Sunday, January 29, 2012

Cutting back and saving up

So, money. The topic is so exciting that I needed a whole two weeks to prepare myself. That, or I couldn't bring myself to face my current spending habits.

Once upon a time, I was a college student living at home. I worked the whole time and didn't spend too excessively, but every once in a while I could afford to do something crazy. Like study abroad two years in a row, or buy a plane ticket to China on a whim. I always had my savings to fall back on and always envisioned that I would have enough money in the future to make up for it, so why not?! Plus, I didn't see myself as really wanting want "other" people wanted. I imagined myself working internationally, floating from place to place, never really needing my own home or a job that I could stay in for years.

Cholula, Mexico

Then I got a bit older and realized that I wanted those things. I also remembered that I was a social worker and that social workers earn a pretty modest income. OOPS. I eventually settled into a job that I enjoy and I've had my own apartment now for about five months, after living with roommates for a while. The switch from having ridiculously low living expenses to paying for everything by myself has been hard, but I've learned some things along the way that are helping me.

Having my money go to where it needs to be - If my money is all in one place, it's too difficult for me to keep track of how much I have for bills and savings and how much I have for other expenses. So I decided to split it up! Each pay period, I have half of what's needed for my fixed bills and expenses (rent, car insurance, utilities, etc.) put into a checking account that I use just to pay those bills. When one of them becomes due, I know that I have enough in that account to pay it. I also have a specific amount that's deposited into my savings account each pay period and I don't let myself touch it. Then! I have a second checking account where I put the remainder of my money. I use this money for groceries, gas, entertainment, and anything else that I would need to buy. I check in every few days to see how much I have left until I get paid again and it helps me rationalize my purchases. If I have money left over at the end, I can choose to put it into savings or keep it around for a bigger purchase later on.

Re-examining monthly expenses - Before I got my own place, I looked at all my fixed expenses and tried to see how I could cut back. I joined a cheaper and closer gym, I took the AAA Defensive Driving course to reduce my car insurance, and I took advantage of a discount for my phone bill through my employer. I also keep a lot of my appliances and lights off and unplugged when I'm not using them to cut back on utility costs. I don't have cable, but pay $7.99/mo for Netflix.

Packing my lunches - This has been huge for me. I used to pick up lunch a lot during the work week (I'm in and out of the office most days) or I would walk to a nearby restaurant to get food. While I admittedly don't buy the cheapest groceries, it still saves me money in the end and allows me to eat healthier. I don't know why, but I still always dread packing my lunch. I try to make it easier by packing dinner leftovers after eating the night before or making sure I prepare something else before I go to bed at night. If I leave it for the morning, I will inevitably decide that some form of primping or hygiene takes precedence. Lately, I have been bringing a big salad, greek yogurt, and some kind of granola bar. Really simple, but good.

I'm in love with Chobani's new Cinnamon Apple flavor

Changing habits and expectations - I have been working hard at cooking more and not going out to eat so much. There have been a few occasions when my boyfriend and I have been tempted to just go get dinner somewhere when we were tired and hungry, but I made myself cook dinner because 1) I already had the food and 2) it's cheaper. Of course, it's okay to splurge every now and then as a social activity or just for your own sanity, but I've found that changing my expectation about this kind of thing has helped me. If I don't see it as an option that I can always fall back on, then ... it's not an option to fall back on! We have also been staying in more and thinking of cheap activities to do when going out. Think: free nights at the art gallery or ice skating downtown.

Re-connecting with free or low-cost resources - On a Friday night a few weeks ago, I had the sudden urge to go out and buy a book that I have been meaning to read. So I did. Two days later, I was done with the book and $20 poorer. While supporting a bookstore is not to be frowned upon, going to the library is a much smarter move if you're trying to save money. If I would have waited a day or two, I could have easily found the same book at a nearby branch. I realized this in hindsight and decided to dust off my library card and make use of it once again. The good part is that I've been reading a lot more lately (hours of entertainment!) and they also have an amazing movie collection?! My boyfriend and I have been enjoying all kinds of cinematic treasures since this realization.

