Monday, May 31

How I Did on My Frugal Cruise

Last week my partner and I were on a 5 night cruise to the Caribbean. My goal was to spend less than $1,000 for the two of us. Since the cruise itself cost $775, that left just $225 to spend on every other aspect of the vacation.

By "every other aspect", I include 2 round trip flights to Tampa, one night in a hotel before the cruise, a one day car rental, alcohol, souvenirs, excursions, and all other extras.

  • $10 flight. Used Rapid Reward flight award on Southwest. I have a Companion Pass which enables my partner to fly free.
  • $18.78 rental car. I lucked out here by checking prices a few days before we left and found a rate of $12 + taxes. Even better, I received a free upgrade from economy to mid-size.
  • FREE hotel. I took advantage of an offer by Best Western for a $50 gift card with two stays in May. I used the gift card for our hotel, which covered the cost of the room. Like the rental car, I had checked a few days before leaving and found a better rate for our room. The total cost was $43.69, so the gift card was more than enough.
  • $135.51 on other travel expenses.
  • $100 tips onboard the ship
  • $91.82 entertainment onboard the ship
  • $87.01 food and drinks
Total: $1218.12 ($775 for the cruise and $443.12 on everything else)

I also spent $100 to purchase a future cruise certificate. Carnival offered an onboard credit toward my next cruise if I did this. Since the certificate is like cash and is fully refundable, I thought it would be smart to do this. The onboard credit ranges from $50 to $200 depending on the length of my next cruise.

I went over budget by $218.12. First, when I set my budget I completely forgot to include tips for my onboard cruise staff. I also spent much more on taxi fares. My neighbor kindly dropped us off at the airport on her way to work. I gave her $10 as thanks. But, the taxi home was ridiculous: $50! I don't use taxis that often so I figured it would be about half that... I only live about 15 miles from the airport. The other fares were to and from the Tampa airport to the port. The $91.82 we spent for entertainment was all gambling. It included $50 for 2 games of bingo and 10 scratch off tickets (the biggest ripoff of our cruise... 10 minutes of entertainment for $50 is crazy) and $41.82 lost in the casino. We spent several hours in the casino so this was reasonable.

Friday, May 28

Back to Reality

We made it home safely yesterday afternoon. The cruise was absolutely what I needed as far as getting away from the daily grind and rejuvenating myself. Believe it or not, I exercised every single day on the cruise. Unfortunately, I'm sure I more than compensated for the calories burned by overeating. Now I remember why I avoid buffets like the plague. I fall weak every time I run across free food.

Today I'll be doing some gas station mystery shops that I had selected weeks ago. It will take a few days to build back up my routine. It would be easy to be lazy and just enjoy a few more days of doing nothing, but I won't let myself get caught up in that routine. The best cure for this is to just get up and get to it.

This weekend I will sort out my receipts from the cruise and by Monday I will post what I spent. I suspect I went over budget on the cruise, but we shall see.

Have a super weekend. See you back on Monday.

Thursday, May 27

My Frugal Miser - Take a Sailor Shower

One of my favorite "easy" ways to save money is the sailor shower. I originally posted Take a Sailor Shower in September, 2009, and it has been one of the most viewed pages at My Frugal Miser.

Since I'm on a boat somewhere in the Caribbean Sea as you read this, I was thinking a lot about the sailor shower. It's simple:
  1. Turn the water on to get wet.
  2. Turn the water off as you lather up and shampoo your hair.
  3. Turn the water back on to rinse off.
Stop and think about your time in the shower. Most of the water you use isn't necessary. I estimate that I am saving $7.80 per month by taking sailor showers. If you want to see my math, just go to the original post:


Learn How to Take a Sailor Shower (includes video!)

Wednesday, May 26

How I'm Doing on My Food Budget

In Eating Like a Frugal Miser I said my goal for 2010 was to average $5 per day for food. In 2009, I spent $3,992 ($10.94 per day) on food. And from 1/1/2009 to 5/25/2009, I spent $2,021 ($13.94 per day) on food.

Isn't that crazy? But those were the heady days of full-time employment as an Account Executive selling software. Food was therapy. Stress-filled days were made less stressful when I took a $12 lunch or met co-workers after work for a drink or two. Besides that, I was only doing the occasional mystery shop, nothing serious.

