The Benefits of Having Good Neighbors – And Actually Talking to Them

I believe that part of your responsibility of living in a neighborhood is to be a good neighbor.  If you help your neighbors out, you will get help in return.  It’s a win-win situation for everybody involved.  I’ll give you an example, just from what happened today.

I worked from home, and finished up my work just in time to hear it thundering outside.  I checked the radar, and timed the storm moving in.  I figured I had about a half hour before it hit our house.  It normally takes me 30-40 mins to mow the lawn, depending on if I trim, edge, etc.  I decided I could hurry up and get it done before it started raining.

I started mowing really quick, and got part of the front yard done.  My neighbor across the street saw me mowing, and saw the storm coming in, so he grabbed his lawn mower and just came into my yard, signaling me to go to the back yard.

As I was mowing the back yard, I felt some raindrops. I finished up the back yard, then helped my neighbor mow a few passes on the side to finish up.  I got the lawn mower put away, and a few minutes later it started raining.  I wouldn’t have gotten it done without his help before it rained.

But the storm moved more south than actually hitting our area, so it quit raining.  My other neighbor started weed eating some really tall weeds behind his fence.  I decided I could weed eat my yard too, since it wasn’t raining any more.  So when I finished up my yard, I went and helped him finish up.

Our three households are starting to form a nice little bond.  We share tools between all of us, and we are always there to help each other out.  They give me much needed advice all the time, and I try to help them out whenever I can.

Being a good neighbor allows you to form good friendships and allows you to rely on each other.  People are always stronger when they work together, instead of trying to do everything yourself.  So get to know your neighbors if you haven’t already.  They could end up being like a second family to you.

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Old Memories

Holidays are always a big deal in my family.  All my extended family gets together to celebrate the major holidays, and Easter is always held at my parents house.  Traditions are everywhere in my family, and especially around the holidays.

One tradition that my uncle has always done on Easter is go out to the cemetery to visit his parents (my grandparents) graves.  I’ve never gone, until this year.  I took my daughter out with me, and it was so enjoyable that I will be going every year now.

I figured my uncle said a prayer or two while they were out there, then they came back home.  That was not at all the case.  We had a moment of silence when we first got there, then both of my uncles started talking about memories of several people that have passed away and were buried in that cemetery.  I learned more about my grandma, found out more about how many brothers and sisters she had (I had no idea before yesterday), and learned more about my cousin who passed away at birth.

But listening to those stories triggered all sorts of old memories about my grandma.  I have a lot of really good memories about her, and felt like I was getting closer to her right up until she got sick in her late 80s.  I would randomly just stop by her house and talk with her for hours, and loved every minute of it.  We would talk about all sorts of random topics.  We used to eat breakfast with her every Sunday, and of course saw her on every holiday.  We got to see her most weekends, too, while my dad and I worked on something at the trailer court she owned.  She was the nicest person you’d ever meet, and will always have a special place in my heart.

Happy Easter, Grandma!  I love you!

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YNAB Quick Tips – Starting a New Month

The most tedious part of a budget is creating it at the beginning of every month.  What I do  within YNAB is create a generic budget that is what we typically use to budget as a starting point each month.  I just adjust all the numbers for where we expect to spend our money that month.  This gives us a quicker starting point to filling out the budget, and is really easy to do.

To do this, create your “starting point” budget in next month’s place.  Before you start budgeting for the month, just use the “Use Last Month’s Budget” feature to pre-fill the next available month.  This will copy exactly what you have for your template into the next month’s budget.  Then you can start adjusting the numbers for the month you’re actually budgeting.

There are a few exceptions that occur that are worth mentioning as well.  What about items you plan on budgeting for a few months, then the monthly amount changes? Or what about saving for a particular item, and you know you will be done on X month?  To handle those situations, I just go to the month where the changes occur, and fill out the one category to be the new amount.  By using the last month’s budget feature, it won’t overwrite values already pre-filled, so this technique works great.  As far as the savings goes, I just go to the month after when it’ll be done, and put one penny in the budgeted amount.  Then you’ll know to just take that out when you get to it.

