May 012013
 
Adding some additional outdoor exercise lately to whip the garden into shape.

Adding some additional outdoor exercise lately to whip the garden into shape.

It’s the last day of April and time to check in on my weight maintenance progress as well as recap the last two-months of posts focused on diet and nutrition.

You may recall that my theme word for the year is “routine.” Without intending to figure out a diet and exercise routine that works for me, that is exactly what happened over the last two months. You may have noticed that I didn’t post a routine checklist for April. Because my mind was so focused on maintaining the weight loss I had achieved in March, I didn’t really feel up to working on all my routines at once. I think this focus really helped me. Now in May, I really need to add back in new routines, particularly for cleaning up around the house and working on the garden, which have suffered.

Below is a blank May 2013 daily routines checklist. I changed the format a bit. If you are using these charts, please let me know what changes you would like to see in them.

Before I reveal to you how my weight loss maintenance has been going, I wanted to combine some lessons learned with a recap of the past posts.

1) If the inspiration strikes, act on it! When I received the offer to review the DDP Yoga system, I wasn’t really planning on a big weight loss or exercise focus to my blog. I don’t know why I was so enthusiastic about the program but I am so glad that I let that energy carry me. Diet and exercise require an intense amount of self-motivation so if the inspiration strikes you, go with it! Don’t wait for it to come again at a more convenient time. It may not!

2) Hard change requires a bit of anger. The last thing I wanted to have to do on my health regimen was go on a diet. I don’t like restricting my eating patterns. At the time, I was listening a lot to Dave Ramsey’s radio show, and he always emphasizes that you know you are ready to change when you get so angry and fed up with a situation to the point that you yell out, “I’ve had it! I’m not living this way anymore!” At that point, you are ready to commit fully to whatever changes you need to make to get your desired result. I was thinking about that when I kept stepping on the scale and seeing negative progress despite my exercise diligence and made the commitment to try a diet. It was that feeling that helped me continue my diet despite changing conditions like the snowquester and to take it to the next level by limiting myself to just 1200 calories per day. And with that level of focus and dedication, I achieved success, losing first 7 pounds, then 4 pounds, then 1 ½ pounds, then an additional 1 pound for a total of 13 ½! I faced up to some hard lessons during this process including realizing that dieting or calorie restriction is something that will continue to be necessary as I age.

3) Keep perfectionism in check. It is so easy for us to want our bodies to look like models or athletes since those are the images we are faced with every day. Yet we don’t really want to make the sacrifices these people make to look like that. Portia De Rossi’s book exploring anorexia helped me to realize that the key endpoint of exercise is to focus on achieving a skill or getting better at something. Exercising to achieve a body type is almost impossible. Also, we have to be realistic about our own time constraints to exercise and fix special diet-friendly meals. Parents, in particular, may be suffering from sleep deprivation or lack of energy and may have a harder time sticking to a diet. Pick an achievable weight loss. It’s so much more motivating to hit your goal than to be endlessly seeking a goal you can’t achieve.

4) It’s the big changes not necessarily the small changes that matter. While I spent some time agonizing over small changes like using whole wheat flour in my pancakes or coloring healthy hard boiled eggs or swapping out snacks for my kids, or reviewing the difference in fortified versus non-fortified processed foods, in the end, I’m not sure these changes made a whole lot of difference in my weight maintenance.

5) It’s hard to override human nature. When I first went off my diet, I had a great time eating! I showed you the paintable Easter Egg sugar cookies I made for my daughter’s preschool class and the Matzoh lasagna and matzoh lemon cake we tried.

6) You must have a pleasurable distraction if you are going to diet! When I am not eating, I am knitting a lot more. I made Easter sweaters, have completed another project I will share with you later and am halfway through a third knitting project. I had no idea how much time I spent eating! I also spent some time bargain shopping.

7) Be open to alternative interpretations of your results. While I knew my diet was giving me success in the weight loss department, I wanted to know if it really was healthier. My blood test results helped me to realize that my diet still could use a few tweaks.

