Monday, December 28, 2015

Throw a Great Bash without Living in a McMansion (or Entertaining in Small Spaces)

Alright, stepping away from a hard finance post today and bringing you a frugal living post~ but no fear, Thursday's New Years post will crunch some numbers!
One of the facets of "spending SMALL, while living LARGE" may mean that you are on the literal end of living large in a small space. Housing/renting costs are often a huge part of an American's monthly budget*, so opting for a smaller home or apartment can really help save money in the long run. But there's a catch... living in a small house or apartment can discourage you from entertaining -but it shouldn't. The holidays are prime time for having friends and family over. Just because you live in a small domicile, doesn't mean you can't throw a great shindig! Keep reading for some handy tricks, I use at the Frugal Rock Home over the holidays!

While the Frugal Rock home is a not 'tiny' home** by any stretch of the imagination, one thing it doesn't have is an open floor layout or a dining room. Our house has four smaller rooms on our first floor making our floor plan not as conducive to large gatherings. We have gotten good at hosting 10 or less in our small space, and while at times it feels 'cozy', I would not say it feels cramped. Here are some things I do to make the place feel company ready:

                            1. Set up a Separate Drink Station Out of the Way
So one of the main joys (and struggles) of small kitchens is that they are immensely compact and efficient. I dig my galley style kitchen and have cooked dinner-for-two and for much larger groups in that small space. HOWEVER, if 8 people are also trying to get coffee or make drinks while I'm trying to bake/sauté/shake it makes me a cranky cook and also prevents my guests from getting their refills. No bueno all around.

Recently having hosted our annual Christmas Day brunch I experimented with sending our guests to our game room (converted from our spare bedroom) and set up a coffee station. Having a new year's soiree? It could be a drink cart! Kids party? Try a hot cocoa or lemonade station! Either way it helps move people out of congested areas (the kitchen) and mingle in a different area of your home. Making a drink station for your next event? Pay attention to the extras- flavor syrups, peppermints and other extras made our station a hit.

                       2. Consider a Variety of Seating Options

One of the challenges of small home living is where to put everyone when they come to visit! There are some great ways that you can maximize seating in small space. My number 1 is to think outside of your living room, and see if there are furniture from other areas of the home that may be repurposed to your dining/living room for the day. Think: chairs, ottomans, and even cushions can be repurposed for floor sitting. Forget matching- no one will notice anyway, since you'll be throwing such a great party!

Standing Room Only: Have a really small place? Chairs can also be removed to free up space if you have given up the idea of people sitting down. Taking away bar stools so people mingle more at the counter, or chairs around the table so people can graze are biggies. If seating wasn't plentiful enough for all, still ensure that you have some vignette spaces for more intimate conversation.

           3. Know Thy Space: Have a plan for your meal that matches your place

One of the things about small spaces is that they can make formal, sit-down meals challenging. That's why it's good to have a plan in place to make things as easy as possible for your guests. Don't stress if you don't have a table large enough to fit everyone- maybe set up two different seating areas; like an adult version of the kids' table. There are some positives to this, as it can get your guests talking to people they may not know as well. You can also ditch the formal meal altogether and plan your event after a typical meal-time. For example, have people over later in the evening for drinks and desserts- no one will come expecting a full meal and makes your job as host easier.

For the Frugal Rock Annual Holiday Brunch, our eat-in kitchen table was not going to cut it this year, so we opted to move the party into our game room/spare room, which has a large round table that generally we have board games out on. With the addition of 3 extra chairs, we were able to comfortably fit our group of 7. It ended up working perfectly for our numbers, but any additional visitors, and we would have opted for the two sitting/eating areas.

                                                4. Rethink The Fridge

When I was a kid, my parents had two fridges (one in the house, one in the garage) and a deep freezer. The Frugal Rock household had talked about adding a small deep freezer
 in the basement, but with really working hard to cut our electrical costs, a deep freezer would have been a step in the wrong direction for us. Fridge space is often a challenge no matter the size of your home, but in a small space, you likely also have smaller appliances.

So what to do? Channel your summer self and think of  your outdoor BBQ's and utilize coolers, ice buckets, etc. to ensure adequate space in your actual fridge for important food items. Keep extra items, beverages, chilled champagne- whatever you want to have on hand but don't immediately need in a cooler, out of the way. In a colder climate? Time to go retro- like 1800's retro and use the outdoors for your cooling needs (fun fact: modern refrigeration technology was invented in 1876, bet you always wanted to know that right?). The snowbank cooler is very effective for short-term needs. I have thrown champagne, bottled water- even a container of milk in a snowbank (short-term) during a party to keep everything cold!

Hope these ideas help you look at your space with fresh eyes! Already a confident host? What are your small space tricks to hosting a great party? Never have people over? What keeps you from hosting gatherings with family and friends?

* According to Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies, in 2014 1 in 4 Americans spent about 50% of their monthly budget on rental housing alone.*

**An official "Tiny Home", one the big trends in small living, is typically less than 200 sq. feet. I give people tons of credit for living that way, but too small for us!**

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

I Hope You Get Gift Cards for Christmas (or How to Save $ From Someone Else's Disappointment)

Jimmy opens up his Christmas card form Grandma. He smiles in that grateful but disappointed way and says thank you, holding up his $50 gift card for Applebee's. What's wrong with Applebee's? Let's say Jimmy is a vegetarian and a foodie, and wouldn't be caught dead in an Applebee's. He goes home, goes online and sells the gift card for $35 and gets money instantly in his paypal account. He uses that to buy a years worth of Tahini for his homemade hummus and considers himself content.

