Monday, November 28, 2011

My Thoughts On...SHOPPING

I suppose it will be an ongoing trend but the thing I hate most about the holidays is the time taken away from writing. Picking up writing again has been a great outlet that gives me time to reflect, share and express myself in ways I don’t usually in my day to day. So needless to say coming out of this Thanksgiving weekend I have a ton of pent up thoughts. So I feel it would be best to release these through a weekly series I shall dub “My Thoughts On…” and in true holiday spirit, what better topic than shopping following Black Friday.

Black Friday came and went and I get the distinct feeling that it will be an annual tradition in my household to shake my head in disbelief and agony at our culture of shoppers attending Black Friday sales in endless multitudes searching for “The Great Deal.” WHERE IS YOUR MOTIVATION AND DRIVE TO FIND GREAT DEALS THE REST OF THE YEAR! For Christmas shopping my wife and I establish who we buy for and what our dollar limit is at the beginning of the year, and utilize a sinking fund to cover the expected costs for those precious little gifts on December 25th.

When it comes to shopping in general though the best advice I can give is to plan ahead, be patient and think outside of the box. For personal clothing I avoid retail prices like the plague and stick to re-sale and thrift stores. I know where my local Salvation Army and Goodwill stores are and buy what I need. A huge benefit is that my wife is handy with a thread and needle and can alter clothes for flattering fits, so I can buy items that are just a bit baggy, and she’ll resize for a perfect cut! Pants, dress shirts, jeans and just about everything in between I grab at thrift stores. The only items I put on the “buy only new” category are underwear, socks and hats for obvious reasons.

For gifts planning ahead is crucial. Do you expect high school/college graduations in the coming year? Whose birthdays are important to you to buy gifts for? Are you buying for individuals or households at Christmas? Answering just a few of these questions before the start of every year is huge in planning and will help your budget out that much more. I’ll beat this horse even after its dead, when you have established a finite amount of money to spend, you will do everything you can to make dollars stretch. Gotta reader on your gift list? Check out used books online at amazon or ebay. Jonesing for a flat screen television AND you have the money to buy one? Flash cash at your local retailer and demand a discount when you pay cash in full, and if they don’t give you one, go to their competitor and get one.

But back to the madness that is Black Friday. You know that I’ll never rant and rave against finding a bigger and better deal. But consistency throughout the year and planning ahead of time is a lot better than running out in the after hours of Thanksgiving in the name of stretching your money and kicking down doors in the name of cheaper prices. Personally when the opening hours rang at the Friday sales, I was happily sound asleep in a bed at my in-laws beside my wife, assured that my Christmas gift giving list is made, I know where I am getting my gifts from and the “give account” is fully funded. Yes, Virginia, you can have peace of mind on Black Friday.

Monday, November 21, 2011

My Weekend of November 19th

This was without question one of the most memorable weekends of the year. Even after living in Chicago for four years there’s still new neighborhoods to explore. Against my reluctance my wife and I ventured out to Pilsen for what my wife would call, “flavor and diversity.” For me I knew exactly what this meant, heading to a neighborhood that roughly reminds me of where I grew up. You see, I have a love/hate relationship with my hometown. Far removed from Beverly Hills, The Hills, and South Orange County, my hometown was the quintessential low-middle class working neighborhood. No McMasions, no top of the line soccer mom SUV’s on our streets. While safe in some regards, there were plenty of crystal clear indicators that implied it really wasn’t. Gang inspired graffiti covered walls of certain “landmarks” within our town to mark whose gang “ran” the city blocks. Drugs definitely found their ways into both public and private schools, and I can still outline which areas of the city you should not be around or near when the sun went down. On top of all this was the in your face reality that well over 90% of the city’s population was Hispanic. Spanish is the first language typically learned in households and children like me, 1st generation born in the States was the norm.

But back to Pilsen. From the second I stepped aboard the Pink line el I was tense. I know my wife loves exploring new neighborhoods, but on my preconceived notions and ideas I was expecting the worst. I made sure we looked like we knew where we were going, didn’t look anyone in the eye, and made sure we weren’t being followed at any time, you know, standard city rules. Instead, when we made it to “the main strip” along 18th street something interesting happened, I became immersed in my surroundings and instead of feeling like a stranger in a place where I have to watch my back, I felt like someone returning to his hometown…and was happy to be there. The smells, the sights, the sounds, the stores, they all reminded me of my hometown and I felt like a kid who went off to college somewhere and made it back to his hometown for the weekend.

