Budget shopping

How I Repaired my Credit Score and Bought a House in ONE Year

Last month, I became a first-time homeowner. I bought a cute little condo just barely into the suburbs of Atlanta, and only ten minutes from the house where I spent my formative years. I’ve finally gotten all the furniture moved in, and I’m excited to finish decorating and organizing!

Last February, however, I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to become a homeowner, much less get approved for a mortgage just one year later. Why? Because my credit score was under 550. 

I couldn’t qualify for a credit card, much less a mortgage! I ran up a low-balance credit card and defaulted on that and a gym contract in my early twenties. That made me afraid of credit, so I avoided checking my score or looking into my credit options for the next 7 years. In 2016 I finally made a commitment to myself to clean up my financial wreckage, and I’m proud to say that I accomplished that goal.

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A few disclaimers before I jump in to the steps I took to repair my credit: I am not a banker and have no training in finance, and I started from having basically no credit rather than multiple derogatory remarks on my account. I also did have a lucky break that my only derogatory remark fell off my credit report in July 2016.

With that said, here’s what I did to boost my credit score from by almost 200 points in one year.

  1. Know your end goal. I set a very clear goal to get my credit in good enough shape to qualify for a mortgage. That meant that every step in my plan lead me closer to becoming an ideal candidate for a home loan.
  2. Research. I researched first-time home buyer programs and spoke with realtor and lender acquaintances about what I would need to qualify for a home loan besides a down payment. I learned that I would need at least two to three credit lines, and a FICO score over 680.
  3. Make a plan. I knew my only shot at getting a line of credit was a secured card, so I used my tax return for the refundable security deposit. I also made a plan for manageable spending on the card so that I knew I could pay it off every month. Initially that meant that I put just my utilities on the card. Because I was responsible with my payments, I was upgraded to an unsecured card after six months and my credit limit was doubled at the same time.
  4. Monitor your credit. I watch my credit with Credit Karma, and I monitor my FICO score through my bank once a month.
  5. Use the shopping cart trick. This trick allowed me to see exactly what store card offers I was prequalified for. From there, I opened two low-balance store cards that I use a few times a year when I need new clothes and pay off in full when the balance is due.
  6. Ignore extraneous offers. Once I had my three credit lines, a multitude of offers started coming to me in the mail – sometimes three or four per day! It was easy to get excited about all the opportunities, but I forced myself to focus on building credit with my three existing lines (although after I closed on my condo I did get a card that offers significant bonus and travel points).

These may all sound like simple steps, but I definitely didn’t know how much went into building credit before last year. Thankfully, I was starting from a place of no credit versus bad credit, and the one bad remark fell off my report in the middle of last year. Both of those circumstances contributed to the meteoric rise of my credit score, but I do believe that planning and researching are essential for responsible credit use.

Let me know if you have any credit management tips of your own!

 

Budget shopping · Just for fun

Paris and Rome (and how I spent 8 days there on the cheap)

Last week, I was lucky enough to spend eight days in Europe with three of my closest friends. We spent two days travelling, three days in Paris, two days in Rome, and took a day trip to Pompei.

And we saw so much stuff.

And ate so much food.

And somehow, I did it all pretty cheaply.

Cheers
Photo credit: K. Roth
Cheers to that!

Disclaimer: I am a young, single professional. For me, this was a budget trip. Whether it is for you or not, I hope you can find some of my experience useful.

My friends and I managed to jump on one of those crazy Groupon travel deals. Here’s a similar trip at a similar price. Because AirFrance was running a deal with Delta, we were able to fly nonstop out of Atlanta for a $20 fee, instead of having to find additional airfare to New York or Boston. We were also able to book tours through our travel agency, which cut down on time trying to find reliable vendors in the cities. From what I saw in the cities themselves, we got about the same deal booking ahead of time that we would have gotten booking on-site.

I chose to take 100 Euro per day that we would actually be in a city for the trip, but I came back with money left over, and could have bumped that amount down. I was able to eat, drink, and bring home lots and lots of souvenirs on that budget.

For transportation, we took the metro everywhere in these two cities. Even though we weren’t staying directly in the heart of either city, we were only a short metro ride away. It was so refreshing to be places where the public transit was effective and efficient! We even took a high-speed train to Pompei. Side note: Atlanta’s public transit is…not efficient, and I spent three years of my life riding it.

Finally, I saved money on food. Partly because I’m vegan, and pasta arrabiata is always one of the cheapest Italian options, but also partly because as a group we decided to eat one nice meal in each city, and go cheaper for all our other meals. We also always ate the free breakfast at the hotel.