8) Even when you are successful, keep looking out for new things to try. I keep reading just about every article I see about healthy eating and exercise habits. I get new ideas all the time. I try them out, like eating more parsley and drinking green tea. I was also introduced to fasting, the latest form of dieting through Dr. Michael Mosley’s PBS series. Ramit Sethi also hosted a webchat with his personal trainers and it was eye-opening to see how many women were facing the same problems. Why can’t I lose weight? How do I get these pregnancy pounds off? The trainers made an interesting recommendation that people try 16 hours of fasting per day and noted that estrogen is a challenging hormone when it comes to weight loss for women. It was about then that I realized that dieting often comes down to a “what” or “when” decision.

9) Each person is different. My experience trying to help my husband eat a healthier breakfast was a failure. When it comes to weight loss, we are all motivated by different things and have different taste buds. It’s important to keep searching until you find a routine that speaks to you. I received many positive comments on the 400 calorie salad recipes that I shared, including a humorous one from my dad that 2 or 3 of those together would make a good meal!

10) Normal people have a lot to think about besides diet and exercise but that is not an excuse for why we can’t be successful. In our family, for example, I had to spend some time in April doing some detailed financial research to audit our accounts, get our taxes filed, review our college savings strategy, review our retirement savings plans, research ideas to improve our investing strategy and plan our children’s summer educational activities. I could easily have said that all this stressed me out and derailed my diet but I didn’t let that happen.

So now for the moment you are waiting for . . . did I manage to maintain my weight loss in April?

2013-05-01-weigh-inresults-30dayspostdiet

Yes I did! But it wasn’t as easy as these numbers appear. The first week after my diet, I managed to regain 5 ½ pounds eating a lot of Easter candy and lemon cake! I realized that something had to change. I contemplated going back on my salads but didn’t have quite enough willpower to do that. So I decided to continue with the one part my diet that was easy for me, the breakfasts. I also decided to experiment with fasting and added a one mile walk to my exercise program. So here is the “formula” that is working for me.

2013-05-01-weightmaintenance

If I don’t do every single one of these things every single day, I will gain about one pound the next day. This program works for me because it allows me to eat what I want and the exercise is enjoyable. I love the one-mile walk because it warms up my muscles. I also have fun with my children along the way. After the walk, I like to do my 30 minutes of strength exercises right away while my muscles are still warm. It really helps with my yoga stretches.

I can maintain this diet even if I am on vacation or otherwise not in control of my eating situation. If I have to, I can bring a bag of chia seeds and mix them with water for my breakfasts. I can also switch up the timing of the fast period, etc. if there is a special feasting event. My diet does not really impact anyone around me except that occasionally they will have to accept that I am not eating and will be sipping my water. Over time, I may have to cut down the “forage period” to keep my weight in check but it seems feasible that I will always have at least one hour a day when I can eat whatever I want to. So I don’t have to “cheat,” I just have to wait!

I keep improving in my fitness and that is exciting. My legs feel strong and light. It sounds weird but it feels like it takes so much less energy just to do basic things like walk and climb stairs in this condition. My flexibility is returning. It has taken 60 days worth of exercise to finally feel like my muscles are loosening up. I even had one yoga-related injury along the way! I sought the help of a chiropractor who told me that my hip flexor muscles are too tight and that I need to work on stretches to loosen them. As I understand, the hip flexor muscles connect to the abdominal muscles in some way and as my abs are getting stronger, my hip flexors seem to be getting better as well.

Going into May, I feel confident that my new diet and exercise routine is under control and that it will take less effort to maintain what I have established. Now to tackle other areas of my organization that need addressing!

How do you feel going into May? What would you like to accomplish? Please share in the comments.

 Posted by on May 1, 2013 Monthly Recap Tagged with: , , ,
Apr 182013
 
"Pioneers Festival Investor Day,"  Photo by Heisenberg Media.  From the Flickr Creative Commons.

