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Archive for September, 2005

Yikes! September numbers

September 30th, 2005 at 04:21 am

Yesterday I caught up on recording my spending, and was finally able to run my September Everyday Expenses report in Quicken. (My September ran through September 24.) It was painful to see--I was $281 over what I'd planned.

OK, maybe the gas and food expenses for our day trip to the shore shouldn't be in there. Subtract $50. Maybe the money I spent on haircolor for the P&G rebate shouldn't be counted under groceries. Subtract $10. And maybe subtract the amount of money I'll be getting back on all the rebates I did, $68. That still leaves me $158 over budget. Not good.

Looking back, I know exactly why it happened. It's the same old reason--responding to marketing ploys that appeal to my bargain-hunter side.

I won that $100 in groceries, which sounds great. But I usually spend no more than $25 a week at that store because that's all the good deals I can usually find. I was forced to use the money in no more than two trips--they don't use plastic gift cards that get swiped, they'd have to rewrite a gift certificate each time you used a little. So I ended up buying things we didn't need yet, and things that weren't that great a deal, just to get the money spent. So I spent more than I normally would have.

Same problem with Stop and Shop. I had these $5 off $50 coupons--too good to pass up, right? But what if you have to stretch to find things that add up to that $50. I know I spent more there than I really needed to.

Rebates. If I ever mention doing rebates again, please somebody reach through the computer screen and give me a virtual whack on the head. It's just not worth the effort, compared to something like staying home and opening a bank account to get a bonus. Plus it makes me spend money on things I don't need yet, or things that aren't a great price, just to complete the rebate.

Entertainment Book coupons. They run out November 1, so I've been trying to get use out of them. But it's made me spent more money on take-out that I normally would have.

I'm revising my next two months' budgets to be $140 lower, to make up for the $280. It shouldn't be too bad considering what all we already have on hand.

Heating season

September 29th, 2005 at 05:26 am

I've been hearing a lot about home heating prices going up this winter--the worst I heard was this past Saturday, when I listened to a local talk show about finances. The host suggested that whatever your usual winter natural gas bill was, add $400--a month!

What I heard on the news yesterday, however, was very reassuring. While across the river in Philly, the gas company is asking for a 20% increase (over another increase they just got), over here our gas company thinks it is well set for the winter. They have enough lower-priced gas on hand or under contract to get through the winter on the relatively small increase they got in August--provided it's an average winter. If it's extremely cold, it would probably spike up. But that probably wouldn't happen til late in the winter, after they've seen what the weather's been like. I feel like we've dodged a bullet.

But before I heard that news, I already spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to conserve, keep the bill down and still be relatively comfortable. There were things we tried when we first bought the house that I decided I'm just not going to try again, no matter where natural gas prices go:

Plastic on the windows that you tighten up by blowing the hairdryer on it. (You can't open the windows all winter, and the cat tries to shred it.)

Rope caulk around window cracks. (Unless you paint over it, it's unsightly. And when some came loose, the dog tried to eat it. It's nontoxic, but not easy to clean off a dog's teeth. Think gray chewing gum.)

Insulated draperies. (Made the house feel heavy, closed in and depressing.)

Treated film that goes directly on the window glass, that's supposed to keep energy in or out in winter and summer. A temporary substitute for getting new windows with low-e glass. (Again, made the house dark and takes away the pleasure of looking out into the yard.)

Also, I've seen a lot of new products that are supposed to save energy, like portable solar heating panels that go on your windows with suction cups. But based on my past experiences, I have my doubts as to whether they'd actually do much, or be so much of a hassle we don't continue using them.

I mean, what would really make a difference would be a new water heater, new front door, new windows, and more insulation in our walls if we were putting up new drywall. Spending more money on energy saving gadgets just means less money to put toward the big stuff that will really have an effect. It's always worth trying to conserve, but I don't want to waste my time and effort, either.

