Budgeting Help

How To Make Sure You See All the Places On Your Bucket List

Photo Credit: Tom Barrett, Unsplash

Americans love to travel. When I ask my clients what they want more of in their life now and later, the most common answer includes “I want to travel more.” And, many tell me that their travel spending is a non-negotiable expense. This wanderlust grows after retirement as the time constraint that existed while working is gone.

Travel Isn’t Cheap and Priorities Change
But travel isn’t cheap and is something that needs to be planned for especially when the paychecks stop. It doesn’t help that after a certain age, traveling on a budget is not as appealing. We want to enjoy some luxury while on the road, or at the minimum a home-like experience. This means that besides the basics: a clean room, good lighting, and reliable hot running water, we want crisp white sheets, a firm mattress, a fluffy bathrobe, and high-quality toiletries.

Another shift happens as one gets older, the job of planning every detail of a trip – from hotels to meals to excursions gets less appealing, and opting for a group tour (even with the risk of traveling with strangers) becomes more attractive. This type of travel can come at an extra cost.

How sad it would be if a person who loves to travel reaches retirement and realizes that they can’t afford to go to all the places on their bucket list!

So, if you are a person that is continuously daydreaming about where you want to go next, and your bucket list never gets shorter, there is only one answer: make saving for travel a priority.

If you need some help in creating a budget that aligns with the things you most value (like travel), please download a free copy of The Happiness Spreadsheet: How To Create A Life Aligned With Your Values, Beliefs, and Ideals. I think you will find it helpful. Happy traveling!

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Your New Year Financial Checklist

New Year | Financial Checklist, Curtis Financial PlanningNew Years is an exciting time. It’s a moment filled with hope. We spend time with the people we love, realign ourselves, and refocus on what’s truly important in our lives. For some, this can inspire them to make some positive life changes in the coming year.

We’ve heard all the typical resolutions – exercise more, eat better, learn a language, pick up a hobby (just to name a few). But what about your finances?

Although setting financial resolutions may not be practical, starting your year with a financial checklist can help you get moving in the right direction. I’ve taken the liberty of designing this one. It’s fairly short – just five “to-do’s” long. Some things will be easy to knock out in a few minutes – while others might require some introspection.

#1: Setting a Budget

If you don’t already have a budget for yourself, the start of a new year is the perfect time to get started. I like to look at budgets as more than just dollars and cents – they’re a tool to help you reach your goals and find joy.

In my ebook, Happiness Spreadsheet, I talk about how mindful spending can help you achieve a more fulfilling life. A budget can help you set some guidelines in place that ensure you have the non-negotiables covered (like food and shelter), are working toward paying down debt or building savings, and still have something left over to spend intentionally.

#2: Setting Attainable Goals

Of course, you can’t have a budget without goals to guide it. Many people set big financial goals during this season, but I’m going to suggest you try something different. Instead of setting a goal that’s impossible to achieve – set a few, bite-sized ones instead.

If you start working toward a huge goal that’s impossible to reach, you’re setting yourself up for failure and disappointment. Having negative feelings tied to positive financial goals is never a good thing – and can often deter you from making progress.

For example, if you have a heavy debt load, you may not be able to become debt free this year. But you can work to pay off a large portion of it – and that’s something to be proud of! Set a handful of goals for yourself this year. Don’t be afraid to get creative! Money is a tool that can be used to amplify your happiness – set goals that reflect that.

#3: Organizing Taxes Before Filing Season’s Rush

Raise your hand if you’ve ever waited until the last minute to file your taxes. It’s not a great feeling. Instead, take the time to get yourself organized in the first few months of the new year so you can knock out your taxes early. You’ll get your tax refund sooner, and you’ll be able to check this often intimidating task off the to-do list. You don’t need to stress about getting them filed too early, though. Remember that your employer, banks, and other financial institutions have to get you the paperwork you need first.

