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My First Tangible Effort to Increase my Generosity –

March 24, 2009 · Filed Under Giving · 7 Comments 

At the beginning of the year, I actually made a New Year’s Resolution .  This was a big deal for me since I literally can not remember the last year that I did the resolution thing.  My resolution was to work on being more generous .  Leslie from Spilling Buckets made a comment on that post about how she was interested in seeing how I was going to implement that resolution.  It was  an excellent point to raise because I had no idea how I was actually going to follow through on that (other than reminding myself over and over to be generous).

I feel like I’ve actually started to experience a bit of success increasing my generosity.  I do feel that I have been more generous lately, but unfortunately I still need to make a concerted effort to do so.  I’d really like to internalize this characteristic and make it a more natural expression of who I am rather than something I have to force myself to do.

So I have finally found a method that I hope will start moving me in the right direction.  I heard on the local Christian radio station to which I sometimes listen (when I’m not listening to my fancy new iPhone) an ad for the "40 Day Journey to Generosity."  My first reaction was, "hmmm, that’s interesting."  That was quickly followed by, "Hey!  Wait a second!  They said ‘generosity’ – I need to check that site out."

So, I did and I signed up for’s 40 Day Journey to Generosity.  It is a daily devotional (sorry, "eDevotional") that is mailed out to you via email.  Today was day 1 – so I’m on my way to generosity!  The devotional lists a number of scripture references as well as some key takeaways, a 1 minute true story, a cartoon-of-the-day, and some additional aricles and worksheets.

I can’t really endorse this thing yet as I’ve just started it this morning and I don’t really know much about the site or its owner (Dr. Brian Kluth).  But if you’d like to take the journey with me, sign up at the website and send me an email if you want to discuss anything that you’ve read on any particular day.  If I find out this is some kooky thing, then I’ll be sure to disclose that in a future post!

The focus of today was "God is the Owner of everything."  The purpose is to get back to basics and ground yourself in the fact that everything we "have" is actually owned by God and has been given to us by Him.  One of the takeaways: "When we give to God, we are just taking our hands off what already belongs to Him."  Good truth to remember there…so far so good!

Has anyone out there heard of this site or its owner?  Is anyone else on the Journey to Generosity?

Tax Refunds: Free Loan to the Government or Forced Savings?

March 17, 2009 · Filed Under Finances · 7 Comments 

It’s that time of year again here in the USA – tax season!  I finally completed and submitted my tax returns (federal and state) early yesterday morning.  I’ve found TurboTax to be fairly straightforward to use (at least for the Federal) so I’ve done them myself for as long as I’ve done them (I’ve tried TaxCut too but prefer TurboTax).  It has handled my returns sufficiently as they’ve grown in complexity (this year I have Schedules A, B, C, D, H, SE, and Form 2441).  With my side business growing, however, I am definitely considering turning it over to a pro next year….we’ll see.

Side note about using TurboTax: as most of you know, you put all your income in first before adding your deductions.  For us, that leads to TurboTax telling me that we owe this enormous amount of money!  Then I view it as a challenge to whittle it down and I get real excited as it gets closer to $0.  But it’s a bit unnerving to look up and see that you owe the federal government alone almost $10,000! (last year, I think it peaked for us near $15,000!).

Anyway, I’m getting a pretty good chunk of change back from my federal and state governments this year and I find it interesting to see how different people react to the idea of getting a tax refund.

Woohoo – free money from the government

In this corner there is the group of people who consider their tax refund to be a windfall from the government.  It’s found money or an April Bonus.  If you fall into this camp, remember that this is your money !  This is not our generous government giving you some money for the fun of it (that’s called a stimulus check).  You have basically allowed the government to borrow your money (kinda like your deadbeat uncle) for about a year with no interest (Unlike your uncle, however, if you actually ask nicely by filling out the correct forms the government will give it back to you).  But it’s not a gift or a bonus!

A splinter group of this camp is the people who might view a tax refund as forced savings.  If they had received the extra money in each paycheck, it probably would have evaporated into the ether by now.  By overpaying the government, at least they were able to end up with some money come April.

A 0% interest loan

As I mentioned above, the other group considers a tax refund to be a wasted opportunity.  This money has an opportunity cost of the  lost interest they could have earned throughout the year.  This is a mathematically accurate way to look at a tax refund, but as Dave Ramsey likes to say to his listeners (I’m paraphrasing), "Don’t talk to me about math, if you were good at math, you wouldn’t have all this debt to begin with."

If you want to talk about math, the optimal strategy is to underpay as much as possible (just remember there is a penalty if you go too low).  This will leave you with a large tax bill, but the maximum amount of your money will have been working for you throughout the year.  Writing a huge check to the government is easier said then done, however (Personally, I think I’d like to shoot for being pretty close to $0).

