Mazlo Musings — Mazlo

Mazlo Spotlight: Good Cheap Eats' Grocery Spending Audit

GroceryShelf.jpg

Here at Mazlo, we’re always on the lookout for common-sense advice that helps make the most of spending on items you need and enjoy.

Last week, we listed some tips for Mazlo users’ top retail expense: food and groceries. Continuing the theme, here’s a useful post from Good Cheap Eats, a rib-sticking blog of economical family recipes from cookbook author and mother-of-six Jessica Fisher.

The blog features a lively exchange of ideas between Jessica and her readers, and this post is typical of the candid way she shares her own budgeting ups and downs.

She describes how she and her husband had run a tight grocery budget when they were trying to pay off debt … But how other life priorities (and the growing appetites of her growing kids) had recently pushed their monthly spend over the top.

Her prescription: an audit on grocery spending that takes into account

  • who you feed

  • what you like to eat

  • how much you spend

  • what you buy

  • what you have stored for future meals

  • if you can lower any of those costs without paying more in some other way

Check out Jessica’s family findings in each category — and consider whether a little self-analysis might leave more money for other things.

Mazlo Spotlight: Supermarket Specials

Supermarket.jpg

Everybody needs groceries, right?

That’s certainly the case for users of the Mazlo app: Supermarket and grocery shopping is the No. 1 retail activity they engage in.

So what do the personal-finance blogs have to say about the most economical way of bringing home the bacon (or tempeh)? Let’s go shopping for spending tips.

Practice refrigerator management. To make your grocery dollar go further, be sure you’re using everything in your fridge and freezer. Per The Financial Diet, it’s way too easy to let food go bad in the back of the refrigerator. What’s more, packing every square inch limits the air circulation refrigerators need to do the job.

Meanwhile, NerdWallet recommends you review the contents of your refrigerator before shopping. You wouldn’t want redundant zucchini.

Cut down on shopping trips. Steve and Annette Economides of Money Smart Family have made a science out of grocery shopping, focused primarily on strictly limiting their shopping to monthly trips. (That includes all food, groceries and cleaning supplies.)

The fortuitously named Economides family boasts a 9-cubic-foot freezer (sorry, Financial Diet!); they have a rigorous division of shopping tasks (Annette takes the aisles, while Steve runs the “Outer Loop” of produce, meat, dairy and deli); and they work coupons like Alan Turing studied the German Enigma Code during WWII.

Consider the supermarket layout. The folks at Wealthversed are also fans of the Outer Loop Steve Economides has made his life’s work. “Grocery stores are usually configured to keep the healthiest and most affordable items around the perimeter, while the inner aisles are stocked with prepared foods and products with high mark-ups. Avoid heading into the grocery’s stores inner reaches and instead stick to the perimeter.”

Wealthversed also recommends looking high and low for bargains — literally. “Grocery stores use a sneaky trick to entice consumers to buy items that deliver the best profit margins: they place them at eye level on shelves. This keeps them within easy reach, a subtle trick that encourages people to buy them more often. To find savings, look up to the shelf’s higher reaches or down to the bottom. That’s where the more affordable alternatives are.”

Bottom line. Wise craftspeople measure twice and cut once to avoid wasting materials. By the same token, smart shoppers should size up their storage space, their monthly needs and even the route they take through the store.

And hey: Maybe you can use some of that extra money to order out and let someone else do the shopping!

Mazlo Spotlight: Buying a Pet

Dogs.jpg

Many of us get a lot of joy — and other upsides — from pet ownership.

Besides the pleasure of companionship, pet owners realize a range of health benefits, from lower cholesterol and blood pressure to increased opportunities to exercise and socialize. (At least if your pet is a dog: It takes determination to carry your fish tank to the park!)

And there’s even a case to be made for the financial skills of pet owners: Over at CreditDonkey, Sarah Greesonbach (@awyeahsarah) argues that committing to a critter flexes your financial muscles when it comes to evaluating long-term costs and investments.

Which brings us to expenses: There’s no denying that owning a pet does cost money, from food to training to veterinary bills. (Money Under 30 cites ASPCA figures that the first year of dog or cat ownership alone will cost you north of $1,000.)