So far in 2010, I have spent $745 ($5.14 per day) on food. Year-to-date, I have spent $1,276 less on food, and I am very close to my $5 per day goal. I have mystery shopping to thank for the majority of the savings, plus the fact I don't do lunch with co-workers anymore.

I will reach my food goal this year.

Tuesday, May 25

Mystery Shopping as a Full Time Job

Unless I find a source for free Internet access on this cruise, this week I'll be looking back at some of my favorite entries from My Frugal Miser.

In Making Money Mystery Shopping: Can it be a Full Time Job?, I noted that in March I expected to earn more than $2,000 from mystery shopping. I ended up making close to $3,300 then. Better still, I made over $3,600 in April. So far this year I have earned over $11,000 in fee and $4,000 in reimbursements (gas for my car, fuel for my stomach, along with the occasional useless trinket, but still...).

As far as I'm concerned, mystery shopping can replace traditional employment. Just the other night I was talking with someone about the Independent Mystery Shoppers' Conference and she mentioned how lucrative video shopping can be. That's something I'll have to look into next.

Monday, May 24

A Week in the Life of a Mystery Shopper

May 16th - May 22nd...

I really took things up a notch early in the week to compensate for being on vacation at the end of the week. I earned $659 in fees and $151 in reimbursements. This was my best week in May, and I did it in just 5 days.

Sunday
I did 15 merchandising shops and four gas stations. A real marathon of a day: I drove 283 miles.

Monday
Another full day. I finished three merchandising audits (9+ hours), 3 gas stations, one fast food restaurant and took a test drive of a luxury car. The test drives are one of my favorite shops. I've done three of them and really enjoy it.

Tuesday
Another crazy day. Two merchandising jobs (over 6 hours), 2 restaurants, 9 gas stations and one clothing store.

Wednesday
Not as busy, but I still earned $118 today. I shopped three restaurants, one truck stop, one self-storage facility, and one jewelry store. It's fun trying on $3,900 watches...takes the edge off those occasional urges I have to spend money foolishly.

Thursday
Originally I planned NOT to do any shops today, but couldn't resist the urge. I ended up shopping two restaurants and three office supply stores.

Friday
Day one of our vacation. No shops.

Saturday
Day two of our vacation. Nothing.

It was a decent week but unless I work miracles when I return on the 29th, I won't reach my $2,500 goal for May.

Friday, May 21

Bon Voyage: The Ultimate Frugal Cruise

This morning my partner and I will head to the airport. Our cruise leaves Saturday afternoon. Here's how a Frugal Miser enjoys a vacation without suffering the hangover of overspending.

Before the cruise...
  • Book your hotel in advance, but periodically check rates. Earlier this week I checked rates at the hotel we are staying in tonight. This is unusual, but the rate was actually lower than when I booked it. I promptly canceled and re-booked. I'm saving $13 this way. Our accommodations? We're staying at a Best Western. Not the Hilton, but not the Motel 6, either. The rate? $38.69 + tax. Even better, I received a free $50 gift card for staying two nights in May. Since the gift card expires in August, it has to be used right away, so this really is a free room.
  • Reserve your car with an off-airport provider. Airport taxes are ridiculous ($10 per day isn't unusual). You don't pay those if a shuttle picks you up and takes you to the car rental place. I always do this when I go somewhere. Usually the rate is less, too. It gets better. Just like with the hotel, I checked rates to see what they were today. I thought I was getting a deal at $26 for a day; yesterday I found one for...drum roll please... $12!
On the cruise...
  • Don't book your excursions with the cruise line. Book them direct. Or, don't book them at all! The general rule is the cruise line marks up the excursions it offers by 30-40%. We are waiting to see whether anything appeals to us once we get to our ports. Maybe we'll just take a stroll through town, or head to a free beach.
  • How much time are you planning to be in your room? For me, the room is the place where I crash when I'm exhausted. I booked the absolute cheapest room. What made it less expensive than all the other rooms? It's an inside cabin (no balcony, no windows) and we have bunk beds instead of one larger bed or two beds side by side. I don't remember exactly how much I saved versus the next level up, but I'm thinking it was about $50.
  • Watch your budget. My goal is to spend less than $225 over the next week. The cruise was $775, so this would make it a $1,000 vacation. I know, I know... $1,000 is a lot to spend and still refer to oneself as "frugal". My philosophy has always been to spend money for experiences, not for material things. I still want to be smart about it, which is why I booked the cheapest cabin on the ship, one of the cheapest hotels in Tampa, and the absolute lowest priced car rental available.
I'll be tracking my expenditures and will do a breakdown when I get back. A nice dose of accountability might help. Now if only I can stay away from the blackjack tables!

