Finding Opportunity in Disaster

29 05 2008

I am the luckiest guy in the world, I’m married to my high school sweetheart, today I turn 23, and yesterday I closed on my house an hour after I found out about a leak that flooded the front bedroom. 

Why do I consider myself lucky after closing on something that most people would have not closed on?  I consider myself lucky for two reasons.  The first is because I’m much luckier to have it happen before I move in, than to have it happen later, ruin furniture, and interrupt my life.  The second reason is because it allowed both sides to come back to the negotiation table. 

I wrote last week about how once the builder had my earnest money, I had no negotiating power.  This leak allowed me to get more.  Mary and I maintained a calm demeanor, we expected random issues like this (in fact almost this exact thing happened to my cousin’s new house after they moved in).  We decided what we wanted and went back to the table.  By no means were we greedy, but we decided that we wanted an extended warranty on the house and a guarantee for when everything would be fixed.  We got both, and closed.

If it had happened in two weeks I’d still consider myself lucky, because I have a fully funded emergency fund, a home warranty, and insurance for occasions like this.

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Ten Tips for Saving Money on Gas

1 05 2008

As gas passes $3.50 per gallon and rapidly approaches $4.00 per gallon (or it’s already there…sorry CA), Mary and I can’t wait to move into our new house and cut our commute from 32 miles to 15. However in the meantime, we have taken measures to get the most out of our tanks of gas. So here are 10 tips that could help you increase those MPGs and decrease those gas bills!

1. Carpool. Mary and I are lucky enough to work at the same company, so it makes sense for us to carpool. By our calculation, we are saving at least $200 per month by this little step. Sure, it sucks sometimes when one of us has to work later, leaving the other with nothing to do, but we always remind each other how much money and time (Carpool lane) carpooling saves us.

2. Change the oil on time. Staying up to date on engine oil changes helps your car run better and get the most out of your gas. I make sure to change the oil in our Acura every 5,000 miles (Oil Co’s recommend 3,000 miles, car makers say 5,000), and every 7500 miles in our Volvo (synthetic oil).

3. Get a high performance air filter. K&N air filters are expensive, but they pay for themselves in the long run. They come with a 1 million mile warranty because you clean them instead of replace them, plus you can get up to 10% better gas mileage because they allow your engine to breathe better and give you better performance. I received 10% better gas mileage in my old Jeep when I put in a K&N filter. Note: Mr. Dave points out in the comments, that high performance filters are not recommended for some engines like the VW TDi engine.  Though if you have that engine you’re beating all of us on MPG anyway.

4. Inflate the tires. Making sure your tires are inflated to the recommended PSI will increase your gas mileage because a fully inflated tire offers less resistance when you are coasting.

5. Coast. If you have an onboard computer, have you ever set it to give you the instantaneous MPG? You will probably notice that when your foot is off the gas your MPG skyrockets. So if you see a read light ahead let off the gas, there is no need to speed to a stop, it’s just a waste of gas and you’ll have to replace your brakes sooner.

6. A/C or Windows Down? It’s summer, it’s hot, so what do you do? This all depends on what you are doing. If you are driving at highway speeds, roll the windows up and use the A/C, because the drag of the windows being down really hurts the gas mileage. Driving around town? Roll ‘em down!

7. Don’t carry around extra crap! Weight directly affects your gas mileage. The more stuff you have weighing down your car the worse MPG you get. So lose the golf clubs, toolbox, and other random stuff unless you need it.

8. Plan your routes. UPS saved millions of dollars a year in gas by rerouting their trucks to limit the number of left turns, and you can save money too! Plan your routes in the most efficient way possible. Generally right turns are faster and they use less gas waiting at lights than left turns, so why not try it out!

9. Get a gas card! Many credit card companies offer cash back on gas purchases, so why not!? You’re going to be spending the money anyway, so you might as well earn up to 5% cash back. Or even better get a gas company card, brand loyalty pays you in savings!

