Saturday, December 31

My Frugal Miser - Looking Back at my 2011 Goals

It's hard to believe 2011 came and went so fast. For me it was quite a year. I opened and subsequently closed a restaurant.  I sold many of my material things and seriously considered moving to Tampa, Florida.  Most of my income came from rental properties but after closing the restaurant I managed to recover some of my mystery shopping work.  On the fun side (I spend money on experiences, not things), I took a 9 day vacation to Las Vegas and Phoenix, another 6 day trip to Las Vegas, and a 5 day cruise to the Bahamas.  Even though I was my own boss the entire year, I still managed to make significant progress.

I had 6 big goals for 2011:
  1. Lose 12-24 pounds. This one I failed miserably. In fact, I've gained more weight this year.
  2. Increase my net worth by $50,000. I blew this right out of the water.  In fact, my net worth increased nearly $70,000 in 2011.  Once again my retirement accounts significantly outperformed the markets.  However, the biggest contributor to the increase was in reducing debt.  Even though I bought a foreclosure this year with credit card checks, my overall debt fell by $25,000.  Let me repeat:  I took on new debt to invest in a rental property (about $25,000), but my total debt still fell. 
  3. Reduce utilities expense by 10%. In 2010 I spent $2,703 on electricity, natural gas, water/sewer, Internet and phone. My goal was to reduce this to $2,433 in 2011, or spend on average $200 per month.  In 2011, I spent $2,702 on utilities, basically the same as last year.  
  4. Cut credit card/car loan debt to $8,000. It was $44,979.53 at the end of 2010.  I did not anticipate buying a house with credit card checks, so I did not meet this goal.
  5. Pay off car loan. Not only did I pay it off, but I sold it.  We became a one car family earlier this year.
I had a sixth goal related to the restaurant.  Obviously I didn't meet that goal since we closed the place down.

Friday, December 30

677 Miles

677 Miles... That's the estimate my mapping software gives for the route I am taking today to complete 8 mystery shops.  It's the last weekday of the month, the quarter...even the year.  Mystery shopping companies are desperate.  Ever the opportunist, I'm piling into the Corolla for a marathon journey.  I can sleep when I die, right?

I am auditing two gas stations that normally pay $11 with a $7 reimbursement.  Today they are paying $73.50 each, plus reimbursement.  Then through another company I searched for nearby shops and came up with four:  two relatively paltry mystery shops ($16.50 each plus reimbursement), a $50 gas station shop and a $35 home improvement shop.  I also have two local restaurants where I have to snap photos of the drive-thru menu boards ($12 each).  In all I will earn $289 in fees, $15 in free gas and $6 in free stuff.  It's debatable whether the money is worth the effort, but all in all I can justify it:   I'll be out about $40 in gas after reimbursement, plus some wear and tear on my car.  The Corolla is approaching 130,000 miles and my cost of ownership, gas included, has been around $.20/mile.  Either way I look at it I come out ahead.

Anyone else think I've lost my mind?

Wednesday, December 28

Frugal Ways to Earn Extra Cash - Scientific Studies

I'm about to be given an anthrax vaccine.  I've been assured I can't get anthrax from taking the vaccine and it looks like research on the vaccine has been ongoing since 9/11.  This particular study investigates how one's genes responds to the vaccine.  Sound scary?  You might wonder why I'd volunteer.

Easy:  I'm getting paid to do it.  I wish I could say there was a higher purpose than that, but it's all for the money.   I passed the telephone screener already and on Thursday I will go for a medical exam before I am officially accepted into the study.  For the exam I will be paid $35, and as long as I pass it I will be paid $75 per visit for the 7 month study.  The study is being conducted by the university where I earned my degree which somehow makes me feel more comfortable participating.

I've only done two other medical studies in my life but both of them were an easy way to make money.  The last study was on the body's reaction to pain.  I got paid to experience pain and rate my reaction to various types of pain (like hot, cold and pressure), which was weird but I was in college at the time and needed the money.  Before that I participated in an anxiety study.

It isn't hard to find out about these types of studies.  Besides radio and newspaper ads, there is a website at http://www.clinicaltrials.gov/ which lists the details of ongoing trials.

Monday, December 26

Clutter Update: Tying Up Lose Ends

It's only been a couple weeks since my last update, but I've made steady progress eliminating complexity from my life.

I've sold some of my material possessions, including a couple towel sets, some winter clothes and miscellaneous gadgets.  I also have a small pile of things that I want to sell, from my CD/radio alarm clock to more clothes I no longer need.  This month I've made more than $100 selling things I don't need.

I'm planning a trip to the landfill next week to dump the broken china cabinet in the garage, the frame from the IKEA couch that broke right after I bought it (I would have returned it if the nearest store wasn't two hours away), and a few other things.

I'm also working on closing out some of my bank accounts.  Some of them were opened as mystery shops that are no longer shopped; others have just crept into my life.  Ideally I would have just one checking account, a brokerage account, retirement account and maybe 2-3 credit cards.  I have a long way to go, but I have already closed one checking account and will close a second one next week.

I'm also closing out the restaurant's finances.  I bought TurboTax, closed our merchant account, and plan to close our bank account before yearend.

It feels good to simplify.

Thursday, December 22

Podunk Mystery Shopping

I made it back home in good time yesterday.  Maybe if I decide to move to Florida I should consider the panhandle.  The drive is so much easier than going all the way to Tampa.

Today, as the title suggests, I am heading out to the middle of nowhere.  It's the end of the month, quarter and year, so like a harlot in a house of ill repute I won't say no if the price is right.  I am shopping three gas stations and a country restaurant.  Am I really shopping the middle of nowhere?  Consider this:  one of the shops is in the fine community of Duck Springs.

Yeah, I'd never heard of it either.

Tomorrow I get to stick close to home but I have several shops to fill.  December is quickly becoming a great month for mystery shopping.

Tuesday, December 20

Mystery Shopping the Gulf Coast... Again

Yesterday's meeting with my old boss went very well.  In fact, if we can work out the details he will most likely enable me to buy 1 or 2 foreclosures next year.  Basically he will loan the money to me at a fair interest rate and I can have at it.  I guess this is what people mean when they say you should never burn bridges.

