Crackerjack Greenback Prudent Advice for a Prosperous Future

February 16, 2009

Cheap, Healthy Food: A Wholesome Meal for Under $1/Serving

Filed under: Budgeting,Frugal Recipes,Frugality,Saving Money — Paul Williams @ Crackerjack Greenback @ 4:00 am

       Do you want to eat healthier but you’re afraid it will be too expensive? I have three easy recipes you can combine to make a wholesome meal for less than $1 per serving. And it doesn’t taste like cardboard, either!

       These recipes come from the More-With-Less Cookbook, a collection of Mennonite recipes with a focus on affordable but nutritious meals. It’s also focused on moving away from processed foods and wisely using the world’s resources. I highly recommend you buy a copy if you don’t already have one. It’s a very affordable cookbook ($11.55 on Amazon) and a great value!

Middle Eastern Lentil Soup

Combine in soup kettle:

1 cup lentils
4 cups water
1/2 teaspoon cumin

Cook until the lentils are soft (about 30 minutes), adding water if needed to maintain a soup consistency.

Heat in skillet:

1 tablespoon olive oil

Add and sauté just until yellow:

1 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced

Blend in:

1 tablespoon flour

Cook for a few minutes. Then add the sautéed ingredients to lentils and bring to a boil. After the soup boils, remove from the heat and stir in:

2 tablespoons lemon juice
salt and pepper to taste

Tomato Chutney

Combine in a bowl:

2 cups chopped fresh or canned tomatoes (about two medium tomatoes)
1 medium onion, chopped
3 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
salt and pepper to taste

Garnish with fresh cilantro, if available.

Rice

I hope you already know how to make steamed rice… 🙂

Fix up about 5-6 servings (1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cups dry rice).

The Meal

       Serve the Middle Eastern Lentil Soup over rice and top with the Tomato Chutney. This should make about 5-6 servings. Total cost per serving? $0.80! (Assuming you drink water, of course.) You could probably add a vegetable for an additional $0.20-0.30 per serving. You can easily prepare and cook this meal in about 40 minutes. (Rice is easy, and you can fix the chutney while the lentils are boiling.)

The Nutrition

       Lentils are one of the healthiest foods you can eat. They’re high in fiber, folate, molybdenum, manganese, iron, and vitamins B1 and B6. They’ve also been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease. Serving lentils with rice ensures that you get the complementary proteins you need to match the complete proteins available in meats. The lack of meat, however, means that this meal is very low in cholesterol.

Eating Healthy for Less

       I plan to share additional recipes that will provide you with healthy meals at an affordable price. While this isn’t a cooking blog, it is about saving money. Saving money on your food bill shouldn’t come at the expense of your health. These types of recipes help you save money and eat healthier. In general, if you want to eat healthier and save money, follow these tips (from the More-With-Less Cookbook):

   Eat More:

  • Whole Grains- rice, wheat, barley, rye, oats, corn, and millet
  • Legumes – dried beans, soybeans, dried peas, lentils, peanuts
  • Vegetables and Fruits – inexpensive, locally grown, in season or homegrown and preserved
  • Nuts and Seeds – inexpensive, locally grown or homegrown

   Use Carefully:

  • Eggs
  • Milk, Cheese, Yogurt
  • Seafood
  • Poultry
  • Meats

   Avoid:

  • Processed and Convenience Foods
  • Foods Shipped Long Distances
  • Foods Heavy in Refined Sugars and Saturated Fats

January 8, 2009

Simple Ways to Keep More of Your Money in 2009

Filed under: Budgeting,Insurance,Retirement Planning,Saving Money,Taxes — Paul Williams @ Crackerjack Greenback @ 4:00 am

This is a guest post from Trisha Wagner. Please take a minute to check out her bio at the end of this article.

       Did the state of the economy last year leave you wondering what 2009 might have in store for your finances? Are you, like the rest of the world, resolved to make some changes to keep more money safely in your pocket or at least your savings account this year? Here are a few simple, yet successful ways to cut your expenses and save more money in the months ahead.

