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Archive for January, 2008

Gas and electric bills better this month

January 29th, 2008 at 02:48 am

I think I've been able to make a difference by more frequently keeping lights and computers off. And I'm ashamed to say that somehow the setback thermostat had gotten put on HOLD, so once I remedied that and went back to 60 degrees at night, I think that made a pretty significant difference. I'm thinking of shaving a few more degrees off at night since we all like it cool for sleeping anyway. And it's much more palatable to do that than to cut back on AC in the summer. It feels great to get back to my frugal roots. I had just about given up the situation for hopeless, thinking it wasn't worth sweating the smaller stuff. Boy, was I wrong!

Not exactly a zero spend day

January 27th, 2008 at 04:08 pm

In the interest of logging my expenses, today on a quiet Sunday I spent:
$20 for the daughter to go to a banquet - ok, she very seldom spends money so she is well entitled. BUT, while I was waiting for her, I checked out a used book store and spent $17.08. I think they were good investments though - two tremendous cookbooks - one vegetarian and one quick and easy meals. Like most people, cookbooks I buy often languish, but I chose these carefully. They are very simple with big pictures and simple ingredient lists and directions. And since I was thinking we need to go to more of a "rice and beans" type diet, these look like just the ticket.

I also bought milk and and $.80 donut for the daughter, again a well deserved rare treat. But I think that's about it! Dinner was leftover veggie lasagna that I made on a whim last night and it turned out to be very tasty, although a tad too watery. I had to spend more for the mozzarella since on Saturday they were sold out of the sale stuff. But I bought a brick instead of the pre-shredded stuff my wife usually buys - man, I hope she only buys that on sale!!! One step at a time. We are making great progress with another takeout free weekend! Yay!

I also refinanced some short term CC debt left from Christmas at 13% to 2% for a year. Unfortunately I had to roll some expiring 0% into that. And I got started with Quickenonline to put the finances under the old X-rays. And now I am going to renew my AAA at about $130/year for my wife and me. And I should decide if I want to go for the Comcast Triple Play for a year to get rid of $40 in phone bills. But I don't want to risk losing my phone # when I have to switch back in a year, so if anyone has experience with that, please let me know. So I guess this has been a somewhat expensive day! Luckily just about all weekdays are zero spend for me. I always take lunch to work. I sliced some Italian bread that costs $.99 instead of using bread from the $3.50 load of packaged bread. I want to start baking on the weekends, both to save a little and to have a better product. Did you know they use High Fructose Corn Syrup in bread?!!

Free one month trial of Quickenonline is pretty nice

January 26th, 2008 at 12:31 pm

It does have some limitations, but if you want to do a quick snapshot of your spending, it works very well. My Credit Union keeps three months worth of online data, so it downloaded that pretty easily. So the bottom line over the last three months is it said we are overspending by a couple of thousand! Sounds about right with Christmas. Frown It only does budgeting very simply by comparing the last month with the four month average. But it did point out that gasoline is killing us!! My wife drives a van that only gets about 17 MPG with her usual driving, so she must be driving a lot more than I thought!

One thing that is misleading is that we often get cash back when using the ATM card at the grocery store, so a lot of cash is lumped in with groceries. Any suggestions on how to handle that? I'm pretty sure I will buy regular Quicken with one of those tax software package deals very soon, maybe with one of my Christmas Gift cards, since I know it lets you split transactions like that and the web version doesn't. By the way, I tried the free equivalent at mint.com, but it didn't accept my credit union accounts.

Question on credit score and balance transfers

January 22nd, 2008 at 03:08 pm

Here's about the best online info I could find on the individual components of a credit rating:
[url]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FICO_score[/url]

It is an unfortunate fact of life that I have to keep shuffling while I try to pay down balances. But when I shuffle to a new 0% or low rate, how much of the available credit line should I use? I'm thinking maybe 90% to maximize the amount of cheap money, but trying to stay under the triggers for ratio of debt to available credit. But I have no idea what the triggers are, or even if they are on an account by account basis or a cumulative basis.

