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Archive for January, 2009

Still Kickin

January 22nd, 2009 at 03:26 pm

Still around ... just been busy. (I did, however, take some time off Tuesday morning to pop some microwave popcorn and watch the Inauguration festivities, then spent more time than I care to admit talking on the phone to family members.)

Quickie updates on a far-flung variety of things follow.

1. Broccoli Sprouts: We've chowed down 2 batches of home-grown broccoli sprouts now. Yummy! The 3rd batch of seeds is soaking and will go in to the sprouting trays this evening. Buying the trays & seeds was definitely a worthwhile investment. Thanks again to fern (Wild Blue Yonder) and baselle for the tips.

2. Homemade Hair Gel: Did my last ever Locks of Love hair donation. (Last ever because grey hairs are starting to sprout.) Went for a somewhat short and really layered cut, which is something I haven't had for ages. Also for the first time in ages, I now need "product" to style my hair so I decided to try homemade hair gel. Been using it for about 1-1/2 weeks now, and it is working great for me.
Recipe = 1/2 tsp plain gelatin mixed with 1/2 cup warm water (store in fridge for up to one week). I'm using one of those inexpensive plastic condiment squirters. It's not a very pleasant sensory experience applying it (no perfumes added, and it comes out a bit cold & lumpy), but once it's been scrunched in to my hair I can't tell the difference between it and store-bought. It does its job well, is dirt cheap, and requires very little disposable packaging (just the gelatin envelopes), so I'm very happy with this experiment in frugality and will keep using homemade gel.

3. DH's First TX Franchise Tax Report: Been working on this. Since it's the first time to file in TX, there are new laws to learn and new forms to get familiar with, so lots of mind-numbing reading and head-scratching going on. In a masochistic sort of way, I kind of enjoy doing something like this. I know it's good for my brain to have to work at mastering something new and challenging.
Looks like I'll need to finish our Federal return first ... still waiting on forms to come in, and I know Treasury Direct will probably come in just under the wire (as usual), so that will make the schedule tighter than I would like. I need to have the state filing done by Feb. 19th at the latest. I know it can be done, I just don't like the idea of cutting important things like that so close to the deadline.

4. House Hunt: It continues. We got to the precipice of making a lowball offer on the house we both really like and DH got cold feet. It's the recurring "Austin vs. San Diego" quandry. Hopefully this question will be resolved sometime in the decade or so.

5. New Business?: I'm trying to get a new little (still confidential) side business up & running. Unlike my last business, this will be something I could move with me to another location. I'm still continuing my temp work, but I don't want to wait around any longer to figure out where we're going to settle to decide what I'm going to do career-wise. So I've been mentally toying around with various ideas for going the self-employed route again. Finally hit on one that appeals to me and passes the "husband litmus test." Not sure if it's going to fly, because when I approached the "banker" (DH) with my "business plan" (notes on paper), the result of our conversation was his blessing to go ahead and long as I promised not to lose any money. So, while I've expended time & effort, I've not spent any money yet. Worst case scenario, it will end up as a "learning experience."

6. Brokerage Account! The gal who swore she wasn't interested in buying individual stocks (me) has opened a brokerage account. Gotta keep an open mind and change with the times, right? There are some real bargains out there ... why would we want to miss a great opportunity? The little bit of money in the brokerage is just "casino money." In typical chicken fashion, we've yet to make a single trade.

7. Geithner - Blech: Following up on my rant http://scfr.savingadvice.com/2009/01/14/geithner-rant-or-am-...... it looks like the strategy of waiting to move ahead with his nomination until the post-inauguration-glow-period worked. Looks like the dude will become top dog at the IRS in spite of cheating on his own taxes. It's discouraging. Does this mean I can just send an apology note to the IRS in lieu of my next estimated tax payment? (Attn lurking IRS agents: Just kidding.)

8. Savings Rate Shopping: I've mentioned that shopping for the best rates on savings accounts is one of my financial "jobs" in my household. I recently spent a pretty good chunk of time on some serious rate shopping. I'm happy to share my process, if anyone's interested. Just let me know and I'll do a follow-up post (otherwise won't bore you all).

P.S. - Updated my cool quotes there on the left to reflect my current mood ... mixed feelings of optimism tempered with caution, pessimism tempered with determination.

Geithner Rant (or, Am I a Sucker?)

January 14th, 2009 at 08:42 pm

Be Warned: Completely non-productive, ranting post ahead.