I know that none of my ideas are groundbreaking, but for a long time I thought travel was too expensive for me, and that I would never be able to make it work. By carefully prioritizing my trip and my savings account, I was able to make a dream vacation happen for $1800, with different payments spread out over 9 months.

No that I know it’s possible, I’m so excited to find my next travel adventure!

Where is your favorite travel destination? Do you have any dream vacations?

Budget shopping · Just for fun

My favorite things: legs edition

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Clearly, this picture constitutes everything I like to wear on my bottom half. End of blog.

Really, I’ve spent time over the years finding what products I can’t live without, workout or otherwise.

Nike Tempos

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I have a rainbow of Nike Tempo running shorts. That picture is probably only half of the Norts (Nike shorts, see what I did there?) that I own. Some are in the laundry, some are at my parents, and some have probably been sacrifices to the closet gods over the years.

I wear them all.the.time. For running, for walking, for weight training, for circuit workouts, for grocery shopping, for laying around the house, for sleeping, etc. If it’s an occasion where I’m not required to look like a semi-decent human being, I’m probably wearing Tempos.

I’ve been on the Tempo track since high school and early college. They’re just so darn comfy. And the length hides my upper thigh chub. In fact, when TJ Maxx had them on sale, I eventually had to ban myself from going. Seriously, I’d walk in for a tank top and walk out with 6 new Norts.

Joe’s Jeans Honey Curvy Boot Cut Jean

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Another closet staple since early college, the Honey Boot Cut has been my large-bootied and small-waisted self’s best friend. For eons (okay, puberty to 19), I struggled to find jeans that wouldn’t gap like the Grand Canyon in the back. If they fit my waist, they weren’t going over my hips. If they fit my hips…gap city, trick, gap gap city, trick.

Then Joe’s entered my life. I’ve never had a gap issue with the Honey. I would probably have built a collection worthy of its own closet now, but I couldn’t wear them when I was at heavier weights.

But since Joe is fitting again, our relationship has resumed. The length, the hip-to-waist ratio, the fabric—it’s all spot on. They’re pricey, but I can often find them on sale at Loehmann’s and Nordstrom Rack. Or ask really nicely for them for Christmas.

Spanx Look-at-me Leggings

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Spanx. The word itself brings to mind celebrities shimmying into they’re control tops before hitting the red carpet. But since I’m nowhere near a red carpet, I decided to take a more laid-back approach to my muffin-top wrangling. Or, my mom bought me the leggings and I fell in love. Take your pick.

These are perfect under all those slightly-too-short dresses that I bought thinking they wouldn’t shrink in the wash. Spoiler alert: they shrunk. And are now not so decent for wear by themselves. But these leggings fix that. Don’t worry. I’m not running around with my booty out. I’m just a little more modest than wearing mini-mini-mini dresses in public. Or private, for that matter.

Not only do I get a great way to wear dresses that had been eliminated from my wardrobe, but I also get to reap the smoothing benefits of the LAM’s. They just have a way of making little lumps and bumps disappear. It’s a beautiful thing.

That wraps up this episode of My Favorite Things. I know you’re feeling the urge to run out and buy all this stuff right now, just because I said it’s cool and you want to be like me… DO IT. DO IT NOW.

Do you have any brands you swear by?

What is your favorite brand of jeans?

Any pricey items you think are totally 100% worth it?

Budget shopping · Recipe time

Oh, slow cooker, my love…

Dear slow-cooker,

You are the light of my life. You make the most delicious meals with so little effort on my part. The perfect fall and winter foods are child’s play for you.

Pot roast? No big deal.

Lamb stew? On it.

Pulled pork? Bring it on.

I just thought you should know how grateful I am for your awesomeness.

Love,

Caroline

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I seriously love the slow cooker. Unfortunately, I’m currently lacking one at my casa, but my wonderful mother let me use hers (exactly like the above picture) all day today to make a twist on a traditional beef stew.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love a good, traditional beef stew, but I also love trying new recipes and playing in the kitchen.

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So, so, so true.

Yesterday, at Harry’s Farmer’s Market, I came across a pretty good price on stew meat, so I picked up a pound. That’s not even close to how much I usually use, but it will make enough servings for me to have leftovers this week. Remember folks, I’m lame and cook for one.

I decided to take a Mediterranean twist on traditional stew.

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It’s not the prettiest picture, or great quality, but that’s what I get for packing it up and taking it to my house before remembering I wanted to blog about it.

