Friday, March 31, 2006

Cable TV for -$7

It's my (admittedly vague) impression that most pfbloggers approach TV in one of two ways: either all out, satellite or digital cable or what-have-you, or nixing the TV altogether. But I'm somewhere in the middle.

I'm trying to wean myself off television. I've been trying to wean myself off television for five years or so, actually, and it never seems to work. But nevertheless, since I keep telling myself I should be watching less TV rather than more, I am reluctant to pay $40+ a month for cable.

So the very first time I signed up for Comcast cable internet, and found out that cable TV subscribers pay $10-$15 less a month than internet-only folks, I was not particularly interested in adding on so-called "basic cable." But listening to the customer service agent, you'd think it was my only option. It took a lot of pushing, prodding, and insisting before she revealed that there was, in fact, an even "basic-er" version: limited basic cable, $8 a month, and supposedly only covering the channels you'd pick up with your antenna anyway. "Hey," thought I, "even if I only get a handful of channels, my internet bill comes out cheaper. It's -$7 a month, so why not?"

Yet limited basic cable, at least in my experience, is a whole lot more than just the networks. I'll put it this way: think of every cable channel that no one would bother paying extra for. Well, most of those end up in your limited basic package. Yes, that means channels like the Golf Channel and Lifetime (no offense if you like them!), but it also means another 15-20 random channels, at least a few of which will probably strike your fancy. I've been able to get by quite happily with this set of channels. Yes, there's no cable news (good riddance, really), and no ESPN (which hurts, but there's something fun about old-fashioned sports on the radio), but there's more than enough for someone attempting to watch TV in moderation.

But that's not the kicker. The kicker is that two of the three times I've had this "limited basic" service installed by Comcast, I've turned on my TV to discover that I have instead received the full/expanded basic cable lineup! For -$7 a month! (Yes, I know it's anecdotal. But still.)

So, that's my story. I think the $8 version is a nice happy medium, and I recommend it to anyone, whether you're looking at downgrading from a more deluxe version, or upgrading from a cable-less existence (especially if you're already paying for cable internet, and thus end up with a -$7/month situation.) And hey, roll the dice-- maybe you'll end up with an even better deal than you thought...

(Thanks to the search function at the ever-wonderful, I pulled up this post from Blueprint for Financial Prosperity on general Comcast tips and deals. Check it out!)

How do you approach TV/cable?

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Work, Retirement, and Financial Independence

At Make Love Not Debt, He recently wondered why so many personal finance bloggers are looking to "retire early." I just finished a really thought-provoking book called "Your Money or Your Life," which is prompting me to rethink this concept.

I have always had a very negative association with the whole concept of retiring early and living off your investments. It conjures up images of a privileged "leisure class," living in decadence off the sweat of working people, using their free time to golf or shop or stay at fancy hotels around the world. And I imagine that they have enough money to do so because they put money above all else, not caring about who or what they hurt on their way to the top. That doesn't fit my values at all!

But "Your Money or Your Life" has totally turned this on its head for me. I just finished reading it this week and am still processing it, and I'm not sure I agree with everything it suggests, but it talks a lot about achieving financial independence (actually, FI, which includes financial intelligence, financial integrity, and financial independence). The case it makes is that once you are FI, you will be able to spend your time and live your life purely according to your values. And a big part of their message is living simply and frugally (both in the present so you can save money, and in the future so you can afford to be FI)-- I can't argue with that!

YMOYL is full of examples of FI people doing incredible things to make the world a better place. Many of them have values similar to mine, and honestly, it sounds incredibly appealing. Yes, I have a great job which I enjoy and which promotes my values, and I'm in no hurry to leave it. But there are so many other meaningful things I would love to do in my life that would inevitably pay me little or nothing at all. It would fit my values perfectly to have the freedom to do those things anyway without having to worry about where the next meal's coming from. In my fondest dreams of the ideal society, everyone can do work which they love and find fulfilling without having to worry about getting paid for it; FI is a path towards that for the individual which leaves the rest of society intact, for better or for worse.

I'm still trying to figure out what effect YMOYL will have on my decisions (and I bet I'll be writing more about it as a result!). But if nothing else, it's helped get rid of my automatic negative reaction to anyone who's trying for early retirement/financial independence. I don't know their motives or their values, and it's unfair of me to assume that they're bad ones. Who knows what wonderful things they might do once they are freed from paid work?

