Thursday, May 30, 2013

A $25 Dinner Menu

I like good dinners but hate having to pay for them.  Eating regular restaurant meals just isn’t an option; therefore, we’ve have to look to create meals on our own that are not only delicious but affordable as well.  Over the years, we’ve gotten pretty good at finding such options.  We’ve actually been able to build a menu not only provides us with some variety in our meals but that saves us money too.

Teriyaki Chicken with Veggies and Noodles
This is one of our favorite dishes.  It combines teriyaki marinated chicken with a bag of frozen vegetables (and sometimes fresh onions, peppers, and mushrooms if we have some on hand), and rice noodles.

It’s a delicious meal in which I shred the chicken so that it absorbs more of the teriyaki sauce, and it only costs us about $4.00, maybe $4.50 if we throw in those extra fresh veggies I mentioned.

3 chicken breasts (about 1 lb.) -- $2.30
1 bag frozen vegetables -- $1.10
1/3 package rice noodles - $0.50

Total cost -- $3.90

Pizza Night
We get an awesome “take-‘n-bake” frozen pizza from our grocery store (Aldi) for $4.99.  We really like the 16-inch, five-cheese pizza they offer, which combines mozzarella, provolone, parmesan, asiago, and romano cheeses.  I’m bad, because I add extra mozzarella and then put the oven on broil for the last few minutes to really melt all the cheese.  It’s awesome!  And it feeds our family with leftovers for lunch the next day.

Pizza -- $4.99
Extra cheese -- $1.00

Total cost -- $5.99

Self-made Hamburger Helper
This meal isn’t one we do every week, but it makes a nice filler for nights when we just don’t feel like doing much cooking.  A box of shells and cheese and a half pound of ground beef make this a quick, easy, and affordable meal.  Lately, my wife has been requesting that I use half a packet of French onion soup mix to flavor the ground beef.  She likes her burger on the side with ketchup, as does our five-year-old son.  Personally, I like mine mixed in with the shells and cheese. 

If we’re still a little hungry after this meal, we might have a bag of microwave popcorn later in the evening.

Mac n’ cheese - $1.39
Half pound burger $1.50
Popcorn - $0.75

Total cost -- $3.64

Tacos/Enchiladas
Typically I start with three chicken breasts that I cook, shred, and add hot enchilada sauce to.  Depending upon my mood, I might also sauté some peppers and onions; however, it’s not integral to the meal.  Then I melt cheese on some tortillas, cook some dirty rice that we can either eat on the side or add to the tortillas as filler, and we have a plentiful meal without much in the way of cost. 

This is another meal that often provides enough leftovers for lunch or another complete dinner, so it’s kind of a two-for-one type deal.

Tortillas - $0.50
3 chicken breasts (1lb.) - $2.30
Enchilada sauce ½ can - $0.75
Shredded cheese - $0.75
Dirty rice – $1.50

Total cost -- $5.80

Breakfast for Dinner
Another cheap family favorite is breakfast for dinner.  My wife is a wiz at whipping up French toast, and we get delicious maple sausages 10 for $1 at the grocery store, so this ends up being a quite low-cost dinner option to work into our regular meal plan.

French toast (8 pieces of white bread and 3 eggs) -- $0.85
Syrup - $0.50
Whipped topping - $0.50
Sausages - $0.50

Total cost -- $2.35

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Not Burning Employment Bridges

While I didn’t always love the work involved at my old jobs, I always worked hard at it and did my best to respect my employers.  I wasn’t the best of friends with every director or department head I ever had, but I worked at living up to, and in many cases, exceeding their expectations, and I always tried to respect them as superiors.  I guess this is part of why I was already hired back by one employer after leaving for a promotion elsewhere.

Beyond just working my tail off for my employers, there are other reasons why I’m welcome back at previous employers.

Training a Replacement
In two out of the three situations in which I left my employer during my hotel career, I trained my replacement before I left.  This at first might not seem like a big deal, but having a person who can do this rather than just leave or who isn’t trustworthy enough to let train their replacement can be a big advantage to an employer.

And not only did I train them, but I trained them correctly and in one case, even offered to come back and help out if any unexpected issues arose or my replacement was having trouble.  Such willingness to make the transition for my replacement and my employer as seamless as possible went a long way in having them look favorably upon me once I was gone.  In fact, I even returned to one employer several years later in a better position.

“Owner’s Expectations”
One of the first general managers I had in the hotel business, promoted “owner’s expectations” as one of his main management principles.  It is really a quite simple rule, but it is amazing to me how many employees fail to follow it, and therefore fail in the workplace.

Owner’s expectations promoted employees understanding their superior’s or superiors’ main “hot points” if you will.  Knowing what was most important to the boss, and making it most important to me, allowed me to succeed in their eyes.  I made their objectives my objectives, and therefore did my best to keep happy the ones who had the power to form my success.

