Tuesday, October 25, 2011

How to make your own checkbook register

I decided to take a little break from writing about optimism and think about the direction of this blog. More than two years seems a long time to keep writing about our struggles (and they do continue) while we wait to see optimism coming over the horizon.
There are signs, though. The Occupy Wall Street movement. The public opinion polls.
So while I ponder, I want to share something I learned that makes me happy.
A homemade checkbook register.
Now that most banking we do is online, we hardly write checks any more. But we do still use the registers to keep track of our accounts. And it always galls me that buying a register from the bank-approved printer costs $2.50-$3.00, plus another $2.00 shipping.
Five dollars? Really? I think we can do better than that.
So I came up with a way. Here it is. Enjoy.

First, get a blank Excel spreadsheet on your screen. You can personalize the columns any way you like, but since I'm used to the old-school registers, I used a standard check log for reference.
In the column headings, type: Number, Date, Transaction Description, Payment, the check mark symbol (you get this by changing the font to "webdings" and typing in "a."), Deposit and Balance. Remember to leave an extra blank "cents" column after Payment and Deposit.

You'll need to put your cursor over the lines between the letters to drag the columns to the right width. 
When you think you have it, it's time to draw the interior lines. Select a column or a row and go up to "borders" at the top. Choose whichever border will make the lines you want, running between columns or rows. You can also make some lines fatter or double to set them apart from others. Just go to the bottom of the "borders" menu and choose "line style." This gives you a pencil, which you can drag over the existing lines to change them.  My old Deluxe register had 27 rows, so I made lines for that many, with the rows in groups of two.

You'll need your register to be a specific size. Once again, this is your choice. I went with 5 and 3/8 inches tall by 6 inches wide, which is the size of the original one. To do this, find the page layout view box in the bottom right of the Excel page, next to the "100 percent." Click on it and adjust your cell widths again until you get the desired dimensions. Remember, you're looking at the last cell, not the margin--yet.

Okay, now you can select every other row and fill it with a light gray color, if you want. I went with a somewhat dark looking gray because it always comes out lighter in copies.

Now you have a reasonable facimile of a check register. The next part is trickier. To get this to print, you're going to have to make a double-sided master copy that is lined up so the headings are rightside-up on one side and upside-down on the other. This way, the headings will always be at the top when you turn the page.
To do this, you have to first center your image exactly on the page.
Go to the page layout heading at the top of the page and choose "print area." Then select the part of the Excel sheet you have filled out. Then find the part of the sheet--stilll in "page layout" view that looks like a ruler. Hold your cursor over the place on the left where it turns from white to blue. It will tell you how wide the left margin is. Click and drag the left and right margins until you have them both the same. Then do the same thing for the top and bottom margins (the ruler marking where it goes from blue to dark blue).
When everything is exactly centered, save your spreadsheet. Then save as a pdf and print the rightside up copy.
Now go to the top of the pdf page and find the "rotate" button. Or you can just click "control, shift, +." Rotate until your copy is upside down. Flip your printed page side to side, put it back in the printer and print again. 

Voila. You'll have back-to-back copies, one upside-down. 

You can print 10 more on your own printer, or take it up to Office Depot or Kinkos and not run yourself out of ink. (You might need to adjust the darkness for the gray fill, though). Use the paper cutter to trim it up, add a blank for the front and back cover and then staple it (from the outside) twice in the middle.
How much did you spend on the copying? A dollar or so? Compared with about $5 for the same thing from your bank and the check printing company. And best of all, you have the file in your computer and can print up more any time you want, without the wait.
Now there's a reason to be an optimist.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Pinch me

