How I Finally Got Past ‘Payment Status Not Available.’

This a quickie update in reference to the post I wrote the other day that described my struggles getting information on the Stimulus Check. No matter how hard I tried, or how often I refreshed the IRS.gov website. I continued to get the error message, ‘Payment Status Not Available.’

I suspected that it was related to my taxes—and I assumed our accountant was in the middle of processing them. Turned out this was true. She finished them yesterday, I signed the documents via eDoc online, and low and behold I was able to get into the Get My Payment page of the IRS website.

Once inside, I could see it is a relatively simple form that asks for your AGI (adjusted gross income), the amount you owe or the refund you received. Then it asks for your bank routing number and account number. So GREAT!

Except, it found some inaccuracy—possibly our 2019 taxes were still moving along the pipeline. But, I did get a second message asking that I submit our 2018 tax information. Well, I didn’t have our 2018 taxe information because I’d given it to the accountant. And they’re very busy. And I didn’t want to bug them. I only needed two pieces of information–the AGI for that year and our refund amount, which had actually been rolled over to pay for our 2019 taxes.

So, earlier in the week, I had taken a little bit of time to ‘View my Account.‘ This is an option on the IRS.gov website that allows you to look at your previous payments and other IRS information. You have to set up a password and log in your basic information, address, name, social security number. I opened up the account in the hopes that I would not have to try to get through to my accountant and add to her workload. Inside your account there is an option to get a transcript. This is were you need to go. Right now, the only option is to view your transcript online. Luckily, my AGI was right there. I didn’t have to look for my refund amount because I had previously received an email from my old accountant that specified the amount.

With both bits of information in hand, I went back into Get My Payment and typed in the new numbers.

But, there was still a problem with the numbers and I could not proceed. UGH.

I tried a couple of more times as if the website would just give up because I was hounding it and then, it locked me out.

Of course.

Okay, so today I gave it a fresh start. Same answer. It asked for 2018 and then said that that did not match their information.

I thought about it for a minute. Then, in the section that asked the amount of my refund/payment, I put ‘0.’

Yes, zero.

I realized that, technically, we did not receive a refund because we rolled the money into the next year. So, literally we did not pay or get anything back.

Zero.

Suddenly, it came to life and said the money would be deposited to my checking account.

I stared at that sentence and the exit button below it, (which is, ironically, the same blue as the Get My Payment button) somewhat afraid to move.

But, then, I did, I pressed ‘Exit.’

