Staying Focused: Mini Rewards for Goal Milestones


Since I have been working very hard to pay off my debts, save for financial independence, and try to balance my life overall I find it difficult to stay focused some times. There is a constant mental battle between wants and savings that I am usually good at winning for savings.

I have found that the best solution is to give myself small rewards along the way. For example I just paid off my credit cards and as a reward to myself for that I spent a weekend in Denver, CO visiting my cousin while I was in the area for business. We went out, had a good time, and caught up on things. It was nice to relax a bit and take my mind off of work and money for a bit.

Now I am back on course. I have my vacation coming up in 10 days and have my finances sorted out so I can minimize surprises and issues while I am gone. I have money in my "fun account" so I can easily see where I stand at all times thru online banking while I am there. I can safely say my biggest worry over there should be where and what to eat that night and to remember to use bug repellent on the islands.

I find that I am not alone with the mini-reward system. We need motivation to sock away as much as we can per month "for later" and I think giving yourself a treat now and then does exactly that. You can say to yourself: "When I pay this off I can finally go for a weekend trip in Vegas to celebrate" for example. As the goals get bigger so do the "carrots" that we get to have. My next milestone, yet to be determined, will include some sort of travel that I always wanted to do. I am looking at the World Cup 2014 in Brazil. If I have my student loans paid off by then I will go!

Yet Even More Work Travel!!!


Things are really heating up on the work travel front right before I leave!

I just booked a trip that covers the entire state of Maryland in 3 days. Once I return I only have 2 days before I depart to Asia. This makes me happy as I can clock in some more miles to beef up my account balance and contribute to my elite status for next year. This will make a total of 8 flights in 2 weeks. That is probably the busiest travel month I have had to date for work.

This will also make me appreciate my vacation time more and give me more miles to use next year. I hit my AMEX's bonus threshold and am nearing 200,000 redeemable miles. The per diems I get for travel also give me a little more fun money that I can use while I am in Asia as well. As a result I am looking into visiting a second paradise beach island while I am there.

I do love spending time "Up in the air" as we like to say at the office.

101 Goals in 1001 Days Update


I have another update! I have been busy this month and was able to knock out a few more items on my 101 in 1001 list. It is a great feeling to check things off!

Here is what I have accomplished:

  • Visited a dentist (finally!)
  • Learned how to cook 5 new dishes
  • Got a fireproof safe
I am most happy about riding myself of credit card debt. I have a big feeling of relief. Best of all I did it before my month-long vacation in Asia in a few days! I can go to the beach and relax a little easier knowing I don't have those payments hanging over my head. This is a big list but I already feel like I am making real progress in many areas.

It's Official! I have paid off my last credit card!!!


Today marks a milestone for me. I have officially cleared all of my credit card debt. My last payment cleared my account today and I am now free of 3 payments! I have room in my budget to work towards other goals and of course more room to breathe. It has been a long process.

This is a big milestone for me. I have worked hard, sacrificed, and budgeted frugally to make this happen in (my opinion) record time! I used the debt snowball method of paying my lowest balance debt first then worked my way up to the largest balance. I did have the help of some bonuses, a home refinance, a reinstatement of salary, and successful ebay/craiglist sales to make this all happen. I admit I was in some hard times financially and mentally. It is all behind me now!

I am now reworking my monthly budget to utilize the extra cash flow effectively. I have increased my 401(k) contribution, restarted my automatic deposits to my emergency fund, and am looking into other options. Having money leftover every month is a great problem to have. Now is the time to get it put to work for me!

Weekly Blog Roundup


This is a series where I link to my favorite blog posts from the financial blogs that I follow and read directly. These are the articles I found particularly useful or good in some way. I hope you enjoy my choices and learn something too!

Week of 10/18/2010:
  • Dave Ramsey Debt Snowball Payoff Strategy @ Bargaineering. Jim wrote up a good post on the debt snowball strategy, which I used myself, to pay off debts.
  • Why NOW is the Time to Think Long Term @ Get Rich Slowly. This guest post encompasses exactly what I think all of the people who "live for today" with no forward looking goals should embrace.
  • 20 Favorite Dirt Cheap Meals @ The Simple Dollar. This is a great quick list of cheap, easy, and delicious meals that can fit just about anyone's budget. I have done a few of these myself!
These are my favorites for the last week. Feel free to comment and share some others that I may have missed or not even know about. Have a great week! 

Buying Stuff: My Newly Refined Mental Process!


