We need cheap meals.


Oh my goodness. I about had a heart attack as I looked at the categorical spending of our May monthly expenses. Mint told me we had spent $1,095 on “food and dining” last month. Are you fricken kidding me? Four figures worth of food went in to our body? I punched a baby unicorn in the face I was so angry.

But then, on closer inspection, I noticed Mint is just a crappy free budgeting tool that was duplicating a ton of my BoA credit card charges. After spending 15 minutes going through and reviewing every transaction (and marking the duplicates) we managed to get a better understanding of the damage…

Total spent on food last month: $795. 

Holy Frijoles. That just isn’t going to cut it in the Ninja household. That is entirely too much money going to one category. In San Diego, we budgeted around $400ish a month on food and seemed to do just fine, but ever since we made the move to the Pacific Northwest, we’ve struggled to stay under $500. What gives? 

As you can see, we spend a TON at the grocery store. Almost $500 last month alone. There is really only one explanation for this. We buy a lot of freakin’ groceries. These high school kids are going to bleed us dry. We’ve been entertaining like crazy having the high school kids over for game nights and bible studies, as well as hosting a few other Youth Group leaders for business-y type dinners. That crap adds up quick and we spent way too much playing host.

All the other food categories were relatively manageable. I should note that “fast food” does not mean McDonalds and Burger King, but places like Subway, Frozen Yogurt, and Teriyaki. Contrary to what you might think, I’m not pounding 43 McChickens each month.

We did great on restaurant spending, considering Girl Ninja went to a $96 bachelorette party dinner one night. Ignore that one freak of nature expense, and our total restaurant tab was only about $135, which is well below average for us.

Long story short. I want to get our grocery budget WAAAAAAAY down this month. We decided we are going to try to incorporate, at minimum, one “cheap” meal per week in our meal schedule. Last Friday that meant breakfast for dinner. I made us scrambled eggs and she made us waffles from scratch. This week we are having pasta with no meat in it (typically we put like chicken sausage in it). Next week is to be determined.

I would love you all forever if you would drop us some of your FAVORITE CHEAP MEALS that don’t suck but DO use relatively common ingredients (don’t want to have to spend $10 on some random spice I wont use for any other meal).

How do you keep your food budget low, when costs start creeping up?

Oh and I know Top Ramen and Macaroni and Cheese are cheap, but we aren’t really interested in eating cardboard, so hook us up with something with at least a hint of nutritional value.

Twenty-two and frustrated.

Got an email yesterday from a PDITF reader (let’s call them Reader X) looking for ways to rid themselves of the paycheck to paycheck lifestyle. The email was much longer than the excerpt below, but I think you’ll get the gist…

First of all, let me say that I adore you and your approach to life. I read your blog with a sense of wistful jealousy and optimism that I too, some day, could have 76k in savings. That number is outrageous to me.

Whenever I read your blog, and other financial blogs, I understand they cater to people who are more… oh I don’t know… established with their jobs. People who could put $500 in savings a month with lifestyle tweaks and frugal changes. The point is, for my age, my salary is commensurate with experience. Meaning, I do not make enough money to have an “aggressive” savings plan like you and others. In fact, I am lucky if I have any money left over to save after my basic living expenses.

Do you have advice for your upstarts like me who are living on the exact amount of money they need to survive? Honestly, I feel terrible about myself because I am just treading water financially. I worry that something catastrophic will happen and my little $800 savings account wont suffice.

Before I get on with helpful advice, I have to rant for just a second and say I take issue with this line in Reader X’s email:

“Whenever I read your blog, and other financial blogs, I understand they cater to people who are more… oh I don’t know… established with their jobs.” 

If my blog is catered towards people who are “more established with their jobs” then I have failed miserably. I’m 26 years old. I am by no means established, and I really have no street cred to preach financial wisdom to those that are. I would hope by naming my blog Punch Debt In The Face I am sending the clear message that this IS NOT a place for the “good ol boys”, but regular, everyday folks, who want nothing more than to see a stupid stick figure drawing, and maybe hear a little bit about what I have to say on the topic of personal finance. Moral of the story: I am the 99% 🙂

I really like Reader X’s perspective on his/her situation. Particularly this line “my salary is commensurate with experience”. There is no entitlement in that statement. Reader X also shared in the email they are living frugally, so typical advice like “find cheaper rent, or cut out your cable bill” doesn’t really apply.

