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Archive for January, 2006

$20 Challenge

January 30th, 2006 at 07:19 am

DH put up the can crusher this weekend, so things are finally moving. I crushed a month's worth of cans we'd been saving--it was quite a workout! I can tell it's going to help my upper arm and shoulder strength. Wink The bin I have to keep the crushed cans in is about 1/2 full, so I guess I'll have to take them in every 2 months. It won't come to much money each time, but I don't want to get overrun with the things.

I have between $2 and $3 left of the $20 to use on Ebay listing fees, but I'm not quite ready. I need to play around with the digital camera and figure out how to put pictures in a listing. Also, I need to look into free photo hosting services again. I had one lined up (called Y44 or something), but I just got an email from them saying they're going out of business. I've sold on Ebay before, but not things that required photos, so this is why it's a new project for the challenge.

Last time I voted, I signed up to be a (paid) election board worker. They don't often open it to new people, so I jumped on it. But it's a slow process. This week I'm mailing back the card saying I'm still interested and am willing to go to training. Then there will be the training, and waiting for someone to drop out so I'll be called. But once you're in, you can make some decent money for a couple of days' work a year.

Another thing I need to do is change settings on my computer so Fatwallet's cash back feature will work. I found instructions on their site awhile back, but never got around to fixing things.

ISO of free, legal, downloadable audio

January 29th, 2006 at 12:31 pm

And I don't mean music. Between the radio, the library, and the CD's, tapes, and even some old records we still own, DH and I have access to plenty of music. I never felt the need to figure out things like Napster or i-Tunes. But we're getting ready to offer downloadable audiobooks at work, and for the past week I've been immersed in learning about how it all works. I'm not an audiobook fan myself, but I do like listening to interviews, news features, old-time radio shows, and such. And there's not much of that on our local radio stations.

I started wondering if there was a way to access some of that "spoken word" stuff through my computer, and whether I could do it for free. The answer is yes--even though I have a dialup connection and no MP3 player!

I thought I'd post what all I've found this weekend. Maybe it will be useful to someone else, or maybe some nice person who's more knowledgeable about this will leave a comment with more tips. Wink

1) I found a nice website for English-language shortwave radio schedules at http://www.primetimeshortwave.com. I've been listening to over-the-air shortwave broadcasts off and on since I was a kid, but I haven't been up on the times and frequencies for different countries in a long, long time. I really didn't want to spend the money on one of the guides that comes out every year--and now I won't have to.

2) I had discovered RealPlayer and streaming audio some time back, but didn't pursue it much. An over-the-air radio show I liked started charging to listen over the internet, and I didn't want to pay. There were some BBC shows I would have liked, but a few years back you could only listen online when the shows were actually on the air over in England. I wasn't about to get up at 4 a.m. to sit by the computer and listen.

But things have changed. Now there are a ton of BBC shows you can listen to any time you want. There are a lot of American NPR shows available, too. Here are some links:

BBC 4 "Listen again" latest edition of each program - http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/progs/listenagain.shtml

NPR archives - http://www.npr.org/templates/archives/rundown_archive_hub.php

It's working fine with my dial-up connection.

3) Podcasting. The single most important thing I learned this weekend is that you don't need an iPod to listen to podcasts! A podcast seems to just be a show in MP3 format that you can download like any other file, and probably listen to with software you already have. My computer came with Music Match Jukebox, which automatically opens up when I try to open a podcast file I've saved. Today I listened to a 60-year-old Burns and Allen program, for free. Which is great, because a lot of places charge to listen to this stuff. (Just try googling "old time radio" and mp3, and you'll see what I mean.) It does take at least as long as the show length to download, but it can happen in the background while I do something else or even leave the computer.

As far as finding the podcasts to download, the easiest thing I've found so far is a program called Replay Radio. They have a free version of their software that works for podcasts only, and it includes a guide to 1700+ different podcasts. You can check their categories or search by keyword to find things of interest. You don't really need the software to get the podcasts or listen to them, but it is really useful just for the guide. Here's a link:


The BBC and NRP also have some shows in podcast format, too.

Someday I'd love to buy fancier software, an MP3 player, upgrade to broadband and maybe even get XM radio. But I'm really thrilled that there's still so much I can get right now without spending any money at all. Smile

Time-consuming odds and ends

January 27th, 2006 at 08:05 am

Well, here goes with the new system!