We all buy a lot of stuff. From food and clothes to iPhones and cars. With the relentless and extremely overwhelming marketing these days it's no wonder why most people don't have a savings account at all in this country. Rants aside, I have refined my process for how I decide if I want to buy something or not. This doesn't apply to everything but works in most situations I face.

Steps in my buying process:

  • Why am I buying this item?
  • Is this a need or want? (Needs get priority)
  • Is their an item I can sell/trash/donate for it to replace (my anti-clutter tactic: something must go for new to come in!)
  • Do I have the money available to spend? (and can I used a gift card I have to cover it?)
  • Are there alternatives? What do they cost and are the rated better?
  • Does buying this item interfere with other goals or needs?
  • Does buying this item reduce costs somewhere else?
  • For wants: I put on a 30 day calendar reminder to revisit if I still want it. This gives me time to fairly evaluate and budget if need be.
  • Do I still want/need the item? Y/N
  • If above is "Y" then buy item from cheapest vendor (usually online!)
As you can see I put myself through multiple ways to say "No" before buying stuff. I am forced to reduce clutter and check my budget before running out and buying something. I also bargain shop and examine alternatives. This will block a lot of my impulses. The 30 day wait is also very good. I have yet to buy something on the 30 day wait list!

International Travel: Eliminate ATM and Foreign Transaction fees!


I really wish I found this last year for my vacation Thailand!!!

While doing some research online I stumbled across Charles Schwab. They offer a "side-by-side" interest checking and brokerage account with $0 minimum and $0 maintenance fees. I looked at all the benefits, made a call to Schwab, and confirmed that they reimburse and unlimited amount of ATM fees (monthly) from any ATM worldwide. On top they do not charge the 3% foreign exchange fee that is very common these days in the USA.

I am going to try this out myself while I am away. I will be going through South Korea briefly and into Cambodia. Research tells me that Cambodia now charges a $4 ATM winthdrawal fee for all foreign cards. After some quick and dirty math I should save roughly $30 in fees by using the Schwab account. They also offer free basic checks too boot!

If this works out well Schwab may get a lot more of my business. Their mutual funds offer good expense ratios on the index funds and $0 transaction fees to trade their mutual funds or their ETF's. This has come a long way from the old Schwab that used to charge a lot more. I think they realized discount is what people ultimately want. This works out for all!

If you have any planned trips I strongly suggest looking into using Schwab while you are away. The fee savings alone can really pay off. They offer a lot of other great services for investing and are much more competitive these days. Being able to use margin as overdraft ($0 fees there too!) and instantly transfer between brokerage and checking are 2 features I really like. Have a look for yourself:

Even More Work Travel: Buffalo, NY!


Every time I go on vacation it seems like an avalanche of work at the office. We went from a more or less dead summer of doing next to nothing to scrambling beginning late September! I am now scheduled and booked for a same day turnaround in Buffalo, NY on October 27. Another new place to pin on the map!

This short trip will be for a brief visit with a client to include lunch. I certainly will enjoy the travel and earning the miles associated. This will be my last work trip before Asia unless something dire comes up. With all this busy-ness I am looking forward to "boring beach time"!

I am headed back home this evening from Detroit and off to Denver tomorrow morning. This is what I get for complaining about too little work travel. Now it's endless! (yay!).

Travel Week: Detroit, MI & Colorado Springs/Denver, CO!


This week is a busy travel week for me!

I will be spending Oct 19 and 20 in Detroit for work. I stay one night at home the fly to Colorado on Oct 21 and stay through Oct 24 helping a friend get a house ready to sell. I have never been to Colorado before so I can check off another state and see my cousin who lives in Denver for a bit. Double win!

These flights will more than solidify my Silver Medallion status for 2011 with Delta!

After this I will be back home for a couple weeks before I am off to Asia for my month-long adventure! It is nice to have some road time again after a long and dismal summer of almost no travel here at work. It has put me behind on my mileage target but such is life. I just have to travel more on my own to make up the ground (yay)!

Weekly Blog Roundup


This is a series where I link to my favorite blog posts from the financial blogs that I follow and read directly. These are the articles I found particularly useful or good in some way. I hope you enjoy my choices and learn something too!

Week of 10/11/2010:
These are my favorites for the last week. Feel free to comment and share some others that I may have missed or not even know about. Have a great week! 

October 2010 Prosper Lending Update


It is the middle of the month again and it is time for my update on lending. It has been a relatively quiet month with business as usual. I still have 1 very late loan and 2 have paid off completely. I have one open bid at this time on a group member's loan.

I am no longer bidding on prosper loans unless they come from my lending group. I am drawing down my account for now. I "write off" all loans in collections as a loss.