So here's my plan for this winter:

Get a maintenance check-up/tune-up for the heater
Make a couple of draft-dodger things for the bottoms of our doors
Make or buy some sort of inside cover for the window a/c upstairs
Keep the thermostat low (so, dress warmly and get 1 or 2 space heaters to use in rooms we're actually using)
Remember to open window blinds and shades on sunny days, and close them at night

Good news--I've been sick

September 26th, 2005 at 07:07 am

I had the beginnings of a cold or allergies last week, and Friday it finally hit me hard. The cold symptoms weren't so bad, but the tiredness has been overwhelming. I didn't even sit at the computer for almost 3 full days. Basically, I watched TV or listened to the radio, either in bed or in a living room chair with my feet up. 3 no-spend days, no trouble at all. Wink Also, I've lost 4 pounds. It's just a good thing I was so tired, otherwise I might have given in and ordered one of those Magic Bullet blenders (after seeing parts of the infomercial at least a dozen times).

I was glad to have a stockpile of easy frozen dinners so I could get something on the table without ordering take-out. But we had practically no cold medicine in the house, and no chicken soup. DH wasn't anxious to go out and get anything for me, and I was to tired to really bug him about it. So I think maybe it would be worthwhile to have a "sick shelf" ready at all times, not just containing medicine but other supplies you might not want to run out for when you don't feel well. A project for later in the week, when I'm caught up on other things.

Balancing life a little better

September 21st, 2005 at 06:17 pm

I've been focusing on money now for almost 5 months straight. I wouldn't change what I've been doing--it had to be done. But on top of not building enough fun into my life, I haven't been exercising like I'm supposed to, and the house isn't looking very good. It takes a lot of time to play with the budget, make changes to things like cable service, and track rebates and bonus offers from banks, so other things just haven't gotten done.

There aren't a whole lot of big decisions or projects I can do right now; I'm kind of moving into maintenance mode for awhile. I don't have the extra cash to invest in more than the rebates I've already started, or more discounted gift cards, or new bank accounts. It seems like a good time to try and juggle life generally a little better, until some bills get paid off and I have more financial options.

So. This week I've exercised twice so far. I'm starting to go around the house, decluttering and reorganizing. I need to do some plain old cleaning, which frankly I hate. I like the results, but doing it--yuck!

On an email list I subscribe to, about working on goals, they suggest thinking of something to reward ourselves with as we accomplish various things. I know it might help me slog through the cleaning if I had a reward waiting at the end, but it's hard to think of rewards that are 1) free or cheap and 2) low in calories. Maybe looking for freebies and coupons online should be my reward--no internet on cleaning day until I'm done. Wink

Last gasp of summer

September 18th, 2005 at 04:53 am

Thanks for the comments. I think "frugal fatigue" about sums it up. I decided to take a day off from being responsible, and we finally drove down to the shore--our only trip there this summer.

Gas about $15
Tolls $4.70
Air show at municipal airport, free
Lunch at airport $15
Beach, free
Pizza for dinner $10, at least it was bought with a coupon and we have leftovers for another dinner
Beer $5
Having our dinner in the back yard, free
Watching old movies after dinner, free
Not doing any laundry, cooking, cleaning, or shopping, free

For a total of $49.70. But like the ad says, feeling of complete relaxation, priceless.

Usually we go to a free beach, but this late in the season I could only track down 4 streets in Ocean City where there would still be lifeguards. I figured on biting the bullet and paying for their beach tags--but the Beach Tag Police were nowhere to be seen. The little building where you usually buy the tags was already boarded up for the season, and nobody walking up and down the beach checking for tags, either. A nice surprise.

I've got to start budgeting money for more outings like this...

Another $184.61 out the door

September 15th, 2005 at 10:43 am

That's what the bill at Midas was this morning. When I add up the emergency type expenses we've had over the past 12 months, it comes out to about the $200 a month I planned on. It's just that so many of these expenses have fallen in just the past few months, and we didn't have a cushion built up yet for emergencies.

