Summer Simplification: My Money

Gosh there has been a lot of my face on the blog lately. That’s awkward. And annoying. If you hate my face. (Though, if that’s the case, masochist much? You should really stop coming to this site. For your health.)

Instead of my face, let’s talk about my money, shallllll we?

As I mentioned a few posts ago, I’m taking the idea of simplification to all aspects of my life. For Joey and me, that includes our budget and finances. While we wiped out our credit card debt about a year ago, some of it has managed to creep back in the last few months. Never ones to say die, this is at the top of our to-do list when it comes to simplifying our lives.

For me personally, that journey started with taking an honest look at my own spending and saving patterns. Then I could determine what needed to change. Two things were a huge help in beginning this process:

1. Mint.com
I’m going to talk about my experience with a specific money tracking website, but really, there are a bunch of these out there that can help.

While a quick once-over of my debit card statement could probably give you a good idea of where my money was going, I decided to join Mint.com to get a more accurate breakdown. Using Mint, I was able to get an immediately clear picture of what percentage of my income was going to various categories, like rent, shopping, food, etc.

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That’s a peek at my July so far. Besides getting an up-to-date analysis, I can also compare previous months to see how I’m doing at cutting down on spending. For reference, here was June:

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The two things Mint immediately showed me I was spending way too much money on were clothes and food. I mean, come on, Justine. Get a grip. 

Instantly, I had two specific goals:

– Stop shopping for a month. I mean, seriously. I have all the clothes I need and then some. (I also had a few ideas for making this more fun — more on that later.)

– Bring my lunch every single day. Joey is a really great cook, and we’ve gotten much better about cooking most of our dinners at home. Plus, I love leftovers. There is really no reason why I can’t make this work — and still be enjoyable.

The other thing I love about Mint is that it gives you a schedule of credit card payments once you tell it how much you want to contribute to your debt each month. Mint determines how much you should allot to each account based on how much interest they’re charging you. For example, I created a budget (aptly titled “Pay Off the Dang Debt”) that will end in October, and Mint tells me the percentage I should pay to each card based on its APR. I literally just have to check the budget and schedule the payment each month, easy-peasy.

2. Automatic Savings Account Contributions

I used to be really good about regularly contributing to my savings account. But then life got in the way, blah blah blah excuses.

The point is, my savings account has been pretty pathetic as of late, and that’s not good. Now, every pay day, I pay myself first with an automatic transfer through my bank from my checking (where my direct deposit goes) to my savings. This “forced” savings takes out any opportunity for me to back out or change my mind. Plus, it’s kind of fun watching that little number grow every couple of weeks.

I’m also planning to put any freelance checks I collect straight into savings once the debt is paid off. It’s extra money for us anyway since our budget is designed off of our 9-to-5 income, so there’s no reason not to squirrel it away.

It’s amazing how much of a difference these two little changes are making to the health of my finances (not to mention my peace of mind).

What are your best budgeting tips? 

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What I’ve been reading, February 2014

Today’s post is brought to you by, Grammerly! I use Grammerly’s plagiarism checker because the only time copying is okay is when you’re stealing my top knot tutorial. Thanks, Grammerly!

The month is winding down (thank goodness…does anyone love February? And this one has been especially brutal), which means it’s time for the most recent installment about what has been flipping through my Kindle lately. Ready? And GO:

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
What it’s about: This is a multi-perspective story that jumps back and forth between past and present. In the past, an Italian small-time hotelier crosses paths with a hauntingly beautiful American actress who bears a secret. They’re together for just over a day before she is torn away from him by a budding director (and Richard Burton, incidentally), but he is never able to fully escape her memory. In the future, that budding director has made a name for himself creating the types of TV shows most of us admit watching with sheepish grins, and his production assistant is ready to quit her soul-sucking job when a handsome wannabe film writer and an elderly Italian man stumble into her office late one night, each with his own mission to reclaim a life he used to think was out of reach.

