How to Avoid Getting Fat and Wasting Money With Weekly Dinner Menu Planning

This Sunday before I went grocery shopping, I peeked into the fridge to see what I needed to add to my shopping list. Much to my annoyance, I wound up throwing away a rotting five-pound bag of lettuce and last week’s splurge of some pricey stuffed pork chops from the butcher. I also had to freeze chicken breasts that I was convinced would next see the light of day once they were good and frostbitten and on their way to the trash.

Dinner Blundering: A Big Fat Waste of Money
So what the heck did we eat instead last week? Impulsive choices of pizza and pasta on nights we simply didn’t feel like cooking, or didn’t feel like eating something healthier. These reckless decisions weren’t the greatest for my waistline or my rear, and I’d rather not head into the holiday season facing a losing battle on the diet front.

We had selective memory when it came to our dinner plans, even though I had the best intentions when I grocery shopped. Aside from the fact that this scenario is fattening, it’s not an option for us financially to toss food in the trash while we spend money on takeout.

I hate to admit it, but while this week’s dinner blundering is an extreme example, it’s not the first time something like this has happened. And I’ve spun my wheels when it comes to solving the problem.

The Solution Search
Time and again, I’ve researched different meal planning tools that are already out there.  Unclutterer has a nice, clean chart you can download.

In fact, if you search Google Images for meal planner, you will see a glorious sea of creative ways of laying out your meals for the week.

But for all my searching and fiddling, I’ve never been able to settle on a solution that would actually work for us. Without x-ray vision into the depths of the meat drawer combined with photographic memory, I’ve been at a loss.

My Own Dinner Planning Chart: Download the dinner planner as an Excel spreadsheet template
So today I decided to create my own dinner menu planner that I can display in plain view so we’ll never again have to wonder, “What’s for dinner?”

Now, I don’t know if this sort of thing is widely useful. However, for the first time in my color-coded chart-making history, my husband didn’t imply that this chart was my wacky OCD shining through, and in fact, he said it seems like it’s going to help us with easy planning and follow through.

I put the menu planner in a plastic sheet protector that I can write on with a dry-erase marker. If I don’t need to print out a new planner each week, I’m way more likely to use it to write down our menu and follow it.

Let’s take a tour, shall we?

Theme Nights
I broke the days of the week into themes. Beneath each day and corresponding theme, I put a list of dinner ideas so that when we’re choosing meals in the planning stages, we don’t have to think too hard to come up with something.

This planner serves as guidance, but we’re allowed to veer from the themes. You can see that this week I put “fajitas” on Tuesday, which will usually be our Asian-themed night. The key is following what I write in the blanks, since that’s what came home from the grocery store.

The themes are as follows:

Sunday: Big Batch or Traditional. We’re talking meals like stews or roasts, since those tend to take more time than we’re willing to spare on a weeknight.

Monday: Leftovers from Sunday night’s big batch, or if there are no leftovers, then we’ll wing it. Winging it basically means we’ll forage in the pantry or freezer. This can mean eggs and waffles, chicken patties, grilled cheese and tomato soup – whatever sounds good.

The themes for the other nights of the week are ethnic in nature for variety.

Tuesday: Asian. This means quick, few-ingredient dishes like chicken stir fries with veggies.

Wednesday: Mexican. Again we’re looking at fast and easy fare such as tacos or quesadillas.

Thursday: Italian. Thursday is one of the toughest nights of the week to hold the course on planned meals, since we’re getting tired from the work week by then. Seeing as pizza and pasta are our weaknesses, I might as well purposely designate that day for it. We have a delicious pizza recipe we rely on now that saves us both calories and money.

Friday: Comfort Food. I’m thinking hamburgers, macaroni and cheese, BBQ and the like.

Saturday: Fish or a New Recipe. If I hit the store Saturday we’ll be eating fresh fresh. Or we can try a new recipe that night, since I’ll have the time and energy to create something new.

Keep it Simple
If I make a dinner planner full of elaborate weeknight meals, then the task of making dinner would either consume me or I’m likely to abandon the planner altogether. So instead I made this planner with the attitude that I’m still a working mom.

I’ve made the planning such that I won’t have to change course once I do get a job, and so that currently I’m still free to pursue job leads, blog and take good care of Alex.