  • File a new W-4 Form – Are you anticipating a tax refund for 2008? If so, it is time to adjust your withholding to match your tax liability. While it is a natural reaction to look forward to that “lump sum” payment from Uncle Sam, couldn’t you make better use of your money EACH month throughout the year? Locate a withholding calculator online to calculate the correct amount of withholding, and file a new W-4 today.
  • Bump up your retirement contributions – Don’t let the recent months deter you from continuing to contribute to your 401(k) or other tax favorable retirement accounts. 2009 brings increased limits for 401(k) contributions allowing up to $16,500 with an additional $5,500 permitted if you are or will be 50 or older by the end of the year. If you can’t or don’t want to contribute the maximum amount you should contribute at least enough to kick in the employer match.
  • Open an online savings account – With so many banking options available to you today, take a few moments and research the options available online. In some cases you can open a savings account with just $1 with no monthly fees or minimum balance requirements. While you are at it, set up a direct transfer from your checking account so that you don’t even have to “think” about saving money since it will be automatically deducted into your savings account. Remember, if you do an automatic transfer from your bank account you will need to mark the deductions accordingly to avoid mistakes that can lead to costly overdraft fees.
  • Raise your insurance deductibles – This tip is fairly straight forward—raise your deductibles on your auto and home owners insurance and see a reduction in your yearly premium putting money back in your pocket. [Paul says: This is a great tip, but make sure you have enough in savings to cover the increased deductible.]
  • Get a grip on your spending – If you still do not have a budget in place for your household finances, you really have to get on the ball to see savings in the new year. This advice has been told over and over again from all financial mediums, yet I’ve spoken to people who really don’t have any idea how much money they have or where it is going. You simply cannot cut costs if you don’t know where your dollars are going in the first place. Fortunately there are many online tools available that can calculate your spending for you making it easier to see where you can begin to cut back to save some cash.
  • Ditch your debt – This is great advice any time of year, but especially important during a rough economy. Credit card companies are tightening the reins on available credit and increasing the penalties for any transgression such as going over your credit limit or paying late. If you have previously faltered on your goal to reduce your debt now is the time to re-focus and implement an aggressive plan to get out of debt.

Trisha Wagner is a freelance writer for DestroyDebt.com, a debt community featuring debt forums. Trisha writes regularly on the topics of getting out of debt and personal finance.

December 6, 2008

Guest Post about Emergency Funds on No Credit Needed

Filed under: Budgeting,Frugality,Random Stuff,Saving Money,The Basics — Paul Williams @ Crackerjack Greenback @ 9:54 am

I have a guest post up today at No Credit Needed. Check it out!

The Emergency Fund To The Rescue!

December 5, 2008

Cable/Satellite TV Subscriptions Actually Cost Nearly $64,000!

Filed under: Budgeting,Consumerism,Contentment,Frugality,Saving Money,Spending,The Basics — Paul Williams @ Crackerjack Greenback @ 4:00 am

       Think it sounds ridiculous? Bear with me and I’ll explain how I came up with that number. This obviously isn’t the exact cost for every single person, but it probably isn’t far off. I didn’t include the cost of electricity, purchasing and replacing your television, or the cost of lost opportunities due to the hours wasted watching television. I’m also basing the cost on the amount I pay for satellite TV. Your actual costs may be higher or lower.

The Assumptions

       I assumed a cost of $40/month for the subscription. This is the cost of my basic satellite TV subscription. There’s a good chance most people pay more than this, so my estimate is probably conservative.

       I assumed you started your subscription at age 22 (when most people are out on their own) and you keep it until you die at age 80.

       I assumed an inflation rate of 3.8% and an investment rate of return of 8% (very reasonable over a 59 year time period).

The Results

Television by dailyinvention on Flickr       If you decide to give up your cable or satellite TV subscription and instead invest the money, you’d have over $577,000 at age 80. If we adjust for inflation, that $577,000 would be about $63,900 in today’s dollars (e.g., what costs you $63,900 today will cost you $577,000 in 59 years because of inflation).

       By age 65, you’d have an extra $177,700 because you gave up that cable/satellite TV subscription. This is the same as $34,300 in today’s dollars. That could mean retiring a year earlier! (depending on your income needs in retirement)

What About the Cost of Purchasing a TV?

       If you’re 22 and you decide to save $100 instead of purchasing a TV set, you’ll have an extra $2,955 by age 65—or $570 in today’s dollars. (While the price tag says $100, it’s really costing you $570 because you could have invested that $100.)

       If you save $500, that’s an extra $14,780 by age 65—over $2,850 in today’s dollars.

       If you save $1,000, you’ll have an extra $29,550 by age 65—more than $5,725 in today’s dollars! (That $1,000 big screen TV is really costing you $5,725.)

       And we haven’t even figured in the cost of lost opportunities because you watched so many episodes of Lost…

The $64,000 Question

       If Dish Network, DirectTV, or Comcast told you that subscribing to their service would really cost you $64,000, would you do it? Even with the first month free, I just don’t see how it’s worth it. 😉

       Add in the cost of purchasing a TV (and replacement TVs), the higher medical bills because you sat on your butt so much, and the other reasons you should stop watching TV and you’ll soon find that it’s just not worth it.

TV;        If you’re struggling to get by, TV should be one of the first things you cut. It’s a drain on your finances (a $64,000 drain!), wastes your time, and can get in the way of quality family time. Your time is better spent finding ways to increase your income, cut your expenses, and enjoy your life the way you want (instead of the way the TV tells you to enjoy it).