When you've been in crisis mode long enough, and then suddenly the crisis goes away, there's some mental weirdness that comes along with it.
It's like you've been running in a thicket and you abruptly stumble out into a clearing, blinking in confusion. What just happened? Where is that puma that was just behind me?
What am I supposed to think about now?
The news was finally in the Star today with Mike's farewell column. He's being promoted back to full-time. He regains all the benefits he lost--eyeglasses coverage, paid vacation, long-term disability, life insurance. And he gets a good raise. Not as much as we were making before, mind you. But we can once again pay our bills.
For two years and four long months I've been fantasizing about this day (or days like it, involving other employers). In my daydream, I would put on some raucous music and dance giddily. I would buy a bottle of champagne, which we would spend the evening drinking and toasting our good fortune. Perhaps I would even cry a little with gratitude.
So far, none of that has happened. Instead, I find myself at the Walgreens cosmetics counter with my daughter, looking at fingernail polish. I've been wanting nail polish for two and a third years. I could buy it now. But I don't. In fact I have a long list of under-$10 things too impossibly boring to itemize here that I can now buy. But yet I somehow can't.
When the big layoffs came, our income was cut by one-third, not including the value of the benefits. With a little skillful cutting and renegotiating, that gave us just enough to pay our everyday living expenses--the house payment, gas, food, utilities. Anything beyond that--for example the nearly $300 it takes to register your kid for public high school--had to come from a savings that had been depleted to put two kids through college. Or we raised it by selling lumber, bunk beds and whatever else we could part with.
Today, many more things are within reach. Tires for the car, shots for the cat, new glasses. Yet here I stand at the counter, strangely paralyzed. We've had a couple of weeks to get used to it, but somehow I can't quite believe we're coming back to the middle class.
Mike is getting a new job that will allow him a breath of fresh air and more room to grow professionally. He is getting showered today with kind words from his readers who will miss him. Elsewhere on the Internet, his conservative detractors are no doubt looking at it as a big humiliation for him. Perhaps some are even giving themselves credit with bringing him "down."
Maybe what is needed is a pricey cup of coffee. I should finally have that latte the financial advice columnists are forever telling me to skip. And as I sip it, I will consider our newly rightside-up world and try to make sense of it all.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Three days

Okay. I'll bite. Why is it that Kansas City is now considered the most positive city on the planet?
Yes. This planet. Earth.
The half-time of the most recent Sporting KC match was devoted to this bit of shocking news.
Normally, I don't pay much attention to what comes on the big screen during half-time breaks. This is my time for puling about the bad calls, drinking beer and just generally saving energy for the next 45-minute bout of standing and screaming. But this caught my attention because it started out just like one of those fake commercials they do on Saturday Night Live. Here, have a listen:

I won't lie. That video was terrifying. It starts with the menacing, almost sarcastic way the voice-over says, "You won," and continues through several horror-filled minutes while happy pod people and their families play and enjoy outdoor activities. When it was over, I felt my mouth go dry. Had some indescribable thing happened to my brain from watching this? Could I expect to get an anonymous call ala "The Ring" announcing I had but three days before I, too, would become insanely positive?
"Believe it. You're number one on the planet." While we were all so ecstatic about our good fortune to be living in Kansas City, a secret vote was being taken. "It's possible you didn't even know that a vote had taken place," the announcer said in gentle mockery.
Who are these shadowy forces that talk about us behind closed doors?
The United Nations NGO Positive Peace Awards, apparently. From what I gather on the Internet, the NGOs (Non-governmental organizations) voted on this at some point. NGOs would include groups like Rotary, Sister Cities, etc. Although the award bears the United Nations name, it's not mentioned on the UN home page. (To be fair, you could spend hours wading through the UN site trying to find it).
Judging criteria were also a bit of a mystery. Most things point to a group called Celebrate Positive LLC, which is dedicated to that always-hard-to-pin-down-but-I'll-know-it-when-I-see-it positivity. This is a group led by Scott Pederson of Atlanta. And this group is focused on finding the warmest and fuzziest from other areas of entertainment and sports as well.
If I were a real media person, I would click on the media relations link at the bottom of that page. But I am only a blogger with not much time. So I'll be stuck with my own imagination on what separates Kansas City from the pack. Doesn't every city have families and cultures and "amazing events?" Okay, so maybe Las Vegas doesn't celebrate the small town values like we do, but I bet Minneapolis and Milwaukee do. And without the bilious hatred that northlanders, Kansas Citians, Kansas City Kansans and Johnson Countians exhibit at random moments.
But then I...ca...can't...ahhhhg
We're number one! We're number one! We're number one!
Save yourselves people. Erase that video.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Just sharing