In Plain Sight
I placed the planner in a prominent place on the wall next to my desk so that I can always see what’s for dinner that day. Just now, I took that chicken out of the freezer for tomorrow’s fajitas! You have no idea what a victory that is. The effort of using my planner is already paying off.

Download the dinner planner as an Excel spreadsheet template

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5 Steps to Pay Off Your Credit Card Debt; Plus a Story of What it Really Means to Be Broke

credit cards are evil

Here is the story of how I began adulthood with frugal precision, and then slipped into debt as my life situation changed. To skip the story and get right to 5 Steps to Pay Off Your Credit Card Debt, scroll down to the numbered list.

I remember the sunny day my parents dropped me off at college as a freshman. I noticed a table set up by a credit card company to attract student applicants. My mother instructed me to sign up for a credit card to build credit history so I could qualify for future pursuits like car purchases and apartment rentals. However, she was careful to impress upon me, “Credit cards are the devil and you should never, ever keep a balance month to month.”

Why Credit Cards Are Evil
When I asked her why credit cards are so bad, Mom said, “To have a credit card balance that you can’t pay off in full each month means you get charged interest. To get charged interest means you might as well flush a fistful of cash down the toilet.” She told me to charge something to the card once in a while to keep the account current and build credit, but always pay it off right away.

She explained that credit card companies like to hook naïve college students who would do things like charge beer to the card and then pay only the minimum required each month and get charged interest. Each month a student held a balance, he would get charged interest again on the remaining balance. Monthly interest changes meant he was getting charged interest on top of interest, so he wasn’t just paying for beer any more. He wasn’t even just paying for the beer plus interest. He was actually paying dearly for the right to stay in debt.

As the months dragged on with a balance and new interest charges added on top, this compounded how much he was actually paying for that beer to mind boggling proportions. Ultimately, the student was being charged way above and beyond the original price of the beer, which would be long gone by the time he was through paying it off. She painted credit card companies as being conniving and underhanded, a force to be feared and shunned.

As a college student living off savings from my summer job and with my mother’s advice ringing in my head, I knew I couldn’t afford to be flushing cash down the toilet. So I rarely used that card, and when I did, I paid it off immediately.

I Only Thought I Was Broke
In 1998, I moved to the New York City metropolitan area to work for CNBC as a multimedia producer. I was one year out of college and making $24,000 a year. Despite my meager earnings, I was hell bent on following the sage advice to never keep a credit card balance.

So I lived within my means. I rented a ground floor, $600-a-month studio apartment from the Red Oak Diner pastry chef in Fort Lee, NJ. My home was roughly a mile from CNBC, and I leased a Honda Civic for $157 per month. I don’t remember ever filling up on gas, but I’m sure I only had to do it about once a month.

I recall that to make ends meet, I allowed myself $13 in expenditures per day. This was to cover everything – food, laundry, phone, internet and savings. I didn’t have cable, but then again, I was surrounded by televisions and live TV production all day at work. I didn’t feel the need to come home at night and sit in front of a set. Instead I would come home to cheap dinners of eggs or pasta, carefully measured into portions to stretch the box as far as I could take it.

To stick to my budget, I kept this tiny green journal where I wrote down everything I spent every time money came out of my pocket. When the $13 was used up for the day, that was that. No more spending. I managed to save about $200 per month. I enjoyed this little game I was playing. I don’t recall feeling deprived. It’s just what I did and it worked.

Then I Was More Broke Than Dirt
Then “irrational exuberance” took over and my work situation changed in 1999. I was working for a dot com in downtown Manhattan for only a hair more money, with the airy promise of stock options to stand in for the lousy pay.

Despite Silicon Valley fairytales, I somehow wasn’t snowed by the empty promise of stock options coming from a start-up so I refused to buy in. As disgruntled as I was over the compensation terms, I had very little experience at that point and needed to keep my job with its crappy paycheck. I knew the skills I was acquiring would pay real dividends eventually, and so I stuck it out.

The increased cost of my commute and the expense of working in Manhattan far outweighed my penny-pinching abilities. I moved to be closer to my job, which toned down my commuting costs but upped my rent considerably, so it was a wash. Ends were no longer being met, and I made up the difference by using my dreaded credit card.