Enter the world of re-selling gift cards. Is your mind blown? Mine was!

Having been the receiver of gift cards in the past to places we never go to, I can see how there is a market for it. Case in point: Baskin Robbins gift card? What the heck is a Baskin Robbins?! (Can I order bird seed from there?) However, I was shocked that it turns out some people are so eager for the cash instead that they will sell their gift cards for 5-20% off from a lot of major retailers. In a quick check of one gift card buying/selling site- (I spent the most time on you could pick up a $300 TJ Maxx gif card for $250. Check it out:

A Robin Basking...
If you can find gift cards that are places you already spend at regularly through out the year you could save quite a bit of money this way. In demand gift cards for places like grocery stores, or Menards are harder to come by, but as a big Home Depot spender I'm keeping my eye on their gift cards. They are currently selling for 8%, less than cash value. Hoping it will hit 10-15% after the holidays.

Most major restaurant chains, clothing lines, etc. are also featured on these sites. Shop Express or Banana Republic? Gift cards for these places offer a nice chunk of discount. Target and Kohl's also seem to fluctuate between 5-10%. Not huge savings compared to other stores, but if you know that you typically spend about $500 in purchases at Target throughout the year (another reason it's good to track your spending!), why not buy $500 in gift cards in January at a discount and relish how smart you are throughout the year whenever you use it? You look pretty smart to me...

                                                         Why Now?

Turns out that there is a best time of year to buy almost anything. January is the top month to buy gift cards according to most economy trackers, and it's really no surprise. It may be folks selling their holiday gift cards, or returning gifts without a receipt and receiving 'in-store' credit in the form of a gift card. Either way, January is the perfect time to shop around for gift cards. Check out the graph, courtesy of Life Hacker.

On the flip, if you get gift cards for Christmas, you can also sell them on site like, but be prepared to take a hit. People shop these sites looking for deals so likely will only bite if the deal is sweet enough. Be prepared to take a loss. So here's hoping that a lot of people get gift cards this Christmas- as I'll be expectantly waiting for them to turn up on gift card selling sites!

Oh, and if you were considering getting a few gift cards for those last few nieces and nephews on your list...maybe just get them cash instead.

           Are you giving gift cards this year? Would you ever sell your gift cards online?

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Holiday Bonuses (Or Will They Ruin Your Christmas Vacation?)

It's that time of year, where trees are up, holiday music is playing, people are alternatively more upbeat and more cranky than any other month. It may be the overscheduling, or all the forced time with others, but it can lead to a stressful time. In many jobs, December is also a very busy time- it's time to wrap up the fiscal year, set budgets and goals for next year. It's also that time of year where you are expected to complete all your normal work, while also adjusting and covering for other's vacations or trying to squezze in your own. There is a silver-lining in all that: the Holiday Bonus.

One of the all-time best holiday movies (there is no room for debate on this issue) is National
Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. I was re-watching it a few weeks back, and I was struck that I had forgotten the whole premise that the movie is based on. If you haven't seen it recently, the crux is the holiday bonus- or the lack there of! In the 1989 movie, the main charector Clark Griswold, is waiting expectantly for his Christmas bonus. While you never know how much he is actually expecting, he is using it for a downpayment on an in-ground swimming pool. Sooo while I don't know how much that would be in the 1980's, I think we can surmise that he was expecting a fairly big 'pool' of cash to come his way. Hilarity ensues, as with all Chevy Chase movies and a string of unfortunate events occurs with the onset of his family coming to visit, as Chevy Chase loses sight of the meaing of Christmas. In summary, well-off head-of-household with good job, doesn't get bonus and can't afford a luxery his family was doing fine without. #firstworldproblems #80sclothesarethebest

In re-watching the movie, I was struck by the pre-great-recession idea of the Holiday Bonsus- and thought, do most folks even get holiday bonuses anymore? Is the Holiday Bonus it's own piece of nostalgia out there, gone by the wayside of other quaint 80's and 90's traditions like, matching outfits for Christmas cards and the overuse of AquaNet as a styling product?

The biggest sign to me that the Holiday bonus is (mostly) dead, is the complete lack of information nationally that I was able to find on it. The most reputable data source I located was a poll completed and featured by CNN Money in 2005. Yikes- not exactly current. At that time, about 60% of companies were reporting that they were not planning on giving a holiday bonus to their employees. I did find a lot more on the switch from holiday bonuses to performance based bonuses (or incentive based pay). Where as the spirit behind the Holiday Bonus was a way of thanking all employees (often equally) for their time throughout the year, incentive based pay is an increased compensation model based on the quality of work of that individual employee through the year.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management incentive pay is often performance based money due to the completeion of a short-term or long-term project or performance measure. A short-term performance incentive could be getting bonus after finishing a big project for your employeer that goes above/beyond your normal job expectations (overhauling the companies IT systems, for example...making it through a budget meeting without yelling at someone would not count...). A short-term annual performance outcome, may be based off of your sale numbers from throughout the year and could be an end of the year bonus. Some companies will also do retention bonuses, thus also finding a way to reward employees who have maitained time with the company, often 5 years and above. As in thanks for sticking with us all this time, and pleeeeze stick around another year!

In a survey completed in 2013, published in 2014, World at Work and Deloitte Consulting, found that 99% of the companies that they surveyed had some sort of short-term incentive plan. So while the holiday bonus may be on the outs, many companies are still offerring some form of incentive program. The research does show however, that this mainly impacts salaried employees, part-time or hourly employees were only receiving benefits from incentive plans or holiday bonuses between 50-55% of the time- significantly lower than the average for salaried employees which as previously mentioned was in the high 90%.