#4: Review Retirement Plan Contributions

If you’re already contributing to a workplace retirement plan, that’s wonderful! The new year is a good time to check where you stand in comparison with your retirement savings goals and adjust your contributions as necessary.

You can also consider upping your retirement savings game by contacting a CFP® about additional savings options – like a Roth IRA.

#5: Create a Debt-Pay-Down Plan

Are you currently shouldering debt? Being in debt can make your financial life challenging. More importantly, it can have a negative emotional and psychological impact on you as an individual. Being in debt forces you to put off short and long-term goals, and it can damage your credit score. In short — the faster you can get your debt paid off, the better.

Although it might not be possible to pay it all off immediately, making a plan of action can help put you back in the driver’s seat of your financial life. Take this opportunity to assess your debt, and create an easy-to-implement strategy to make paying it off a priority.

A Focus on Finances For 2020

Whether you choose to tackle all of these tasks at once, or you want to take it one step at a time – find a pace that feels best for you. The most important thing is to continually make progress in the right direction.

Of course, if you ever need help or want to talk — reach out to me! I’d love to hear from you and help you work toward building a financial life that supports your dreams.

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Pet Insurance: Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down?

Is Pet Insurance Worth the Cost?This is a tale of two dogs, two families, and two very different opinions!


Eleven years ago, when we brought our beloved Corgi puppy into our family, we were advised to purchase pet insurance. As first-time dog owners, we ignored a lot of advice: have your puppy sleep in a crate (that lasted approximately one hour, after Lola’s whimpering landed her in her rightful bed – our bed!) and do NOT give her people food (ha, ha, ha!) were two bits of advice that didn’t stick.

But we were quick to sign up for pet insurance, and mindlessly paid monthly premiums for over ten years before being faced with serious vet bills. Phew, we thought, after receiving the first pricey invoice… good thing we have pet insurance! Her initial surgery and follow-up treatment will certainly be covered, and reimbursed at a high rate after our years of paying into the system. Five months, four requests for review, three denials, two more costly procedures, and one emotional breakdown at the animal hospital — Lola is fine, our wallet is not. Lola’s family says Thumbs Down.


I adopted Stella from a rescue organization eight years ago, as a single woman living in the city. We think she is part beagle/part terrier/part human, and her estimated age is now about 10.

In eight years, Stella and I have gone from an apartment with the two-of-us, to a house in the suburbs with five- of-us; along the way Stella has been hit by a car, lost a fight with a fox, and fallen out of a treehouse (don’t ask!). Having pet insurance was a gigantic plus in each of those emergency situations! She is my first baby, and I wouldn’t consider not insuring my kids, so why would I not insure my fur baby? Stella’s family says Thumbs Up.

Pet insurance continues to be a growing industry, with the estimated size at $500 million, but it is not widely owned, and overall reviews tend to be as varied as the two stories above.

Is Pet Insurance Worth It?

Consumer Reports magazine wrote that pet insurance generally costs more than it pays out, and in their analysis is rarely worth the price. If you choose not to insure your beloved pet, I encourage you to start a savings fund to provide for emergencies, as well as ongoing well-pet veterinary costs. In addition, read this excellent article plus the comments on the Get Rich Slowly blog: How To Save Money on Vet Bills – you will be sure to find a tip or two that will save you money.

If you are considering a policy, do your homework and shop around before choosing an insurer. Most insurers charge ongoing monthly fees that may seem small at first glance, but add up over the years. Pets provide unconditional love and companionship, and it is up to their owners to decide how best to provide for their care.

Do you want to manage your money (and life!) better?

The Happiness SpreadsheetIf you want to think differently about the relationship between your spending, your values and your happiness, then sign up to get your FREE copy of The Happiness Spreadsheet.

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Cultivating a Healthy Relationship with Money

Cultivating a healthy relationship with money is the foundation of a rich and happy life. Just like any other relationship, for your money to prosper and grow, it needs attention and care.

You don’t want to smother it with worry and fear, but you also don’t want to be neglectful. You need to get to know it, love it, and not be afraid to let it go, if you strike the right balance, it will always be there for you.