So how does one increase savings, if they don’t have the ability to increase their income at work and they can not really decrease their already low expenses? You don’t. BOOM! How’s that for blunt personal finance?

Don’t be discouraged by this, Reader X. You are only 22 years old and have the rest of your life to pad that savings account. When I was 22, I was making $38,000/year, had $28,000 of student loan debt, and about $600 in my checking account. You have to persevere this “paycheck to paycheck” season as it is just that, a SEASON, a temporary stage of life. As you gain more professional experience, you will be able to market yourself better, which in turn should/could lead to promotions or a new (higher paying) job.

I didn’t go from negative $28,000 to $75k in the bank overnight. It took me YEARS to get to where I am, and it will probably take you a while to get there as well. Instead of feeling terrible for “treading financial waters”, be encouraged that you are not DROWNING like most other twenty somethings. You, my friend, are doing exactly what you need to be doing to set yourself up for success. Work hard. Keep your costs low. Save any discretionary income you can. And smile. This is an exciting, albeit scary, stage of life.

p.s. often recommended ways to increase income are 1) Start a blog (I made $13,000 from this one last year). 2) Tutor (I made $12,000 in 2009 doing this). 3) Find a second job (serving at restaurants, or delivering pizza, is flexible with most day jobs) 4) Be content. One through three all require more of your time, if you don’t want to give up free time, you have to be content with what you have. No one is just going to randomly walk up to you and pay you $2,000 a month to watch TV. Oh, you could always get married. Dual income ROCKS!!!!

 

Losing money like a boss.

Two thousand eleven was a great year for Punch Debt In The Face. I broke all sorts of traffic records, was fortunate enough to be featured in some pretty stellar articles, and was even able to turn $100 of expenses in to a $13,000 business. Not a bad return on investment eh?

This year, however, it appears as though I will be yet again, setting another record. Unfortunately, it’s not a record I necessarily want to set. I don’t know if it’s just my blog or what, but it seems advertising opportunities have pretty much dried up over the last two or three months. January and February started out strong, but since then things have taken a sharp decline. Google did some serious algorithm tweaking and instead of companies asking to advertise with me, they were requesting that I remove the ads they had already paid for (note to people who care, my PageRank actually went up during the recent change). Legitimate ad deals are few and far between now. It seems like the only opportunities I’m being pitched are crappy guest post submissions from people I’ve never heard of.

And that my friends brings us to today’s lesson: You need to diversify your income. This can all be broken down by an uber simple math formula I worked up last night…

You see how that works? The more income streams you have, the less devastating a loss of one income is. Last year, Girl Ninja and I were rocking Triple Income No Kid status, this year, looks like we will have to settle for being DINKs.

“But Ninja, I only have the ability to work one job, and I don’t have a significant other to support me through tougher times.” So the heck what! You ever heard of an Emergency fund? That straight up works like a second source of income in the event you get canned. Booya grandma, problem solved!

We hear people say all the time, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” I’ll take it a step further, “Don’t settle on having just one egg.”

How diversified is your income? If you lost your job, how long could you get by without that income? For my fellow bloggers, have your advertisement opportunities been as limited as mine recently?  

 

Why?

If you’re like me you have a goal to accumulate some pretty substantial wealth. I had a goal to accumulate $6,000,000 over the course of my lifetime. While that goal is lofty, I don’t think it was completely unreasonable. One thing I never did, however, was ask myself why? Why did I need Six Million Dollars?

Truth is, I didn’t need it. I actually didn’t even plan for it. It just kinda happened. I plugged some numbers in to a Roth IRA and 401K calculator, made some estimations for my investments performance, and BAM there it was, six million. While I don’t know if I will actually reach that number, it’s not unreasonable to predict I will have at least a few million to my name when the Grim Reaper pays me a visit.

It’s one thing to plan on being wealthy, but it’s a whole different ballgame when it comes to figuring out what to do with that wealth.

So I asked myself “What am I getting rich for?” Is it so I can buy a $50,000 car every five years? Or so I can have a second house in the mountains when ski season approaches? Or better yet, maybe it’s so I can afford the $30,000 membership fee at the local country club I’ll never play golf at?