Mo Money, Mo Problems
Two years later, after a few promotions and raises, I was making about $20,000 more than when I’d started out. But I was still underpaid considering my level of ability, responsibility and the cost of living in the New York City market.

More notably is that somewhere along the line, as a result of making more money, I became careless in my spending. I made a basic and common mistake: I never sat down and revised my budget as I got raises. Instead, I had tossed the old budget out and trusted that more money meant I was fine. But the truth was that I was still living beyond my means and I had a wallet full of credit cards with balances to prove it.

Suddenly it seemed, I had $10,000 in credit card debt. At a rate of less than $14 per day over what I should have been spending those years of working downtown – the difference between bringing my coffee and lunch from home and eating out – I dug myself into a hole. The years I’d gone underpaid while overspending had caught up with me and I felt panicked. I realized that I literally couldn’t afford to keep my job while simultaneously getting out of debt and enjoying a normal lifestyle.

By then, it was December of the year 2000 and I was nowhere near alone in my overspending; I felt as if the whole tech industry was about to go down with me. Another dot com acquired the company I was working for, and it was clear this new entity had completely screwed up fundamentals and would soon go bankrupt. I tried to tell my friends not to buy the stock options, but few listened. I felt like a rat fleeing a sinking ship as I scrambled to get the heck out of there.

Luckily, I had secured enough experience managing teams, resources and projects to get a respectable job with civilized pay somewhere else. So I went back to the Mother Ship — CNBC — where I would again be immersed in the world of finance, investments and Wall Street news.

Digging Out
It was time to get my finances under control. With a new job, a new salary and a new commute, it was the perfect time to do the math and pay the piper.

Here are the steps I took to pay off my credit cards.

5 Steps to Pay Off Your Credit Cards

1. Add Up Your Debt
This can hurt. When you carry multiple balances on different credit cards, you can avoid looking the lump sum of your debt full in the face. Suck it and add it up so that you have the whole picture. Take courage knowing that this is the worst it has to be if you cut up those cards and begin paying down your debt now. Each month, the picture gets a little prettier.

Do an initial estimate of how long it will take to pay off your credit cards. Once you get a budget in place, you’ll do this exercise again with the goal of paying more towards your cards each month to shave down the amount of time you hold a balance. This means less interest paid out, and more money back in your pocket.

A Note About Cash Savings vs. Debt
I’m assuming that if you have credit card debt, then you don’t have cash sitting in a savings account. (I’m not referring to a retirement account. Please leave that alone.) If by chance you do have liquid cash in a savings account, then use that cash immediately towards paying down credit card debt. Cash is of no use to you when you’re getting charged a greater rate than you’re earning. I know psychologically it’s tough to drain savings, but by allowing yourself to get charged interest when you have cash laying around doing nothing, you are literally robbing yourself of money every single day. Don’t worry: paying off debt is the first step to amassing savings. You must get your negative balance to zero before you can build a positive balance in your savings account.

2. Budget: Here is where you will find the money to put towards your cards each month. How to Budget will be detailed in a future post, so I will only cover the basics here.

To work out my budget, I sat down and wrote out all my expenses for each month.

  • Record your fixed expenses, like housing and car payments.
  • Decide what you will spend on items you can be more flexible with, such food, entertainment, clothes and gifts.
  • Add it all up and see what’s left over for you to pay towards your credit card balances each month. With the new knowledge of your budget, figure out more accurately this time how long it will take you to pay off your credit cards.

If you don’t have a warm fuzzy feeling about how long it will take to get those cards paid off, then we need to reevaluate your budget. You want to be left with a sum of money that will get you well above the minimum payments due on your cards each month. If you’re not there yet, then it’s time to get stingy and see where you can cut corners. Each dollar you pay towards those cards is a dollar that you can’t get charged interest on, so don’t underestimate the good fortune a little bit of thriftiness will bring.

