Continuing the Ask Me Anything! 2001 cavalcade! (And I'm technically still accepting queries, hint hint!)
Quince has a couple of questions:
You mentioned you live in Western NY but I have never seen you post about Chautauqua. Do you have an opinion on the place and its mission?
He's referring to the Chautauqua Institute, which is located on the south shore of Lake Chautauqua in Chautauqua county. Yes, Institute, lake, and county all share the same name! The lake is about fifty miles due south of Buffalo, and about twenty miles or so at its western end due east of the shores of Lake Erie. It's a pretty big lake, with a big town called Jamestown at the eastern end. Lake Chautauqua is ringed almost around its entire perimeter by summer cottages and houses, and there are two very pleasant little villages -- Lakewood and Bemus Point -- that are your basic "summer resort towns". The whole place is actually very beautiful; we used to go to Lakewood every year for the 4th of July. The fireworks would be set off from a park right on the lakeside, and hundreds of boats would gather in the water around the park to see the show. This is beautiful in itself, but another even nicer tradition is how all of the people owning cottages on the water are encouraged to light red flares right at water's edge at 10:00 pm on the 4th, so the entire lake is ringed by red light.
But the question's about the Chautauqua Institution, to which I have never been. Ever. Why? Mainly because I'm usually busy in the summer with other things, and it costs money to do things there.
The Institution is, basically, a summer-long arts and education festival that takes place on grounds that, by way of design, hark back to the 19th century, which is when the Institution was founded. There are musical performances all summer long, including operas, chamber music, and symphonic music by a resident symphony orchestra. There are also adult education opportunities: lectures, classes, and the like.
The Institution doesn't seem to be a big part of the WNY consciousness; maybe that's because it's been there for over a century and shows no signs of slowing down. It's just kind of always there. That could be a part of why I've never attended any events there (and I've only been on the grounds twice); it just never strikes me as something I should investigate for a summertime activity. And part of that may be because summer is when I'm quite busy at work, we do other things as family activities during those months, and I tend to gravitate toward fall and late winter/early spring for vacations. I have no objection in principle to the Institution; in fact, far from it. I'm glad it's there and I'm glad that it's here in WNY. Maybe someday!
Given that an ideal level of debt is zero but unrealistic for most of us, how much family debt are you comfortable carrying? By comfortable I mean not caring anymore about it then say rent or a car payment.
I suppose that the best way to look at this is by percentage of income. I didn't always think about issues like this, and the results were, shall we say, less than encouraging. It took a number of years to dig out of that particular hole, and now I'm quite a bit more careful about it. Both of us are, actually. Setting aside things like rent (which we have) and car payments (which currently we do not), I would be generally uncomfortable with any debt-to-income ratio of over 25 percent. Once it reaches that point, I prefer to start focus on paying some of it down. That's just me, however. Since my job gives me small, but regular, raises in income, I find that as long as I keep my debt below a certain fixed number, the margin gets more comfortable over time to maintain.
I don't spend large amounts of time analyzing my finances, but I've made a religious practice of putting a minimum amount of each paycheck into my savings each and every week before I do anything else at all. Then I make whatever payment I need to make that week, and whatever else is left is what I have to get through the week on. This generally works out well, although I do have to budget a bit for when I want to take a few days off from work. Unforeseen absences from work can screw things up quite a lot, but I'm lucky enough thus far that those have been infrequent, and I've been building a steadily-increasing savings buffer for such events, anyway. In recent months I've revised my approach slightly; instead of relying exclusively on cash (I don't even have an ATM card), I make a weekly payment to a particular credit card and use that to make purchases during the week. My other "major" credit card is one I'm concentrating on paying down, and I'm now designating it as the "emergency big expense" card. (Like, for example, if a car needs brakes or something like that.)
Generally I view debt as a "necessary evil". It would be nice to have none, but I don't think that's realistic. I prefer a rigorous approach to keeping debt manageable and small.
Other little money-saving things I do? I used to buy lunch at work every day, but now I only buy lunch once or twice a week, and bring my own most other days. Instead of getting coffee every day ($.99 a cup for employees), I buy a box of tea bags and have green tea most days. Even if I treat myself to an expensive container of tea ($8.99 for 25 bags), that comes out to less than $.40 a cup. That adds up. So does my long-time practice of never spending my loose change. I pay for everything with bills, and the loose change every day goes into a jar. I usually redeem a chunk of the change a couple of times a year, when we want to go for a family outing someplace, like our yearly trek to the Renaissance Faire or the Erie County Fair or something like that.
More answers to come!