A little understanding goes a long way in our relationships, and it’s the same for money.The first step to understanding money is to figure out how much you need to live your life the way you want.

You can spend your whole life pursuing more money, or you can figure out what it takes to live and be happy. Money is a tool to fund your life – when you think about money as a tool, it’s easier to plan.

How much do you need?

How much money do you need to meet your financial obligations and commitments: the mortgage, the rent, your other fixed bills, your medical insurance, your kid’s education? How much is an important number because you if you can’t afford your basic lifestyle, life becomes one big worry about money.

Next comes regular saving. This step is hard. It trips many people up. It usually involves delayed gratification, and we don’t like that. It also involves investing. Investing can seem scary and complicated. But we must save for the things or experiences we want soon and in the future, and we must invest or our money will lose value due to inflation.

Retirement is the most daunting savings need of all because it involves large numbers and lots of assumptions – assumptions regarding our longevity, health, returns on investment, interest rates, to name a few. For most of us, social security is the only source of income we will have in retirement besides our savings. For this reason, saving at least 10% of income each year and more if behind is critical.

After you understand how much money you need to cover your emergency fund, your necessary expenses and your retirement savings, then you can focus on what else you want to create a rich and happy life. A healthy relationship with money means knowing that you can’t have everything. Instead, you figure out what in life brings you the most joy and satisfaction, and you prioritize those things.

You will know you have achieved a healthy relationship with money when you worry less about it and start feeling good about how you are spending and saving it. Get started working on this most important relationship now for a happier future.

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Real-life Financial Stories: Student Loan Debt

Student Loans by Age graph

Student-loans-by-ageI’d like to introduce Erin Fleming McCloskey. Erin is just starting her career as a financial planner. She passed the CFP examination on the first try which is something to be proud of as the pass rate is about 63.5%.  Lucky for me, Erin is a paraplanner with my firm, Curtis Financial Planning, LLC.

Erin was born at the tail end of Generation X/beginning of the Millenials, a generation generally attributed with the following traits: highly-educated, tech-savvy, self-confident and ambitious. Unfortunately, this generation was also born at a time when costs of higher-education reached new heights. Just last week, the  Federal Reserve Bank of New York announced that outstanding student debt again topped $1 trillion in the fourth quarter of 2013, second only to the pool of debt behind mortgages.

Student loan debt has tripled in a decade, actually faster than medical costs or 500% since 1985.  Seven in 10 college seniors who graduated in 2012 had student loan debt, with an average of $29,400 for those with loans. The national share of seniors graduating with loans rose from 68 percent in 2008 to 71 percent in 2012, while their debt at graduation increased by an average of six percent per year.

This debt crisis not only greatly affects the quality of life of an entire generation, it has a huge impact on the economy as Millennials delay living on their own, buying cars and homes and starting families.

Erin has many of the traits that are attributed to her generation, and yes, she is paying off her student loan debt. Here is her story:

Q & A With Erin

Q: Where are you in the process of paying down your student loan debt?

A I graduated “undergrad” in 2002 and then “grad” school in 2007 and have only been paying my loans for the past 4 years due to deferring in those years of grad school or gap years of financial hardship.  

I went to a private university for undergrad and had financial aid (no scholarships for merit because everyone would have deserved them) and my parents did PLUS loans as well. I had no money from savings/529 plans/grandparents for college. I took loans for whatever I couldn’t cover from the maximum  financial aid package I had.

I owe $32,000 now on those loans (they grew for several years while I deferred payments and now I’m paying on them). For grad school, I went to a state school and only racked up $5000 in debt.

Q: Are you also contributing to a retirement plan (401(k), IRA)?

AI am married (file jointly) and we contribute to an IRA –> Roth rollover for me each year. (Income is too high to directly do a Roth contribution for me).

Q: How do you prioritize your long term savings and paying down student loans?