Mediterranean Stew

Ingredients

  • 1 lb stew meat
  • 1 bag Whole 365 frozen Mediterranean blend veggies
  • 1 packet garlic vinaigrette mix
  • 2 small potatoes, roughly diced
  • 1/2 cup chicken broth (I use low sodium)
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 tbsp minced garlic

Directions

  1. Put meat and veggies into slow cooker.
  2. Mix broth, water, seasoning packet, and garlic together in a small bowl. Pour mixture over meat and veggies.
  3. Cook on low, 8 hours. Serve hot.

Easy-peasy. It makes 3 large or 4 medium servings. For a larger group, I’d double the ingredients to make a big batch of stew. The stew itself has a nice little kick from the garlic and the red bell peppers, but is still mild enough for most palates. Also, you can leave out the garlic if you prefer something milder. That’s what I love about cooking…the results are almost endlessly customizable.

All-in-all this stew cost me about $9 to make. That’s a little pricy for me, but it still comes out to under $3 per serving. Considering I can’t eat at McD’s for that, I’ll totally take it.

Healthy food and some extra moolah in my pocket? That makes this broke girl very happy.

Do you have any awesome slow cooker recipes? Do tell!

Do you like to cook? What’s your best dish?

Budget shopping · Get fit · Running · Sports

My favorite things: let’s start from the bottom up

Today introduces a new installment on Adventures in Living Lean: my favorite things! This series of posts will cover products that I personally can’t live without.

Since I spend tons of time talking about running on my blog, I figured the feet would be an obvious place to start. After all, I do spend 40 hours a week working on my feet,  plus those extra hours I spend running and walking my butt where it needs to go.

When I started running, I went and got fitted for shoes. Unfortunately, I have super weird feet, and was somewhere between a guidance shoe (moderate support) and a neutral shoe. I went with the guidance shoe because I figured…mo’ support, mo’ betta.

I was wrong. I switched to my current running shoe after that pair wore out. These days, I trot around in the Saucony Cohesion.

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I’m going to be honest. I wasn’t fitted for these, and I don’t recommend going the buy-them-and-cross-your-fingers route to anyone. Seriously, get fitted. However, I got super lucky with these shoes, and will be sticking with Saucony until they stop making Cohesions, or until I can’t run anymore.

The cushioning I get from these shoes is awesome, and they’re a steal at only $55 on the website. My old shoes were $120! I like that my stride is more natural in a neutral shoe, and the color combos available are really cute. I try to get great bang for my buck, and I am a total believer that I get it from this shoe.

I’m also a big believer that running shoes aren’t gym shoes. I don’t like to lift weights in my running shoes because I can feel how easy it is for me to get out of a good lifting alignment in a shoe designed specifically for running. That’s where these puppies come in:

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The New Balance 737. I like a really minimal shoe for weight training, and these give me a negligible drop (I think it’s like 4mm or something). Since these are specifically designed for cross training, they’ve become my go-to shoe for all things non-running related. If I’m out for a walk or hitting some heavy squats, these are the bad boys I reach for.

These were also super cheap. I think I paid $40 for them on Amazon. Keep in mind, I’m still $25 ahead from my old running shoes, and I’ve now got great runners and great cross-trainers.

Finally, let’s talk socks. There will probably be some more sock posts coming soon as I research compression gear, but for right now, I run in these raspberry Balega’s.

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I didn’t get them for running to start with, even though I got them at a running specialty store. I got them because they were pink and they were on sale. However, a few days later, I went back for two more pair in blue and green. I’ve had issues with hidden comfort socks in the past because I find they ride down under my shoe’s heel cup, and I end up with a sexy heel blister.

These guys don’t move. I have yet to have any issues with these socks moving around on me, rubbing, or causing discomfort. I try to run all my long runs in these, and most of my short runs if I can.

Please keep in mind, these are just my opinions on these products. I think they’re awesome and worth a look by anyone who’s looking for excellent quality on a budget. However, please don’t mistake my advice as some expert tips. These are products that work for me. None of these companies have paid me in any way to endorse them…I just think these particular products are the bee’s knees.

Do you think they’ll start paying me to not endorse them?

Hope you enjoyed the first round of my favorite things! I’m really sorry I’m not rich like Oprah and can’t give everybody all this stuff. Or a car.

Do you have any products you swear by?

Budget shopping · Healthy living · Recipe time

Grocery shopping the broke girl way

A couple posts ago, I mentioned that I typically spend $25 a week on groceries. I get a lot of questions in real life about how I do this, so I decided to do a little post detailing exaclty what I bought and how it breaks down. It may not be super exciting, thrilling stuff, but these are the things I do in my every day life. I’m human. I grocery shop. And I try to do it cheaply.