I’ll keep you posted.

~~~Andrea

‘Payment Status Not Available’— Difficulties With The Economic Stimulus Check

Ugh.

Just when you think you will get a little treat in the form of an Economic Stimulus Check deposited into your bank account.

Then, you don’t.

No worries, you can wander over to the shiny new IRS website page. Click on the Get My Payment button, type in your information (your social security number or your address), and track your check.

it’s kind of like the Dominoes Pizza Tracker.

Except some people, myself included, are getting the message: “Payment Status Not Available.”

The answer to this, from the IRS website:

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

In certain cases, the Get My Payment app will be unable to tell you the status of your payment.  You may receive this message for one of the following reasons:

  • If you are not eligible for a payment (see IRS.gov on who is eligible and who is not eligible)
  • If you are required to file a tax return and have not filed in tax year 2018 or 2019.
  • If you recently filed your return or provided information through Non-Filers: Enter Your Payment Info on IRS.gov. Your payment status will be updated when processing is completed.
  • If you are a SSA or RRB Form 1099 recipient, SSI or VA benefit recipient – the IRS is working with your agency to issue your payment; your information is not available in this app yet.
  • (updated information from IRS.gov as of April 17, 2020): You are required to file a tax return, but:
    • We haven’t finished processing your 2019 return
    • The application doesn’t yet have your data; we’re working on adding more data to allow more people to use it.
    • You don’t usually file a return, and:
      • You used Non-Filers: Enter Payment Info Here but we haven’t processed your entry yet
      • You receive an SSA or RRB Form 1099 or SSI or VA benefits; information has not been loaded onto our systems yet for people who don’t normally file a tax return

You can check the app again to see whether there has been an update to your information.  Get My Payment data is updated once per day, so there’s no need to check back more frequently.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Now what? Well, some people have been rechecking the site so often that they’ve actually been locked out. I rechecked ours a number of times too—even alternating between my social security number and my husband’s since we file jointly. But that did not work.

I then decided to ”view my account.”

I created an account, and just as I was feeling like I was getting somewhere, the site kicked me out with this message:

We’re sorry; this service is experiencing occasional errors. Please try again later.

Okay, so I try to go back in later…same problem, but different. I was not able to receive the ”text code.” Again. Bumped out.

Right now I can only assume that the glitches and problems logging on are related to excessive use by other concerned citizens who have nothing better to do than sit at home and keep checking and rechecking. Of course, I’m including myself in that motley group.

That’s what happens when you shutdown an entire population of people, I suppose.

Still, if you too are getting this message, it is important to note that the above list, from the IRS website, does give away some crumbs of information:

Ineligible

Some people are not going to get a Stimulus Check because they are considered ineligible. It may seem unfair (considering the rich also pay taxes) but still, at least it is obvious that those who are in a high-income category will not be given a check. After more digging, however, I found that there is a little dusty layer of hidden ‘ineligibles,’ that less obviously, will not be receiving a red cent. Students, or any adult, for that matter, over the age of 17, who are ‘dependents’ on their parents tax return, will not see any money at all—and neither will their parents. This is true whether the student worked or not, or if the adult is disabled.

Forgot to Filers

Here is the second reason that you may not have seen any cash: you forgot to file your paperwork.

In order for the IRS to determine how much to give you—and what account to put the money in—they need to have recent information. For this stimulus check they are taking information from either your 2018 or 2019 tax forms. If you have not filed your 2019 taxes, then they will use 2018 information. But, if you haven’t turned in either, and you don’t fall into the non-filer category, then you are behind, my friend. Ironically, the IRS allows you to file online for free.

Maybe not so ironically.

Just Under The Wire Filers

If you recently filed your return or provided information through Non-Filers.

This is where I think my own payment went awry. Things have been really backed up, we have a new accountant, and despite the fact that I gave our tax information to the accountant a month ago, she’s been hounded with piles of other work—most of it related to Covid-19. I haven’t emailed her yet—I don’t want to bug her. But, I suspect that she may just have filed our taxes and that puts us in the ‘recently filed your return’ category. Oh. Joy. Time to wait. Non-filers who just gave the IRS their bank information are waiting here too.

The Others

Those who receive SSA (Social Security Administration), RRB (Railroad Retirement Board), SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) will receive money later in April, even if they don’t ordinarily file taxes.

Those who receive SSI (Supplemental Security Income) will see their check in early May.

  • If you are in this group, and have dependents under the age of 17, you will need to go to the non-filers tool to claim the $500.00 per child payment. You’ll need a valid Social Security number or Adoption Taxpayer Identification Number of each child to process the application.

Final Notes

If you are eligible for money, but the IRS does not have your direct deposit information, you will receive a paper check in the mail. These have not been mailed yet.

Those in the low-income category, including the homeless, (if they did not file taxes during 2018 or 2019) will need to provide the IRS with bank account or mailing address information through the “non-filers tool” on the IRS.Gov website.

Another thing to keep in mind is that while we all are expecting a $1200.00 check for each adult in the home, and $500.00 for each child, it doesn’t always add up that way if your income is in the higher-earning categories.

According to the Washington Post, many filers who used “H&R Block, TurboTax and Jackson Hewitt” did not receive their stimulus check because the way those companies process their payments. …”tax preparation companies received these people’s tax refund first, deducted their fees and then distributed the remaining refund to the customers. Because of that, the IRS had a “temporary bank account” on file that the tax preparer created for the 2019 tax season.”

The IRS is aware of the problem and working on resolving it.

Finally, the IRS will be sending out a letter approximately 15 days after you receive a payment. Keep you eye on the mail and if there are any discrepancies between what you have in your hot hand and what you think you should have received, there will be instructions included so that hopefully you can resolve those issues.

*Note: Watch out for scammers during this time! There are many ways that tricksters try to get your information. The IRS will not call, text, or email you. (In fact, I’ve been audited by the IRS a couple times and they are notoriously difficult to get ahold of.  You will either receive the money in the mail or in your account. You do not have to pay anyone for information or to receive your check. Beware.

 

Unemployment Benefits During the Coronavirus: Apply Now

Note: I’ve researched this quite a bit and the consensus is that whether you think you will be eligible for benefits or not, it is best to apply now. Eligibility requirements have been greatly reduced and additional money is now being provided at the federal level. The sooner you apply, the quicker you will receive financial help.