So how do you stretch your pet dollar? Plenty of personal-finance blogs have taken this subject around the block. Here are some critter tips from prominent money bloggers:

Buy in bulk. Carlton Ryan at MoneyWise points out that lots of pet supplies — from dry food to cat litter to potty pads — have sufficient shelf life to save by buying in volume. And if you already belong to a warehouse club like Costco or Sam’s Club, odds are you can get bulk pricing there.

(Another MoneyWise tip should be taken with a grain of salt: saving money by feeding your pet table scraps. While the article does qualify that suggestion by noting that not all human food is great for pets, veterinarians generally take a dim view of this practice. You’re probably best advised not getting veterinary tips from a finance blog.)

Groom ‘em yourself. Some finance bloggers are braver than others (or Mazlo!) about getting in there and giving Fido the salon treatment. “I've never taken any of my pets to a professional groomer for their coats,” writes Christa Avampato (@christanyc) for WiseBread. “You can easily buy salon-quality products and gadgets that make taking care of your pet's fur an inexpensive and even fun task.”

After buying a set of professional-quality grooming tools to give our own Goldendoodle a socially isolated shave and haircut, Mazlo applauds WiseBread’s can-do attitude but questions its universality.

MoneyWise also advocates grooming at home — within limits. “As with dog training, there are some situations when it's best to call in the professionals. A seriously matted dog, a pet whose nails haven't been trimmed in years, or a fearful animal may best be handled by a pro.” Amen, Carlton.

To insure or not to insure? Purchasing an insurance plan for your furry buddy requires some real consideration. NerdWallet has some good thoughts on the subject, along with a side-by-side comparison of three popular insurance plans for dogs and cats.

“I tend to recommend against it,” CFP Shanda Sullivan writes in NerdWallet. “Odds are that your pet won’t incur enough veterinary bills each year to justify the insurance premiums. And if you have more than one pet, those can add up.

“However, if you visit the vet regularly or your pet is a breed that is known for health issues, you might want to consider coverage.”

Bottom line. For many people, some sort of animal companionship tends to improve the quality (and even the length) of their lives. But they’re a financial as well as an emotional responsibility.

As with other things money can buy, assess the psychological ROI of acquiring a furry buddy — for better or worse.

Mazlo Spotlight: Wealthy Single Mommy

SingleMommy.jpg

Contending with the challenges of single parenthood inspired financial reporter Emma Johnson to make herself the subject of her Wealthy Single Mommy blog. The mother of two founded WSM in 2012 to provide “millions of mommas with career, money, business, parenting, feminism, dating, sex, success, love and relationships advice. You’re not in this alone!”

Johnson’s work in the field also includes the 2017 book The Kickass Single Mom and the podcast series Like a Mother, so single mothers with financial questions can get the 411 across all media.

As Johnson notes, single Millennial moms are not alone: According to her stats, there are 10 million U.S. unmarried moms heading families, and 57% of births to Millennial moms were outside of marriage.

And whether or not you consider yourself “wealthy,” there’s plenty of practical advice here: Check out her insights about whether to sell your engagement ring to get a taste of her tactical financial approach to professional and parenting success.

“[K]eep in mind that all that financial jargon is created by men, and is designed to make you feel stupid so that you pay them a lot of money to manage your money for you.

“You are not dumb or stupid. You are brilliant and you have what it takes to easily invest your money for the future and not pay anyone a lot of stupid fees for that.” — Emma Johnson

See Uncle Sam in a New Light

“Uncle Sam, an accountant, and your savings account walk into a bar…”

“Wait, whoa…given the PTSD I still have from tax day, this is no laughing matter!” you may be thinking. This is especially true if you are one of the majority of Americans who, irrespective of your income level, cite that even just thinking about money makes you anxious. Never mind if you are someone who still hasn’t quite gotten around to that ever-elusive emergency fund. (The IRS has reported less than 40% of Americans have $400 saved for emergencies…so if that incites you, don’t feel bad: you’re far from alone! And we’ll help you get there).