There are two kinds of cutting corners:
Pinching Pennies. Here’s where you decide to make your coffee at home, bring your lunch to work, and potentially go vegetarian a few nights a week to cut back on your grocery bills. You can shop at the thrift store if you’re in dire need of an outfit and sell items you no longer want at a consignment shop or on eBay. Get in the spirit and make regular trips to the local library and cut back on trips to the movies. Skip dinners out and invite friends over for a potluck. Make greeting cards and gifts rather than buying them. Get into it, people! Divas, ditch the salon and spa, do your own nails and start coloring your hair at home. Dudes, buy hair clippers and learn how to use them. Make it a game and see how many expenses you can cut. Every dollar counts, literally.

Lifestyle overhaul. This is what you should decide to do when — despite pinching pennies — your fixed expenses like housing and car payments will keep you in a damp, steep-walled pit of debt, rubbing lotion on your skin as often as the credit card company demands, possibly for the rest of your tormented life. In this case, it’s time to move to a cheaper living situation and consider exchanging the nice car for a beater or the bus. Trust me, you’ll feel better when Buffalo Bill (your debt) is gone.

Revise that budget until you can get a foothold and climb out of the pit so you can run to safety.

3. Pick a Card, but Not Just Any Card
Once your budget is set, assess which card has the highest interest rate, because this is the one you’ll pay off first. It can be tempting to go for the card with the smallest balance to get it out of the way, or the card with the biggest balance because it looks the scariest, but math is not on your side if you do it that way. The highest rate card is the most expensive one to keep, penny for penny. It must die, and quickly.

Pay the minimum monthly balance on the rest of your lower rate cards, and use the largest chunk of cash possible to pay your high interest rate card each month. Hopefully you are paying much, much more than the minimum balance. In fact, ignore the minimum balance and throw as much cash as you can towards paying off this credit card bill each month. Keep in mind that the faster and more aggressively you pay it off, the less money overall that you wind up paying because that’s less interest they can charge you.

Please note, you can consider transferring your higher-rate balance to a lower rate card to save on interest fees, but be careful! You must read the fine print and do the math or you could wind up costing yourself more money this way. Aside from a balance transfer fee, many cards will also charge you a higher rate for balances transferred, which means you aren’t necessarily going to get the attractive rate that’s advertised out loud as if you made the purchases on this lower rate card.

4. Pick the Next Highest Rate Card
Once your highest rate card is all paid off, then repeat the process with the rest of your cards. Evaluate which card charges you the most interest, and pay the minimum on the lower rate cards. Then hurl everything you’ve got left towards your highest rate card in order to pay it down as quickly as possible.

5. Bask in the Power of Zero
The day those cards are all paid off, enjoy the feeling. Drink a margarita to celebrate! But go for the tequila with the worm in it, and avoid the Patrón. We’re not trying to get all spendy again already. In the coming months, you can send all that money you were using to pay off your cards towards amassing a beautiful safety net in the form of an emergency cash account, your retirement and other ways that money can make us feel good instead of bad.

So, the credit card companies had you over a barrel, but you wiggled away from their evil grasp and now you’re free. Soon we will learn how to take back the power and perks from the credit card companies so they are giving you money!

Trouble Reaching a Goal? Get Out of Your Own Way

sidewalk closedDo you know somebody who is always on a diet but she keeps losing the same five or ten pounds over again, only to gain it back?

What about the person who keeps saying he needs to find a new job, who complains endlessly about his boss or coworkers, yet stays in those same conditions for years on end?

Is there something you keep saying you want to change, but you never seem to get to your goal? Maybe your goal is to quit smoking, save money, keep your home neat or to be on time. Whatever it is we’d like to achieve, why can it be so hard for us to just buckle down and do it?

The answer is self-defeating behaviors. Almost everybody has a couple of self defeating behaviors. These are habits that provide us with an escape hatch, a way to distract ourselves from feeling sad, overwhelmed or inadequate. We pick up these habits at a time in our lives when they help us cope with strong emotions or difficult situations, but over time, these behaviors begin to get in the way of our progress.

Recognizing Self Defeating Behaviors
When we find ourselves unable to achieve a goal that should be within our reach, there has to be something we’re doing instead that somehow rewards us. Rather than changing our behavior in order to move towards our goal — like stopping overeating to get thinner, we make it a habit of going for the reward (eating naughty food) that’s contradictory to our goal.