Thursday, May 20

My Frugal Miser - How a Frugal Miser Prepares for Vacation

Last night it dawned on me that I might be taking things to an extreme. Tomorrow morning my partner and I fly to Tampa for our cruise. Here's how I go about preparing for an extended trip:
  • Laundry. We normally do laundry every weekend. I convinced my partner we should wait a few days and get it all done right before we leave. That way there's no dirty laundry waiting for us when we return. How is that frugal? We're still doing just three loads of laundry, but squeezed an extra three days of dirty clothes into the wash. Another way to look at it is, we aren't doing laundry this weekend, so that's three loads of laundry we won't have to do.
  • Dishes. Same here. Though I had to get pretty creative in order to squeeze everything in, I managed to go over a week without running the dishwasher.
  • Unplugging EVERYTHING. Good excuse for cleaning behind the stove. Yes, even the stove is unplugged. All those energy vampires have been banished from this house. In addition to the stove, the alarm clock, TV, and all other electronics have been unplugged from the wall.
The A/C is also off, but it's been off. It takes more than a 90 degree day to get me to turn on the air conditioning. So far this year we've only used it twice, and just long enough to cool things off before going to bed.

Tuesday, May 18

Another Pet Peeve

May I rant, just a little?

I use merchandising as a "filler" around my mystery shopping. Merchandising is where you are assigned a project at a specific store, usually involving setting up a display or setting an existing display to its planogram, which is the guide for how something should look. The work is rather mundane, but there's a lot of it out there.

So, what am I ranting about? Companies that treat their contractors like dirt. It's my own fault for taking the abuse, and I know there are other merchandising companies out there (I've only signed up for this one). I can't (or won't!) tell you which company I am talking about, but here are some things that really get under my skin:
  • website issues. Last night while I was entering paperwork, the website went down. I kept getting server errors. I'm really not crazy about all the paperwork, anyway, so when you prevent me from getting it entered onto your site, you're really making me mad!
  • pay below minimum wage. Seriously, you offer me $8 per hour, but from that I have to deduct self-employment taxes. I also spend almost as much time reading the guidelines as I do actually conducting the shop, but I am not paid for reading guidelines (or, for that matter, for data entry when entering the report).
  • inefficient guidelines. Seriously, do I really need 67 pages of directions for a one hour assignment? And do you have to sprinkle in those pages I must print in random places just so I use as much ink and paper as is possible?
  • not having one's act together. If you say there's going to be a link on your website confirming delivery of the store's fixtures or merchandise, how about posting that link before the day I am supposed to complete the assignment. Or, here's a novel idea: before shipping materials to me, make sure the assignment will actually take place during the date range I have contracted to do it. If there's a chance the client will be delaying the start date, there's also a chance I have found other work that conflicts with the new start date, so don't assume I can make it!
I know it's entirely my fault for putting up with this abuse, and the fact of the matter is, this same company has provided me a recurring permanent assignment (18 stores done monthly) that I really like doing. Every now and then they have some other really decent work (defining decent: pay greater than minimum wage, work that can be performed with as few obstacles (crazy data entry, managers who are scared to sign off on my paperwork, fixtures with mysteriously missing pieces) as possible.

Thanks. I feel better now.

Monday, May 17

A Week in the Life of a Mystery Shopper

May 9th - May 15th...

Last week was slow. When I sat down to write this entry, I kept trying to remember why, for example, I only earned $13.92 on Sunday the 9th. I don't exactly remember having a fun time doing something, nor do I remember having a lazy day at the house. Last week I earned $511 in fees and $381 in reimbursements.

