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Archive for August, 2005

Eliminating annoyances

August 30th, 2005 at 06:16 am

(Thanks for the tip on the housing bubble blog. Just what I need, another blog to read! But it looks really interesting. I've subscribed to their feed.)

I think it was in a book by Cheryl Richardson where I read how useful it can be to tackle small annoyances. The idea is, they are small but they stay in the back of your mind, sapping your energy, and wasting your time in little bits every day. So it's more worthwhile to handle them than it might seem. Well, I seem to be in a mode of getting rid of those annoyances. And so far it's saving me money, too.

--I spent $7 at Target a few weeks ago, on what turned out to be a sorry excuse for a lamp. It was all plastic, and you were supposed to attach the shades by pushing them up and then turning. No screws to secure them. DH and I went through the procedure several times, and each time they fell out after a few hours or at most a day. I doubted Target would take it back, since we'd thrown the box away. But they did! $7 back into our pockets.

--I had a Crest spinbrush where a little plastic collar on the base broke. There was nothing for the new brush head to attach to. I called their 800 number, and they're sending a coupon for a whole replacement. About $6 back into our pockets, since I would have bought a replacement regardless. (I feel like I can stretch out dental appointments when I use it, because it keeps my teeth feeling like I just saw the hygienist. Nope, I don't work for Crest. Wink

--We had some Mountain Dew cans that were leaky where the lids attached, 5 cans from 2 different cartons. I called the 800 number, and I already got coupons for 2 12-packs. Worth about $8 because I'll save them for when we need them and they're not on sale.

--Did some research about our DVD player, which seemed to be on the fritz. Found out it just might need a cleaning, which you do with a special cleaning disk. Found one for $12, ran it through twice, and it was playing perfect again. Savings about $20, over having to replace it. And I can use the same disk to clean the CD drives in the computer, too.

--This one is costing money, but not very much. I had a cheap little upright vacuum that I loved, and it stopped working several months ago. I have a canister one, but it's a hassle to get out so I don't vacuum as much as I should. I finally took the upright in to be looked at, for $10. They said the parts were no longer available; the vacuum is designed to be disposable. Frown So I found one that looks even nicer (cordless) on Target's website which is on its way to me. It was $53 with tax, minus $5 from a link on http://www.naughtycodes.com, and I paid for it with some 20% off Target gift cards. And they were offering free shipping.

Oddly enough, on our local Craig's List website, someone was seeking people for a survey about vacuum cleaners. I emailed about it, and did the survey yesterday. They're supposed to mail a check for $20. So, after this serendipity, for about $28 net the vacuum cleaner problem is solved.

Watching the housing bubble from next door

August 28th, 2005 at 02:44 pm

Back in the spring, our next-door neighbor died and her children put it up for sale. It finally sold last month for $170,000. (I checked the sale price on http://www.domania.com ) Then there was a flurry of activity for several weeks. Old heater out, new heater and central a/c in. Carpeting out, wood floors refinished. New windows. Paint slapped on a nice natural stone front, I assume because it was the cheapest way to spruce it up. A one-day whirlwind of landscaping, much of which will have to be torn out by the new owner anyway. A tree planted one foot from the house isn't going to be able to stay there long.

They had an open house today, so DH and I walked over. The asking price is now $239,900. I've been involved with some home renovations here and at DMom's house, so I do have a vague idea of how much all those projects probably cost. I can't see it being over $15,000, assuming the "investor" did some of the work himself. DH says maybe more like $30,000. Even at that rate, they are trying to make nearly $40,000 in profit in about 6 weeks. I don't know, it sounds a bit outrageous to me!

I noticed something on Domania.com that made me do some further research. The sale prices on houses in my neighborhood are now about double what the assessed values are for property taxes. Our property valuations were last done in 1993, and are now completely out of whack. What I found out was, here in NJ the valuations can only change when you do something like build an addition, or when all the houses in a town are reassessed. And if the assessed *value* doubles, your town's tax *rate* is supposed to go down, so you still end up paying about the same.

