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Monday, January 25

My Frugal Miser - Cut Digital Clutter with Free Online Storage

There are several websites offering free remote storage of your electronic files. I am much more comfortable storing my data offsite for a couple of reasons:
  1. Security. If my laptop gets stolen, I know my files have not been compromised.
  2. Convenience. Often I am at work when I realize I need a file from home. Or I'm going on vacation and don't want to bring my computer. Storing files online means I can access them anywhere.
  3. Performance. I'm not a computing expert, but generally the computers I have had have worked better when there are fewer files taking up space.
As a frugal miser, I don't see the need to pay for online storage (even though I'd be willing to pay a nominal amount as this is an invaluable service to me). Fortunately, there are a few places that will store your files for free:
  • Microsoft's Sky Drive. I have been using Sky Drive for a couple of years, and I can personally vouch for its ease of use. Since it's from Microsoft, I am comfortable that the service won't just disappear one day, taking my files with it! They give you 25 GB free. It uses the familiar folder structure for managing your files. The only downside I have found is that you can't move or download multiple files at once.
  • MediaFire. I haven't used this service, but according to the website, the free version allows you to store an unlimited amount of information. The difference between the free version and the one you pay for seems to be that you can store files larger than 200 MB, your storage page is ad-free, and you can do bulk downloads.
  • ADrive. Their "basic" (free) plan includes 50 GB free space. Upgrading gives you similar benefits as MediaFire (no ads). One feature that caught my eye was the search tool. With Sky Drive, I haven't found an easy way to search for files, so it is especially important to keep my files organized, both by carefully using folders and in the way I name my files.
  • Photo Sites. You can store your photos with each of the above solutions, but if that's all you plan to store, there are a few free places to park your pics. Since most people like to share their photos, this might be a good venue for you to do that. The major sites I am aware of include Flickr, Google's Picasa, and Shutterfly.
Keeping your files offsite offers many benefits. Since one of my goals in 2010 is to be paperless, this helps me do that while having the peace of mind knowing my important documents won't be stolen. Besides that, I like the portability of accessing my information from anywhere.

Tuesday, January 19

My Frugal Miser - Cut Your Cable but Still Watch Your Shows

Cutting out your cable or satellite bill is one of the easiest, most pain-free ways to reduce expenses. Remember, cutting out recurring expenses, like cable, is the most important step in gaining financial freedom.

Nearly everything you watch on cable is available elsewhere. Here's how I do it:
  • I use a regular HD antennae to watch broadcast TV (free).
  • I use to watch even more shows (free).
  • I subscribe to the lowest-priced Netflix plan that allows for unlimited streaming ($8.99/mo).
  • I purchased a Netflix-enabled ROKU to stream thousands of movies and TV shows to my TV.
  • I rent DVDs through Netflix to catch the latest movies and shows that aren't available for streaming.
  • When I get the itch for something else, I either 1) go to the dollar theatre; 2) rent from the Redbox; or 3) rent from the local library.
Find out where your favorite show can be watched:

Most months my only entertainment expense is the $9 I pay to Netflix. Also, when I cut the cable in 2003 I realized that there is so much more I can do than watch TV. Nowadays, I spend a few hours a week (seriously- maybe 10 hours total) watching TV, and usually am doing something else like checking email or working online at the same time.

Monday, January 18

Debt Update

Good news! Last week I paid off my Discover Card. The $3,941.40 payment came from a few sources:
  • I sold all my airline vouchers and credits over the last 30 days. This yielded about $1,700 cash.
  • As part of my December Clutter Roundup, I sold four items on, which added $31.
  • The balance came from regular income sources (mystery shopping, my job, rent checks).
My next focus on debt reduction is my loan and the American Express. All three of these debts (Discover, Prosper and AMEX) were taken on to purchase Rental Property #7 after the original financing fell through due to my job loss. I have one other credit card I used to buy the house but it is at a 0% rate until June, so that will be the last debt I tackle.

Friday, January 15

Warren Buffett is a Frugal Miser, too

I'm a huge Warren Buffett fan - I even have had my picture with him during my annual pilgrimage each May to Omaha for the Woodstock for Capitalists weekend otherwise known as the Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholder's meeting.

Besides his investing prowess, I am continually amazed by his frugal ways. I was reading an article this week that reinforced just how frugal he is.

Buffett still lives in the house he bought in 1958 for $31,500. I've been by his house. How odd that one of the world's wealthiest people lives in a modest, Tudor-style home that you could walk right up to. Seriously- there's not even a fence around his front yard. It's a corner house on a fairly busy street in Omaha.

Buffett won't touch fancy food, either. I've read a quote from Buffett that if a three year old wouldn't eat it, neither would he. He drives himself to work every day. His salary? A meager $100,000 per year.