One of my favorite cartoon songs ever:

Or you can watch the whole cartoon by following this link: http://youtu.be/D9b7PEj3fR0

Monday, June 27, 2011

Trash picking: Part II

After more than two years of an extended "rough patch," it's nice to once in a while get a little break. It seems this summer the patron saint of garbage picking--whoever that may be--has crooked a greasy fingernail our direction and delivered upon us a second-hand blessing.
Because we are now two for two on fantastic finds in our local outings. Like the newb at the slot machines, it's just taken a little good luck to make me hunger for more information on local big trash days. Get me some more quarters, stat!
So there we were, with sun setting on big trash day in the wealthier western part of town and absolutely no time for curbside shopping. We had tickets to the Wi--Sporting KC and family obligations up til it was time to go.
Let's just take a quick turn around a couple of blocks on the way there, Mike said. We probably wouldn't find anything anyway.
Around corner one. Nothing. Corner two. Nothing. Corner three...wait, what's that?
At the end of one driveway was a pile of cushions and some wicker-looking outdoor furniture. We looked at each other. Outdoor furniture was, in fact, our only objective in this entire hunt.

I got out. The two wide chairs and settee were solid and heavy. A little bleached out, but with very few broken weaves. We could get new cushions and replace the horrible (really horrible) white wicker stuff that has been shaming our front porch the past two years.

After a brief discussion, Mike stayed behind to defend our kill from the other predators while I sped back for the big van. When I got back, he said, "We're taking the cushions, too."
And now voila! New porch furniture that makes us feel human again. Best of all, it's plastic wicker and heavy enough that it shouldn't blow off the porch like the old stuff.
Here's our old, dog-chewed stuff:
And here is the new, improved furniture, fresh from the garbage!
Who says life isn't good?

Saturday, June 18, 2011


You just get so used to the rich guys taking everything. They back their trucks up to the US Treasury to load up with your tax money. They take bonuses while their workers are getting salary cuts. They ask to take money out of your kids' school in one breath yet insist on getting tax money for their own private schools in the next.
Firefighters and teachers are dumped on in Wisconsin, the long-term unemployed are looking at no benefits at all in Arizona--over philosophical differences on the role of government, no less. If you want to be an optimist in the middle of this, the daily news will take you out to a deserted wheat field and forcibly beat the hope out of you.
That's why going to the Kansas City Wizards'--er, excuse me, Sporting Kansas City's--shiny new stadium is such a mood lifter.
Yes, it's beautiful and state-of-the-art and on par with Europe. And the seats offer a great view of the action no matter where you are. And yes, they won last night. But that's not what puts me in such a good mood.
It's something more simple and maybe even a little meaner-spirited of me than all that.
It's the fact that the priciest tickets cannot get you in to enjoy the best section of the stadium. My section. The cheap seats.
In a decision that upends the usual order of the world, the Sporting KC fans who pay the least for tickets gets some of the best advantages. The closest parking. Prime seats behind the goal. It's the first place triumphant players come to be congratulated after a well-fought match.
And---and!-we have a nice, enclosed, air-conditioned concession area close by filled with big screens. So far this season, while others are paying stadium beer prices for a Bud, we've been getting a somewhat smaller plastic cup of craft beer for $2.
Can the CEOs and fancy suits get in? No ma'am they cannot. We checked multiple times.
It goes without saying that this is the equivalent of reversing gravity in the world of American sports capitalism. Mike and I are so filled with wonder that much of our game night conversations go like this:
"Look at how far out this parking lot is. They have to ride a shuttle bus. Who parks here?"
"People who paid more than we did."
"Want a beer? It's $2! I bet all the guys behind that barrier over there wish they could have some."
"But they can't."
There is nothing like this that we can find in any other local sport. The Royals rebuilt it's stadium recently. Ask where the former "bleacher" sitters are now, and if they're bringing binoculars. But they have plenty of luxury boxes.
There are cheap seats at the T Bones. On a steep grass embankment. In the outfield. Facing the western sun. And the Chiefs? Aw hell no.
Of course we work for it. The Members area (aka the Cauldron) is what makes it a soccer event and not just an ordinary sports snooze. Members wear the colors. They stand for the whole game. They sing. They put up with big drums beaten with a sawed off piece of PVC pipe and constant flags and streamers. (Except for a little dogleg of seats facing the long edge of the pitch. Apparently this part of the Members area has not caught on about what's expected. We ended up in this section last night and were told by a lady near us that anyone who wants to stand for the game should just "go over there," pointing to the more animated area behind the posts.)
You have to give credit to On Goal. They know what a contribution the Cauldron makes to the atmosphere of the game. Without it, you'd have a bunch of people chattering amongst themselves and only cheering for the bold attack or good save. Or to do the wave. There would be no "12th man" bolstering the team when things aren't going well.
Maybe I'm naive. Maybe the Cauldron will be sold out one day and I'm a fool.
But for now, I'm enjoying the respect. And the $2 beer.
And if you're a six-figure company manager who got a bonus and free seats from your company to the match--well good for you. But you can't come in my section.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Dear Santa...