Sunday
I bought a pizza and cut it into pieces.

Monday
A decent day. I shopped 2 banks, 5 gas stations, a buffet, and did a 2.5 hour merchandising job at a discount store.

Tuesday
Another okay day. I had to reshop a mutilated pizza shop because there was a shadow in one of my pictures. That wasn't fun. I also shopped a home improvement store, 10 gas stations and did a business verification where I verified a company actually exists.

Wednesday
This was a slower day, and I managed to squeeze in a $1 movie at the theatre at lunch. I shopped a shoe store, 4 gas stations and two sub shops.

Thursday
Road trip. I decided to go to traffic court on the ticket I received last month while I was out shopping. Good thing I went to court because they are letting me take traffic school and dismissing the ticket. Since I was traveling for that, I found a free hotel room (a mystery shop, of course), did 4 gas stations along the way to pay for my gas, and shopped a home improvement store that was down the street from my hotel.

Friday
With every road trip comes the inevitable drive home. Fortunately, I found four highly bonused shops to do along the way home, earning me $105.

Saturday
I shopped 11 gas stations. Notice any trends here? I buy a lot of gas. I smell gas in my sleep. I have to watch myself or the little nuances (such as knowing which buttons I'll have to push on the credit card machine without actually looking at the machine) will give me away.

I won't make my May goal of earning $2,500 in mystery shopping fees. This is disappointing as I usually can step it up a notch if I'm close. Unfortunately, unless I earn nearly $1,500 this week - which has NEVER happened - I won't make it to my goal.

Saturday, May 15

Greyson Michael Chance Sings Lady Gaga

Hope you're enjoying your weekend. Thought I'd keep things light by sharing with you what I've been fascinated by most recently:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_HSEcUDapTQ&feature=related

Here's the original:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bxDlC7YV5is&NR=1

Enjoy!

Friday, May 14

My Frugal Miser - Misers Don't Pay to Park

I had a doctor's appointment the other day. My back had been hurting for a couple weeks so I thought I should make sure I wasn't dying. The doctor's office was in a large medical complex/hospital downtown, and there was no free parking at all across the campus. With my back throbbing, it would have been easy to ease into the parking deck adjacent to his building. What's $5, anyway?

Don't get me started.

The complex is surrounded on the south side by residential streets. I started to wonder, "What harm is there in walking a couple blocks?" Actually, it's probably better for my health, not to mention my wallet.

When I attended the Berkshire Hathaway meeting in Omaha, I could have followed everyone else into the massive parking complex next to the Qwest Center. But then I got to thinking, "What would Warren do?" I doubt he'd shell out $8 to park when a perfectly good free space was available three blocks away on the street.

Why pay for parking? Unless you live in New York City or one of the few other places where there really are not other options, you should consider what else you could use that money for. Besides, getting a little extra exercise never hurt anyone, either.

Thursday, May 13

My Frugal Miser - Cutting Another Recurring Expense

I cut another recurring expense from my budget. Recurring expenses, those pesky line items ranging from the car loan to the mortgage to the little-things-that-add-up like cable bills and lawn service (neither of which I personally have) are the biggest obstacles to achieving your financial goals.

I have mixed emotions with this one, though. I decided to drop out of Weight Watchers. I'll be saving $40 per month. I had stopped going to meetings, and wrongly thought that if I kept paying the monthly fee I would feel guilty about it and start going back. I've been working long hours with mystery shopping, which has prevented me from making it to the daytime meetings.

I still have the plan guidelines that came with my membership. With this, if I can get motivated, I will still be able to restrict my eating to the number of daily points I am allowed. The only things I lose by canceling my subscription are the meetings (good for accountability, but I wasn't going anyway) and the online point tracking tool. It was a cool iPhone app that made it really easy to track my consumption.

Wednesday, May 12

My Frugal Miser - What Makes me Frugal

I've been thinking lately about the little things I do that are frugal. I know a lot of people say it's the big things that count, but I've found if you focus on the little things, the big stuff tends to take care of itself.