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Finishing Our Basement

I’m currently in the middle of the largest project I’ve ever undertaken: finishing our basement.  When we bought our house, they started work on a large family room in the basement.  They got the walls up, drywall up (both walls and ceiling), and got most of the taping and mudding done.

Then we made an offer on the house.  They told us they had to stop work on the basement as-is for that price. I was fine with that.  I figured they did most of the hard work, and I could just finish it whenever.

Four years later, I’ve decided that now is the time to complete it.  I’m adding a bedroom adjacent to the family room, so that will get a lot more livable space down there.  I’m doing all the work myself so far, which is taking a long time.  It’s hard to find some free time with two kids 2 and under and a pregnant wife at home, but I am making progress.

So far, I’ve got the walls all studded out and most of the drywall up on the walls.  I have one more sheet to put up, and still have to put drywall up around the window frame, but it’s mostly done.  I have the electric all hooked up, so we can use the outlets in the room.  Next comes the most tedious part of the whole project: taping and mudding.

Even though adding a brand new room to a basement sounds like a complicated process, it’s really not.  You just have to make sure things are level/plum, and check your measurements before you make any cuts.  If you’re a beginner, this site should help you out with framing:

http://www.familyhandyman.com/basement/how-to-finish-a-basement-framing-and-insulating/step-by-step

My only advice on drywall is to stick a scrap piece of drywall at the bottom to give you a little gap between the drywall and the concrete floor.  If you don’t do that, you run the risk of your drywall getting wet, which will ruin it.

Here’s what the “bedroom” looked like before I started working on it (this is the view from the door going into the room):

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This is the only picture I have of before. It’s looking through the doorway into the full unfinished area that I’m turning into a bedroom

And here’s what it looks like in it’s current state:

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This is the same picture as before, looking through the doorway.

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From the other side of the room, looking back out the door

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From the corner where the door is, looking at the wall with the window

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The Starbucks Problem

I am in the minority on this, but I don’t get the concept of Starbucks.  I’m not a coffee drinker, so maybe that’s part of it, but I just don’t get it.  If I were given the opportunity to get anything I wanted at Starbucks for free all the time, I still wouldn’t ever go.  The thought is just so negative in my eyes.  To me, Starbucks represents everything about how most people don’t have savings, and live paycheck to paycheck.

If you go to Starbucks, you’ll easily pay $5 or more for a cup of coffee.  I suppose you go there because it’s “convenient.”  I would argue with that though.  Waiting in the long lines makes it incredibly inconvenient, and not efficient at all.  My wife had a gift card a while back, and I had to go stop and get her something while I was out running errands.  I think it took me 15 minutes just to get through the drive through lanes.

If I did drink coffee, I’d make it at home.  Even if you bought an expensive Keurig and drank a cup every day from that, it would still be a fraction of the cost of a trip to Starbucks.  They have every flavor you could imagine, too, so it’s not like you’d have to compromise on taste.  And it takes about 15 seconds to get your cup of coffee, compared to around 15 minutes to go to Starbucks.  You can do other things during those precious 15 seconds if you want, too (grab your coat and put it on, and it’s no waste of time at all).  Yet, with all this real convenience without even needing to leave your house, Starbucks still has a huge line all the time.

If you are one of the millions of people who go to Starbucks even a couple times a week, think about the amount of money you’d save by making your coffee at home.  In fact, if you are a regular Starbucks customer, you probably should take a look at other areas in your life where you are wasting money as well.  You could end up retiring tens of years earlier if you really understand the definition of convenience, and change your way of thinking to be able to save more.

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Hacks to Save Even More on Your Cell Phone Bill

As I mentioned previously, you can save a ton of money by switching your cell phone provider to a company like Ting.  We’ve been averaging $39/mo for two phones since we switched, and love the service.  But since we now pay for the minutes we use, I found a way to save even more.