The research I found does seem to show that if your employeer has a good incentive based pay model, you could be receivng a bonus of around 5-10% of your annual salary as a low level employee, 10-15% as a supervisor and ascending as you rise in the company ranks. This has been a much higher amount than a holiday bonus historically has been- meaning you are probably better off forgetting that holiday bonus and enjoying your performanence incentive! ChaChing!

If your employeer is cheap and doesn't offer high incentive pay though, are you out of luck? Working for a non-profit, means that incentive based pay bonuses are not applicable. Being grant and government funded, I get it. I can imagine the tax-payer out-cry if government or private gov. funded agencies started to do large bonusus! We do have retention bonuses, but no annual performance based bonus. I'm glad to report that our holiday bonuses have lived to arrive another year- (though it always feels a little unsure as to if they will be received or not) and I'm grateful for that! Quick thing to remember if you are expecting that holiday or year end performanence based bonus- it's still taxable! So before you start spending that amount before you get it, remember that when it finally ends up in your bank account, it will be minus your normal payroll tax rate...Uncle Sam wants his own holiday bonus...

Is any bonus better than no bonus? A friend recently complained to me that instead of a monetary bonus, she got a $25 gift card for a local grocery chain. Instead of making her feel valued as an employee, it felt completely the opposite. The cash amount was way lower than she anticipated and made her feel less valued- not more. Is this just being a complainy-Clark Griswold- sort of person? I don't think so. How our employeers treat us makes a big difference! If your company did large bonuses in the past and is switching to smaller bonsus' this year- some sort of communication is needed to explain to employees the shift...was it a tough year? are they moving towards retenion/performance bonuses instead?...Something is not always better than nothing!  

Hoping that you have some form of bonus coming your way! Does your employer do holiday/incentive bonuses? Are you expecting a year-end amount? What's your plan for your extra cash?

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

How Much Should You be Saving for Retirement (Or How to Know if You Are Better than Average?)

Saving for retirement is like yearly preventative doctor's visits- we all know that we should be doing it, but let's face it, for many of us we skip that yearly appointment, only to end up with a more costly Urgent Care visit later in the year for one issue or another! It's one of the many ways that we know as adults we are supposed to care for our 'future selves', but as we all know adulting is hard!

So to get at the subtitle of this post- how to know if you're better than average. Spoiler alert: we all think that we are! According to Daniel Gilbert in his book, 'Stumbling on Happiness' (a great read by the way if you are interested in the science behind what makes people happy- or unhappy) 'science has given us a lot of facts about the average person, and one of the most reliable of these facts is that the average person doesn't see herself as average'. Given the chance, most of us think we are more reliable, smarter, more good-looking etc. than the majority of the population. But how do you measure up in how you save for retirement? Are you better doing than average?

The National Institute on Retirement Security (NIRS), is a non-profit research center focused on retirement related economic issues. They recently completed a report titled "The Continuing Retirement Savings Crisis". Any bets on what it may be about? If you guessed that American's are doing fine and the future of our impending retirements is rosy, you would be vastly incorrect. Their latest study actually found that the median retirement balance for the worker bees of America out there was a measely (yup, I said it) $2,500. What can $2,500 even get you? For me, it's 4 mortgage payments, or a crummy used car. Maybe a stateside vacation? Definitely not enough to live off of for 20+ years...

What about families closer to retirement- surely those folks around their late 40's, early 50's, put things into high gear?? Unfortunately, the situation still isn't great- according the NIRS most of those family's had less than their annual year's salary saved. Meaning if the average bloke makes $40,000 a year, at retirement that same bloke would not have $40,000 in their reitrement account. To put that in perspective, most retirement calcutors suggest that to retire your family needs 8 times your annual household income saved away. Most savers haven't pocketed away even an 8th of the that!

But WAIT, there is hope- the study found that homes that had retirement accounts were more likely to save for retirement. So the take away from that data, for me, is that if you have an account set up through an employeer or a seperate IRA, you are step ahead of the pack. Just by having this fund leads you to put more money away, thus making the likliehood of you being able to retire much more feasible. While it's great if you have an employer who matches your 401k/403b contributions, according to the NIRS about 45% of houlseholds work in jobs that do not have retirement plans. If that's the case you can still open an IRA and start contribuing to account or use it as a supplement if you want to start saving more and don't want to use your company's 401k plan.

What's the relevance anyway?

For many Americans- they will have woefully inadequate savings at the time of retirment, but what does that really mean?? It means working for more years, and likely having to lower living standards. This struggle will also disproportionately impact the ladies out there, who sad to say, tend to make less over their careers, tend to have less saved overall than men, and also statistically live longer (thus needing more funds to support themselves). It may also result in a higher reliance on Social Security benefits, if individuals are not saving enough now of their own funds.

It begs the question- what if Social Security isn't around in the future?? While I wouldn't bet that it will go away completely, many experts anticipate major changes in the next 20 years to how social security opperates. Per the Social Security Administration's current projections the trust that pays retirement benefits will not have enough funds to continue to pay at the current rates, and that "three-quarters of scheduled benefits could be paid in each year"-  meaning future retirees could see a reduction of 25% in expected benefits. So long-term options for fixing the Social Security program appear agonizing simple- either Social Security payments will go down, or taxes to fund the program will rise. It could be a combination of both. Either way, future retirees can't automatically expect that the benefit amounts of today's retirees will look the same 40 years from now.*

As some may remember from my first post one of the questions I posed was looking at whether working until 65 or longer is a necessary for many Americans. According to the data, for many it will be necessary. For others they may need to remain in the workforce longer. For my family- I hope it's not. While I'm not saying that I would want to stop working - some studies are showing that stopping employment leads to a variety of issues for older adults, there is something to be said for flexibility. The idea of saving at a high % for retirement and living well below our income level, increases our likelihood of being financially independent (meaning no debt, able to pay our expenses without reliance on our 9-5 jobs). This is highly appealing to me and I'm sure is appealing to others out there as well.