Disclaimer and Other Stuff

       Even though I know how much television costs, I have not given it up completely. However, I do watch a lot less than I used to and I’m amazed at how much more I can accomplish! Now I tend to only watch a couple shows on Discovery Channel. (I’m a science geek at heart.) I’ll watch in social situations as well, but overall I probably watch less than a couple hours a week on average.

       Not all TV is bad. Like I said, I like to watch Discovery Channel. Educational shows can be a good way to get some entertainment while expanding your mind at the same time. But most TV shows are an absolute waste of time—end of story.

November 26, 2008

Personal Finance in the Bible: Proverbs 21:20

Filed under: Budgeting,Frugality,Investing,Personal Finance in the Bible,Retirement Planning,Saving Money — Paul Williams @ Crackerjack Greenback @ 4:00 am

Bible with Cross Shadow by knowhimonline on Flickr       This week’s Personal Finance Bible Scripture comes from Proverbs 21:20.

   20 In the house of the wise are stores of choice food and oil,
       but a foolish man devours all he has.

Proverbs 21:20 (NIV)

       Same verse but in the New Living Translation:

   20 The wise have wealth and luxury,
       but fools spend whatever they get.

Proverbs 21:20 (NLT)

       I chose two translations this time because I think together they clearly tell us what this verse is saying. The wise save up some of their earnings, but fools spend everything they get.

       When talking about contentment and giving in the Bible, I’ve had people ask me if Christians should even save up money for emergencies or retirement. If we save, aren’t we relying on ourselves or our money instead of God? I think, as with many things, it really depends on the motives in our hearts.

       If we’re saving up because we don’t think God can provide or we don’t trust in God’s provision, then we’re obviously serving money and not God. But God clearly tells us several times in the Bible that the wise save up some of their money. The wise do not spend everything they get, and the wise prepare for trouble they see coming ahead.

       God can take care of us in any situation, but He teaches us that it is wise to save up when we see that we’ll have a need in the future. This is why I don’t think God is against us having emergency funds or saving for a time in our lives when we won’t be able to work for pay. I’m not sure God wants us saving for things that don’t glorify Him, like a retirement where we golf every day or travel around the world purely for pleasure. It’s the same with anything really. If it doesn’t glorify God, there’s probably a good chance we should rethink it.

       The next time you want to spend all of your paycheck or when the money in your pocket catches fire, remember that the wise person saves but the foolish person spends everything.

November 7, 2008

Ways to Create a Budget and Track Your Spending

Filed under: Budgeting,Spending,The Basics — Paul Williams @ Crackerjack Greenback @ 4:00 am

       There are many ways to create a budget and track your spending. The only “right” way is the way that works for you. This is a short list of some ways you can track your spending and create a budget.

Paper & Pencil or a Spreadsheet (Microsoft Excel, OpenOffice Calc, or Google Docs Spreadsheet)

Pencils and Moleskines 04 by Paul Worthington on Flickr       Creating your own method of tracking and categorizing your spending and then creating a budget can give you a much better understanding of your situation. It takes a bit of time and is not the easiest way by far, but it is free and keeps all of your information private. You simply create categories for all of your expenses, track them manually, and then create or update your budget as your situation changes. If you don’t have the discipline to track all of your expenses and continue to update the spreadsheet, then I don’t recommend you try this method.

Quicken

Quicken       Quicken has been the standard personal money management software for quite some time, but many competitors are emerging and offering better products. Quicken can import data from your financial institutions, track your spending and help you create a budget, and offers various reports so you can get a better picture of your financial situation. Quicken Online is currently free (but that could change), so if you’re comfortable storing all of your login information online in one spot you might want to check it out. If you want an alternative that keeps all your information on your computer, you can try Quicken Deluxe for $59.99. (You might be able to find a better deal elsewhere online, so shop around!) My own personal experience with Quicken Deluxe wasn’t especially great. It takes a while to set it up and you’ll have to get familiar with how the program works. However, if you need a way to automatically track your spending it may be worth the initial effort.

Mint

Mint       Mint is a free, online money management program that can pull together all of your bank, credit union, and credit card data to help you track your spending and budget for your expenses. To get all that information in one place, you’ll have to give them your user names and passwords. While Mint uses the same kind of data encryption as your bank, I’m still very wary of putting all of my financial information in one place online. If that data were ever compromised, you’d have to change the information on all your accounts to protect yourself. I just don’t feel comfortable with that possibility, so I would never use an online system like this. Also, Mint’s computer algorithms look at your spending patterns to offer you specific deals through their sponsors so you may or may not be comfortable with that. However, I have read great things about Mint, so I thought I should include it here.

