Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Spreadsheets and Schedules: How I Manage My Finances or, How to Have Expensive Tastes While on a Student Budget

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How I manage my family finances is inextricably intertwined with how I save money. It is also worth noting that my family is a family of one; it is just me.

I was brought up with a disgust for waste. This includes wasting food, wasting time, and of course, wasting money. When I began taking conservation classes in college, I encountered, like a huge wall suddenly appearing in my path, a dilemma. Much of the products that I had regarded as excessively expensive, such as organic food, was in fact expensive only in terms of money that I spent, but in terms of real cost (such as cost in resources, cost in energy, or cost to the planet), it was by far the cheapest option.

Thus began the internal argument every time I went shopping, a clamor of debate over the price of goods I knew was real contrasted with the sticker price before my very eyes. It felt wrong to spend so much money, but it also felt wrong to buy things which started to feel tainted to me. (I read a book about pesticide-related deaths of farm workers in Mexico, and for months I would not buy tomatoes from Mexico. Every time I tried to buy one, I thought about people dying of pesticide poisoning and various governments trying to cover it up. It was much less depressing to buy tomatoes in a can, or better yet, just wait until Jersey tomatoes were in season.)

This was how I began to develop what some might call "expensive taste." When my income seemingly doesn't match these tastes, I resort to The Spreadsheets.

In 2009, I was not actually poor. I merely perceived myself to be so, because I was spending more on rent than I ever imagined and living in a town where, because stores also had to pay their outrageously high rent, everything was expensive. Although my income matched this, I thought I might someday want to go to graduate school, so in the last quarter of 2008, I started tracking my expenses. This continued more aggressively into 2009, when the jury duty thing happened, and I began to realize I might want to quit my job and run away to Portland. It was at this point, too, that the second spreadsheet was born, the one that compares prices of frequently-purchased groceries, and with this, a somewhat rigid Shopping Schedule.


The first spreadsheet tracks my expenses. (Note: click on it to make it big.) (Also note: I see that I spelled "apiece" wrong, and you can also see from the gas price that this spreadsheet isn't current.) I note the date of purchase, the cost, a description of the item itself, where it was purchased, and any comments, such as whether it was on sale or if I'd buy it again. (This is the place for notes such as, "Fruit was all overripe and mushy; next time buy them at the other store." After all, you're not saving money if the product is no good!)

The "When Replaced" and "How much saved" columns sometimes get ignored. When I am keeping this spreadsheet, I save all of my receipts and make an effort to write down purchases for which there is no receipt. Then, every night, I will enter the receipts into my spreadsheet. Sometimes there's a backlog and I don't get to do this until a free day. Then it gets done as part of my filing and desk organizing. At such times, the receipts get clipped together with a binder clip that gets attached somewhere conspicuous on my desk. (Right now it's a magazine file.)

What may seem excessive detail - the place of purchase and the product descriptions - are record kept for when I get around to updating the second spreadsheet.

(Again, click=big.) Above you see the Prices of Stuff spreadsheet. You also see that it is badly kept. When I lived in New Jersey, this was not the case. Since I had lived in the same state for all twenty-five years of my life, I had my preferred stores and products. The spreadsheet was pretty well kept up to date. I had the prices of all purpose, whole wheat, and whole wheat pastry flour - in bulk bins and in bags, at co-ops and chain grocery stores - all recorded and compared. What I found will be summarized later in this post. Anyway, while some grocery shoppers might prefer the time and convenience of one-stop shopping, for me the real money just isn't worth any perceived savings of time. So, I aim to buy my flour where flour is cheapest, my yogurt where yogurt is cheapest, my produce where produce is cheapest, and my spices and "ethnic" groceries where they are most competitively priced.

What about gas? Doesn't that waste a lot of gas? No, because I have gotten in the habit of the rigid Shopping Schedule.