“Pioneers Festival Investor Day,” Photo by Heisenberg Media. From the Flickr Creative Commons.

This week, I am reviewing my finances. One of the tweaks I made to our financial systems last year was to subscribe to a paid investing advice newsletter. Since I don’t know all that much about investing or stock picking, I figured that receiving some specific advice from an investing expert would give me some concrete suggestions about what to invest in.

How did it work out for me?

Sadly, not so well.

There are a million different investing newsletters out there. All of them market themselves on the reputation of one or more seasoned stockpickers on the staff. They sound really impressive. The newsletters are generally written well and give you an investing recommendation along with the various reasons supporting the recommendation. There is usually some supporting economic data, stock data, industry trends or quotes from millionaire investors that makes the recommendation sound even more convincing.

The only problem is that the stock market isn’t a scientific problem to be solved. You can’t just follow a pattern of economic facts to stock market success. The investing newsletter I chose to follow last year ended up being “wrong” on just about every piece of advice they gave. It was written by intelligent people with a lot of experience and facts. The reasoning was a plausible guess about market conditions but the market went the other direction.

Fortunately, we did not blindly follow the advice and invest actual money. Instead, we were lazy. We read the recommendations but thought about it rather than acting on it. We made one investing decision based on the newsletter advice, which ended up being an OK decision but probably not the best one we could have made.

This year, I am trying another investing newsletter with a different perspective. So far, I can’t say I am really impressed. When I read the investment recommendations, I generally think, “Why that company? I never shop there.” or “If we hit economic difficulty, I don’t want to own that stock.”

After my experience so far with these investing newsletters, I have a few lessons learned:

1) There is no shortcut to investing success. Reading one newsletter is not a substitute for finding your own investments and developing your own investing method. The newsletter should supplement and not replace your other investing reading.

2) Patience is a virtue. If you choose an investing newsletter with a strong or unusual opinion, wait at least a few months to just read the advice, research and follow the market before acting on the guidance.

3) Watch for hidden agendas.
Some of these investor newsletters seem to have an ulterior motive. Think about whether the investing newsletter is trying to boost a stock price so that it can profit while you lose. If your gut instinct says that something is a bad investment, it probably is.

4) Your eyes will be opened to the depth of the investing world. If you gain nothing else from an investing newsletter, you will at least learn about the millions of different types of investments out there. Portfolios are not just limited to stocks, bonds and CD’s. There are new and sophisticated types of investments that are accessible to anyone willing to learn how they work.

5) The investing advice world runs on paper. The two investing newsletters I subscribed to both provide their main newsletters via paper copy and snail mail. It seems completely backward and out of touch with the modern world but it ended up being a brilliant choice. We get so little via hard copy mail anymore that when the investing newsletter arrives, I find myself drawn to reading it. I also seem to comprehend more when I read it on paper than on a screen. Since there is an obvious time lag between the stock recommendation and the printing of the newsletter, it also provides an instant check for the long-term investor. Has the investment performed well since the recommendation was made? If not, it probably isn’t the investment for me.

6) Expect a lot and know how to cancel. There is so much free investing advice out there, if you are going to pay for advice, you want something that is easy-to-understand, relevant and that performs well. At the end of each subscription term, if you aren’t getting your money’s worth, be ready to switch and try something else.

Do you subscribe to paid investing or financial advice? What tips would you share about choosing a good investor service? Please share in the comments.

 Posted by on April 18, 2013 General Tagged with: , ,
Apr 172013
 
"Fluorescent Servitude."  Photo by Michael C. Rael.  From the Flickr Creative Commons.

“Fluorescent Servitude.” Photo by Michael C. Rael. From the Flickr Creative Commons.

Since I have just tackled the thorny issue of college savings, why not jump next into the even more thorny issue of retirement savings!

My money strategy is to tackle all of these difficult issues head on. I would rather know now if I am going to have a major problem in 30 years than push it off to worry about another day. So far, the strategy seems to be working. Even if you can’t fix everything wrong with your retirement savings plan, just by paying it some attention, you will start to make at least some positive progress.