I'll show you mine, if you show me yours...
...Retirement contribution rates, that is. So now it's time for show and tell. In the past 2 years we have dramatically increased our retirement contributions, in part, due to my employer increasing their matching contribution rates. For both my and Mr. Frugal Rock's retirement plans, we have made the decision to contribute the maximum amount that still receives the employer matching contribution. For example, my employer matches up to 12% of my income. If I only contributed 10% to my retirement account, I am effectively leaving money on the table. Not cool. For Mr. Frugal Rock, his company is a very small place with only a few employees, while they offer a retirement plan, it's not great- a 4% match. In addition, we have a Roth IRA that we also max out each year (there are yearly contribution limits), and are thinking of opening another one in 2016 for Mr. Frugal Rock. So our overall contribution to our retirement yearly is currently at 20% of our annual income. This puts us well on our way to that 'retirement number' I talked about earlier.

Getting to this saving % hasn't always come easy. Budgets helped. Mistakes were made. But at this point, it feels natural as the money comes out directly from our paychecks into our employeer retirement accounts, and directly from our bank accounts for our Roth IRA. Not seeing the funds, has really helped me not feel like I'm missing anything! I also think there is room for improvement with our overall savings rate and would like to see us decrease our living expenses and increase our savings... watch for my 2016 New Year's Frugal Rock Resolutions to get a sneak peek into our goals for 2016!

Are you better than average? Do you contribute to a retirement plan through your employer or through another investment company?
*I know that I'm simplifying a pretty complex issue, but ultimately, very few are arguing that the current system will function as is, in the future.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Cost of Commuting (Or How Not to Drive Like an A**hole): Part II

So the last post really talked about the issues with commuting, the expense, the impact on the environment, and the toll it takes on time. Unfortunately, despite my goal of eventually BIKING TO WORK, these winter months that isn't realistic for me just yet. So how to improve the costs to the wallet and the environment in one swoop?? 

Step 1: Drive Slower.

It may sound counterintuitive, but while your vehicle may be able to go over 100 mph, it tends to peak around 55/60 mph for fuel efficiency. For some cars, it may be even lower! Higher speeds than that, your resistance (aka wind) also picks up, decreasing your gas mileage. Over at CarTalk (one of my personal favorites for learning about car maintenance) they put it this way: "Consider this: for every 10 miles per hour you floor it, you lose as much as 15% in fuel economy. What's that mean for your retirement account? For every 1,000 miles you drive, figuring gas at $2.50 a gallon and 25 MPG fuel efficiency, you'd save as much as $15 if you drove 10 mph slower." (

You may need to forgo the fast lane to save some green. For those of us with lead feet (guilty as charged!) an easy way to remember to do this is use that cruise control, even for shorter trips on the freeway, to keep that speed in check.

Step 2: Try not to Drive Like an A**hole.

All joking aside- we all know one of those drivers...we may even be one. They tend to admit with pride that they are the aggressive-behind-the-wheel type. These are the folks that are jumping between lanes, hitting that gas pedal hard to get in front of that semi, braking quickly and driving like they are rocking in the Indy 500 (news flash: you're not!). Acceleration is one of the biggest costs to your gas mileage- according to the US Department of Energy, it can lead to a 33% reduction in your gas mileage ( 

 That's an extra third of cash that you are forking over by aggressive acceleration/deceleration- not to mention the blood pressure spikes you are causing to all the drivers around you.

Step 3: Stop the Idling!
This one I am totally guilty of. I pull in front of a business and I'm 10 minutes early. Do I turn off the vehicle right away? Typically not, I generally let it idle. I may be listening to the radio, have the air on (or the heat) or just plain not paying attention. If I'm picking up a friend, I may leave the car idling, while I wait for them to come outside. In part, I think I started doing this thinking that I'd waste less gas mileage by leaving it running than needing to turn it off and re-start. Turns out- Not True! Per the Clean Cities 'Stop Idling' campaign, starting your cars uses about 10 secs of fuel where as your car just sitting there running can use up to a 1/2 gallon in less time than the time it takes to watch the latest episode of Scandal ( .

Step 4: Ditch the Excessive Baggage

Now I'm not referring to that ex you are still holding a torch for- while a different issue, that one probably won't ruin your fuel economy or add to your commuting costs! Avoid hauling excessive weight, leaving on roof racks, and other equipment on your car that will increase your
wind resistance (see Step 1).

In the words of Snoop D-O-double G, "Drop it Like it's Hott" for better fuel efficiency!

But what to do what the time waste of Commuting? How can you use that time most efficiently and to reduce the stress of that potential traffic jam?
1. Do Something that Engages Your Mind. Podcasts are always a favorite of mine. By downloading an episode of Freakonomics Radio, CarTalk or How Stuff Works to my smart phone before leaving the house, I can spend my commute learning interesting things about the world around me.

2. Make that Grocery List. Many smart phones have a 'voice memo' feature where you can record yourself hands-free. It's a great way to get your thoughts or ideas down without being unsafe behind the wheel. Who knows, maybe you will use that time to do an Audio Journal, and record how your day was before you even get home.