Polite Resignations Letters
Whenever I left a role or employer, I ensured that I did so in the most polite and business-like manner I could.  One step in this process involved writing a polite, gracious, and appreciative resignation letter.  Just shooting out an email or leaving my intentions on voicemail wasn’t going to cut it if I wanted to leave in good standing.  Therefore, I took time to form, read, re-read, consider, and possibly re-write my resignation letters to ensure that they were looked upon in a positive light.  This was especially important when moving to a different hotel within the same chain, as my employee file would likely follow me.

Continued Contact
While over the years the number of people from previous employers who I stay in contact with has dwindled, as has the frequency of that contact, this doesn’t mean that I still don’t make an effort.  I find that an occasional phone call or email between myself and those with whom I was closest, not only allows us to catch up on old times, but keeps me informed of the situation at those previous employers as well as any opportunities that may arise.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Need Motivation to Pay off Debt? Read these Articles

I’ve been seeing more and more articles these days -- and have even written a few of my own -- about paying down and paying off debt.  For as much as people like to complain about not being able to pay off debt or not knowing how, there are wonderful examples all over the Internet to help educate us.  Here are a few -- including a couple of my own -- that I find include some valuable takeaways regarding debt and how to combat relatively large amounts of debt in fairly reasonable timeframes.

Our Debt Stories
Between the two of us, my wife and I managed to pay off not only my smaller amount of student loans, but hers as well -- for a total of right around $50,000 -- in about three years.  Beyond that, we’ve managed to own our home outright just five years after first becoming homeowners and otherwise stay debt-free through our having two children and my becoming self-employed.

Here are three articles that I’ve written about how we managed such feats doing not much more than living below our means and paying off debt as quickly as we felt comfortable.

Joe Mihalic: $100,000 in 7 Months!
The other day while on CNBC.com, I ran across the story of Joe Mihalic and his quest to pay off $100,000 in student loans.  Given, Joe is a Harvard Business School grad making pretty decent money; still, I think that there are some valuable lessons of what to do -- and not do -- related through this story.

Joe discusses his successes and failures in paying off his student loans, why he decided to make such a push to pay them off quickly, and how he managed to do so in just seven months.  He’s even managed to make his story pay by way of his blog, NoMoreHarvardDebt.com and an e-book, “Destroy Student Debt: A Combat Guide to Freedom”.

The Baileys: $92,000 in 5 Years
The Baileys’ story might be one that’s a bit more relatable to many people.  While the numbers may be a bit more extreme, the situation -- debilitating credit card debt -- is a common storyline among many families these days.

Their story, which I stumbled upon while at dailyfinance.com, relates some of the trials and tribulations surrounding the paying off of approximately $92,000 in credit card debt in just five years.

The articles sums up with some advice from the Baileys for those with credit card debt:

“"First, sit down and do what we did: Add up everything you owe," says Bailey. As hard as it may be to face the total -- be it $9,000 or $90,000 -- it's important to know where you stand and to face the problem before it gets even worse.

Also recognize the emotional toll the debt can take: "Being in debt is like being in prison. You can't do what you want when you want to do anything," Bailey says. And then think about what it will be like when you are debt-free. For Bailey, "It's an incredible feeling to be as generous as you want to be to help others in need."”

These are just a few of the many, many success stories out there regarding paying off debt.  While such stories might not fit everyone’s personal financial situation, they can provide valuable information as to some of the basic strategies involved in tackling debt.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Turning Money into Time

With unemployment still high, it might not seem as easy as it used to be to turn time into money, but it’s not all that difficult if you apply yourself and are willing to take work or jobs that might not quite conform to your standards.  Heck, I can take 15-minutes to just clean out my closest and start to find things that I could convert to cash by way of a garage sale or resale shop. 

So it’s relatively simple to convert my time to money.  But can I do the opposite?  Can I actually turn money into time?

It’s an interesting question, and one I’d like to answer in the affirmative since I feel that I have in a way, done it.  Here’s how.

Pre-planning
Preparing oneself to truly be able to turn money into time can take a bit of pre-planning and organizing.  I look at converting money into time much the same way many people view retirement.  They plan for a time when their money will allow them the time to do with as they see fit whether it’s traveling, working on the things they always wanted to try but never had time for, or just sitting at home relaxing.  The only difference in my equation is that I am living that lifestyle well before I ever hit the standard retirement age because I planned to do so from an early age.

Goals
But just saying, “I think I’d like to be able to live the way I want to by turning money into time” doesn’t necessarily mean it will work.  In order for me to accomplish this, I had to set goals.  Each year from the time I graduated college, I set strong financial goals for myself, tracked spending, and formulated new goals for the following year in order to push myself to the point where I could begin to turn money into time. 

At this point, I was using the reverse philosophy to turn as much time into money as possible, working long hours, picking up overtime at work, and grabbing extra bucks whenever and wherever I could.

