Friday, November 30, 2012

Monthly Networth Review

I have started my monthly update of our networthiq profile for December 2012.  Updating our net worth numbers is part of my monthly personal finance tasks which also include the following:  (1) update monthly spending plan (our form of a budget); (2) pay beginning of the month bills; (3) update 2012 savings goals chart and move money to savings goals as appropriate; (4) review and monitor automatic payments/automatic savings/automatic distribution of our allowance monies.

When updating our net worth numbers I review, on line, the status and amount of our ING/Wells Fargo savings which is reflected in the "cash" category on our networthiq chart.  I, also, review our non savings ING accounts, these would include our various escrow and short term savings accounts for travel, holidays, fun, etc. and these monies are reflected in the "other" category on our chart.

Then, I review all of our retirement savings/investments.  I log on to Fidelity and review my IRA accounts and my 401k account from a prior employer.  My current 401k account is at Vanguard so I log on and check those numbers.  I also log on as Mr. Sam to Fidelity and review Mr. Sam's IRA accounts and his 401k accounts.  My IRA monies are reflected in the "stocks" category and Mr. Sam's IRA monies are reflected in the "bonds" category on our chart.  Our 401k monies are combined into one number and are reflected in the "retirement" category on our chart.

The other asset categories on our networthiq chart include the value of our home, the value of our other real estate, the value of our cars and the value of personal property.  Those numbers get updated about once a year.

On the other side of the networthiq chart are our debts which right now include the mortgage on our primary home, the mortgages on our investment properties and, currently, some Home Depot credit card debt (0% interest rate) incurred at Rental # 3.  I update the debt numbers when we pay our various mortgages.

Keeping track of all these numbers and updating them on a monthly basis certainly takes some work, but I find the tracking to be beneficial.  First of all, for me, tracking these numbers helps me stay motivated in our personal financial and savings goals.  Second, checking in on our investments online, at least once a month, is useful.  Today, while I was checking my Fidelity numbers I converted my non-deductible traditional IRA to a Roth IRA (I'll be posting about this later if you are curious) which took less than 5 minutes to do.  I would have, and I did consider, doing the same for Mr. Sam but I figure I ought to ask him before I go ahead and convert his account.  Three, being familiar with the online tools for our retirement accounts is very helpful because there are some great research tools.  When you jump onto those accounts once or twice a month you get much more familiar and comfortable with the tools and terms, you increase your education and knowledge.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

2013 Goal Planning

It is that time of the year, time to start thinking about our savings plan for 2013.

Always first on our list of goals is to max out our 401k contributions.  This year the 401k contribution limits a are going up to $17,500.  So, goal number one will be to save $35,000 in our 401k.

Second on our list of goals is to contribute the maximum to any other tax advantaged savings.  For us that means we will want to max out our non-deductible IRA.  We will later convert our non-deductible IRA to a Roth IRA, see this article for more information on how to do so.  IRA contribution limits are also going up from $5000 to $5,500.  So, goal number two will be to save $11,000 in our IRA.  Because of the respective contribution increases our retirement savings will be going up by $2000.

Other goals that are up for discussion:  (1) continuing to add to our emergency fund; (2)  working to pay down the mortgage on our primary home; (3) increasing our non tax advantaged savings (also known as adding to the trading account); and (4) adding to the house project account.

For me, paying off the mortgage is a primary goal as I've explained here, here and here.  Although, with our new lower interest rate of 2.75% from our recent Refi I recognize that paying extra on the mortgage really doesn't make good financial sense when you crunch the numbers.

We also have some house projects that I've been dreaming about for two years now.

How about you, have you started planning your 2013 savings goals?  What is on your list?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Budget Busters - Cell Phones?

Are cell phones now number two on the household budget?

Upon reading this article I decided to review our AT&T bill which includes one home phone, two cell phones (one of which is a smart phone with a data plan) and our internet service.

This past month our bill was $202 (which is about $20 higher than normal).  In studying the bill there are certainly charges that jump out at me.  And of course each phone has separate surcharges and taxes which further ups the costs.