Until recently, I've been mainly working on paying down debt. Back in February, our debt level was the worst it's been in years--$4185, not counting our mortgage. By the end of August, it was down to $3548, plus I'd gotten more money into savings toward various known bills and goals. Now it's up again, worse than ever:

Discover (no new purchases, just paying down at 0% interest) - $2939
Firestone - $660
Sony Card (just got, expecting a $100 credit as a bonus from them, also 0% interest) - $229
Citi (we pay that one off each month, used to earn cash back) - $699 as of today, will pay off early October

For a total of $4527. I could take some money out of savings goals accounts, but that would only pay it down partially and we'd have no cushion left. Not to mention lost hopes and dreams, like replacing our 13-year old car. I can't take money out of the accounts for things like the property taxes, because we need that money on hand to pay the upcoming bills.

I'm nervous about it, but maybe not for the reason you'd think. I know we can pay this off eventually, gradually. What I'm mostly afraid of right now is myself, and how I can tend to try too hard and end up making things worse for myself. Kind of like a gambler betting even more to make up for losses. Or someone exercising too hard because they've neglected it, and ending up with a heart attack, or at least sore.

I've already been burned on Ebay, trying to save a few dollars over Amazon's price on that software. I've already had rebates this year that I forgot to mail in, after spending extra money I wouldn't have if I weren't trying to do the rebates. I've already wasted time and money on "frugal" recipes that turned out so badly I had to throw the food away. I've had food go bad in the fridge and spent money on take-out because I got too involved in some other "money-saving" project. Then there's the way I overdid it on those discounted gift cards, leaving us strapped for actual cash.

And the more worried I am about money, the more compelled I feel to pursue these things, to make up for previous losses. So my main goal right now is to stay to my usual routines, and try to relax and not worry.

Rebates running me ragged

September 13th, 2005 at 05:31 am

Right now if you asked me about doing rebates, I'd say never again. But after I've forgotten the pain I know I'll be ready to do it again--kind of like childbirth, from what I hear. Wink

Sunday we weren't doing much, so I thought I'd go out and buy what I needed for several rebates due in this month. I've lost track of how many stops I made, trying to find all the items I was looking for. I haven't even entered what I spent yet, because the number of transactions and receipts feels overwhelming. It's one thing to do a rebate for a single item. What's really driving me bonkers are the ones where you need a certain number of products, or a certain dollar amount of stuff from one parent company. Here are some examples:

*Underwood deviled ham, 10 cans for 2 movie tickets. A lot of people must be doing this one, because everywhere I go, they are very low on deviled ham. So I couldn't buy them all in one place.
*Unilever, spend $15 for a $5 KMart gift card. The prices at KMart itself were way too high, so I planned to get everything at Target (it's supposed to work no matter where you buy the products.) I figured very carefully, but my total at Target came to just under $15. So I had to remember and buy a jar of Ragu somewhere else, and keep another receipt.
*Walgreens, $15 on P&G products to get a beauty product sampler and a $10 Walgreens gift card. It's unclear whether it can be any P&G products or just beauty and personal care. They say different things in different flyers. So I figured I get all Clairol products, to be safe. But my regular Walgreens was out of the root touch-up color I use, and were also down to one box of my Nice N Easy color so I couldn't use the $5 off coupon on 2.
*Walgreens, $10 on Pepsi and Frito Lay products, get a $5 gift card. You have to remember to write the UPC codes on the back of your receipts, which is a pain. Plus there's a local Pepsi strike going on, and all the Walgreens I've been to are completely out of Pepsi and Mountain Dew. (Although there's a plentiful supply at Target and the IGA.) Between this and the P&G rebate, I've been to 3 Walgreens and I still haven't been able to buy everything I need to finish up.

Now that I've bought some of the stuff, I feel like I have to complete the rebates or my previous effort and $ spent were a waste. And this isn't all--there are still a Delmonte one for $10 and a Coors one for up to $35 back on meat purchases I planned on doing.

It always looks like it will be worthwhile. And if I could get all the products for one rebate, at one store, on one trip, it would be easy. But in reality, it always turns out to be more complicated--especially compared applying for a Sony credit card in about 2 minutes, and eventually getting $100 from them. But I suppose if I'm not doing anything else, and I'm staying within my gas budget, I might as well be working on rebates as anything.


September 9th, 2005 at 07:51 am

The $660 car repair went on the Firestone cc. If paid within 90 days, no interest and we get a rebate of at least 2%. Better than the 1% would have been on the regular cc.