There's nothing like a little garbage scavenging to lift your spirits.
Friday was Big Trash night, or Curbside Christmas, as I like to call it. It's an event we look forward to eagerly every year.
We started trash when we were still making decent money--back in the heady days of the Clinton surplus and the dot.com bubble. Before there ever was an economic meltdown or a television show called American Pickers. Back then, we garbage picked because it was fun. Now, of course, we feel a little more in tune with the Joads and do it to give ourselves a treat we wouldn't normally be able to afford.

We've gotten quite a few good things over the years. A servicable, if ugly, long table. Plastic outdoor chairs. A bathroom sink with the old-fashioned brass fixtures still intact.
This year we went out with a plan to be selective. Two sons have moved out of town since last year, so we didn't have enough room for any extra stuff, no matter how fanciful or fun it may be.
Specifically, we needed outdoor patio furniture.
I should stop and say here that we have had a deck since the '80s, but we have never ever paid for outdoor furniture. The round table, chaises and chairs we have now are the same ones a friend of mine gave us when she updated her own set. In addition, we have a bunch of various plastic and metal/plastic chairs picked up from garbage nights past.
That was probably 15 or 20 years ago, though, and even though we've replaced the cushions and the umbrella, the hardware is beginning to fail. Too many plastic straps have broken. One chaise is all done and had to be tossed.
So we took to the side streets. We drove. And we drove. And for blocks...nothing.
I don't mean nothing as in not the things we were looking for. No, people were putting out real garbage this time. Rotting plywood. Tatty, moldy looking and obviously broken recliners. Sketchy plastic children's playsets.
For block after block, the only competition we had was the guys with flatbeds picking up lawnmowers and scrap metal. I became more and more glum. In my head, I began writing about how the recession has lasted so long that even the quality of the garbage has declined.
We passed a flatbed guy going over one of the more promising piles. We talked about how much further we'd go before calling it an evening.
And then...Paydirt! Three very nice deck chairs. Black metal frames with plastic straps in good shape. (The fourth one had broken seat straps. We left it for the other picker, who caught up with us just as we were loading them up.) All we have to do now is paint the metal on our table to match, and get new cushions and an umbrella (again) and our deck will no longer seem so much like a hobo camp.
As an extra plus, I opened up a horrible-looking guitar case at the same place and found inside a three-quarters sized six-string guitar in great shape. Mike put new strings on it today and it's fine. Now to learn the chords to "Brandy."
The only sour note was just before we got home. We spied a small leather (or maybe faux leather) couch that would have been a great replacement for the one in my daughter's room (which was also secured from someone's curbside). She and Mike were enthusiastic about getting it. But alas, it turned out to be a sleeper couch and they couldn't even lift it into the van, let alone get it up to the third floor. Oh well. Easy come, easy go.
So Big Trash Night becomes, once again, my favorite part of the summer. I can hardly wait for next weekend, when it's garbage night for our wealthier neighbors to the west who, presumably, can still afford to buy new.