If you are good about automating your saving and investing, then a large tax refund is a certainly a less-than-idea situation.  If you can put that money to work for you throughout the year, you’ll end up with more money (in the long-term) than you would have by allowing the government to sit on it and give it back each spring.  If you are not good about controlling your money, however, then this strategy will just lead to more squandered money and you might be better off having the government save it for you.

My thoughts on a large refund this year

I guess I get freaked out about underpaying my taxes so I am reluctant to decrease my withholding.  I did decrease it a bit last year, but with starting a tiny side business, I was wary of decreasing it too much.  And I’ll chicken out and do the same thing this year because I am foreseeing an increase in my extra income.  So, I’m left annoyed that I’m letting the government sit on so much of my money each year.

On the other hand, If I had the money during this particular year, I would have maybe put some into the stock market (and would have much less of it now) or I could have put it into a savings account and earned 2% interest or less.  So, taking into account that possible 2% gain at best (reduced further by taxes), I am trying to tell myself not to feel bad about the refund this year.

Besides, we made it through the year in good shape for our finances, so I won’t be complaining when I get the money deposited into my bank account.  I’ll take the money, put it into my emergency and vacation funds, and start trying to convince myself to decrease my withholding again this year.

What are your thoughts on your income taxes?  Do you like to get a large refund?  Do you like to pay a little bit?

Photo Credits: BallGame68

ETRADE and iPhone Updates

March 13, 2009 · Filed Under Random · 2 Comments 

This must be the week for updates.  Previously, I discussed our experiences so far with our attempt at once-a-month shopping and cooking and then gave our monthly net worth update.  In this post, I’ll take a few minutes to update how everything has been going so far (including updates on my stock picking and iPhone shopping as well).

I finally bought some stocks through ETRADE

I previously disclosed my intention to purchase a pair of stocks through ETRADE .  ETRADE finally allowed me to purchase the stocks I wanted last week.  It actually worked out well for me as both stocks I purchased cost me a bit less than they would have when I first opened the account.  Again, this is not part of my long-term investing strategy as I am just using a little bit of money to speculate with these two stocks that are priced drastically lower than they were last year.  I would not be thrilled about it, but it would not cause us undue financial harm if we lost all the money we invested in these stocks (and if you’re not comfortable with that prospect in this economy, I would suggest you not buy individual stocks right now).

At the same time, this is a long-term play on my part.  I’m not looking to sell them anytime soon.  In fact, yesterday one of the stocks I purchased was up almost 40%.  I am not interested in a 40% gain on the small amount of money I invested.  I’m going to sit on them and hopefully they will return to their previous values (or close to it) which would be a 4000% gain.  Whether that takes 1 year, 3 years, or 10 years (or infinity), I’m not sure.  I am sure that I will just hold these stocks long-term and periodically check to see where they are trading.

Even after waiting an entire week, I still bought an iPhone

I put the Dave Ramsey advice of waiting overnight before making a purchase to the test last week.  In fact, I stretched it out all the way to a week.  If you remember, two weeks ago I detailed the steps that took me from being satisfied with my current mp3 player all the way to considering an iPhone .  Well, I waited an entire week and then ended up buying an iPhone anyway!  I’m actually just trying one out right now.  I’m taking advantage of the 30 day return policy to see how well it works, how much I like it, and what the cell coverage is in the areas I use it most often.

At this point, I do not see myself giving back the iPhone!  This is the first time I’ve had a cell phone that wasn’t one of the free ones you get for signing up.  I am really wowed by this thing – the phenomenal interface, the array of useful features, and all the apps (I’ve even started tweeting from my iPhone) (yeah, I’m thinking this evaluation will end a lot sooner than 30 days!).

So, waiting didn’t actually save me any money as I still opted for an expensive option but at least I can say it wasn’t an impulse buy!

If you have any recommendations for iPhone apps, please let me know!

Monthly Net Worth Checkpoint: March 2009

March 12, 2009 · Filed Under Net Worth · Add a Comment 
Cash + Money by Terence Chang

Wow, did I really miss doing this for two months?  I guess I just didn’t want to see the carnage that has become my net worth.  Anyway, now’s the time to get back on track and keep plugging away. I didn’t actually get around to logging all my account values at the beginning of February, so all the percent change values show the change over the past two months instead of a single month like normal.