Thursday, January 14

Mini Goal: Paying off the Loan

If you haven't noticed already, I really like to set goals. Even if I don't always accomplish them I think I do better than I would if I never established the goal in the first place.

So, here goes:

By March 15, 2010 I will pay the balance of my loan.

I took out this loan in order to purchase Rental Property #7. It isn't a huge loan, but the interest rate on it is higher than any other debt I have.

Wednesday, January 13

My Frugal Miser - Spending on Clothing

I will spend less than $50 on clothing this year.

I work in an office environment and my position requires visiting clients, so my day-to-day outfits range from business casual to slightly dressy. My 2010 clothing budget is limited to plain white t-shirts and possibly some underwear.

How do I do it? Well, first of all, I do cheat just a little. I only use credit cards with loyalty points for purchases, and I put everything on a credit card. Then I redeem the points for gift cards, usually for restaurants, gas or clothing stores. So I may spend as much as $100 this year on clothing if I get a gift card.

Second, I buy quality. It doesn’t cost much more; you just have to know where to look. I stumbled upon Land’s End because I have short legs and they sell pants in my inseam size. They don’t charge for alterations, which I like! What I have found is their pants really hold up. I have some that I bought five years ago that I still wear every week. Sure, the colors have faded a little. But there are no holes or tears or bad seams.

Third, I take care of my clothes. I don’t overuse laundry detergent, which is a major cause of excessive wear and something most folks don’t realize (just use half the recommended amount and you’ll be fine). I used to take all my dress shirts to the cleaners, but now I iron them myself, and rarely use starch.

Finally, I keep my outfits simple. I buy classics that won’t go out of style. I buy versatile clothes so that I can mix and match outfits.

Tuesday, January 12

I'm Going Paperless

Taxes are due in a few months, though I usually complete mine in February. The thing I hate most about filing my taxes is the mound of paperwork involved. This has inspired me to become virtually paperless in every facet of my life.

As a frugal miser I use TurboTax to file my own taxes, and I manage my daily finances in Quicken. I don't save bank statements since they are generally available electronically, nor do I hoard old receipts - except for higher-ticket items where I will hold onto the receipt until the return policy is void.

I've been moving towards a paperless environment for quite some time, but expect to be 99% paperless by the end of 2010.

Tools needed to go paperless:
  • I use a scanner just about every day. I scan receipts for tax deductible items or major purchases. I also scan leases for rental properties and then destroy the originals.
  • Download a free PDF converter. I use PrimoPDF, but there are several programs out there. Instead of printing a document, ask yourself if having an electronic copy would suffice.
  • Invest in a cross-cut paper shredder. These days identity theft is something to guard against. Any paper that does arrive in my house goes to the shredder.
Tricks to tame the paper tiger:
  • User manuals can be found in electronic form. Just google the item and product/model number and "manual" and you'll usually find a PDF version you can store in a folder on your computer.
  • Use the Notes feature on your cell phone instead of sticky notes. Also make use of an electronic calendar. I prefer to have access to important information wherever I am anyway, so using my iPhone for this made perfect sense.
  • Use the local library instead of buying your books. If ownership is a must, consider an e-reader. I have an Amazon Kindle and have purchased a couple books I wanted to have accessible at all times.
  • I go a step further by storing important documents online. I use a free storage utility from Microsoft called Skydrive. I like that it is free though moving files around and accessing them later is a little clunky.
  • Before clipping interesting articles from magazines, Google the title and save a PDF version instead. Most magazines can be accessed online. I admit I still have a few magazine subscriptions that arrive by mail, most of which herald from my days as a perennial travel when I always wanted something to take on a plane.
I still have some paper, but the most important items fit into a single fireproof file safe. For example, I keep original property deeds, tax records for three years, receipts for major purchases, and a few legal documents. I also keep two files I labeled "Active Mail" and "Save Until the 30th". Active Mail includes things I am waiting for action on such as mail-in rebates. The Save folder is for short-term record keeping. For example, when I completed a balance transfer offer on one of my credit cards I saved the offer paperwork until the terms were listed on my next statement.

Monday, January 11

A Frugal Vacation for my Birthday

I have a confession. I like to gamble. Well, I like poker, which some would argue (myself included) is a game of skill rather than chance. But when I go to the casino to play poker, I always spend at least a little time on the tables or slots.

Suffice to say, this is my vice. I only feed the habit a few times a year, but the casinos keep mailing me such generous offers to come back. Take last weekend for example.