The remarkable thing to me was that I felt happy to be there. The smell of Pan Dulce in the air reminded me of days spent at my grandparents’ house when I was a child, the city streets and storefronts brought me back to very far-distant childhood memories of seeing the city streets with innocent eyes, before I read, heard stories, and witnessed criminal activity. It also didn’t hurt that Pilsen has some of the most beautiful mosaic art in the city, which masterfully occupy the sides of entire buildings.  After a lengthy conversation with my wife about all of this when our adventure in Pilsen ended, I came to the realization that, even to this day, I had let the self-indulgent and gooberific opinions of would be LA hipsters shape my opinion of how I perceive where I am from. While my hometown is a far cry from the friendliness and public art displays that exist in Pilsen, I should not be ashamed of where I am from. It will always be apart of who I am whether I like it or not, so why not carry some pride to go along with it? After all, my frugalness has taught me in large part to not give a damn about what other people think, so why I do not apply that to my own personal background?

If all of this were not enough for a fun-filled weekend, at my home church here in Chicago we had to say goodbye to one of our leaders whom is heading to the suburbs to lead a new church congregation as a pastor. Our home church here has been somewhat of a revolving door as I feel like we are always saying hi to new faces and goodbye to some of our staples every few months. This person has been without question our most consistent face of leadership around our church over the last few years. She personifies everything I love about my church: great music (she has an AMAZING voice), welcoming atmosphere, a genuine spirit of love, superb culinary delights at pot lucks, a generous spirit of giving to those in need, and an ability to take my breath away with sermons that are second to none. In fact, I think so highly of this person that I am unable to come up with a cute little acronym/pseudonym that perfectly summarizes her best qualities, she seriously has too many J!

But her departure is the bright and shining reminder that those of us remaining need to follow her lead. I for one, need to see where I can fit into leadership roles and be the example to newcomers as she was for me. Yes I will miss seeing her every Sunday in worship, but her influence has made an impression in my faith that will last a lifetime.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

My Couchsurfing

One of the greatest tips of frugality that I learned came from Jeff Yeager and it is a beautiful thing called couchsurfing, the gift that keeps on giving. I have been couchsurfing for close to 3 years now and do not plan on slowing down anytime soon. Truth be told I have not made many, if any, extensive travelling trips in the last few years. Instead, during the high tourist season that is Chicago’s summer and fall, my apartment is majestically transformed into the best hostel on the Northside. For absolutely no charge, members that find me request accommodations at my humble dwelling for a pre-determined period of time during their stay in the windy city. Whether for a weekend or a week, I toss them a spare set of keys and voila, they have a place to stay and my wife and I have a rotating block of roomies for a few weeks every summer and fall.

Yes I am alive to tell this tale and every experience has been memorable. Couchsurfing itself is set up on a website similar to facebook. You can create a profile for yourself with pictures and as much details as you’d like to share. There’s also a cool way to verify you’re location, to show other people that you are a real person with a real place to stay, and not in a tent camping out in Lincoln Park. My favorite resource though, is the wall on your profile. It’s the best and most direct way to show other people your references, that you are experienced surfing, and are not a psychopath.

Since I have limited my travel, through couchsurfing I have brought the world to me. I’ve hosted some of the coolest people I have ever met from just about everywhere you can imagine from around the world. Now while every surfer is close and dear in my heart, I have to say that there’s a French couple we hosted this summer that, well, were the paradigm of what is a superb couchsurfing experience. From the moment we all met there was an instant connection as if we had all been friends for years. My wife and I showed them around some of the best sights we knew on the Northside, and they displayed and shared the best tasting culinary skills I can remember. We hung out like old friends catching up, and upon their departure, I admit, was sad to see them leave.

There’s like this common thread that ties couchsurfers together. We’re frugal and when we travel we want to experience a new area, not be tourists. We’re fun, insightful, adventurous and some of the most insightful people you will meet among any walk of life. So yes, this sounds like an endorsement, and no I gain absolutely nothing from couchsurfing for writing this. Aside from anything with “Dave” or “Ramsey” in the title, couchsurfing is one of the best recommendations I enthusiastically endorse J

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Book Review: "Entreleadership" by Dave Ramsey

Dave absolutely knocks the topics in this book right out of the ballpark. Entreleadership is a wonderful piece that touches on: self run businesses, staying motivated, how to deal with people, self-priorities and of course good old fashioned common sense that isn’t so common anymore. Now while on paper I do not own my own business, I like to think that for the duration of my life I am self-employed running Rob Inc., and even from this perspective there is so much to learn and gain from the book.