A: Fortunately I have money saved to pay my loans currently, and out of my husband’s salary, we save for retirement.  My goal is that by the time my saved money from my last job runs out, I will be earning enough to keep paying my loans down myself.

Q: Do you have private loans or government loans?

A: I have government loans and private loans.

Q: Did you consolidate your loans?

A: My loans are consolidated, and the interest is around 2.5%, so I am in no hurry to pay the balance ahead of schedule.

Q: Have your found a way to improve your student loan situation?

A: I did consolidate and I believe my current rate is the best I can get. I’ve had this rate for 5-6 years.

Q: Can you recommend any resources, apps, tools that have helped pay down loans?

A: Yes, https://studentaid.gov/ for advice and consolidating

Q:  To what extent are your student loans affecting your life and the decisions you’re making?

A: The first time I realized that the loans were real and I owed money was when I came back from my first year after college that I’d spent in service abroad. I didn’t realize I needed to start paying on the loans after the grace period and since I wasn’t having my mail forwarded across the globe, I missed out on the reminders. So, I came back with my credit score ruined for the next seven years. 

Fortunately, by the time I was married and trying to buy a home my record was clean again. Having loans to pay did also stop me from leaving the country to be a backpacker for TOO long at a time; always had to come back and pay my minimums.

I am fortunate that I don’t have to worry about paying them, since now I am married and can take advantage of the second income.  I think the real difference to me now is that we have a 2 year old and we’ve already started saving for her college because I don’t want her to be in the same boat as I am with owing so much.

I’m also going to take advantage of technological/educational advances by the time she is out of high school and do a real cost/benefit analysis and see what education she can do virtually and for free.

I am sure that my education and life experience were worth the cost, but I do want to do my best to assure the investment will be worth it for my daughter and make sure she has good advice and career counseling when the time comes.

Q: When you are done paying off your student loans, what will you do with that freed up cash?

A: Probably give some to my daughter during her starting-out years, and otherwise use it to max-out retirement savings if needed and after that, PLANE TICKETS!

Q: If you could start over, would you choose the same education and loans?
A: Absolutely! My college experience was totally worth what I’m paying for now. I just wish I’d not made the mistake with missing out on my first 8 payments or so.

If you are interested in learning more about how you can tackle your student loan debt, join GoGirl Finance, Bicycle Financial and me for a twitter chat on February 26 at 5:30 PST, 8:30 EST. Use the hashtag #SavingsChat and join the discussion. More details can be found here: #SavingsChat: Managing Student Loans and Saving.

 Additional articles of interest:

From CNBC:   Repayment Strategies for Your Student Loans

From The New Republic:  When Millenials Can’t Move Out of Their Parents’ Basements the Entire Economy Suffers

From US News Personal Finance: Should You Consolidate Your Student Loan Debt?

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A Spreadsheet for Your Happiness

I came up with a brainstorm in my usual place (the shower) one morning. I had been thinking about the cash flow work I do with my clients and how it almost always initiates a discussion about what they want more of in life.  It usually goes like this: We review the fixed or essential expenses like mortgage, property taxes, utilities, insurance premiums and then we talk about their  discretionary expenditures:  things like entertainment, dining out, travel,  and hobbies. Many times my clients are frustrated because they want more of these pleasurable activities and things in their lives but don’t know whether they can afford them. Or, in the case of couples, one party wants more of something and the other doesn’t!

This dilemma is one of the key reasons that many seek out a financial advisor. In my experience people want a financial plan for three reasons:

  • To track progress towards short-term financial goals, i.e. college education for children or buying a home.
  • To ensure that there will be enough money to live comfortably in retirement.
  • To find out whether they can afford more pleasure in their lives enjoying the things and experiences they love.