Normally I wouldn't do a random commentary on a national news story, but two things happened today and the coincidental combination of the 2 just got under my skin. Excuse me while I vent.

1. First Thing = Read an Article in Today's WSJ on Geithner (page A2). When I first heard that Barack Obama had picked Timothy Geithner to be the new Treasury secretary, I was very impressed by the fact that he had also been on McCain's short list. I thought, "Hey - This is a guy who has impressed both of the parties candidates, so he must be a pretty good choice." When I heard the first news about his tax problem, I thought "Oh hey, probably just an honest mistake." Well ..... Then I read today's article and it filled in some details that I found quite disturbing. To briefly summarize, when he worked for the IMF he was supposed to have paid self-employment (SS & Medicare) taxes, but he did not. In 2006, he was audited by the IRS for the 2003 & 2004 tax years, they found out that he hadn't paid the taxes, and so he did, with interest. [So far, nothing to get to excited about, right?] However, when the Obama team vetted him for the position, they found out that he also had not paid the same taxes for 2001 & 2002; he proceeded to pay them, with interest.
Excuse me????? Once the audit was conducted, the dude KNEW!!! He knew beyond any shadow of a doubt that he was supposed to have been paying those taxes. You've gotta assume the guy figured he had gotten away with not paying the taxes for 2001 & 2002 because of the statute of limitations on audits, and so that is why he did not pay them (until he was being considered for a Cabinet position). Yes, I know there are plenty of other people out there who try to get away with not paying all of their taxes (and I'm none to fond of them either), but this is the guy being considered for the freakin' Treasury Secretary position. We're not talking about a White House chef ... We're talking about the guy who would be in charge of the IRS ... and it sure sounds like he's a tax cheat! This IS a big deal. I really hope there is a more-qualified candidate out there who is willing to take the job, because I don't think that fox should be in charge of guarding the hen house.

2. Second Thing = I mailed off my 4th estimated tax payment for 2008 today. As always, unless I unknowingly made a LEGITIMATE mistake, I paid each and every dollar I am required by law to pay. It was a lot of money. I don't enjoy sending off a big check to the U.S. Treasury 4 times a year, but I know it is part of the price I pay to live in this wonderful country and enjoy its benefits. Just plain old-fashioned civic duty. But as I have commented before, I know that my tax burden would be less if everyone paid what they were supposed to. And the thought that the guy who could be in charge of things might be someone who somehow believed he was justified in not paying his share just chafes. Gee ... Am I a big sucker for having paid all my taxes all of these years?

This morning I sat down for my morning coffee with the paper and my stack of priority tasks for the day ... Top of the stack, staring at me as I read about Geithner, was my 1040-ES Payment Voucher. So hopefully my grumpiness is understandable.

Thanks for "listening" to me vent. I'll try to be more cheerful on my next post.

Easier Said Than Done

January 12th, 2009 at 08:33 am

"Never fall in love with a house" --- I've said it myself, and I firmly believe it, but it definitely is easier said than done sometimes!

On Sunday we visited a couple open houses. One of the houses ... *sigh* ...

Ideal location.
Seems to be very solidly constructed.
Wonderful floor plan.
Reasonably priced.
Great lot size w/ pretty territorial view.
DH & I both like it a lot.

It's a bit older (about 25 years), which is both a positive and negative.
Positives =
- At that age, you can really get a sense of how well built it is, because it is holding up extremely well. In fact, my DH has a very strong preference for new houses, and for him to like an "older" house it has to be very well-maintained and have a sense of solidness.
- Also, my preferred mix of furniture (2nd hand Craigslist & garage sale finds), some antiques, and some new will not look at all out of place. (Some houses are so shiny and new that you just know garage sale furniture will look odd.)
- Also a positive in my eyes is that fact that it is a tad bit out of date, which turns some buyers off and therefore keeps the price at a more reasonable level. A specific example is that it has laminate kitchen counters, and I know there are plenty of buyers out there who won't consider a house with anything less than granite. Me? I couldn't care less about things like that because they are merely cosmetic.
Negative = It is not going to be as energy-efficient as a newer house.

The other negative on the house (nothing to do with its age) is that it is a bit larger than our ideal house size.

I put a call in to the listing agent first thing this morning to get some additional information, but she has not called back, so I'm starting to wonder if the house sold. The open house was swamped, like nothing I have ever seen, and certainly not in this down market.

I must stay cool and remember this is a business transaction .....
I must stay cool and remember this is a business transaction .....
I must stay cool and remember this is a business transaction .....