For my iPhone I have a data plan (unlimited) which my employer reimburses, $30, each month since I regularly use my phone for work.  But, I don't have a texting plan and last month I had $6.00 in texts.  I don't have a text plan because I don't normally text but others text me.  I've thought about adding a text plan, but I always worry about changing my plan and losing my grandfathered in unlimited data plan.  Frankly, I don't trust AT&T to change my plan without screwing up something else.

Mr. Sam doesn't have a smart phone so he calls directory assistance quite often, those calls are billed at $1.99 each and last month he had $7.96 in such charges.

We continue to maintain a home phone which Mr. Sam uses when he works at home.  This past month he had $12 in long distance charges.  After discussing whether to seek reimbursement for those charges from his employer we have decided not to because the amount he saves in gas by working at home far exceeds the telephone charges.

How about you, how much is your phone bill?  Have you undertaken efforts to curb your phone bill or is it simply the price of being connected these days?

Monday, November 26, 2012

Executing on the Holiday Plan

Earlier, I posted about our holiday plan and budget and since its Cyber Monday it is time for me to start executing on our plan.

As I previously posted, for the past few years we've been sending out holiday wreathes to our adult family members (we don't exchange holiday gifts with the adults in our family).  The past few years the holiday wreath giving has also supported one of my favorite charities, but they have opted not to participate this year.    So, I was thinking of sending wine from a winery we visited this year.  But, that option ended up being too expensive and too complicated although I am going to order a 6 pack of wine to give as gifts locally (work and hostess gifts).

For the wreathes, I decided to go with L.L. Bean. First, L.L. Bean makes the wreathes right in Maine, so the company supports American workers.  Second, the wreathes ended up costing about the same amount, with free shipping today and 10% off today, as the charity wreathes.  Also, I will receive $40 in gift cards, $10 per $50 spent, which I can use for other holiday shopping.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Cooking Baby Steps - Part IV

Tuesday night, before Thanksgiving, is NOT the time for grocery shopping especially for someone, like me, who hates grocery shopping.

Yesterday, I left work early to do some pre-Thanksgiving charitable work.  Nothing helps one be thankful for one's financial stability like helping to hand out groceries to working families in need.  Then, even though I didn't want to go, I made myself go to the grocery store.

Rather than head to my local Publix, which is smallish, I went to the extra big Publix one town over.  Even though I do my best to avoid grocery shopping I'm familiar enough with the big Publix to know my way around.

I arrived about 6:30 p.m. and went directly to the bakery section because I had a birthday cake to buy.  But, since I'm a novice grocery shopper I didn't realize I could put in an icing order.  So I snooped around the bakery for 5 minutes before deciding to come back at the end of my shopping.

I utilized my Publix shopping list which I created on the Publix web site.  I found the list helpful but, as I mentioned before, I'd like it better if I could designate brands.  I did

Overall I spent $189 so the list didn't help me save money.  The spendy items on my list were:  (1) 12 pack Corona Light at $12.99; (2) the birthday cake at $16.99; (3) Gruyere cheese at $12.50; (4) salmon at $15.96; (5) white wine at $9.59.   So, $68.03 in extra spendy items.  Corona light is actually a staple for us, we buy it regularly.  The other items were triggered by guests coming into town, the birthday cake, wine and the salmon (to be used on Friday for a birthday dinner).  The pricey cheese is for the Thanksgiving casserole I'm making for our group dinner.

But, I also recognize that I did save money by purchasing the birthday dinner supplies at the grocery store rather than footing the bill for dining out which would have reached at least $100.  The salmon was actually on special and I "saved" $8.

I'm thinking of noting the prices in my saved Publix shopping list so I can get better at figuring out what is or is not a good price.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Bright Side

Over on the GRS forums, which is really where I started my personal finance blogging, I was moping a bit about the fact that we are unlikely to meet our 2012 savings goals of $69,000.  Of course the joy of blogging and posting is that other people give you all kinds of feedback.

