Today is a historic day. We’ll see our nation’s first black President be sworn in. Unfortunately, he won’t have much of a honeymoon period to celebrate his historicness. I gave Congress their marching orders a couple weeks ago. Now it’s his turn. If he’s going to correct our nation’s course, he needs to get to work at 12:01PM today. He’s got bold plans, but there are a few areas he should focus on at the start. The rest can wait until our economy’s on the road to health.
The Obama Stimulus Package
He’s already asked for the rest of the $350 billion and assembled his economic team. He’s even floated a stimulus plan already. He needs to do whatever it takes to get that plan through so new infrastructure projects can get rolling and idled workers can return to their jobs. California had numerous projects that were stalled due to lack of funds. The sooner they get back to work, the better it will be for everyone.
New Financial Regulations
Some of the banks are saying they don’t want to lend until firm new regulations are in place. It seems to me that they should have been concerned about regulations six years ago when their irrational lending started, but whatever. If they want new rules, then Obama’s team needs to write them and write them pronto.
Building the New Energy Infrastructure
Not only will building a new energy infrastructure create hundreds of thousands of jobs, but it will save our country a lot of money in the long-run by reducing our need to import pricey oil. It may be cheap now, but it won’t be forever. Our economy will crumble again if we don’t wean ourselves off oil before it runs out (and it will.) Obviously he can’t start the actual building now, but he can get good people in place to figure out what it would take and create a solid plan for the future.
Tax, Social Security, and Medicare Reform
Again, not all of these will happen immediately, but he needs to assemble teams that will figure out the problems and come up with plans to reform them. Heck, I can tell him the problem: there are more Baby Boomers than there are Gen X and Yers and we can’t foot the bill for our parents and grandparents. It’s sad to say, but benefits will have to be cut and taxes will have to go up (yes, I said “and,” not “or”). If these changes are accompanied by true tax reform, everyone can hopefully remain reasonably comfortable despite the necessary changes.
End Rampant Consumerism
President Bush’s response to our national crises was consumer spending. Clearly, that doesn’t work. While Obama can’t make us stop spending, he can choose not to rely on increased consumer spending to solve our problems. Instead he can encourage saving and a return to frugality. He may have become wealthy by selling lots of books, but he definitely comes from modest roots. He knows the value of the dollar and he needs to remind the nation of that.
I don’t think Obama is our savior. I don’t think he’s a white knight. I don’t think he’ll wave a magic wand and fix everything. I do think he’s got a good head on his shoulders, a clear vision of what needs to happen, and the ability to make it happen. So I say, Congratulations Mr. President. Now get to work.
What do you think Obama should focus on during his first year in office? Tell me in the comments.
Some people are still avoiding the real estate market because they predict yet more steep declines in home prices. Other people have decided that now is a great time to buy. My husband and I have decided to take the leap, but only after making some careful consideration. Here are our reasons for buying our first home.
We’re Taking a Huge Tax Hit
Right now, we’re being hit with what I call the no-mortgage-no-kids marriage penalty. Mortgages in California are high enough that the interest deduction offers a substantial savings. Since we’re not owners or parents, we’re paying way more than our fair share of taxes and we’re sick of it.
We Hate Our Neighbors
Seriously, we hate them. They throw watermelons off the roof and dogs in the pool. We’re tired of living around idiot twenty-somethings. Rather than get another apartment only to buy a house in a year or so, we might as well take the leap now.
The Los Angeles Real Estate Market Is Affordable Again
Affordable for us, anyway. Certainly the market could come down a bit more, but several homes and decent neighborhoods are within our range. We plan to own at least five years, longer if we buy a home rather than a condo, so we’re not terribly worried about additional declines. It seems clear that the government intends to prop up home prices this year – we might as well take advantage of that opportunity.
We Want a House
Quite simply, we’re tired of renting. We’re tired of waiting for someone else to fix the leak in the bathroom ceiling or the garage. We’re tired of being at the mercy of noisy neighbors. We’re tired of paying rent rather than a mortgage.
We Can’t Buy a New Car Until We Buy a House
My car is due for replacement and we can’t do that until we buy a house. (We don’t want another debt on our credit.)
I Hate Our Apartment
Anyone who reads this blog with any regularity knows how much I loathe my kitchen. I also hate my carpet, the leaky bathroom, and the chipped walls. I’m just plain sick of living here. It’s time to move on.