My Frugal Ways
  • I always pick up change I find on the ground. Nearly every time I visit a gas station, I'll find at least a couple pennies in the parking lot. They don't have to be on heads to make me feel lucky.
  • I always ask for a discount. True, there are some places like Wal-Mart where I know they won't budge on price. But there are other places where it is easy. I always get at least 10% off my purchase at Lowe's. Another trick is when I go out to eat with a coupon. A lot of the Buy 1 Get 1 Free coupons now require the purchase of two beverages. Since we prefer water, I always ask if that's a requirement. Sometimes they don't make me buy the drinks. Other times, I convince the employees to let me buy something else, like an appetizer, instead.
  • I always wear things out. This is especially true of clothes. I've had some of my polo shirts for ten years. It's kind of embarrassing to admit, but I have a pair of casual pants I wear for merchandising jobs that have a small tear in the crotch area. It started out looking a little frayed, but keeps expanding... I think from the pressure when I squat down. You can't really notice it until I am sitting and facing you, so I don't see any issues with it now. Similarly, I never throw away paper if there is still room for me to use it as scratch paper.
  • I tend to hoard "free" stuff. I'm not talking about having piles and piles of junk laying around my house. I'm actually one of the neater people you'd meet. What I'm talking about is buying up consumable goods when they are free after rebate/discount, even if I don't need them just yet. I have enough batteries to last at least a year; I haven't paid for soap or toothpaste in at least 5 years.
  • My driving may annoy passengers. I love to hypermile. I regularly will completely turn the car off when I'm going down hills, or put the transmission in neutral at the least. If I am approaching a red light, I turn the car off and coast to the light.
What are some ways that make you frugal?

Tuesday, May 11

A Week in the Life of a Mystery Shopper

May 2nd - May 8th...

By choice, last week was okay but nothing to brag about. I earned $611 in fees and $345 in reimbursements, which included one night in a hotel and a nice lunch the next day.

Sunday
I began my journey home from Omaha. I visited 5 gas stations and a truck stop. The nice part about this was my gas for the day (I drove about 650 miles) was free.

Monday
I traveled home from St. Louis. There wasn't much that I found appealing but I did shop 3 gas stations. I did have a small amount (about $20) of out of pocket expense for gas on the way home.

Tuesday
Busy day: I took a 180 mile road trip to visit a gas station and 2 retailers. Before heading out I shopped a fast food place for breakfast and 5 gas stations. Back home I did two merchandising shops. Then I earned $50 cutting a friends lawn, came home and cut my yard. A good day as far as earnings were concerned, but I was exhausted.

Wednesday
This was my highest earning day but it was relatively easy. I completed 14 merchandising assignments and 2 pizza shops. For dinner my partner and I enjoyed a reimbursement-only alcohol compliance shop.

Thursday
We took a little road trip today. Before heading out I did 3 merchandising assignments. We spent the night in Atlanta. Our hotel was free, which included dinner and drinks as well as breakfast.

Friday
I didn't earn anything in fees. We checked out of the hotel and enjoyed a free lunch at an upscale restaurant near downtown Atlanta. Then we went to the Atlanta Botanical Gardens to check out the new canopy walk, which opened the week before.

Saturday
I shopped another truck stop.

It was a decent week but I didn't make enough to meet my May goal of earning $2,500 mystery shopping. I'll have to take things up a notch this week.

Sunday, May 9

May Goals

May should be an okay month, but it won't be as good as March or April because I have a vacant rental property and I am taking a vacation, which means one less week of income.

May Goals:
  • earn $2,500 from mystery shopping (last month I earned $3,470)
  • reduce credit card debt and car loan to $43,000 (4/30/2010: $47,757)
  • have a fun, relaxing cruise later this month
I'm working to really simplify this. Since the beginning of the year I removed my food and gas spending goal because I've been tracking pretty close to those every month.

Furthermore, I decided to combine my credit card and car loan debt to one line item. Sometimes it makes more sense to pay down my car loan with my extra cash since the rate is 5.9%, higher than the roughly 4% on a special rate-for-life balance on my largest credit card.

Finally, I set a goal that can't be measured by numbers, which is to enjoy myself on my cruise. I've never had much of a work-life balance, even though at my old job, my boss always reminded me on my semi-annual evaluations that I needed more balance. With a cruise I am less likely to be tethered to phone and email than the traditional vacation.