Now I can add one more thing to my (short) list of good things about living in New Jersey. There's the shore, and the fact that we don't have to pump our own gas. Now it looks like even though taxes feel high, the property tax system isn't as horrible as it is in some states. Apparently in other states, when your assessed value doubles, your taxes actually do double, too. I also found out that in some places, a house is revalued whenever it's sold. So when house prices rise, you may end up trapped in your house--when you try to buy another house, you find the taxes will be 2x to 3x what your current taxes are, making a move unaffordable.

The experts keep talking about how more people will end up in foreclosure if they have ARMs and can't handle the payments if rates go up. I can't help but wonder now how many will lose houses because of property taxes zooming up.

An August goal met

August 27th, 2005 at 02:23 pm

Geez, two posts in a day. But this is what I really meant to post about, to begin with.

For the first time since I started recording everything in Quicken again, I was pretty much within my monthly (4-week) budget for Everyday Expenses (groceries, take-out, pet food and gas). Here's what that means in dollars--May was $653, June was $687, July was $676, and August was down to $505, only $1.60 over where I wanted to be. And the month's ending comfortably. There's gas in the car, a fair stockpile of groceries and I was able to pick up some cheesesteaks for an easy dinner tonight.

I'm not even sure exactly how I managed it. Wink Here are my theories--

I'm kind of learning to budget for gas first, then seeing how much I have left to spend on the other things each week. If it means bologna instead of turkey breast, or more cooking and less take-out one week, that's what happens.

I'm reining in my bargain-hunting compulsion a bit, because it actually tends to make me overspend. I'm trying to buy no more than 2 items at a time when I see a good deal, unless the sale specifices something like "must buy 4."

I finally got around to trying two new stores, the Pepperidge Farm outlet and a produce stand. Both had some great deals. For example, I got a 3-lb bag of green peppers for $1.50, which is often what I have to pay for one pound elsewhere. I'm also watching where I buy milk, since we use about 10 gallons a month and the price can really vary from store to store. I haven't bought seltzer water or diet soda all month, and DH has agreed to one family pack box of TastyKakes a week, instead of two boxes.

I think we're eating less meat, and cheaper meat. (I tried some frozen steaks from Aldi, with so-so results.) DH won't eat beans, but he doesn't mind eggs for dinner once in a while. Also BLT's as long as we have something with them like soup, french fries or corn on the cob.

The $6 pizzas I can get on Tuesdays are a big help with the take-out budget.

I am trying to drive a bit less to save on gas. But right now, it's still worthwhile to drive around for bargains, even with gas prices the way they are. I'll keep doing it until it doesn't make financial sense anymore.

Can't believe what I just did!

August 27th, 2005 at 05:59 am

I just spent several hundred dollars on a discounted gift card on Ebay this morning. It's over 20% off even after figuring in the shipping. I've been waiting for a long time for a good deal on a Petsmart one, from a seller that looked reputable. I think the price came out so well because the auction ended at an odd time--not many people up to make one last bid!

I'm glad I did it, assuming it's legit. But it still feels really strange to be doing this gift card thing, especially buying one on Ebay and paying for it with a credit card that gives cash back. I think I'm suffering from Future Shock. (Title of a book by Alvin Toffler, for you younger folks.)

I have to keep reminding myself, it's a new world!

(Thanks for the tip on Pinecone. I'll keep watching.)

Doing surveys for money - my experiences so far

August 25th, 2005 at 07:24 am

Jorge, you're right. I read Nickeled and Dimed awhile back, and believe me I'm grateful I'm not working at Wal-Mart and living in a motel!

I've been on a mission to scare up extra cash the past few days. I signed both DH and myself up for Sharebuilder accounts so we'd get two $50 bonuses. I also signed up for the Sony credit card that's offering a $100 gift card after your first purchase. Now I've gotten around to looking into the survey game. I'd be curious to know how other people have made out with it.

There's an article from back in July, in the Frugal Living area of About.com that lists 76 survey sites where you can supposedly make some extra money. This weekend I went back and started going through them one by one. I'm finished now, and wonder if it will pay off or not.