Boy, if this one from the Wikipedia [url]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Credit_history#How_credit_... article is true, I am REALLY in big trouble! It brings up a very interesting point though, since I am looking at transferring OUT of a CC with a high APR but a low minimum payment to one with a very low 2% APR and most likely a much higher minimum payment.
# Control of debt - Lenders want to see that borrowers are not living beyond their means. Experts estimate that non-mortgage credit payments each month should not exceed more than 15 percent of the borrower's after tax income.[citation needed]

One more bit of info - the Credit section of my wamu CC account (which is very nice, BTW) implies that maybe it's 50% of an individual credit line that they look at. My score did go back up last month and looks pretty good right now.

Small victories and big setbacks

January 20th, 2008 at 04:02 pm

We avoided ordering out two nights this weekend, probably saving about $30 - not too bad, definitely a much-needed step in the right direction. Annualized, that comes out to $1560 after tax dollars!! And speaking of tax, it's good to keep in mind that ordering out is penalized by the government with the 7% sales tax.

So the major setback was that onto the CC went college books and a few hundred of travel expenses for taking my daughter back to college and stocking her up, totalling darn near $1000. Oh my, college is going to be a miserable financial experience!

Convenience stores, daily bread, and profit margins

January 19th, 2008 at 10:27 am

Does the price of bread irk anyone else? And if so, what have you done about it? I always try to buy it in the grocery store for around $2 (store brand or sale), but since I seldom do grocery shopping, too often I have to buy it at the convenience store for $3+. We have a bread machine that has never been opened since it was new about 20 years ago (yes, I know, stupid), that I really should at least try, that is if I can find it!

So on the way out with my $3.19 bread, I noticed the blue water (windshield washer fluid) was $3.79!!!! And I felt bad for buying it for $.88 a while ago since it can easily be made with probably about $.20 worth of alcohol in water.

Eating the elephant one bite at a time

January 19th, 2008 at 06:07 am

It seems like almost every task I get lately is so monumental that is it discouraging. But what I need to do is always the same, slog through it one step at a time. And the obvious key is you can't give up, no matter how tedious or discouraging it gets. OK, this was a pretty simplistic entry, but something that's good to keep in mind. As an example, my wife takes down the Christmas decorations and I have to jam them into storage, and that's definitely better done a little at a time, mainly to avoid overworking the old back.

But another facet of being relentless in pursuit of a task is that you need to take some breaks. I just got done sweating over making the Spring college tuition payment, so I need to take a short break before hitting taxes and FAFSA, but not so much that I lose my momentum and fall behind. This is a major goal I have, to stay the course without losing focus or burning out. So I need to be tenacious, something that comes easily to me only if it's something I am very interested in, so it only makes sense that I HAVE to be very interested in my own and my family's financial well-being.

So do you feel sorry for BoA, Chase, Citigroup, etc.?

January 18th, 2008 at 02:42 am

I find it pretty amazing that they can have so much loss from bad debt. CEOs and other executives get paid all these millions and they still make fundamental blunders like that? And for those of us working to pay off debts, how does it make you feel to see so many people just get to write theirs off? Sure, it comes with a lot of pain, I'm sure, but it still seems like we are heavily subsidizing people who made bad decisions, whether through the stock market crashing or public bailouts and stimulus packages being tossed around frantically in DC right now.

Frugal motoring

January 16th, 2008 at 05:10 pm

About the only thing we can do about high gas prices is to combine trips out the wazoo. I did that tonight - dropped my daughter off at swim practice, bought dog food, got gassed, went to get my hair cut but it closed early tonight, had a $1.27 (with tax) salad at Wendy's, got the car inspected, bought some motor oil and windshield fluid cheap at the grand opening of a new conveniently located auto parts store, then went back to swimming and walked until my daughter was done. The only downside is I bought a new brand of dog food that was cheaper and highly recommended by the store, but the dog won't eat it! And of course it's a 40 pound bag. I've been putting treats in it, but so far she has been eating around the food!

Back to topic, I have also been driving like an old man. I call it the "poor man's hybrid". The key is to use the brakes as little as possible and to plan ahead as far as possible. For instance, as soon as I see a light turn red, I lift off the gas and coast up to the light, unless there is someone right behind me. It is actually sort of a fun game, seeing just how much I can optimize. And as a benefit, I give myself plenty of room in front to avoid hard braking at all costs. Of course this style of driving is much easier and more effective with a manual transmission car where you get engine braking. When I drive an automatic transmission car, I can just feel the gas and brake pads being wasted.

