maintenance and insurance funds, and the last 1/3 to the girls and fun. 

That's it. I was going to add more, but I want my goals to be reasonably achievable. As each month passes, I will check my YNAB reports, category balances and see if there are any other cuts I can make to the budget, unexpected expenses that need to be added to the plan, and adjust accordingly. I look forward to this time next year to see where I am.

If you would like to buy YNAB (or download a free trial), please use my referral link. You'll get a discount and I'll get a referral fee. (The link is also on my home page.)

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Obligatory 2013 Holiday Post

A year ago, I looked forward to the odd year. And it was. Different and fun and crazy and good.

It was also a year of tenth anniversaries: 10 years as a single parent family, 10 years with my employer, 10 years since we moved back to L.A.

10 years ago, I had no idea I’d be celebrating my 40th birthday in New Orleans with my parents – and we had a blast! NOLA is one of those places I’d always wanted to go, and it ended up being so much better than I imagined. I definitely want to take the girls – in 10 years, maybe.

10 years ago, I thought my theatre producing days were behind me for good. Now, here I am, having produced Oliver! for The Stepping Stone Players last summer and getting ready to produce Peter Pan in 2014. I love being around theatre people again – and I remember why it was best to not produce theatre for the last 10 years. But being able to share this experience with Sylvia and Riley…it’s really quite special.

Sylvia is 16 now, and she is keeping as busy as ever. At LACHSA, in addition to Fashion and her other Visual Arts classes, she’s also taking Film and Ballet. She’s also still assistant teaching at her dance studio, and has begun driver's ed. (Eek!)

Riley is in 8th grade and we’re exploring her high school options. She’s back in Leadership and also learning photography, art and cooking. She hates when I say this, but she really is a top scholar, and is now a recruit in the police department's cadet program. She may be 13 now and growing up on me, but she remains the peaceful sane rock of the family. Thank goodness! Oh, and in case I haven't mentioned it yet, she’s taller than Sylvia now.

I am incredibly grateful for everyone who has offered their friendship, advice and encouragement these last 10 years. We are very lucky to have really special friends (both online and IRL) and family that let us know they believe in us even when we’re having our doubts. It has not always been an easy road, but it would have been so much harder without you.

Wishing you a cheerful and cozy holiday season and a wonderful 2014!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Loving the Keurig

I wanted to wait a while before I posted about the Keurig that I received for free. There was no obligation to post about it.

I wanted to wait to see if I didn't just love it because it was a new free toy, or because I really did like it.

Now, I should preface this by saying, I have gotten a little less snobby about coffee. In really examining my financial situation, I'd already started to move towards lower-priced grounds than my usual Starbucks. So I can't guarantee that it tastes as good as coffee made in a traditional brewer, but I have not personally noticed a significant difference.

Keurig was kind enough to send me a variety of samples of K-cups, which helped greatly in determining which I would continue to buy. I also bought a refillable K-cup so that I can continue to use the grounds I already have on hand.

I thought the K-cups would be a lot more expensive than the grounds, and they are a little more expensive, but I think it balances out since I don't have to make more coffee than I end up drinking. Even with a small brewer, I would end up wasting about a cup's worth of coffee because it was too old by the time I got to it. Being able to brew a fresh cup every time makes the experience more enjoyable every time, instead of just that first cup of coffee (and, I imagine, would be an advantage for other singles/single parents).

The other advantage is being able to brew tea & hot chocolate via K-cups and access instant hot water for oatmeal or hot tea using old fashioned tea bags. I've heard there's some danger in heating water in the microwave for these purposes. I don't know if that's true or not, but with the Keurig, it can be easily avoided.

As far as K-cup brands go, I do not like Green Mountain brews. To me, they have a distinct, unpleasant aftertaste. I am really liking the SF Bay French Roast brew, and buy that regularly (it helps that they cost an average $1-2 less than the other brands at the grocery store). I also liked Timothy's Rainforest Espresso Extra Bold and Cafe Escapes' Dark Hot Chocolate (I add a little tobasco sauce to give it a kick). Emeril's Jazzed Up Decaf was okay. We were not fans of Keurig's Fruit Brews. Celestial Seasonings teas taste just like their traditional tea bag counterparts (which is a good thing in my book). At work, I generally reach for the Donut Shop K-cups, and they're fine.