If you’ve lost your job, had reduced hours, or are getting that tingling feeling that you may need financial help during the coronavirus shutdown, your first step is to apply for unemployment insurance benefits.

Unemployment insurance provides cash benefits to citizens who have lost their job through ‘no fault of their own.’ The money originates from employers and is paid through taxes, held in a fund, which waits there for employees who need it.

The program is run by each state but governed by federal law.

During ordinary times, unemployment benefits are pretty straightforward—if you’ve lost your job and you were making a certain base amount of income,  you can apply for benefits. (Those in the severely low-income spectrum may not have earned enough to qualify for benefits). The amount you receive weekly is calculated by how much you were earning in the 18 months prior to losing your job.

The application process requires you to enter how much you earned during specific ‘quarters.’ You will need to have recent paystubs, or for those of us who earned varying amounts over the last year, you may need to go back and calculate your earnings to provide a representative picture of what you are not earning now.

Due to the coronavirus, the structure of the unemployment benefit program has become more flexible, lowering the eligibility requirements. Self-employed workers, freelancers, and those without an ’employer,’ are generally unable to claim benefits because funds are supplied by employers. With the CARES Act, however, that has changed.

Freelancers, self-employed workers,  gig workers, independent contractors, the self-employed, and 1099 workers are now eligible.

If you are affected at all by the covid-19, you are likely eligible.

Also, the general requirement to ”be searching for a job,” while you’re receiving unemployment benefits has been waived.

But, it gets better. An additional ”coronavirus stimulus package for unemployment”  will be provided by the federal government for up to 13 weeks. This is a significant $600.00 per week benefit on top of the amount you are qualified to claim through your state unemployment insurance program (which can last for up to 39 weeks). As an example, if you are eligible for $250.00 per week through your state unemployment program, you will also get $600.00 per week from the federal package, for a total of $850.00 per week.

The application process is relatively simple and can be done online (best option) or via telephone in an hour or less. Have your relevant information handy: social security number, driver’s license, pay stubs, bank statements, work addresses and phone numbers, and the last date you worked.

Find the unemployment insurance benefit application information for your state here: Unemployment Benefits by State

Below the drop down menu that allows you to search your state’s information, there will be separate links for general unemployment information,  the online application, the telephone application, and updates regarding unemployment due to the coronavirus.

The best option is the online application process. You will create a login (don’t forget it in the chaos).

Should your application be accepted, you will receive benefits within 3-6 weeks. But, considering the number of people applying, I would not be surprised if things take a bit longer than that.

On a final note, it is important to know that unemployment benefits are considered income.  Subsequently, you may owe taxes on your benefits at the end of the year. Be aware of this and put a percentage of this money away (preferably into a high-interest savings account) so that you don’t get stuck come tax time.

Please feel free to comment below with your own tips, experiences, and thoughts.

Andrea

Time to Take the Helm

It’s an uncommon spring break this year.

Not only are my kids (and I) untethered from the structure of ‘homeschool,’ but we’ve also been progressively restricted as to where we can go. Beaches and state parks have been closed and going to the grocery store has become a place for public shaming. STAY AT HOME is etched on the inside of my forehead. My current mental anxiety not only registers in the red zone because of  Covid-19—but perhaps, even more so, from the public judgment that seems to become more stringent with each passing day.

We all want to get this right.

To add to this, my husband, The Breadwinner is out of a job. He is a commercial fisherman and at the moment, the fishing industry is closed. Salmon season has yet to begin, but even more troubling is that the fishing council is proposing an ‘altered’ season—one in which fishing is allowed on a week-on, week-off basis in an effort to predict market needs. Unfortunately,  while this may sound like a reasonable step to take during these perplexing times, it does not take into consideration the natural migration of the salmon, nor does it take into account the weather, which is, at best, tempestuous, and even during a good week, interferes with fishing.

For the last two weeks, he has been lucky enough to pick up construction work—unfortunately, that has dried up also.

Our last source of income, our rental property—a house and attached studio—continues (cross our fingers) to bring in rent. I feel really lucky and grateful to have both of our renters.

So.

In the coming days, I plan to do a major financial overhaul—and I’m dragging you with me. My first move is to take a look at all of my accounts and thoroughly assess what I have, what I owe, and what I can do to improve the outlook.

I’m going to write about my progress and the steps that I am personally taking to address this sudden lack of income within these uncertain times. I’m going to try to figure out how to hang on to what I have, sort out the necessary, versus the unnecessary bills, look at ways I can reduce my spending. I also plan on shining a light on ways I am trying to make money during this crisis, as well as financial options, such as loans that are currently available.

Right now, the future is unknown. We really have no idea as individuals, or as a society, how far this might go. But, I’m not panicked–yet. I feel like I’ve been through hard times before—essentially I grew up this way, with ups and downs that made me feel rich despite living very frugally. I also don’t believe that panic and hysteria are healthy ways of living. Right now, I’m happy my family and I are healthy—and I want us to stay that way. Right now, we’re good—a perfect place to start.

 

 

Facing Ourselves

As the invisible shadow of the coronavirus pandemic looms closer, ever nearer, it is easy to fall into the abyss of your home, your psyche, and quietly fall apart on the couch while eating Reese’s peanut butter cups and binge-watching YouTube.

The hysteria is silently palpable in a quiet, insidious way. It curtains itself behind dark looks and distance—not physical, but emotional. The anxiety scuttles, sharp-clawed, along each and every muscle fiber every time you have to pass a fellow human being.

Nevertheless.

Life cannot be lived in a hollowed-out shell of panic.

This week, I, like you, have been reading and watching quite a bit about the Coronavirus. Today I’d like to share a couple of opinions and perspectives that ring true for me.

Is it a 10 or a 2?

Adam Carolla goes into a great little tirade (as only he can do) as he describes what he calls ‘calibrating’ your brain. He asserts that we have to constantly (consciously) assess our circumstances in order to realistically consider the level of threat in front of us. Is it a mountain lion (a 10) or is it a rabbit (okay less than a 2)? ‘You can’t label everything a ’10,’ he asserts—and ‘the press labels everything a ’10.’  He and Dr. Drew (Both are from KROQ fame, specifically “Love Line”) discuss the integrity of politicians and the media who make their money by ‘not lying, but cherry-picking’ information, creating click-bait headlines and generally creating a climate of terror as they ‘write the truth, but leave out pertinent facts,’ all the while misleading and possibly harming readers and viewers. While not suggesting that we run through the streets in Baccanalian revelry or cough wantonly at one another, they drive the point home that we all must parent ourselves and accept what we hear and see with a critical eye.

