Thursday, February 21, 2013

two certainties

First, let me say - giving up buying food at lunchtime is much harder than I anticipated. I've already messed up at least three times and it's only been a week! Big bummer. Like any good perfectionist, I was ready to give up and throw in towel for the rest of Lent, but I'm trying to trudge on.

Last night, The Hubs and I had our taxes done. Unfortunately, we have to hold off on filing (or rather, our accountant does, since she has the return) because we're claiming a residential energy credit.
I need to point out to all of you how imperative it is to have a great tax professional, especially if you have exemptions. Obviously, you want someone who knows all the laws, but you should also look for someone who understands your line of work and who can help you max out your benefits. Ours works with a lot of teachers in The Hubs' school district, which is how she came recommended to us, but she's also very knowledgeable about what I should be tracking as well. Even better, she has a great personality. Two years ago, we went to a guy that was very old school and we didn't feel like we were getting what we paid for. Now, I'm happy to hand over a check because I feel like she's working hard for us.
In any case, I'm happy we're getting a modest refund from the Feds (about the same as last year) as well as about $200 from the State. Last year, we owed NJ a few pennies (literally, it was only about $15), so I was super thorough this year about documenting any expenses to avoid that. Here are a few tips our accountant gave us that might help you as well!

Sidenote: Please remember I am *not* a tax professional and only dispensing some handy advice that has worked for our two-income, no-children household. Always, always, always checks with your own financial expert in regards to your taxes.

1. Track any job-related expenses, such as mileage and tolls, which were not reimbursed by your employer. Make sure you have documentation of such expenses (such as a spreadsheet, or even a notebook in your car), in case you're audited. This year, we were also able to include The Hubs' airfare & hotel expenses for the Cross Country trip to Disney, as well as little expenses like supplies for his classroom. I was able to deduct the fees to obtain my Notary Public license, as well as the money spent submitting applications through the Civil Service Commission.

2. Keep all your health care receipts. This includes co-pays, prescriptions, and glasses/eye exams. The Hubs and I are state employees, so our bi-weekly contributions to our health care plans are too small to write off on our taxes. But, we were able to combine all of our other health care expenses as a write off. This includes the miles we traveled to get to and from our doctor's offices! We forgot about this perk in 2012, so we had to give a rough estimate, but I'll be much better in 2013 about tracking our miles. You can get a print out of your yearly prescriptions at most pharmacies (as long as you consistently use the same place) which is so much easier than trying to keep a years worth of receipts. If I forgot to grab a receipt from the doctor's office, I just printed a copy of the check online or printed out a bank statement with the charge highlighted.
3. Donations are your friend. The key is to strike a balance between monetary donations and product donations. In 2011, we had all monetary donations, so our accountant told us we needed to start making trips to Goodwill (or any other like organization, Goodwill is just what we have around here). What you donate to Goodwill is considered a portion of your income.  In 2012, we were able to donate three separate times, which led to a deduction of $1,700! That's definitely not chump change. Unfortunately, our monetary donations took a hit - less than $150 - so that's something we need to increase this coming year. I enrolled in a "Charitable Contribution" payroll deduction through my job this year, which will (hopefully) help even us out.

4. Make sure you're maximizing your pre-tax retirement contributions. Obviously, the more you sock away pre-tax, the lower your taxes will be in the first place. In 2011, I had about $2,000 I was able to write off due to my Deferred Compensation plan. In 2012, though, I dropped my contributions by a lot, and I didn't have anything to write off this year. Boo.

So those are a few things that helped us maximize our refund this year. Are there are tips or tricks you've learned over the years?

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

the sacrificial lamb

Friends, Readers, Countrymen (& women): Although it hasn't been an official year yet since I started this blog (that happens next Friday), we are on the eve of what prompted the blog last year: Lent

Last year, you traveled with me when I resolved to give up shopping for forty days. While it wasn't a total success, it definitely helped me reflect on how I think about money and, more importantly, how I spend money.

I wish I could tell you now that I'm better off financially than I was almost a year ago, but sadly, I'm not. In fact, I'm worse off now due to having to purchase a new vehicle and various financial roadblocks we've hit along the way. For all my new-found understanding of how I spend, I really haven't changed my habits very much, if at all, which is disappointing on a lot of levels. But I'm not going to throw in the towel just yet.