Monday, March 27, 2006

I think I need a "giving plan"!

Claire, FMF, and others have been talking about giving lately, so I thought I'd jump in. Their organizing and planning puts mine to shame, though.

Although I aim to give away 10% of my take-home pay, my disorganized and haphazard approach has meant that in practice it's been more like 5% each of the last two years. (Which is actually about 3.5% of my gross income, which I'm pretty disappointed about.) Clearly I need a "giving plan."

Currently, the bulk of my money tends to go to either social justice foundations that will do the evaluating of organizations and distributing of money for me, like Chicago's Crossroads Fund; big in-your-face disasters like the tsunami or Hurricane Katrina (although instead of giving to the Red Cross, I like to wait a little while for things to settle and figure out which organizations are doing the work that mainstream relief might be missing); and beyond that, it's mostly a bunch of $50-$100 donations to random organizations that struck my fancy at the right moment.

But I can see that I desperately need to be more organized about planning and tracking my donations. Not just so I get the totals up, but also so I can be more deliberate about my decisions. I actually have a recurring monthly donation to a group that would not even be in my top 20 of groups to give to, but because they got me on the phone and I started feeling guilty about how far I was from my giving goals, they get $10 from me every month indefinitely. Now, they're a perfectly fine group, and I won't take myself off their list until I've gotten up to 10% and there's another organization I'd prefer to switch those dollars to. But it's an example of why I need to plan better and be more thoughtful about who I want to give to.

So, I'm going to harness the power and accountability of blogging, and commit to creating a giving plan within the next month. I'll be thinking through the "why" and "who" for myself, but I'm curious about how other people handle the "how." Do you give a set amount every month? Do you save up and give every few months based on what you can afford? Do you do all or most of your giving in December?

(Please don't miss the excellent description at Tired but happy of Claire and M's giving plan, or FMF's tips on treating giving as an investment.)

Saturday, March 25, 2006

March Mediocrity

It's at times like these that I reflect on the wise financial decision not to enter a March Madness pool for money-- because my picks are all shot to heck! I am currently ranked #1,517,265 at And if UConn hadn't just barely scraped by last night, I would be much worse off.

Don't get me wrong, I think that money pools can be a great entertainment value for the money-- if you have a relatively good knowledge of NCAA basketball and hence a half-decent shot at winning the pot. I, on the other hand, know very little and generally make my picks in a haphazard manner. ("Hmm, need another upset here, let's see... ooh, Kent State is a 12 seed, and way back in 1970 those students were killed by the National Guard there, so why don't I pick them?")

Since I know from the start that my chances of winning a pool are close to nil, I usually don't bother. But I fill out a bracket every year nonetheless-- it makes watching the tournament much more fun, and excitement and playing for pride and bragging rights against friends and family is a fine prize too! Plus, with a winner-take-all money prize, 2nd place is the first loser; but if I can come in 2nd or 3rd in a decent-sized group, I am quite satisfied with myself. This year, however, I'll be lucky not to end up dead last...

Friday, March 24, 2006

Money & Values Around the Blogosphere

One thing I hope I can avoid in this blog is sounding self-righteous about my personal values. Of course I'll mostly be writing about myself-- isn't that what blogs are for?-- but that doesn't mean I'm trying to convince everyone to emulate me. While I feel strongly about what I believe, people with different values will want to make different decisions, and I hope they will still feel welcomed here. (And even people with similar values may make very different choices from me, of course!)

In other words, I'm not trying to make a definitive statement about the right way to combine your money and values, I'm just chronicling my own experiences and thoughts, and hoping we can all learn from and inspire eachother. If I start sounding too preachy, please tell me, and I will try to get back on track!

Anyway, as a great illustration of this, this week I've come across three different blog entries about how people's values influence their financial decisions. The values they focus on are not the most prominent ones in my life, but I still think it's great they're thinking about the money/values intersection and writing about it:

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Coffee Talk

Not ordinary coffee, but those tasty espresso drinks. On a tough day at work-- okay, any day at work!-- they're hard to resist.

But a Starbucks habit is pricey. And trying to ignore temptation often leads to that vicious cycle: deny yourself --> feel deprived --> give in and buy something to feel better/because "I've earned it, I've been so good" --> feel guilty about it --> deny yourself. In the end, you're still spending more money than you planned, and there's all that guilt and deprivation floating around.