I woke up in sunny Panama City, FL this morning.  Yesterday I found an irresistible route of 9 gas stations that pay nearly $300.  I can knock that out in half a day and enjoy the rest of the time soaking up the rays.  With temperatures in the upper 60s and lower 70s I'm not complaining.  Hopefully I can find additional shops along the route home.  I'm here for two nights and used a gift card for the room so my out of pocket costs are low.

Monday, December 19

Big Hopes for Today

I'm excited but just a bit nervous about my lunch plans today.  I'm getting together with my old boss and mentor.    We've made this an annual ritual but this year might be different.  A couple months ago he started asking my opinion about investing in real estate.  His oldest son is starting college and since he has a total of 4 kids that eventually will need somewhere to stay near campus he was considering investing in a property near the college. That lead to a more general discussion about my own real estate investments and ultimately he said he had some idle cash and might be interested in making an investment with me.

We haven't discussed this yet so it may go nowhere, but then again if he is serious, I might be able to step up my activity next year.  And, if that works out, it could open up other opportunities with mutual acquaintances.

Friday, December 16

Slow Week

This week not much happened even though I stayed busy.

On Monday my partner and I tried out the new Megabus service now offered in our city.  I had free tickets so all we paid was a $.50 reservation fee.  It was okay.  The departing bus did not have working wifi that we were promised but I fell asleep so no big deal.  On the return trip the wifi worked so that was nice.  I did some restaurant mystery shops that day and we spent the rest of the time checking out the city playing tourist.

Tuesday was a busy one full of mystery shops.  I earned over $200 that day.

On Wednesday I dealt with extended family issues.  I haven't talked about it much on here but to make a long story short, my grandfather has dementia and he will probably be staying in a nursing home.  Since my brother lives 500 miles away I agreed to manage his affairs.  Hopefully that will be on auto-pilot soon but for now I've been running around paying his bills, consolidating his bank accounts and trying to figure out what to do with his house and possessions.  Also on Wednesday I completed three heavily bonused mystery shops.

Yesterday I almost took a mystery shopping route but decided to hold out for a few days to see if I can get more money.  It would have been $165 in fees but the route was about 200 miles for 9 gas stations.  So far no one has taken them so I might get lucky.  Instead, we visited the Botanical Gardens, had sushi for lunch and then went to see Abduction at the dollar theatre.

Today?  Errands.  I'm trying really hard to check off some items from my to do list before yearend.  I've decided to sell the Cartier bracelets on ebay so I need to take them to be buffed so they look new.  I also need to deposit a late rent check, return some crappy earphones I got at Radio Shack, and figure out how I'll be filing the restaurant's taxes.  Finally, I'll be spending time on 2012 goal planning.

This weekend looks to be slow as well.  I have two restaurants to shop tomorrow.  The bonuses make the pay $30 for both and they aren't too far from my house.  I may also pick up that gas station route.

Happy weekend to all!

Thursday, December 8

Clutter Update: Moving Right Along

I haven't posted an update about the ongoing war I wage against clutter since June (read that update here).  Minimizing the amount of stuff I own is a huge part of streamlining my life.  Ultimately I want to be completely mobile, not necessarily vandwelling mobile but I desire a simple enough life that I never feel tied down.

In my June update it was all about preparing to move to Tampa, Florida.  That's on hold for now and if/when we do move it may end up being a coastal area closer to home so I can more easily manage the rental properties.  Still, I have been unloading possessions.


  • I've made the most progress in the apparel department.  I donated a huge bag of clothes in November and have sold a few one-offs to a friend.  I even sold my friend some of the nicer towel sets in my linen closet. I still have way more clothes than I need and my ultimate goal is to only own 5-7 interchangeable outfits.  In other words, 5-7 shirts, 5-7 pair of pants or shorts or jeans, 5-7 pair of socks, etc.
  • I sold the second TV.  Since our major source of entertainment is streaming Netflix there are no plans to unload the one TV I still have.  Though it's not a "thing", I did cancel the physical DVD part of my Netflix subscription when they jacked up the price this fall.
  • When the refrigerator died I replaced it with one 40% smaller.
The adventure continues.  I am about to get serious about selling the Cartier bracelets, which represents the last major material possession I own.  There is also a large but broken china cabinet in the garage that I've been using for storage.  My mom gave it to me when she moved a few years ago and she doesn't want it back.  I mostly took it because she asked me to (the new place was smaller and it wouldn't fit anywhere).  It has to go.  

I need to think hard about what else I can dispose of.  It feels good to let go of things I don't need or value.

Wednesday, December 7

My Frugal Miser - November Expenses: $4,436


In November my spending was a little more than my income.  This month would have looked extremely frugal if not for the excessive gambling I did in Vegas. I'm most proud of the fact that my spending on food came in under $100 last month.  It hasn't been that low since April, when I did most of my eating in the restaurant I was trying to operate.



November Expenses
$192 Auto ($24 service, $168 fuel )
$7 Bank Fees
$0 Clothing
$94 Food
$1,876 Entertainment (movies, gambling, alcohol)
$0 Gifts Given
$9 Household
$110 Health Insurance
$0 Medical
$374 Interest on Debt (not including Mortgage Interest)
$0 Miscellaneous
$397 Mortgage Interest (primary residence)
$769 Mortgage Interest (rental properties)
$13 Personal Care
$0 Subscriptions
$251 Utilities
$344 Vacation

Total November Expenses : $4,436


Notes
  • $103 of my utilities expense was a prepayment for my new phone service with Republic Wireless.  The phone isn't scheduled to ship until December 22nd.  This fee includes the cost of the phone and my first month of service.  Once I receive it I will almost certainly terminate my AT&T service and pay the early termination fee to get out of my contract.
  • My food budget was for two people. I averaged $3.13 per day for two people in November. This is lower than normal because my meals in Las Vegas and on the cruise were free of charge or included.  
  • Interest on debt is deceptive because nearly all of that debt was taken on to purchase income-producing real estate.  Six of my nine properties don't have mortgages because I used alternative financing such as a HELOC, a personal loan, or credit card advances.  Only $21 of the $372 was NOT for real estate, which is the interest on my student loans.
  • The cruise vacation ended on December 1st, so that expense will be included in my December post.