Back to the brainstorm: This is why I decided to write The Happiness Spreadsheet– it’s an ebook and a workbook. It leads the reader through the work of creating a spending plan for their discretionary dollars that I call The Happiness Spreadsheet. Why would a spreadsheet (of all things) help to make someone happier?  Because in order to figure out what you most want and what you can afford, both sides of the brain-the right/emotional  side and the left/analytical side need to be engaged to come up with the answers. Because there are dollars involved, it means trade-offs, and by putting the numbers down on paper, it is easier to see what trade-offs need to be made in order to fulfill your dreams.

If this idea sounds intriguing to you, there are several ways you can learn how to create your own Happiness Spreadsheet. One, you can buy the ebook on Amazon here. It’s only $3.99.  Or, you can sign up for a Happiness Spreadsheet workshop. The first one is April 28, and at the moment is full, but you can sign up on the waitlist. Those who don’t get into the first class will be emailed about the next class. Or you can email me at cathy@curtisfinancialplanning.com to explore other ways we can work together.

If you do buy the ebook, please be sure and give me feedback on your experience!

More resources for your Happiness quest:

From the Money Crush blog:  Why Budgeting Isn’t Just About The Number

From Oprah: Five Things Happy People Do

From Brain Pickings: How to Find Your Purpose and Do What You Love

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Revisiting: Contrary to Popular Opinion, You Were Not Born to Shop

shoppinggirl Contrary to popular opinion, you were not born to shop. If you are a woman who loves clothes and fashion (c’est moi) this may be debatable. However, most of us have to curb our enthusiasm for adornment lest we wreak havoc on our cash flow and personal net worth.

Over the years, I’ve developed a few strategies that allow me to indulge my fashion passion and still manage to stay current on credit card bills, invest and save money. It’s all about stretching those dollars to stay within budget. You do have a clothing budget, don’t you?

Here are my top five strategies for smarter clothes shopping:

(I like to support the local economy, so most of the retail establishments mentioned below are in the San Francisco Bay Area. But most metropolitan areas will have similar venues—you just have to go out and find them!).

Strategy #1: Take a cue from chic French women and maintain a small but high quality wardrobe. Artfully use accessories to create different looks.

How? Find designers and shops that suit your fashion sensibility. Patronize these places—buy less, but buy what you love. As an added bonus, if you become a loyal customer, you’ll be invited to special sales and sample sales. My personal favorites:

FIT: www.fitclothingrockridge.com/. FIT is a small clothing boutique in the Rockridge district in Oakland. Joyce Gardner, the owner, carefully curates her stock to satisfy her local clientele. She carries selected labels such as Schmacher, Cop Copine, Yoshi Kondo, Diane Von Furstenberg, Three Dot, Velvet by Graham and Spencer, and Pete. She packs a lot of style in a small space and her employees are adept at pulling looks together. She holds special sales and gives first dibs to her best customers.

Catherine Jane: https://www.facebook.com/CatherineJaneSF. Catherine Jane is a San Francisco designer who has an eye for gorgeous fabric and fit. She creates wonderfully feminine clothing with her own unique flare that will flatter your figure. Tip: Her sample sales are full of outrageous bargains.

The reward for buying high quality, timeless fashion is longer wear and thus less money spent over time.

Strategy #2: Find consignment shops whose buyers are very picky and who echo your style sensibility.

Yes, these are pre-owned and pre-worn garments. If you don’t have a problem with that, it’s a great way to add pieces to your wardrobe at good prices. Here’s how consignment shops work: Women bring in their current, gently worn and seasonal items and the store buyer selects which pieces work for her store. Then she splits the sale price with the seller, usually 50/50 or 60/40. Prices are generally 1/4 of retail prices.

My personal favorite consignment shop is Mirabel (3251 Lakeshore Ave, Oakland). This store is full of fashion gems. You will find labels such as Marc Jacobs, Burning Torch, Velvet by Graham and Spencer, Diane Von Furstenberg, Prada and Missoni as well as a carefully edited selection of Banana Republic, J. Crew and H&M. Occasionally there will be truly great finds (like an Isabel Marant leather jacket I found recently).

Added bonus: If you don’t want to buy, you can always sell clothing that is gathering dust in your closet.