Adam’s semi-wacky, possibly completely-true theories on germs and immunity are leveraged when the Sensible Dr. Drew weighs in.

FEAR

Joe Rogan and Andy Stumpf hash it out on The Joe Rogan Experience Episode 1445. Andy is a navy SEAL and the quintessential tough guy who starts by making a mockery of toilet paper hoarders.  Andy regales us with stories of using ‘gravel as toilet paper’ while in the field and asking ‘First, do you have a hose?’  As their conversation winds on, however, Andy relates what he feels is the real problem: fear.

“The most dangerous thing you can do is lose control of your emotions or let your emotions control your decision making,” he states. ”I don’t think there is a shortage of toilet paper, there’s a shortage of people with common sense buying too much toilet paper and freaking other people out.”

The video gets deep as Andy discusses his view that ‘most people’  focus not on ‘what they can control’ but on the things outside their circle of control. ‘Being scared, allowing that to make the decision-making process for you, is what gets people in substantial trouble.’  ‘you have to detach that,’ he says.

Focus on the Opportunity

I’ll be honest, when I heard the news that my kids were not going back to school my first thought was, ‘Finally! We get to sleep in!’

Maybe a little ignorant, but in those early days, the Coronavirus seemed very far away. Things are different now—a young mother of three who lives less than a block away from me is sick with pneumonia and the cases, deaths, and panic keep rising—like I said in the beginning, it would be easy to sit down and do nothing.

Except.

Except, I can’t deny that this time isn’t also ripe with possibility. I have time to sleep in, I am homeschooling my kids, one of which is still sleeping and it’s 10:00 a.m., and I don’t have a lot of time-sucking driving around and picking up and dropping off to do that I’m now seeing disintegrated my days. There are no sports to go to. We visit the store less. We hike more. The dogs have lost a little weight. Twice in two days, my son, who is 14, and a struggling student, said he wanted to get home from walking the dogs because he was in a groove with his schoolwork—he said he likes the way he’s organized his chair at the kitchen table. Two days ago he organized his drawers without being asked. This is monumental for him. He’s making his own daily list and organizing his time.

Both of my kids are learning to do their own dishes, how to navigate Zoom, the online classroom. My daughter is ‘in class’ right now with our Border collie, Violet. It’s Bring Pet To School Day. Today is Friday and I’ve got a big puzzle waiting for us—when did we have time for puzzles before?

Inside and underneath, there is a current of mind-numbing fear. Darkness, Illness, yes, Death. We are only people, one body each, one mind—I don’t believe it’s enough space to contain grief on such a grand scale.

For now, I’ll take Andy Stumpf’s advice, and detach it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grocery Budget Challenge Final Thoughts

Oh, the highs and lows of January!

A whole organic free-range chicken for just under $4.00 because of a random and accidental mix of coupons.

Three boxes of toothpaste for $1.00.

Grapes for $7.00!

Yes, you read that right—grapes that were actually ”on sale.” Not only that, but the very next day my husband commented that ‘the grapes are kind of squishy. How old are they.’ Grrr. (Note to self: Weigh Them.)

But, all of this is just goes to show you that no matter how careful you are, you can’t always control everything.

THE GROCERY BUDGET CHALLENGE (GBC)

 I spent January hyper-focused on reducing my grocery bill and it was well worth it. The final tally was $596.59 for the month. If you’ve been reading, you know that the goal was $15.00 per day, or $465.00, per month. In the end, we were $131.59 over that amount. In the final analysis, I decided that including items other than groceries (laundry detergent, dog food, chicken food, soaps, toothpaste, Flonase $16.00, etc.) was unwise because it did not give me enough leeway to purchase food that I feel we need to stay healthy, such as fresh fruits and vegetables—even when they are not on sale and it’s better to leave non-perishables in a separate category so that those can be bought in bulk when they are on sale.

Additionally, my son’s birthday was at the end of the month and I didn’t want to resort to day-old cupcakes or Mac and Cheese just to ”stay on budget.” I should add, that the final amount is what I spent. I did not keep track of my husband’s spending and he did bring home some food here and there—though, I’ll add that for the majority of the month I was in charge of grocery shopping and he was aware and interested in keeping costs down for our ‘experiment.’

I did not visit a Food Bank, because I didn’t want to go that far with it, nor did that seem in keeping with the money aspect of the challenge. But there are a lot of opportunities in our area to get food for free and I did take food that I found at common locations in my town where perfectly good bread is wrapped up and ready to take home. In fact, I was annoyed that I stopped at two french bread loaves, instead of the three that were available because I saw that one loaf was left out in the rain for days. I eventually grabbed that bread and gave it to my chickens who charged it with gusto. This month I’ve already gleaned a bunch of fresh, awesome radishes, a fresh pear, and three blood oranges, from a bin behind a grocery store that I happened upon yesterday.  These are left out by that store for people to take for their livestock, though I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who grabs what is edible for people as well.

Some free finds that we got earlier in the month.

This is food left out in my town in a certain location that is continually left for people to take. I believe it is leftovers from the Food Bank. To be respectful, we usually take a little bit of what is there or wait a day or two to see if it gets picked up. You can see that we hit the Motherlode this month because this is only a tiny bit of what they had available. We did have to ”renew” the bread with a bit of water and warm it in the oven. This is when my husband started to get really excited by the GBC.

I will say, that after the January Grocery Budget Experiment, I’ve been eating more salads and I value them more. I bought kiwi and mango on sale yesterday and included them in the salad. A salad is something to be grateful for because it’s true that a  fresh salad, full of a variety of ingredients, is not cheap (though I still think it’s overall cheaper than convenience food, especially snacks). I’ve also eradicated my afternoon chocolate—even if it’s on sale at Rite Aid for $.77. It just seems like a waste of money and packaging—a bane on the environment. I regularly make my own popcorn and eat that instead.

One exciting permutation came about because of my $15 a day challenge and that is in regard to changing my bank to a high-interest checking account. I’m going to delve into detail about that in another post, but I’ll just say that because I spent a great deal of time analyzing the minutiae of my spending, I was finally able to crack the nut of whether it was worth it to switch banks—and how I need to proceed to maximize my benefits.

Here are a few tips that I learned from sticking to a budget:

* Log on to your store’s website before shopping—often there are really good coupons on there. If you are pressed for time, remember that it gets faster each time, particularly if you keep to a schedule…which leads me to…

*Keep to a schedule. We get store sale flyers in the mail every Tuesday. I actually enjoy the colorful mix of papers and I select only a few of the stores that I know I will shop at and throw away the rest. I usually have about three or four store flyers left. Then I compare items that I know I want. One item that I saw really fluctuate in price is avocados. I live in an area where there are avocado farms, but man, those prices were all over the place—and in fact, at the end of the month I made the mistake of purchasing one for almost $2.00 because I was in a rush. Meanwhile, I saw avocados as low as 2/$1.00 in the ads. I have to throw in here, that I am an imperfect budgeter—my main struggle is sticking to a schedule! Find a day, like Tuesday, in my case, to go over flyers and log onto grocery stores for digital coupons.