Sister Act 2 = Dangerous Minds + Whoopi

Waiting and planning for the big stuff - When I moved into my apartment, I didn't have a lot of my own furniture. I charged a lot of bigger purchases until I decided I wasn't going to buy anything else for a while. So I went months without a coffee table, a TV, and some other stuff, until a lot of the debt was paid off. And really, it wasn't a big deal. Little by little, I found stuff on sale and bought the things that I wanted. I've also been itching to go on a trip lately, so my boyfriend and I decided to plan for Toronto. We had been putting off booking a hotel, when lo and behold, one morning I get an email from Living Social for a half-off deal for a nice downtown Toronto hotel. Done and done. I can be really inpatient and impulsive at times, but I've been trying to re-train myself to realize that the world will not end if I don't have a coffee table to put my bowl of oatmeal on. Turns out, you appreciate it way more when you finally get it.

Things to work on - I fully admit to spending way too much on groceries still. Sometimes I go to Wegmans for a few things and wind up leaving with two bags of groceries. I don't know how this happens! I just love food and shopping for it (as long as it's not a Saturday/Sunday afternoon, when the rest of the world is shopping.) I think I went there 3 times this week for various things. I need to cut back! I need a game plan. I need to meal plan? I'll work on it. I also want to get more creative with things to do around Buffalo that aren't so expensive for those nights where you just want to get out of the house. Sometimes I end up at a bar or venue and spend way too much on drinks. I'm realizing that this needs to be the exception and not the rule. Maybe I should just have people over to my place more often. Game night? Soup night? I'll beat you at Donkey Kong Country night?

So, that's all for now! Thoughts? Hopes? Dreams?  Have a good week :-)

Monday, January 16, 2012

Running in the winter

Happy MLK Day, friends! I was fortunate to have off work today, so I was able to have a really nice morning with my boyfriend. We have opposite work schedules for the most part, so it was a treat to just relax and share a nice breakfast together. Then, we ran! I like running with him, because he pushes me to work harder and not give up when I want to call it a day. The weather here in Buffalo has been pretty cold and we got our first big snowfall this past Friday, so running outside has become more of a challenge. Despite the cold and slush, it's still 10 times better than running on a treadmill!

Snowy side street of Buffalo

My second goal for 2012 is to run more races and exercise at least 3 times a week. I'm happy to report that I'm doing pretty good so far. I just looked at my calendar and while I only ran twice the first week of January, I exercised five times last week. Three were running, one was a long walk in my neighborhood, and the other was a yoga class at my gym! I had been telling myself that I would try a yoga class forever, and I finally made it. So far, so good. I've also put a lot more thought into the Buffalo Half-Marathon in May and decided that I'm not physically or mentally prepared for that yet. I would have to start training hard next month if I wanted to do it, and I'm just not there right now and I'm okay with that. I think it's best to set my sights on small goals for right now and just continue to enjoy running. I don't want to burn out or injure myself. Besides, the Shamrock Run (an 8K race through Buffalo's Old First Ward) is coming up on March 3rd!

Here are some things that have been helping me get out and exercise during the colder months:
Packing my gym bag the night before - If my bag is packed and ready to go, I have no excuse to not pick it up and bring it to work with me in the morning. Once I'm at work and have everything I need, it's really hard for me to justify not going to the gym. This has been a big help to me, because it's already getting dark by the time I get home from work and I have to go to the gym if I want to be able to run safely. The thought of running on a treadmill isn't always the most attractive idea, so this routine helps me see it as just another thing that I do each day and not something that I have the option of ditching. 

I found this bag in my apartment when I moved in - now it's my gym bag!

Making myself get dressed and do something active - If I'm tired or feeling lazy and really can't get myself to run, I make a deal with myself that I'll get dressed and do something else - even if it's just going for a walk. Going for a walk is still better than not doing anything at all, and I always feel better and more energized after even a small amount of exercise. The cool part is that once I'm dressed, I usually feel motivated to run! Getting off the couch and dressed is often half the battle.