JC Penney never put through a credit they were supposed to, when they ran short of an item I ordered at Christmas, even though it showed as in stock. Called about it this morning; will have to watch for it for 1-2 more billing cycles.

Gas company sent two bills, the second one saying I owed twice the amount as usual. It was because I called in the meter reading, and then the meter reader put in the reading also. Another phone call this morning, to get the 2nd bill cancelled out.

DH's paycheck was even lower than the last one, so I had to gather and copy all the pertinent paperwork at 7:15 this morning, so he could show his immediate supervisor what his new health deduction was supposed to be. It turned out last paycheck was short because he took a day off at the end of the year, when he was actually out of vacation time. But this time it was the insurance that was the problem. They took out the old amount PLUS the new amount, and will have to refund $123 in his next check. Thank goodness we have enough cash on hand to carry us through til then.

Yesterday got a call from the stockbroker who handles my account with some income-generating investments. A bond was called in, and he wanted the ok to reinvest the money in something else. I felt like I had to research it a little to make sure the new company was ok. I'd rather take a little less interest than get a higher rate on a junk bond.

Wednesday, my weekly paperwork day, I wasn't really in the mood for it and tried to make a game out of it by counting how many piece of paper I handled. I lost track at 100. It took several hours, and there are still more things I ought to do.

I feel very lucky to be working part-time, and have the time to take care of this stuff!


January 24th, 2006 at 07:34 am

I haven't thought much about the stock market or investments for a long time, as I've been preoccupied with budgeting and just getting by. So there's been quite a large chunk of cash sitting in my IRA brokerage account. It wasn't just because I was ignoring the whole subject, though. I'd thought I wanted to move the whole account to Scottrade for lower fees. But then Scottrade had some kind of security breach, and I changed my mind. Also, being kind of worried about money I was leaving it in cash "just in case," even though the last thing I want to have to do is take money out of the IRA.

Anyway, this morning I rebalanced things in a method I read about years ago in a book called America's Finest Companies by Bill Staton. He had you invest equal amounts in high quality companies, in different kinds of businesses. (I actually did index funds to diversify). Every year or so you buy more in all of them, but you buy less of the ones that have done really well, and more of the current laggards. The idea is that different industries do well at different times--you are putting more money into a company when it's a bargain, and not putting too much money into it when it's overpriced. You try to end up with equal positions in each company again. I like following a mechanical system like that because it keeps me from getting carried away.

So I did that this morning, and had a pleasant surprise. Schwab is now only charging $19.95 per trade rather than the $29.95 they did before. And I got a letter awhile back saying they weren't charging an annual fee anymore. So I guess I'm content to stay with them. Sometimes procrastination is a good thing. Wink

Weight still on my mind

January 22nd, 2006 at 04:57 pm

I've spent a lot of the past few days trying to figure out how to approach my own weight loss, on a budget. I'm 4 pounds over my highest weight last year, and due to check back with the dr soon about my blood pressure. I've got to do something, but I'm going to try and solve the problem with my wits, rather than just throwing money at it. No Weight Watchers, no magic $27 diet4idiots.com, no expensive gym membership.

I've kind of settled on these approaches:

--Keep a food diary in a notebook, like I did last year. I'm not counting calories right now, just keeping honest.

--Do some kind of advance food prep each and every day so I always have some healthy food ready to eat. When I'm hungry I want to eat NOW and grab whatever's handy, or stop for take-out. I forget who all have been cooking up a storm, but people have mentioned making pancakes ahead, freezing lasagna and so forth. That's been quite inspirational; glad you posted about it.

--Portion control. Have come across some novel approaches. I've put in an ILL for a book called the New American Plate, where they have you divide your plate into 3/4 plant based foods, 1/4 meat. Also read about The Pocket Diet, where your meal can be anything that fits into a 6-inch pita pocket! Not surprisingly, invented by a pita manufacturer. Wink

--Exercise. (I finally managed my planned 2x a week, the end of last week).

--Keep to the same grocery budget I've stuck to the past 8 weeks. Produce and cottage cheese really aren't that expensive if I get them at Aldi's. And if I'm eating a bit less, you'd think that would balance out buying slightly more expensive items. We shall see.