But today – just for kicks – now that tax-day is in your rear-view mirror, will you humor us and try a quick thought experiment?  Take a deep breath, suspend what you believe reality to be for a moment, and then (especially if you are one of the 96 M people anticipating a refund this year) say aloud: 

Dear Uncle Sam,

I know we’ve had our differences, and I haven’t always appreciated you….it’s felt like a tough love situation and there are still some issues we have to work out. But today, in the spirit of moving forward, I want to THANK you for showing me what I AM capable of doing. Saving.

You’ve made me realize that I can actually save. Yep, yep I can.

XOXO, My future saving-self

p.s. …please don’t take it personally if you don’t hear from me for another year. It’s complicated.


Reframe your refund as money you saved

We sometimes forget that put simply: a tax refund is actually our money. Once the government takes out what they require for things like social security and such, they are giving us back the money that we earned. Given the average refund as of March 1, 2020 was $3,068...many of us will certainly be re-uniting with far more than that elusive $400 emergency fund that haunts so many people. In fact, it’s likely to be enough money that we’ll plan to make meaningful purchases (or fun splurges) with it.

The good news is that if the IRS could do that for you - can save that nice chunk of change - then you can do it for yourself too! You can save - when you aren’t even looking.

Auto-saving: why you can do this!

Even when worried they didn’t have enough to set any money aside, 90% of people who experimented with auto-saving found that they could do it after all! Not only were they able to adjust and afford it, they were also able to stick with it...and fairly quickly amp up the amount they were saving. You can do this too!

For perspective, think about how pre-sheltering-in-place and social distancing: before, you felt like you couldn’t possibly cut anything out of your spending. Then lo and behold, when you couldn’t go to bars and restaurants...cha-ching! You did save. Because you couldn’t spend that money. Much like with taxes: when you don’t have to in your hot little hands, it doesn’t - it can’t - burn a hole through your pocket. Translation: you can do this - you already have been doing it…just with a little help from other forces!

So what’s the next step: auto-deposit. It’s the single most easy and effective step you can take if you want to want the type of surprise and delight savings you enjoy as you do with a tax refund. Or if you want to make progress on paying down debt that you feel needs happen before you can save. Put differently, it’s a great way to Jedi-mind trick ourselves to help us get where we want to be...because lets be real: we ALL need a bit of help sometimes! So there’s no shame in “using the force” so to speak. Yoda approves and Obi-Wan will be proud.

3 easy steps you can take TODAY 

Setting up auto-deposits can helps you proactively override your pre-wired YOLO (that’s “you only live once” for you Gen X-ers or Boomers!) tendencies so that you won’t be SOL later in the year, say when you have costly curveballs come out of nowhere. It also helps you start to build your confidence that saving and paying down debt IS possible for you. Behavioral psychology studies show that every time you see the amount adding it, it activates possibility and creativity centers in your brain that before were shut down by the anxiety you’d feel even thinking about the s-word. Take just 45 mins today or tomorrow to get one of these in motion:

  1. Enroll in your 401K: If you have one, email your HR person (right here and now!), ask to enroll in your company’s 401K for the minimum amount. Just start with whatever the default account they suggest is (this will make sense when you get to this point). If you are already in a 401K, bump up your amount a tad bit more (which you probably told yourself you’d do at some point anyways, right? So now’s the day!).

  2. Portion your paycheck: If your company doesn’t have a 401K option, open up a savings account (IMPORTANT: this should be separate from your checking account, or you’ll just end up using it as an alternative checking meets slush fund account…it’s the way we roll if/when funds are too accessible. A member of our team recently set up one with Empower and said it was one of the easiest, fastest and most delightful baking experiences they’d ever had!). Tell your HR person you want to automatically send a small % of each paycheck into this new account. Start small and you’ll be surprised how quickly it will add up! If you are someone who’s dutifully whittling down debt, you can use this account to do that until your debt’s paid-off. Then when it is - yes WHEN - this becomes your honeypot of savings.