Many times we don’t know exactly how or why we sabotage ourselves, but if you have a goal that seems to be just out of reach, keep your ear to the ground. Next time you experience a failure, pay attention to what you do that’s counter to your goal, and figure out what reward you’re getting.

Here’s an example. You tell yourself that you are going to save money and you aren’t going to shop anymore. You have everything you need and it’s time for you to pay off your credit card. The idea of paying off your credit card and limiting your spending stresses you out. The mere thought of the balance and all that interest you’re paying every month makes you sweat a little. And you’re getting tired of the arguments that your spending causes. Maybe you even hide some of your spending from your mate, which you find even more stressful.

Ironically, shopping and spending money is the very thing that makes you feel good and gives you that high, a feeling of invincibility and elatedness. There’s nothing like plunking down that plastic on the perfect purchase, ripping the tags off a new dress and slipping it on to wear for the first time. You try to tell yourself NO MORE, but the next thing you know, you’re walking out the door of your favorite store with a shopping bag on your arm.

Of course the reward is obvious in this example, and so is the ultimate suffering it causes. But the point is, sometimes our brains seem to go blank when we’re breaking our own rules.

When we procrastinate, we escape from our responsibilities. When we overeat, we might enjoy the comfort that food affords us. If our chronic dieter doesn’t eat to console herself when she feels lonely or bored, then she might have to face the loneliness or boredom without the comfort of chocolate to soothe her.

Maybe the person stuck in the job he dislikes complains that he can’t find a new job when he is so busy in the current one. That’s silly. If he hates the job he has, then of course he can take time out of his schedule to find a different job. What’s the worst that could happen: he would lose a job that makes him feel miserable and trapped for years on end?

What does he get out of keeping the old job? Security, for one thing. He doesn’t have to face the fear and discomfort involved with interviewing, the risk of rejection. Or the fear of failure from taking a leap into the unknown at a job he’s untested at. He can complain all he wants, but there’s something comforting about staying in the old job.

Figure out for yourself what behavior you’re favoring over achieving your goal, and discover how that behavior is somehow rewarding you.

What’s the Worst That Could Happen?
Ask yourself what you think will happen if you stop the old behavior and cut yourself off from the reward. Your belief about the old behavior might even sound ridiculous when you discover what it is. Hint: you are usually trying to avoid some kind of emotional discomfort.

The spender might be afraid that the stress of dealing with her bills without the comfort of shopping to relieve her stress will be too painful.

The dieter might be afraid that she’ll have to endure hunger, loneliness or boredom without the ability to eat whatever, whenever. Or the dieter might be afraid of good old deprivation. If she sees delicious food, she might feel deprived if she won’t let herself have it.

The job hater might be afraid to apply for a new job because he would feel inadequate if he doesn’t get it. Or he fears that if he lands a new job, he might not be good at it and he’s supremely uncomfortable, maybe even humiliated when faced with his imperfections and inabilities.

Compare and Contrast
Once you’ve laid yourself bare and you are aware of your sabotaging behavior and the reward it gives you, let’s compare that current situation versus what you would get if you let yourself achieve your goal.

Do you really and truly value the self-defeating habit over your goal?

Does the dieter value overeating over reaching her goal of getting thin? Of course not. She might make the wrong decision in the heat of the moment due to subconscious fears around deprivation and loneliness, but she doesn’t truly value hanging onto unhealthy habits.

Does the shopper value mounting debt over her goal of saving money? And does the job hater secretly love his job? No. But they are stuck in patterns of thinking and behavior that are preventing success.

Challenge Time: Build New Habits
Let’s take on the shopper. All of the mental tomfoolery aside, what she’s left with is mounting financial worries and a bad shopping habit. What if she takes a baby step and challenges herself the next time she wants to break out that plastic to hold off instead. She might be waiting to see how uncomfortable it is to avoid spending, but what will actually happen is that she can wait for the urge to pass. If later on she notices that she didn’t spend and she didn’t die, then she can chip away at the belief that she must spend to relieve stress. She can avoid her bad habit more easily by adopting a replacement habit. Going for a walk and calling a friend are clichés for a reason. They might work when we actually DO them.