I've been doing a lot of reading online, and found several interesting studies where they're trying to explain why lower income=obesity. People living in dangerous neighborhoods go outside less and hence get less exercise. A group of low-income people in Great Britain were given access to cheaper, more plentiful produce on the assumption they weren't eating it because of the price. But their eating habits didn't actually change. Finally, while 10 or 20 years ago there was a strong correlation between low income and obesity, currently the rate is about 30% of the population in all income groups. Things that make you say hmmm...

Weight and Wealth

January 19th, 2006 at 05:36 am

I came across a documentary the other day, being played on one of our public tv stations. It was called When Ends Don't Meet, and followed several families who'd be called the working poor--except for one couple where the husband wanted to work but couldn't, or his cancer-striken wife would lose her Medicaid coverage.

One thing that struck me was how most of the adults in the families were overweight. I can think of one mother who looked in good shape, and two husbands who only had small bellies. The rest seemed to be really obese. It struck me as odd, because when I think of poverty the picture in my mind is of starving, skinny folks during the Great Depression or in third world countries.

Since I've always had both weight and money management difficulties myself, it got me thinking about about common denominators. These folks didn't appear to be particularly lazy or inactive. If you are on your feet every day waitressing, and are raising 5 or 6 kids, you probably get a good workout. Wink Eating junky, fattening foods because they are filling and cheaper than healthier ones? Also eating them for pleasure because it's cheaper than other forms of recreation? Actual changes in your metabolism because of being under stress for long periods of time? A slight brain dysfunction where you have trouble keeping track of income and outgo, in terms of calories as well as money? Or just being so consumed by trying to make ends meet that you just don't pay attention to diet and exercise?

I know in my case I do seem to gain weight when we've had a long stretch of money worries, but I still can't say for sure why that is.

It got me curious enough to go ahead and order a book on Amazon that I've had on my wishlist a long time. It's called The Weight and Wealth Factors, by Angie Hollerich. For $1.12 plus shipping, using a discounted gift certificate, I figured I'd go for it. If I get any great insights from it, I'll report back. In the meantime, would be curious if anybody else has thoughts on the subject.

Four-week report

January 15th, 2006 at 12:55 pm

Thanks for the encouraging comments, guys, it helps. Some days I just reach my limit, and I guess Friday was that kind of day...

OK, raise or not, insurance problem or not, the 4 weeks ending yesterday did not go badly at all.

Once again, my grocery spending was $287, same as the last time. I'm hoping this means I've gotten into some sort of groove, with knowing how much food we really need and how much I should try to stock up and do rebates.

Overall Everyday Expenses totaled $502. For comparison, here's how it's been going over past 4-week periods:


So, it was the second best since I started keeping track.

Credit card debt went from $4016 to $3829, down $187
Emergency savings went from $166 to $272, up $106

I'm pretty satisfied with that, considering I paid two yearly vet visits in cash, bought quite a few household items, got through Christmas, and had a car repair.

I wanted to track how many "deals" I did. There were 11:
0% cc deal with HSBC
$25 Mazda test drive
Filtrete rebate
Credit Protector rebate
5 regular grocery rebates
Emailed Campbell Soup with a complaint (due to receive coupons, but haven't arrived yet)
Emailed Birds Eye with a compliment (received 5 coupons)

Still reading up a storm, and not exercising much. Frown

DH and I are getting ready to go out for a steak dinner. I have a $10 coupon for my birthday, and we haven't been out alone since well before the holidays. It's still nice getting out with DMom, but it's just not the same as a date. Wink

Taking the bitter with the sweet

January 13th, 2006 at 04:58 am

I don't know why I should be surprised...

I found out yesterday I got a raise. Smile I was feeling great, thinking I'd be able to start paying down the cc by $300 a month, planning on posting an entry here with the big green smiley face. It wasn't just my raise that was going to give us some breathing room, but the fact that DH's take-home pay should be going up, too. The actual health insurance deduction was supposed to go down by $80, and $40 was going to start going into the HSA, for a net increase in take-home of $40. Or a bit less, because his withholding would probably go up a little.

But I went online to check his paycheck deposit this morning, and instead of being higher than it was, it's $50 lower! I don't know what on earth is going on. I won't have a clue til we get his actual pay stub. I won't be a bit surprised if something got really screwed up about the new insurance and HSA, considering how it's gone so far. I really dread another finance-related problem hanging over our heads, but at least the long distance and Sony card things are settled. I also really dread having to talk to his supervisor and human resources person again, but it's got to be sorted out and I know he won't want to.