* Write things down. Once I compare prices, I make a list on one sheet of paper that highlights which store is having a sale on specific items. This is not a grocery list—it’s simply a list of sale items that I am interested in buying by store. I put this list on the refrigerator and when I make my shopping list, I can use that information.

*Before you shop, check your own stuff. This one is really funny to me because during January, I was really surprised at how much food we had in the house that I overlook. I may have ten cans of tuna and a loaf of bread and panic that we have no lunch. Ridiculous. I’ve learned that making dinner does not need to be something you would see in a restaurant. What’s wrong with a sandwich and fruit salad? Meals should be consumed; the spending, buying, and making of food should not consume you.

*Use paper coupons. Ralphs mails us coupons and I keep them in an envelope in my shopping bag. Before we shop, I quickly go through the coupons and as I buy an item I throw the coupon in the cart with it. I have to interject with a really cool example at this point. I’ve mentioned before that I like to purchase organic chicken despite the high cost. I went into Ralphs one day and I grabbed a chicken—they’re always on sale, but the sale price was somewhere around $11.00. I did not remember at the time, but I had previously clicked on a digital coupon for that chicken. I also used a regular Ralphs coupon that I’d been sent in the mail and the final cost of the chicken was under $4.00—cheaper than a regular chicken. I really couldn’t believe it, I’d saved around $8.00–on one item— just by using coupons. Of course, each week it’s a crapshoot, but nevertheless, there are bargains out there to be had, so keep clipping!

* Don’t go crazy, but use your coupons even if they don’t seem to apply or are expired. I don’t know if cashiers have special shopper ESP, but this last month, I’ve had more ”coupon forgiveness” than I think I’ve ever had. They have overlooked expired dates and given me credit for same brand, but different items. For example, I got credit for Simple Truth lunch meat, when the coupon was for some other Simple Truth meat product. You probably see where I’m going with this. Give the cashier the coupon! I just throw them in a little stack and if they can’t use then I don’t push them, but if they can, then I get lucky.

*Lastly, keep a daily tally. This has been pretty easy for me. I’ve got a little notebook and inside, I write down my expenditures for the month. This is not an item-by-item list, it is simply a tally of how much I spent and at which store. I also write down which credit card I used, so, for example, I may write something like this:

Amex 15 Rite Aid 7.52

Amex stands for American Express, 15 is the day of the month, Rite Aid and $7.52.

As I go through the month, I have a running tally of how much I’ve spent and I’ll write that total at various points along the way. This has been really useful because, to be honest, my life gets pretty chaotic and there may be three days where I do not have time to keep as focused on a budget as I would like. What’s great is that I can log onto my credit card or bank website and compare my receipts and keep this list going. When life lays low again, I can see where I am and regain control and decide where I want to be by the end of the month.

P.S. I meant to get this post out much sooner…but Life!

Thanks for Reading…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wait, Does That Belong on the Grocery Budget?

In our household,  January has become, obsessively, ” Grocery Budget Month.” With that in mind, I’d like to let you know how it’s been going — and note a couple of refinements I’ve made, as well as a few observations before giving you the final tally in a separate post at the end of the month.

Our budget was $15.00 per day for a family of four plus two dogs and 6 chickens, and I need to emphasize that this amount, while restrictive for us, was totally doable if you keep your expenses really lean.

Ok, whew. The coast is clear. So, let me give you the real scoop as I see it.

Image result for the coast is clear gif

While, it is definitely possible for a family of four with pets to subsist on $15.00 a day—less than $465.00 per month— it is subsisting.  I can’t recommend doing this for more than a month at a time. It’s really easy to take one month and use up your extra cans of cranberry sauce and Manwich and get by with what you have. I’d even go so far as to say that I think it’s a really good thing to do, for yourself, for the environment, and as a way of figuring out where you are spending your money. You’ll even eat less junk food.

But, for the long hall, spending only $15 per day on everything, (everything you can find in the grocery store, such as laundry detergent, toilet paper, etc.) is unrealistic.

There are a couple of grocery store items that don’t fall neatly into the grocery budget and for that reason, it’s best to budget for them in a separate budget or un-budget them. Before this sounds too fussbudgetty, let me tell you what I mean.

  1. Pet Food. Again, it’s doable—but only if you buy small bags of dog food at a time. The way we shopped this month—nearly every day, spending up to $15.00—gave us only enough spare cash to buy the smallest bag of dog food which is around $8.00. We have two dogs, one little chihuahua, and a larger Border collie and we pretty much always buy the same dog food from Ralph’s because it’s cheap, seems relatively healthy (for bagged dog food), and I usually have a dollar or more coupon for it. A couple of days ago, I just got sick of buying that tiny bag, knowing that it lacked common sense, and honestly, I had missed the budget that day anyway, so I bought the big bag for 19.99 and used my dollar coupon.  The difference is about 12 dollars between the 4-pound bag and the 14-pound bag. Loosely calculating — including the $1.00 coupon—the 4-pound bag adds up to $1.99/pound, while the 14-pound bag, comes to $1.35 per pound. We all know this: it’s smarter to purchase the big bag (calculate first though, because sometimes it’s not cheaper). In general, this works across the board for everything that you buy in bulk and that does not spoil or expire. Of course, you have to be reasonable—you don’t want to buy 17 chickens in bulk because they’re on sale—even if you have a room-sized freezer, because they’ll probably get freezer burn, but, if you want toilet paper, it’s definitely best to buy a big bunch of it all at once, and then you can ride your bike to the store and save gas next time. So, the takehome for this is to take these items off the budget and adjust your daily or monthly budget accordingly. For us, it was just wiser to take the animal food (the same holds for our chicken food) off the grocery budget altogether. You’ll understand why next.

 