How about the dieter. Same deal here. She might be afraid of hunger or negative emotions, but the next time she wants to overeat she can turn to a different behavior instead. She can challenge her feeling that she has to eat to feel comfort. She can start the work required to break that habit of turning to food and find other ways to comfort herself. If she’s looking to get thinner so she can have more confidence, for example, maybe she can cut to the chase and look directly for opportunities to build confidence, like taking a dance class or trying out online dating.

The job hater can dip his toe into the job pool by trying out an informational interview with a company that interests him. That way he’s not putting himself at risk for rejection, but he gets to try out a low-pressure interview situation. He could also look into doing some pro-bono work to help brush up his skill set and get his resume up to date to feel more confident in his abilities.

The next time you find yourself engaging in a self-defeating behavior, ask what you could do differently next time. Chip away, and you will reach your goal while creating new and empowering habits.

Money 101: The NO SUCK Easy and Sort of Fun Approach to Finances

ATMMoney doesn’t have to be the complicated, boring and dreaded topic people make it out to be. I’m going to make our lives easier and create a simple resource that gets our finances up to date, and we’ll do it together bit by bit in the coming weeks. Keep reading. Even if you just got the urge to avoid! in the pit of your stomach, I swear, this won’t hurt a bit. It will make you feel good and everybody is doing it.

We all know that our laundry is never done. We can lose that last 10 pounds, but that doesn’t mean, “I’m DONE! Hey everybody, I can stop watching what I eat now so pass the friggin’ cupcakes! WOOOO!” (Although I might enjoy pretending that dieting works that way.)

Just like it’s a good idea to take stock of your wardrobe once in a while and weed out that pink suede box-pleated mini skirt – damn I miss that thing – that looks ridiculous on you when you reach a certain level of, ehem, maturity, it’s a good idea to periodically get a look at what’s happening in the world of your money and see what needs adjusting.

Today we’re just going to make a list of things that we might want to do. We’re not actually going to do anything yet, because that’s too much too soon. We don’t want this activity to suck, be tedious and lead to burn out. We can tackle each item in a different post each week so that we can chip away at this in an easy and sane manner.

For now, all we want to do is take stock and see what might need tinkering. Here is a list of items to consider. Take a look for yourself and decide which ones on this list apply to you. Over the coming weeks, we can look at ideas and tools to easily take care of each topic:

1.    Credit Cards. Are they working for you, or are you working for them? Your credit card companies should be paying you money in rewards. If you are paying any money towards your credit cards in terms of fees or interest, then you are in a SUCK situation. Here’s how to pay off your credit card debt. Also, if you have a credit card and don’t earn super-awesome rewards from it, then we’ll get you all turned around in a post about how to take back the power and the perks from the credit card companies.

2.    Retirement Plan. Let’s look at some savings tools like the 401(k) and IRA and see what kind of accounts we should have. We’ll also check out a calculator to see if we’re saving enough money so we’re not eating cat food when we’re old. That would SUCK.

3.    Emergency Fund. Pretend you don’t have an emergency fund, you get laid off, and you wind up eating cat food so you can pay your rent or mortgage. OR you lose your home and wind up sharing cat food under a tarp with Hobo Bob. SUCK.

4.   Budget. We’ll look at what we should be spending so that we don’t wind up with debt, Hobo Bob as a neighbor and a cat food filled retirement. Because what would that be like? You got it. SUCK.

5.    Real Estate. Rent! Buy! Sell! Which option leads to the least amount of SUCK for you and how much should you spend on housing.

6.    Spending. I know, this sounds counterintuitive to talk about spending. But let’s say there’s a roasting July heat wave and your 30-year-old air conditioner breaks, but you have to wait a week for your next paycheck because you just spent your last dime on makeup or fishing tackle. Or that Boxster you’ve been eyeballing goes on sale the second after you made an impulse buy on a helicopter. (Hey, it happens.) If you’d had a Handy Spendy Calendar and some Spendy Accounts set up already for just such a SUCK occasion as this, you wouldn’t be in this situation.

7.    Prepare Your Family. You know what sucks? DEATH. You know what else sucks? College tuition. Know what sucks even more? Kids who are actually adults who still live with you and eat all your cereal instead of going off to college because you didn’t save money for their tuition. Let’s talk life insurance and saving for your kids’ college education.

See? Money can be fun! Y’all come back now, ya hear?