It’s Likely There Will Be Additional Tax Incentives and Low Mortgage Rates
Mortgage rates for qualified borrowers are pretty low already. Congress is batting around the idea of a 4.5% loan for new purchases. If that figure gets approved, we’d save thousands of dollars a year. The lower rate and tax savings would bring our mortgage payment down to nearly the same as our rent. In addition, there’s talk of offering first-time buyers up to $20,000 in tax incentives. That’s a big number and we definitely want to take advantage of that.
Foreclosures Are Filling the Market
The Los Angeles market is loaded with foreclosures, short sales, and desperate sellers, which means we have a lot of bargaining room. We’re also seeing uncompleted condo developments running out of money. There’s no telling whether they’ll be finished or torn down, but it’s definitely a buyer’s market right now.
We’re not rushing into the market. First we’re going to spend a month or so visiting open houses and getting a feel for potential neighborhoods. Then we’ll fax in our mortgage application to see what sort of loan we qualify for. I’ve spoken to a broker, so we do have a ballpark already. We already know we’re likely to be approved for much more than we want to spend. Finally, we’ll hire a real estate agent and take our time shopping for just the right house in the right neighborhood. With luck, we’ll buy around mid-spring. By then, any tax incentives or low rates should be in place.
Are you considering getting into the market? What are your reasons? If not, why are you choosing to sit on the sidelines a little longer?
Well, the carnivals didn’t go away. I left the carnivals due to vacation and the holidays. This week, the carnivals have returned. We’re off to a slow start – just two carnivals this week.
First, the Festival of Frugality #160 hosted by Credit Withdrawal. In addition to my post about Top Ten Frugal Winter Food, I recommend Monroe on a Budget’s guide to weekend kitchen prep that will save you time during the week.
Right now it’s 80 degrees in Los Angeles (sorry, not trying to rub it in), but it’s below freezing in other parts of the country. When it’s too cold to go outside, it’s easy to get bored inside. It’s also easy to turn on the computer and go shopping online. Here are a few indoor winter projects that will keep you occupied and away from the online stores.
De-Clutter Your Home
Now is the perfect time for a de-cluttering binge (I won’t call it spring cleaning.) Start in the section with the smallest amount of clutter as a warm up, then go through the whole rest of the house throwing stuff away. Check the kitchen cabinets and rotate older canned goods to the front. Make a plan for the meat tucked in the back of the freezer. Donate those clothes that will never fit again. Toss the ugly knick knack aunt Myrtle gave you.
Nothing smells better than fresh bread baking in the oven. It’s time to break out your flour and make your own loaf of bread. Serve it with a simple soup for dinner. You just might discover a new love.
Brew some tea, draw a hot bath, and apply a facial mask. Now lay back and relax in the hot tub. Let all your winter worries drift away. Bonus points for soaking with a good book.
Sort the Bookshelf
Or the DVD rack. See if you can get rid of any of them. You could do this as part of an overall de-cluttering project, or just sort them as a standalone project. Post the books in good condition on Half.com or make a note to take them to a used book store.
Sort Your Box of Photos
I’m one of those hated people who actually puts her photos in albums promptly. Each major trip has its own album, and family photos have an album, too. Most people aren’t like me, though. You don’t have to take up scrapbooking, but you probably have a nice photo album laying around the house. Sort through your photos to find the best shots, then put them in the album. Toss any that seem redundant. If you have a lot of old photos, consider scanning them and storing them on a CD or thumb drive that you keep in a safe deposit box.
Finish Your Half-Finished Projects
Got a model boat that you never finished? Are you midway through knitting a pair of socks? This is a perfect opportunity to finish all of those projects. If you never plan to finish them, throw them out. Unfinished projects are useless clutter you don’t need in your streamlined life.
Burn Your CDs onto an iPod
This assumes you have an iPod or other digital music player. If you do, burn those CDs onto the computer and then load them onto your iPod. If you don’t like a CD enough to burn it (excluding holiday CDs you only listen to in December), then maybe you don’t need to own it. Take it to a used record store to trade in for cash.