Out of the 76 places listed, I only signed up at 21. Quite a few of the 76 websites had already disappeared since the About.com article was put up. The rest of the sites either weren't taking panelists, or I wasn't sure they were worth bothering with. On a lot of them, the only "incentive" they offered was an entry in a contest. You could go years doing every survey they offered, and never get a thing out of it. Some of them did the contests plus occasional cash--hard to tell if they'd be worthwhile or not. Some award points that you can save up and exchange for cash or gifts, but they don't tell you how much a point is actually worth or how long they take to add up to something. Other ones ran really long online focus groups I wouldn't want to do, or they were looking for special kinds of panelists, like scientists. One place actually seemed proud of how for a 30-minute survey, they might give you a 30-minute phone card--geez, that's worth about 90 whole cents!

So far, I've only heard from one place, and they needed to run a survey very fast, involving a topic I know nothing about. Even if I could have gotten to it right away, it wouldn't have mattered.

I have to wonder how much demand there's going to be from these companies for the opinions of a middle-aged, middle-income lady with no kids in the house. Wink When I finally saw an ad for the elusive Pinecone Research, I noticed they don't even want you to sign up if you're over 24 years old!

The funny thing is, I'm in the midst of a series of surveys right now that is paying $80 in total over about 6 months. I only heard about it by chance, from someone on an email list. It's about the knowledge and attitudes of caregivers--not that DMom needs physical care like a bed patient, but I do drive her around a fair amount, and she needs help with paperwork and so forth. I figured if they thought I qualified, I'd do it. I've probably spent less time in total on that than I did signing up at all these other places, and I've gotten $60 out of it already. (Plus, it's been a good way to vent my frustrations. Wink ) There's got to be a place to find more studies like this, that are actually looking for someone like me. I just wonder where.

Tightening our belts the next four months

August 20th, 2005 at 08:00 am

Hopefully as in clothes, too, but I mean financially Wink

I don't know if everybody's finances have so many ups and downs, or if we're just going through an unusual period. I've read a lot about money management over the years, and always got the impression that you set up a budget and then things just kind of go along for the next year. But since I've been watching things more carefully over the past couple of months, it seems like prices are changing all the time, and I'm constantly fiddling to keep our cash flow positive.

DH's paychecks will be about $30 less a month Sept-Dec because we keep the traditional health insurance until January 1, and the price has gone up.

Natural gas for the house looks like it will be going up $13 a month. We did the "energy choice" option a few years back, where you could save money by choosing one company to supply the gas and another company to deliver it. Just got a letter from the supplier that they can't afford to offer the low price anymore, and we'll be getting our gas from the delivering gas company. Also, the delivering company's price is going up 4.4%. Together, it adds up to an increase of over 9%.

I've had to face facts and budget more for gas for the cars. Between DH and I, we need an additional $40+ a month for gas as prices stand now. There's only so far we can cut down our driving.

So that's another $83 a month I need to find, in addition to dealing with the $100 a month hit I'm taking on my paycheck by having more withholding taken out. And the $20 a month on higher property taxes. Where is it all supposed to come from? Judging from the past few months, the extra money does come in, whether from Amazon sales, rebate money, surveys, or whatever. I'd worry a little less if it were more predictable, though.

Our checking account doesn't have much of a cushion to begin with. First, I bought a lot of those gift cards at discount. They've all been paid for, and I feel good about doing it. But having so much tied up in the gift cards leaves us shorter of actual cash for the moment. Also, we've been hit with some unexpected repairs.

We already paid $64 for two trips to diagnose the washer problem. The plumbing problem we discovered while trying to figure out the washer came to $80. Now we know the washer definitely needs a part, which will come to $126 installed, next week. That's $370 on emergencies this month--$270 to solve the current problem, and $100 for the minimum balance in the new emergency savings account I opened.

I'm just waiting to see what the new car insurance bill will be, then I'll have a better idea where we stand, at least through December.