Came Close to Making an Offer

January 10th, 2009 at 08:43 pm

We've had a couple of days of marathon house-hunting. Came pretty close to making an offer on one house, but didn't. Went so far as to bring blank contract papers home with us. Of the *gazillion* (only a slight exaggeration) houses we have looked at, it is the one we have liked the most ... and we both like it equally. Very pretty house, nice size, perfect number of rooms. It is also a pretty good deal. Problem is, we're only lukewarm on the area (DH kind of likes it, I kind of don't). That's why we decided to hold off.

We had put our Austin househunting on hold when we were leaning towards San Diego (which is still a possibility BTW), and so when we started looking around here again after many months off we were pleasantly surprised to see that the builders have started taking serious price cuts. The "Oh ... the Austin market isn't affected by the national housing downturn and won't be" arrogance that we had run in to previously is GONE. Another thing that we are noticing is that some builders are starting to build NICE, smaller houses, which is a change here in the "Everything is bigger in" state and one that we welcome.

The other housing market tidbit is anecdotal evidence that the housing market bailout may be working in some instances. Months ago, we looked at a short sale home. At that time, the owners had moved out. We contacted the listing agent and found out that after receiving several lowball offers, the bank decided to work with the owners and they have moved back in to the house.

I'm tired. For me personally, househunting gets exhausting because it is so intense. Do you guys feel the same way? The last 2 nights we were so tired we did not want to cook and ended up going out to dinner. Thank goodness for the Olive Garden gift card we got for Christmas and the BOGO coupon to IHOP ... And to Ms. Koppur who gave me the idea of IHOP for dinner! (We learned that IHOP for dinner is great because there is hardly anyone there.)


First 3 Financial Decisions of the Year

January 6th, 2009 at 07:01 pm

1. Today's 10-yr TIPS Auction (first of the new year, and one of only a couple for 2009): We decided not to participate. I sort of wanted to, DH did not want to, and I was not sure enough that it was a good idea to try to persuade DH. (I am starting to think that if DH was single, all his money would just be sitting in the bank. I'm the one who brings up things like TIPS and mutual funds, and sometimes I have to push to get any sort of investing done.) Since my crystal ball has not yet been delivered, I of course have no way of knowing what will happen in the next ten years. Best guess? A period of deflation (due to constriction in consumer spending) followed by soaring inflation caused by the pent-up pressure of the presses at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing running overtime during a deflationary period? Auction results were published at www.treasurydirect.gov and the yield was 2.245%. I suppose it would have been fine if we had participated in the auction, but it's not the end of the world that we did not. (If, 7 years from now, we are in a prolonged period of double-digit inflation, please remind me what an idiot I was.)

2. New Bank Account for Bonus: We decided to open up a new checking account just to get a $100 bonus (we had received a promotional coupon in the mail). We have to keep the account open for 6 months, and there is no minimum balance requirement. I do wish that banks would just offer better interest rates rather than offering these bonuses, because it is a bit of a hassle to open and close accounts ... But I suppose that is why they do it the way they do ... There are lots of folks out there who can't be bothered to open & close accounts, but for $100, I sure can!

3. We Decided to Buy a Specific House (it didn't pan out, so don't get too excited): While at a party on Saturday, DH received a semi-cryptic message from a builder's sales rep saying "I sure hope you're still in the market for a house. Call me." DH got up early Sunday morning and checked the builder's web site, and saw that on one house in particular they had taken a BIG-TIME price drop. He came in and woke me up all excited like a kid on Christmas morning. I checked it out and got very excited myself. I said "Let's buy it!" and DH agreed 100%. It was truly a screaming deal. We were ready to go out to the house and sign a contract on the spot, for the asking price. (It is in one of our favorite areas of Austin, we know and like the builder, and DH had visited that particular house and had liked it very much and explained it to me in a way that I knew I would like it too.) We had to wait several hours until the sales office opened for the day, but I got my checkbook out and put it in my purse so we could head out there and write them a check. While waiting, I was doing chores around the house and DH was on the computer Zillowing, etc. Before too long, it started dawning on both of us that something was not right, that it was just too good to be true. Gradually we came to the realization that there had to be a mistake, perhaps a mis-typing when the new price was inputted. It felt like the air slowly going out of a balloon. When the sales office opened for the day, I called them to check on the price, and as we expected the price posted on the web site was wrong. In fact, the actual asking price was more than double! Oops!

Poor DH looked so let down, but I wanted to end the whole experience on a positive note for him so I high-fived him and told him that he has a great eye for a bargain (he does).