Strategy #3: Find a fashion stylist to audit your closet and help you shop.

If you love clothes but hate to shop or feel like you make a lot of expensive buying mistakes, hiring a personal stylist may be the perfect solution. She can save you both time and money and you’ll look great with minimal effort.

Great Find: Urban Darling. www.facebook.com/urbandarling/

Stylist: Lisa Deane. https://www.facebook.com/urbandarling/

For more tips on working with a stylist, check out my previous post, “Save Money By Shopping in Your Own Closet with a Wardrobe Stylist.”

Strategy #4: If you don’t like going to shops, bring the shop to you!

There are clothing lines that are sold only in private venues. If you host a party, not only do you get to invite all your friends, you receive 50% off your items depending on how much others buy. Personally, I like the CAbi (Carol Anderson By Invitation) line. And my favorite CAbi consultant is Erin Saul who lives in Oakland.

Great Find: CAbi. www.cabionline.com/

Strategy #5: Use the Internet to find sales on items you crave.

You see a gorgeous pair of shoes at Bloomingdale’s. You can’t afford them. Go home and do a Google search using the specific brand name, style and color. You may find that the shoes are on sale somewhere else. In addition, you can ask retailers to match prices if you find them lower on-line. Don’t be afraid to ask.

I think these five strategies will give you a good start on smart clothing shopping. But, if your closets are bulging and think you might have a shopping problem you may need another kind of help. Jill Chivers, a former shopaholic, has created the “My Year Without Clothes Shopping” program for people like you. Her program offers a fun and safe way to “break the cycle of unconscious and compulsive shopping” and to be more in control of your money. Check out her website: www.myyearwithoutclothesshopping.com

I would love to hear of any tips or strategies you have to be stylish without breaking the bank. Please share your thoughts!

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How To Eat Locally On A Budget:Tips from 4 Locavores

Temra Costa,Deborah Madison,Jessica Prentice,Leda Meredith

San Francisco is on the leading edge of the locavore movement.  It’s also one of the most expensive cities in the U.S.  No wonder the Commonwealth Club program at the Port Commission room at the Ferry Building housed a sell-out crowd this past Wednesday night. The topic: how to eat locally on a budget. The speakers, all passionate locavores and sustainable food advocates, have huge locavore credibility:

Temra Costa’s  just released book, Farmer Jane: Women Changing the way We Eat tells the stories of 26 women leaders that are working to create a more holistic and nurturing food and agriculture system. Prior to writing her book, Temra worked for CAFF – The Community Alliance for Family Farmers on the Farm to School and Buy Fresh Buy Local programs. Temra resides in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Deborah Madison opened Greens, a vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco that is still popular after over 20 years, and went on to write several cookbooks about vegetarian cooking: The Greens Cookbook and Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone amongst them.  Her latest book celebrates fruit in all it lusciousness: Seasonal Fruit Desserts From Orchard, Farm and Market.

Leda Meredith is a passionate locavore and urban gardener. Her most recent book:  The Locavore’s Handbook: A Busy Person’s Guild to Eating Local on A Budget is full of practical, down-to-earth advice about incorporating locally grown foods into daily meals. She wrote The Locavore’s Guilde to New York City and teaches classes on urban gardening.  Leda resides in Brooklyn, NY.

Jessica Prentice is a professionally trained chef and expert in sustainable agriculture issues. She worked as the Director of Education Programs for the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market and founded Wise Foods Way in 2004 and Locavores in 2005. She is a worker-owner in a CSK- Community Supported Kitchen in Berkeley called Three Stone Hearth. In her book, Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger For Connection Jessica champions locally grown, humanely raised, nutrient-rich foods and traditional cooking methods. Jessica lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The discussion ended up being about much more than budgeting tips. All the women expanded upon the psychic, health and political  benefits of creating community around food. As Deborah Madison put it “When you get involved in local food you’re getting a lot more than food, you are getting community.” Leda Meredith got us thinking about community in a whole new way when she said “I never eat alone….I have a whole family on my plate.”  All of the women are advocates of developing personal relationships with the people that produce the food we eat.