Here are my stats as of today:

Outstanding Loans: 35

Late: 1 (< 30 days)
In Collections: 1 (written off)
Current: 33

Closed Loans:

Charged Off: 9
Paid Off: 20

Open Bids: 1

Total currently invested: $803.36 (Principal Value)
Cash in Account: $80.73 (includes open bids)

Total Principal: $884.09

End of Year Tax Planning: Start Now!


We are almost halfway done with October! That means we have a couple months left to make our year end tax moves. I always like to have a look at my income for the year, project what I will be earning for the rest of the year, and make moves accordingly. Luckily I am on salary so this is relatively simple.

This is the time of year when I take a good look at everything. I project what my tax refund or liability will be and use that to form a plan. I decide how much to donate, what stocks to sell and keep (if any), what to contribute to my retirement accounts over and above my normal contributions, and so on. All of these have an impact on my tax bill.

I also use this time to go through my stuff. The holidays are coming up so I start to dig through my things. I can donate food and clothes to those who really need it. I look through my stuff for anything I can sell or use as a gift (one less to buy!). I do a thorough cleaning of my closest to reduce my clutter. I am in a never ending battle against stuff and this helps out the cause!

I also do a little searching online for extra tax credits. I want to get all the credits available that I can to reduce my tax bill. The rules and credits change all the time so it is good to knock out a few housekeeping items to be sure you get the most out of your 1040. Examples: Energy efficient credits, healthcare itemized deduction threshold, healthcare spending accounts, etc.

My final and arguably most important item on the list is to make a list! The list includes:

  • Projection of tax refund or amount owed.
  • To Do list of donations, selling, investing, etc.
  • Cleaning and paring down of my stuff.
  • List of all tax forms that I will need to file my return (1098's, 1099's, W2's, etc).
  • My intentions of how to use a tax refund (if any). 
Tax Planning does not have to be just numbers, calculators, and hard decisions.  Doing this bit of work now saves scrambling later, missed opportunities, and added stress during the holiday season. You don't want to be worrying about selling stocks or making donations at the dinner table with extended family. Save yourself some grief and get to work now!

Cutting your bills: What I did to get my monthly costs down!


In light of a very financially good 3rd quarter for me personally I am posting this small success story about myself. Even though I cut a lot of bills over the years I found that there is still room to move. I am willing to bet that you can find some places to cut back even more! Here are some examples of what I have done recently to reduce costs:

  • Cable Internet -- I don't have cable TV just internet access. I called equipped with a price from AT&T for DSL and got my rate dropped $15/month for 1 year with Comcast ($180 saved!).
  • iPhone Plan -- AT&T has a handy, somewhat hard to find chart on your data plan usage on their website. I had a look and based on where I spend the majority of my time (work and home) I have wifi and do not need a big data plan. I am downgrading to the lowest plan to save $15/month (another $180 saved!)
  • Mortgage Refinance -- I just refinanced my house to roll in my line of credit used for repairs and my old 6% first mortgage. I now have it all locked in at 4.5% for 30 years. I freed up $200 per month that I can use for retirement, other debt payments, health insurance, and more!
  • Homeowners Insurance -- I shopped around after I closed on my refinance. I saved another $250 per year by switching. This was easy to do and took a couple hours.
  • Oil Changes -- I normally do these myself but I found some coupons on where I can get it done, along with some other extras, for less than the cost of the oil alone! I have used 2 of the coupons and have 1 left.
As you can see all of the above are small changes that add up to a lot over time. I now have a much better monthly cash flow and I can add the extra money to my debt snowball. All of this began with comparison shopping for services and asking myself: "Do I really need _________?". I now have a habit of searching for deals, coupons, and alternatives if I need a product or service.

    Craigslist: A short success story

    0 comments has gotten a lot of good and a lot of bad press. Being a completely open, unregulated advertising and buy/sell classified ads site has it's drawbacks and it's advantages. In my personal experience I have had mixed experiences but largely a successful endeavor.

    This past weekend I sold a stove on craigslist. I listed it almost 3 weeks before hand and got a few responses. Some didn't write back a second time and others changed their minds. I finally got a nice lady truly interested in the stove and she came with family to pick it up Sunday. That put me $350 ahead!

    Before this past weekend I had success selling and iPod touch that I got as gift. I didn't really want or need it and decided to try local to avoid ebay fees and shipping hassles. It worked out well and I sold to a guy who really wanted it at a fair price. We both won!

    I also would like to add that my current job of 3+ years I landed off of craigslist in 2007. In fact when I was job searching in 2007 I had 2 job offers and they were both from craigslist. I never got any other offers or even contact from any of the other job sites I used.