Of course I plan to enjoy my later years. I’ll probably take some pretty SWEET vacations, maybe I’ll buy a few man toys (jet ski, snowmobile, or a pet shark), and I’ll definitely upgrade my closet with all Tommy Bahama gear (side note: I love Tommy Bahama, but feel too young to wear it yet). But let me be clear. These are not the reasons I’m accumulating wealth.

When I die, how many people are going to remember how many jet skis I had? Answer: No one! What they will remember is that I donated $100,000 to a Young Life camp. That I paid for my children’s, grandchildren’s, and great grandchildren’s college tuition. That I pulled a “Bill Gates” and donated a ridiculously sizable portion of my net worth to some noble cause or charity. Those are the things that make being wealthy great!

Just to make sure I’m being completely clear, I really only have two purposes for accumulating wealth and they are…

1) To ensure my family is taken care of

2) To give a crap load of that wealth away

Thornton Wilder said it best…

Money is like manure; it’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around.

So I ask you, what are you getting rich for? What great (or not so great) things do you want to do with your money?

Changing things up.

So Girl Ninja and I established a rule that we will live on my income and save hers. Since she wants to stay at home with our future kiddos (at least until they start grade school), we figure it’s easiest to pretend her income just doesn’t exist. That way, when it goes away, we wont miss it. You can’t miss what you haven’t had, right?

Currently, both of our paychecks are direct deposited in to our primary checking account each pay period. Throughout the month, I will login to our various accounts and pay our bills (most of which are paid out of our checking account). As the end of the month draws near, I’ll take whatever is left in our checking account and throw it in to our savings. Nine times out of ten, this amount is equal to, or greater than, Girl Ninja’s income for that month. Kudos to us, for following our rules. 

BUT….

I have to admit, we are kinda breaking one of the most important PF rules known to man. If you paid attention to what I just wrote, you’ll notice we are paying ourselves last, after all the bills have been paid. This has worked fine for us in the short-term, but probably isn’t the wisest long-term solution.

We’ve decided it’s time to be much more proactive in practicing what we preach. Upon our return to Seattle, Girl Ninja will set up a new direct deposit with her school. Instead of her income going in to our checking account (only to be moved to savings a few weeks later), all of her income will go straight to our savings account, as though it’s never existed.

This forces us to be much more aware of our spending patterns. Without Girl Ninja’s income padding our checking account each month, we might realize just how difficult it is managing money on one person’s income.

I don’t imagine much will change since we already have relatively frugal spending habits, but at the very least this forces our behavior to be more consistent with our stated goals: Paying ourselves first and TRULY living on my income. 

How many of you do (or plan to) live on one income if/when children come in to the picture? Do you REALLY pay yourself first, or like us “pay yourself first” at the end of the month?

Favorite Nail: It doesn’t matter how old…

Yo bank

It’s time for a Thursday throwback. I’ve been enjoying the heck out of this little vacation and haven’t had much time in front of the computer. I’ll whip up a tasty little treat for ya tonight, so you get something fresh for Friday, but today I thought you might enjoy this post I did one year ago titled “Why do you bank with who you bank with?”

I opened up my first checking/savings account with Washington Mutual when I was 16. I loved WaMu and was not happy when Chase acquired them a couple of years ago. I was a die-hard WaMu fan, but had absolutely no loyalties to Chase, especially once they tried changing the terms of my checking account requirements. As my good friend Snoop Dogg would say “I dropped them like they’re hot.”

I’m kind of an account whore as Girl Ninja and I have a Credit Card with Bank of America, a Credit Card with Chase, a Checking/Savings account with Wells Fargo, and a Savings account with ING Direct. Needless to say, we get around 🙂

When I think about all of the different financial institutions I’ve banked with over the years, few have really impressed me. ING and Wells, however, have been pretty awesome.

ING is the Coolest. Bank. Ever. No joke. They’re hilarious. They have clever marketing campaigns and are always challenging their customers to save. In fact, one of their slogans is “‘No ones ever had savers remorse.”  They offer a competitive APY for their online savings account and are very customer friendly. I’ve used them for my primary savings account for a little over two years and couldn’t be happier.