Tuesday, December 6

My Frugal Miser - November Income: $4,007

In November I paid the fire dues on 5 of my properties ($903) and spent $653 on a plumbing repair.  These expenses lowered my rental income.  Otherwise this was an uneventful month as far as income is concerned.




November Income
$958 Mystery Shopping
$3,178 Rental Income
($129) Other Sources
$4,007 Total Income for November


Notes:
  • I deduct rental expenses from rental income.  Otherwise this amount would have been higher.
  • Most of the mystery shopping income was from shops I did in October.  I did not do much shopping in November.
  • Other Sources is a negative this month.  I loaned some money to an acquaintance which should be repaid in December.

Saturday, December 3

Back Home

All good things must end.  I had an amazing time on the cruise.  I've said this before, but I'll say it again:  taking a cruise is probably my favorite vacation because I am cut off from everything back home:  no Internet, no phone, no worries.  In total we were gone 7 nights - 5 nights about the Carnival Ecstasy plus one night on either end for travel to and from home.

This will probably be the last big vacation I take at least until my Omaha trip in May.  I have to deal with the dreaded property tax bills in December and I need to work off some of my debt.  Sacrificing leisure travel is the logical way to get caught up on bills.

Before my next cruise I need to buy 100 shares of Carnival stock.  I learned that you get an onboard credit as a shareholder in addition to the onboard credit from making a deposit towards a future cruise.  Stacking both deals, and possibly a casino credit along with them, could really add some value to the vacation.

Wednesday, November 23

Bahamas or Bust

I've barely been home this month, yet I'm about to head out on a cruise.  We leave early Friday morning.  I'm hoping to avoid most of the Black Friday insanity by hitting the Interstate around 4 AM or so.

Unlike my Vegas vacations, I won't be posting an itemized budget for this trip.  We got an amazing deal on the cruise - 5 nights for $199 per person plus taxes and tips.  I found out I can apply my onboard credit toward tips so the total cost of the cruise should be under $600, and I've already paid for it.

I plan to limit my gambling as well as my other spending.  I think I'll budget around $300 above and beyond the cost of the cruise itself.  We are driving to Port Canaveral.  Friday night I am using my Hilton Honors points for a free room at a Hampton Inn near Orlando.  On the way home I am mystery shopping an Embassy Suites, so that hotel stay will also be free.  That leaves gas and a couple of meals en route to take care of.

This will probably be the last vacation we take for a while.  I need to turn my focus toward debt reduction instead of spending all my extra cash on vacations.  More than likely I will limit our vacations in 2012 to mystery shopping trips as well as my annual pilgrimage in May to Omaha to see Warren Buffett.  If I get some really good comps from my last Vegas trip I might go back out there next year.  I'll just have to be more disciplined.  I've even thought about doing a cross-country mystery shopping marathon.  I've taken several long road trips but never driven around the United States.  It would be neat to plan out a route that lasts several weeks if I could find enough hotels, gas stations and restaurants to shop along the way to make the trip worthwhile.

Tuesday, November 22

Frugal Las Vegas - Actual Spending v. Budget

Well, if you leave out the gambling, I didn't do too bad.


Round Trip airfare : $261 actual (on target)
Conference Fee:  $295 actual (on target)
Parking at Airport : $0 (I'm being dropped off)
Baggage fees : $0 (flying Southwest)
Rental Car for 6 days: $125 actual (on target)
Gasoline : $18 actual (under by $22)
3.5 star Hotel off the Strip : 2 nights for $0 (comp based on the gambling I did in 2010 at the mystery shopping conference)
2.5 star Hotel off the Strip: 2 nights for $52
2.5 star Boutique Hotel in Vegas: 2 nights for $59
Food : $14 actual ($46 under budget.  Can you believe it?  I spent $4 on one meal; the rest are tips on free meals)
Souvenirs : $0 actual ($20 under budget.  I won a couple decent prizes at Binion's so I brought them home instead)
Other uncategorized : $7 ($31 under budget - I went to see the movie Jack and Jill)
Gambling: see below

Total Budget (sans gambling) : $831

Gambling:  Suffice to say I left this out for a reason.  It's really rather embarrassing.  I wanted to try the Martingale Betting System just to find out how I would do.  I was doing alright for a couple of days.  At one point I was ahead by $140 or so.  Then on one night, a statistical anomaly that I just can't figure out... happened.  I lost something like 17 hands in a row.  Granted, at one point I STOPPED doubling my bets and started over at the table minimum.  But then it just kept happening.  I kept losing hand after hand after hand.  I know it isn't so, but the game felt rigged!  In all, I lost $1,924 in gambling.  See, I admitted it.  Probably the stupidest thing I've done with my money since I bought a new BMW in 2009.  

Monday, November 21

50 Bartering Sites to Get What You Want

One of my readers emailed a link to the 50 Best Bartering Sites for the Frugal Student.  It is posted on www.onlinecolleges.net so they refer the article to students, but I'm sure students of Frugal University are eligible to benefit from this collection of bargaining websites.

Some of the offerings are obvious, at least to me.  Who hasn't heard of Craigslist or Freecycle?  But there are some that were new to me and look really interesting.  For example, Skills2Barter lets you trade your skills for someone else's.  I'm imagining how cool it would be to trade my time (maybe cleaning or demo work?) for the time of a plumber or electrician, even if it isn't 1:1.  Another one that looks promising is Favorpals, whose tagline is "Imagine a world where you can get anything you want by simply giving something in return."  That would rock.  Right now it's in beta, and a lot of the favors are spam-like (sign up on a penny auction site in exchange for free bids).

All in all this is a nice list of resources for the frugal minded.

Monday, November 14

Last Day In Vegas

I'm surprised how quickly this trip is coming to an end.  Tomorrow morning I head home.  Then, early Wednesday morning, we are heading to the Tampa Bay/Orlando area for a mystery shopping trip.

I've given up on this Martingale strategy.  It hasn't worked for me.  In fact, I gambled away more than I budgeted by trying to follow it.  The good news is I am under budget on some of the other categories.

Every time I've visited Las Vegas over the last few years I have had this frugal idea that I have been too scared to consummate.  I read a lot of blogs about vandwelling/RV living and there is something about the nomad lifestyle that appeals to me.   The reason visiting Las Vegas reminds me of this is because there are so many inexpensive hotel rooms.  It almost seems possible to live solely in hotel rooms in this area for under $700 per month, which obviously would include all utilities and a bonus - something I don't have at home - cable TV.