    The downside of craigslist is the hordes of scammers, cheapskates, and all out spam that comes with being an open site. It is pretty easy to see and filter out most of the junk. I usually stick to the job boards and classifieds to sell stuff every now and then. It also happens to be a good place to find focus groups if you live in a large metro area. The best rule for craigslist applies to everything: If it sounds to good to be true then it probably is.

    Weekly Blog Roundup


    This is a series where I link to my favorite blog posts from the financial blogs that I follow and read directly. These are the articles I found particularly useful or good in some way. I hope you enjoy my choices and learn something too!

    Week of 10/4/2010:
    • Commission Denies Postage Rate Hike Request by Post Office @ Bargaineering. Jim shares a great story that the US Postal Service was denied a request to raise rates yet again. Now if we can just get someone in there to streamline that mess that they made...
    • Bargain Shopping Gone Berserk! @ Get Rich Slowly. JD did a nice write up on when you can take bargain shopping too far. I have written about bargains I find but it is only a bargain if you need it and it is at a discount!
    • What Does "Financial Independence" Really Mean? @ The Simple Dollar. Trent wrote an awesome definition of what financial independence is. I have touched on it here and this is a great big picture article on the subject.
    These are my favorites for the last week. Feel free to comment and share some others that I may have missed or not even know about. Have a great week! 

    More Travel!: Denver & Colorado Springs, CO


    I have some more travel on the horizon before I leave for Asia. I am doing a mixed work/fun trip out to Colorado Springs to help a co-worker get a house ready for sale. It needs some cleaning and organizing so it can be sold to a new owner. I will also visit with my cousin who lives in Denver as an added bonus.

    I have never been to Colorado before so it will be a new place to add to my list. The flight was reasonable and I got a rental car for a whopping $3.49 per day! I have always heard of the crazy rental car deals like this but this is the first time I actually found and was able to take advantage of one!

    The business end of this trip is that when the house sells I will earn some money. I am OK with this arrangement as I am fronting all the costs of my travel expenses and my time to do the work that needs to get done. This will work out well for me and give me a nice boost financially. It is a triple win: I get money, I get to travel, and I am helping out a friend in need.

    I will be in Colorado from Oct 21 to Oct 24.

    Travel Abroad: The pre-departure checklist


    As I travel abroad for vacation as much as possible I have formed a checklist over the years so that all loose ends are tied up before I go. I want to limit surprises on the road and reduce my unexpected expenses as much as I can. This is done with a little planning and forethought. A little work now saves a lot of hassle later.

    Packing for the trip:

    • Create a packing list and pack the items in it.
    • Repack the bag and with each item ask yourself: Do I REALLY need this for this trip?
    • Put away removed items and weigh your bag. You have to carry this heavy thing around!
    • Check your packed bag for and tears, broken zippers, and other problems.
    • If you have time live solely out of the bag for a couple days. Do you have everything you need?
    • Make sure everything is fully charged up if it has rechargeable batteries. Pack all chargers.
    Housekeeping Items:
    • Set up scheduled payments for all bills that come due while you are gone.
    • Day of departure: Unplug everything that does not need to be on while gone
    • Get $100 in emergency cash that can be exchanged locally if needed
    • Clean the house. No one wants to come home to a wrecked house after 20 hours in transit.
    • Use up perishable foods. Stop going grocery shopping a couple weeks before you leave. Eat up what you have first!
    • Give a key to a trusted friend or family member to check up on things while you are out.
    • Take care of any pet boarding (if applicable)
    • Call all associated banks that handle all credit and debit cards you intend to use abroad and inform them of your trip location and dates. Don't get cut off because of "fraud"!
    This list can save you lots of hassle both at home and on the road. I found that by following it I can reduce my overall stress before, during, and after my trips.The idea is to enjoy your vacation and not have to worry about stuff back home. That is why we travel in the first place!

    Getting started with retirement investing


    I find that the biggest barrier for saving for retirement is that most people do not know where to start. People tend to get confused by paperwork, minimum investment, tax laws, what to invest in, etc. The main thing to do is to take the first step and get started. What to invest in can come later but simply putting the money aside each month or each pay period is the crucial first step.

    The best option is to start with an employer sponsored plan. This can be a 401(k), SIMPLE IRA, or some other similar plan. Most of the time you fill out paperwork and the savings is deducted directly from your pay. This makes it easy for you as the money never hits your checking account. You can start by putting the money in a money market fund while you learn more about the other investment choices and can make an educated decision on what to invest in.