Saturday, May 8

Reviewing my April Goals

April was a great month, financially speaking.

April Goals:
  • I earned $3,470 from mystery shopping. My goal was to earn $3,000.
  • I spent $120 on food. My goal was $150 ($5 per day, 30 days).
  • I reduced credit card debt to $32,136. My goal was $28,000. But see note below.
  • I reduced my car loan to $15,621. My goal was $16,000.
I achieved 3 of my 4 goals and consider it a great month. I would have achieved my credit card goal except 1) I bought $3,500 of $1 coins from the U.S. Mint to earn hotel reward points and 2) I paid extra on my car instead because it has a higher interest rate.

When I post my May goals, I will simplify them once again. I'm really trying to get to the essence of what short term goals are important and do away with the less meaningful noise such as reporting monthly gas or food goals.

Friday, May 7

My Frugal Miser - Funding my Retirement

I don't spend much time talking about my investments because, other than my retirement accounts, most of my investments are in rental properties. I have two IRAs: a ROTH IRA, which was converted from a regular IRA in 2002, and a Rollover IRA, which I opened last year when I lost my job. Being able to invest my 401(K) money in stocks that I get to choose was one of the few benefits that came from losing my job.

For 2010 I can contribute $5,000 to my IRAs. I added $500 in April, and last night I decided to transfer $2,500 more. As Warren Buffett likes to say, "Be fearful when others are greedy, and greedy when others are fearful." Yesterday there was a lot of fear in the markets. At one point the Dow was down nearly 10%. Just in case that downward movement continues, I want to have more cash available to invest in the stock market.

I love when the markets go down just as much as I love finding something I need on the Clearance rack at K-Mart. Why pay full price when you can buy when it's on sale?

Because of this transfer, I won't be able to pay down as much debt as I'd like this month. I'll get back on track next month, but I should still be able to reduce my debt a little in May.

Thursday, May 6

My Frugal Miser - April Expenses: $3,509

This is only the second month I have highlighted my expenses, so expect some tweaking for the next few months. For April I am adding a new category to more accurately reflect my vehicle expenses: depreciation. Each month I will log the number of miles I drove, multiply that by $.0867 (the cost per mile I attribute to vehicle depreciation), and deduct that from the value of my car in Quicken.



April Expenses

$893 Auto ($12 for service, $314 for fuel, $542 Depreciation (4/30/10 odometer is 18,860)
$0 Clothing
$120 Food (both groceries and eating out)
$156 Entertainment (movies, gambling, alcohol)
$0 Home Repair
$291 Household (pest control, fire dues, cleaning supplies, etc.)
$107 Health Insurance
$58 Medical
$10 Vacation (terrorism fee for flights to Tampa... used a reward voucher)
$252 Interest on Debt (not including Mortgage Interest)
$20 Miscellaneous (proof that small teeny tiny expenses really do add up)
$449 Mortgage Interest (primary residence)
$837 Mortgage Interest (rental properties)
$40 Personal Care (Weight Watchers)
$276 Utilities

Total April Expenses : $3,509

Notes

  • The household category was again higher than normal. I bought a lot of office supplies at Office Depot during their "Free After Rewards" promotion. The rebate is actually a gift card, not a check, so this is a real expense. I justified this because I've been putting off a couple of purchases that I will now be able to buy with this gift card. I will need a new scanner, digital camera and GPS unit soon. I'm trying to squeeze the last bit of life out of those things but inevitably they will need to be replaced.
  • I separated my mortgage interest by personal residence versus rental properties. I think this is an important distinction: the personal residence interest is an expense I should exercise control over moving forward when looking at ways to be frugal; the other is an expense that generates income.
  • I spent over $300 in gas - and that's after the reimbursements I receive from mystery shopping. I'm not too worried about this - almost 100% of my driving is to generate income and I generally run errands en route to shops. I do very little personal driving.

Wednesday, May 5

My Frugal Miser - April Income: $9,488


April was another decent month. I managed to reach my mystery shopping goal of $3,000, and I received a $500 refund from my insurance company for increasing the deductible on one of my rental properties. Now all of my properties have a $5,000 deductible. The savings have been substantial, and I am using insurance for its intended purpose, which is disaster coverage only.

