Tightening the Belt

After a couple of months of listening to books rather than podcasts, I was back to catching up with the Clark Howard personal finance radio show podcast. This came just in time for the economy to really tank. But I am feeling more in control than ever.

First, I signed up for Mint.com because one of Clark Howard’s producers said “It changed my life.” I’ve been comfortable enough that I have been lazy in really tracking my finances and not really budgeting. Rich and I both pay off our credit cards every month and are maximizing retirement savings. But beyond that, I am lazy.

Mint.com is meant to be used with all of your bank accounts, credit accounts, loan accounts, and investment accounts. When you open it up, it checks them all and downloads them all onto one ledger for easy budgeting. It’s smart enough to know the vendor and assign a default category. You can also view each account separately. Voila – easy budgeting! No excuse for the lazy!

With banks and insurance companies crashing all around, I took a hard look at my accounts. I immediately identified the following to reduce or eliminate:
1. US Bank online access charge: I questioned why I was being charged $5.95 a month when their web site says online access is free. I had to pick up the phone and call them. Turns out this was an old fee for using Quicken or Money to access your account. I had it eliminated.
2. Weight Watchers Online: I’ve been using Calorie Count Plus instead, so I canceled this $11.95 per month.
3. Walk Styles subscription: This is for online downloads of a pedometer they sent me to test. I was lazy in not canceling it after the testing period. $5.95 per month.
4. I keep an Earthlink account active to be able to keep my original email address, and rarely use the dialup as a back-up. But $26 a month is excessive. I went into an online chat with their sales people and had it reduced to $14.95 per month.

These are small potatoes, too small for me to care about for years in some cases. But they add up to $35 a month, over $400 per year. That is real money. I was wasting it. All together, this almost pays for my CSA farm subscription for 2009.

We were privileged to go to the Clark Howard night at Pearson Air Museum on Friday. We got free tickets by registering in time with radio station KPAM. They served an optional $8 pasta dinner that was super. You get great value with Clark!

Clark is cheap. His appearance was the evening that Congress passed the bailout bill. He had many reassuring comments, but plenty of advice on how to protect yourself in tough economic times. The questions from the audience were excellent.

First, live within your means. That sounds easy, but I know it isn’t for most people. Rich and I have never spent more than we earned. We have avoided debt other than car payments (now all paid for) and the mortgage. We resisted buying more of a house than we could afford. It still would be a stretch without our additional income from web projects, and so I am focused on saving for any future downturns in income.

I have saved a large amount of expense this year by getting the CSA subscription and cooking at home rather than going to restaurants or bringing home prepared food from the grocery store. I used to look forward to eating out. Now I look forward to what I am cooking at home.

I tried to stop by a local restaurant for lunch today and it was closed. Many small local businesses will be going under, especially those which are luxuries rather than necessities. I think it is our duty to support our local CSAs through these times. But I also want to give some business to the local restaurants and local produce stores.

I am dedicated now to budgeting and going after those small savings that I ignored for so long. When I want to be charitable, I’ll do it intentionally!

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