10. Don’t use E85. What? But the government said it’s going to be our saving grace and I want to help save the environment! I’m all for saving the environment when it is in my financial interest (like compact florescent lights that will pay for themselves), but if it will cost me more money, I’m less likely to do it. E85 is cheaper, and your car may run on it, but according to AutoTrader it contains 27% less energy than 87 Octane (the cheap stuff). That means you get 27% less MPG using E85. The only time it’s in your financial interest is when E85 is less than 73% of the cost of 87 Octane. At my local station, E85 is about 30-40 cents cheaper per gallon than 87 Octane. $3.20 / $3.50 is 91%… not in your financial interest.

I hope you can put these ideas to good use, and if you’ve got any more, feel free to leave them in the comments!

 





Does The Size Of Your Image Equal The Size Of Your Debt?

31 03 2008

Our society has a perception complex. We are raised to judge and compare ourselves against others and our perceptions of other people become our own reality. We are trained from an early age in this regard. In school it didn’t matter if I got a “C” on a project as long as it was in line with the other students in class. Even on a set scale where everyone knows that an “A” is the best, we judge ourselves against our peers, not the scale. It only mattered that I was considered as smart or smarter than the other kids in the class.

By no means do I consider myself to be smart, but the fact that I am a clean cut, in shape, nerdy looking guy, who can carry a conversation on just about any topic, has really helped me out in life. My image allows other people to come up with their own realities of who I am, and I have found that for the most part, people consider me to be a mature young guy with a good head on his shoulders, though if you read young and frugal you already knew that (I kid). And for the most part I work at my image because I want people to walk away feeling that way about me.

Whether we like it or not, image is important in our society, and our society sees the things we appear to possess as extensions of who we are. Our friend who drives the BMW must be rich, and the guy down the street who drives a ’95 Civic with 225k miles on it must be poor (eww!).

Notice how I used the phrase “appear to possess,” I say this because if I’m leasing or I have financed a 3 series is it really mine? If it’s paid off like the ’95 Civic then of course it is, otherwise…? I don’t know, can you claim half a BMW?

All of this perception is human nature. As kids, we know that rich people drive nice cars, live in nice houses, and watch huge HDTV’s. As we grow up, and learn about money and responsibility we learn that just because we appear to possess these items doesn’t mean we are rich.

Mary and I listened to NPR on the way home from work today and we heard an interview with Moby. Moby grew up very poor, and he and his mother were on welfare and food stamps until he was 18. He knows and understands the merits of frugality, and that perception isn’t everything. He said on the radio today that earning a great deal of money hasn’t changed him and that he still shops at the same grocery store and does his laundry at the same laundromat. He says he still even has a little 13 inch TV.

When talking about his spending habits and his TV, Moby said “will watching Family Guy on a 42 or 50 inch TV make it funnier?” This practically stopped me dead in my tracks. For months I’ve been salivating over flat panel TV’s that I can’t really rationalize purchasing, but I always end up salivating and coming back around to wanting one. Mary and I even went shopping with her mother for one yesterday. I have had my dream home theater in my head for months (with a mac mini at the helm), and this one prompt by Moby made me question my motivations. Yes, Family Guy is hilarious, but A TV won’t make it funnier because it’s bigger, nor would Davidson have beaten Kansas had I watched in HD.

Why do I feel compelled to make such a big purchase? I could definitely put $1500 to better use somewhere else like an IRA/401(k) or paying down our car loan even faster.

I really can’t come up with a good reason as to why I want a new TV. We have two 20″ TV’s and they both work perfectly. Plus, I don’t really watch TV anymore! Yet, for some reason I want one that is newer/better.

Maybe I feel that our new and incredibly nice house is an extension of us and the TV is an an extension of the house that makes it that much nicer. Maybe I want people to perceive that we have made it, when we drive in our nice and practical new car to our nice new house and watch Nightly Business Report our big new LCD. But at the end of the day image is only as deep as the debt you (can) get yourself into.

Here is the anomaly on all of this, I don’t want my friends looking at our house and our car and being jealous. Sure it makes everyone feel good when other people are jealous of them, but Mary and I are in a unique situation where we are starting out in our lives and careers together. We are a dual income family with no kids (ok we practically treat our dogs like kids…but I digress). It is easier for us to afford this lifestyle. I don’t want any of my friends jumping into our lifestyle too quickly and getting in over their heads, I want them to understand that yes, we have nice things, nicer than we deserve, but we also have car payments, mortgage payments, insurance payments, property tax payments, Homeowners Association Dues, and various other things factored in.

