Monday, February 27, 2006

Free Trial of MS Money Not Up To Snuff

This weekend I downloaded the 90-day trial version of Microsoft Money 2006 Deluxe. I spent about three hours uploading my financial information and meticulously categorizing my expenses. I had MS Money pull my credit card and banking information directly from my online accounts. After tinkering around with it for a few hours, I deduced that I strongly prefer my manual method of tracking income, expenses and net worth in Excel. It is much easier to do what-if scenarios, and it takes much less time. It also makes me feel much more 'in touch' with my money. I felt that Microsoft Money was overly complex, and not as intiuitive as I had expected it to be. I was a little disappointed with this finding. I guess I expected more from Microsoft. I suppose it might be a good tool for somebody who has a business, but for personal finance tracking, it isn't the solution for me.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Location, Location, Location

People often tell me how lucky I am to live in such a fantastic neighborhood. I live in easy walking distance of:

  • four grocery stores

  • the public library

  • a post office

  • two dozen or so great restaurants

  • three neighborhood pubs

  • four coffee shops

  • a fun variety of retail shops

  • a dry cleaner

  • two fantastic parks

  • a beautiful lake

  • in easy bicycling distance of my office

When people comment on where I live, the conversation usually goes something like this:

Them: "You are so lucky to live in this awesome neighborhood!"

Me: "I agree that it is a fantastic neighborhood. But I am not lucky to live here. I chose to live here."

Them: "I could never afford to buy a house in this neighborhood."

Me: "Sure you can! It just wouldn't be as big as your current one."

Them: "But I couldn't live without my...(fill in the blank)...walk in closet, double garage, jacuzzi tub, four bedroom house, etc."

At that point I change the topic because folks like that can't imagine giving up a material possession or home amenity in exchange for the increased quality of life that a neighborhood community offers. I wouldn't trade my tiny one-bedroom condo in a fantastic neighborhood for a huge, hulking house in the strip-mall suburbs for ANYTHING!

Monday, February 20, 2006

Free Personal Finance Tools

If you are a Microsoft office user (e.g. Word, Excel) you might want to check out the free personal finance templates offered on their web site. Available templates include budgeting templates, calculators for 401k planning, investment calculators and mortgage amortization/analysis templates.

My personal favorite is the lifetime savings calculator which allows you to calculate the lifetime savings of switching to a generic version of a particular product. It's simple math to do without a fancy Excel calculator, but it sure is fun to see how much you can save!

Sunday, February 19, 2006

I Think I Found Mr. Uber-Frugal!

Months and months ago, I heard about a guy who made a New Year's resolution to spend money only on bare necessities for one year. Thanks to NYC Money, I think I have found him. It looks like he is the boyfriend of author Judith Levine who wrote Not Buying It, My Year Without Shopping. I am number nine on the hold list at the Seattle Public Library. I am so enthralled by this topic, I can hardly wait to read the book.

The practice of voluntary simplicity was born of the idea that American consumerism traps us in the enless cycle of the rat race. Judith Levine writes of her 12-month experience of voluntary simplicity. Once I read the book, I will report back to share my thoughts.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Why My Heating Bills Never Exceed $40 a Month

This morning in Seattle, I awoke to a snowy winter wonderland, something that doesn't happen very often. There is a lot of pain this time of year due to soaring home heating costs. But in the two years that I've owned my condo, my monthly heating costs have never exceeded $40. I keep my thermostat at a reasonable setting in the winter - about 65 degrees, so I'm not sitting around bundled in a down jacket with my teeth chattering just to save a little money.

The secret to my low monthly heating bills is the fact that I live in a condo that is built to energy star standards which are strict energy efficiency guidelines set by the EPA. Based on my winter heating bills, energy star works! Plus it's good for the environment because I'm using less energy to heat my home since it is so well insulated, and therefore I'm saving money. Over a period of years, this will have a significant payback period.

Festival of Frugality is Up!

Jane at Boston Gal's Open Wallet did a fantastic job hosting this week's Festival of Frugality with a Valentine's Day spin. Be sure to check it out!

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Small Home = $15 Carpet Cleaning

Just another side benefit to living small is the fact that I can handle certain home maintenance projects myself instead of hiring them out. Today I decided to clean my carpets. The last time I cleaned my carpets I rented a machine at Home Depot for $14. Recently I noticed that the drug store at the end of my street offers carpet cleaning machines for $15. I went for this option to save the hassle of the rental department at Home Depot on a crazy Sunday.

The cleaning went very smoothly, and I had the entire project completed in about an hour. That includes renting the machine, completing the cleaning and returning the machine. My boyfriend, who just purchased a ridiculously huge 4-bedroom house, just paid $300 to have his carpets cleaned by professionals. Normally he would do something like that himself, but it was an overwhelming chore given the size of his new home. Of course you could clean your own carpets if you own a large house, but it becomes a much more onerous task.

So whenever I see someone's showcase home that causes me to think how nice it would be to have a guest room...back yard...utility room...basement...yadda yadda...I just remind myself of the little benefits of living small like being able to clean my carpet in one hour for just $15.

