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Archive for June, 2008

Have You Looked Yet?

June 30th, 2008 at 11:37 pm

If you're like me and check your mutual fund balances only on the last day of the month ... today is the day ... have you looked yet?

I just checked mine ... a 4.4% drop compared to end-May.

Oh well ... My grandpa told me that his father (my great-grandfather) told him that the price of a stock only matters when it is time to sell. And for those of you doing the math, yes, those words came from a man who was buying stock back in a day when very few people did, long before mutual funds. I will heed the words of my ancestor and not sweat it.

P.S. - I'll tell you what I AM sweating, tho. The 4.75% locked rate on my Wachovia MMA expires on Wednesday. I will miss it dearly. They're offering a 7-mo CD at 4.00% APY. I may go for that. They also have a 12-mo CD at 4.25% APY. (Both have a $5K min)

Book Recommendation: "Downsizing Your Home With Style" by Lauri Ward

June 26th, 2008 at 11:12 pm

For anyone who is thinking of downsizing their home, is struggling with fitting their life and stuff in to a smaller home, or (especially) is thinking they need to move to a bigger house because their current one is getting too small, I highly recommend the book "Downsizing Your Home With Style" by Lauri Ward (copyright 2007).

I found this book on my last trip to the library. I was familiar with Ms. Ward from an appearance on Oprah and her book "Use What You Have Decorating" and was already a fan. Ms. Ward explains to us every day folks how to create beautiful home interiors in an affordable way, emphasising using what we already own.

This book exceeded my expectations ... It's great! It is chock full of practical strategies and specific tips for ... as the sub-title says ... "Living Well in a Small Space."

If what you currently own won't fill all of your needs, there is a section at the back of many of the chapters called "Good Buys" that tells you specifically where you can buy certain recommended items.

I just loved the pictures. While they were all of attractive rooms, it was easy to see that a "real" person lived in each and every one. You could even see family pets in some of the pictures. There wasn't anything in any of the pictures that I couldn't imagine having in my own home. I don't know about you, but I don't care for looking at the "home" mags because the glossy fancy pics tend to be of rooms that look so overdone and expensive and not necessarily welcoming. The pics in this book, in contrast, were of attractive inviting rooms that I could imagine living in. The cover pic that you can see below is quite a bit fancier than any of the other rooms pictured. I'd love to post some, but am concerned about copyright violations.

New Challenge: Pump Gas In the AM Only

June 24th, 2008 at 11:37 pm

I find it much easier to take money-saving steps when the payoff is readily apparent:

- Clip a coupon, save a buck at the grocery store.
- Take a defensive driving course, save 10% on my car insurance.

Where it's more challenging is when the payoff amount isn't really known, I just know that I'm saving "something." And if you throw in the fact that taking a particular step to save money is something I think of as a bit unpleasant, then it gets really hard to get and stay motivated to do what I know I should.

Those are the times when this blog really helps, because accountability comes in to play. And it seems "challenges" appeal to my competitive nature and help me stay interested.

Back in late-January when I was pondering our electric bill, I came up with a "Steam Free Mirror Challenge" for myself:

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I am proud to say that except for one day when I was having a bit of rough morning and decided a steamy shower would be good therapy, every morning since starting the challenge my mirror has been steam free!
I know I'm saving on my electric bill, but I have no idea how much. My "payoff" is getting to brag here!

And now I have a new challenge for myself that I came up with while thinking about the rising price of gas: to only pump gas in the morning!

I know pumping gas in the morning when it is cooler (and therefore the gas is denser) can save you money (Edit note: I edited this from "quite a bit of money" to just "money" ... please see comments below). And I live in a hot place where the difference in temperature between the am and the pm can be 30 degrees. I know I should pump my gas in the morning. Problem is, I am not a morning person.
In order to pump gas in the morning on my way to work instead of on my way home from work, I am going to have to get my lazy self out of bed 15 minutes earlier.

I guess that's why it's called a challenge, eh?

EDIT - Additional comment: I'm also thinking about letting my tank get lower between fill ups, just so I'm dragging less weight (gasoline in the tank) around to improve gas mileage. After going through a 5-day widespread power outage and being unable to buy gas without driving over 30 minutes and waiting in line, I started filling up somewhere between 1/2 and 1/4 full. But I'm thinking maybe I should go back to waiting until it gets below 1/4 full to refill. Does anyone have an opinion on this?

Plastic Bags: What Am I Missing?

June 20th, 2008 at 12:22 am

Can anyone point out a flaw in my logic? I keep thinking I must be missing something.