Jessica Prentice spoke eloquently and deliciously about creating nutrient-rich meals out of simple ingredients such as beans and rice. “Bone broths with beans and rice and a bay leaf – simple, delicious.”  Jessica has a great sense of humor.  When espousing the cost savings in choosing mutton over lamb in dishes like lamb stew she said…”you really can’t tell the difference in taste – mutton just has a p.r. problem!”

The conversation always circled back to the expense of eating locally. All of the women on the panel are budget-conscious and offered some excellent ideas for saving money while eating locally. Here are some of the best:

  1. Volunteer for your local CSA or farmer’s market – many will offer trade in food for work.
  2. Eat seasonally, prices come down when food is in plentiful supply, i.e., strawberries in the spring, tomatoes in the summer.
  3. Use all parts of the vegetable: fresh organically grown beet, carrot and radish greens are delicious.
  4. Choose grains and beans over meat and create simple inexpensive meals using bone broths and vegetables.
  5. Preserve seasonal fruits and vegetables by freezing or canning.
  6. Choose cheaper cuts of meat and make stews that can last all week.

As I was writing this post I got an email from Britt Bravo, a social change consultant/coach based in Oakland who attended Wednesday’s panel.  She wrote a truly comprehensive list of tips for eating locally on a budget gleaned from the discussion. Here is the post on her blog:  Have Fun * Do Good – 25 Tips For Eating Locally on A Budget.

Thanks Britt!

Happy Eating!

P.S. Zuzy from Cooking 4 the Clueless also weighed in on the panel discussion: http://cooking4theclueless.wordpress.com/

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Abandon The Cart!

First Lady Michelle Obama - Stylish, and Prudent!
First Lady Michelle Obama - stylish, and prudent!

You wrap your hands around your shopping cart and feel your heartbeat quicken as you enter the store. Your senses are heightened by that familiar junk-food aroma particular to Target. You take the long way to the work-out clothes department. You want a quick peak at the women’s clothing.

You suddenly remember that Target’s latest clothing line is called “Mrs. O.”  It just hit the stores. You love Michelle Obama’s style. You might be able snag an item or two for next to nothing before everyone else does! And there they are! A yellow sheath dress – $34.99!  A teal knit cardigan – $19.99! A black patent cincher belt – $17.99!  Green kitten heels – 32.99!  A teal-yellow-green floral brooch – 12.99! All go flying into the cart. You finally make it to the athletic clothing section and snag some new yoga pants at $19.99 and two work-out bras at $8.99 each. Woo-hoo! Off to Costco!

At Costco, the smell of Polish hotdogs wafts across your consciousness. You make a bee-line for the paper goods section and load up your cart with bulk t.p, towels and facial tissue. You swing by the book section. “Costco always has such great prices on books. If I find a book I’ve been after..”

As luck would have it, The Necklace by Cheryl Jarvis is $12.99. Amazon had it for $ 17.76 – into the cart it goes. “Wow! I’ve wanted the French Laundry cookbook forever! Only $19.99!”  A no-brainer.

On the way to the check-out line, you taste the granola bar samples. “Hey, not bad! I can take these to work and hold off the morning hunger pangs. A 48-pack seems like a lot, but these might save me from pizza at lunch.” Thunk! Into the cart go forty-eight granola bars!

It’s two and a half hours later when you finally make your way to the check-out counter. You look at your overloaded cart and it hits you – most of this stuff you didn’t have on your list.

The rationalization process begins, but this time it’s different. You know you’re fooling yourself. Disgustedly you think, “Jeez, I just met with my financial planner last week. I promised myself I’d stay on my budget. WHAT AM I DOING???!!!!”

Your mother always taught you to put things back where you got them, but Mom isn’t here. She is taking a back seat as you feel overcome with self-disgust and panic. So what do you do? You abandon the cart!!!