April Income
$3,470 Mystery Shopping*
$4,811 Rental Income
$1,207 Other Sources
$9,488 Total Income for April
*note that the mystery shopping income will always vary from the monthly summary amounts I post. Here I report actual payments received (cash basis accounting) whereas my monthly mystery shopping update I report the amount I earned for that month.

Notes:

  • After thinking it over I have decided not to include the change in value of my retirement accounts in my monthly income. Instead, I will start making some long-term goals as to the value of those accounts. My retirement accounts did outperform the S&P 500 in April: my Roth IRA was down .17% but my Rollover IRA compensated and was up 3.5%. The S&P 500 increased in April by 1.48%.
  • The category "Other Sources" includes non-recurring (or semi-recurring) income since I always seem to have a little something that doesn't fall into the other buckets.
  • Excluding the entry I made in March for the change in retirement account value, I earned $8,799 in March. I increased my income in April by $739.
  • I now have one vacant property. The tenant moved at the end of April, so this will impact my May rental income slightly.

Tuesday, May 4

A Week in the Life of a Mystery Shopper

April 25th - May 1st...

I set a new weekly record: I earned $1,008 from mystery shopping, even though I traveled to Omaha and spent most of Saturday at the Berkshire Hathaway meeting. I also received reimbursements totaling $183.

Tip for newbies: the last week of any month can be your most lucrative, so be flexible and don't plan too far ahead. Schedulers desperately look to fill canceled shops and other last minute opportunities before the end of the month, and are willing to pay big bucks to do so.

Sunday
The quietest day of the week, as usual. I went to 3 restaurants.

Monday
Busy day, mostly restaurants. I'm feeling guilty about all the food that went to waste. I shopped 6 restaurants, 3 banks, a retailer and a mailing center.

Tuesday
I drove 30 miles for a fast food breakfast, stopping at a truck stop along the way for a coffee shop. Then I completed a gas station, did 3 merchandising jobs, one bank and three fast food restaurants. Everything, including the merchandising jobs, was bonused. The merchandising jobs paid $24 instead of $12; the fast food varied but the lowest paying job paid a $10 bonus.

Wednesday
I did my first oil change mystery shop today. How cool is that? A free oil change - and it was a really simple assignment. I also did two restaurants and two merchandising jobs. This was the second slowest day after Sunday.

Thursday-Saturday
En route to Omaha for the shareholder's meeting I did several gas station shops. Before leaving Thursday I completed 4 merchandising jobs and two restaurants. Total for Thursday and Friday was $549. Even better, I barely extended the route I would have taken anyway to get to Omaha. On Saturday, the only shop I did was Chinese takeout for dinner.

April turned out to be my best mystery shopping month ever!

Monday, May 3

Tracking a New Monthly Expense: Depreciation on my Car

Starting with my April expenses, I am adding clarity to my vehicle expenses. In the past I have adjusted the value of my car periodically based on the Blue Book value. Beginning with my April expenses report, I will make a monthly adjustment for vehicle depreciation.

This is something I should have been doing all along, and I'm not sure why I didn't think of it sooner since it isn't a difficult calculation. I will take the total miles driven and multiply it by the depreciation factor below.

Here's how I calculated the depreciation factor:
  • Cost of 2009 Pontiac G5: $13,000
  • Expected Life of Car: 150,000 miles
  • Cost per mile: $.0867
Since I already track the interest I pay on my car loan as well as fuel, maintenance, insurance and expenses, it only makes since to calculate this real cost of ownership as well.

I drove 6,250 miles in April, a bit more than average since I don't drive to Omaha every month!

6,250 * $.0867 = $541.88

I will also make an adjustment to the value of my car in Quicken. Previously I had written down its value by $3,000. Based on the above calculation, I overestimated the depreciation. Since I ended April with 18,860 miles on my car, I will deduct $1,093.29 from the original purchase price for usage prior to March. Moving forward I will make a monthly adjustment.