My solution? Powdered mixes. I keep a tin on my desk at work pretty much constantly. A $4 tin makes 20 cups-- that's $0.20 a day. I'm no coffee connoisseur, but I think mocha-from-a-mix is delicious. And for the same price as just one fancy coffeehouse drink, I can enjoy a whole month's worth. I am the antithesis of a morning person, but knowing I get to sit down with a cup of mocha gives me at least a little something to smile about as I start my day. And the temptation to go hunting for a Starbucks for a little pick-me-up becomes almost nonexistent.

When I'm on the road, or otherwise away from the office, I choose convenience store or gas station cappuccinos-- yes, the kind from the machine! They're obviously cheaper than Starbucks. (At the White Hen near me, you can fill up your travel mug for $1.) Plus, I kind of like trying the wacky flavors they come up with. Butterfinger? Mint Oreo? Pumpkin?

And when I do treat myself to an all-out espresso drink, I look for a local coffeeshop, and I always pick Dunkin' Donuts over Starbucks. Why? Well, not only is it a little cheaper, but all Dunkin' Donuts espresso drinks are made with fair trade coffee. (At Starbucks, you can sometimes get them to brew a pot of fair trade coffee by special request, so try it. But sometimes they'll refuse, and they never do it as a default. And I don't think it's possible to get fair trade espresso drinks there.)

Certified fair trade coffee ensures that coffee farmers are paid enough for their coffee beans to support their families. The roaster/buyer must also extend credit to the farmers, and enter into long-term contracts to provide stability. And most of the middlemen are cut out, in favor of developing democratically-run farmer cooperatives. As a result, coffee farmers have not only more income but more control over their lives.

Now I'm getting all verklempt
. Talk amongst yourselves. Here, I'll give you a topic: How do your coffee and espresso drink choices incorporate your frugality and/or your values? Discuss!

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Community Development Banking

One of the money/values choices I'm happiest with is my money market account, which is deposited in a community development bank.

Community development banks are banks whose mission is to support and provide resources for low-income communities which are traditionally financially underserved. Unlike ordinary banks with one (financial) bottom-line, community development banks also consider the social impact of the loans they make, and measure their success based on a double bottom-line (supporting people and communities, and operating profitably) or a triple bottom-line (which also includes environmental impact).

Community development financial institutions (CDFIs) make lots of loans to help people and organizations in low-income communities buy homes, start small businesses, develop non-profits, and build and rehab affordable housing. They may also make small loans to individuals abroad (micro-credit).

They often make loans to people who have trouble finding loans anywhere else-- people with bad credit histories or no credit history at all, people without collateral or co-signers-- so they take on a somewhat greater risk than traditional banks. But the rate of default on their loans is actually pretty comparable to traditional banks. One reason why comes from this article at MSN Money:

[Says Mike Pinsky, president and CEO of The National Community Capital Association:] "We specialize in projects where the perception of risk is higher than the actual risk."

For example, community-development institutions often provide mortgages to low-income borrowers who were turned down by other lenders because of their bad credit. The institutions have discovered that they can find good credit risks when they remove unpaid medical bills from the credit-scoring equation.

"A lot of the people in low-wealth areas are very hard-working and they pay their bills," Pinsky said. But they're often uninsured and unable to cover soaring medical bills from an accident or illness.

"If you remove the unpaid health-care bills (from their credit scores), they often qualify for prime credit," he said.
Domini Social Investments, the same investment firm where I have my Roth IRA, has a great money market account. All of the assets in the money market account go straight to ShoreBank, one of the oldest and most well-known community development banks, based right here in Chicago. And right now it has a 4.07% APY, which is just fine by me. I know it's not the absolute highest interest rate I could find, but it's a great balance for me personally. I'm happy knowing my money is having a positive social impact, and my savings are at least keeping a little ahead of inflation.

I could go on and on about this-- and I bet I will, at some point in the future-- but for now, you can learn more about community development financial institutions (banks and credit unions, community development loan funds, even venture capital) at the Community Investing Center, or read some of the great real life success stories here. And if the environment is a high priority for you, check out this really neat environmental bank.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Lentil Chili for Dummies

Tonight for dinner, I made one of my favorite easy, cheap meals-- lentil chili, a vegetarian's best friend.

Now, there are a lot of great recipes out there for lentil chili (including my mom's!). On the plus side, they taste fantastic. On the minus side, they require tons of ingredients, including various fresh vegetables, and I never seem to have all the ingredients around when I want to make it.