Clean Out the Tivo
We just got a DVR and already it’s recording things I didn’t ask it to. I like things neat, so I’ve gotten into the habit of regularly deleting. If you or your device recorded a lot of shows that you haven’t had time to watch, either watch them now or delete them. Chances are good they’re online or will soon be available for rental on DVD anyway.
Once you get going, you’ll probably think of even more projects you could be doing right now. If it’s too cold to go outside, take advantage of the time to do something productive. If you don’t want to be productive, then just spend time with the family. Whatever you do, don’t get through the winter blues with shopping – online or otherwise.
How are you keeping yourself occupied in the dead of winter? Share in the comments.
The other day I was watching CNN. (I need to stop doing that. It tends to make me stabby.) On this particular day, a pundit declared that people who aren’t currently suffering as a result of the economic decline have a moral obligation to spend their money to help save the economy. I must have blacked out at that point, because I don’t remember what was said next.
You can probably guess my answer to the question: Do we have a moral obligation to spend? NO!
I didn’t get us into this mess, and it’s not my responsibility to get us out of it. I didn’t get a mortgage I can’t afford. I didn’t buy multiple cars I didn’t need. I didn’t let mounds of credit card pile up without panicking. I didn’t console myself with shopping. I didn’t fill my house with useless crap because it was on sale.
I am a frugal person and a wise spender. Why should I throw all that at risk because our government and our financial industry forgot that whole notion of saving? Or because they decided that shopping is the American way.
It wasn’t my obligation to shop after 9/11, and it isn’t now.
Who Is Obligated to Spend?
The economy can’t continue to be fueled by rampant consumer spending, but some organizations do need to spend. So who are they?
The banks who took bailout money
You can’t accept billions of dollars of financial stimulus and then sit on it or pay it out as bonuses. That money was intended to be loaned to qualified borrowers like stable businesses, home buyers, and car buyers. So start lending – that’s your job.
State and city governments
I’m not saying that state and city governments can’t have savings. They can and should so that economic dips can be weathered, but they also can’t just stop paying teachers and halt transportation projects. Again, the banks need to be making loans to states and cities so they can continue to fund their workforce, who will in turn contribute to the tax pool, which will keep the economy going.
The Federal government
Again, not permanently. As I said yesterday, we need to pay down our debt, but the government also needs to fund real stimulus projects that will put money into worker’s pockets. Not tax breaks, not bank bailouts, but jobs. Then once the economy is rolling again, Congress needs to cut wasteful spending and stop rampant borrowing so we can get out of debt as a nation.
Consumers certainly contributed to our financial disaster by taking out too much credit, buying homes they couldn’t afford, and living beyond their means. However, this is a national problem, not just an individual problem. They couldn’t have bought those homes if the government had effectively regulated mortgages. They couldn’t have taken out so much credit if the banks had abided by basic credit standards. They couldn’t have lived beyond their means if the first two practices hadn’t been permitted.
I don’t believe in trickle-down economics, but in this case, the situation won’t get better for the consumers until the issues at the top are resolved. That has to happen in the banks and the government, not with already tapped consumers.
What do you think? Do we have an obligation to spend? If not us, then who?
I read about “IOUSA” a few weeks ago in Money Magazine, but it’s not yet on DVD. Then I happened to see that CNN would be airing it January 10 and 11. On went my DVR. A few hours later, I sat down to watch it. Up went my heartrate. If you want to watch a truly scary movie, this is the film for you.
The movie is a documentary about America’s love affair with debt. Although it does reference individual debt as one of the problems of our overall economy, the primary focus is on our national debt and national deficit. The deficit is the difference between what we spend and what we collect in revenue. The debt is the amount we’ve borrowed to pay for spending not covered by the revenue. The projected deficit for 2009 is $438 billion. The current national debt is almost $11 trillion. The movie explains the history of our debt and the policies that led to this giant number. It also lays out the problems that will arise if we continue our current spending habits, both as individuals and a nation.
The movie bounces between clips from policy hearings and briefings, enlightening graphics, and discussions from economic experts like former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, Warren Buffett, and members of the Concord Coalition. Finally, there are the man-on-the-street interviews that make the average American look uninformed. I’m not a big fan of those gotcha moments, but the rest is excellent.
The Scary Numbers
One fact particularly galled me: our debt has only been at 122% of GDP one time – during World War II. At that time, the debt was owed to Americans who had purchased savings bonds. The debts were also quickly paid down to below 33% of GDP. Now our debt is near 70% of GDP. More than 50% of that is owed to foreign entities.