My rental properties have become my golden handcuffs.

Saturday, November 12

Frugal Las Vegas - Betting Strategies

Even though I arrived in Vegas on Thursday night, I haven't really been on the playing floor yet because my attention has been focused on this conference.  Since the conference ends at noon today, I expect to spend some time gambling during the rest of my trip.

My goal is to lose less than $300 while I am here.  I don't think anyone will disagree that they come to Vegas hoping to take home a jackpot.  But, I am realistic and I acknowledge that gambling is a form of entertainment.  Therefore, the overwhelming odds are that I will lose money the longer I play.

Still, one can be smart about it.  One of the most annoying things I see in the casino is people making dumb betting decisions.  How entertaining can it be to double down on a hard twelve at Blackjack?  You just don't do that.

When I gamble you will usually find me in one of two places:  either video poker or blackjack.  I do enjoy live poker but I've never played in Vegas because there are too many professional players and I am just not good enough.  Whether I'm on a video poker machine or a blackjack table, I'm using strategy cards.  Sure, some people think it takes the fun out of the game.  On the contrary, I enjoy the challenge of memorizing a set of rules that will help me make the most advantageous decisions.

Alas, I do like the adrenaline rush of taking chances, which is why I've decided on this trip to try the Martingale Betting System.  This strategy increases your chances of winning, but if you do lose, you tend to lose big.

Here's how the Martingale Betting System works:  Say my starting bet is $5.  

  • If I win a hand, I've won $5.  My next bet is the same amount, $5.
  • If I lose the hand, I increase my bet to $10.  If I win the second hand, I am ahead by $5 (lost $5 on the first hand, won $10 on the second hand).
  • Every time I win a hand, I net $5, regardless of the amount wagered, and my bet reverts back to the original bet, in this case $5.
  • Every time I lose a hand, I double my last bet.
In most cases, this strategy will significantly improve my chances of winning.  I read on another website that in a one hour period, the statistical odds are that I will win 82% of the time using the Martingale Betting System.  But in the rare case that it doesn't work, I will lose a lot of money.  The reason:  if I lose too many consecutive hands, I run out of money to bet or I reach the maximum bet limit for the table.  Let me illustrate:
  • First bet:  $5
  • Second bet (if I did not win the previous bet):  $10
  • Third bet:  $20
  • Fourth bet:  $40
  • Fifth bet:  $80
  • Sixth bet:  $160
  • Seventh bet  $320
  • Eighth bet:  $640
  • Ninth bet:  $1,280
  • Tenth bet:  $2,560
Many blackjack tables cap your bet at $1,000, so after I've lost eight hands in a row I am screwed.  It's important to note the Martingale Strategy can be used on other games, such as roulette.  For roulette, you pick a color, red or black, and start with your base bet and keep doubling until you win.

My plan is to visit the El Cortez, an old casino near Fremont Street that features $3 minimums on blackjack.  Once I am ahead by $100 I will take a break and find something else to do.  

Thursday, November 10

Too Frugal?

In general I don't like to pay others to perform services I can do myself.  For example, I would never pay $40 for someone to cut my grass.  It takes me 20 minutes and I enjoy the exercise.

One of the services I've never been able to do myself is cutting my own hair.  This is something I just can't stand paying to have someone else do.  Most of my life I've used one of the chain stores (in Birmingham the big chain is Head Start, a Regis brand).  They raise their prices just about every year and now it costs something like $17.95 for a haircut.  I just don't see the value.  Most of the time, the stylist's hands wreak of cigarettes, so I have to smell that the entire time, plus I have to wash the smell from my hair afterwards.  The quality of the cut is hit or miss, and the fact that it takes between 5-10 minutes to cut my hair is probably a reason.

I experimented with a hair school but the nearest one is 13 miles from the house.  Head Start offered some great coupons for about 3 months this summer ($8 cuts), but now the price has gone back up.

So, just before heading out to my conference in Las Vegas, I had my partner cut my hair.  Unfortunately, due to inexperience, things got messy, and I ended up with a military cut.  I suppose it doesn't look bad, but this is the first time I've been mostly without hair.

But, hey, it was free.  That's $20 (after tip) that I can use to pay down some debt.

Wednesday, November 9

$19 for Unlimited Phone, Text and Data - Republic Wireless

Wow!  This morning I read about Republic Wireless, which apparently opened its doors to customers yesterday.  This isn't some scam or gimmick - they really are offering unlimited, no-contract plans for $19 + tax.  You have to order a phone through them - the LG Optimus - which is $199, but if you use the promo code "welcome 19" they will knock $100 off the cost of the phone.  When I signed up I was advised that it may be 30-60 days before the phone ships.

Join Now  (Note: This isn't a referral and I am not being paid to tell you about this)

How can they afford this?  I'm no technophile, but apparently they use wifi networks whenever available to mitigate network costs.  The rest of the time they are part of the Sprint network.  You have to agree to connect at least one wireless network to the phone, which for me is not a problem as even my current phone with AT&T is connected to my home wireless network.  They also reserve the right to cancel your account if you are too heavy a user, but I read that you can use up to 550 minutes, send 150 texts and transmit 300 mg of data (all while being OFF the wireless networks) before you cross the line, and even when you cross the line you are given ample warnings.  I don't use that now so no problems there.

Visit the Yahoo News Page Where I Discovered This Deal

I'll keep everyone posted on when I receive my phone and how easy it is to get started.

Frugal Las Vegas, the Sequel

I love days like today.  That's because this afternoon I am flying out to Vegas for six days.  Just two months ago I vacationed there with my partner; this trip it's just me, as I am attending the AAII Investor Conference.  The keynote speaker is Joel Greenblatt, author of The Little Book that Beats the Market among other titles.  I'm excited because that was one of the few books I actually bought new when it came out.

Our last trip I budgeted $2,000, but the actual amount was only $1,350. That was for two of us for 9 days.  My goal is to spend less than $1,250 on this trip.  That might not sound like a frugal goal until you consider nearly half of that was for my flight and registration fee for the conference.