Less time online = more pounds

August 19th, 2005 at 06:06 am

I check in with the doctor in about 3 weeks, so the other day I thought I'd better get on the scale. Horrors! Not only did I gain back all I'd lost earlier in the year during my health kick--I even regained some pounds I'd lost last summer!

The only thing I can seem to pin it on is being online less. It's the only lifestyle change I've made over the past couple of months, when the weight went up. All I can figure is, when I'm online I'm upstairs (away from the kitchen), my mind is occupied and my hands are busy. I usually take up something to drink, but 99% of the time it's calorie-free, like black coffee.

With this cheap-o plan I'm on, my online time is cut roughly in half. I'm often roaming around downstairs, bored, thinking of what I could be getting done online, and looking for something else to do. I'm probably nibbling as I go, out of boredom and frustration--although I haven't even been aware of it. Also, I've read the more TV you watch, the more you're apt to have a weight problem. I know I've been watching more TV as a substitute (if you can count watching lots of movies).

This is the last straw. For $2 more a month, I can get back to a "normal" amount of online time. There have been times I've been mad at myself for wasting time online, and I was also trying to go the cheapest route possible for ISP expenses. But I know I'd make up the $2 and more, just from having the time to print out a few more grocery coupons. Not to mention the surveys and focus groups I've seen listed on Craigs List and haven't had the online time to pursue.

In any case, it's worth every penny and every minute if it keeps me from pigging out!

Budgeting lesson from the 1950's

August 16th, 2005 at 06:35 am

Last week DMom and I were discussing money and budgeting methods, and she pulled out a ledger book from when she and DDad were first married--1952 to 1956! We got a good laugh at some of the prices, believe me. Wink

DMom is Mrs. Moneybags at this point, but as she pointed out, back then it felt like they were living from paycheck to paycheck. And actually that wasn't such a bad thing for them back then. The first few years they were living in an apartment and didn't own a car. So there weren't surprise car and appliance repairs or large car insurance and property tax bills to plan for. They kept track of things as small as 47 cents for an electric socket, but my dad managed to buy a slide projector for $185. That's $185 in 1950's money--equivalent to several month's rent.

What I found really interesting was that although they had a budget, they were always going over. (I think I found one month where they were under!) And yet, over that 4-year period, things worked out just fine overall.

The key seemed to be their systematic savings, along with an artificially low, slightly tight budget. (To paraphrase The Millionaire Next Door, "they created an artificial economic environment of scarcity for themselves.")

DMom said she had a nice cushion of "war bonds" she'd bought during WW2. And I could see in the ledger book they were still buying more savings bonds, $37.50 a month for a $50 bond, through payroll deductions. If they went over budget by $10 each month, they were still $27.50 ahead because of that payroll deduction. When the checking account got too low, or they had something unusual to spend money on, they just cashed in some bonds--as opposed to the modern way of using plastic. Wink

It left me feeling a little better about making mistakes and not managing to stay within a budget all the time. I tend to worry and feel guilty--like if every financial move I make isn't exactly right, we'll end up bankrupt and it will have been my fault. But maybe the important thing is just to make sure we're moving in the right direction even if it's only by $27.50 a month. Once again, remembering to look at the big picture and not letting myself get so riled up.

In a little less limbo

August 14th, 2005 at 04:48 am

But not much.

We finally received the annual health insurance packet from DH's job. They've not only switched to a different insurance company again, now they are also offering a high-deductible plan with a health savings account (HSA) starting in January. This is something completely new and different for us, and we can use all the info we can get. I think it's supposed to be a good thing, because you can put pretax money into the health savings account (saving on taxes) and take it with you if you leave the job. But there is practically nothing in the packet to explain it!

Current HMO coverage, $109 per pay x 2.15 pays a month = $234 a month
New equivalent coverage as of next January, $171 per pay x 2.15 pays a month = $368 a month
High deductible/HSA plan, $43 (base - ?) per pay x 2.15 pays a month = $92 a month

So if we stay with the traditional insurance, we'll have $134 a month less in our pockets. And nothing to show for it.