You definitely do not need formal business training or education to understand the content of this book, but I’ve always thought that formalized training ruins your ability to apply common sense. The intrinsic values and practices that can be implemented in your daily life without question perked me up in my outlook at my career. A big driving point is establishing your own goals, dreams and visions and putting together an action plan to make those things happen. For me this lead to a very uncomfortable but much needed look in the mirror.

Dave spends a good deal of time and indirect mention to being an “employee” versus being a “team member.” Every single example and discreet allusion without question brought to surface that at my places of employment I have been an employee and not a team member. Everything about my professional record shows, reflects and conveys corporation. I mentioned in an earlier post that a goal of mine is to be a valued and motivated team member for a company that I would be pumped up working for day in and day out. Dave Ramsey says J that this happens when a specific set of stars are aligned that creates an unbreakable synergy. A big portion of that is when your personal and the company’s values are in sync.

Am I enthused about the company I work for? Do we share the same values? Is the culture corporate or do they encourage Entreleaders? Would I use the products and services of the company I work for, or better yet, recommend and advise my closest friends and families to use them? These were just a few of the internal thoughts that ran through my mind while reading “Entreleadership.” I should have had these run through my mind decades ago, but like everything else I’ll avoid the pity party and go forward with the new outlook I have. I am already planning where my values are and what types of companies and the products/services they offer will be in sync on some of the most important values to me. See, this is exactly what I love about Ramsey. His ideas are thought provoking and challenge you to take actionable steps that are proven and not theory, to achieve success.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

My Giving

Giving is one of those super hot topics in Christian circles. Should we tithe and give 10%? What about the story in the gospel of Jesus saying give what you can? There are so many edicts and declarations across many denominations that frankly in the days when I did not think for myself, was left feeling dizzy and very sick. For me, when trying to dissect how much should be given to a specific cause, what’s left out of the equation is that 100% of our money allocated to be spent is a reflection of the values we hold within our heart. Giving a tithe for me would mean absolutely nothing if I’m paying 18% APR to a creditor every month because of a material addiction to: clothes, shoes, boats, being the life of the party, cars, and the list goes on and on.

Once I formalized a written budget I was efficiently able to take a pullback view on what my priorities and values were in life. Living below my means and keeping a low clothing budget was my tell-tale sign that I cared more about my financial security than a perceived social status. Planning short, medium and long term goals are important to me, and using sinking funds and long term investment vehicles take up plenty of space and numbers in my monthly budget spreadsheets. So without question financial security, retiring with dignity, and saving for my future children’s college are all huge priorities to me.

I genuinely feel that in getting my financial house in order and taking actionable steps to make my goals happen, that I am actively living and pursuing a life that bring me the most fulfillment by utilizing the resources available to their fullest potential. I can’t imagine trying to pursue these goals nor take as much solace in my 6 month emergency fund if I were still weighed down by debt. In the crudest way that I can phrase it from a Christian perspective, would God want me to keep my student loan while paying Sallie Mae the super-low amazingly unbelievable interest rate of 2%, or pay off the debt and invest the money I would pay monthly and earn 12% so that I could set up a scholarship fund to help someone go to school debt free? Hmmmm.

But back to specific giving. Every month my wife and I allocate 10% of our gross income to be given away in gift form. We divide up the total amount between our home church, three children we sponsor to attend school in South America and Africa (charity is approved via charity navigator so we KNOW our money reaches the kids) and the remainder we let accumulate for specific friends and family in need and for special contributions we feel called to give to throughout the year.

I have found that the most effective giving comes from the heart, not rules. 10% of gross or net, who cares!? The best advice that I can give is get out of debt, now! It’s a lot easier to make the call and evaluate what you want to give out of your budget to the causes that mean the most to you, when Sallie Mae and American Excess aren’t eating up your monthly income.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Book Review: "The Number" By Lee Eisenberg

In this fantastic piece, Lee Eisenberg tackles the most complex number known to anybody who can say “personal finance,” what do you need to retire? It’s a question whose answers bring about complex formulas that go way beyond the numbers. Lee spends a lot of time assessing how retirement has been viewed through the ages of our modern world, most notably in a pre and post social (in)security America.

Now while I completely disagree that there are any kinds of “good debt,” Lee’s assessments and conclusions on what retirement should mean to the individual is entirely spot on. I also found Lee’s writing style to be personable, relatable and funny. He wrote a lot of the things that I think (especially about Suze Orman) and does a phenomenal job making the reader assess what they really want their retirement to be. No matter how close or far we are from “retirement,” thinking about it is without question the best first step you can take.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

My October Grocery Challenge: Week 5...THE FINALE!

