Saturday, September 02, 2006

Saving Grace

I established a goal a while back of trying to save roughly a quarter of my take-home pay by the end of the year. Originally, I was just saving for a trip, but then sometime around the middle of the year I decided that it was time to come up with that "safety net" that everyone keeps talking about, just in case I get laid off or pull some crazy, blockheaded maneuver. I have substantial savings, but they're not the sort of thing that would help me out in an emergency. They're squirreled away in "don't touch this" accounts that I really don't intend to pilfer.

I already had a savings account, and I was already siphoning off regular amounts from checking into savings, in that whole "pay yourself first" strategy. But the problem with the pay yourself first strategy is that you can't pay yourself nearly enough. You're constantly worried that you'll have to come up with some extra cash (what if my electric bill is $150--I do live in Arizona, you know). So you don't "pay yourself first" nearly enough to come up with a quarter of your take-home pay by December. Well, I wasn't.

The obvious solution was to pay myself not only first, but last as well. And in order to have anything to pay myself at the end of the month, that meant a budget. I suck at budgeting. I used to be good at it, but then I had a marital experience where I got out of the habit of writing everything down. (Did you know that writing down what you spend makes you a shrill harpy? Yeah, me neither.) I've never really picked the habit back up again for more than a few months.

I have, however, worked in finance for far too long. So I started a chart. Here was my proposed spending (i.e., everything left in my bank account), and here was my stretch goal for saving (the amount I'd have to save every month to have the right amount at the end of the year). Finally, here was the gap between what I'd already saved and my goal. What ingenuity could I employ to move money from the proposed spending pile to the proposed saving pile? Watching my money in a sort of ad-hoc budget could get me close--some months closer than others. Getting the rest of the way to the desired figure required a little more grifting.

Over the last few months I have sold things, traded things, tracked down money people owed me (there is one of these left, but it's a humiliating experience, and I'm avoiding it), traded in a gym membership for a treadmill, and canceled my massage membership (this is like leaving the mafia, I kid you not--I think I had to threaten to leave a horse's head in someone's bed). I have stopped using my long-distance account. I have changed (but not eliminated) my cell phone package. I have started checking out books from the library, and I have been saving all my change. I have taken out a credit card that gives me cash back on various purchases. I have turned my thermostat up to 80. (I'm freezing all the time, so this is not as bad as it sounds. I'll turn it down when you come over. Honest.)

I have not started cooking for myself. There are limits, people. No one should ever have to eat things I cook. (Unless it's a breakfast casserole. My breakfast casseroles don't suck.)

Right now I'm on track to get to 92% of my goal by December. I thought I'd start throwing out info on some of the good deals I've found, in case anyone else was in the mood for saving some cash.

Blockbuster Video is running a promotion where if you rent a movie, they give you a card good for a free month of rent-by-mail membership (street value, $18). You get as many DVD's as you can cram into a month, three at a time, for free. You also get coupons for in-store rentals. You owe nothing if you cancel within a month. They ask for your credit card, but theoretically they won't charge it until you lose a DVD or until your "free" period expires. Cancel after a month and spend nothing. Alternatively, keep the membership if it meets your needs and you rent more than four videos a month (otherwise you're better off renting from the store). I plan to use this mercilessly to catch up on "Oz," which I recently discovered on DVD. I really want to know what happens next, but $4 for 2-3 episodes is as devastating to my current budget as a crack addiction.

ING Direct is offering a sweet deal on their savings accounts. Open an account and they give you $25 to help you along. Do you really want to open one? Ask me to refer you--then I get $10 and you get $25. Pressure your friends to open accounts. Pssst! Save money! Everybody's doing it! And the account pays 4.35% interest. My bank was giving me less than 1%. ING Direct is particularly good for the computer-savvy--everything can be done electronically, and they have more robust security than my regular financial institution, which has been in the news in recent months. To get $25, use code D256P while opening your account (or e-mail me and I'll refer you, then I get $10--come on, you know you wanna). To get $10 for referring a friend, open your own account first, then click on the megaphone at the bottom of your "View My Account" screen--the one that says, "Earn $$$, Refer a Friend."

That's it for now. I'll probably review the new credit card at some point. My mother has made money on cashback credit cards, but I'm still skeptical. We'll see.

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