3. Build your Personal Connections Having never been much of a phone talker, I rarely do this behind the wheel, but with hands-free Bluetooth technology this can be a good way for others to spend their commute. It may be using your 30 minute drive to catch up with an old friend or to call your parents. For this one, I recommend doing only on your evening commute- as a good way to ruin your relationships would be to call someone on your 6:30am commute and wake them up.

4. Enjoy the Silence For many of us, from the moment we wake up to the end of the day, we are being bombarded with sound, music and conversation. While many of these are enjoyable, we take very little time to be quiet. There has been more research in recent years about the importance of silence and rising awareness of introverts and need for many to have solitude. So maybe during a stressful evening/morning commute instead of listening to the mindless morning show, take time to think of all the things that you are grateful for, the positives from your day or just to observe the city around you. You may find that your 20 minutes of unplugged, quiet time as one of the most relaxing parts of your day.

What are some ways that you have or want to increase your fuel efficiency? Have you upgraded to a more fuel efficient vehicle? What are some ways that you try and avoid the 'time-waste' trap of your commute?

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Cost of Commuting (Or How I Try to Justify My Commute): Part I

Let me just start with this: I would LOVE LOVE LOVE it if I didn't have a commute. I would love it like a glass of water after a trek across a desert. I would love it more than The Donald loves the spotlight.

Despite working for a non-profit that I feel valued and motivated at, in a position that challenges and excites me, occasionally I still find myself when scrolling through job postings just to see if there is anything in my zip code (there never is- so to my boss, if you're reading this, don't worry I'm not going anywhere!).

So what's the deal with commuting anyway? It's a big time waster for me - and can start the day on a really bad note if you get stuck in traffic and are commuting, as some of us northerners do, through bad snow/ice. I've been thinking a lot about the cost of commuting and recently stumbled upon this helpful calculator to do the trick.

This is no fancy website, but the calculator does the job- it takes your daily commute miles, your type of car, mile per gallon, days you work a month, and helps you look up the daily price of gas. It also can factor in other associated commuting costs, such as parking, or even more basic, the cost of your car payment.

For me it broke down this way:

24 miles round trip commute

2012 Kia Soul: 27 miles a gallon

20 days a month

Avg gas price: 2.20 (in the past month)
No parking/No car payment
As a result my monthly commuting costs are $231.59 and my yearly costs are $2,779.08! I was astounded that I pay that much just to get TO and FROM my job. One note on my KIA, I get about $150 in gift cards from Kia every year, due to error they made when initially advertising the miles per gallon on the vehicle, which were advertised as much higher than it actually gets. As a result for every mile, Kia reimburses me the difference ( This would take my yearly commuting cost down to $2,629.08, but it is still WAAAAAAY higher than I would like it to be!

I started to play around with the calculator and found if I worked from home, just one day a week, my monthly cost would go down to $173.68 and yearly $2,084.28- a savings of almost $700 just for working only 4 days a week. So even a small change could make a BIG difference (food for thought when looking for jobs, or navigating work from home or 4 day work weeks). BTW, these numbers do not take into consideration Mr. FRUGAL ROCK's financial cost of commuting. While his commute is shorter than mine, and doesn't involve highway miles, would like put our yearly commute #'s at 4,000+. It makes my stomach hurt just thinking about!

Cost aside- there is also the environmental impact. Stanford uses this calculator to encourage students and faculty to find alternative ways to get to their campus (bus, bike, etc) and allows you to tally your carbon emissions from your commute. This was even more startling than the financial cost. With my mileage, I am putting 17 lbs of carbon dioxide emissions into the air EVERY DAY, 345 lbs a month, and 4,143 lbs a year! While there are still some out there that deny the toll we are taking on our environment- you, discerning reader, are probably not in that camp- but if you are on the fence, feel free to check out the latest news on climate change...

So why did I choose to buy a house where I HAVE to commute? Why do I subject myself of 1 hour of my day in traffic (yes, 1/24th of my time behind the wheel, shaking angry fists at other drivers!). It's not a decision that I'm thrilled with. The problem for me and Mr. Frugal Rock has been necessity. We chose to buy a home, in a good neighborhood, in the middle of our respective commutes. So instead of one of us walking to work, and one commuting an hour- we split the difference an each have about 20-30 minutes to commute. We adore our neighborhood, a small post-world war two neighborhood with a bike trail running through, just outside of our big city limits, for ease of going to cultural events, and more diverse than other area 'suburbs'. It encourages us to get outside, meet our neighbors, and be physically fit. It's much smaller than other friends' homes who have moved outside of the city or who have embraced larger mortgage payments.

What's a frugal person to do?

Instead I've been looking for ways to reduce my carbon footprint/spending/time waste associated with commuting. Busing, for some, is an option. Most transit systems will allow you to put in a starting address and an ending address into a transit mapping system and calculates your quickest route and what buses to take. My city's transit system is, unfortunately, worlds behind most major metro areas. Just to get to work would triple my commute time and need multiple bus transfers. Not exactly the best option for me, despite that it would be my preferred option (reading a book during my commute puts me into ecstasy just thinking about it).