Getting ready to walk....or run?!?
Walking instead of driving - It's become harder with the current weather in Buffalo, but I've been trying to walk places whenever possible. Whether it's to my dentist appointment or the coffee shop to read a book, I make myself walk if it's warm enough and not too far away. Not only is it healthier and better for the environment, but I get to see and enjoy more of my neighborhood. I get to smile at neighbors and notice little things that I usually drive right by. I also have been trying to go for walks more often on my lunch break and I take the stairs to my office on the 4th floor everyday. These actions are pretty small on their own, but together they have helped me change the way I look at physical activity.

Taking advantage of days when I can be outside - I really miss not being able to come home from work and run outside in the daylight. I know that Spring will be here soon enough, but in the meantime I'm trying to make the most of nice days. If I happen to get out of work early, I'll come home right away and make sure that I go running. On the weekend, I look at the upcoming weather and pick what days I think I can get outside. If anything, it makes me appreciate the weekends a lot more and I find myself looking forward to running outside when I'm on the treadmill during the week (and who ever thought I would being looking forward to running?!)

Bundled up to run in the snow
I'm still a relatively new runner, but I really love what it has done for me so far, both physically and mentally. It has shown me that I am stronger than I realized and that I can accomplish anything if I really stick with it. When I first started running, I could barely finish a block without feeling like I was going to cough up a lung (not even kidding!) I still have a long way to go, but I'm really proud of myself. I look forward to learning more as I go along and we'll see what this year has in store for me.

Have a great week! Next week I'll be talking about how I'm cleaning up my spending and starting to save more money.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Making lists and eating things

Happy Sunday!

Are you getting all of your fruits and vegetables in? My first goal for 2012 is to cook more and try to eat five servings of fruits and veggies each day. I've been doing pretty good, but I slacked a couple days this past week. One of the things I am trying to keep in mind as I move forward is that it's okay to not be perfect. Just because you drink a lot of champagne on New Year's and dive into a bowl of nachos (who would ever do that...), doesn't mean that you can't get up the next day and prepare good, healthy meals. Similarly, if I have a lazy day and don't eat anything fresh or green, it doesn't mean that I've failed.

Here are some things that are helping me:
  • Making a list of the produce that I have on hand each week - I am horribly guilty of buying food and then forgetting about it until it already goes bad. I've started keeping a list on my magnetic dry-erase board that I have on my fridge. It helps me know what I still have to use and let's me plan out what to eat without staring endlessly into my fridge. 
The list of greatness
  • Pre-chopped vegetables - I was so excited when I discovered that my grocery store opened a Veggie Market, where you can create your own package of washed and chopped vegetables. It may be a little more pricey, but it's worth it to me if it encourages me to buy and eat different things. It helps me to eat a wider variety of vegetables, because I can choose a little of everything instead of just buying a whole pepper or bag of carrots, for example. Also, I hate to say it, but I'm 10x more likely to eat the vegetables if they're already chopped and sitting in my fridge for me.
  • Roasting vegetables - Hands down, my favorite way to prepare vegetables. I like to roast broccoli, brussel sprouts, and sweet potatoes the best. I just toss them in a little bit of olive oil, salt and pepper, and then roast them on a baking pan at 400 degrees until they are nicely browned.
My roasted sweet potato fries with a cilantro/spinach soup that my mother made this week
  • Eating fruit with breakfast - It's easy to sneak an apple or banana in with breakfast, and you start your day off feeling great. I like to put bananas in oatmeal or on an english muffin with peanut butter. I always consider buying berries to put on top of oatmeal or in smoothies, but they are expensive and out of season now. I do want to work on eating more fruits. Any suggestions?
  • Adding salad to everything - Even if I'm just making a veggie burger for lunch, I try to squeeze in veggies and make it a bigger meal by adding a nice salad. It's ridiculously easy if you stay stocked up on produce, and even easier if you buy them pre-chopped or chop them as soon as you get home from the store.
Veggie burgers and salad = BFFs

So, those are some of things that have been helping me to stay on track with eating healthier. I've also been searching for some new recipes to try out, so stay tuned! I want to work on having a few good soup recipes that I can make on the weekend to eat during the week. I got a Crockpot for Christmas and haven't even used it yet - oh, the shame!