You then climb into your car – the one with the back seat overstuffed with the hottest new items from Target’s Mrs. O Collection – and you drive right back to Target and you return every last item. Because from this day forward, you’ve decided you’re going to stay on budget.

Congratulations. You’ve taken some key steps to financial freedom. Pat yourself on the back!

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Cash Flow Planning: Debt and Generation X

Money doesn't grow on trees | Curtis Financial Planning
Money, unlike apples,
doesn’t grow on trees. Remember hearing that growing up? It’s true.

A recent article in Barrons, “Boomer Consumer” got me thinking; first, about my own clients and their particular situations, and second, about a key point that rang true: “The recession has left the typical 18-to-49 year old far less flush than the average 50 plus consumer.”

My youngest client is 29 years old, the oldest is 70, with the average age 48 years old.

Cash Flow, Budgeting, Retirement
The primary reason my 20 and 30 year old clients hire me is to help them with debt management, cash flow and budgeting. While my boomer clients definitely have felt the pain of dropping portfolio and home values, most invested before the bubble years and hold less overpriced assets.  My boomer clients are concerned about retirement, but the younger generation is challenged with making ends meet every month and is disproportionately saddled with debt.

Gen X and Student Loans
So are my Gen X clients spoiled spendthrifts knowing that they can fall back on Mom and Dad if things get really tough?  Not from what I see. I see student loan debt (so called “good” debt) that won’t be paid off for 20-30 years, incomes that aren’t keeping up with inflation, jobs that are harder to find and keep, and credit card debt not due to excessive living, but to just living. The easy credit years certainly didn’t help this situation. Young people and students with no credit history were able to use credit indiscriminately, and they did.

To take just one piece of this story, let’s consider student loan debt. This is a huge problem and it has unfortunate echoes to another, familiar financial narrative taking place currently. In a special report in Business Week titled “Student Loans: A Bitter Financial Lesson”, journalist Emily Schmitt writes, “Mountains of student loan debt have an unsettling parallel to another one-time boom market: real estate.  Like those who took out big a mortgage to fund their “can’t miss” investments in pricey McMansions – only to find those homes suddenly dropping in value – those of us who took out student loans to pay for pricey degrees, now find our prospects of securing well-paying jobs with comfortable lifestyles, shrinking every day.”

It may seem like a good bet to go into debt to get a good education, but if the decent job with decent pay is not forthcoming, and the price of admission is tens of thousands of dollars in long term debt, then perhaps the initial proposition is flawed. The recession makes these kinds of decisions truly difficult.

Is Generation X Solvent Enough to be Marketed To?
The Barron’s article that inspired this blog post  is not directly about debt, it’s actually about advertising. (Of course, debt and advertising are very close cousins.) The piece – Boomer Consumer – points out that the advertising industry might be making a big mistake by continuing to focus on the youth market instead of the boomer market.  I have to agree, because until the younger generation is less saddled with debt, and able to repair their collective balance sheets, they’re not exactly an ideal target audience for advertisers. The good news here is that some of these Gen X’ers know they need help or they wouldn’t be hiring a financial planner.

So what’s my financial advice to a Gen X’er trying to make good financial decisions?

1.  The number one goal has to be to pay off your debt.

Start with the highest interest debt first – usually credit cards.
Deferring student loan payments seems like a good idea – but interest is not
deferred on private loans. Start paying these loans as soon as possible, even with
minimum payments.

If you have large amounts of student loan and credit card debt and are also
making a 401k or 403B contribution, consider temporarily discontinuing the
retirement contribution  – on the amount that is not being matched only. Always
contribute up to your employer match…it’s like free money.

2.  Consider your living arrangement.
Can you take on a roommate?
Can you live in a less expensive part of town?
Can you move to a city with a lower cost of living?

3. Watch your cash flow and work within a budget.

4. There are programs that can help grads pay student loans. Do some research, not everyone is eligible:

Also read:

Is a College Education Worth The Debt at NPR.org

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