Hey, at least we have no credit card debt! 





How Scouting Taught Me To Be A Smart Shopper

26 03 2008

While I was at my parent’s house over Easter, I was looking through some of my old stuff when I found a stack of Merit Badge books from Scouts.  Sitting perfectly on the top of the stack was the book for Personal Management, a merit badge designed to teach teens about managing time and money.

The book is filled with very good information on everything from budgeting, to living on your own and debt management, but I’d like to focus in on the section titled: Being a Smart Shopper.  (Keep in mind that as I go through and quote this that it was written in 1996 for teenage boys, but the lessons transcend age and date.)

 Suppose you have your eye on a really special skateboard.  How much does it cost? (Don’t forget to include the cost of protective gear if you don’t already own such items.)  You count your money and discover that you don’t have enough.  What do you do?  You Might:  

  • Shop around.  Maybe another store or a catalog has the identical skateboard at a cheaper price.  A telephone can make comparison shopping easy.  Call at least three stores.
  • Earn or save more money until you have enough to buy the skateboard.
  • Wait for a sale.  A store clerk might tell you if the skateboard will go on sale soon.
  • Look for discount coupons.  These can be found in newspapers, coupon books, or the mail.

What if you still don’t have enough money to buy the skateboard, or you decide you don’t want to spend that much money, even if it is on sale?  You have other choices.  Shoppers can’t always buy exactly what they want.  Sometimes they must compromise.  Thats part of being a good money manager – knowing when to say no to yourself. 

 Wow.  I’d say those last few sentences are something everyone needs to remember!  Mary and I are in this situation with our house right now.  We really want hardwood floors in our living room, but we know that we just don’t have the money for it.  We are forcing ourselves to say no, and it’s hard because we need want them.  It is very hard to say no to yourself, and it takes a great deal of self control, especially when (once you get older) it’s so easy to put a purchase on the credit card.  Luckily for Mary and I, we are able to hold each other accountable and it really helps.  

The Scouts are essentially saying, if you can’t afford something you have a few options: shop around, save more, wait for a sale, and look for coupons.  Very smart advice for anyone.  It also reminds us all to consider all of the costs we will encounter for this item, like having extra money for protective gear for the skateboard.

The passage goes on to recommend that you buy a less expensive skateboard with a different paint job, buy a used skateboard, check classified ads, and it even brings up building your own skateboard (which sounds fun and easy to me!)

The book then offers a checklist for smart shopping some of which are (my commentary in parentheses):

  • Be wary of advertising…(Always!)
  • Before buying a product, talk to…others who may already use [it]…  (Also seek reviews from consumer reports or on the internet)
  • Try before you buy/demo
  • Consider quality.  Price isn’t everything… Why buy something, even at a low price, if it falls apart quickly or doesn’t work properly.  (I am obsessed with quality products, if there is a difference in quality and price, I will buy the one that has better quality)
  • Consider Service. (I’m usually willing to pay more for something if I know that the service behind it will be worth it.  For instance, I’ll pay a bit more for something at Costco in order to get their service and extended warranty)
  • Don’t Impulse buy.
  • If there’s a problem, take a product back right away (be sure to keep your receipt).  Don’t toss the item aside and feel sorry for yourself….Most stores…[will]…probably fix the item or give you a new one.  (I am terrible at actually returning items to stores.  It always seems like too much of a hassle.  But I’m going to make a point to return a broken glass bowl we got as a wedding present (in June) this week.  We have the receipt.  I hope they take it back!)

It’s not always easy to be a smart shopper.  Most people, myself included, aren’t good at the waiting part.  We impulse buy, it’s what advertisers and marketers try to train us to do, but we need to always remember to stop and ask ourselves if we need the item, or if we just want it.  We also need to ask more important questions… Can I afford this?  How long with this take me to pay off?  How long will it take me to save for this?  Those are the types of questions that should be going through everyone’s head when they see something they want to impulse buy.