What I learned from the experience is that we are 100% ready & willing to buy a house when the right deal comes along, and that we are capable of making a VERY quick decision if need be.

----------------------------------------

Our 4th financial decision of the year will probably be made very soon, and it will involve our apartment lease. We had wanted to move to a larger apartment back in December, but the management of our complex kept dragging their feet. Our lease is coming up for renewal very soon, and it's time for us to make a decision about what we want to do. We have new rent rates on our current unit, and information on a possible larger unit. Today I went out and checked out several other complexes for comparison purposes. We are now leaning towards going to a month-to-month lease. That will give us more flexibility. We're looking at Sept or Oct as possibly a good time to buy, but if we find a great deal (like the one we found over the weekend, but "for real") sooner than that, it will be nice to not have to break a lease. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that I would be a "month-to-month lease" type of person, and certainly not at age 40-something. To me, month-to-month leases are for people who don't know where they will be a month (much less a year) from now. And guess what? Right now, that's me.

Out With The Old, In With The New

January 2nd, 2009 at 08:32 pm

1. Year End Net Worth Calculation: We ended up a leeeetle bit for the year. And when I say "leeeetle" I really mean it! 2%. Considering that ROR on mutual fund investments was -25.2% for the year, we can live with that. It means we retained enough of our earnings to ever-so-slightly more than offset our losses. Just like so many of you guys, living below our means was what saved us from being down for the year.

2. DH's Business (2008 results & 2009 outlook): DH's business for the year was down slightly (compared to his annual average). He had started the year off with a bang and we expected it to be an up year, but it didn't end up that way. In 2009, we expect business to be down more. There are a couple big factors working against us (one of them of course is the overall state of the economy), and a couple working in our favor. We will be satisfied with a year that is "just moderately bad to okay." And we know we will be fine even if it is really bad.

3. New Year's Resolutions: I don't make formal resolutions. My goals are created as the need arises, or as I am inspired by something, or learn something new that makes me realize there is something I should be working on. The ones I am working on right now are continuations of things I was already working on Dec. 31st.

While it's not a resolution, I did buy a special book for the new year ... "The Intellectual Devotional" ... I will be reading my way through that this year. Since it is formatted to be read starting on a Monday, I started it on Dec. 29th.

Again, while not a resolution, the one thing I was becoming dissatisfied with towards the end of 2008 was not using my time effectively. So, since the "devotional" (it is not a religious book BTW) is meant to be read one page each day, and since I am reading it in the evening, I stuck a post-it note to myself on the inside cover asking myself: "Am I satisfied with what I have to show for how I spent my time today?" So far, that has been a help. I hope it will continue to be.

4. In-Laws & Plans for the New Year: My FIL finally did it ... after much dragging-out, he got things wrapped up with his business and is now officially retired! I have mentioned before that DH & I want to give them something special such as a trip to commemorate their retirements (my MIL worked part-time at my FIL's business, so both of them retired). The gift is now in the planning stage! When we called to wish them happy holiday, we asked him where he would like to travel. He said he wants to come to the USA. And then he started listing the places he wants to visit. You'd think it would be something like "San Francisco, LA, and San Diego" or "Philadelphia, NYC, and Washington DC" right? But no! He said, "I want to go to Denver ... and Atlanta ... and Boston" ... LOL! That's so cute. (Places can seem so close to each other when you are looking on a map.) They want to come for 3-4 weeks, so I think we could actually make that itinerary work. We know this will be his last trip here, if indeed he is even able to make it this time. He has had some serious medical issues over the past few years, including a couple times he was rushed to the hospital for life-saving procedures ... Not the sort of thing that could be dealt with easily on a 13-hour plane ride. First he has to talk things over with his doctor, figure out what the risks are, and then decide if he wants to take them. DH & I have talked about it, and if the trip is a no-go, we are going to give them a cash gift and tell them to use it on anything that would make them happy. I mentioned that it might seem impersonal to give cash, but DH reminded me that in his culture it is perfectly acceptable, so that is what we will do.

5. Party: We got our first formal party invite since moving here to Austin. It's a "wrap up the holiday season" party. Isn't that a nice idea for a party, having it the weekend after New Year's? We did not have to worry about being out with the drunk drivers, we were able to stay home and calm our dog when the fireworks went off, and (most important for us old folks) no need to worry about staying up until midnight. Should be fun, and should be especially nice for DH, since part of the problem he has been having with Austin is feeling "out of the loop" socially.