This year's Lenten challenge is kind of a doozy. It's definitely going to be hard, but in a good way. Starting tomorrow, I am not allowed to purchase any food or drink item at work. If I didn't bring it in my lunch bag, I don't get to eat it. No work cafeteria, no Wawa, no Real Pizza, no lunch outings with my co-workers (sorry, girls!), no snacks or soda from the vending machine, no buying a candy bar from the sheriff's officer trying to raise money for his kid's sports teams. Nada. Since I started tracking my spending, I realized I'm wasting around $30 a month eating out when I can easily bring it from home. In fact, on some of the occasions where I grab something at lunch, I already did bring something from home, but didn't feel like eating it. That attitude has got to go. Yesterday, I had my last turkey sandwich from our work cafeteria. Today, I'm going to have my last $5 lunch combo from the pizza place down the street. Tomorrow, I'm finally going to finish off those leftovers from this weekend. Hopefully, it's not moldy.

Are you giving anything up this year?

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

spring cleaning

Is it cold where you are? If you're in New Jersey (which I know most of you are), it's been downright frigid this week and snowing a little bit every night (yuck).

Even though the first day of spring is 43 days away (but who's counting), on Saturday, I was feeling quite motivated by Punxsutawney Phil's prediction of an early spring. I decided I would clean all those things that fall by the wayside. You know, the cleaning you should do, but that gets bumped to the bottom of the list because the tub is gross, the floors need to be washed, and the laundry needs to be done.

Here's what I tackled:
  • the Brita pitcher
  • the Keurig machine
  • my makeup brushes
  • the washer
  • the dishwasher
  • the microwave
  • the glass stove top on my oven
  • the bathtub

  • And here's what I used:

    A gallon of white vinegar and a few other cleaning supplies I already had around the house. The vinegar probably cost about $4, though I don't remember because I bought it so long ago. I used about half the gallon for Saturday's cleaning extravaganza.

    The Brita pitcher was the easiest, obviously, since all it required was washing the pitcher out in hot, soapy water and replacing the filter. Did you know you're supposed to soak the new filter for 15 minutes before inserting it in the pitcher? I didn't. Oh the things you'll learn when you actually read directions!

    For the Keurig, I followed these instructions I found on Pinterest. I put the drip tray and K-cup holder in a pot of hot soapy water and wiped the outside down with a few Clorox wipes. I dumped out the remaining water in the reservoir and washed that out as well. I filled the reservoir back up with 48 ounces of white vinegar and proceeded to run the largest cup cycle until I couldn't smell the vinegar anymore. Actually, I had to have The Hubs sniff the last couple cups for me because I became desensitized to it. I haven't noticed any difference in the taste of my tea, but at least now this is done for another six months or so.

    Next I moved onto the washing machine. My LG washer has a "tub clean" cycle, so I just poured the vinegar into the tray where my detergent usually goes. About half way through, I got the idea to put the bath tub grippers in as well. Once the cleaning cycle was done, I just opened the door to let it air dry since front loaders have a tendency to get mildew-y (yuck!)

    Then I took a lunch break - Cleaning is hard work! ;-)

    I cleaned my makeup brushes using a method I found here - very easy, very effective. Since I was in the bathroom anyway, I cleaned the tub. This was my only non-eco cleaning - I love the Kaboom Foaming spray.

    I simultaneously cleaned the dishwasher and microwave at the same time using a method I found at One Good Thing. For the microwave, nuke a bowl containing 1 cup vinegar & 1 cup of water for about 5 minutes (depending on how high your power is) then remove the bowl (carefully!) & wipe up the stains. You can also add a lemon peel to the mixture for a fresher scent. I took the hot bowl of water & vinegar, dumped it into a pot on the stove, and brought it to a rigorous boil so it could get any stains off the bottom of microwave too. Easy peasy.

    The dishwasher uses the same premise, although instead of using a diluted vinegar solution, you do one cup of straight vinegar in the top rack of your empty dishwasher. Run the hottest cycle available (newer dishwashers might have a self-clean cycle). In our dishwasher, this was a "normal cycle" with a "Sani-Rinse", since our sensor is half-kaput and only certain buttons work on it. The instructions also say to run a second, shorter cycle with baking soda to freshen the inside and loosen stains, but I skipped this step due to the aforementioned sensor issues.

    I tried to clean our glass stove top last using this method, but it didn't work for me. I think the number one issue was my liquid wasn't hot enough, but I also didn't have any rags which were big enough for the whole stove top. Instead, I used a hand towel, a kitchen towel, and a washcloth. The instructions also mention you might have to repeat the steps, but I was over cleaning at that point. Groundhog Day was on repeat and I was ready to park myself on the couch.

    What are your favorite cleaning methods? Anyone else out there getting more bang for your buck?