CecilyC provided this feedback:  "Seriously, Sam, give yourself major props for this year even if you didn't exactly meet your goals. I wish I could say I'd saved $50,000."

Cecily's point is a good one, saving $50,000 is a major accomplishment.  And, in fact, Mr. Sam and I are doing much better than the average American, who has $3,500 in regular savings and $35,000 in retirement savings.

While, we know we are doing well and we do celebrate the fact that we are making good progress on our savings, we want to do better.  The fact is, with the exception of last year, our savings has averaged $50,000 each year with little to no increase.  In 2011, we saved $60,060 (our best showing).   In 2010,we saved $49,325.  In 2009, we saved $50,168.  In 2008, we saved $50,000.  And of course in 2007, we paid off $55,500 in unsecured debt (in 12 and half months, this goal was completed in January 2008).

Now looking on the bright side, how fantastic that we were able to save $50,000 four years in a row.  That is a fantastic accomplishment especially in light of the fact that we were able to save that kind of money during the great recession.  But, I remain frustrated that we have not been able to increase our savings, with the exception of last year, despite the fact that both of us have had salary increases.  I really want to do better and, more importantly, I believe that we can do better and save more without a major lifestyle change.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Cooking Baby Steps - Part III

Since its Thanksgiving week and since I will be doing some cooking for Thanksgiving dinner I was checking out the Publix web site to figure out their hours this week.

In looking at the Publix web site, I discovered that they have some helpful recipe tools and, more importantly, a grocery list tool.  The grocery list tool can be personalized to your specific store and as you add items to the list it populates the location within the store so you don't have to wander around aimlessly.  And, you can also add items from the weekly sale list and/or populate your grocery list from their recipe tools.  You can also set up a standard grocery list of items that you buy regularly.

Since I am trying to do better on my cooking at home goal, I decided to sign up for a Publix profile.  I am not a fan of having corporations track me and mine my data, but in order to save my grocery list I needed a profile.  So I used my junk e-mail address (the one I use for shopping on-line) and when it asked for all my data I used my standard fake information which only includes my real zip code.

Once I had my Publix profile set up, I started adding items from my Thanksgiving recipe (I'm making one casserole dish for our group dinner) as well as regular items that I'll need to pick up since I'll have guests in town.  The grocery list doesn't have each and every brand which is a bummer as it would be great if I could specify in my list the particular brands that I use (it does have a notes section where you can add that information).

Since we will have guests to cook for on Friday, I also tried out Publix's Simple Meals Recipe tool which is divided among different categories like "main dish" and "celebrations", etc.  I clicked on main dish which has different categories like "beef", "vegetarian", "seafood (salmon)" and "seafood (shellfish)".  I was already planning on salmon, so I clicked on a recipe that sounded easy and good and then it is one easy step to populate your grocery list with all the necessary items (you can delete those items that are already in your pantry).  You can also save the recipes to your profile as well.

I plan to go shopping Tuesday evening, so I'll continue to work on my list between now and then and I'll report back on whether this tool is helpful or not.  What do you do to make grocery shopping less painful?

Friday, November 16, 2012

2012 Savings Goal - Mid November Update

(1) Max out 401k(s) - $32,036 (94%)(goal is $34,000)
(2) Max out IRA(s) - $7,829 (78%)(goal is $10,000)
(3) Add to e/r fund - $8,800 (88%)(goal is $10,000)
(4) Pay down mortgage - $2490 (50%)(goal is $5,000)
(4)(a) Savings for goal (4) - $830
(5) House projects - $1,200 (26%)(goal is $5,000)
(6) Trading account fund - $50 (1%)(goal is $5,000)

Total - $53,335 (76%)

I plan to update our 2012 goals every two weeks or so until the end of the year to help me stay focused.  At present, we are about $7,700 behind on our goals.

While I don't think we will be able to meet our  2012 goal of saving $69,000  I am hoping (and planning) to completed goals 1-4 and to surpass the amount we saved last year which was $60,060.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

IRS and Paranoia

Ever since we were audited in 2010, each of the last two years we have received additional correspondence from the IRS after our taxes were completed and our payment submitted.