Writing this has been very beneficial for me today, because Mary and I did our Tax return yesterday and when I saw the amount we will be getting back I got very excited.  I even caught myself drooling over Mac mini’s online today.  But I slowly moved my mouse up to the corner of the screen and closed the window, because even though a Mac mini is on my list of things I want and need (yes I do need a new computer), I want to achieve other Goals first.  Most of our Tax return will hopefully be going directly into savings to help us achieve higher goals.





Frugality Increases Earning Power (And Saving Power!)

25 02 2008

I want to share a story about how being frugal can help you make more money, and not just help you save it. 

Ever since Mary and I decided to build our new house we have been living frugally for the first time, and I feel that it has opened my eyes.  I’ve always hated inefficiency with a passion, and I pride myself on trying to find the most efficient way to do things, but lately with frugality on the mind I’ve been seeing waste everywhere.  For example, this waste has forced Mary and I to become active instead of passive about recycling.  But it isn’t just at home I’m seeing waste and inefficiency, I see it on an everyday basis at work. 

The company Mary and I work for is not exactly known for being a leader in employee benefits, and it’s no secret around the company that the employees aren’t thrilled with the 401k.  But by being in the unique situation of working at the same company as my wife, and by talking with some friends, I was able to uncover something that could save the company upwards of two million dollars a year… 

From my Human Resource classes in college I know that an employees health benefits can cost the company around $4,500 a year if they are enrolled.  Because Mary started her job before I started mine, I have been under Mary’s benefits.  Each additional person on an employees benefits costs the company a fraction of that amount more, so assuming that it costs the company $2,000 a year extra to insure me under Mary’s plan, I’m effectively saving the company $2,500 a year by not being enrolled for my own benefits.  Unfortunately for Mary and I, it is more expensive for us to be on the same plan ($480/year more) so it isn’t cost effective for us, even though it’s cost effective for the company. 

In speaking with a friend who works at the same company as his wife, he mentioned that  his company offers a $500 incentive to not be enrolled in their benefits.  An incentive like that would make being on one plan cost effective for us!  So I ran some complicated numbers and realized that if a small percentage of our workforce decided to accept an incentive to not be enrolled in the company’s healthcare system and instead be enrolled in their spouses, the company could save millions of dollars! 

I took this idea, and I approached my boss, I showed him the math, and he loved it.  The next thing I know, I’m in the Treasurer’s office pitching it to him.  He also loved the idea, and even came up with the idea of re-allocating the saved money to improve the 401k (which would double the matching they do now).  After his office, I got an appointment to meet with the Senior V.P. of Human Resources, who also loved the idea!  

They will be passing it through the ranks and may be implementing the idea for the next enrollment period. By looking at things like this with a frugal eye, I have potentially saved the company money and/or doubled the retirement plan our company offers!  And while it’s nice to think that I’ve done this for the company, I’ve really done it for myself.  I got great visibility out of it, and now the executives know who I am and say hi to me in the halls, which is pretty cool for being in my first job out of school.  Hopefully I’ll be able to leverage this later on when it comes to my evaluation! 

I’ve also found that our company doesn’t recycle, and I probably throw two reams of paper away a month as part of my job.  My next task is going to be saving my paper instead of throwing it away, so I can approach my boss with a large stack of paper from only a weeks worth of saving, plop it on his desk, and ask why we don’t recycle!





Secrets of a Bargain Hunter

31 01 2008

I love a good deal, in fact I love a good deal so much that I have bought just about everyone I have come across.  Hard Drives, RAM, flash drives, shoes, sports equipment, you name it, if it’s a deal, I buy it.  In college, I bought deals to the tune of about $5,000 in credit card debt by the time I graduated, after all who can refuse a 400 gig Hard Drive for $100 (2 years ago)?  Did I need these things?  No.  In fact I ended up giving some of it to friends when I moved cross-country.  Is buying something because it’s a deal stupid?  Yes, but by running up my credit card bill I learned a great deal about deals.

