Feel Like You’re Always Eating Out? You’re Not Alone.

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Here are some charts illustrating a couple of interesting food trends in the US.

Americans are spending a smaller percentage of their income on food than ever. From America’s Shrinking Grocery Bill:

In 1984, the average U.S. household spent 16.8 percent of its annual post-tax income on food. By 2011, Americans spent only 11.2 percent. The U.S. devotes less of its income to food than any other country—half as much as households in France and one-fourth of those in India.

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But you see that big orange slice of the chart?

We are also spending a larger percentage of our food budget on food prepared away from home than ever. From Cheap Eats: How America Spends Money on Food:

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Looking at the chart, it seems like only a matter of time before we eat out more often than we eat in.

Our peak period of eating out was after the birth of our first child. It felt like we were whipping out the binder of take-out menus nearly every day. More recently, we completed the Dinner Boot Camp which contained a week-long plan for easy home dinners, and since then we’re on our 4th consecutive week of cooking dinner (and the following day’s lunch) at home at least 5 times a week. It’ll be hard to keep up, but doing a bit of planning before every week really does go a long way.

Manilla Shutting Down. Online Bill Management Alternatives?

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checkappA few readers e-mailed me to let me know that bill management website Manilla.com announced that they will be shutting down. Surprising, as they were just mentioned in Money magazine last month!

Manilla will be closing on July 1, 2014. This was a hard decision given that, over the past three years, Manilla has won many awards [...] but was unable to achieve the scale necessary to make the economics of the business viable.

As noted in my now-useless Manilla review, many people enjoyed having all of their bills located in a central place. It was also nice that they offered to store all your old bills forever… or in this case September 30, 2014 after which they will be destroyed.

What are good Manilla alternatives? Here are several services that offer similar features in no particular order, please feel free to add more in the comments. I haven’t gotten to try them all out yet, so share your experiences as well.

  • Finovera – “Our mission is to make the process of receiving, managing, paying and organizing household bills and documents simple, automatic and effortless.”
  • Enfold – “Enfold is a free-for-life virtual filing cabinet where you can safely store and organize all your important documents and account information.”
  • MoneyStream – “Not just an organizer or bill-payer, MoneyStream brings everything together in one secure place—and then shows you a future view of your money so you can see at a glance where you stand and where you’re going.”
  • Check (formerly PageOnce) – A free smartphone app that both organizes and tracks balances, with the added feature of letting you pay your bills through the app. I don’t think it stores past statements past a certain time period.
  • Mint – Owned by Intuit, Mint is more budget-centric and tracks all of your transactions. You can’t pay bills through the software (although it will send you bill reminders) and it doesn’t store actual monthly statements.
  • Mobilligy – “Mobilligy puts all of your bills in one app that lets you review, manage and pay your bills for free – anytime, anywhere.”
  • FileThis – “FileThis is like a personal assistant for your paperwork. It automatically collects, files, tags, and organizes your online documents in a digital filing cabinet. Never lose another bank statement, legal paper, tax form, insurance document, or other important piece of paperwork.”
  • Doxo – “All your provider accounts and information together at last. Back up all your critical documents automatically to your personal cloud storage. Receive and pay bills from connected providers with doxoPAY.”
  • Personal Capital – similar account aggregation focus as Mint, plus some investment portfolio analysis features.
  • Zumbox – “Your postal mail delivered online. Your documents stored securely, forever.”
  • Intuit Paytrust = “PayTrust’s all-in-one online bill pay allows you to easily receive, track, and pay all your bills online.”
  • MyCheckFree – “Receive and pay your e-bills at one easy, secure location.”
  • Yodlee Labs – “This is a site where Yodlee will launch (and test) all of its latest (account aggregation) products before they are launched anywhere else in market.” If you just want most recent, most-refined version, sign up at Yodlee Moneycenter.

With Manilla and Everpix, I am reminded that any offer to store your stuff “forever” really means “as long as we keep making enough money”. Personally, I’m still using my bank’s Online Billpay service along with AutoPay with credit card where possible. For archival purposes, I download any paperless bills in PDF format to a folder on my computer, which is automatically backed up daily to my external hard drive and also instantly synchronized with my free Dropbox.com cloud account. However, if I can truly view and pay all my bills in one simple mobile app and a few taps, I’d be up for that.

LearnVest 50/30/20 Budgeting Pie Chart

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LearnVest is (yet another) online financial advisor, but they are more focused on money management and life planning than nitpicking asset allocation details. Founder Alexis Von Tobel’s book Financially Fearless is on my (long) reading list, and here is one reason why – Per this Businessweek article, their budgeting advice is based on splitting up your take-home pay into three major categories with their 50/20/30 plan:

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  • 50% towards Essentials, which includes housing, transportation, utilities and groceries.
  • 20% towards Savings, which can be retirement accounts, emergency funds, or debt payments.
  • 30% towards Lifestyle Choices, which are whatever things you value and make you happy. Eating out, shopping, childcare, cell phone plans, entertainment, and so on.