What I thought: I really admire the way Jess Walter can paint a lifetime in just a few words. She never overwhelms with details, but her writing style is more what I would describe as impressionist — a fleeting glimpse manages to tell you an entire story. And this particular story is packed with truly lovely moments of despair and redemption that captured my attention completely. Highly recommend.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
What it’s about: After the disappearance of Bernadette Fox, a notorious PTA-torturing, impulsive decision-making, revolutionary building-designing wife and mother in Seattle, her daughter sets out to follow a paper trail of emails, notes, and official documents that led up to what made her mysteriously vanish. The resulting compilation results in a story that is equal parts touchingly relatable and laugh-out-loud absurd. But as to whether it leads to Bernadette…well, you’ll have to read to find out.

What I thought: I love love love this book. The character portrayals are so hilariously vivid, and the way the story is laid out is unique without being difficult to follow. It’s an easy read (pick it up for your next vacation), but still whip-smart in a way that keeps you engrossed until the very end.

Wild (From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail) by Cheryl Strayed
What it’s about: At 22, Cheryl Strayed’s life has fallen apart. After the devastating death of her mother, she starts down a self-destructive path of drugs and infidelity that leads to a divorce and depression. In an effort to take control of her life again, Cheryl impulsively decided to hike 1,100 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail — completely alone — for three months.

What I thought: I had mixed feelings about this one. On one hand, it’s a tremendous adventure. I had just started training for my marathon when I started reading it, so in a weird way, I could relate to her physical struggles through inclement weather, constant exhaustion, and near ravenous hunger. I also appreciate a fair amount of self-reflection as much as the next gal. What I didn’t like…is that there isn’t that much of a story here. I feel bad saying that because it was obviously such a huge moment in time for the author, and I’m sure if I had gone through something similar, it would have meant more to me. But the bulk of this book is self-redemption. The trail hiking itself is merely environment, and I guess I had hoped for more of a story there. I think my feelings were entirely personal because I have a hard time relating to and sympathizing with self-destructive people, so in the end, I didn’t really like Cheryl all that much. But it’s still an interesting book about an interesting experience. If you’ve read it, I’d love to know if you’re in the camp of people who wanted to hike the trail after you’d finished, or if it made you swear off hiking ever.

Wool Omnibus Edition by Hugh Howey
What it’s about: You should have known I couldn’t go a whole month without a single science fiction novel. Wool Omnibus Edition is actually a collection of five short stories that Hugh Howey initially released online. As their popularity grew, a publisher purchased the stories, but Hugh apparently put it in his contract that they had to remain available online. I’m only sharing that anecdote because it made me like Howey even more — he loves his fans.

Anyway, the story. It’s set in the (not-too-distant) future, when society lives in an underground silo that stretches 150 stories into the earth. No one is allowed to go outside because some kind of disaster has rendered the planet unlivable — there’s something in the air that eats through just about anything, and the landscape that is visible through a variety of cameras stationed outside the silo is entirely barren and hostile. It’s illegal to even suggest the thought of going outside, and the punishment is that you are “put to cleaning,” meaning you don a special suit designed to let you live outside for a limited time so you can clean the cameras for the rest of the silo’s benefit. Then, without exception, the atmosphere eats through your suit and you die on one of the surrounding hills in full view of the cameras you just cleaned. But, of course, that isn’t the whole story, and the when the silo’s new sheriff steps into the shoes of the most recent cleaning victim, she starts to figure out there’s more to the silo and its origin than meets the eye.

What I thought: You have so many questions from the start of this book, it’s nearly impossible to stop reading. There are so many mysteries to be uncovered about what is really going on, plus enough harrowing moments where lives literally hang in the balance, it’s not the kind of book you casually read. I would recommend this if you’re one of those people who likes books about how we’ve destroyed the planet and have to figure out how to go on. (That should really be its own genre, don’t you think?)