I recently began looking at biking as an option to my workplace. Using I was able to select cycling as an option and with my starting/ending locations entered it was able to determine the best and (hopefully) safest route to and from work for me. While the cycling route is longer than my drive commute, I can take 2 different trails and avoid most road ways. The total mileage is about 14 miles one way, which should take me about an hour. Initially, I thought that was too long, but after checking some forums, seems potentially an average bike commute. As I mentioned committing to cycling to and from, even one day a week, could have a major financial impact. Unfortunately for me, winter is upon us, and it's probably the worst time to commit to commuting by cycle- at least in my cold weather state! I'm also not sure my fitness level is at the point it needs to be to cycle 28 miles a day, but it's definite goal for me to work towards and HOPEFULLY can also help reduce my spending on commuting costs come 2016. Consider it an early new years resolution to up my fitness and work towards becoming a cycling commuter!

But what about those of us who need to deal with the evils of commuting? How can you reduce costs if you must drive to and from work? How can you start and end your work day positively, when you may find yourself stressed or stuck in traffic? Check back next week to continue looking at commuting - and see if there is a positive side!

Leave a comment! Have you looked at the cost of your commute? Have you ever consider alternative transportation to get to and from your job? What are the barriers/positives for you?

Saturday, December 5, 2015

the philosophy of spending SMALL while living LARGE

In the past year, Mr. Frugal Rock and I have made some changes to our lifestyle that have greatly impacted our quality of life and decreased our spending. It wasn't a big conversation that prompted these changes, but we began considering and trying to be more intentional with how and where we spent our money (and our time). Looking back it probably first began with our decision a few years ago to purchase a smaller home, where we had to really look at the function, utility and beautiful-ness of each object or piece of furniture. Any person who is living in 1500 square feet or less can relate this problem. This led us to downscale from a dining room table the fit 10 to a small round table with home-made built in benches for cozy board games and exceptional amounts of storage in a small space*. It also reflected who we are and what we enjoy. I am not a hosting-a-big-dinner-party kind of person, but a quiet night with friends- totally my speed!

In the past year though, we have really looked at every aspect of our lives and tried to find ways to reduce. So where has this led? It led to a conscious decision to keep our heat low (even a few degrees can make a difference) and avoid additional electrical expenses- like putting up Christmas lights**. While some were big savings decisions, others were smaller lifestyle decisions that made less of an impact on our wallet. One of the major lifestyle changes was related to what we purchase. In the wake of an abundance of Black Friday purchases/Holiday shopping it can be all too easy to get sucked into the consumerism of the season. I myself am a sucker for emails from Amazon relating the AMAZING deals. But wait, you say, isn't it better to purchase something on SALE than on full price??

While that may be true- it becomes NEEDS versus WANTS. If there was something that you genuinely needed and it's on sale- here in the cold north, a winter coat comes to mind, I say go for it. However, for most of us there are already 2 winter coats in the closet and this latest purchase is the more 'stylish' in coat for this new season, than it falls pretty quickly into the WANT column. So why does that new gadget, item, piece of clothing have that allure for us? Advertising and marketing firms are working hard to try and sell you happiness- not a new coat, but the feeling that new coat will supposedly give to you. And most of us have felt that high after buying that perfect item. But how long does that last for? Here are three questions to ask yourself before you go online or brick' n' mortar shopping:

Do I own something that currently serves this purpose?
I caught myself at REI last week during one of their FREE classes (great for learning a new skill on a budget), looking at a new pair of snow boots. They were amazing- on sale from about $300 to $150- a huge discount. I probably tried them on initially because of the sale price, and than once they fit the sales lady was doing a admirably subtle job of letting me know all the ways that these boots were special. It took me a moment of walking around the store with the boots under my arm before I reminded myself that while $150 is much less than $300, $0 was actually the amount that I needed to spend on snow boots, as I had a pair that get the job done the few months of the year I need them, and while these matched my winter gear perfectly, lets face it, none of my neighbors will notice when we are all ankle deep in snowdrifts shoveling our sidewalks. While I was initially disappointed about not getting the boots, I haven't thought about them again until righting this post- a sure sign they were a want, not a need.

What am I hoping for from this purchase (will it help me achieve something, or learn something new)?
This comes from a desire to move away from buying stuff, just to have more. Recently, I have used the bar of what am I "hoping to achieve from this purchase" as a litmus test for spending. For example, I love being outdoors. I feel most zen and at peace when I can spend at least an hour outside doing something active and enjoyable. My favorite activity most of the year is going hiking, even for a short period, but day hikes are wonderful! In the past, winters have always been hard for me, I struggle with the days getting dark sooner, not being able to get outside as often, or as comfortably as you can the rest of the year.

While a lot of this is in our heads, and we can get out and enjoy long walks and time outdoors even in our cold Wisconsin winters, it can feel more challenging. As a result, I purchased our family snowshoes this year to push ourselves to get outdoors and to allow us to still get to enjoy our hikes through nature. This purchase has a few benefits for us- it allows us to learn a new skill and embark on a new experience (snowshoeing), enables us to get outside for more of the year, and encourages healthy physical exercise. That feels like a win! Of course we didn't go out and buy the most expensive ones. We also tried rentals first (to make sure we actually liked it) and ultimately shopped around before getting a good online deal. This passed the test of helping us achieve something new- in a way that a new video console system, digital cameral, etc. wouldn't. While marketing experts want you to achieve 'happiness' even for a short-time for purchasing their product, maybe think about if this item will bring you 'joy' or a long-lasting sustaining feeling of accomplishment.

What is my estimated use of this item?
What is the true cost of the item? This is something that takes a bit more time to figure out. When determining the cost or if any item is 'worth' the amount, I find it helpful to think of the amount as more than just a number. For example, I want a new dress and it's $200. If you make $25 a hour that's a whole day's work just to purchase this one item. If my intention is to where it once, that feels like an unreasonable cost, not only from the hourly wage standpoint but also from a time standpoint. 8 hours of work is a lot of time to commit to purchasing an item. However, if it's an item that I am going to use often- for example, almost daily, that $200 doesn't seem like such a high cost.