When I first began trying to grocery shop for a tight budget, I shopped at my local Wal-Mart. I’m not saying Wally World is the devil, even though a lot of people might believe so, but as my healthy eating journey has evolved, so have my tastes for food. Particularly coming into ED recovery, I want to give my body the healthiest things possible to help fuel and heal it.

So now, I shop at Harry’s Farmers’ Market, a local offshoot of Whole Foods.

The prices on produce are fantastic here, and it’s honestly been easier for me to shop cheaper here than at other grocery chains, because I’m more mindful of what I’m putting into my cart.

Here’s the haul:

I have leftover lemon lentil soup from earlier this week to take for some lunches, and my wonderful mama bought me some new Babybel Gouda cheese and a couple frozen dinners.

Here’s tbe breakdown.

  • Creamy feta crumbles–$2.79
  • Freshly ground, unsalted peanut butter, 0.7 lbs–$2.06
  • Loose baby spinach, 0.2 lbs–$1.26
  • Stretch Island Fruit Co. Apricot Fruit leather, 2 pieces–$1.18
  • Odwalla bars, 2 bars–$1.98
  • Organic cream of mushroom soup–$2.00
  • Snapea Crisps–$1.49
  • Ground turkey, feta, and spinach sausage, 0.36 lbs–$2.52
  • Brown Basmati rice, .89 lbs–$1.50
  • Ghirardelli 60% cocoa square–$2.99
  • Large brown cage-free eggs–$2.29

Total, including tax and reusable bag discount: $23.42

No, I didn’t buy a lot, but this will feed me for the week with snacks, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This is why I’m such a fan of bulk meals; I have enough left over from my previous cooking foray to eat leftovers this week. I’m also planning on making a sausage, spinach, and feta frittata and a chicken and rice casserole.

When I’m feeling flush, I’ll up my budget to $35 to $40 to restock on household basics, frozen foods, and canned goods for a week where I might be living leaner than normal. That way, I always have something to throw together and eat.

Because the ramen-noodle-every-night budget is boring.

 

Budget shopping · Healthy living · Recipe time · Running

Put it all together and what do you get?

Seeing as I am le broke, most of my shopping trips and meals consist of “what’s on sale at Harry’s this week?” I typically only budget about $25 a week for groceries, so shopping the sales is extremely important for me. I tried couponing, but I rarely found deals on the real, whole foods I enjoy eating.

One of the ways I save money is by shopping the bulk bins for rice, beans, and small veggies. I also try to get ingredients that will allow me to make at least one big meal that will feed me for multiple days.

Here’s the hodgepodge I came up with this week. I’m calling it Lemon Lentil soup, and I’m really hoping that it tastes good reheated.

Ingredients

2 boxes (4 c. each) vegetable broth

2 c. dried lentils (bulk bin find)

2 c. whole mushrooms (another bulk bin find)

2 small lemons

Any meat you want to add (I used tuna this week, but andouille sausage would be the bomb-diggity)

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

1. Bring 1 box of broth to a boil with juice from 1 lemon in a large pot. Add lentils, then return to boil. Let lentils cook for abouit 45 minutes, or until soft and tender.

2. Slice mushrooms about 1/4 inch thick. Cook meat if needed.

3. Add remaining ingredients, juice from second lemon, and season to taste. Cook covered on low heat for about 90 minutes.

You can serve this hot, or refrigerate it and reheat it for leftovers. I’m going to end up using most of the recipe for lunch this coming week with a sweet potato or some fruit as a side. The recipe may take a long time to cook, but it’s super simple, and makes about 8 servings. Cost-wise, it comes to roughly $1.25 per serving. I’m good with that. Especially when lunch out will cost me a minimum of $5.

In other news, half marathon training hit a minor snag. I’ve developed a minor case of plantar fasciitis. Because of this, I didn’t run last week, nor did I run today, in hopes that I’ll be feeling good for tomorrow’s 6 miler. I’m hoping to get on the road running by 7:30 to enjoy the fall-ish weather we’re experiencing in Georgia right now.

Now, I just have to get off my lazy butt and do the darn thing. Motivation, anyone? Maybe if I set my alarm tone to play “Eye of the Tiger”…

What are some of your best “just throw it together” recipes?

How do you motivate yourself to get through your workouts?

Budget shopping · Get fit · Healthy living

App happy

I jumped on the smartphone train late. I mean, really late. Like I just got an iPhone (and a 2 generation old one at that) last November. Before, I had a Nokia flip phone. Hot, right? It took a good minute or two for text messages to pull up.