First Shift/Second Shift by Hugh Howey
What it’s about: These two books are the prequels to the Wool series. There’s actually a Third Shift that I haven’t read yet (because my brother hasn’t sent it to me…hint hint). But these books answer a lot of the questions the other five stories leave behind, including what led up to the destruction of the earth and the existence of the silos. Apparently the third book is what really ties them together chronologically, but I’ll let you know for sure when I read it.

What I thought: If you liked the other ones, you will like these. And yes, you should read them in the same order I did. Knowing how things end up actually made these two books easier to follow for me.

What have you been reading?

What I’ve been reading, January 2014

If I could, I think I’d just hibernate this winter with a mug of hot chocolate and about a thousand books. (Seriously, it’s way too cold, as I’m sure your Facebook friends have readily informed you.)

But since that is apparently not a possibility (thanks, responsibilities)(and marathon training), I’ll have to settle for my usual subway reads.

Speaking of which, it seems like a good enough time to share a new installment of “What I’ve been reading.” You can read the first one here.

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
What it’s about: The tragically beautiful story of a middle school girl coming of age when suddenly the planet inexplicably stops rotating. It’s a little disconcerting how realistic the response is to the phenomenon, and 10-year-old Julia’s hauntingly innocent descriptions of her world falling apart keep you wavering between hope and heartache until the last page.
What I thought: My brother recommended this to me after being less than impressed with “The 5th Wave.” That lapse in judgment aside, he’s usually pretty reliable for a good book recommendation, so I dove in. I can see why he likes this book better; it’s a bit deeper and not really YA despite being narrated by a preteen. Highly recommend to any former English majors out there.

11/22/63 by Stephen King
What it’s about: Essentially, narrator Jack Epping goes back in time to stop the Kennedy assassination. The problem is, “time is obstinate.” The more he tries to change, the more time fights back, ending in a violent stand-off and an unexpected ending.
What I thought: I’m pretty sure I was reading this book when I wrote my last round-up. Another recommendation from my brother (he sent me about eight books a few months ago, so he should really just start sponsoring this series), this was one of the more interesting stories about time travel I’ve read. And in true King style, it’s nearly impossible to put down once the action gets going.

Allegiant (Divergent Series) by Veronica Roth
What it’s about: Ughhh please don’t make me go over the plot again. YA dystopian lit, society has been split into factions, a teen girl has to save the world, blah blah blah.
What I thought: Those who know me will not be at all surprised that I read this series. (Dystopian YA lit? Sign me up.) But while I love the genre, I wasn’t that impressed with the series as a whole. Frankly, all three books were just kind of…forgettable. Waiting months between reading the second book and the release of “Allegiant” was hard mostly because, by the time the third book came out, I could barely remember what had happened in the second book. Don’t get me wrong, if you want a (somewhat shallow) escape and liked “The Hunger Games”, this is the right choice, just don’t expect to get too invested in the characters.

World War Z: And Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks
What it’s about: It honestly doesn’t matter a stitch what you thought of the movie because there are maybe two similarities. Namely, there are zombies and the main character has roughly the same job as Brad Pitt. (Sort of.) The book is a collection of interviews of people who witnessed the Zombie War. All walks of life are represented, from marines to teens, and the character voices are riveting. Again, the realism might make you a little uncomfortable (and maybe prep a go-bag in your apartment). Fair warning.
What I thought: Yeesh, I really need to read something besides science fiction, amiright? This is what happens when you descend from a family of nerds. Regardless, I really liked this book. Oddly enough, I feel like it gave me a really interesting insight to how wars are waged and the philosophies around breaking down an enemy. Plus, some of the stories are so intense, you might miss you subway stop. (Hypothetically.)