To celebrate my birthday, my partner and I spent the weekend at our favorite casino resort. In deciding whether to go I reviewed the various offers that I had received in the mail:
  1. Free $80 match play for my birthday, plus a free $60 match play I get 3 or 4 times each and every month.
  2. Free hotel (up to 3 nights per week).
  3. Free meals (including a birthday meal at a nice restaurant).
  4. Free promotional event where I could win more free stuff.
Since I hit the trifecta on casino freebies, I decided to celebrate my birthday with a weekend trip. I brought $140 cash with me and left the ATM card at home. We booked two nights in the hotel, and upon arrival I asked (very politely!) if a birthday upgrade to a suite would be possible. To my surprise, my request was granted, no questions asked.

  • Friday night: arrived just after 10 PM. Checked into the suite and took a bubble bath in the over-sized tub. Relaxed in the bed and watched cable (we skip cable back home so it's always a treat when on the road).
  • Saturday morning: We ate a late breakfast at the buffet (where I didn't overindulge for a change). I used points accumulated on my Player's Card from previous trips to pay for the meal. Then I redeemed the $80 and $60 match play coupons. I asked the attendant to give me a combination of $15 and $20 increments instead of the full value on one ticket. After redeeming these at the blackjack table I was up $125 (thanks to hitting 2 blackjacks!).
  • Saturday afternoon: I came for the poker, really, so I played a marathon 5 hours. I was eligible for a free buffet, but declined since I had enough vouchers to cover our remaining meals. I did really well at the poker table. I started with $100 in chips and turned it into $380 (winning $280).
  • Saturday evening: By coincidence there was a promotional event I was invited to where I selected a piggy bank that had a Bonus Bet (slot pay) in it. I only won the minimum, but it was still $25 in free slot pay. Then we went to an Italian restaurant to take advantage of my birthday meal. The meal would have cost nearly $150, but it was complimentary.
  • Total for Saturday: up by $405... so I had $545 including the $140 I came with.
  • Sunday morning: We worked out at the fitness center, then sat in the steam room until we couldn't take the heat any longer. Back in the room we cleaned up. Of course I took the bottles of shampoo, bubble bath, lotion and soaps. I hesitated but even snatched an unopened roll of toilet tissue for good measure. I redeemed another meal voucher which was good for 2 appetizers, 2 entrees, 2 desserts and 4 beverages. We ended up barely touching our entrees, so those we took home with us for later. We played the slots for a few minutes, mainly because I wanted to redeem the $25 in Bonus Bets I had won the night before. I also fed some cash into a video poker machine and lost several dollars. Then we headed home. The resort has a tie-in with a nearby gas station, so I redeemed points for $10 worth of gas.
Total cost for 2 nights hotel, meals, gas, etc.: Zero. Actually, I came home with more than I started. After a few incidental cash outlays for tips, plus losing a little Sunday morning, I was still ahead by $355 for the weekend (bringing home that plus the $140 I came with).

Friday, January 8

Eating Like a Frugal Miser

One of my 2010 spending goals is to reduce my daily food budget to $5.00. This is less than half what I spent in 2009, so I've been thinking a lot lately about how to do this without feeling deprived. Here are a few of the strategies I am using:
  • During the holidays I bought a few gift cards that came with special offers. For example, I bought a $20 Chick-Fil-A gift card and received a free calendar. Each month comes with a free food coupon (no purchase necessary).
  • I can also choose restaurant gift cards as gifts in the Thank You Rewards program with my Citibank credit card.
  • Mystery shopping. This is the best way to satisfy my eating out craving without hurting my budget. While most of the shops are limited to fast food, I've eaten at half a dozen casual restaurants in the last two months, free of charge.
  • I shop almost exclusively at Aldi. Where else can you get a gallon of milk for under $2?
  • Dining out is almost always reserved for lunch. I still haven't figured out why restaurants jack up their prices after dark.
  • I use coupons when I eat out. I buy the Entertainment Book each year as well as the Enjoy the City book sold by local schools. Why pay full price when I can buy one, get one free and just split the price with my lunch buddy?
  • I am faithful to the Dollar Menus. My current favorites: Burger King's Double Cheeseburger, Sonic's Chicken Strip sandwich, the new 5 layer burrito at Taco Bell, and Wendy's Junior Bacon Cheeseburger.
  • We prepare most of our own meals, and rarely buy pre-packaged foods. Meat is usually a side item, not a main course. Whole grain pasta and brown rice and inexpensive and easy to prepare, so those are featured at many meals. Beans, potatoes and other vegetables are healthy and not nearly as expensive as meats, poultry and fish.
  • Rather than eliminating alcohol, we stick to Winking Owl red wine. Both the Cabernet and the Shiraz, at $2.99 per bottle, are surprisingly good. We have 2-3 bottles per week.
Have you found other creative ways to stick to a tight food budget?