Anywho, I digress. When I got the iPhone, I was super excited to try out the apps. Then I realized you have to pay for them. Say what?

After a momentary panic attack, I discovered there are some really cool apps that are free. So this morning, here’s  a short list of my personal faves. Besides Angry Birds. After all, who doesn’t love Angry Birds?

1. Nike+ Running

This little gem tracks my runs, my calories burned, my routes, everything. It’s pretty much the chiz. It used to not be free, but with popularity comes the ability to not charge, so you can all now run with the most awesomest tracker ever. At least it’s the best in my humble little opinion. I’ve tried several other apps, and I keep coming back to this one. And their updates have made the app super user friendly. It’s pretty much a slam dunk.

2. Nike Training Club

I promise, I’m not on Nike’s payroll. This app is one of the first I ever downloaded, and it’s a great circuit training app. I love that they have circuits that don’t require equipment so that I can do a workout whenever and wherever I want. I also love the rewards systems that Nike incorporates into its apps. It helps me push through a workout I might not otherwise do.

3. Fitocracy

Fitocracy is a relatively new app in my repetoire. It gives you points based on the workout you did, and then you move up through levels. Again, I like the reward system, but I also really like that there’s a social media aspect to this one. I get a lot of support from random people every time I workout. I also like the challenges or “quests” you can do on Fitocracy. It gives me something to do on days where I’m bored or not sure what to do.

4. MyFitnessPal

MFP is the original mackdaddy, start-all app for me. I had tried a million different ways to lose weight, but thanks to the MyFitnessPal app, the supportive community on the website, and the constant encouragement to be healthy that exists in the community, I’ve found the perfect fit for me. I’ve never seen a network of people who don’t know me be so supportive of me in my recovery from ED. I can’t say enough good things about this app.

Also, Fitocracy, Nike+, and MFP all have websites you can use. There are dozens more awesome apps out there–these are just the main four I use, and they’re free. I’m broke. I like free.  And I really like high quality for free.

So, if you’re looking for some super cool apps to add to your collection, or if you’re app-tarded like I was…listen to Bella.

Bella says, “technology’s awesome!”
Budget shopping

Goodwill missions

Since I’m on such a tight budget, and losing weight, I have to be very careful about where I shop for clothes. Thankfully, I live across the street from…

I know a lot of people who won’t shop at Goodwill because they get overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff available. It isn’t a bright, clean, or well organized store. However, you can find tons of great stuff if you know how to look.

I’ve developed my own system for shopping at Goodwill that works really well for me. I decided to do this blog post to share my rules for shopping at Goodwill (or any thrift store) because hopefully, I can help someone else feel fabulous about themselves on a budget. After all, it’s amazing what a cute new shirt can do for the soul. Really, it’s a huge emotional boost.

So, with that said, here are my rules for thrifting.

1. Go in with no more than three types of items you want to buy. Don’t try to sort through the whole store. Go in for sweaters and jeans, or dresses and work pants.

2. Know a few key colors that look good on you. Tops and sweaters are arranged by color, so knowing which ones work for you is really helpful in simplifying your search. I know I look good in jewel tones, so I usually stick to looking at those colors, black, or white.

3. If it isn’t your size, keep looking.

4. If it isn’t a brand you’ve heard of, keep looking. I go in looking for quality clothes for cheap. If I don’t know the brand, I don’t know that it’s quality.

5. If it’s frayed, faded, or has any other kind of serious wear and tear issue, keep looking. Again, quality!

6. Wear appropriate undergarments. I try on anything I’m thinking about buying. If I’m not completely in love in the fitting room, I don’t buy it.

7. Give yourself time. Goodwill isn’t going to be in-and-out shopping trip. Give yourself an hour or so to browse.

8. Accessorize. Goodwill is a fantastic place to find cute sunglasses, necklaces, and bracelets for dirt cheap. If you’re intimidated by shopping for clothes, this is a great place to start.

And now, for some of my favorite Goodwill finds.

Trina Turk for $4.

Cute, drapey sweater.

Skirt and shirt from Goodwill. This entire outfit was under $10!

Hopefully, this will inspire some of my fellow budget shoppers to try Goodwill or thrifting. I not only love that I save money, I also like the mission of Goodwill.

“Goodwill works to enhance the dignity and quality of life of individuals and families by strengthening communities, eliminating barriers to opportunity, and helping people in need reach their full potential through learning and the power of work.”

Goodwill does a lot of great work helping people get on their feet, and I’m happy to contribute to this organization. Please see their website for ways to help out and get involved.

Happy shopping!