I have my data turned off, and just connect up to WiFi where ever it’s available.  I rarely turn my data on, but there are the rare occasions that I need it (mostly to use my Google Navigation to find out where I’m going.  But you can turn your data back off with that app once you input the address).  I have been using about 10-20mb per month for that service, and I barely even notice I don’t have data without WiFi.

You pay to access data from your cell phone provider, but really rarely need to use that data.  Think about it.  Where are you when you’d actually use the data on your phone most of the time?  You’re probably either at home or at work.  You won’t use the data while you’re driving, because that’s not safe.  There might be the rare times that you use it while you’re in a store, but some stores even have free WiFi (the Home Depot in my area does, for instance, and I’ve just connected to it when I want to use it).  Other than that, you don’t really need it.  So you’re paying a high premium for a rare instance.  So just try turning your data off on your phone for a week, and see how it goes.  You might be surprised at the results.

Ok, so now that you’re connected up to free WiFi when you need it, you can almost eliminate your data usage on Ting.  What about the calls and text messages though?  I’ve got a solution for that as well.  You can make those calls and texts through a third party app that uses VoIP, which basically means it uses your WiFi connection.

To set that up, sign up for a Google Voice number, if you don’t have one already.  Depending on where you live, you might need to get a new number.  You can just start giving that number to people though, and gradually change over once you get used to using it.

Now that you have a Google Voice number, download Talkatone.  The key to this app is that it’ll take your Google Voice number and make the calls over your free WiFi connection.  Google is talking about removing that functionality sometime in the May, but you might be able to do the same thing through the Google Hangout app when they update it at that point in time.  For now, download Talkatone.

Once you install it, just sign into your Google Voice account, and it’ll sync your contacts into the app. You can call and text through the app, so now you can eliminate or drastically reduce your phone calls and text messages you pay to Ting.  You can even download the app on an iPod and use it as your phone for free!  As an added bonus, you can forward your cell phone voicemails to your Google Voice account, and read a transcribed version right in your email, without even needing to touch your phone!

This is what I do, and it works pretty well.  Of course, if someone calls me while I’m not connected to WiFi, Talkatone doesn’t open.  But I have my Google Voice account set to forward to both numbers, so my native app rings in that situation.

Using this technique has saved me some money, and I hope it can save you some too.

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YNAB Quick Tips – Handling Business Reimbursements

Most things work well within YNAB, but there are a few exceptions.  When your work decides to send you on a trip, and they expect you to pay for everything on your card, how does that fit into your budget?  You shouldn’t have to budget for something that’s not even in your personal budget, especially since you will be reimbursed once you return.  And what happens if it takes them a couple weeks to pay you back, and your budget rolls over to the next month in the meantime?  How do you handle a situation like that in YNAB?

Here’s what I do.  I have a category called Work Expenses, and I budget exactly $0 each month to that category.  When I get sent on a trip for work, I put all my expenses in that category.  I change the Overspending Settings (click on the dollar amount in the remaining column to see it) to “Subtract it from next month’s category balance.”  Warning: use this setting with caution, as it can really wreak havoc with your budget.  In this case, it works perfectly though.

With this setup, you can just throw everything you get that’s a work expense into that category and not have to worry about how it impacts your budget.  Even if your work takes until the following month to pay you back, you don’t have to worry about it.  And the negative balance will be your reminder that you need to bug your work to pay you (or fill out your expense report!).

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Getting Started with YNAB – Credit Card Debt

Since I’ve been using the software for years, I get asked questions about YNAB all the time.  I got asked a good question today that I thought might be useful for people just getting started with YNAB.  That question was “How do I handle credit card debt?”

If you have a balance on your credit card, and you want to pay it off over time, my recommendation is to take the card out of your wallet/purse, and put it somewhere safe in your house.  The idea is to not have it with you when you need to make a purchase, so you don’t use it anymore.  I’ve heard of people locking them up in a safe, or putting it in a bowl of water and freezing it (so you have to have time to think about the purchase while it is thawing out before you can even get the card).  Whatever works for you, just make sure you don’t have the card with you when you make purchases.