    If your employer does not have or you are not eligible for the plan you need to venture out on your own. A Roth IRA is the best choice as all the money grows tax free. A lot of brokerages and mutual fund companies have a set minimum, usually $500 or $1000 to get started. A lot offer $0 minimum if you commit to a set monthly amount to automatically transfer in. I always suggest Vanguard as they offer low fees on accounts and have a good selection of funds to fit most peoples' needs.

    If you are venturing on your own and need to meet a certain minimum start by transferring a set amount each month or each paycheck to a savings account. When you hit the minimum target open the account and make the transfers go there instead. Automating your savings will make sure you get it done and that it happens without temptation to spend the money elsewhere. While you are saving up for the minimum do your research and be sure what you want to invest your money in that fits your tolerance for risk and goals.

    The time is now to stop with the excuses and save for retirement. The sooner the better. Time is in your favor when saving for retirement if you start early enough. Social Security should not be considered at all when calculating how much you need to retire. The system is mathematically upside down now and will only get worse. Benefits will shrink and starting age will get older and older. If you do end up with a some social security money then you have extra. Pretend like what money you have will be all you will ever have and you will be covered!

    What's in my portfolio?


    Disclaimer: This is what my portfolio consists of and this is not investment advice. You should make your own educated decisions before investing you money in any way.

    I realized that I talked a little bit about investing but never really divulged how I actually invest my retirement money. I am currently very passive about my investing. I will represent all of my portfolio in percentages to give a broad, easy-to-read picture. Luckily in my case it is simple!

    I currently have 3 investment accounts: Taxable Brokerage, Roth IRA, and SIMPLE IRA (my work's 401 (k)-like plan). The majority lives in the SIMPLE IRA and all previous investments were rolled over and converted to my Roth as they were relatively small.

    Portfolio Breakdown:

    • Cash (Money Market): 0.19%
    • GE (General Electric): 1.16%
    • HYF (High Yield Bond Fund): 13.01%
    • RIT (Real Estate Income Fund): 1.00%
    • IWO (iShares Russell 2000 Growth): 2.43%
    • IWN (iShares Russell 2000 Value): 3.26%
    • IWF (iShares Russell 1000 Growth): 3.92%
    • IWD (iShares Russell 1000 Value): 3.23%
    • EFA (iShares MSCI EAFE Index): 3.02%
    • EEM (iShares Emerging Markets Index): 7.08%
    • VFIFX (Vanguard 2050 Retirement Fund): 61.70%
    As you can see over half of my portfolio is in my company plan. I have been here 3 years and the 3%/100% matching contribution has really added up. My second largest holding is HYF which pays a large dividend that I reinvest. I hold GE with my "play" investing money and is a very small position that I set for dividend reinvestment. All other holders in my Roth. I diversified what little I had with iShares since I did not have enough at the time to buy into a single mutual fund. I will simply hold these until I retire or find a better alternative.

    I am definitely taking the "lazy man's" approach here as I am focusing on debt elimination and don't have a lot of time to seek out the absolute best investment mix at this time. I am happy with the mix I currently have and will stick with it until I start more heavily contributing. All my investments are currently in the positive and I plan to keep going!

    Weekly Blog Roundup


    This is a series where I link to my favorite blog posts from the financial blogs that I follow and read directly. These are the articles I found particularly useful or good in some way. I hope you enjoy my choices and learn something too!

    Week of 9/27/2010:
    • New 2011 From 1099-K @ Bargaineering. Sell stuff on eBay? This new form is how the government keeps track of what you sell. Good to know! See post link for details.
    • Re-Thinking Retirement: Beyond Conventional Wisdom @ Get Rich Slowly. JD wrote a great post on what retirement really means and how to plan for it. Retirement is more than investments!
    • Vocation, Career, and Job @ The Simple Dollar. Trent does a great job of explaining what each words means. Which one applies to your situation?
    These are my favorites for the last week. Feel free to comment and share some others that I may have missed or not even know about. Have a great week! 

    October 2010 Net Worth Update


    It is the 1st of the month again and it is time for my net worth report card. I had a negative month this month but I am OK with that since I had an astounding month in August.

    As of today my current net worth is ($2,387.60). That is an decrease of ($1,312.67) over last month. The major contributing factors were expenses due to closing costs, a few planned purchases, and slightly increased spending in entertainment.

    I expect next month to be a better month. I have more work travel plans and no more big financial changes on the horizon. I will remain focused on debt elimination and increasing my income in any way I can!

    Alternative Income this month:

    IT Consulting: $30
    New Rent!: $400