Next Sunday, I'll be talking about running and staying motivated with exercise.

Hope you have a great week!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Looking Ahead

Happy New Year and welcome to my blog! For some reason or another, you have stumbled upon this post and I hope that you consider checking back from time to time. 

The purpose of my blog is this: I have set five goals for myself for the coming year and I want to share them with you. They are things that are important to me and that I want to continue improving in my life. They are my goals, but I suspect that many people out there would like to focus more on them as well. I chose to make the goals into positive actions that I can take, instead of fixating any of the goals on the absence of negative things. I hope that this will be helpful and I look forward to checking in each week to gauge how I'm doing and share what I've learned along the way. I'm using the blog partly as motivation to keep focused, but I also thought it would be fun to write and share with people. So let's get started!

My Goals

1. Cook more meals at home and eat at least five servings of fruits/vegetables a day
I have made a lot of progress in the past few months, but it's still a struggle at times to cook and eat healthy meals. It's so much easier to eat out or just warm up something from a box, but I think that I can improve a lot with some foresight and planning. I'm hoping to share recipes, organization tips, and general musings about food.

2. Run more races and exercise at least three times a week
I have had a love-hate relationship with running for a few years now. Every summer, I would decide to "become a runner" and then a few weeks in, I would feel overwhelmingly out of shape and give up. About four months ago, I decided to try again... and I have actually stuck with it. I think this time I just accepted the fact that it was going to be really hard and that it was okay. I ran my first race on Thanksgiving 2011 with my boyfriend, sister, and brother-in-law, and it was a really great experience. I want to continue being active and although I'm not going to promise that I'll always run three times a week, I will say that I want to run more races in 2012. I'm planning to do another 8K with my family in March and I'm half-considering the Buffalo half-marathon right now. Best idea ever...or worst idea ever? Stay tuned!

3. Be a more budget-conscious shopper and put more money into savings
I had a big wake up call in 2011 in regards to my budget. For the first half of the year, I was driving my little 97 Ford Escort and living with two roommates. I had ridiculously low living expenses that afforded me the ability to buy just about whatever I wanted or needed all the time. Then my car gave out and I had to buy a new one. A few months later, I moved into my own apartment and learned quickly that buying furniture and paying all the bills wasn't that fun. At the end of the month, I would look at my debit card statements and be shocked at how much I spent on eating out, entertainment, or even just groceries. I was spending way too much on things that I could (and should) cut back on. I've been a lot more conscious of this the past two months and have taken a lot of steps to make wiser choices with my money. I'll be sharing the changes I made and will hopefully continue to make more.

4. Use more of my time to volunteer and learn about good work that is being done
Throughout high school and college, I felt like I was always volunteering. Then after I graduated college, I volunteered full-time through Americorps VISTA for a year. It was an exciting time and a time filled with a lot of hope and optimism. I was becoming something and working towards something. I've been thinking about this a lot lately because I've found that I have become pretty settled into my work and home life and haven't invested too much time into giving back and connecting with my community. And I miss that feeling. I also miss the constant reminder that good work is being done in Buffalo and I want it back. I'm still a volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters right and I'm going to continue doing that until my now-teenage little sister decides she's too cool for me, but I am also hoping to get involved with another organization. I'll keep you updated and reflect on what I find.

5. Explore and enjoy more of Buffalo (and the world)
I would love to say that 2012 will involve international travel, but that may not be in the stars for me (see Goal #3.) The good news is that you don't have to travel far at all to explore and learn new things. This year I'm hoping to check out awesome places that are in my backyard or maybe a short drive away. Whether it's a nearby city or a business that I pass by everyday, I'm hopeful that I will find great things.

Thanks for reading!