In what will go down as a personal glorious achievement in frugality, for week 5 of my October grocery challenge I made it to Aldi, and man did I make it count. Without further adieu because I am so amped about this I’ll lay out the numbers. For the final week we spent $99.62, for an October month grocery expense total of $266.86, over $70 under budget! A 5 weekend month, we trimmed back on the budget and still came under, the nerd in me is exploding with excitement.

Which of course leads me to the next course of action. There have been some serious discussions in our household as a result of our October success. We are clearly over budgeting for grocery expenses, but should we take the step to cut the budget down to $300, I (the conservative) say no, my wife (the realist) says yes. So for November we decided “on paper” to have a budget of $300 and let the $70+ excess from October roll on forward, a win-win in my book.

The best lessons I learned from this month was proof that being flexible in buying fruit that is in season and under $1 a pound really works. This stigma and lie that I believed for so long, that eating healthy is way too expensive, is just plain ignorant. Strip away the stigmas and the truth  is that being intentional with my money is what matters. Yes I want to eat healthy, no I will not pay a premium to do it. Sure I could expand the grocery budget and run off to expensive Aldi’s I mean Trader Joe’s (ALDI OWNS TRADER JOE’S… LITERALLY…SERIOUSLY - LOOK IT UP!!) but in controlling costs, being flexible, and not buying into marketing myths, I stretch my dollars that much further. I have found that the key components are: buying what is in season, meal planning, avoiding impulse purchases, and utilizing what’s in the cupboard.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

My Public Transportation

            In still having many years to look forward to before reaching the monumental goal that this blog is tracing, I consider this to be one of the greatest feats achieved in my life: I have not owned or used a car as a mode of daily transportation for eight years. Now of course I have gone on the occasional vacation here and there and whenever I am visiting my home state of California I will book a rental. But for my day to day commute to work, and even dating back to college, this eight year stretch (and counting) is one of the talking points that I am most proud of. Yes I have been fortunate enough to live in places with excellent and reliable public transportation systems, and for that my monthly budget greatly appreciates not having had or continue to pay for car maintenance, gas fill-ups, parking garages at work, parking garages at home, nor stupid taxes to my local county government for registration, for the past 2,920 days. Yes eventually this streak will come to an end. But when it does I plan to pay cash for a used vehicle. Knowing my overall feelings toward all forms of debt, you can piece together that I disdain car notes and (being a Ramsey disciple) have found that car leases are the most expensive way to operate a vehicle. Nor will I ever purchase a new car. I have no interest whatsoever in putting money into an item that will drop 80% in value over a five year period. I mean, if you were to give me $10,000 to put into a savings account, but the only condition is that in five years the value would be $2,000 and the $8,000 simply disappears never to be seen again, I would promptly show you to the nearest exit. So why in the world would I be interested in owning a new car, even when I’m a millionaire?
            I know that I rag on the area of Southern California a lot (get used to it) but growing up there, I had extremely warped views of what wealth and success meant. On the topic of cars, especially in Los Angeles, it is basically your identity and representation of your social status. If you drove (and I won’t say owned because when you lease or carry a note you do not own it) the latest model car that resembled anything in the fast and the furious movie series, you felt like you were somebody, because people treated you like somebody. The “elite” social circles in LA have got superficiality down to a science and since I never reasoned for myself or found someone to teach me what wealth really meant, I left myself open to letting those goobers teach me about wealth, and it couldn’t be further from the truth of what wealth and financial security really are. I do not find my financial peace of mind nor success in any material possession, with the exception of my wedding ring (which symbolizes the greatest love of my life and looks like the ring from lord of the rings) I take no solace, comfort nor find support in any of the material possessions that I own. Growing up I allowed other people to dictate to me where real value comes from. And this path led me to desire, feel and need the approval and superficial commendations from others, never looking internally for my own approval of myself. Once I understood what real wealth and success meant, and began walking the same lines of those that had been there, I began to find the most incredible thing: self-worth. And this translated to just about everything else in my life. I found security and value in trading debt for 6 months expenses saved in the bank, and that led me to feel less pressure at work, and I actually enjoyed and continue to look forward to going to work. And the biggest driver of that is not carrying with me the stresses that go along with that popular children’s song, “I owe, I owe, so off to work I go.” So for now I will continue to roll on the el trains, knowing that my goals and dreams are good enough because I believe in them.