Now for the YNAB part.  Since you won’t be using the card, treat it like any other debt.  Put it as an Off Budget account, and create a category for Debt Reduction in your budget.  Pay your card out of what you budget into the Debt Reduction category, and just adjust your balance once a month (or once every few months if you prefer).  Then, when you get it all paid off, move the account to be On Budget, and start tracking your purchases again (once you thaw out your card, of course).

As far as how much to budget in the Debt Reduction category, that all depends.  What we do is make a minimum budget for our essentials, then put everything extra that comes in into that category.  Even extra bonuses and random forms of income that I budget for the existing month goes in there, and I just leave the balance until the beginning of the next month.  Once we do our new budget, I put the extra in the Debt Reduction category, and then make one payment for everything in there.  I repeat that process every month.  It’s been working out well for us since we’ve been doing it a few years ago.

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New Year’s Goals – Progress Update – End of Year Results

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to hit any of my 2013 New Year’s Goals.  We had a lot of changes throughout the year that really impacted some of our goals.

1) Reduce debt by 68.33%.
Target: 68.33%, Actual: 36.93%. Our financial priorities shifted a couple times throughout the year, and I didn’t get as much paid off of our student loan debt as I would have liked.  My wife had to cut her working days from 4 to 3 due to our daycare provider needing surgery, which forced us to change providers.  The new provider could only take our youngest for 3 days a week, because she already had another infant.  We also found out we were pregnant with our third child in 4 years, so we had to start saving for a larger vehicle and the eventual birth of our third child.  Then our renters decided to just skip town, so we had to start preparing for making two mortgage payments.  Needless to say, our student loan debt became a much lower priority by the end of the year.  For completeness, here’s a graph of the final progress:

DebtReduction.xlsx

2) Run a 5k.
I almost did a couple of these throughout the year, but it never happened.

3) Complete a bike race.
I didn’t do the one bike race I wanted, and never really got back into riding a bike like I thought after Blake was born.

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Simplifying My Life

Over the past month or so, I’ve been working on simplifying some things in my life.  Part of it is trying to prepare for this third child we are having, and trying to get things lined up for that, but others are just some housekeeping that needs done every so often.

First off, after this year is through, I won’t be making the monthly post regarding my New Year’s Goals that I’ve done the past two years.  Things this next year are going to be in flux the whole year, so my real goal will just be to simplify things.

I’ve already canceled my checking account for my business, Archway Home Theater Accessories, because I don’t believe it’s needed anymore.  Now that I just do custom installs, the only reason I kept it open was so I could accept checks as the business name.  I can simply work around that by asking my customer to make the check out to me instead (which every one has done automatically anyway).

Just this weekend I canceled my rental property checking account.  We’ve decided to sell our rental property, because we haven’t even really been breaking even on it.  We didn’t buy it with the intention of it being a rental property, and the rent has barely covered our mortgage payment this whole time.  We’ve paid for repairs out of our pockets, and it doesn’t appear that the house prices in that area are going to ever recover from the crash of a few years ago.  We are going to sell the house, and use the small amount of equity we have in it to go toward paying off the rest of our student loans.

So if anyone is looking for a house in Fairview Heights, IL in the $110,000 price range, take a look at our house.  It’s well worth that price, and it’s a good house in a terrific neighborhood.  If you’re interested, just email me (jd at pohlman dot us) or call if you know my phone number.  I’ll tell you everything you need to know about the house, so you won’t run into any surprises after you buy.  We’ve tried keeping it in good shape this whole time, so it’ll be ready for a buyer to move right in.  We don’t have it for sale just yet, but we should have it cleaned up from the previous renters within a week, at which time we’ll officially list it for sale.  If you want to take a look at it in the meantime, just let me know.

It’s important to regularly evaluate pretty much everything in your life.  We do on a regular basis, and I felt it was time to simplify things a little bit.  We will have more changes coming over the next year or two, but this is a good start.  I’ll post more about some additional changes when the time comes.  So review how you have things set up in your financial life, and see if there’s anything you can simplify.  You’ll be thankful that you did once it’s all over with.

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