Another helpful way of looking at spending is to compare it to a normal monthly cost- for example the electric bill, mortgage payment, car or student loan payment. For example, $200 could be the equivalent of your student loan payment or 1/2 of a car payment. By stopping and reflecting that you could make an extra student loan payment or that it was nearly a car payment, it can help put the purchase in perspective.

Sometimes after putting the big purchases in perspective, folks still have a hard time realizing how those small purchases can add up. Even something like eating out once a week for lunch during the work week can add up quickly! As a former Cousins Subs junkie, I would relish the idea of going there for lunch despite the fact that this 'cheap' lunch was easily over $10 a pop. To really get a sense of what you are spending try recording each purchase you make a month- or for ease and sake of time, consider an app like MINT that you can link your accounts to, which will also easily break down your spending into categories, that you can choose or customize. If you are feeling really inspired, make a budget and MINT will email you weekly status reports on your spending and let you know how much you have spent in each budget area that month. As we learned from School House Rock: Knowledge is POWER.

So um...where does the LIVING LARGE part come in?
So we talked about ways to not spend money on purchases, and the importance of valuing both your dollars and your time. A lot of times financial advice sites talk more about what not to do, than what TO do. So we talked about ways to reduce spending, but what are some things that you can enjoy for free or low costs since you aren't spending your green on joyless consumer products. What are some good no cost or low cost ways to spend your time?

Go to free or low cost community events!
In my city, there are an abundance to free or low cost community events. One local coffee chain, (Collectivo for the locals!) offers free musical events at their locations, that include musicians from the symphony or the opera. Now of course, you should at least buy a cup of coffee once your there, so you aren't taking advantage but $2 for a night out is pretty low cost! Another community great is Boswell Books, known for it's great local bookstore feel and it's HUGE event list. Almost every night there is a free event at Boswell with book clubs, local/national authors giving talks, demonstrations, etc. Also, if you are going to spend your money on a book, may as well buy local and than get the authors signature right away! Finally many local athletic stores, like Athletica or REI offer free yoga or instructional classes and experiences. While ultimately they may be wanting to see you the latest goodies, it can be a fun fulfilling night out learning something new! While it may take some research to find good, local events in your area, it is totally doable and may challenge you to try something you haven't thought to try before!

Get outside!
If you live in the US, you should already be aware of our AWESOME national and state park systems. Many states have large state forests or park systems. While you can buy a day pass, if you plan to use it throughout the year, invest in a cheap yearly pass, and see how much enjoyment you can get out from $28. Having been a Midwest resident my whole life, and a long-time hiker/camper, I can say that there are still many parks and trails that I have yet to explore. In addition to the state/national parks, many cities have their own parks, bike trails, etc. that just need to be explored. Try taking a weekend and be a tourist in your own town- go on a walk or get your bike out and check out the trails. This past fall, getting outside and exploring trails, led me to find mountain biking trails in the middle of my city, in a very unexpected place. Sometimes the joy of discovery can make your day that much brighter!

*watch for a future post from Frugal Rock Finance with a tour of the Home of Frugal Rock

** I'm sure I'll get some flack for this one.
What do you think? Are there questions that you ask yourself before purchasing an item? Have you ever made a large purchase that you later regretted? What are some of your favorite ways to spend your time on the cheap?

The Markets and Dr. Strangelove: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Stock Market

For those of you who aren't familar with Dr. Strangelove, you may want to stop everything you are doing, Netflix, Stream or Amazon Fire, Dr. Strangelove and revisit this post, only after basking in the glorious irony of the 1964 Stanley Kubrick classic. This movie, is a timeless and hilarious depiction of how awry things can go. The movie tells the story of one army man, General Ripper, that goes more than a little crazy. Convinced during the cold war, that the USSR was using fluoride in the drinking water to endanger Americans through 'precious bodily fluids' ( a line that comes up repeatedly), he sends nuclear bombs into the USSR in effort of starting a nuclear war. Hilariousness ensues as the various generals and politicians scramble to determine how to react to the impending 'doomsday'. But what does Dr. Strangelove and the Cold War hysteria have anything to do with stock markets and investing you ask?

If you have followed the stock market over the past ten years, you may be all to familiar with the alarms and warnings of calamity. For many folks, raised and coming of investing age during the great recession, there appears to be a grand mistrust of the financial sector ( Afterall, many of us, saw parents needing to push off retirement due to a suddenly shrinking portfolio. Some of us struggled finding jobs at time of graduation due to the economy, and on the news every night were stories of investment bankers and financial companies lies exposed. A favorite book of mine, The Big Short (soon to be a movie!), is all about the lies and frauds of big banks and the housing crisis. It's probably not suprising that many in their 20's and 30's place much more of their funds in cash than in a stock, money market, bond portfolios.

Even today if you follow the 24 hour news cycle there are daily warnings of impending calamities. The infectiousness of investor confidence (or lack there of) can make or break a company. It can be hard to follow the market news without feeling a little like General Ripper, ready to pull the trigger sure that doomsday is already upon us! It's no wonder that many choose to stay out of the investing game entirely.

I remember after investing my first significant amount outside of my retirement account, weathering my first down turn. Logging into my account that night, and seeing my returns reduced and the amount lost in one day and thinking, "I must be doing something wrong". It took a seasoned investor to remind me, that my balance sheet today was just one step towards the one I wanted in retirement. I was reminded that when the stock market dropped, my money that I invested actually went farther. For example, if the stock market goes down, I may be able to afford more of the stocks I wanted, increasing my chance for income in the long-run. Investing is a marathon, but the daily reports, market watch updates often make it feel like a sprint!