  • The internet is a bargain hunter’s best friend.  There are literally hundreds of deal websites out there.  My two favorite forums are fatwallet and slickdeals , these websites contain tons of great deals on everything from shoes to plasma TV’s.  They also contain tricks and tips for getting deals and negotiating on larger purchases.  I got Mary hooked, and now she does research on these sites before she makes purchases.  Also check out Dealcoupon for up to date coupon codes.

  • A sale is not necessarily a deal.  Trust me, I work for a retail corporation.  Just because something is marked as a sale, or is on “clearance” does not mean it’s a good deal, it’s marketing.  Ever notice how certain department stores have the “biggest sale of the year” every Saturday?  Sure, sometimes things on clearance are a great deal, especially in the back corners of Home Depot or Lowes, but some of the time you can find a better deal by going online and researching.

  •  Coupons Coupons Coupons!  So you’ve researched online and you weren’t able to find a better deal, but you were able to find a website that has it for the same price.  I’d be willing to bet that there is a coupon that will save you at least 10%, whether it be a free shipping coupon (combined with no tax online it’s a huge bonus), x% off, or a free gift with purchase (Office Depot is notorious for these), you can find a way to make a deal work in your advantage.

  • Price Matching.  Did you know that many stores have best price guarantees?  For instance, Best Buy, Circuit City, Sears, Home Depot, Lowes, Staples, and a great deal of other stores will price match to another store.  Some of these stores even promise to beat their competitors prices by 10% of the difference in price (not 10% less than their competitor).  Say that Home Depot is having a sale on a refrigerator for $999 and Sears sells the same model for $1199.  In this case, Sears would give you the better deal even though it’s not on sale:

Sears Price:                  $1199

Home Depot Price:       $999

Difference:                     $200

Sears Pricematch:         $999

10% of Difference:          $20

New Sears Price:           $979

That may be the easiest $20 you ever made, just make sure you have a clear understanding of the price match policy and the store associates should help you out with no issues.  But that’s not all; because you are now buying at Sears and not Home Depot, they may be having a 10% cash rebate (as they do now).  So if you go this route, you end up saving another $98.  Allowing you to save $118 total, for maybe 20-30 minutes of work.                       

*Warning, many stores will also offer additional discounts if you pay with their store card, this can be a great tool, but it can also be a dangerous game for people who have trouble controlling their spending habits.  Please be responsible, and if you are in over your head with debt, a discount from a retailer for using a credit card will most likely cost you more in interest than you will save in your discount.

  • Check Store Credibility.  Many deals you will find online seem too good to be true.  If you find a great deal on a website you have never heard of, it would be best to check out the stores credibility before you hand over all of your personal information.  The best resource I know of for this is Reseller Ratings.  This site is filled with tons of valuable information and has a section dedicated to giving online store ratings.  So you can type in the store name and read up on them.  If they are not on this website, chances are they are not an honest retailer.

  • Stack ‘em up! What happens when you combine a price match with a coupon (or several)?  I can only describe it as finding a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.  It can work, but it really depends on their price matching policy, the fine print on the coupon, and the competence of the salesman.  Most coupons and price match policy’s say that they can’t be combined with other offers, but occasionally it can be done (it never hurts to ask!).

  • Bundle.  From my experience, this mainly works at big box electronics stores.  Most managers at Best Buy or Circuit City are thrilled to throw together a bundle of big ticket items at a discount for you, especially if you buy one of their coveted service plans that they want you to buy.  Margins are slim on big ticket items like TV’s, but they can discount stereos, cables,* and installation services because the markup is much more, therefore to help seal the deal, many times they will personalize a bundle for you.  My brother bought a 55” DLP, Receiver, Speakers, and Cables, and saved over $500 on all of it.  It is best to avoid peak times when attempting this.  (NOTE: I never recommend buying the cables from the stores.  You can purchase the same quality online for a fraction of the price at Monoprice.)

  • Be nice to the person.  They are just trying to earn a buck, and many times they are still in high school.  The best way to get a deal is to treat the sales person with respect, call them by their name, and don’t be pushy.  Most of all, if you are trying to stack, and it clearly states that the coupons aren’t valid with other offers, don’t push it.