Our assets dropped more than 5.3%

Leading the charge downward were our cash accounts, retirement accounts, and house value.  After many months of increase, our cash value dropped 8.5%.  Two components of this were some increased spending lately (new laptop from side business proceeds – on which I am typing right now – and some home repairs) and a transfer over to an ETRADE account for a little stock speculating (interestingly, my stock account balances actually increased due to the transfer and an uptick in my employer stock).  Like most people, our retirement accounts got hammered these past two months dropping more than 10%.  House values in our area started finally dropping too, I assume, judging from the 4.5% drop in home value according to zillow.

There were some bright spots as the aforementioned stock accounts increased, my stock options value increased a bit, and our college savings balances increased as well.  Overall, though, that was not enough to overcome the downward momentum in the stock market and home values.

Our liabilities decreased 1.0%

Our liabilities dropped the typical monthly rate of 0.5% times two.  I am still considering accelerating our mortgage payoff but haven’t moved on it yet.  I also did some preliminary research into refinancing our mortgage but unfortunately it appears that our lack of equity will prevent us from doing that at this point without a large cash outlay.

Our net worth decreased a whopping 13%

Wow, that number is not a nice friendly number (I’m not sure I feel like finishing up this post now).  I’m trying to remember that this drop has taken place over two months instead of one…but that’s little consolation at this point.

I still feel like we are doing the right tings to position us for the long haul.  We are still investing in mutual funds through Vanguard and our 401ks and buying a little company stock each month.  This is certainly not looking pretty currently but I am convinced that this is what is best for our long-term financial health.  Remember that there are decades before we need our retirement money and the price of index funds are drastically lower than they were last year.  Every dollar that goes into those accounts buys twice as many shares as they did last year (or more in some unfortunate cases).  Obviously, I can’t predict the future, but the US has been in dire econonomic straits before and has always recovered.   So we are continuing our plan and hoping that it will pay off at retirement time.

Photo Credits: Smile My Day

Once-a-Month Shopping and Cooking Update

March 10, 2009 · Filed Under Once a Month Cooking & Shopping · 9 Comments 

It has been a week since we tried our hand at once-a-month shopping and cooking and so far the results have been great.  Before last week, I discussed how we were going to make an attempt at grocery shopping and cooking only once a month and then followed that up with the results of our first weekend of it .

Once-a-month Shopping

Ok, so I must sheepishly admit that we have already been to the store again…well, sorta.  Neither my wife nor I have actually stepped into a grocery store, but we did have my mother-in-law pick up some milk for us when she was out shopping the other day.  In fact, we asked her to pick up four gallons of skim milk and another gallon of whole.  If you add that to what we bought last weekend, that’s eight gallons of skim milk and 2 gallons of whole that we’ve bought so far this month.  That seems like a lot to me – my wife and daughter drink a tremendous amount of it each day.

When we did our first big shop, I was nervous about how well the milk would freeze so I purposely did not buy enough for the month.  So far we have been happy with the frozen milk (after it defrosts, at least) so I will be more comfortable with buying more next month.  Of course, at this pace I am not sure we’d be able to fit a month’s worth of milk in our freezer anyway.

Other than that, we do have a list started up of things we are already running out of and will probably have to replenish before the month is up.  So far it is not huge so that’s good.  We are treating it as a learning experience as I think it will take a few months before we get a good feel for how much of everything we need to buy to last a month.  Fortunately, we are not out in the jungles of Brazil (like some of our friends) so if we do run out of something, we can make a quick jaunt to the store.  That being said (besides having my mother-in-law pick up some milk), we will probably try to make one more trip to the store about half-way through the month.  We don’t want to fall back into making frequent store trips and the wasted time and impulse buys that accompany them.

It’s actually a pretty nice feeling to not have been in grocery store in a week.  And an even nicer feeling knowing that I probably will only venture into a grocery store one more time this month.

Once-a-month Cooking

Oh, I have eaten very well this week.  Actually, I usually eat very well every week as my wife (who does most of the cooking) is a very good cook and she takes time to plan out tasty meals for us.  So, I guess the big change would be whether it was easier to prepare these tasty meals.

My wife is happy with the time that it takes to prepare the meal each evening.  It is definitely less time consuming that cooking a normal meal.  And these are real meals here, too, not macaroni and cheese from a box.  An unanticipated bonus is that meal cleanup is faster as well.  Instead of using multiple bowls and measuring spoons/cups and pots/pans, all of that is already done and usually a single skillet is used to heat up the meal (with maybe pasta cooked up in another pot).  The verdict thus far is less time cooking and less time cleaning up.

So far we have eaten Mrs. Ringle’s Brisket (phenomenal), Spaghetti with homemade sauce (excellent), some strange ham and cheese thing in a pie crust (so-so), barbecue chicken (excellent flavor), and taco pie (very good).  All but one of the meals this week were really, really good.  Through one week, the once-a-month cooking is a winner!

Photo Credits: hive and karindalziel

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