Ready Player One: A Novel by Ernest Cline
What it’s about: The book opens in the year 2044, and the world is kind of awful. Most of society spends their time in OASIS, which started as the most advanced video game in history until it became an entire virtual world where people go to school, go to work, fall in love, etc. Everything changes when the game’s creator, James Halliday, initiates a 3-tier challenge in his will, the winner of which will inherit his virtually limitless fortune and gain control of the entire OASIS. Teenage narrator Wade Watts gains immediate fame when he becomes the first person in five years to find the first clue, and then it’s a race to the finish as he tries to find Halliday’s Egg before it falls into the wrong hands.
What I thought: Yes, I finished the book I was reading when I wrote my New Year Sum-Uppance. And, you guys. I like this book so much. If you like literally anything nerdy, you should grab a copy, because your personal passion is probably mentioned by name. (Nintendo? Dungeons & Dragons? The Breakfast Club? They’re all in there.) If you like action, riddles, nerdy ’80s nostalgia, and hey, even a little romance, read this book.

You better tweak.

Anyone who has known me for more than a few minutes (or read even a few posts on this blog) can probably tell you two things about me:

1. I’m very committed to the idea of self-improvement.

Whether it’s my attitude my running or my outfits, I’m always trying to be the best version of myself.

2. I am a bit fickle.

Not with things that really matter, thank goodness. (I’ve been pretty into the same dude for almost half a decade.) But I like change. I’m not afraid of changing anything from my hair to my job if I’m not happy with it, and if you’ve read more than a few posts on here, you’ve probably lived through a few I those changes with me.

I recently caught up with a dear friend from high school named Whitney whom I rarely see and who relies on social media and this ‘ere blog to keep up on what I’m up to. I thought it was pretty funny that one of the first things she commented on was that she loved following my adventures in decorating my apartment, but she had noticed I hadn’t made any changes in a while.

It’s not that I don’t want to, I swear. Joey will be the first one to tell you that every month or so, I have a new idea for something we should add or switch up.

The biggest thing that holds me back? Cash monies, yo.

And the fact that I know we won’t be in this apartment forever, so I’m less committed to the idea of perfecting the space.

Instead, lately I’ve been into the idea of making little tweaks to give everything I slightly more polished feel. One thing I finally did (despite having the materials for about six month sitting in my closet)? Install a bulletin board above our desk.

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The benefit is two-fold: the wall looks less blank and we finally have a place to corral all the tiny papers and receipts that make their way to the desk.

Next, we added more storage to the kitchen with a pair of wire racks.

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I’m kind of in love with them — so much storage! The more observant among you may have noticed that we removed the white console table that used to hold our microwave and china. Then you win a prize! (Not really…limited funds, remember?) I sold the table on Craigslist (for more than I paid for it, I might add) and used the cash to buy one of the shelves.

My next mission is making each shelf look a little more styled. (Because I’m a freak.) these two are my favorites so far.

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The last two updates are purely cosmetic. First, I gave in to the coffee table styling trend (seriously, guys, I don’t make this stuff up) and added a white lacquer tray from West Elm with a few pretty candle holders from Target and HomeGoods.

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I also added a little crown-shaped bowl I picked up at Michael’s ages ago (that I had been using to hold bracelets) because Joey and I tend to take our rings off when we get home (I don’t sleep in mine…is that weird?) and one of us who shall remain unnamed has a tendency to misplace his. I mean, his or hers. So now there’s a convenient place for it to live when it’s not on hisher finger.

And last but not least, I finally got an outdoor door mat. And look how swanky he is:

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It’s almost embarrassing how much joy that mat gives me every time I leave or come home. Seriously, I am so weird. I mean, he almost distracts you from that eyesore of a door.

So anyway, that’s what I’ve been up to. A couple other changes you (Whitney) can look forward to: a potentially new coffee table and a FINALLY FINALLY FINALLY updated bedroom. (Finally.)

Stay tuned!

Confessions of a Shopaholic

Apparently there’s something in the water because I’m not the only one who feels compelled to talk about clothes right now. (Don’t miss my dear friend Kayla’s newest post!)