Last year, I started a tradition of formally reviewing my 401(k) savings and creating a short written report about how we are doing. (You can download the template I use and some instructions about how to use it here.)

2012 was a terrific year for 401(k)s!

Mutual fund companies and retirement plan purveyors couldn’t ask for a better marketing year for 401(k)s than 2012. In our plans, every single fund increased in value in 2012. Nothing lost money. Nothing! You couldn’t pick a bad investment. Whether it was stocks or bonds or international, it all made money. Just because of the positivity, you should do the detailed 401(k) analysis for 2012.

The best investment of 2012: stocks

If you could time the market, in 2011, you would have put all of your money into bonds but then, in 2012, you would shift it all to stocks. Stocks performed fabulously in 2012! We had gains in some funds of over 35% in one year! Wow! If only every year could be half this good.

2013, what will happen?

The numbers looked so good in 2012 that they honestly scared me. How can every single mutual fund make money? There were zero losing investments? This almost never happens. Yes, the economy seems to be recovering but to have this type of tremendous gains . . . it feels a bit bubble-ish.

So far, 2013 is off to a bit of a rocky start and we probably aren’t going to see 2012 repeat itself. It doesn’t mean it is time to get out of stocks, but rather accept that there is risk in every investment and to make sure your investments are appropriately diversified for your own savings goals.

Do you take the time to check in with your retirement savings each year? What lessons did you learn from 2012? Please share in the comments.

 Posted by on April 17, 2013 General Tagged with: , ,
Apr 162013
 
"Daisy Chain - Vassar Graduation, June 1908" Photo by Bain News Service.  From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

“Daisy Chain – Vassar Graduation, June 1908” Photo by Bain News Service. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Our eldest daughter will turn 8 this year and along with that comes a scary realization . . . we have only 10 years left to save for her college education!

Even scarier? Based on standard financial advice that you should not put at risk money that you need in 5-7 years, we have only about 3-5 years left for any aggressive investments for her. After that, it is low-interest earning CDs and bonds which will not build savings quickly.

I have been trying to learn how to be a better long-term saver when it comes to retirement saving and it has been a long and steep learning curve.

But when you look at saving for college, it is truly even more challenging than retirement saving. You have at best half as much time to amass almost as much money!

Can you even afford to be saving for college?

It is instinctive that high achieving parents want their children to go to college and want to help if not fully fund college for their children. But is this a realistic expectation? Many financial advisers are now telling people that unless you are fully funding your retirement and have money left over to invest, the answer for you (and your children) is that you don’t have enough money to be saving for college.

Ouch! That answer really stings and hurts if it applies to you.

If you don’t believe this is true, consider a few things. The cost of college is rising at an astronomical rate compared to wage-earning power and every year becomes more unaffordable.

You can also run some specific numbers for your child.

1) First, choose a representative school that your child might attend and find out the current cost of that school, using the National Center for Education Statistic’s College Navigator search tool.
You might choose a community college, a state school or an expensive private college, depending on your child’s educational goals. For example, the University of Virginia (a wonderful state school if you can manage to be admitted!) currently costs $25,325 per year for an in-state student living on campus and $15,546 per year if you can live at home with your parents during college.

2) Take the annual tuition cost and plug it into the calculator at Saving for College.com. Put in your child’s age and then on the next screen you can adjust how much the college your child will attend costs. For the University of Virginia example, starting saving right now at age 8, you would have to save $530 – $863 per month until college to have enough. (Note: this assumes you can earn at least 7% per year in your college savings account, which is ambitious.) Even providing the cheapest college option for your child (attending a community college for 2 years and living at home), will require you to save approximately $100 per month from birth. If you have more than one child to save for, these costs multiply quickly.

So, what if you run these numbers and saving for college is scaring you to death?