Another scary fact: George W. Bush has doubled the national debt in just 6 years.
A third scary fact: Although Clinton bragged about achieving surpluses, those surpluses were partially a result of borrowing against the Social Security trust. If you exclude that borrowing, we’ve only had a surplus for one year out of the last forty (during Clinton’s era.)
The almost scariest fact of all: If we were to add up our current debt, our Social Security obligations, and our Medicare obligations, we would need to invest $53 trillion dollars today to cover them. We have $0.
The truly scariest fact: If we continue spending at our current levels, our national debt will total 245% of GDP by 2040. There’s simply no way we could ever repay that debt, or even continue to service the debt via interest payments.
So who’s going to get stuck with all of these bills? It’s not George Bush. It’s not any of the people who chose to spend so recklessly. It’s our grandchildren and their grandchildren. We have saddled future generations with monstrous debt.
The only solution is to start paying it down now. We have to control America’s spending, break this habit of consumerism, and encourage everyone to save money for the future. People keep saying that we need to solve the climate issues now to protect the earth for future generations. I agree, we do. But we also need to tackle this debt crisis now, otherwise our children will be begging for food and clothes on a gorgeous green earth.
Visit the movie website to find showtimes and events near you, or watch the 30-minute version on Youtube. You’ll also find bonus clips from the full version on the IOUSA website. It’s scary, but this is a movie you need to see. There’s also a companion book if you want to get deeper into the numbers. Prepare to be very, very scared and very, very angry.
As a final note: this movie was released in August 2008, before the financial collapse and subsequent bail-out, so the situation is even worse than it was when the movie was made.
The other day I heard Vicki Robin refer to the Simplicity Movement in a CNN interview. She was brought on as the counterpoint to a man saying that it was our patriotic duty to spend money. Obviously, she didn’t agree. More than that, it started me wondering just what the Simplicity Movement is and how it works. It turns out, I’m already a follower. If you’d like to simplify your life and help the US build a more sustainable economy and environment, then this movement may be right for you. Here’s more about it.
How Did the Simplicity Movement Start?
The book Voluntary Simplicity really kicked off the movement. It was published in 1981. A few years later, Your Money or Your Life extended the interest in the movement. The two books together advise people on living a simpler, more fulfilling life. That doesn’t returning to the woods to live on nuts and berries, but instead consuming more consciously. Let your values determine your spending, rather than letting your spending determine your values. For most people, this switch leads to a more frugal life where we spend less because we focus more on the people and interests that matter to us and less on finding fulfillment through material goods.
What Are The Cornerstones of the Movement?
Frugality. A shift towards more frugal lifestyles is probably the primary result of the movement. You could say that the nation is trending toward simplicity because we’re all scaling back our spending and looking for ways to enjoy what we have more out of necessity. Cooking at home is in, dining out in expensive restaurants is out. Keeping the car you have is in, buying a new car every three years is out. Making your clothes last longer is in, buying the latest fashions is out. All of these are choices straight out of the Simplicity Movement.
Sustainability. In addition to frugality, many followers of the movement are concerned with creating a more sustainable environment. They do this by being aware of the way our choices as consumers affect the environment. Most followers choose to buy more whole foods, fewer packaged foods, products with less packaging, and used goods. They also choose not to buy just to buy. For some, it also means buying pastured beef, milk, pork, chicken, and eggs and growing more food in a home garden.
Family. Followers of the movement tend to place a higher value on family and community than they do on career and money. Many scale-down high-intensity careers in order to have more time to spend with their families, pursue personal interests, and contribute to the community. Again, as we shift into this new economy, many people are returning to this simple attitude toward life by necessity.
Spiritual Well-Being. The movement doesn’t preach any particular religious faith or belief. Instead the focus is on improving your spiritual self rather than your material self.
Where Do I Learn More?
In addition to the above books, SimpleLiving.net offers a wealth of information, study groups, forums, and events. You can also look for a PBS series called Simple Living with Wanda Urbanski.
Don’t look at magazines like Real Simple. That’s just consumerism masked as simplicity. The Simplicity Movement doesn’t mean buying pretty wicker baskets to organize your stuff, it means getting rid of the stuff.