 

Like Kayla, I too feel like I have too many clothes. The anxiety tends to mount at the times of year that I usually feel more compelled to purchase (looking at you, fall season), especially when I find myself shoving sweaters into tightly packed drawers or struggling to find a certain skirt in my wardrobe.

 

Excess stuff has always given me anxiety. Excess clothing makes me feel anxious and materialistic.

 

The most embarrassing part is that even when I feel like my closet is full to bursting, I can still be tempted by the latest J. Crew email in my inbox. After all, what’s one more sweater? And at 60% off? It would be a waste not to take advantage of such savings, right?

 

One thing I’ve tried to be more aware of in the last couple of years: If you have to spend money to save money, you’re not really saving money.

 

In the last few weeks, I’ve actually hit a point of shopping saturation. I have plenty of clothes, and I’m finding it easier and easier to ignore deals. (Because, let’s be honest, there is always a sale going on somewhere.)

 

Two other things that have helped? A more organized closet and limiting my options.

 

I’ve said before how much I like getting rid of things. (Part of my aversion to stuff.) I try to prune down my wardrobe at least a couple of times a year, and it gets easier and easier the closer I get to truly identifying my personal style.

 

Because, yeah, 26-and-a-half years later, I’m still working that out.

 

This past weekend, I filled two large shopping bags with items to sell or donate and put all my summer clothes to keep in a plastic bin for storage until the temperature warms up. The result? A neat, color-coded wardrobe with room to actually sort through each item. (Okay, the color-coded part doesn’t happen naturally. I’m a freak, okay?)

 

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I even convinced the hubs to let me go through his closet…though we’ll see how long the color coding lasts.

 

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It might sound weird, but I actually feel calmer looking at my clothes now. Okay, yeah, it definitely sound weird. BUT I AM WHO I AM, GUYS.

 

As for limiting my options, I’ve decided to only wear about seven colors.

 

Hear me out.

 

There are few things more irritating to me than making an impulse buy — or a “yes, this will be my style” buy — only to realize after a couple of wears that an item just isn’t me. Now I’ve wasted money and space in my closet on something I don’t even like.

 

So I started to think about what it is that I always like, and basically it translates into anything J. Crew/Ralph Lauren/preppy-esque. And more specifically, it almost always comes in a shade of black, white, grey, navy, green, red, or camel.

 

And thus, a new shopping rule was born.

 

And so far? It seems to be working pretty well. I definitely feel like I’ve curbed the excess spending.

 

What about you guys? Do you have any shopping rules? Another of my unofficial ones is that I rarely buy anything full priced. And, of course, I always use Ebates. Share yours in a comment below!

In defense of the selfie.

I’ve debated writing this post for a while, which is something I find that I do whenever I want to write about something that makes me a little uncomfortable or that I think I won’t get a favorable response on.

Welp, guess you guys have liked me long enough anyway, right?

I want to talk about selfies.

Up until about a year or two ago, you probably had never even heard this word. I hadn’t. I mean, they existed. Every since the beginning of portraiture, mankind has been seemingly obsessed with capturing their own appearance. (Don’t believe me? History don’t lie.)

There’s even a fairly fun trend in the art world of turning iconic photos into selfies. (I kind of love it.)

The point is, selfies are not actually a new thing. What is new (and especially poignant with the onslaught of social media, which gave millions of teenagers a platform on which to project their faces), is the sudden and sharp distaste for the genre.

I mean, I can’t lie — I get it. I get that it’s irritating to see someone post photo after photo of their own face. Like, what, you think we forgot what you look like? You’re just doing it to get compliments. It’s totally self-centered. Right?

Well, okay.

Sometimes, I think that’s true. But I think there has to be more to it. Because, yeah, okay, I know a lot of people who are self-centered in general who post a lot of selfies. (It makes sense that so many teenagers, who are notoriously absorbed with their own lives and worlds, would be the biggest offenders.)