So, this year, when we received correspondence saying we owe additional taxes I am officially paranoid.  I've done some research and I can't find anything to support my position that once you've been audited your future tax returns receive additional scrutiny.  But, thanks to Jim R. as he found a article indicating that if you have been audited in the past you're on the audit hit list for at least a few years.

We are, of course, not claiming the deduction that got us in trouble before, and not (in my opinion) being aggressive in our tax avoidance efforts.  We are, also, paying a CPA to prepare our taxes.  We are paying our taxes on time although we have sought an extension the last few years.

In researching the form we received this year, a CP14, I understand that it is a form indicating an underpayment of taxes not based on a math error.  Often times, individuals receive a CP14 if their tax payment was not received at all.  I know for certain that the IRS received our tax payment because (1) I have a copy of the cancelled check and (2) the amount that is show due on the CP14 is less than a hundred dollars and we paid a ton more in taxes than that.

More than likely, I'll just pay the amount the IRS is claiming that is due because I am terrified of the IRS and do not want to end up being audited again.  But, since I understand (based on my own research) that these CP14 notices are computer generated and are often wrong I've asked my CPA to review and advise.  I also understand from my research that a GAO study found that 47% of this type of correspondence to taxpayers was incorrect and the IRS just collects and keeps the money.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Cooking Baby Steps - Part II

I have started researching the best (but not super expensive) cooking tools and I found this helpful list from Consumer Reports.

I actually already have one of the tools on the list. The KitchanAid mixer.  KitchenAid Artisan Stand Mixer KSM150PS - Contour Silver - KitchenAid (Google Affiliate Ad)  And, while I don't use the mixer on a daily or even monthly basis, it does work very well.

My plan is to take this list and compare it against what I've already got and work on improving our stock of kitchen tools.  At present, our biggest issue is cookware and knives, although I could also use some better baking sheets.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Holiday Budget Planning

Since Thanksgiving is early this year (next week!), the time to get your holiday plan in order is quickly running out.

For us, our holiday plan will generally be the same as last year.

We have our holiday savings account, which we fund each pay period and keep at ING so we earn a little interest.  The great part of setting up a holiday budget and plan, each year it is quick and easy work to adjust and replicate.  For a lot of people, the word budget has a negative connotation, for us budget really means plan.

First, I have already ordered our holiday cards, this is an expensive part of our holiday plan since we send out about 80 cards.  All together, with the printing of the cards and the postage this is going to run about $200.  Another trick for holiday cards is to get your holiday addresses into an Excel spreadsheet so its easy to adjust the list from year to year.

Second, while we have a general agreement not to exchange gifts with the adults in our family (except for one or two holdouts) the past few years I have sent holiday wreathes which also supports a charity.  Sending the wreathes runs about $200.  I'm thinking of mixing this up this year as we visited a winery on our travels this past year and I was thinking of sending wine.  This is something I need to investigate and figure out my plan.

Third, the kiddos in the family.  I'm upping the budget for the kids this year.  My nephew is in college now I'm increasing his holiday gift from $50 to $100 in cash.  Of course,  I need to do the same for his sister who is in high school (total $200).  $50 in cash to the little ones and a little something gift (total $150).  $50 each to college fund (total $200).  So, this category is going from $250 last year to $550.  That is a big increase in our holiday budget so we'll need to make an adjustment to our automatic savings plan for the holiday account for next year.

Fourth, I am budgeting $100 for work related gifts.  This is an increase from last year,but I also missed my assistant's birthday so need to make that up.

Fifth, $100 for misc. expenses, baking supplies, hostess gifts, etc.

Sixth, $50 for stocking stuffers for my husband and dog.

  This year we are again taking a trip over the New Year's weekend (this is budgeted in our travel fund) as such we won't be doing gifts to each other.  We haven't done holiday gifts for each other in years.