Thursday, January 7

2009 Spending in Review, Part 2

There are many categories I will have to improve on if I want to be a true frugal miser. For 2009, I spent more than I should have in the following categories:

  • Alcohol: $1,285 - I've only spent $116 over the last 5 months. I decided at the end of July to cut way back on what I was spending on libations.
  • Food: $3,978 - $10.90 per day. Not surprising, my biggest vice here was spending at dinner time. My 2010 goal is to average $5 per day or less for food.
  • Clothing: $618
  • Interest/Bank Fees: $5,976 - this is a bit deceptive because I include losses on loans here. I ceased making loans on Prosper in 2008 but the 3 year loans will continue to produce losses into mid-2011. In addition, I do not include interest on first mortgages here. Regardless, this is unacceptable, and I plan to cut these line item expenses by at least $1,500 in 2010.

Wednesday, January 6

2009 Spending in Review, Part 1

I love to clarity that using personal finance software provides. I track and categorize every receipt using Quicken. Today I'll review categories that make the miser in me proud. I'll post the areas I need to work on tomorrow.
  • Gas: $2,043 - might be a lot for some people but I spent $3,318 in 2008. I managed to cut this thanks to all the mystery shopping I've done this year.
  • Personal Care: $195 - This line includes any personal hygeine products or services such as toothpaste, shaving cream, hair cuts, etc.
  • Electricity: $436
  • Natural Gas: $529 - hot water, fireplace
  • Water/Sewer: $533 - not a typo...I paid more for water/sewer than any other utility... thanks to ridiculous sewer rates.
  • Gambling: $5,688... in income - I don't gamble too often, but I had two extremely lucky gambling sessions this year.

Tuesday, January 5

Conquering Clutter: Roundup 4 (17 items)

I've been holding back on reporting the end of year results. I rounded up 17 additional items the last week of December.

This last roundup was harder than I thought, and I sincerely believe I thoroughly went through my things.

<-- old Spanish dictionary, textbooks, various ethernet cords, collector's book from the BMW purchase.

I made a trip to the Salvation Army Thrift Store the afternoon of 12/31 to donate everything: three large garbage bags full of things!

So, for December, I only eliminated 41 items, so I fell short of my goal to eliminate 100 things in December.

<-- reciprocating saw, license plate holder

Since I didn't finish things up, I will continue the challenge until I do. I hope to have 100 items out of my life by the end of Q1 2009.

<-- canvas totes, mailbox contraption, phone books, DVD, audio book, koozies, cords, mini globe

<-- cleaned out the medicine cabinet

Monday, January 4

January Goals

During December I achieved two of my three goals, plus I checked off one of my 2010 goals early by selling the Bimmer. Because I had to pay over $6,000 in property taxes, plus fire dues and some other large expenses, my credit card debt jumped. Starting this month I expect a steady decline.

January Goals:
  • Last month I earned $595 in mystery shopping income. I will earn $600 in mystery shopping income.
  • Last month I spent $124 on food. I will spend less than $200 on food this month.
  • Last month I spent $259 on fuel. In January I will spend $175 on fuel. I have a daily commute of 90 miles, but I am also driving a more fuel-efficient car. I'll strive to cut this even further by mystery shopping as many gas stations as I can.
  • My #1 financial priority is paying down my credit cards. By the end of January I will reduce credit card debt to below $42,500.

Sunday, January 3

Reviewing My December Goals

During December I did okay with my goals. This blog keeps me accountable.

December Goals vs. Actual:
  • Last month I earned $595 in mystery shopping income; my goal was $400. SURPASSED!
  • Last month I spent $124 on food (versus $184 in November); my goal was to spend under $200. SURPASSED!
  • Last month I spent $268 on fuel; my goal was $200. FAILED.
  • As an added bonus, I accomplished one of my 2010 goals in December by selling the Bimmer.
Two out three ain't bad! One of the reasons I went over on fuel was because of all the mystery shopping I did, including one round-trip where I went over 400 miles.

Saturday, January 2

A Month in the Life of a Mystery Shopper

I accomplished at least one of my December goals: earning $400 from mystery shopping. For December I earned $594.86 in fees and $304.94 in reimbursements.

About 1/3 of my income was from merchandising. The other 2/3 came from a variety of shops: gas stations, fast food, bookstores and even a doughnut shop! While I earned $940 in November, I am quite happy with my December earnings considering I am now working a full-time job.

Friday, January 1

Happy New Year

Happy New Year and New Decade!

2009 was quite a transition for me:
  • I met someone very special to me which has developed into a very serious relationship;
  • I lost my job of over 6 years
  • I started a new job, earning (at least to begin with) about 80% less.
  • I started My Frugal Miser, my very first blog.
  • I bought, and subsequently sold, my dream car. At least now I can say I've experienced the ownership of a brand new BMW convertible.
2010 will be filled with more life changing events. It could include my first-ever move to another state, which itself will bring many changes.