Here is how I am budgeting my spending:

Round Trip airfare : $261
Conference Fee:  $295
Parking at Airport : $0 (I'm being dropped off)
Baggage fees : $0 (flying Southwest)
Rental Car for 6 days: $125
Gasoline : $40
3.5 star Hotel off the Strip : 2 nights for $0 (comp based on the gambling I did in 2010 at the mystery shopping conference)
2.5 star Hotel off the Strip: 2 nights for $52
2.5 star Boutique Hotel in Vegas: 2 nights for $59
Food : $60 (budgeting $10 per day for 6 days)
Souvenirs : $20 (just in case)
Other uncategorized : $38 (this is my "cushion" for unexpected expenses)
Gambling: $300

Total Budget : $1,250

Most people would stay at the same hotel, but I jump around to save money.  I really don't mind that because it makes the vacation seem longer for some reason. 

Tuesday, November 8

My Frugal Miser - October Expenses: $3,611


In October I spent a bit more than I made.  I did really well in the fuel category because I mystery shopped over 75 gas stations, but those savings were offset by some proactive repair work I had completed on my car.  I did poorly in the food category but know I'll do better in November.  Finally, I had an unexpected household expense.  My home refrigerator, which was only three years old, stopped working.  The repair would have been more than $600 so I opted for a much smaller $412 refrigerator.  It's instances like this when you realize they really don't make things like they used to.


October Expenses
$470 Auto ($449 service, $21 fuel )
$0 Bank Fees
$0 Clothing
$415 Food
$118 Entertainment (movies, gambling, alcohol)
$121 Gifts Given
$440 Household
$100 Health Insurance
$0 Medical
$372 Interest on Debt (not including Mortgage Interest)
$0 Miscellaneous
$400 Mortgage Interest (primary residence)
$772 Mortgage Interest (rental properties)
$7 Personal Care
$0 Subscriptions
$188 Utilities
$208 Vacation

Total October Expenses : $3,611


Notes
  • Nearly all of the Vacation category ($183 of the $208) was spent on two round-trip tickets I purchased to New Orleans for next year.  Southwest had a really good sale so I anticipated that by February of next year I will be itching to travel.  If I change my mind I can save the credit for a different flight.
  • My food budget was for two people. I averaged $13.39 per day for two people in October. This is higher than normal because we ate out way too much.  
  • Interest on debt is deceptive because nearly all of that debt was taken on to purchase income-producing real estate.  Six of my nine properties don't have mortgages because I used alternative financing such as a HELOC, a personal loan, or credit card advances.  Only $21 of the $372 was NOT for real estate, which is the interest on my student loans.

Monday, November 7

My Frugal Miser - October Income: $3,472


In October I finished rehabbing House #9 and got it rented out.  I think the tenant is going to be low maintenance as long as he pays his rent without fuss and on time. My rental income took a serious hit since some of the major purchases (flooring, appliances, etc.) for that property are reflected in this month's number.



October Income
$668 Mystery Shopping
$2,531 Rental Income
$272 Other Sources
$3,472 Total Income for October


Notes:
  • I deduct rental expenses, including rehabbing new properties, from rental income.  Otherwise this amount would have been higher.
  • I did more mystery shopping than I was paid for.  Those payments will be reflected in November.

    Friday, November 4

    Frugal vs. Always Broke, Part 2

    I was recently asked by Social Security to be the Representative Payee for an acquaintance of mine who is also a tenant.  We've known each other going on 15 years and I was seen as a trustworthy option.  I agreed to do it but now I’m regretting that choice because it puts me in a moral dilemma:  how he wants to spend his money versus how I think it should be spent.  It’s important to realize that a Representative Payee is appointed when the recipient of Social Security funds is deemed unfit to manage his own money.  I was given a booklet with guidelines for how to manage this money, including a guide to prioritizing how the money is spent.  It’s essentially a Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, government-style.

    The problem is that my friend has made some really bad decisions over the last couple of years.  Instead of saving up and paying cash for new bedroom furniture, he is leasing furniture from Aaron’s.  Aaron’s is a loan shark fronting as a furniture store.  The interest rate he pays on his lease-to-own furniture is 20% per month, or the equivalent of 242% per year.  He didn’t stop there.  When he and his girlfriend needed money for cigarettes one month, she convinced him to pawn the TV that he was leasing.  They received $200 in proceeds but have to pay $40 per month in interest.  In other words, they still owe $200 after eight months of paying $40 in interest.  So they’ve paid $320 and still owe the $200.

    Why do people inflict pain on themselves?  I’ve decided that it must be a chemical imbalance.  Those who can delay gratification versus those who are “pleasure seekers” and have to have something NOW.  Pleasure seekers don’t consider the long term pain associated with the momentary and fleeting pleasure derived from their actions.  They wind up in this endless cycle of greater and greater debt.  Then they file for bankruptcy and make the rest of us pay for their mistakes… but I’ll save that for another day!

    Thursday, November 3

    Frugal vs. Always Broke, Part 1

    My partner’s sister moved in with us this week.  She and her boyfriend had been living together in his parent’s rental property for more than two years.  They didn't break up; it’s just that the power and water were cut off due to nonpayment.  He moved back in with his parents but she wasn't allowed to since they are not married.  Let’s call her “K” and we’ll call him “W”.  This is their story.

    When K approached me about staying here for a while, and then admitted it would be more than a couple of weeks, I didn’t hesitate to say yes with the stipulation that she contribute a nominal amount to cover the increased costs (higher utility bills) of having her here.  Don’t get me wrong; I don’t try to profit from other’s misery.  She’s stayed with us before for a few days, no charge, and we even invited her and W over to take a hot shower when their water was first turned off.

    Why do some people struggle every month to make ends meet while the rest of us do not?  It’s especially interesting when one’s income isn’t a factor.  The young couple I am talking about both have jobs.  They don’t make a lot of money, but their hardship wasn’t a result of a job loss or medical emergency.  Their struggle is a result of their attitude.  Let me explain.

    Last night K mentioned to my partner how excited she was that the new Twilight movie was being released November 18.  She added the suggestion they should go see it.  My partner, whom I’ve trained well, automatically responded, “Yeah, as soon as it hits the dollar theatre, let’s go.”