Finally, $100 to sponsor a need child's Christmas.

Overall, our holiday budget will increase this year by @ $300.  Since we already have saved $1000 (plus we have a bit of interest) the increase in our budget is manageable.  I was surprised to hear that the amount we are planning to spend greatly exceeds the norm.

How about you, do you have a spending plan for the holidays, how much are you spending, is it going up or down or staying the same?

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Cooking Baby Steps

One of my general financial goals for 2012 was to reduce the amount of eating out and ordering in that I do.  Clearly eating out and ordering in is more expensive than eating at home or bringing my lunch.  Also, eating out during the work week cuts into my productive work time.  And finally, eating out and ordering in normally means that I am eating more calories than I would like.

Although we have reduced our eating out, overall I have not been particularly successful on this goal.  I have a variety of excuses.  First and most importantly, I really do not like to cook.  Second, I hate the grocery store.  Third, I work a lot and by the time I get home I want to relax not cook dinner and certainly not prep lunch for the next day.

But, recently I made an effort to improve my cooking skills by attending a healthy cooking class.  A few things that I figured out from this class.  First, we need to invest in a few better pots and pans and a few better quality knives.  We also probably need a new set of measuring spoons.  Second, I need to reorganize the kitchen.  Our kitchen is not particularly large and doesn't really have a whole lot of storage (not surprising since we live in a 1920s home).  But, taking a look at what I do have in my kitchen, I noticed that a lot of the space is dedicated to antique glassware, cocktail serving dishes, vases, large serving dishes, our fine china, etc.  While I don't like to cook, I do like to party so I have lots of fun party/serving/cocktail supplies.  I need to work on getting the special occasion things out of the way and organizing the kitchen so that more of the space is dedicated to cooking tools.

So, I'm going to work on getting our kitchen better organized and I'm going to do some cooking equipment shopping this holiday season.  I'll let you know how I do.

Monday, November 5, 2012

2012 Savings Goals - November Update

(1) Max out 401k(s) - $31,379 (92%)(goal is $34,000)
(2) Max out IRA(s) - $5,829 (58%)(goal is $10,000)
(3) Add to e/r fund - $8,400 (84%)(goal is $10,000)
(4) Pay down mortgage - $2490 (50%)(goal is $5,000)
(4)(a) Savings for goal (4) - $415
(5) House projects - $1,200 (24%)(goal is $5,000)
(6) Trading account fund - $50 (1%)(goal is $5,000)

Total - $49,763 (72%)

I've added a sub goal to our list, since at present, I'm allocating our mortgage paydown money to savings until I figure out how to prepay our new mortgage.

At present, we are approximately $9,900 behind on our 2012 goals and the gap is approaching $10,000.

What can I say about our current savings deficit and the fact that it continues to grow?

I can tell you that (1) we've spent thousands on certifications for Mr. Sam this year (to improve career opportunities); (2) I can tell you we spent thousands on refinancing our primary dwelling and (3) thousands on fixing our our primary dwelling for the appraisal for the refi; and (4) recently a few thousands on some projects at Rental # 3.

But, I can also tell you that in the face of the above we have failed to change our lifestyle in any significant manner.  We continue to eat out more than we should.  I just booked a girls weekend in South Beach, Miami and, of course, I just bought some fabulous art. 

So, with two months to go, including the expensive holiday season, it seems doubtful that we will reach our $69,000 number.  Rather, at this point, while I'm not amending our goals, I'm hoping to meet and surpass last year's savings number which was $60,060.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Happy Days - Part III

Earlier I posted about my recent raise and retroactive pay, related to my raise, and how I wanted to spend those monies. I decided that I would put 2/3 of my retroactive pay towards the art that I've been stalking since Memorial Day and the rest would be put towards our 2012 IRAs or other 2012 savings goals.

Well, I am pleased to report that I have more than enough in my ING savings account to purchase the art work and I've already e-mailed the artist and made the purchase.

And, yes, I put the other 1/3 of my retroactive pay into our 2012 IRAs.