  3. Auto-deduct from your account: If you don’t have an HR department or work at a company, go ahead and set up that savings account anyways. Then instead, just set up your own existing primary account to auto-deduct a small, specific amount every month and deposit that amount into your new account. The “auto” bit will force you to ensure you have enough in there to make it happen. Plus will alleviate you from having to remember to manually transfer it. A good intention that easily falls by the wayside.

 Even if it’s just $10.00 a week you are putting into these accounts –which is less than $1.50/day! - at least you’ll have taken a step. You’ll be doing something vs. nothing. This will quell that gnawing voice in your head “I really should be saving...” that makes you feel bad about yourself. 

Don’t let perfection get the way of progress

Before you finish reading this, so many well intentioned money savvy people will be quick to make you feel silly that you’re giving the IRS an interest-free loan. They’ll rattle off a seemingly simple, fool-proof formula: “just reduce your tax withholdings, then invest that extra $ into a basic zero-fee fund…and the market shows you’ll typically get 7% whereas your refund nets you no interest.” This is all technically true. But, they make it sound as simple as filling up your gas tank. Which is awesome if you can - and will - actually go and do that now. “Fill ‘er up” so to speak! But…most of us get caught up in how exactly to proceed with the next step…then do nothing at all.

If you are someone who finds yourself shutting down when you hear words like “deductions,” “investing” and “compounding”...then take a deep breath, welcome to the human race (this stuff can feel complicated!) and just commit to do the single, most simple thing you can - and will - do right now - without turning into a deer in headlights (still stuck….not saving, just angst-ing). This is how you’ll make progress.

Ready? Set? We’re rooting for you…

At Mazlo, we’re all about small steps we can take now…that will add up to big impact later.  

Our hope? Before tax-time is too much of a distant memory, take a page from Uncle Sam’s playbook turn it on its head, and take a small step forward. A step that’ll immediately make you feel better…and sets you in motion towards a fistful of savings that may inspire you to say: “play it again Sam!” 

Share

Mazlo Spotlight: Marriage, Kids and Money

Family.jpg

As the name of his blog suggests, Marriage, Kids and Money founder Andy Hill’s singular focus is on how young families can strengthen their relationships while building their finances.

Hill and his wife Nicole have been through the drill themselves: While they were earning a good living in the Detroit area when they first got together in 2010, they were already deep in debt and spending everything they earned. They turned it around when they were expecting the first of their two kids, creating a “50/50 path” to spend just half their monthly income and pay off their debt in about a year.

And to be sure, the Marriage, Kids and Money blog and podcast series give some special attention to unusually successful Millennials. MKM’s interview series titled “How to Become a Millionaire in Your 30s” is pretty self-explanatory (and features plenty of enviable subjects).

But its tips on raising money-smart kids and strengthening your marriage through health money habits are useful even for 20-, 30- or 40-something thousandaires.

“It was a huge surprise to me when the first news outlet called me out as a ‘Personal Finance Expert.’ Honestly, I didn’t feel like an expert … I just felt like a normal guy who was dedicated to helping his family get to the next level and loves helping other families do the same.” — Andy Hill

Mazlo Spotlight: Making Sense of Cents

Cents.jpg

Student loan debt is a source of stress for a generation of Americans — and her personal journey to escape it inspired Michelle Schroeder-Gardner to start Making Sense of Cents

Schroeder-Gardner had racked up $38,000 in debt by August 2012, when she earned her MBA in Finance and started a full-time job as a financial analyst. 

It seems that master's degree paid for itself in just seven months — the time it took Schroeder-Gardner to pay off that debt. She turned full-time to blogging in October 2013 and never looked back. 

Now Schroeder-Gardner and her husband are blogging and traveling: first exploring North America in an RV, and now traveling the world aboard a catamaran

While reading her blog won't turn you into a millionaire island-hopper, Making Sense of Cents is full of interesting financial tips and anecdotes fit for the rest of us: the economics of raising your own chickens, paying off student loans by teaching English in China, ideas for making extra money for the holidays, or easy "zero-waste swaps" to cut down on environmental waste while saving money. 

"If you are living your life just so that you can enjoy your limited vacation days, then you may want to reevaluate and change things so that you can be happier." — Michelle Schroeder-Gardner