If we go with the new kind of plan, we'll have $142 a month more in our pockets. Part of which, if I understand right, could go into the health savings account and build up if we spend less on medical expenses than we put in. On the down side, it will may affect our car insurance rates if this new kind of policy isn't considered primary in the case of car accident injuries. (It says "subject to co-insurance," and I'm not sure what that means.)

They are supposed to be mailing out more info, and are having meetings about it in November and December. But DH has to pick one or the other and mail this form in within one week, before having any of that extra info. Aggravating. But I'm trying to see the big picture. We can't afford to put out $134 more a month for insurance anyway, so the decision is a no brainer. We'll just have to learn about the new thing as we go along, and deal with it.

Changing a habit - weekend outing decision

August 12th, 2005 at 08:20 am

Usually every year, DH and I go to the anniversary booksale at a store that's over an hour away from us. It's a pleasant trip, although long, because it gets us out in the country and away from all the congestion around here. The store is a combination bookstore and florist, and some years we've been able to visit with goats out in the yard. Smile

However, we've been visiting local bookstores a lot lately, gas is expensive, and I've already spent a little more than I should have at this point in the month. So I'm reluctant to go right now, even though the sale's going on. I'm glad DH seems to be content to stay closer to home this weekend, too. I didn't want it to turn into an argument. We kind of agreed we'd wait til the fall when the weather is more pleasant anyway. I'll be able to save up a little extra money by then, for the gas and maybe lunch out and a book or two.

So the weekend's revised plans are to turn in some paperbacks for credit at the local store and maybe see the Nipper (RCA dog) display in Moorestown. Artists made a bunch of diffferently-decorated Nippers and they've been placed all over town. It's not really close to home for us, but closer than the far bookstore, and it's something completely different! Here's a link to Nipper pix: http://community.webshots.com/album/370880433eualqi

Gave in to a positive compulsion today

August 10th, 2005 at 12:06 pm

I opened a new savings account! It's at the local bank where we have our checking account, and pays practically no interest. But I think it will serve its purpose.

We had another little emergency this past week, involving both an applicance repair guy and a plumber. The appliance guy was here first, and always wants to be paid by check right away. Then the plumber was here; this one bills you later, but another plumber we've used wants immediate payment and I don't remember him taking credit cards. It just so happens that our checking balance is on the low side this week, and if we'd had to pay the plumber right away too, it would have been a problem.

There's plenty of money in the ING accounts, but it takes a couple of days for transfers to show up back in our checking account. Besides, all the accounts I have there are for specific purposes, not general emergencies.

Supposedly some of the money sitting in checking is for emergencies, but if there's money for different things in one account, it's always hard for me to really "see" how much is for what. So I've been trying to figure out for awhile where to put emergency money--an extra checking account, a money market, a savings account? But today I felt like I just had to do something even if it wasn't perfect.

I just couldn't stand not having an official emergency fund one more minute!

This account is linked to our checking account and my ATM card, and I'll be able to access it online. So I'll be able to get cash out quickly at an ATM, or do transfers any time I need to. One thing that won't work is using the savings as overdraft protection, where if a check was going to bounce they'd just take it from savings--they want you to apply for a credit line for that. (I said no.) I think what I'll do is, as soon as I know there's an emergency, I'll transfer some money to checking just in case. If it doesn't all get used, it can go right back into savings. (I REALLY don't want to bounce any checks.)

Coupons, BOGO offers and Peter Jennings

August 8th, 2005 at 06:07 am

As I went to sleep last night, I heard on the radio that Peter Jennings (TV news anchor in the US) had died of lung cancer. It was only in April he announced the diagnosis, and he's already gone. He always looked rather youthful and healthy to me, and he'd supposedly stopped smoking 20 years ago, only to take it up again in the last few years. Even with all those non-smoking years, it still killed him. The only silver lining I can see about lung cancer is that it usually seems to kill quickly, rather than making you suffer for years on end.

The other day as I was flipping TV channels, and saw a repeat Oprah segment about what happens to your organs if you have unhealthy habits like smoking, drinking too much, or letting yourself get fat. They showed a pink, healthy looking lung of a non-smoker (who was, admittedly, dead from something else). Next to it they showed a gray, black-flecked, dead looking lung of a lifelong smoker.