I keep thinking at some point we'll get to a place where dealing with money is just a routine part of life, not just a series of problems. It's not that nothing good is happening, but it seems like every time I start to feel happy and hopeful, another problem appears within hours. I don't think I've had one full 24-hour period since I've been keeping this journal where I've felt really calm, content and in control of our finances.

Claritin, and misc.

January 12th, 2006 at 05:40 am

Someone mentioned how expensive Claritin was, I forget who... Anyway, I've had success with Walgreens' over-the-counter generic version called Wal-itin, which is pretty cheap when it goes on sale. This week it's around $5.99 for 20, in a B1G1F sale on 10-pill packs. I was going to stop in for some, but I found an even better price. Aldi has a generic 10-pill pack for $1.99, all the time. (Just marked loratadine.) No waiting for sales or having to buy more than you need at the time. Thought I'd pass it along.

It's the 12th of the month already, and I've only made 2 credit card purchases.

DMom doesn't have a credit card, and doesn't need to be making extra trips out for new phone cards all the time. So usually I add minutes to her phone card with my credit card, and she reimburses me. I just did it automatically, as I always do, and then realized there's no real reason it couldn't have been done on a debit card. I'll try to remember that next time.

The $100 statement credit finally showed up on the Chase Sony credit card, but I had just paid it off. So I ended up with an actual credit balance. I used it to buy my discounted gift cards for the month. (I purposely want to keep using a cc to buy these, just in case something goes wrong. So this wasn't a slip-up.) After the rebate comes back, my account balance will be back to zero.

At that point I may just close the account. I don't want too many cc accounts open, and at this point I just have a bad taste in my mouth about this company. If it took 19 weeks to get something that was due in 12 weeks, and it was something they offered voluntarily, themselves--how long might it take to handle an actual billing dispute? If they are so disorganized that one week they send a letter saying I'd need to wait 1-2 billing cycles, and the next week the credit shows up... If I know from Fatwallet discussions that some people were getting their credits within days of their first purchase and others were waiting months... If I know that they kept offering the same deal under different names, when they were so far behind fulfilling the deal for people who'd applied months before... I don't know, I just don't feel very good about them. It's a failed marketing ploy for them, as far as I'm concerned.

It's funny. The PNC deal was for less money, but things went a lot smoother, and they won me over as a customer when I'd originally thought I'd close my little account fairly quickly.

Yesterday's car repair bill was only $213, and it included some maintenance stuff as well as the actual repair. I know we saved at least $75 compared to Firestone or a dealership doing it. And I can walk to our neighbor's repair shop. Everything seems to have been done right the first time. So I'd call it a success. Smile

Yay, something's FINISHED!

January 11th, 2006 at 09:34 am

I finally got through to somebody at the Board of Public Utilities who could take a complaint about our non-existant long distance service. I talked to them Monday morning, and by that afternoon I had both a reply to my email of January 2, and a message on our answering machine. By this morning, it was hooked up and working. Yay! It took exactly 11 weeks. Something in our state government works. Wink

I hate to say this, but the guy at Pioneer I finally got the call from was a native speaker of English and the sound quality makes me think the call originated in the US. Whenever I've called their customer service, the reps sound very far away, and have accents. I don't have anything against the reps themselves, at the foreign call centers. I actually saw a documentary about call center workers in India, and I have the utmost respect for how long and hard they work to make better lives for themselves and their families. But they seem to only be trained and authorized to handle the most routine transactions--if there's a problem, they refer it somewhere else, probably in yet another country, and nobody seems to be in charge of following up. It's not like they can walk down the hall and get a problem solved by talking to the right person in another department. It's not their fault; it's the client company's fault. Mjrube94, I hope you don't have as much trouble getting your referral!

Another car repair today, this time DH's car. We are trying our neighbor this time. I'm glad I sprung for the AAA upgrade a couple of months back, so we didn't have to worry about paying the tow truck driver for extra miles. And I was already scheduled to be off today, which makes things easier, too. We'll see how it works out...

Progress and frustration

January 8th, 2006 at 10:59 am

Have gone an entire week with no credit card purchases.

The HSBC card arrived, as did the balance transfer into our checking. I've scheduled payoffs on the other cards.

DMom gave me my birthday cash, and it was higher than previous years. For once, I don't feel like I need it desperately for anything and am going to put it right into the emergency savings account. I was playing around with the tax estimator thing Baselle posted, and it looks like we might owe this year. It would be nice to know enough money is sitting there, ready.