But I also know a lot of sweet, selfless, otherwise mild-mannered people who still post the occasional shot of themselves. (Usually with all the usual “eek #obligatoryselfie” disclaimers, of course.)

Heck, I’ve done it. I counted no fewer than 21 selfies on my Instagram account. And that’s not even counting the dozens of “half-face”, hair shots, and group photos I’ve uploaded in the last two years.

But, I mean, I also write a blog about my life, so clearly I don’t have that many qualms about showing you my face.

So why do we do it? Obviously, I have a theory. Two, actually.

The first is that a selfie is solid, near tangible way of marking a moment in time. This is me. On this day, at this moment. Here I am. I was.

It’s something you can point to and remember. Pine for or be glad is over. Selfies are a little peek into your history.

That’s one theory. The other theory is much simpler, and way less philosophical.

A selfie is a way of capturing a moment when you felt good about yourself. After all, most of us only post flattering selfies. I know when I do it, it’s sometimes a way of saying, “Look, you guys! I look pretty right now!”

And yes, that is a petty reason for doing something. But I also have a hard time judging someone else for feeling pretty. (And I try not to judge myself for feeling that way either.) There are too many reasons to feel ugly these days, and too many people perfectly willing to tear others down for the sake of some shallow feeling of superiority.

Whenever I feel myself getting annoyed at someone for posting too many photos of himself or herself, I try to remember that. I try to to be happy for them for feeling pretty. Proud of them, even.

So, yeah, a Facebook album titled “Me*!*!*!*!*!<3lol” packed with 30 photos you took in the mirror is annoying. But the occasional “Woooo new haircut!” post? I can deal.

You probably look pretty spectacular, anyway.

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An (almost) complete apartment tour.

Can you believe it? We’ve been in our apartment only three months and I’m basically done decorating.

It’s a miracle.

I mean, sure, there are little things here and there I want to add. And the bedroom isn’t quite done yet. But everything else is about as done as it’s going to get. (In an effort to live a simpler life, and to acknowledge that this is just an apartment we’ll be in for a while and not our dream home, I’m trying not to change our decor as often as I did in the last place. Trying.)

Anyway, here’s a quick tour of the parts that are 99.9% done.

Here’s the view facing the front door toward the kitchen. You can just see our little Craigslist-ed kitchen table and chairs. Hanging on the wall to the right is a vintage Paris map I picked up at HomeGoods ages ago but never had the right spot for.

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Here’s what you see when you first walk in the door facing the bathroom.

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Joey actually picked that spot for our wedding guest “tree,” and it fits perfectly.

If you go right from there, you enter the kitchen:

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Here’s our table with two prints I found on Etsy. (One is a beer bottle and champagne glass with “his” and “hers” on it, the other says “The secret ingredient is always cheese.”) (Because it is.)

The one thing I still want to add to this corner is an oversized print of a Penguin book I have, but I haven’t had a chance to get to Kinkos yet to print it.

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Here are the built-in cabinets. I’ve made peace with their old-timey color. We store our bigger items (crock pot, cake plates, etc.) on top and dishes and glasses inside them. My father-in-law also installed little hooks for me under the cabinets to hang teacups and mugs. The seafoam green mat I got from a tag sale at work for about $5.

Back to the living room!

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Not too much has changed in here since you last saw it. (It’s cleaner, though.) We actually have no visible clutter in this room, which is pretty incredible to me. (And awesome.)(I’m a nerd.)

The one thing I still want to add to this room is a bulletin board over the computer. I have cork tiles that I want to spray paint white to make it. Stay tuned.

So that’s it! It’s so nice feeling like we can finally have guests over. We already had overnight guests, but we spent so little time in the apartment with them, it didn’t seem to matter if everything wasn’t put together. But Saturday we had our first dinner guests, and I’m hoping to host a few more events this summer. Can’t wait!