I grew up around smokers, and although I had one uncle who had lung cancer, it's not what eventually killed him. I keep forgetting that smoking does actually KILL people; you are actually kind of lucky if something else happens to get you first.

My husband smokes. And I'm feeling really guilty that I've promoted his habit by signing him up for Kool coupons that come in the mail. Actually, I'd signed up under both our names. I figured he was going to smoke anyway, I might as well help him save a little money on it.

We both agreed it would be a bad idea to use the coupons for cartons, because we knew it would just encourage him to go through them faster. But it seems to me even the $1 off a pack coupons have upped his consumption. The fault is not completely mine--Kool has been having a lot of Buy One Get One Free packages recently, which just provides even more encouragement to buy and consume more.

I know too well the lure of coupons and other marketing gimmicks, and how it can make you buy more than you intended. If it just just affects your financial life, that's one thing. But this is something that can kill you. They banned TV ads for cigarettes for a good reason, but these coupons and BOGO offers seem to be even more powerful. And it makes me mad, at myself for participating in the marketing scheme, and at the powers that be that allow this kind of marketing to be used for cigarettes in the first place.

Week 1 - Over Budget

August 6th, 2005 at 02:20 pm

I put together a budget report on Quicken for 4-week period that's still based on the calendar month amounts I have budgeted there. It spit out that one week's worth of spending should be $125.29. I spent $145.56, or $20.27 more than I was supposed to.

There are a lot of little things I could have done differently, but mainly it's because I gave in to the lure of a bargain at Walgreen's. I only went to pick up the padded envelopes they had on sale, because I needed some before selling more on Amazon. But while there, I saw 2-packs of the specially marked Cheerios that have the rebate codes on them for free future boxes. They even had $1 coupons on them for Progresso soup! I bought 2 2-packs for $12. Also, I noticed they had a $3 rebate on razor blades I like so I bought a package for $10. They are things I'll need, but I don't need yet. And they were good deals, but not GREAT. Wish I could learn to resist this kind of temptation better!

My year now has 13 months

August 6th, 2005 at 05:24 am

Hi, back again. I've taken some time off from thinking about money (and other things) so much. I've read lots of books, watched lots of videos, got to a park by a river, and planted some flowers. Our budget situation is still in limbo, but I'm not so tied up in knots about it now. Keeping busy to keep my mind occupied seems to be working, just like you might try to keep busy while waiting for news about a job or medical test results. I just wish I could remember that and start in sooner each time a situation like this comes up, before my mood starts to slip. Thanks for your kind comments last week.

Now about my 13 month year. I'm tired of situations like last weekend. It was the end of July, and I had enough grocery money left in the budget to pick up a few things like bread and milk. I would have succeeded in making it through the end of July on budget, but to keep strictly to it I'd have to wait til August 1, a Monday, to do a normal weekly shopping. But that would have been darned inconvenient because of my work schedule on Mondays.

It felt like a lose-lose situation. If I did a week's worth of shopping on Saturday, I'd have done something wrong because I went over budget for July. But if I didn't, I'd have done something wrong because I messed up my schedule and menus for the coming week.

I'm tired of trying to stretch the same amount of money during 31-day months as 28-day months. I'm tired of having to refigure my gas money because I have to buy it 5 times instead of 4. I'm tired of having to figure out if it's a month I need to go to Petsmart 3 times instead of 2. Then there's our take-out budget. We get pizzas on Tuesdays because they're only $6 that day. What if there are 5 Tuesdays in a month? It's driving me bonkers!

So from now on, I'm going to figure my Everyday Expenses budget for a 4-week "month" no matter what the calendar says. It will always start on a Sunday and end on a Saturday. So my "August" is running from July 31 to August 27. 52 weeks in a year, divided into 4-week segments--and Voila! there are 13 "months." That way I'll be able to do my main shopping on the same day each week, and have the same amount to spend each and every week and "month." I really want more predictability and routine in my financial life, and I think this will help.