    That momentary big smile quickly faded from my face when K replied, “That’s too long;  I can’t wait that long to see it.”  Then something happened that I can’t explain.  Let’s just say Frugal Miser spoke up.  It was a reaction, really; I wasn’t trying to piss her off or hurt her feelings.  As soon as she said that, I replied, “That’s why you and your boyfriend lost that house.”

    Ouch.  As soon as I said it I felt bad.  But the thing is, I meant it.  Being frugal isn’t a sacrifice; it’s a lifestyle.  We will still see that movie.  In the theatre.  In digital surround sound.  It isn’t stadium seating, but the seats at the dollar theatre are new and they are quite comfortable.  The difference is, the two of us will pay $3, and we will skip the concessions line.  K and her boyfriend will spend $18 for the movie and there’s a good chance they’ll spend another $10 on concessions.  $28 versus $3 might not seem like a lot… if you aren’t of the frugal mindset.  To me, that $25 difference is almost a tank of gas.  It’s 2 1/2 weeks of electricity.  Two months of hot water.  It’s a lot of freaking money!

    Wednesday, November 2

    Do It Yourself versus Do It For Me

    I learned a good lesson yesterday about needing to know my limitations.  I am so stubborn sometimes that I take on repair jobs that are bigger than I can handle.  I guess knowing what those limitations are is my problem.

    My new tenant called a few days ago to let me know the shower faucet had a slow leak.  I figured I would try to tackle it myself and save the $100 or so a plumber would charge.  I spent a couple of hours on Youtube and other handyman websites watching people repair these things.  I felt confident that I could tackle the job.

    The first problem was that once I disassembled the obvious parts and got down to the guts of the shower, I didn't recognize a thing.  I thought I would try to unscrew the valve and take it with me to find a replacement since replacing the "seats and springs" and steel ball didn't stop the leak.  Unfortunately, in trying to unscrew the valve, I made the leak worse.  In fact, I broke one of the pipes in the faucet, sending water through the floor behind the tub, penetrating through the sheetrock ceiling and down to a utility closet on the ground floor.

    Now, $653 later, what started off as a small leak has been repaired.  Assuming my $100 estimate is close, my attempt to fix this myself cost me more than $500.

    Monday, October 31

    Staying Warm

    Even in the Deep South the temperatures have suddenly dropped.  As I write this it is 38 degrees outside.  So far I have managed to keep the heat off.  The house is well-insulated and as long as the daytime highs stay in the 60s it is enough to warm the house up.  When it does get colder I have an electric blanket.  I've owned it for over 25 years and it still works fine.  I also have a radiant heater which works really well without consuming too much energy.  Turning on the central heat will be a last resort, something I always wait to do as long as possible.

    This week I have several mystery shopping assignments lined up.  It's not a full week of work by any means but it's enough to earn a few hundred dollars.

    Tuesday, October 25

    Slow Week

    It's funny how things change from one week to the next.  Up until Sunday mystery shops were taking up most of my time.  This week, not so much.  I did two gas station audits yesterday but that took less than two hours including driving there and back.  Since it is the last week of the month I'm sure some shops will pop up with big bonuses.

    I also don't have any rental property work to do.  Last Saturday I finished the final details with House #9 and also completed a small paint job for another property that's been on my to-do list for a while.

    I need to do a better job at accepting "free time" as okay and not feel guilty about having it.  I know how busy I am going to be in November so why worry?  Next month I will be spending 6 nights in Las Vegas, 5 nights on a cruise, 3-4 nights in Central Florida (mystery shopping hotels), plus there's Thanksgiving.

    Friday, October 21

    Mystery Shopaholic

    After I closed the restaurant I swore to myself that I would be picky about mystery shopping.  The truth is I've become just another truck stop whore, and I'm proud of it... pardon the offensive analogy if you do indeed sell yourself at truck stops.

    Seriously though, I've picked up the pace and October has been really busy.  Even though I have a couple of week-long leisure trips planned in November along with Thanksgiving, it looks like November will be a good month for shopping as well.

    I mentioned recently that I want to aggressively pay off some of my debt, and this drives me to shop.  I think I'm still being fairly selective about which shops I take and the minimum rate I will accept.  But I am taking on more and more work, particularly gas stations.   Restaurants - not so much.  Today I am shopping a fast food place because I negotiated a $25 commission.  I have control issues when it comes to eating right so I find it best to avoid fast food shops to help control my weight.

    One extra benefit to all the shopping I am doing is that my fuel cost will be next to nothing this month.  I have 30 gallons of fuel in containers in the garage and will be adding to that today and tomorrow.

    Happy shopping!

    Thursday, October 20

    Yes, Rented

    Finally some good news.  House #9 is rented.  Last night I met with the new tenant to sign the lease and he paid me in cash for November's rent.  I have two small "to-do" items and then I should be finished for now.  It took a little more than 5 weeks from the time I closed on the house until I signed up my tenant.

    I paid $22,500, spent about $5,000 on improvements, and am renting the house for $695 per month.  That's more than two times what the "safe" number (1% of my cost recovered per month) is so I feel good about this investment.

    Tuesday, October 18

    Rented?

    I made a mistake with the first tenants I selected for the new rental house.  The mistake I made was not asking for a deposit to hold the house until they signed a lease.  I should have known better because they seemingly dropped off the face of the earth.

    Fortunately it looks like I did find a tenant.  He paid me a nonrefundable deposit and is supposed to sign a lease and pay for the first month today.  He even paid $50 toward the first month's rent when I was unable to make change for him, so I feel good about this one becoming the next tenant.

    I don't know why I dislike the tenant search process so much.  Maybe it's the anxiety of having an empty home and the desire to get it rented as fast as possible. 

    Saturday, October 15

    Free Meal at Taco Bell

    Yesterday I scored a free combo meal at Taco Bell.  Now through Christmas, if you buy a $20 gift card at Taco Bell you will receive a free Chicken Flatbread Sandwich Combo.  The combo includes the namesake sandwich, 2 crunchy tacos and a drink.

    I can see myself buying several gift cards just to get the free meal.  Eventually I would get around to redeeming the gift cards.  Hopefully this is just the start of several holiday season gift card deals.  A couple years ago my local Texas Roadhouse gave away a free $25 gift card with every $50 gift card purchase.  That's just about as good as they get.