As with all prior economic downturns, this new trend towards national Simplicity won’t stick as a whole, but it may stick with you. Now is a good time to follow the herd and get back to basics, just make sure you don’t follow them back to consumerism once the economy is flush again.
I first read about Simplify Your Life by Elaine St. James at Zen Habits. I instantly ordered a copy from the library (in keeping with the theme.) I expected a heavy tome, but it came it at a mere 238 pages. It’s also only about 5 x 5, so it really is a small, simple book. It does contain some big ideas, though.
Good Ideas for Simplifying Your Life
This book is written from the perspective of a woman who once lived a very hectic, over-charged, big-city life. One day she and her husband realized it was all too much and decided to simplify. The core message is that you don’t have to keep up with the Jones, the Smiths, or anyone else. You only have to live a life that satisfies you.
The book is a mixed bag of ideas. Among my favorites:
Get rid of the clutter in your life - I’m looking forward to moving later this year so I can do a really deep purge of my outmoded stuff.
Buy in bulk – saves time and money, if you have the storage space.
Plant a garden – it’s relaxing and saves money, but again requires the space.
Run errands in one place – if you can do this, it’s a simple but effective strategy
Replace your lawn with ground cover – this is especially appropriate if you live in a drought-prone area where traditional grass is not a native plant. When we do have land, we intend to replace the water-guzzling lawn with a lawn-like ground covering that uses ¼ the water.
Move to a smaller house – We’ll be going a little bigger for our house, but we know people with a huge house who only live in half of it. Even if it was a great price, that’s a waste. Fortunately or unfortunately, houses in Los Angeles are small. Built in the 1920s small.
Stop junk mail – done and I love it.
Get out of debt – ditto.
Live on half of what you earn – a great idea if you can manage it.
Stop being a slave to your Day Runner – or PDA to update the suggestion. I lost my PDA a few years ago. I’m much happier with a notepad and paper calendar.
Not So Great Ideas
Or, more specifically, ideas that aren’t really applicable or workable for many people”
Bow out of the holidays – good luck with that!
Get rid of your car phone – these days, you’re better off ditching the home phone and having only a cell phone
Sell the boat – I don’t know anyone who owns a boat. True, a boat is a very expensive thing that rarely gets used, but it’s not an issue for the average person.
Build a simple wardrobe – men already have it pretty easy, but she suggests women pick one basic style and stick with it. I only have about two weeks worth of work shirts, but even I get bored with them after a while. There’s only so much simplifying one can do.
Pay off your mortgage – Several statistics have shown that the average person is better off keeping a mortgage and investing the rest. Even with our market in a tailspin, stocks are likely to be the better option over the long-term.
Rent rather than own – As a current renter, I think this is terrible advice. I hate being at the mercy of a landlord, waiting for them to get around to fixing something, and having to deal with idiot neighbors. Yes, homeowners have idiot neighbors, too, but they’re not usually living on top of you or throwing watermelons off your roof.
The real key to this book isn’t so much the specific suggestions, as the ideas it will produce. Once you start thinking about which of her ideas work for you, you’ll probably think of others that will work even better. You might even be motivated to get off the couch and do something about it right now. If you want to simplify your life (and by extension, your finances), this book is a great way to start. And a really quick read.
I love a family game night. I come from a very competitive family, so we can be a bit hardcore in our games, but you can have a peaceful family game night, too. If you play with games you already own and enjoy affordable snack food at home, it can be much cheaper than a family trip to the movies or even an outing to a mini-golf park or restaurant with games. Here are six tips for keeping it frugal.
Play Accessory-Free Games
Some games only need a watch, pencil, and paper. Try games like Win, Lose, or Draw or charades. Pair up and set a number of rounds. The team with the lowest time score wins at the end.
Choose Games You Already Own
Most families have a few games suitable for everyone. Games like Life and Monopoly are standard in most households, but you can also play cards, dominoes, or even Chutes and Ladders.
Borrow Games from Friends
If you’re tired of the games you own, ask your friends what games they have. Borrow a couple games and try them out. If you find one you really like, it’s a perfect holiday gift or something to ask for on birthdays.
Turn Off the TV and Other Electronics
Since you’ll all be huddled together playing the game, you can turn off the TV, the stereo, and the computers while you play. That will reduce your energy costs and prevent distractions. It may seem extreme, but it’s definitely frugal.
