If you bank at Chase, you've been hit hard with solicitations encouraging you to sign up for overdraft protection. Hopefully you've stayed strong and smart and haven't caved in to the pressure. To recap from previous columns: Fees and charges in the guise of "service" translate into many millions of dollars for the bankers and many hours of stress for you as you backtrack to figure out how you landed at a bank balance of -$137.43. Better the momentary embarrassment of a declined transaction -- better yet to keep accurate track of your funds, and best of all to leave the debit card at home and carry only as much cash as your budget allows. (I pick on Chase because that's where I bank, but this is true of all banks angling to sucker you back into the world of overdraft charges.)
From the good news front: PG&E's CARE program. You are on that, yes? You can make what I consider a surprisingly decent amount of money -- $44,000 for a family of four -- and still qualify. Is that a lot of money? If you've ever tried to make a living as a journalist in Humboldt County, especially while raising children, it certainly is. But I suppose other fields in Humboldt might pay more. In any case, if you fall into that realm of qualification, not only do you get a break on your bill (yay!), but through the Energy Partners program PG&E will send someone out to swap four of your energy-sucking light fixtures for energy-efficient ones, potentially install insulation in your attic, do some weather stripping around your house ... images of muscular PG&E guys pole dancing ... ahem ... and if your refrigerator is old enough, they'll replace it with a new one! Note: Paperwork is involved and if you don't own your home, which seems likely, given the guidelines, you'll need your landlord's cooperation. Get started by Googling "PGE CARE." They also have a program through which you can get one month's energy bill paid if in dire straits. This may be that time.
Last week, I ended up stuck at LAX due to a flight delay. The seats already overflowed with cranky would-be flyers, so I pulled up a patch of cold, hard floor and watched the river of humanity roar by. As happens, observation led to gratitude for all that I have. Or, in the case of toddlers, don't have. Whew, those are some hard, albeit cute, years. But the use of my legs. That's awesome. Comfy shoes. I am so happy neither my job nor my mindset requires stilettos. Good health. That's a bonus. Nobody is berating me at the moment. Yes, at a glance, despite the precarious bank balance, I'm doing relatively well. And do you know what else? I had a great book with me. One should always, always carry reading material -- and, no, reading blogs on your phone does not count! If you have little carrying space, try East Village Inky (ayunhalliday.com). Otherwise keep a book or literary magazine tucked into your bag.
Books! Books are always a justifiable expense, says the woman who entered Green Apple bookstore on SF's Clement Street like a recovering alcoholic walking into a bar. (When the water gets turned off due to nonpayment, this time, blame George Saunders.) Look, we have the Humboldt County Library, Booklegger, Tin Can, Northtown's bargain bin -- throw in the occasional book swap party and you can afford to keep yourself in reading material. What's a book swap party? Exactly what it sounds like! Cull your books into a couple stacks, the ones you don't mind parting with and the ones you'd like to get back, but wouldn't die without. Tuck a Post-it into or otherwise ID the "get back" selections. Leave the ones it'd break your heart to lose on the shelf. Invite a bunch of friends, make it a potluck. They should bring their own books to trade/give away. Eat, drink, discuss, accumulate new additions to your library. No matter how broke you are, a good book offers escape, stimulation, a temporary altering of perspective. Reading: the ultimate in cheap travel.
If you, like me, are a compulsive reader, you no doubt have spent most of your showering life rereading versions of, "Lather, rinse, repeat." But who shampoos twice unless you're really, really dirty? If you buy in bulk, save further on shampoo, conditioner, laundry detergent, dish soap, etc., by transferring from large bulk bottles to small ones for dispensing. We tend to use more when it feels like we have a lot, sabotaging the savings buying bigger bought us. Alternately, have a good measuring system in place -- and use less than you think you need. Those detergent caps? You can cut that amount in half, seriously. Also, when you get low, add some water and shake things up. Petty? Maybe, but why waste at all? Less waste translates into more savings.
Ah, savings. How some people save so effortlessly continues to elude me. No matter how much I make or how many jobs I work, something always comes up. Bills, for example. Or a kid needs new shoes. Or I walk into a bookstore. So I am following the advice to "make spending manual and savings automatic." Which means I've opened a Sallie Mae high-interest savings account (salliemae.com) and set up automatic transfers that coincide with my direct deposit paydays. It's a pain to switch the money back to checking, so I'm less inclined to do so. Be cautious about being overzealous, though -- sometimes I've been so determined that This Is The Time I Will Finally Get It All Together that I put more money than I can afford into a savings account only to have to yank it all back out when the phone bill is due. Start small, feel successful, increase as you're able. You know when you're succeeding? When your thoughts cease to be dominated by money worries.
An even better incentive (did you feel incentivized reading that prior paragraph?) is what some folks call a "Fuck You" fund. I prefer the term "Freedom" fund, but the idea remains the same: Not having savings oppresses you by limiting your choices, so therefore, save. Hate your job? Desperate to leave your horrible boyfriend? Need to change your life in some other profound way if only you had the money? Well, a Freedom Fund is what you need. Tuck a little away as you can. Ask yourself, do I really need another pair of jeans? Or do I need freedom?
For next month: If you could go back 10 years, what money advice would you give yourself? E-mail me at email@example.com.