This is an interesting way to make people streamline their budgets. I don’t recall any other personal finance book breaking things down like this. 20% is a pretty good starting point for savings, and I like that there is explicit room for the fun stuff. (Though the fact that “childcare” is under Lifestyle Choices may be somewhat controversial. If you pay for daycare, it is not uncommon for that to be a huge chunk of your expenses.)

LearnVest has several free features and mobile app, including a Mint.com-like app that tracks your spending and matches it up with their 50/20/30 pie chart. However, they will try to upsell you a more personalized advice packages with Certified Financial Planners. Their target demographic is young professional women, but I didn’t really notice when using it briefly so far. Anyone else use them for longer?

Statistical Proof of Lifestyle Inflation!

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The idea that as people earn more, they tend to spend more as well has been termed lifestyle inflation. Derek Thompson in this Atlantic article illustrates this concept using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A family led by a high-school graduate has average annual spending of $35,000. A family led by a Bachelor’s degree holder earns and spends nearly double that at $63,000. Yet both groups spend about 50% of their income on housing and transportation, much like the average household:

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Families with radically different incomes—from lawyers and doctors down to high-school dropouts—all spend about half of it on homes and getting around, which suggests an historically tight relationship between marginal income growth and marginal spending growth on real estate and transportation. You get a raise, you shack up with roommates. You get another raise, you get nicer studio. A bigger raise and you move out to the suburbs and buy a house—commensurably increasing your spending on transportation (bigger car + gas).

We earn more, and we use that extra money to buy bigger houses, nicer cars, and more gas. This blog talks a lot about financial independence, and for most people early retirement is all about your savings rate. Most people spend over 95% of what they earn (source). Early retirement involves spending closer to 60%.

However, we tend to hang out people of similar income and thus we are pulled into “keeping up with the Joneses”. Even if you earn a comfortable income that is well above average, lifestyle inflation can kill any dreams of early retirement. Focusing on managing the big targets, housing and transportation costs, can help.

See also: Your Entire Financial Life in One Deceptively Simple Chart

AT&T Mobile Share Value Plan Discounts

AT&T Wireless has changed the pricing on their Mobile Share Value Plans, with unlimited talk, unlimited text, and 2 GB of shared data across all lines now costing $40 + $25 per line if you are off-contract. That’s means two lines with 2 GB of shared data would cost just $90 total (off-contract old phone or bring your own used phone), competing more closely with T-Mobile and Straight Talk. If you do sign a contract, the cost is $40 + $40 per line ($120 total for 2 lines) because you need to pay back the value of your subsidized new phone.

In addition, AT&T will let any customers who signed a contract on March 8th, 2014 or earlier get this pricing even if you are still in contract, provided you switch to a qualifying Mobile Share Value plan. This means that a 2-line plan formerly running $135 can now just be $90. The 2GB, 4GB, and 6GB data tiers all offer a promotional rate. If you upgrade to a new phone on contract in the future, the rate will go back to $40 per phone.

Bring on the price wars. Good news for the consumer! As always, see if you can stack an employee or student discount as well.

More: AT&T website, Verge, Engadget

15-Minute Resolution: Save More For Retirement Today

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The problem with most New Year’s resolutions is that they just take a moment to make but to actually accomplish it you’ll need to re-make that decision hundreds of times. If you’re trying to be healthier, every single day you’ll have to choose the grilled chicken with steamed vegetables instead of the bacon cheeseburger with fries. Walking the stairs instead of taking the elevator. Willpower is like a muscle, and it gets fatigued after a while.

The good news is that if you want to save more, automation technology allows you to make a decision now and never be asked about it again. If you can, consider simply increasing your 401(k) contribution rate by 1% (or more). Just log into your account today and make the change. Today being the operative word! Let’s see how much 1% is for a household with a single earner making $50,000 gross per year. For simplicity, let’s say they live in a state without income tax. If you are paid bi-weekly, putting away $500 pre-tax annually (1%) into a Traditional 401k amounts to an additional $19 per paycheck.

Alternatively, it is quite easy to set up recurring online transfers from your checking account to either a savings account or IRA account ($100 a month, $50 a week, etc). Once set up, it will happen automatically and you won’t have to think about it. I like the idea of opening a online savings account, as it gives you a separate “savings jar” that psychologically you’ll be less likely to raid.

If you do it this week, you’ll already be done with your 2014 resolution!

Chart: What Percentage of Your Budget Goes Towards Food? Should You Spend More?

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Here’s another interesting chart from a Businessweek article about a food-delivery start-up called Blue Apron. It shows how food costs have decreased dramatically as a percentage of total U.S. consumer spending from 1959-2013.

I’ve seen similar stats before, usually to support the argument that food really isn’t that expensive and people can pay for higher-quality, healthier, more wholesome food. (Often by the people selling it.) Does allocating less than 10% of your budget to food mean that you are choosing to eating crap? Looking at this chart in isolation, I can see how you get there, but it isn’t that simple if you look at the bigger picture.