Mvelopes

Mvelopes       Mvelopes is another online money management program that has received good reviews around the web. You get a free 30 day trial, but after that it will cost you anywhere from $7.90/month to $13.20/month depending on the membership period you select. Like Mint, Mvelopes gathers data from your bank, credit union, and credit card accounts to help you track your spending and create a budget. Again, I personally wouldn’t feel comfortable with having all of my account logins stored in one place regardless of the encryption and security used. But if you’re comfortable with it, Mvelopes might be another easy way to start tracking your spending and keeping a budget.

My Method

Google Docs       Personally, I just use a Google Docs Spreadsheet to create a budget so I can have an idea of what my spending should look like. Every so often, I check over different categories to make sure I’m not overspending. However, I don’t really track my spending closely because I have my spending well under control, my savings is automatic, my bills are on auto-pay, and I have a sizable emergency fund. Unless all of those apply to you, I recommend you track your spending. The Spreadsheet method also isn’t for those who don’t have the discipline to dig in and do most of the dirty work themselves (as opposed to a computer program doing the grunt work for you). Here’s a template of the Google Spreadsheet I use. You can save a copy for yourself if you have a Google account and use their “Save” feature under the “File” menu. You should be able to save a copy to your computer, too. You’ll have to edit it for your own situation, as I can’t list every possible expense category a person might have.

There’s More Than One Way to Skin a Budget

       There are many other ways you can track your spending and create a budget. I didn’t even mention You Need a Budget or PearBudget. You can also do variations on any of these methods. For example, for the paper & pencil method you could use envelopes to split up your money and make sure you don’t overspend. What are some other methods you use to track your spending or maintain a budget? Leave your tips in the comments!

October 31, 2008

Why a Budget Is Good (or “Spending Plan” if That Makes You Feel Better)

Filed under: Budgeting,Spending,The Basics — Paul Williams @ Crackerjack Greenback @ 3:38 pm

       That’s right. I just said a budget is good. We hate the sound of that word, don’t we? It reeks of denial, hardship, restraint, and, for most people, boredom. But failing to create a budget and stick to it (to some degree) is one of the primary reasons so many people have a hard time managing their personal finances. So here are a few reasons why it’s good to have a budget and track your expenses.

A Simple Budget (Piggy Bank by ES on Flickr)

   You can easily figure out if you’re spending too much money.

       By tracking and totaling your expenses over one or two months, you can easily figure out if you’re spending too much money. Add up your monthly income, subtract your monthly expenses, and if the result is negative then you’re spending too much money. There are other ways to tell if you’re spending too much money (is your debt increasing every month?), but this is one surefire way to double check it.

   You can see where your money is going.

       It’s easy to lose track of all your bills and remember where you spent the cash you had in your wallet or purse. By creating a budget and continuing to track your spending, you can keep a comprehensive list of all your expenses and how much they cost. From there, you can see where your biggest outflows are and find ways to save money in those areas.

   You can target specific areas for improvement.

       Once you’ve tracked your spending for a bit and are comfortable with the numbers, you can decide on budget goals. Where do you want to cut back and by how much? If you don’t have your budget written down (on paper or electronically), it’s much more difficult to set these goals for yourself.

   You’ll start spending less.

       The mere act of tracking your spending is likely to cause you to spend less. Why? You’ll become more conscious of your spending habits and begin to carefully examine your purchases. Once you start to question whether or not you need to spend money you’ll start spending less. Be careful – Corporate America doesn’t want you to do this!

   You can have less stress and make better decisions.

       Do you want to take your significant other out to dinner but you’re not sure if you can afford it? Check your budget. Friends invite you on a weekend roadtrip but you’re worried about money? Check your budget. If you can fit the expense into the appropriate budget category, then you can spend without guilt. (Assuming, of course, that you are meeting your savings goals.) Finally, you’ll have a good idea of how much money you should have in your emergency fund. Take your necessary monthly expenses and multiply by some number between 3 and 6. (You can’t do this if you don’t know your monthly expenses!)

My Budgeting Confession

       With all that said, I have to tell you that I no longer track my expenses. I do have a budget, but it’s mostly because I like numbers. I don’t actually keep track of what I spend. I have all my bills set on auto-pay (except heating oil), my savings is automatic, I have a sizable emergency fund, and I have my spending under control. If you can say the same about your own situation, then I actually encourage you not to track your spending too closely. It’s a waste of time if you don’t need it.

       On the other hand, if you aren’t paying yourself first (automatic savings), haven’t established an emergency fund, or don’t have your spending under control, then you absolutely need a budget until you get to that point. If you really hate the idea of budgeting and tracking your expenses, just remind yourself that eventually you won’t have to do it anymore. It’s only temporary!

       Next Friday I’ll list a few different ways you can create a budget and track your spending.

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