Eat Homemade Snack Foods
Family game night calls for finger food, but rather than buy junk at the store or order a pizza, use what you have on hand. Make a batch of nachos with chips and grated cheese, put out a plate of cold cuts, crackers, and cheese, or serve fondue with chopped bread, salami, and veggies. If you spend the evening grazing on healthy snacks, everyone will get a full meal without breaking up the fun for a real “dinner.” (Hint: my sister and I loved getting a night off the real dinner.)
Invite Friends Over for Game Night
Make it cheaper and even more entertaining by inviting friends over. Ask them to bring healthy snacks and their games. Then you can split into groups to play kids with kids and adults with adults. No kids? An all-adults game night is just as much fun.
Just about any game is good for family game night, but these are my favorites: Chickenfoot (dominoes), charades, Pictionary, Balderdash, Rummikub, Trivial Pursuit, Outburst, Risk, and Taboo. Some are great for big groups while others are good for two or more. What are you favorite game night games or snack foods? Tell me in the comments.
When the weather gets chilly, I tend to be drawn towards heavier, warmer food. Dishes we’d usually consider comfort food. Here are my top ten choices for filling winter foods you might want to try. As a bonus, most them are pretty darn frugal, too.
Roasted chicken appeared on my fall foods list, but it’s also one of the simplest, most satisfying winter foods around. There are a million variations on the perfect roasted chicken, but two things are most important to me: juicy meat and crispy skin. The herbs and other flavorings are just bonuses on this already satisfying dish. A whole chicken is pretty cheap (unless you’re buying organic), and you can complete the meal by tossing a few halved roasting potatoes and some carrots into the pan with it.
Are you sensing a theme? I saw this recipe on the Food Network the other day and my mouth started watering. Roasting a big hunk of meat is just as easy as roasting a chicken. The sides are generally the same, too – toss some potatoes in the pan with the roast and you’re good to go.
Any kind – chowder, chicken noodle, tomato bean, it doesn’t matter. Give me a bowl of soup and a piece of toast and I’m a happy camper. French onion soup is sounding particularly good right now. I prefer fresh soup, but canned soup will do. It’s the best when you’re sick – and science proves it. They don’t know why, but chicken soup really does speed the healing process for the common cold or flu. They suspect it has to do with the way the fat in the chicken renders down and combines with the antioxidants in the vegetables.
Macaroni and Cheese
I actually didn’t like mac and cheese as a kid, but now that I’ve discovered the joys of the homemade version with gluten-free pasta and manchego cheese, I’m sold on the wonders of this traditional comfort food.
Grilled Cheese Sandwich
Another childhood favorite that makes a fabulous accompaniment to a bowl of soup. I preferred American cheese as a child, but I’m open to variations like cheddar, manchego, and other rich cheeses now.
It might be the spices, but I love a hearty jambalaya in the middle of winter. Shrimp, sausage, rice, beans, and strong spices will give you the kick you need to get through the cold months.
You can make just about any kind of fried rice in a flash. All you need is cooked rice, soy sauce, an egg, some sort of veggies, and meat or nuts. I prefer mine with snow peas and cashews, but I’ve also had it with ham and peas or chicken and peas. Mix and match – it’s filling no matter how you serve it.
I’ll admit that I’m not usually a big lasagna fan, mostly because Italian food always made me feel terrible. Now I know it was the pasta that was the issue. I haven’t yet attempted to make a gluten-free lasagna (it’s tough to make when you only buy penne pasta), but I’ve been craving it for a few weeks now so I might have to give it a try.
It sounds very 70s, but casserole can actually be quite tasty and filling. Even the classic tuna casserole can be made modern by choosing better ingredients than a can of tuna and cream of mushroom soup.
It sounds light and summery, but risotto can be just as filling in the middle of winter. It’s all in the ingredients you choose. Make it with butternut squash and it’s a totally different experience than the shrimp and lemon risotto you made in the peak of summer.
The beauty of many of these foods is that they make enough for a lunch or even a second dinner. Not a fan of leftovers? Freeze part and eat it about a month later with different side dishes. It won’t seem like leftovers. It will seem like a convenient freezer meal.
What are you favorite foods for winter? Tell me in the comments.