Sunday, May 2

Photos of Warren Buffett from the 2010 Berkshire Hathaway Meeting

Thought I would share a few photos I took at the 2010 Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting. One is of Buffett eating ice cream from the Dairy Queen booth.






This next one is a crowd shot of Buffett walking through the exhibit hall.










The last one I am especially proud of, even though it's just the back of some heads: for the annual movie before the meeting, Buffett always sits in the same place in the coliseum. Betting he'd do the same this year, I planted myself right behind those seats. Those heads include Warren Buffett along with his kids.











I also took a photo of Bill Gates on my camera phone. It isn't the same quality so I don't know if I'll share that one.

Mystery Shopping Along the Way Home

Thought I would send out a quick update as I am leaving Omaha. The meeting yesterday was refreshing. It's like an annual pep talk with your favorite mentor who reminds you about what's really important in life. I'll probably post about what I learned later this week.

Last night I managed to find a Chinese takeout mystery shop. The pay was just $5 but my meal was covered. Since I'm away from home, this is a real expense I would have incurred otherwise.

This morning I visited Borsheim's, which is a huge jewelry store owned by Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway. This is probably the only time of the year I allow myself alcohol before noon, but, since it's free... I guess the fact that it's a Sunday morning makes it even more sinful.

I found 6 mystery shops to do en route to St. Louis. Five of these are a special gas station project where I will earn a fee, a very generous gas reimbursement and an in-store purchase reimbursement. Really simple shops - no photos required, no special timings, nothing. All I am doing is evaluating cleanliness, service and a couple special questions like the number of coolers inside. These are spread out through Iowa so my gas - at least to St. Louis - is covered. The 6th shop is a truck stop, which includes a sit down meal and in-store purchase. I lucked up with the truck stop - it is in an isolated area and wasn't shopped in April. The fee has been increased to $57 and the reimbursement is $18. To put this into perspective, the normal fee for this shop is just $10.

Tonight when I crash at the hotel I will work on a route for tomorrow. I'm surprised that none of this shopping-while-vacationing has caused any burnout. I thought by now I'd be sick of shopping and just want to get home as fast as I could. Instead, I'm like a crackhead trying to get his fix: how can I possibly pass up these isolated, ultra-rural Midwest communities that have desperate mystery shops begging for my evaluation?

My Frugal Miser: Stooping to a New Low - Scavenging after the Shareholder's Meeting


You just might be frugal if, instead of being embarrassed by it, you are proud to show off your collection of Coca Cola bottle caps that you scoured for after the 2010 Berkshire Hathaway shareholder's meeting.

That's right, I admit it. I stayed after the meeting until security ran me off. See, they gave out pastries and beverages for breakfast before the meeting. I noticed the Minute Maid juice had My Coke Reward points on the caps and decided I'd hunt for abandoned empties.

Not only did I find caps, but I also took home 6 unopened bottles of juice and 3 pastries. The caps alone have a value of 168 points, which could be redeemed for a one year magazine subscription or 5 free 20 oz. sodas.

Saturday, May 1

Mystery Shopping Along the Way

Thought I would post an update from Omaha. One of the reasons I decided to drive instead of fly this year is because I wanted to see how much mystery shopping I could do along the way.
  • Thursday: Before leaving town, I earned $90 doing two restaurants and 4 merchandising assignments. Then I began the long, long drive to St. Louis, my stop for the night. Along the way, I earned an additional $239 by shopping 7 gas stations. Total for the day: $329 in fees and $21 in reimbursements.
  • Friday: I left the Best Western (which, by the way, was NOT a mystery shop. I used one of my gift cards instead) around 8 AM. Made it to Omaha just before 9 PM. En route I shopped 6 gas stations. Total for the day: $220 in fees and $32 in reimbursements.
I don't know if I'll do any mystery shopping today. I'll be at the Qwest Center for the Berkshire Hathaway meeting until early afternoon. I usually go to the Nebraska Furniture Mart in the evening for the cookout. The real opportunity, I hope, will be along my route home. I'm staying at the same hotel in St. Louis again and will get home sometime Monday. My hope is that some April shops that were not completed will have really big bonuses on them... that's what I shopped along the way and it looks like there is plenty of opportunity still, especially in rural Iowa.