Friday, February 10, 2006

I Threatened to Cancel - They Paid Me $$

Last week I wrote about saving big bucks on my auto insurance and cell phone bill. Yesterday I decided it was time to cancel one of my two credit cards. I currently have a Chase Rewards Visa and a Cash Back American Express card. Because Visa is accepted more places than Amex (especially overseas, which I travel to occasionally) I decided to cancel the Amex.

When I called Amex to cancel, they offered a couple of incentives to entice me to stay. Currently, I am required to carry a balance on the card (which I never do) to obtain the maximum cash back allowance. They permanently waived that requirement. In addition they offered a $25 one time credit to my account. I accepted the deal. Later when I have the time, I'll compare the cash back incentives for both cards, but in the mean time I'll enjoy the $25 credit!

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Close Call with Paypal Thief

This morning I logged into my email to find a very alarming message. It was from Paypal and it was confirmation of payment for a pink Razor cell phone for $239.95. I did NOT make this purchase so I quickly scanned the email for all signs of a fake and saw that it was sent by a valid paypal email address and the entire format of the email matched what I had always received from Paypal. So I clicked on the "Dispute Transaction" link and got the paypal login screen. I logged in and got another screen that asked for my personal contact information as well as my debit card number. RED FLAG! I looked at the URL and saw that it was not a Paypal URL, but something else. So I opened another browser window and immediately logged into my real paypal account, deleted my credit card and banking information, then I closed the entire account, because I had just provided the thief with my login information. Luckily, I was smart enough not to enter my debit card info into the fraudulent URL screen. I forwarded the fake paypal email to I hope they catch this evil-doer.

I certainly learned a lesson in all this. When I received the email, I should have logged into Paypal separately to see if any transactions had taken place. That would have confirmed that the email was a fake. I hope nobody else falls prey to this scam.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Chronic Minimalism

My penchant for eliminating material clutter from my life spills over into my worklife. I work at a large corporation and reside from 8:00 - 5:00 each weekday in a standard-issue cubicle. I keep my office workspace extremely clutter-free. I don't have any files on my desk, nor do I have any personal photos displayed. I have my computer, telephone and a very nice plant, a jar of handcream and a stapler. Oh, and I have a calendar posted. That's about it.

A while back, the company was doing a 'restack' of employees. They shifted people around so workteams could sit closer together. I didn't have to move my desk, but I had several new people moved into adjacent cubicles. Not long after that occurred, I went on a two week vacation. When I returned, it was apparent that my new neighbors had assumed my cubicle was vacant, which is perfectly understandable given the minimalist state in which I left it. Somebody had swiped the keyboard from my computer; somebody else had helped themselves to my lovely plant. I had boxes of discarded files piled onto my desk, and boxes of trash stored underneath. I thought it was hilarious! Of course they thought the office was empty - I didn't leave the tiniest clue that a real person occupied the space.

I piled all of the boxes and garbage into the hallway, ordered a replacement keyboard from the IT department, and posted a sign on my computer that says, "THIS OFFICE IS OCCUPIED."

Sadly, I never recovered my little plant. I now do without...

Monday, February 06, 2006

Are Real Estate Agents Worth Their Large Fees?

My boyfriend recently sold his house and purchased a new one. He used an agent to sell his old house and had a horrible experience. My boyfriend was so dismayed with the service he received from her that he chose to purchase his next home as a FSBO, and to leave the agents completely out of it. He found his dream house listed on Craig's List. He made an offer and it was accepted. The entire process went completely smoothly, and for the life of him, he can't figure out what why real estate commissions are so dang high.

Two Seattle-based companies, Redfin and Progressive, were profiled in this weekend's Seattle Times article. Both companies are breaking the 6% commission mold. I certainly hope this is a trend that will continue.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

February Net Worth $439,835 (up $38,701)

I wrapped up January with nearly $440,000 in net worth. This month's $38,701 net worth improvement was driven by the following factors:

  • Revised condo valuation from $285,000 to $310,000
  • Increase in IRA value of $10,000
  • Increase in 401k value of $4,000

Because the new condo valuation is a one-time event, I expect my monthly net worth growth to settle down to approximately $5,000 to $8,000 per month going forward.

Detailed discussion on net worth items
  • I revised my condo value from $285,000 to $310,000 using This added $25,000 to my net worth. When I ran the numbers on the HomeValueBot web site, they actually came out higher, but I decided to be conservative and stick with $310,000.
  • The increase in IRA value of $10,000 is a combination of investment gains, a $4,000 contribution for 2006 plus an additional $1,000 contribution for 2005 since I hadn't fully funded for last year.
  • A new brokerage line item appears this month. I have transferred funds from my money market into this account, which is invested in an assortment of Vanguard index funds.
  • My stock options are doing quite well, resulting in a gain of $1,492 over last month. However, I made the decision to cash out some of my ESPP to fund my IRA, so I missed out on some of those gains.
  • Important personal finance issues for the months ahead
    • Pay down mortgage. One of my objectives for 2006 is to contribute $10,000 toward extra principle payments. I discovered that my mortgage lender, Countrywide, doesn't make it easy to make an extra payment online. I waited until too late in January to make an extra payment, so I will look to begin the extra payments this month.
    • Reestablish ESPP contributions. My company stock is fairly volatile, and I got nervous and discontinued my monthly contributions. I plan to resume contributions in late February or early March after I've decided how much I want to contribute (my company allows 15% of base pay) based on the risk of the stock falling.