  • Be Ethical.  There are many ways to try and get deals from stores, some of which are ethical (what I posted), and some of which are not.  Please be ethical, don’t lie to try and save yourself a few bucks.  Karma is very real.

Now that you know some of the tricks, it’s important to determine what defines a “deal.”  For me, deal is getting a better price than what the seller is asking, or getting additional things thrown in.  When Mary bought a swimsuit online recently, she searched a found 2 other coupon codes that she could use.  She got free shipping, and she got a free bathrobe and slippers, that we in turn gave as a Christmas present.  Plus because she bought online she did not have to pay tax (this varies by store).





My Frugal Best Practice

28 01 2008

Mary and I grew up without ever having to see our parents struggle, and growing up like this, we never worried about price, and to an extent we didn’t understand the value of money.  In college if we wanted Starbucks, we would go and pay $4.00 whenever we “needed” one.  If we wanted to order take-out, or go out to dinner, or when Mary “needed” to shop (we did live in Los Angeles) it was no issue, because our parents were paying for it in the end.  Sure we both had jobs, I had internships all the way through school (most of which were paid), and Mary babysat for extra money, but we knew we always had a safety net in our parents.  

Now that we are truly independent (sans cell phones because it’s cheaper than paying $250 to break contract), in anticipation of our house payment, we have already begun to make sacrifices, and are living more frugal than we ever have. 

After tracking our spending for a few months we made some drastic changes to the way we live, and continued what we were already doing well… below are some examples. 

We carpool.  Sure we have two cars, but we both work at the same place so why not?  After all, we currently live more than 30 miles away from work, so it really does save us a great deal of money and we alternate by week which car we take to regulate mileage. 

We changed our routes.  We were taking about $4.00 worth of Toll Roads to and from work, costing us over $120 per month in tolls alone!  And even this route was taking us an hour to get to work.  We changed routes when an HOV lane opened on our non-toll route, and now it only takes us 30 minutes to get to work without tolls! 

We cut our Satellite package.  We were paying about $65/month for TV.  Now we are paying about $40/month, and we don’t miss the extras!  This expense will go away with the new house because cable will be included in our HOA dues. 

We Take Lunch to Work.  This alone has probably saved us at least $300/month.  It seems absurd, but when you add it up ($10 per person per day) it definitely is an expense!  Even if we are lazy and take a Lean Cuisine, it saves us money, because the frozen meal is only $2.50, vs. $5-10 for lunch. 

We Stay Fit and Eat Healthy.  This may seem minimal to most people, but we consider it an investment in our future and it’s been proven that when you are in shape you spend less on medical bills.  For instance, when I was on the high school swim team, it improved my breathing and my lung capacity by over 200%.  I used to have severe asthma, now my asthma is under control and much better.  Now there is a company gym available to us for only $10/month, and we will have a community gym in the new neighborhood that is paid for by the HOA dues. 

We Cook Our Own Meals.  Mary is a fantastic cook, and I dabble, but since cutting down how much we go out to eat we have saved well over $200/month.  And most importantly we have found that experimenting to see what we can accomplish in the kitchen is much more fun than a night in a restaurant.  We even bake our own bread once a week.  We haven’t starting inviting people over yet, but I have a feeling it would be a great double date to have another couple helping in the kitchen! 

We Shop at the Dollar Store.  I’ve been made fun of for this, but in all sincerity, try it out.  Mary and I buy all of our cleaning supplies, toiletries, and paper products at the dollar store.  And while we don’t often need these supplies, we have probably saved over 50% on each visit, and we get the exact same stuff we would have gotten elsewhere! 

I haggle.  Mary frequently will jab me or apologize to the other person out of embarrassment; but it works.  It doesn’t work all the time, not even most of the time, but every once and a while someone will hook me up! I never push someone for a better price or a discount (large purchases excluded), but I always ask.  Frequently enough the cashier will give me 10% off.  After my brother saw me haggling he decided to try it, and he ended up getting 10% off an already discounted grill because he asked the Cashier! 

These are just a few examples, and as you can see we’ve already cut our spending by over $500 per month.  I’d also like to hear about what some of you do to save money, so please leave some suggestions in the comments!

-Daniel