I was going to pay our homeowner's policy in one payment. But to keep some extra cash on hand for the other bills, I'm going to split it up. I should be able to pay it off over 3 months, which will save most of the installment fees that would be charged if I spread it out over a whole year. But it will still be $9 extra. I think it's worth it, because now I won't have to take money out of our "new car" savings. I know how hard it is to pay that savings account back, so I'd rather just not take anything out.

I put all those transactions into our check register in Quicken, to see how the cash flow works out. Looks OK--the lowest balance I'm left with over the next 6 weeks is over $200. When we get into November and December, there are more paychecks than usual in the month, and some interest checks coming in, so things should be easier. We should be caught up by the end of the year, barring any more emergencies this big. But who knows! Wink

Trying to have some faith and confidence

September 8th, 2005 at 09:08 am

Last night DH mentioned he thought he needed exhaust work done on his car, and that didn't bother me too much. We'll wait a couple of weeks til he has a vacation day, and take it back to Midas, where we'll save somewhat on parts because of their lifetime warranty. Last time it was under $100, which we'll have in our emergency savings account by then. Perfect timing, it seemed.

Now this morning my car wouldn't start. Turns out it's the timing belt and it's going to be almost $600--if all goes well. The computer diagnostics part alone was $80. (I'd shop around if it weren't an emergency. But I can't just drive it to another mechanic.) And DH is going through one of his moody periods, where I'm afraid he might just walk out on his job, or worse.

I feel like I can't even work up a good worry. I feel more like, the heck with it. I give up. I've done the best I can, and if our cc balance has to go up temporarily to cover this round of car repairs, then so be it. At least the timing belt didn't break on the way to the shore or something. At least we have Triple A to tow it in. At least putting it on the cc will earn us some reward points.

As far as DH, his actions are his responsibility, not mine. If he quits his job at a financially dumb time, for a dumb reason, I'll be angry about it but I'll know it's not my fault. I've spoken my piece, and that's about all I can do--short of divorce! Wink

I've run reports on our cash flow and net worth over the past few months, and there has been steady improvement. Every month has been in the black and our net worth is creeping upward--even though at the beginning of each month I couldn't have told you how it was going to happen. Who could have predicted winning $100. Or getting paid at all for answering questions about vacuum cleaners, let alone $40 when I'd expected to be paid $20.

I don't want to go blithely along charging useless stuff, figuring it will get paid for somehow. But I am beginning to feel like as long as I'm doing my part, something will happen to make up the difference somehow, if a problem crops up. At least it seems to be working that way lately. To quote one of my favorite books again, "The money comes in. There is always enough." p. 246 How to get out of debt, stay out of debt and live prosperously" by Mundis.

I actually won something!

September 6th, 2005 at 03:01 pm

Opened the mail today, and got quite a surprise. We've won $100 in free groceries! It's "Grocery Cash" from Kraft and my local IGA--they were taking entries for a drawing several months back, something to do with an NCAA championship theme. I kind of forgot about it, so when I first opened the envelope I thought it was some kind of scam. You know, sign this check and suddenly you're automatically enrolled in some program or other. But I kept looking it over, and it seems to be legit.

Oddly enough, I was also mailing some other contest entries today, and wondering if my entries would ever come to anything. Smile

I'm very grateful to get this right now, as I've been worried about our cash flow now through October 15. I'm still going to have to move some money from savings to checking temporarily, then pay it back in November. But this will be a big help to us, and it also gives me the confidence to donate another $25 to hurricane relief.

To give or not to give--and how much

September 3rd, 2005 at 04:46 pm

It may not seem like it from my past few entries, but I have been following Hurricane Katrina's aftermath like everyone else, probably too much. Even without having the cable channels we used to have, I've gotten plenty of news through the regular channels, CSPAN, and radio. The past few days I haven't gotten much else done. It's been so frustrating watching those poor people just waiting for help. And so maddening to hear things like the Red Cross being there early on, but being turned away by FEMA because they wanted to force people to leave, not give them a haven. Ham radio operators, who could have helped with the communication problems, were apparently also turned away. But I digress.