2. This month gave me a really good insight into our spending habits. The thing is, there are certain foods I insist on buying—areas where I ‘splurge.’ For example, we always buy organic meat. Once a week I buy a free-range chicken and bake it in the oven. I use it well—making at least three dinners with it and then making broth for soup. Still, I don’t know if you’ve priced those birds lately, but they are not the Foster Farm Floozies that come cheap. The same goes for organic milk and beef. Speaking of beef, I had a beef with the budget a number of times because I didn’t have enough money to buy juice—something I like to make smoothies with. In fact, I could barely afford canned pineapple at $1.00-$2.50 a can. Fresh fruit! Forget it—I was lucky to get berries on sale, but having a constant supply was like finding a local berry bush and picking my own. At one point I impulsively grabbed a very small plastic container of blackberries assuming they were $1.99 like the blueberries next to them and they were $3.99! I came this close to returning them but worried they would end up in the trash.  You probably see where I’m going with this—I just couldn’t find a way to cut back without sacrificing my shopping choices. At the same time, I leveled the playing field—no more could I run into Rite Aid and pick up those little plastic portable cups of Oreos even if they were only $1.00. Ralphs’ prices are horrendous—a pack of M&M’s are over $1.00. I did eat healthier in some ways, but at around 4:00 p.m. my kids and began to look like the Donner party. Rationing out blueberries became an actual ‘thing.’ Not good for health. So, in number 1 above, I said that I was taking out the dog food. Well, that will probably include laundry detergent, toilet paper, cleaning supplies, and anything ”like that” because I want MORE money for nutritious food. How much more? Well, I’m not sure yet. I’m going to add it all up and though I don’t intend to take an in-depth analysis on my grocery bill, I think I will definitely try to come up with a daily amount to stick to because that really, really worked for me.

3. So, this would not be complete without describing our last item that absolutely does not fit on the grocery bill: ice cream.

So embarrassing.

But, yes, we love Rite Aid ice cream and that’s just that.

(Picture above: One of the perks of shopping daily, and on a budget, is the small grocery bag that you need. It’s a little rough around the edges because it was found in a Free Pile, but it’s still cute and very sturdy. Plus it fits in my bike basket perfectly. 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sticking to a Grocery Budget Even If You Feel Like You Might Die of Starvation

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been experimenting with a grocery budget—something I’ve never done. I know, gasp. It seems the first recommendation of any card carrying money-conscious person is to know where your money goes and establish a budget. Up until now, I’ve blithely ignored that advice.

That was until I received my American Express bill, which was, ahem, very high. When a cursory scan did not give me any insight, I broke out the calculator, paper, and pen. I involved a handful of Hershey’s Kisses and then I set up shop at the kitchen table.

After 15 minutes, the culprit, Groceries, rang in at over $1,000.00. Whoa. Really I could not remember buying anything with 14 carat gold on it, so I immediately rolled more chocolate munitions onto the table and contemplated a cup of coffee even though it was after 4pm. No matter how I tried to untangle the numbers they still sat there, like the lumps of curvy lines that they are, and stared blankly at me. Unmoving. Literally unmoving, because I now had to go online and pay that huge bill.

So, after walking out of Ralph’s a couple of days later, I decided that the trick may be in the credit card itself. Meaning, American Express pays 6% on groceries for up to $6,000.00 per year. This was the reason I applied for this card—I mean, what card can beat that? There is a caveat, however. Once you spend $6,000.00, you only get 1% back, not 6% anymore. I wondered if we could aim this low: $6,000 a year? This boils down to $500.00 per month. Or $16.44 cents per day for groceries.

I asked the kids if they thought we could stick to a budget of $15.00 per day (just to err on the safe side). Surprisingly, they were very agreeable, even calculating what they thought the daily amount would be in their heads.

It was a Full Send as my son calls it.

Since that day I’ve been operating on $15 a day and there are a couple of things I’ve learned since taking on this project.

You Will Get Sick of It

Of trust me, unless you are basically anorexic at heart, you will get very tired of the whole thing. The mental calculation, the fussbudgityness, the angst. You will get hungry while in the store and you may salivate when you run into your neighbor and she mentions donuts, or crackers, or split pea soup. You’ll wonder if you can subsist on $15.00 a day (or whatever amount you decide), you’ll think you will starve to death, and you’ll wonder if this is good for your kids, or husband, or pets. At 4:00 p.m., after a long day and a missed lunch, you will want to give up.

This is NOT the Time to Give Up

This is the moment when you must rally and come up with something healthy that is inexpensive. And it will be DIFFICULT. I couldn’t believe how long it took me to come up with tuna sandwiches as a lunch! Not to mention that I didn’t even need to buy tuna because we already had it—and everything else that a tuna sandwich requires.

In order to achieve this budget, you will need to get off of autopilot and really think about what you are doing. You’ll have to decide how to cook that head of broccoli and use it. Otherwise, it will go bad and now, on this low budget, you will kick yourself, and probably run in for a box of Marie Callendar’s pot pies and a whole load of things you don’t need and blow the whole experiment.

Make a Game of It

The best approach that I can see so far is to make a game of the whole endeavor. A game has special cards. In this game, they are called coupons. Coupons are interesting because even though they have dates on them and other things like specific foods, you can sometimes get a friendly cashier to credit you the $1.00 off anyway. Not unlike Poker, the savvy cashier can ”read” you. In fact, just last week I had the cashier change my coupons on two separate occasions—this has never happened to me before, but they must have Desperation Radar or hidden antennae or something. It was uncanny. Also, don’t forget online coupons and newspaper inserts. Most of all, don’t forget that like any game you will not be so good in the beginning, but you will get better.

Accept Free Food

Free food is free! If you are brave, you’ll dumpster dive. I’m too self-conscious for that, but I will take free food that is given at thrift stores and free piles (we have one at the end of our street that has a big shelf and the leftover Foodbank food is left there). I will also figure out a way to handle 11 cupcakes from my neighbor who only wanted to bake them and eat one. That’s no problem.

While You’re at it Don’t Sacrifice Nutrition

Okay, nothing to add to that except that this may be hard if you skip breakfast and have a tiny lunch like I did last Monday, you may find yourself in the candy aisle of the store and decide that you have to buy a pack of individually wrapped Recess Peanut Butter Cups for $1.99.  Yeah. Don’t do that. Or do. I still stuck to the Budget so it was fine.

Don’t Go Ahead

This is the most practical tip and essential. Do not use your next day’s money. You can’t borrow into the future. Now, for example, if I spend $10.00 today, then I save $5.00. In that case, I can use that $5.00 tomorrow or anytime after. But, I can’t spend $20.00 today in the hopes that I’ll only spend $10.00 tomorrow. Somehow that never works.

On a final note, I’d say that this experiment is only for one month for my family. So far, I can see that realistically, there are some real hurdles to spending so little for a family of four hungry people. Nevertheless, it is a handy discipline to spend as little as you can for one whole month. At the end of this month, I hope to have a better sense of where we fit in on a regular basis. Right now, I expect to forge on and challenge myself to get better at organizing our meals.

Let me know your thoughts!

Andrea

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our Grand Budget Experiment

I’m more of a skinflint than a spendthrift when it comes to food, but I’ll pick organic over the regular fare and the expensive cheese has found its way into my cart more than once. The fact is that I’m pretty frugal naturally so I don’t usually think that I need to count every penny. Meaning: I don’t follow a budget nor do I track my spending.

My last American Express bill may have changed my mind. Let’s say the bill was high enough to be persuasive.