I know buying & using reusable bags instead of getting plastic bags from the grocery store is all the rage right now, and I completely understand why. I totally get the whole "reduce, reuse, recycle" philosophy. I've been washing out and reusing my plastic baggies all of my life. I use the plastic bags the newspaper comes in as doggie pooper scooper bags. When I go to the farmer's market (where I'm just getting one or two items per stall) I bring a tote and put my produce in there directly. On the rare occasions I hit the outlet stores, I'll get a bag from the first store and tell other stores to skip the bag and just put my purchases directly in the first bag.

But for my household, I just haven't been able to figure out how giving up plastic grocery bags makes sense. We are a 2-person (and 1-dog) household, and the trash gets emptied every day. The trash has to be placed in tied-off plastic bags. So I use the bags from the grocery store, and I double bag because there are often little holes in them. On most days, we don't even fill up a grocery store sized bag of trash. I need all of my grocery bags for my household trash! The only way I could give up plastic grocery bags would be if I went out and bought replacement plastic bags, and I can't see the logic in buying something to replace the exact same thing that I get for free. And given that most store bought trash bags are for large size trash cans, they might end up using even more plastic and that would be most environmentally unfriendly.

If we were a big family and needed big trash bags and had to buy them, it would be an entirely different story. But we're a small family with small daily trash accumulation.

I think my logic is correct, and I think in our case in makes sense to keep getting plastic grocery bags, but I do feel a tad sheepish when I see all of these wonderful people walking out of the store with their "green" bags while I tote my old-fashioned plastic.

Am I missing something?

And may I just say a big thank you in advance to anyone who answers ... not only for your insights, but for understanding why stuff like this matters to someone like me (or should I say people like us).

65 Cents

June 13th, 2008 at 03:41 am

Before I leave for work in the morning, I make my lunch and fill up a travel mug full of coffee.

I had a couple days off and I guess that threw off my routine. This morning I forgot my coffee! So, I decided to use the vending machine at work for the first time ever, and shelled out 65 cents for a cup of java. Necessary expense? Certainly not. But I decided it would be better than going through the entire day without coffee.

I remember back in my early 20's I would have spent the money without even thinking about it ... I probably would have been buying a cup every day, in fact. Now it's a conscious decision, every time I choose to spend money.

Oh, and speaking of spending money (a bit more than 65 cents this time) ... DH has found what he thinks is a fantastic deal on a foreclosed house, and on paper it looks good. We are going to take a look at it this weekend. We'll see what it looks like "in person" ... it's in a neighborhood we like very much, and it just might be a real bargain, but it's a bigger house than I was hoping for.

Take a Defensive Driving Course for a Discount on your Car Insurance

June 6th, 2008 at 08:25 pm

(Back in December I wrote a short blog entry about how we got a 10% discount on our car insurance for taking a defensive driving course. It was a snoozer of an entry ... hastily written, and only one SA regular responded. But a funny thing happened ... It turned in to the blog entry that never dies. At least once a month, a non-SA person posts a question or comment on that entry, wanting to find out how they can take the course. Obviously, it's something people are interested in learning about and somehow it's attracting non-regulars to this site, so I thought I'd re-write what I learned, and I will try my best to be more concise, in the hopes that it will be more useful.)

First of all, I would like to state for the record that I do NOT work in the insurance field, and am in no way an expert on car insurance. I am just a consumer of car insurance who discovered a way to get a lesser-known discount on her car insurance. The following is what I believe to be true, but if any of you experts out there catch any mistakes or have anything to add, please feel free to chime in! Okay ...

Each state in the USA has different laws when it comes to car insurance. Some states require that auto insurance companies offer a discount to consumers if they complete a "defensive driving course." In some states, the discount must be offered to all drivers, in some states it is offered only to drivers over a certain age, and in some states it is not offered at all.

Taking a defensive driving course may be much easier than you think. Although how you take the course varies by state, it's very likely you can just complete the course on-line, in the comfort of your own home, in just a little bit of time.
(If memories of driver's ed class back in high school are holding you back, don't let that stop you ... It's nothing like that!)

The course need not be expensive. We paid $19.95 to take the course. You can shop around for the course. You can probably find a qualified course for around $20, so if you're finding prices much higher than that, keep looking. And if you are over a certain age (this will vary by state too), you may qualify for a discounted rate on the course.

The primary driver of the automobile must take the course. So if a husband and wife have 2 cars, they both must complete the course to get the discount on both cars.

Here is how getting the discount worked for us: My husband & I live in Texas. Our car insurance is through Geico. In TX, all residents are eligible for the defensive driver discount (there are no age restrictions). We have only 1 car and my husband is the primary driver, so he took the course. He took the course offered by Geico, on-line. We paid $19.95 for the course, and as soon as the course was completed and he had passed the on-line test, a 10% discount was applied to our car insurance policy. His course certificate is good for 3 years; after 3 years have passed, if we want to continue receiving the discount, he will have to retake the course. I should also add that my husband felt he got some very useful information from the course, so though the main goal was to save money it also hopefully helped make him a safer driver.