    Friday, October 14

    Restlessness

    Sorry it's been so quiet around here.  This week was weird.  I was busy but don't have much to show for it.  Well, I do have a new tenant (assuming they sign their lease this afternoon!), so that's a positive.

    House #9 rented at $695/month just 32 days after I bought it.  I like the tenants but I don't like the lease, which is a month to month.  The tenants have been trying to buy a house so they didn't want to make a year long commitment.  The reason I rented to them anyway was because I am more confident I'm going to be paid the rent on time, plus they were ready to move in.  It does me no good to have an empty house or to have an occupied house with a deadbeat tenant.

    I also picked up a fair amount of mystery shopping audits that I start tomorrow and will finish up Sunday, 10/23.  It's nearly $600 for 3-4 hours of work each day.  The only problem is these are gas station audits and I have to purchase about 83 gallons of gas.  I have seven 5-gallon containers but I'm going to have to get creative and probably sell some of the gas to friends.

    I'm also ready to travel again.  I'll be able to satisfy that itch soon:  on November 9th I leave for a six day trip to Las Vegas.  I'll be attending the AAII investor conference while there.

    Saturday, October 8

    New Goal: Debt Reduction

    All of a sudden I have more debt.  It's great that I used the debt to buy distressed assets rather than spending it frivolously on new furniture or toys.  Still, my debt stresses me more than anything else.  To keep me focused, and to get a handle on things, I plan to track my progress in a special bar over on the right side of this page.

    I currently have just over $444,000 in debt.  Keep in mind, I own 9 houses and virtually all of that debt was taken on in the pursuit of distressed real estate.  Still, that scares me.  Today I am setting a goal to reduce my debt to less than $400,000 in one year.  The goal assumes I don't sell any of my assets to pay down debt.  In other words, I plan to pay off $44,000 in debt above and beyond any debt that is extinguished from asset sales. The reason I wanted to add this stipulation is because one of my tenants has the option to buy the home they are in.  It will be great if they exercise that option, but I don't want that to distract me from continuing to pay down debt.

    Goal:

    • $44,000 in 12 months
    • $3,667 every month

    Friday, October 7

    Progress on House #9

    Twelve days ago I posted a Craigslist ad announcing House #9 would soon be for rent.  I didn't include any photos besides one of the outside since at the time the floors were bare and it was still looking rough.  Since then new tile floors have really brightened up the kitchen and laundry room and new carpet on the stairs, hallway and both bathrooms have really spruced things up.  I installed a new refrigerator and tried to have a new over-the-range microwave installed, but the installers couldn't figure out how to remove the old one so it was sent back.  I managed to remove the old microwave fairly easily and am left with a big open space.  Instead of trying to install a new microwave myself, I decided to clean up the wall and add a couple of shelves.  I'm also still waiting on the installation of new patio doors.

    This morning I am meeting with another potential tenant.  If this one doesn't work out I need to take some current photos and re-post my Craigslist ad.  It might help to put up a sign in the neighborhood as well.  Believe it or not I usually get my properties rented without needing a street sign.  I prefer Craigslist because with street signs I have to deal with a lot of crappy inquiries either from people who are just being nosy and have no intentions of renting your place or from those who don't qualify.

    My original goal was to have the house rented by October 1st.  Since I only closed on the house on September 12th I am still at just under a month so I'm not panicking yet.  I know I will meet the perfect tenant soon.  Then I can hopefully breathe a sigh of relief and not worry to much about all this debt I took out to buy this house.

    Thursday, October 6

    My Frugal Miser - September Expenses: $3,374


    In September most of my spending was fairly typical.  The only categories where I spent more than normal were entertainment (gambling in Las Vegas early in the month) and vacation (same trip plus a few other minor expenses when I went to Panama City Beach for mystery shopping).




    September Expenses
    $219 Auto (all for fuel)
    $0 Bank Fees
    $0 Clothing
    $289 Food
    $369 Entertainment (movies, gambling, alcohol)
    $0 Gifts Given
    $2 Household
    $100 Health Insurance
    $0 Medical
    $354 Interest on Debt (not including Mortgage Interest)
    $0 Miscellaneous
    $403 Mortgage Interest (primary residence)
    $776 Mortgage Interest (rental properties)
    $0 Personal Care
    $0 Subscriptions
    $168 Utilities
    $695 Vacation

    Total September Expenses : $3,374
    Notes

    • I spent $219 on fuel, which included a circuitous mystery shopping trip to Atlanta, another to Panama City Beach, FL, and a couple of trips to see my grandfather in the hospital.  It does NOT include the gas I used in Las Vegas and Phoenix.  I categorize that under "Vacation".
    • My food budget was for two people. I averaged under $9.63 per day for two people in September  This is higher than normal because we ate out a lot.  We ate out a lot because we spent a lot of time working on the new rental house and didn't feel like cooking.
    • Interest on debt will be higher than the normal ~$100 per month for the foreseeable future. I took out a loan to help a friend who was about to lose her car.  Eventually I will be paid back for this loan.  The interest on that loan was $143 in September.

    Wednesday, October 5

    Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

    Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything -- all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart. ... Stay hungry. Stay foolish.


    Steve Jobs, 2005

    My Frugal Miser - September Income: $4,683

    I spent much of September rehabbing House #9.  I'm basically finished now but have not found a tenant yet.  Because I was working on the house I did not do as much mystery shopping.  I did manage to spend less than I brought in, which is always great.





    September Income
    $824 Mystery Shopping
    $3,438 Rental Income
    $422 Other Sources
    $4,683 Total Income for September


    Notes:
    • I deduct rental expenses, including rehabbing new properties, from rental income.  Otherwise this amount would have been higher.

    Friday, September 30

    Mystery Shopping the Gulf Coast

    I love the last week of the month.  That's when the bonuses pop up and make traveling for mystery shops worthwhile.  I'm spending four nights this week along the Florida panhandle.  Today I am doing shops in Niceville, Fort Walton Beach, Destin and Panama City Beach.  I'll be finished by lunchtime, will have earned $146, and will have the rest of the day for leisure.  These are the types of shops I enjoy.  Who can complain about spending a few hours taking photos of gas stations when you conclude the day by changing into swim trunks and heading to the beach?