I could go off on a real tangent on how much I love my American Express card. I love the dark blue color of it. I love the sleek richness of it. Best of all, I love that it gives me 6% on groceries up until I spend $6,000.00 and thereafter it gives me 1%. The phenomenal grocery rewards are what prompted me to apply for the card in the first place. I know that nothing beats not spending, but that 6% sure seems close.

The problem with credit cards is that they are so great that you want to use them. The bottom line though is that while I get $6.00 for every hundred I spend on groceries, I would get $94.00 more if I didn’t spend that $100.00 in the first place—a fact that often alludes us when we’re at the grocery store and that $100.00 is only $1.00 or even $10.00.

When my December bill showed up I suspected that I’d been gaming more for points than reining in my spending. The bill was an exorbitant $2,300. Not all of the charges were grocery-related, in fact, there were a couple of big dollar amounts that fell under medical and home repairs.

Still, this was the highest bill I’ve had so far with American Express in the year and a half that I’ve had it. I decided on the spot to dissect the charges and saw that over $1,000.00 was spent on groceries—this included everything from toilet paper to dog food. Nevertheless, I was shocked.

Informing my opinion was an offhand comment that a coworker had said in passing a couple of months ago. She mentioned that she and her husband, along with two grown sons, kept to a strict grocery budget of $800.00 per month.

The details of that comment have stayed with me ever since.

Underneath I knew that I did not have control over my spending. Without some budget or defining amount, spending becomes a free-for-all. While I wasn’t driving us into the poorhouse, I didn’t have a real boundary for my spending.

Up until now I didn’t think it mattered.

But, then I thought, what if we could halve our spending? What if we could spend $500.00 per month—a reasonable sum—and stash that other $500.00 into our growing investment accounts?

I did the math and figured that I could spend around $15.00 per day on groceries. I ran the idea past my kids to see what they thought about that. While I knew we could switch gears and spend more, I didn’t want them to feel deprived. I wanted them to be in on the exercise so that they didn’t just hear a repetitive ‘no’ when they asked for something. Amazingly, they were on board. How weird is it that creating a boundary makes shopping into a game?

Just to be clear, my husband and I have separate checking accounts and so I did not include him because he will often purchase items for himself separately based on his work schedule—he is a commercial fisherman and he often has to take dinner with him or eat out when he is not home. Still, after a couple of days of hearing our excitement, he started to get on board.

The first day of our ‘experiment’ was Monday, just two days before Christmas. Ironically, we were able to grab free bread, apples, bagels, and even a whole, unopened cake from someone who regularly puts out leftover food from the Food Bank on a shelf underneath a set of mailboxes at the furthest end of our street. Let me repeat, this is all fully packaged food that no one took at the Food Bank. She was so eager to give it away that we felt we were doing her a favor!

My husband is still going on about how great that bread is—two long french bread loaves in an unopened package. According to him you just have to head the bread up a bit and it ”comes back to life.”

I’m considering our experiment a warmup for the real thing in January, but here are our expenditures so far this week:

Monday 12/23: $15.69 Ralphs: Where It All Began. We walked out while doing the math and simultaneously reading our receipt. This is when we settled on $15.00 per day.

Tuesday 2/24: $15.64 Annoyingly close but a good ‘beginner’s start.’

Wednesday 12/25: -0- Christmas Day

Thursday 12/26: Albertson’s Shocking Win— $15.00 on the nose.

Friday 12/27: $12.94 I forgot the tomato and laundry detergent—should I count laundry detergent? Beset by Indecision.

So far, it’s only been a week, but a few notable truths have emerged:

  • I feel like I have a lot more food to eat. Completely surprised at this, but if you have to eat what you have in your house, your focus becomes, ‘what’s in the back of the refrigerator?’ or ‘dang, there’s still potato and steak left in there!’ Sometimes, it’s a bit darker, like, ‘how old is that cottage cheese, how long does cottage cheese last, and how sick will I get if I go for it?’ Suddenly you stop thinking about the larger possibilities of going to buy a bunch of stuff that will last a week. You shift from, ‘oh, I need all of these items to make this recipe’ to ‘Yep, I’ll skip those two things and make it anyway.’ As a secondary bonus you don’t have to sift through rotten food that you couldn’t find because your refrigerator was too full or you ate that large bag of M & M’s instead of using up the sandwich meat.
  • Along those same lines, meals are so much easier. We eat to live and not the other way around. We still have treats—remember the cake? Plus, Tuesday was our day to get ice cream at Ralphs and I decided to get the Kroger Drumsticks (ice cream) instead of the other better brand because Kroger was cheaper. That night we all pretended that we were fine with it, but I had to be picky and say it—-they sucked. Rather than return them—because that’s just embarrassing—we gave a box to the neighbor kid who’s always hounding us for Drumsticks. We have not heard any complaints from next door.
  • I’ve done a reversal on the mentality that tells you to shop once a week—something that I could never get the hang of. I’ll call it more of a European style of shopping where you shop daily and make a meal out of what you have rather than plan a complicated meal that, in my case anyway, never really panned out. My kids are on Christmas break at the moment and we have free days so it’s pretty easy to maintain this schedule now, but if I’m honest, I was always finding an excuse to run to the store during the week—almost daily—anyway.
  • We are eating healthier. Less spending means I’ve cut out prepackaged foods and replaced that junk with filling, nutritious foods (except the ice cream which we eat for dessert each night). The basics, such as apples, bananas, tuna, salad, eggs, milk, and cereal weigh in heavily here. I was buying the kids Cliff bars for school and now I’m going to have to come up with an alternative because they are just not budget friendly. Overshadowing this is the more important point that they are not a good choice in many ways. Individually wrapped (not environmentally friendly), lots of sugar (17-22 grams per bar), and filling so that healthier lunch items are less appealing (oh, that’s why the rest of the lunch is not eaten!) Besides which, my 13-year-old son was eating 2-3 of them a day no matter how much I tried to keep him to one.
  • Probably the most obvious is that we have a lot more space—and a lot less food waste. Even our kitchen counters seem more clean and open. We’re going through boxed food like macaroni and cheese and finally, eating it. We may not always love each meal ( I made a horrendous first spaghetti dinner with tomato paste that was so bad we almost gave up our experiment on the spot).

Thanks for reading and let me know how and if you budget, how much you spend, and your tips and ideas!

Andrea

 

 

 

Home Depot Stock—Is it a Buy?

As the year comes to a close, I’ve been keeping an eye on the stock market. I’ve been scrimping all year, skimming extra cash and locking it into my savings account. I’ve also planned ahead for extras such as our property tax bill and any taxes or insurance we may owe in the next few months. I know from the last couple of years that the stock market notoriously dips during the winter (last year it took a deep dive right around that last week of December) and I don’t want to miss my chance to get a solid foothold and buy low into the market.

Like Santa, I’ve been keeping a list and double-checking it semi-obsessively. I am also trying to gain new knowledge by reading and listening to other investors. Time after time, there’s one stock that continually comes up: Home Depot. Whether it’s an amateur investor or The Motley Fool, Home Depot gets a thumbs up as a company to invest in.