In NJ, during the Year of Austerity that was 2009, I knew that the prices of all groceries were $0.50-$2.00 more in Morristown than they were in stores by my parents' house or in the stores at which I shopped when I lived in New Brunswick. Since I went to either place at least once a week, I waited until planned visits to either place to do all of my grocery shopping. The only things I bought in Morristown were last-minute fruits and vegetables needed for that night's dinner, at a produce market (whose name escapes me at the moment) that was on my way home, just north of the dreaded circle (aka "the Green," as locals called it, because there was a park in the middle of it.) Eventually, I developed a schedule, seeing certain friends on the same day each week, and planning ahead to shop at the same stores on my way.

On Sundays, I would assess what was in my fridge, look over the latest recipes posted on food blogs I followed, look through my cookbooks, and think about what to make. Once that was decided, I'd make a shopping list. Or I should say, I made shopping lists. There was a Wegman's list, an Apple Farm Market list, and sometimes a Subzi Mandi list, a Phoenician list, and a Kam Man list. On Mondays, I went to a knitting group in Bridgewater, NJ, and afterwards, I would go shopping at the Wegman's that was open until midnight. Soon, the tradition included a good friend who would drive up from New Brunswick, meet me at the knitting group, and go with me to Wegman's. This served a few purposes. 1) It gave us time to catch up; having been used to living in the same town and seeing one another several times a week, the separation of 30 miles felt unbearable and there was so much to talk about. 2) It gave us a buddy, someone to make sure that we made no imprudent purchases (or, just like clothes shopping with a friend, someone to justify for us the purchase of a little luxury.) 3) Mostly, since we were shopping so late at night, it gave us a buddy with a second set of eyes to make sure we didn't sleepily grab something we hadn't intended to buy. I learned the hard way that shopping at 9:30pm led to accidentally grabbing, say, vanilla yogurt instead of plain yogurt. I learned this the hard way when I tried to pair that yogurt, later that night, with spicy curry chips. Yuck!

Wednesdays, I met a friend in New Brunswick usually around 7pm; we went to the After Hours event at the Zimmerli Art Museum. But I would leave for New Brunswick straight from work, armed with a cooler in my trunk and my shopping lists in my hand. I would stop at the Apple Farm Market for produce and organic eggs (which I knew were priced no better anywhere else in North-Central Jersey) and when necessary, I'd go to the Phoenician, a Middle Eastern market in North Brunswick, for things like sumac powder, olives, and other non-perishables that were difficult to find elsewhere.

The Subzi Mandi right off of the 287 exit to New Brunswick opened after I moved to Portland. Perhaps I should be embarrassed to admit this, but I felt a little twinge of regret that I no longer had need for the convenience of its location; I no longer had reason to stock up, on the way to visit my friends, on cardamom, lentils, and 99-cent bags of shallots labeled as "Indian onions."

The Year of Austerity and the development of all of these spreadsheets and schedules served me well, in that I was able to develop good habits for the sharp decrease in my income that followed my decision to quit my job and move across the country. In the second half of 2009, I moved to Portland for a job, lost that job, collected unemployment for awhile, got a part-time job, started graduate school, and as of last week, left that part-time job for another one that I will start next week. In that time, too, I've lived in many different places with many varied rent payments. Frequent moves and shifts in my schedule have made it difficult to always track my expenses (all those furniture purchases make the "expense" side seem too depressing, almost as depressing as not having furniture), to keep track of different Prices of Stuff, and most of all, to make a shopping schedule. At times when I know that the spreadsheets will just make me miserable, I allow myself a break, trusting in my own good habits to minimize the damage of avoiding any tracking of my finances. Overall, however, when I do sit down and record things in a spreadsheet, I usually find that I am much better off than I imagined.

What can I say that will help my readers? Well, first of all, what works for me won't work for everyone. Such anal retentive management of grocery bills will make some people crazy; it's kind of like dieting. When I was unhappy with my life in The Year of Austerity, this careful tracking of my finances and rigid scheduling made me feel like I had some control of my life back. When I walked into my familiar stores, where I knew I would not be cheated, I felt at peace.