I do make all-out lentil chili sometimes, and I freely admit, it tastes better that way. But usually I make a simplified version, which is still very yummy, and as cheap and simple as can be:

  • 1 lb. dried lentils ($0.50)
  • 1 can diced tomatoes ($0.50)
  • 6 cups of water
  • a healthy amount of various spices (maybe a couple teaspoons each? I just do what feels right!)-- cumin, chili pepper, garlic salt, black pepper
  • a splash of balsalmic vinegar
  • shredded cheese to top
Basically all you do is mix everything together (except for the balsalmic vinegar, which goes in right at the end, and the shredded cheese of course), cover, and simmer for an hour. And voila, you've got three servings' worth of lentil chili. I told you it was easy! And tasty. And healthy. And, as you can see, quite cheap. I'm not sure how much to estimate for the spices, vinegar, and cheese, but I'm guessing it's somewhere between 50 and 80 cents, which would make the cost $0.50-$0.60 a portion. Not bad, eh?

Credit Cards and Cash Back

For some people, credit cards can be a serious problem. I have incredible admiration for the personal finance bloggers, and others around the country, resolutely digging themselves out from incredible debt, often with the added burden of outrageous, usurious interest rates.

But I'm one of the lucky ones; I've never been in a financial situation where I needed to rely on credit cards to get by, and I've developed the habit of paying off my credit card every month. And when you have the freedom and the discipline to do that, credit cards can be a wonderful thing.

I have a cash back credit card, and I put virtually everything I spend on it. As a result, I get back 5% of what I spend on groceries and gas, and 1% of everything else. It's one of the easiest ways to earn a little extra money-- you get cash back for money you'd spend anyway.

My card is a Citi Dividend Platinum Select, but you can get the same deal with Chase Cash Plus Rewards (plus at the moment a $100 bonus for signing up). I think those are the best deals for people who spend a moderate amount, but they have a limit of $300 in cash back per year. If that's not enough for you, there are some cards for big spenders which give 5% on everything once you've spent a certain amount (over $6,500 for the Amex Blue Cash, for example).

Now, I don't like Citigroup as a company. They have a history of predatory and abusive lending to low-income individuals (they were sued by the Federal Trade Commission for it in 2001), and although they've improved in the past few years, they still have some serious ethical issues. So I would be uncomfortable helping Citi out; that's one reason I don't have a bank account with them.

But I happen to be one of those folks that credit card companies dread. I pay my bills in full every single month-- no late fees, no obscenely high interest rates-- and I get my rewards back. I'm pretty sure I come out the winner in this relationship. Chipping away at a company like Citigroup's profits? I've got no problem with that!

Monday, March 13, 2006

Me, My Money, and My Values


I'm 24 years old, and I live in Chicago. I grew up in a middle-class home in a rural, almost entirely white community on the East Coast. I've been working at the same (professional, not-for-profit) job since I graduated college with a BA in April 2004-- almost two years now. And of course, my name is not actually Penny Nickel, but I think Penny/Penelope is a beautiful name, so it's as good a pseudonym as any!

My Money

As of this April, I'll be making $47,000 a year. I have $17,500 in debt, all from student loans. I have about $10,000 in retirement savings right now: $7000 in a Roth IRA, and $3000 in a 401(k) which has no employer match. (I started contributing 6% to the 401(k) about a year ago.) And I have about $15,000 in cash/savings in my money market account.

My Values

I'm committed to social and economic justice, and I try to do all I can to work towards a better, fairer world. I think that commercialism and consumerism often distract us from what's really important and meaningful in life-- but I also realize that money and financial issues have a huge impact on most people's quality of life (and I wish that wasn't so). I think that we Americans work too much and spend too little time with family and friends and on fulfilling leisure activities-- and I think we need to work together to reshape our society so we can all have a healthier balance. I prefer small, locally-owned businesses to corporations (and cooperatives most of all). I've been a vegetarian for 12 years, and care about animal rights and the environment. I believe in peace and non-violence, international debt relief, and fair trade and genuine international economic development (the kind that helps ordinary people around the world, not just elites and corporations). I think we need to be open and honest about class, income, wealth, and their effects in our lives.

And one of my most strongly held beliefs is that since money, finances, and economics play such a major role in society, they should reflect our values-- on a societal scale, and on an individual level too. So I'm trying my best to live that out in my own life, and now I'm looking forward to sharing and learning with you!