Home Depot is the largest home improvement retailer in the U.S. Operating from an expansive warehouse-style ”superstore,” Home Depot appeals to both the regular DIY homeowner and professional contractor. It has great marketing with its big “orangeness” and catchy slogans (“How Doers Get More Done” replaced ”More saving. More Doing” just this year).

As of this writing, Home Depot’s stock is $221.19 with a nice dividend of $2.46%. This is a far cry from their humble beginnings; in 1995 the stock was in the $9.00 range. In 2012 the stock began a steep incline, not unlike a climb up Mount Everest, and never looked back. In general, this is not the time to buy stock. But, when the market dips, as it always does, I still won’t be buying Home Depot stock, and here’s why:

Store Experience

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That’s right. Major thumbs down. I used to love the big box appeal of Home Depot—it always felt like something was going to get done when you walked through those doors. Even birds frequented the upper levels of the huge warehouse. For a new homeowner, the place seemed full of possibility. But over the years I’ve come to see Home Depot as more of a facade than substance.

And, it’s getting worse.

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Recently, I ventured into Home Depot because my local, smaller store did not have the particular knobs I was looking for. Despite the daunting size of Home Depot, their selection was surprisingly slim. I perused the aisle back and forth for quite a while. None of the knobs jumped out at me—in fact, it was more the opposite—all of the styles seemed staid and conservative. There was no higher-end version of hinges or latches or knobs that stood out. We’re talking average, run-of-the mill drab here. Out of options and ”ready to get something done,” I settled on a simple pair of knobs and a latch.

Basically satisfied, I left the aisle and headed for the registers eager to get outta Dodge and get back to work on my project.

As I left the handle aisle, I ran smack into a really cool product that I’d seen in a Youtube video. It was a package of two self-centering drill bits—a really handy tool that allows you to pre-drill your holes dead center so that your hinges fit properly. I was pretty excited, but since I’d only just heard about this item, I decided to ask around a bit and ask an ”expert” if these were a good purchase for the hinges I was using. Inside the package were two drill bits, one was 7/64″ and the other 9/64″—my hinges needed 1/8″ screws. I quickly stopped an employee, an average-looking guy probably in his mid 40’s. I showed the package of bits and the hinges I was intending on using. I showed him that I needed 1/8″ screws for the hinges, and asked him if he thought one of the bits would do the job?

Not only did he not really come to a full stop, but it became evident that he had absolutely no clue what I was asking—nor had he seen the product himself. Further, when I realized—and suddenly pointed out that 8/64″ was the same as 1/8″ he gave me a slightly panicked math-phobic look and sort-of grunted and side-scuttled off.

This had me shaking my head, but I’m pretty persistent so I found another, slightly older employee. Wouldn’t you know it, I got the exact same reaction. By then, I’d had a bit of a walk about the store and so I decided to take the risk and spend the $9.99 for the two bits.

As I neared the cash registers, it was my turn to become completely confused. No longer are there cashiers. During this time of day—noon on a weekday—there was no one even around except one employee complaining to another employee about how bad the cash registers worked. Literally, it seemed like I’d teleported into a ghost town. I went ahead and purchased my items and left.

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Forget service—at Home Depot, DIY means you do your own customer service and act as cashier.

Before you get the wrong idea, I’m not opposed to self-checking registers. It was more that there seemed to be no one around at all in the store except a vacuous skeleton crew skulking around like zombies in the daylight. The place seemed really, really, dead. This obviously does not give me confidence in this company.

Personal Experience

In the early 1990’s, I applied for a position at Home Depot. Back then, the big box store was gaining steam and with its flexible scheduling, it seemed like the perfect place to work. At that time of my life (my early 20’s) I worked for a number of similar places including Target and Costco as well as a variety of other jobs as a temp.

Home Depot had it down pat back then. You didn’t really apply there in a normal way. You filled out an application and then took a ”psychological inventory” that asked you random questions with a few pertinent ones thrown in there—these were the ”real”questions and if you failed even one, you were not hired.

I know this because I failed the test at a Home Depot in Irvine, California. I was pretty miffed when I found out that I failed the test and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It wasn’t exceptionally difficult to figure out—I realized I had answered one question wrong. The question asked you this: if you knew a friend/co-worker was stealing, would you turn them into Home Depot?

Well, I’m no thief, and I’m really honest. But, I did answer ‘no.’ The fact is, I don’t know what I would do under those circumstances because I stay far away from people who steal. I am the sort of person who is completely gobsmacked in those situations. Now, if the thieving was extreme—the answer is obvious—but, I would not consider that person my friend. So, you can see how the wording was ultra-confusing and meant to trip you up. I was pretty young at the time. I just wanted a job.

Once I figured out that I had, in fact, been somewhat duped by the test, I did what any determined person would do—I went and applied at another Home Depot and took the test again. This time I passed—and I was hired.

But, I did not last long at this job. After the first week I figured out that there would be no real training. If I remember correctly I was assigned to watch a video recording of something utterly boring and irrelevant on the first day. The TV, located in a dingy, windowless, tiny closet of a room was cold and uncomfortable.

Working on the floor was overwhelming. There were so many pieces and parts—I think I’d first been assigned to some weird section like electrical. I had no clue about electrical tools or parts and was completely useless if asked even the most rudimentary of questions. Further, I don’t remember having anyone train me, but I do vaguely recall needing help from another employee and searching along long, tall aisles and not finding anyone to assist me.

Sounds kind of like my experience as a customer.

I ended up quitting just days into that job.

Despite my own experiences, I really want to like Home Depot. I want to jump on board and buy the stock. I can see so much potential there. I mean, who doesn’t love Homer? But, combined with those three things: the high cost of Home Depot stock—and the alarming rate at which it rose—gives me pause, the poor customer experience, and my own personal view into how it trains its employees, makes me feel like this business is not really into ”providing a service.”

Instead, I get the sense that Home Depot as a company is into the bottom line.

Having said that, I don’t think it would take much for Home Depot to really become a stellar company. Now that they have the technology for the cash registers, why not place iPad’s throughout the store to describe new tools such as the drill bits I bought? Why not train employees to better respond to customers? As a company, they have a lot in their favor such as great marketing—who doesn’t recognize the huge orange letters and the apron? They also have a steadfast corner on the market in a large and beloved sector: the home.

Now, in my opinion, they just need to ”bring it home.”

If you’re reading. Give me your opinion—and change my mind!

Andrea 🙂

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