We're building up quite a credit on our electric co. budget billing. We should have one or two months with no bill this spring, plus the monthly amount after that should go down. A nice surprise.

It's the last week of my 4-week budget, and I still have money for Everyday Expenses. Smile Looks like I might finally come in at or below my 4-week goal for the first time.

Now for the frustrations. I guess I need to develop some philosophy about when to declare an issue dead, and just give up on it. And when to keep pushing so as not to lose money or a service I'm entitled to. Right now, I'm dealing with several ongoing problems that could use up several hours a day, if I let them.

--Pioneer Telephone. Still waiting for long distance service. Called the state board of public utilities, and am playing telephone tag with the person who takes complaints. How much more time should I waste making phone calls that result in nothing? What I'm thinking of doing is this: Use up the

What a day

January 5th, 2006 at 11:53 am

I feel like I'm ready to take a nap or go to bed early, but I still need to work this evening...

Started the day by filling out and faxing the HSA forms to DH's human resources person at around 7 a.m. Called later to make sure it went through. Sounds good, but I'll feel better when I see the deductions on DH's next paycheck.

Then I had to get the dog to her annual vet appointment. She gets very nervous and they needed an extra assistant in the room to hold her still. A muzzle is a given, but when I asked they said yes, a tranquilizer might be a good idea next time. Quite an experience.

She's over 10 now, and seems to be getting the beginning of arthritis. The doctor recommended trying a special Science Diet food for joint disease, but you have to get it by prescription and it isn't cheap. $19.99 for a 10-pound bag of dry when I'm used to paying about $8. Or $1.50 a can, when I'm used to paying 50 cents. Plus I still have a lot in Petsmart gift cards to use up, and I wouldn't be able to get this food there. I just can't see committing to spending that extra money right now. Especially since the doctor only mentioned it at my asking, and pointed out that the dog was still pretty lively. So I'll try not to feel guilty. She can't be in too bad shape if she's still running up the steps just to show DH a new chewy bone. Smile

Mailed in the rabies certificate for the new dog license. Switched the newspaper billing to the debit card. Mailed a book that sold on Amazon, and a rebate. Picked up requests at the library. And all afternoon I've been working on taxes.

I sold a lot of stuff on Amazon last year, and a pretty large percentage of the items were things I'd bought at full price for personal use, and then sold later. But I feel like I have to report a sale as income unless I have a receipt to prove what it cost me (just in case we ever get audited). I was able to pull up old Amazon purchases, and an Ebay purchase through my Paypal account. But there are still quite a few purchases I have no receipts for. At least I got the taxable Amazon income down by $200. A lot of work to save about $30 on our taxes, now that I think about it...

Another no-cc day. Wrote a check at the vet.

No cc days

January 4th, 2006 at 08:11 am

I still don't believe in the cold turkey/complete abstinence theory as far as credit card use.

Sometimes it just makes sense to charge a purchase, for example, if you're buying an expensive appliance and putting it on a cc doubles the manufacturer's warranty.

Sometimes it's just the practical thing to do in an emergency. If I don't have ready cash for $844 in car repairs, there is no way I can leave one or both of our cars in the shop while we get rides to work from friends, or take public transportation, or wait for vo-tech students do the repairs. (The kind of thing the author Jerrold Mundis would suggest.) I'm sorry, but putting the repairs on a 0% credit card makes a lot more sense to me than completely disrupting our lives for several weeks.

OTOH, it felt good to be starting fresh on New Year's Day, with a clean slate. It seems like the time to try something new, and I decided it would be interesting to see how many days I could avoid using a credit card. So far, so good. I've switched my Netflix billing to the debit card on my little checking account. I'll be moving the newspaper billing to that, too. I ordered myself a DVD for my birthday, and was able to use Paypal. I had to buy a new toaster, and used a debit card.

This morning while I was waiting for a phone call, I played around on Quicken to see how much I used ccs last year. I made 241 purchases on them, about one every day and a half! The total amount of purchases came to over $11,000. At this point, I'm feeling very lucky our total cc debt is about the same as a year ago. It's a miracle it didn't go much higher.

I don't believe cutting down on cc use is going to solve all our financial problems. I'm not really sure that our spending will go down enough to counteract the loss of $300 from the Citi rewards program. But it can't hurt to try and see what happens. At the very least, our debt won't grow, and that's something.