I also like that I can still program this particular model to turn on before I wake up so I don't even have to wait for the water to heat before I brew my first cup. This model also has a removable base for my larger to-go cups. 

In addition to the brewer and samples, they also sent me a booklet full of coupons for a 50% discount. If you would like one, please email me at admccaffery at gmail, and I will reply with a code for your use.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Financial Update: You Need a Budget

Instead of blogging about budgeting, I've been searching out personal finance blogs. This one software program, You Need a Budget, kept coming up. I ignored it the first few times because I thought, hey, I have a budget! But then I couldn't help myself. And I'm really glad I did.

I don't want to sound too much like a sales pitch (though that link will get you $6 off and the software is on sale til end of day), but here are the reasons why I decided it was worth it for me:

  • I can see the big picture. Yes, the Magic Little Notebook was great for ensuring that I budgeted enough for all my bills, but it wasn't user-friendly when it came to making decisions about anything left over. With YNAB, on one screen I can see everything and easily make changes as necessary. 
  • I was already following the first 3 rules for the most part in the YNAB method; spending less than what I earn (Rule 1), starting to build Rainy Day funds (R2) and rolling with the punches (R3), but Rule 4 was a brand new concept for me that breaks the living paycheck-to-paycheck cycle: live on last month's income. Of course, this doesn't happen overnight, but thanks to the savings I already have, I believe that I should be fully buffered (using YNAB terms here) by the end of this month!
  • I can enter purchases on my iPhone, my Kindle or in the software on either of my pcs (and I don't have to carry a notebook around). And there's a reconcile feature so that I can make sure that the bank and I match up. I'd been doubling up entries in both the notebook and the check register and then of course, reconciling at the end of the month with the bank. There was a time when there were two check outstanding for MONTHS. I hated that because I always had to make sure I remembered that! With YNAB, once I've entered it, it is gone for good from my available income, and then whenever they did clear the bank, I could just mark them as cleared and move on with my life. 
  • I love their classes and forums! I am not the only one obsessed with budgeting. At the forums, there are a ton of us :) And YNAB also has free classes (including two email courses). I started with their 9 day email course and reading articles and after I took the first class, I could see all the benefits of the software, so I decided to go for it.
  • Once I'm fully buffered, I will be able to stop the madness of dividing each monthly bill by 4 to save enough each week. Instead, at the beginning of the month, I will be able to enter all the amounts, know they're covered, and then determine which of the other categories need a little love.
  • I can change, add, and hide categories. YNAB reminds you that there are lots of expenses that do not come up every month. When you're first starting out, you'll most likely follow Rule 3, which is what I did when I remembered that my AAA bill was due this month. I created another category strictly for AAA and then moved some funds from the Car Maintenance category to cover it. But it was worth creating the AAA category so that I don't forget next year! 
  • I can also create notes for each category, which I'm doing for the bigger annual bills so that I can determine how much I need to budget each month before the big bill (car registration, for example) is due.
  • YNAB version 4 seems pretty new so I think it will be a while before the next version, but I believe they do offer a discount to current users to upgrade to the next version when it becomes available. And they have been around long enough that I feel confident that it will be around for a long time to come. 
  • You do not have to enter any sensitive information. If you would like, you can import bank statements into the software, but you can do it all manually if you prefer (which is what I do). 
  • I can track, budget and run reports all in the same place. I was budgeting one place, then tracking in 3 different places so that I could have reports, too. 
  • My mom will like the way YNAB treats credit cards, too. For me, I'm using the pre-YNAB debt feature, which keeps track of the outstanding balance as I pay it down. But YNAB doesn't insist you never use credit cards again; it just helps you use it/them most effectively.
I've created a Journal in the forums at YNAB (under the name aprilabtbalance), so I will try to keep the financial updates here to a minimum - and maybe find other things to blog about here!