I’ve had my Roth IRA through Wells Fargo since 2007, but didn’t open a checking account with them until 2010. While I wouldn’t necessarily say Wells is great for everyone, they DO offer a Portfolio Management Account  (PMA) to customers that meet certain minimum requirements. If you are able to qualify for a PMA account, I challenge you to find a bank that offers something better. 100 commission free online trades, no brokerage account annual fee, interest bearing checking, free ATM withdrawals (from other banks too), free checking, free saving, unlimited free custom checks, personalized debit cards. The list goes on and on. I switched from Chase to Wells and couldn’t be happier.

All right so now that I’ve shared why I love ING and Wells, it’s your turn to share who you bank with and why you love them. If you are a creature of habit and only bank with your bank because you have been with them for “X” years, maybe it’s time you start looking for something new. Life’s too short to have a mediocre bank.

(sorry for me extreme lameness as of late).

Consciously choosing to underearn

If you’re anything like me you often set goals for yourself. With respect to personal finance, these goals are often directly or indirectly related to how much one makes. If you have a goal to pay down debt, you have to base your pay down rate around how much discretionary income you have. If you are looking to buy a house, you typically make sure your mortgage payment is no more than XX% of your take home pay. There’s no denying our incomes are crucial pieces of the game that is personal finance.

So what if I told you Girl Ninja and I are intentionally falling short of our maximum income potential? Some might think that’s crazy, but I suspect those that really think about it will admit, they too are guilty of under-achieving.

Here are two ways the Ninja household is saying “thanks, but no thanks” to more money.

Girl Ninja’s Job:

She taught public school in San Diego last year and her contract paid $40,000/year. Last year sucked major vacuum (see what I did there?). She was worn down emotionally and physically which in turn put unnecessary stress on our marriage. So when we made the move to Seattle, we had a few decisions to make. Does she look for a public school contract, a private school contract, or go back to substituting? Ultimately, we decided she should give private school a shot and see if her overall work/life balance would improve. It has 🙂 She makes $11,000 less this year than last, but she is at least $20,00/yr happier. I’ll take that trade any day of the week.

This Blog:

So I mentioned yesterday I made $13,000 last year from PDITF. Many of you are like “Holy cow, you mean you get paid to write this garbage?” Not exactly, it’s more like I write this garbage regardless, and sometimes people give me their monies. I love their monies.

Thirteen G’s sounds like a lot of money to those that don’t understand how blogging works (from a business perspective), but let’s get real; It’s pennies compared to what many other PF bloggers make. You might not realize it but Get Rich Slowly, Bargaineering, The Simple Dollar, and Consumerism Commentary all sold for millions of dollars. Literally. (click link for reference)

(side note: there have been times I’ve wanted to write about how personal finance bloggers go about making major money on their blog, but am not sure if this is something that you care about since many of you are not bloggers yourself. Would love to hear from the non-blogging community as to whether this would interest you or make you want to stab your eyeballs out).

Suddenly $13,000 doesn’t seem like so much. If I was more disciplined (read: If I cared) I don’t imagine I would have much difficulty doubling my blog income in just a few months. There are all sorts of SEO tricks, ghost writers, ad networks, etc that I could use to make this thing more profitable. But frick, I spend about five hours a week on PDITF (an hour for each post) and at this point in my life, I have no desire to spend any more of my precious free time on it. Not even if it means I could make more.

So yeah, money is cool and all, and I’m sure if our income wasn’t as generous as it is right now we’d focus our attention on making more. But in this current phase of life we are chilling out maxing, relaxing all cool, shooting some b-ball outside of the school (fresh prince of bel-air reference). Translation: we are content with our current position.

We have zero desire to work harder just to make another dollar. Money can buy me more stuff, but it can’t buy me more time.

So reader, are you maximizing your earning potential? If not, how much more do you think you could make in 2012? Be reasonable not optimistic. What lead you to the decision to pass that money up?

p.s. I have no beef with people who are maximizing their potential, especially if it’s for life improvements like paying down debt, vacationing more, retiring earlier, blah blah blah.

p.p.s. I’m going to include a link at the end of each article from now on with my favorite “nail” that was recently posted to MANteresting… How to save a life if someone is choking.