I was the most upset at the point where I felt equally pulled by wanting to help and being afraid for our own financial security. How far are gas and other prices going to go up? How much can I donate so I don't feel cheap and ashamed, and still make sure we'll be able to handle what might be coming up in our own lives.

It made me realize how the traditional advice to save 10% and give 10% makes good sense. It must be a very freeing feeling. You are saving a good amount against disasters in your own life, but you also know you're doing your part to help others. Then if disaster strikes you, you don't need to blame yourself for bad planning or feel guilty accepting help.

10% for saving OR giving is out of the question for us right now, but I did finally decide to donate $25 now and more later, probably once a month for awhile. I know it won't make much of a difference, but it sure makes me feel a whole lot better.


September 3rd, 2005 at 11:51 am

Over in the forums, I'd posted about Microsoft Streets and Trips, software I was curious about trying. It's supposed to calculate the shortest routes to hit several locations you want to cover on the same trip. I thought it might save me on gas by giving me better ideas how to arrange my errands.

Well, I bought it on Ebay. I did notice the fellow said it wasn't in a box, but he did say it was sealed. I figured maybe he just wanted to ship it the cheapest, lightest way since he was offering free shipping. Or that the box was damaged. Anyway, he had quite a bit of feedback, and it was pretty close to perfect. But when the software came, it was clearly labeled "For distribution with a new PC only."

I don't know if it would cause a problem to put it on my computer, but I don't want to take any chances. Recently when I did Windows Update, it went through a process where it was "verifying" all the software on my computer. The way it was worded, I got the impression they were trying to identify any Microsoft products that shouldn't be there. I just don't need the hassle of worrying about it.

Anyway, I checked Ebay's policies, and it was against the rules for him to sell this "OEM" software if it wasn't part of a PC purchase. So I reported the listing. But it looks like I have to go through a separate process to try and get my money back. And their system won't let me do that yet because not enough time has elapsed. They want you to try and settle it between yourselves--but I just don't see the point of communicating with the seller at all. They did something they shouldn't have, and Ebay ought to know about it. I don't want to just return it and get my money back, and have them sell this stuff to someone else.

It's really frustrating to have this software (still sealed) sitting in front of me, and not being able to try it out. But I just ordered a good one directly from Amazon. They've lowered the price, and after the rebate and my 20% discount it will turn out cheaper than the Ebay guy's anyway. All's well that end's well, and I'm sure things will end up fine. It's just going to be a hassle communicating with Ebay over the next few weeks.

Energy crisis--where have I been?

September 1st, 2005 at 10:25 am

I got stuck on C-SPAN and C-SPAN2 this morning, lots of interesting stuff about the economy and especially energy costs. One show that was especially interesting was a news conference by the Consumers Federation of America about how energy prices are affecting consumers; another one featured guys from the Petroleum Institute.

I guess I'd been aware that energy costs had been creeping up over the past few years, but I didn't think about it too much. Just adjust the budget, and go on with life. I didn't bother to look at how much of a jump it's been, from 2000 to now. I didn't realize that our refineries were already working at 95% capacity, so there wasn't any wiggle room built in for disasters like hurricanes. I didn't realize the industry was still recovering from Hurricane Ivan.

In other words, there's been an energy crisis going on from way before Hurricane Katrina, and I seem to have totally missed it.

If you want to see the figures, here's a link to a report from one of the guys who was on from the Consumers Federation: http://www.consumersunion.org/pub/0929%20price%20report.pdf

The graphs really show what's been going on, as far as the % of income people have been paying for energy, and how much it's gone up over the past few years.

The scary thing is, the Consumers Federation people this morning said because of the additional strain of the hurricane, households will have to pay about $600 more over the coming year, in gasoline costs. But gasoline represents only about 1/3 of the products we get out of petroleum. So if you also count increased costs for home heating, airplane fuel, plastics, etc. it will be costing each household about $1800 (3 x $600). Scary stuff, especially for low-income people (who according to those charts are already paying over 20% of their incomes on energy costs.)