The 20/20/20 (or one-third) Plan

Financial columnist Ron Lieber of The New York Times shared a strategy on NPR called the 20/20/20 plan. This plan, developed by financial planner Kevin McKinley, suggests that parents divide the cost of college into three chunks: a portion saved before college starts, a portion saved while the child is in college and a portion taken out in loans. For example, $20,000 prior to college, $20,000 in college and $20,000 in loans. If you pursue this strategy, you are assuming you will have more disposable income by the time your student is in college and that you will also be able to pay back any loans after your child completes college.

Suze Orman: Don’t Ever Cosign for Private Student Loans

Suze Orman recently gave a tip to parents tempted to make up the difference in their college savings by cosigning for private student loans for their children. Her advice? Don’t ever do this! Suze advises that parents should only cosign for federal student loans, not private student loans. (Of course, if you happen to have the rare student who has a 6-figure job waiting after graduation, this rule may not apply to you.)

Suze also provided a brave guest who laid bare her financial mess after borrowing almost $200,000 to attend art school, most of which was co-signed by her parents. This creates a huge financial problem for both the student and the parents and is a good warning to us all.

Students: Don’t Attend a College that Will Require You to Take out More Than Federal Student Loans to Attend

Ron Lieber also gave a general tip to students (echoing Suze Orman in the video above) that if you have to pay for college on your own, you should generally never borrow more than the maximum limit on federal student loans. Even though more loans may be available to you via private sources, Mr. Lieber advises that students have a far better chance of paying back their loans by sticking to the federal student loan limits.

What are your strategies for saving for college for your children? Do you find these savings targets achievable or intimidating? Please share in the comments.

 Posted by on April 16, 2013 General Tagged with: , , ,
Apr 152013
 

2013-04-10-irs-accept

This year, I have to give an organizational award to the IRS. After many years, my paper-filing tax protest has ceased!

You see, for the past several years, I have printed out and mailed my tax return rather than e-File it because I felt that it was wrong to charge people to eFile their returns online. The IRS for many years decided that people of low income levels could eFile for free but everyone else would have to pay one of the designated service providers an e-Filing fee. Meanwhile, you could still paper file your return for free (even though paper-filing costs the government more to process than eFiling). So, frugalista that I am, I paper-filed for years.

A few years ago, the IRS decided that they would provide the Free File Fillable Forms Option to everyone for free. This is a bare-bones, fill-in-the blank type of tax form that does some calculations for you but for the vast majority of the calculations, you are on your own. This was fine with me and satisfied my criteria that the government should provide a free eFiling option.

The only problem? The Free File system often had errors or couldn’t be used with certain tax schedules, deductions or forms. Last year, we came close to eFiling but some form we needed wasn’t allowed on the Free File system. So, we printed out and mailed again!

But this year . . . S U C C E S S ! ! ! !

The Free File system had all the forms we needed available. The calculations were all correct with no errors. For many reasons, it was great for us that this year in particular was an eFiling year. It made things so much easier for both us and for the government.

When I went to eFile the first time, I had a typo on one piece of identifying information and the return was rejected. I called the IRS to inquire what was wrong. The first person I spoke with was quite abrupt and unhelpful but she transferred me to another person. I had to wait a while on hold but the next woman I spoke with was very helpful, very patient and helped me find the error. I then eFiled with success!

This is such a huge step forward in our tax collection process. Kudos to everyone involved!

In another huge leap forward, the Commonwealth of Virginia tax collection process now provides a Free File option and we eFiled with Virginia as well!

2013-04-10-va-returnaccepted

Like the IRS, Virginia was also charging all but low-income taxpayers to eFile their taxes until this year. Last year, I broke out the typewriter to type and manually mail our return to Virginia via the free method. Perhaps Virginia got the message from devout paper filers like me.

So, although I don’t enjoy paying my taxes, the eFile service this year made the process so much less painful!

Did you eFile this year? Please share in the comments.

 Posted by on April 15, 2013 General Tagged with: ,