If you want to find out if you are eligible to receive a discount on your car insurance for taking a defensive driving course, my recommendation is that you contact your insurance company and ask them ... Ask them if they offer the discount for folks of your age in your state, and ask them if they offer the course themselves, and if so how much they charge. When you have completed the course, follow up with your insurance company and make sure they have applied the discount. When each insurance bill comes in, check it to make sure you are getting the discount each and every time.

If you are a Geico customer, check out Geico's state-by-state information at the following web site:

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Click on your state's name. About 2/3 way down the page, you will hopefully see something that says "Save a little green," with a link to information for "authorized defensive driver program in ---(your state)---"

Even if you are not a Geico customer, if you check this link, you may at least be able to get some information about whether the discount is offered in your state and if there are any age restrications.

If you end up saving some money as a result of this information (and I hope you do), please come back and share your story! Drive safely.

Ramblings from my Consumer Side

June 4th, 2008 at 10:57 pm

1. Fresh Produce: After cutting back some on fresh produce over the winter (and substituting with frozen stuff ... generally speaking much better nutritionally than canned), I really started missing it, and am so glad that it is now "in season" time and I can finally start finding deals on fresh again. I feel like DH & I are on a fresh fruit & veggie binge! On Saturday I went to a local farmer's market where I got a squash (a local variety whose name I forgot ... something like tatate), corn (is there anything better than fresh-picked), onions, tomatoes, sweet peppers (another local variety, name forgotten), and a huge grocery bag full of leaf lettuce. I spent $11, and felt it was worth every penny! Not only am I enjoying the flavors and nourishment, but becoming familiar with the local products is a way to learn about a place, so the farmer's market trip was part of my immersion in to life in my new state & town. (On a side note, whenever I travel I love to visit grocery stores. I always get a kick out of learning how people in different regions and countries eat at home. To me it's as fascinating as visiting a museum. And hey - it's free, so I guess that qualifies it as a frugal bit of sightseeing, doesn't it?)

I've also found moderately good deals on fresh fruits other than the old standbys of apples & bananas: $2 for a pint of blueberries, $2 for a container of raspberries (6 oz), and $1 for a whole pineapple (sale + coupon combination). I've been told I must buy Fredericksburg (TX) peaches as the season here comes early, but I've yet to do that ... I was disappointed when the farmer's market did not have any.

2. Grocery Shopping At Randall's: Here in Austin, the biggest grocery store chain is HEB. There is also Randall's, which is a bit more expensive but has very nice meats & produce and I've been told has the reputation for being a tad more "upscale." (We also have Whole Foods, which is headquartered here and is appropriately also know as Whole Paycheck ... for obviou$ reason$, I do not shop there.) I think Randall's is in some way a part of the Safeway family because they have the same private labels (such as Lucerne). Since it's a bit out of the way and more expensive, I had not shopped there. However, as new residents we received two coupons in the mail for $10 off if we spent $50 or more (pre-discount). So, off I went twice recently with my list & the store circular & coupons & a notebook where I kept a tally of all of my purchases as I shopped, because I did not want to go over $40 ($50 - $10). I succeeded; spent $41 both times. Both times, I got funny looks from the store managers, but both cashiers gave me "Atta Girl" type comments. The receipts said that I saved 51% and 53% respectively, but I thought that was a crock since the prices were a bit higher than the stores I would normally shop at (HEB, SuperTarget, and Costco), and since I always shop sales and use coupons. I felt like I truly saved 17-18% over what I would have spent elsewhere, and so it was worth the trip! Does anyone else think that some stores inflate their pricess so that they can trick consumers into thinking they are saving a ton of money when they look at a receipt that says "You saved 53%!"?

3. Bye-bye Sub-$100 Power Bills ... Hope to See You Again: Just got our power bill for May ... $98. Since we are in AC season (Texas has been in an early heat wave for the past couple weeks where every day is mid to high 90's), I know we can kiss power bills of less than $100 bye-bye until fall. We definitely used the AC during May, but will certainly be using it more in the months ahead. We really try to walk the line between comfort and frugality when it comes to the AC. We keep it at 80F during the day and move it up to 85F at night (because for some reason our bedroom stays a couple degrees cooler than the rest of the apartment). That may seem a tad warm to some of you, but we have ceiling fans that help and we're willing to live with feeling a bit warm and are just grateful to have AC at all. I am hoping to keep our power bill under $125 for June, and under $150 for July & August, but since this is our first year in Texas I really have no idea what the final numbers will be.