Decisive Action
Finally, I reached the point at which I felt comfortable enough to start relying upon my money to provide me with time to do with as I wanted.  At this point, I had a decision to make.  I could either continue on the path of turning time into money, or I could take a chance and let my money provide the opportunity to step outside my comfort zone and try my hand at something completely new, working for myself with the opportunity to work from home, travel, and raise a child.

I therefore took the plunge and hoped that I would indeed be able to turn money into time.  Time spent with my family, undertaking a new and interesting career in which I could work when, where, and how I wanted, and choose the schedule that I desired rather than the schedule some corporate entity felt that I should abide by.

Continued Planning
But my ability to make this conversion didn’t stop there.  It required continued planning and careful managing to ensure that my money kept providing me with enough compensation to enjoy my time as I saw fit.  I had to cut and carefully watch expenses, struggle through some difficult times when I questioned myself as to whether I would be able to make it while away from a regular job and income, and remain at an income level well below what I left. 

I still set goals.  I still work.  I still watch expenses and budget.  And I still covert time to money; however, it’s now on a different scale, in a different environment, and maybe most importantly, on my own terms.

Work to Time instead of Time to Work
The difference between now and when I worked a regular 9-5 job is that once I left the regular work force, I’ve been the master of my own path as my money has allowed me to govern and make use of my own time.  Rather than having to be up and to work my 8:00 a.m., and home again by 5:30 or 6 p.m., I can work for a few hours in the morning, and take a break, go for a walk, take a nap, then work a few more hours.  Or maybe I won’t work at all, choosing instead to take the day off and work tomorrow.  It’s up to me.  Maybe I’ll travel to visit family for a month, still being able to work while there.  Maybe I’ll work 15 hours straight, but it’s up to me.

It’s not so much that I don’t have to work anymore, it’s that saving enough money to leave the “normal” working world (and it didn’t really take that much since I was able to live well below my means, live in a lower cost of living area, and was a good saver) and at least take a stab at a new career, enabled me to make better use of my time, thereby increasing what I could do with that time, and making more of it, rather than sitting in an office all day on a regular basis.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Relying Upon Myself for Retirement

There was an interesting article on MSN Money the other day entitled, “Did the government make a Social Security goof?”.  This title didn’t really surprise me since the future of Social Security has been an ongoing issue for some time now.  According to the article:

“…the Social Security Administration has grossly underestimated the money it needs for retiring Americans "to the tune of $800 billion by 2031, more than the current annual defense budget."

And if nothing is done, they say, the Social Security trust fund will run out two years ahead of current government predictions.”

However, what I came to realize as I read the article was that while I’m concerned about the future of Social Security, since it’s something I’ve paid into for a number of years, I’m not letting it control my retirement future.  And regardless of what the federal government does or doesn’t do to remedy the Social Security issue, I’m not going to let it “goof up” my retirement.

Not Counting on Social Security
Issues with Social Security have been around long enough for me to know better than to count upon it as my soul support in retirement.  This doesn’t mean that I can estimate this benefit and factor it into our retirement plans.

By using the benefit estimator at the Social Security Administration’s website, I can get a pretty good idea of what my wife and I are supposed to receive in benefits.  Then, I knock off about 25 percent in value, add a few years to our expected retirement age, and use this as our true estimate of benefits.  Even then, I don’t count on it.

A Continued Work Backup Plan
As a self-employed individual, I have the option to work when, where, and how I like.  This means that I also have the option of carrying my work (at least some of it) into retirement with me if I’d like.  While I’m not counting on working full-time (since that wouldn’t be much of a retirement), I could at least utilize my work for supplemental income or at worst, work full-time should a financial emergency occur and we need the extra income.

This work backup plan adds an additional element to our overall retirement planning, hedging other areas such as Social Security, stock market based investment income, savings, and other investments.

Knowing How to Stay Self-sufficient
I don’t like to rely on others.  Whether it’s for my retirement income, my current work or whatever, I prefer being self-sufficient.  Maybe it’s because as a child, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents who lived through The Great Depression.  I’m not really sure. 

Whatever the case, knowing how to stay self-sufficient is another important aspect of goof proofing our retirement against the government.  We recently grew a garden to better learn how to grow our own food.  We work at creative meal options to maximize available food and leftovers while minimizing waste.  I work for myself, therefore taking the risk of unexpected layoff out of the equation.  And we make use of a variety of resale options -- both to buy and sell lightly used items -- to save and/or make money.  This way, we’re training ourselves to be more independent in retirement when income might be lower, expenses higher, and government even less reliable (if you can imagine that!).

  

Sources:
Kennedy, Bruce. MSN Money. “Did the government make a Social Security goof?” January 8, 2013. http://money.msn.com/now/post.aspx?post=44b46485-770c-479a-b9f0-451ddd186a37. January 11, 2013.