It's not easy to squeeze a budget,and I guess large minimum payments are good.

January 14th, 2008 at 06:55 pm

After budgeting for the essentials, there just isn't much room for cutting in my budget. It seems like all I've got are the perennial targets, food and household items. Severely reducing eating out costs is the easiest score, but my wife's fast food habit will be tough to break. And she always gets the expensive combos, where I always get the $2-3 worth of items from the value menu with water to drink in the rare case when I am stuck eating fast food.

A big part of my budget is CC payments now that most credit card companies have raised the minimum payments to something like 2% of the total, and the last CC balance transfer I had to take for college might be 3%!! My CU still has the ridiculously low minimum payments though, and that really can lead to trouble. Before I always had the attitude "Later", but now I realize that I can't do that, "later" has to be NOW!!

Moneydance or Yodlee? (financial software revisited)

January 14th, 2008 at 03:06 am

I want to get back to logging expenses with software. I am intrigued by the online one provided by Yodlee.com and mint.com, but for some reason it scares me to have to provide bank account login info. But I guess you have to do that to connect with any software, so maybe it comes down to company trust? For better or worse you sort of have to trust Microsoft and Intuit, but Yodlee is pretty unknown, to me anyway. Any experience out there?

If I don't go the web based route, I like Moneydance since I have both a Windows and Linux PC, plus I can download the trial version first to give it a try before buying.

Oops, I see I should have searched the forums first, Yodlee turns up quite a few hits. So you can assume I will read them all in any answer. Smile But at first blush it looks ok since many major banks use their service.

OK, my initial experience with Moneydance is not too good. I have multiple accounts with the Credit Union and it is only seeing the one account, even when I never typed its number in, only the number of the other account.

And the Yodlee/Mint preview demos look very good, but I'm still nervous about putting all my info on one web site. Maybe I will just look for a good sale on Quicken after all.

Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic

January 13th, 2008 at 07:53 am

My finances have hit an iceberg (college). I should be getting the women and children into the lifeboats, right? The water level is rising fast! So saving another $100 or $200 a month probably isn't going to save our ship. Not that I can ignore cutting expenses, but I need to make more drastic maneuvers. Oh well, until then, I don't like the position of these deck chairs!

Our automotive black cloud (hit and runs)

January 10th, 2008 at 04:01 pm

My wife is dealing with a hit and run in a parking lot now, making a police report, I think. So I wonder if my insurance company will jack up our rates again, even if we don't make a claim??! (See earlier similar rant). It feels like I am in the Twilight Zone since we keep getting hit and our rates keep going up at the same time our cars get more dented. The high school parking lot took a HUGE toll on the car my daughter drives - dings all over the doors.

Why was the quoted loan rate so high for a college student?

January 9th, 2008 at 06:44 pm

I was pretty shocked when applying for a college private student loan for my daughter that even with me as a co-signer, they wanted to charge 10%, with a 3% origination fee!! Does anyone have any idea if it could have been because my credit rating is only about 722, down from 745, or was it just because of my daughter being a college student with no job?

In any case, I'm trying to improve my credit rating by not having any charges with a balance near the limit. I'm thinking that this will be essential to get student loans at a decent rate. I guess I'll put in for my free credit report right now to get the story on why it recently decreased by 20 points (according to the Wamu website). I haven't really done anything recently that would have caused that that I know of.

Later addendum: I am happy to say that Discover came through with an excellent rate, about half of Chase's!!! It sure pays to shop around - too often I think "they're all the same" - definitely not true.

Don't look down!

January 7th, 2008 at 04:40 pm

As I figuratively soared high above my finances to get a bird's eye view, I decided it's definitely not good to look down! When your CC debt is not too much less than your annual take home salary, THAT is a problem. Oh well, one day at a time! In my case it averages a thousand or two a year for 20 years or so, but I think it has only been accumulating over the last 10 years, or actually it has to be less since I can't have juggled 0% rates for that long! Oh my, I have work to do!