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Ooma Telo Phone Service Discounts + Long Term Review

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Updated, now only $99 with free shipping via referral below. The Ooma Telo is a VoIP system that creates a home phone service through your broadband internet. Just plug in your regular landline phones and go. Features include unlimited domestic long distance, 911 service, caller ID, voicemail, and call waiting. In addition to the one-time purchase price, new customers must pay a share of government taxes and regulatory fees that works out to around $5 a month. Consumer Reports rated it their #1 home phone service in their June 2012 issue. Here is the Consumer Reports “Claim Check” video:

My Long-Term Review

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Cheapest iPhone Plan with Unlimited Data? Virgin Mobile $30 a Month

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Price drop! You can now buy an 8GB iPhone 4 for only $199.99 from Virgin Mobile. Even after learning about the new iPhone 5S, in my opinion the iPhone 4 is still not that outdated and still works fine with nearly every app out there.

Their Beyond Talk plans at just $30 a month will get you 300 voice minutes, unlimited text messages, and unlimited data (throttled after 2.5 GB each month). To get the $5 discount, you must sign up for automatic monthly payment with a credit card, debit card or PayPal account. No contract.

Virgin Mobile is a Sprint MVNO which means your coverage is coming from Sprint towers. Compared to a regular Sprint plan, paying $200 + $30 a month can save you more than $500 dollars over a 2-year contract when compared with paying even $0 for the phone and $60+ a month for service.

For $50 a month, you can get unlimited minutes. Here are all the plans:

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State Farm Insurance Payment Plan (SFPP) Review

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Ever since we started cutting back our work hours in order to share childcare duties, Mrs. MMB and I have kept a closer eye on our monthly spending patterns. One of the headaches for budgeters is dealing with large lump-sum payments like those for home/car repairs, healthcare bills (human repairs), and home/car/life insurance. Our homeowner’s insurance is due annually (we don’t use mortgage escrow anymore), life insurance is due annually, and auto insurance is due semi-annually.

We use State Farm for all of these insurances due to our positive claim experiences in the past and their multi-line discount. When I asked about payment options, they told me about the State Farm Payment Plan (SFPP). I’m sure that most other major insurers have a similar program.

Pros

  • Steady monthly bill. With this plan, all your insurance bills get averaged into equal monthly, quarterly, or semi-annual payments. We chose monthly as that is how we visualize our spending.
  • Float. Let’s say your total bill is usually $1,200 once a year. If your policy is renewing today, then instead of paying $1,200 upfront now, with SFPP you pay $100 per month spaced out over the next 12 months. So you’re gaining some additional float time on your money. If you’re already paid up then you have to wait until renewal to start an SFPP.
  • Pay with credit card. You can use a credit to pay most bills already, but some auto-pay plans require a linked checking account. SFPP allows you to pay with a recurring charge on any Visa/Mastercard (no American Express). This is good news for those earning credit card rewards.
  • Chose payment due date. I don’t use this, but if you find it convenient you can select your specific payment due date each month (any day except 29th, 30th, or 31st).

Cons

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Mint.com Budgeting Tips & Tricks

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While I don’t believe everyone necessarily needs a tracked-down-to-the-dollar budget, I do think a major problem is that many people simply don’t know where their money goes. That makes it quite hard to know if your spending habits match up with your priorities. I’ve been using Mint.com (free, ad-supported) to track our household spending for a while. (I used to be a Yodlee guy, but they’ve been left behind with slow and clunky updates.) For those starting out, here are some practical tips that may be useful.

Using Credit and Debit Cards
The primary advantage of using a service like Mint.com is that if you pay for things with a linked credit or debit card, then important stuff like the date, merchant, and amount are immediately recorded so you don’t have to do it manually. No receipts, no typing, no writing. That’s a lot of time and mental energy saved.

Auto-categorization Training
After Mint imports your transaction information, it will provide its best guess as to the proper spending category. McDonald’s will be “Fast Food”, for example, but it also thought my water company was a clothing store. You can correct the category, and also create a rule that always changes the category to what you prefer. For example, I always set Sam’s Club and Costco as “Groceries” because that’s mostly what I buy there.

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Household Cashflow Diagram with Automated Savings & Bill Payments

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As part of our transition to parenthood (less time) and part-time work (less income), Mrs. MMB and I have been trying to get more organized with our finances. I’ve eased up on my control-freak ways and we’ve shifted as many bills as we can to auto-pay status. I still try to pay everything I can with credit cards in order to make things easy to track and of course, maximize credit card rewards. Here’s a rough diagram of our current situation:

Household Cashflow Diagram with Automated Payments

We’re still trying to stick with our existing simple budgeting system and only putting money into our checking account that we are willing to spend. That way we basically force ourselves to meet a minimum savings rate for the year by “paying ourself first” with a good chunk of our paychecks into savings-type accounts (401k’s, separate bank accounts, brokerage accounts, etc). If the checking balance still grows past a certain point (hasn’t been happening much lately!), then we skim off some and transfer it over to savings.

I would note that I don’t put the credit cards themselves on auto-pay, as I still want to spend the time and look over those statements each month. I know some folks do this as well to reach nearly full-automation.

Another backup use for this chart is for reference in case something happens to me, as I usually keep track of all the bills. This fits into our 2013 resolution to get our crap together.