A shocking number of folks will admit to not knowing much about their finances or investing. According to a 2015 Pew Charitable Trusts survey, only 51% of American households felt financially secure and only 27% of families felt that they were making the right decisions with their money. It's a startling low number, and while their are whole companies related to helping plan your financial retirement, you can hire investment managers, financial planners, etc. Many make huge amounts of their money, by managing your money for you, when studies show, they often underperform compared to well-set index funds (check out this fun article over at Motely Fool Their business model thrives on our lack of confidence in how to handle our own money!

I am a BIG believer that no one cares as much about your future, your finances and your family, as you do. So it's time to build some investor confidence. Seek out personal finance blogs (like this one!) and other helpful ones (GoGirlFinance and MrMoneyMustache are some personal favorites of mine) to get a well-rounded perspective. Check out finance books from the library (for heaven-sakes don't buy them- this is Frugal Rock Finance- emphasis on the frugal!!!). While I've checked out my share of finance books, there has never been a strictly finance book that seemed 100% what I was looking for. You may be better offer looking online for the information you need.

Some large financial firms offer helpful articles and webinars that can provide a good amount of knowledge. I personally like Vanguard's online video streams.** Vanguard's webinars offer the ability to watch them live and message in questions or you can read or watch the playback later. While some are incredibly specific- a look ahead to 2015 financial markets for example, others like the benefits/drawbacks of EFT versus mutual funds can be very educational (

Check out information on index funds and portfolio management- these were really important for how I developed my investing philosophy! They also have videos on estate and financial planning. Total disclaimer, the goal of these videos is to promote their specific products, so while the information regarding global markets or retirement is helpful, take their promotion of their products with a grain of salt! You do not need to have a Vanguards account to watch the webinars and they are all about an hour or less- I've put them on while making dinner to gleam some additional financial knowledge.

Does it surprise you that most people don't feel confident managing their money? How confident would you say you are in managing your money?

**Disclaimer: while I use Vanguard for some of my investment accounts, I am not reimbursed by Vanguard in any way and do not benefit from you educating yourself about investing, other than, you know, the satisfaction of one more financially-literate person out there in the world!

The Origin Story (Or Why I'm So Damn Interested in Financial Independence)

This blog came out of a desire to do things differently. This was not a sudden change, but one that has been building for quite a while. After graduating from college, I pretty quickly realized some big financial mistakes that I had made pretty early on in my adulthood life, that while somebody (my parents) may have tried to tell me, I was not in a place to listen (ahhem, stubborn). I choose to attend an expensive private college, instead of one of Wisconsin's several public university's with national recognition. I choose a degree that was financially not a good decision and while that would have been okay had it been a long-time passion of mine, realized towards the end of my four years in college that this was not the realm for me. At the time it led to a real crisis of conscious about what and who I wanted to be when I grew up! So, what's a lady to do, with no real job prospects and a looming college graduation? Keep going to school of course! I went on to get my Master's in a field I was truly passionate about- social work and was even able to have my degree, fully-funded.

Even with this I graduated with a lot of student loan debt, and while it wasn't as high as the national average it still felt like a large (ie. soul-crushing) amount. I realized immediately upon graduation that I was going to have to pay back those funds (gasp!) on my small social worker salary (double gasp!). I also learned that I hated the feeling of debt. Being raised by very financially open and responsible parents, who hadn't been in debt since I could remember, any debt felt like 'bad' debt. While I started paying on my student loans immediately, and quickly began paying over the minimum, following graduation I experienced a condition all to common to new college grads and Americans in general- Inflated Lifestyle Syndrome. It's a very serious condition effecting millions every year.

 In all seriousness, the idea of increasing your spending as your income goes up is a real concern. All of a sudden with increased wealth (aka higher paychecks), people perceive increased needs (wants!) and their spending goes up.

I found this happening to me pretty quickly. I moved in with my long-time partner (now husband, referred to hence-forth as, Mr. Frugal Rock) and we had not 1, but 2 incomes to play around with. We purchased a new car, had a lot of toys (2 cars, 2 motorcycles) went on vacations, spent over $1000 a month on a nice, large apartment near the lakefront with two bedrooms, a garage and didn't think to much about the future. While no one else thought we were being irresponsible, and we certainly weren't buying brand new porsche's on our income, we weren't saving as much as we should have been. Things began to change when we began looking at houses. We began to ask ourselves, 'how much space do we really need'? And choose to live small rather than live large. We decided to get hitched and asked why does the average American need to spend $20,000+ on a wedding? We spent under $5,000.

While neither of us make huge incomes, (together we pull in about 100,000 a year) we find that we live comfortably and didn't miss the things that we were supposedly giving up by our choices to 'live small'. We found that we could put away 20% of our income into retirement easily without feeling the pinch- automated accounts helped as we never saw the funds (never missed them!).

Now we've been asking ourselves additional questions- Why do we need to work until we are 65-70? Why do we need to work full-time, 9-5? Why, ON EARTH, would anyone want to pay a mortgage for 30 years? What should we being doing with all this extra money we are saving? How can we 'live large' while also living small? Can you be eat healthy, while also trying to save? I hope you keep coming back to visit, as I try to answer some of those question.

Leave a comment! Are there any financial questions that seem 'normal' to everyone else but strike you as odd or unusal? What are your favorite frugal financial tips?