I haven't abandoned these sheets and schedules, or I wouldn't be writing about them at all. The Prices of Stuff, those that are not already recorded on my spreadsheet, are in my head. I have come to a few useful conclusions that might serve my readers on both sides of the country.
1. The best prices for spices, nuts, and ingredients considered special to ethnic food tend to be found at ethnic markets. Sometimes these even beat bulk bins. Also, in Portland, sometimes Italian food counts as "ethnic" food. Savings are pretty significant, such as $2.50 for a bottle of rosewater versus $10. Also, it's fun to go shopping at places like the Phoenician in North Brunswick, NJ, or Uwajimaya in Beaverton, OR. Of course, this could lead to impulse buys that negate all those savings...
2. For "fancy" groceries, you may have the best luck at a "fancy" store. Why? Because there's a good chance the store brand will have its own version of the specialty product that will be cheaper than the less fancy grocery store's price for a name brand. For example, Wegman's makes its own whole wheat flour, which (when I last lived in NJ) was cheaper than King Arthur or Bob's Red Mill at regular grocery stores. Whole Foods 365 brand is pretty good, too; once I learned this from Martha Stewart, I saw for myself, now that I live pretty close to a Whole Foods. Oh, and pretty commonly purchased groceries sometimes fall into the "fancy" category. Like olive oil. Which plenty of people who don't consider themselves fancy cooks use. And again, this could lead to impulse buys that negate all those savings.
3. Groceries are strangely more expensive in Portland than they are in NJ! Except for organic milk. Organic milk is a lot cheaper. The specific whys of all of this are still a mystery to me, but after nearly two years, I haven't gotten over the sticker shock of buying food in Portland. Except for organic milk.
4. These spreadsheets don't just apply to food; this was just the best example to use while keeping this post at a reasonable length.

Lastly, since we are all human beings and not machines, it's important to give oneself (or at least myself) a break. For example, when I'm moving or just coming back from vacation or otherwise in a place where my time is constrained, I throw out a lot of these rules in favor of convenience. Right now, I'm hiding from the spreadsheets a little bit because I know that, since I just moved, my expenses will be greater. Since now is the time I'm buying things like a 6-month supply of cleaning products or giant bags of rice. Also, I don't always go for what is the cheapest, but what is the best value for its quality. I've lightened up since the Year of Austerity, realizing that, since I go through maybe three bottles of shampoo a year, I can afford to buy something really nice, if it will make me happy, rather than the cheapest biodegradable thing out there (or even the non-biodegradable stuff.) On that note, too, I've lightened up on the topic of non-waste from a "real" cost standpoint in favor of the non-waste of real money; acknowledging that I am a graduate student without a high income, I've decided that speaking out with my wallet is not necessarily my moral responsibility, not right now at least. I'm allowed to buy beauty products with parabens in them and vegetables that aren't organic, even eggs that aren't cage free. So, in contrast to the Year of Austerity, this might be the Year of Reason as well as the Year of (Relative) Stability. Now that I am in an apartment I plan to stay in and a graduate program that will take up at least two years of my life, I can resume habits and schedules...and spreadsheets.

(As a side note, all of these jobs and unemployment etc mean some complicated taxes! On the bright side, this year I can file as a resident of just one state!)


Anonymous said...

I'm only on the 5th sentence (family of one) and I already love it.

Oilbird said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I really need to start doing this. For the past nine months, I have had a really fatalistic attitude towards money and life in general. But I really need to reign it in (and move out of this apartment!)

Also, your suggestion a few months ago that I shop at that Subzi Mandi by 287 has saved me a ton of $. I no longer feel like I have to ration my curry, cardamom and garam masala. You can buy lentils by the ton and it has introduced me to new spices and flavors. And they have my favorite rose incense, too :)