    Two of the four nights are in hotels I am mystery shopping.  These are "DE-ID" shops - the easiest there are.  When a hotel loses its franchise, this shop is dispatched to ensure the hotel has removed its old brand logos, ranging from signage to the Do Not Disturb placard.  I take up to 8 photos and comment about any compliance issues.  Service, cleanliness, etc. are not observed.  The actual work takes no more than 15 minutes, and my stay is reimbursed and I am paid $40 for my trouble.

    Why can't all mystery shops be this fun?

    Tuesday, September 27

    Dow Great Stuff Not so Great

    As a nearly full-time landlord, I usually stock up on products I use often, ranging from shower heads to caulk to...Great Stuff.  Well, I won't be buying that last one anymore.  Not until they do the right thing.  Bet you didn't know the product features an expiration date, did you?  Neither did I.

    Some time last year I purchased several 16 oz. cans of Great Stuff.  One of the last items on my list for rehabbing House #9 was to plug a couple gaps around one of the outside doors.  I had brought two cans with me (all part of my rehab kit), both of which were defective.  It sounds like there is product in the can, but nothing comes out.  Then the threaded top broke off when I was pushing down on the nozzle.

    I called Dow to find out if there was a way I could still use the product, but when the lady at 866-583-BLUE said there was not, I asked her how I could go about getting it replaced.  These were two brand new, sealed cans.  She asked me to read the date on the bottom of the can.  That's when I realized this Stuff has an expiration date.  Who knew?

    Long story short, DOW refused to replace their product.  The product which I didn't get to use.  You know, milk has an expiration date, too.  But that date is featured prominently on the jug, not hidden away on the bottom.  And, common sense tells you milk will expire.  I think it is unreasonable to expect the average consumer to know that this product becomes completely unusable after the date that is hidden from view.

    That's too bad.  I've used a lot of DOW products in my properties.  But I refuse to buy products from unethical companies.  Until they make things right, they won't see another dime from me.

    Tuesday, September 20

    Atlanta-Bound

    I'm taking a two day break from working at the new rental property.  I enjoy the exercise and want to finish up but a break in the monotony will help motivate me.  We are leaving later this morning for a mystery shopping trip to Atlanta.

    These trips are the best part of mystery shopping.  It allows me to enjoy myself despite my normal frugal bent.  Along the way to Atlanta we are shopping four gas stations.  The free gas along with the fees I am paid will pay for our drive both ways.  We have reservations at a fine dining restaurant for a late lunch (free, of course).  Then we check into a hotel not far from the airport.  In addition to the hotel fee, all my expenses are reimbursed including room service, bar tab and valet.

    I don't think I will return to the grueling shopping schedule I kept last year.  The money was decent but the hours were terrible.  I've been a lot pickier this year and enjoy it more.

    Monday, September 19

    Hard at Work on House #9

    House #9 (the blue one with the fireplace)
    On Monday afternoon I closed on my 9th property.  Since then I've been there every morning getting it ready to rent.  The house is 2 bedrooms, 1 1/2 bathrooms.  I know I can rent it for $650/mo. but I am going to try for $700.

    Fortunately this property isn't as ugly as some I've seen.  It still needs a lot of worth though.  About half the time this week was spent pulling up old peel-and-stick tiles in the kitchen and laundry room.  I hate those things and removing them from a concrete foundation is tough.  There is also a little rot around the back door that I need to do something about.  Besides new floors and repairing the walls there are a number of smaller improvements I am doing, from new toilets to fresh paint where needed. My goal is to have it ready to rent by the end of this month and to place a tenant within a week of listing it.

    I probably won't be buying more houses any time soon.  I bought this house using 0% cash advance checks from two credit cards.  Until I pay off those debts I won't be adding to the portfolio.

    Monday, September 12

    Kudos to Enterprise Rent-A-Car

    Never again will I drive a Chrysler Sebring.

    But on a more positive note, it's not too often that I feel a company sincerely cares about its customers above everything else. However, based on my experience with Enterprise last week while vacationing in Las Vegas, I can say I am impressed.



    When we arrived at the rental counter August 29th I was given the keys to a Chrysler Sebring convertible. I specifically rented a convertible, even though it isn't the most frugal option, because I wanted to treat myself. I was expecting a Ford Mustang - a fun car - but since this is what was offered to me and I had never driven a Sebring, I was up for the opportunity to try something different. That was a mistake.

    Who Needs a Window, Anyway?

    The first problem with the car arose when we arrived at our hotel. The rear quarter panel window would not go up. We managed to get it up with one of us pulling on the window while the other pressed the button inside the car. This happened every time we left the top down and then put it back up. Glad I wasn't alone!

    GPS? So Overrated...

    Second, the cigarette lighter adapter on the console was defective. As we were driving to Phoenix during this trip, I would have to rely on my GPS several times. There was a second adapter in the little cubby box in the console, but the cord to my GPS frayed over time from being clamped down by the lid to the console.

    Rock and Roll

    A third incident, one which frightened the crap out of me, happened while we were driving through the desert near Phoenix. The car started vibrating and the check engine light came on. At first I thought one of the tires was flat. We pulled over, checked the tires, and waited a few minutes before restarting the engine. Magically the problem went away.

    You Have the Right to Remain Nervous

    The last and final straw came after I was pulled over by a Nevada State Trooper. I learned a long time ago to be extra careful about following the rules of the road when out of town, so I didn't have the slightest clue why I was being pulled over. Turns out, the vehicle's registration expired. Four months ago. After a stern warning in which I was advised that I should be more observant in the future and a recommendation that I swap the car out, I decided it was time to speak up.

    Redemption

    The drive from the Suncoast Hotel in Summerlin to the Las Vegas airport isn't short, so I had plenty of time to collect my thoughts and decide NOT to be angry. I pulled into the car rental return area, got out and politely asked to speak with a manager. The gentleman who had greeted me as I got out of the car said he was a manager so I explained all the problems I had experienced. There wasn't much the manager could disagree with since I was able to point to the outdated sticker on the tag as well as the defective window. Interestingly, he asked me how he could make me happy... something along the lines of "what percentage of your rental was affected by this?"

    I suggested the car was only worth half what I paid and the manager didn't argue, instead offering to deduct $150 from the rental fee. He directed me to the rental booth and said someone inside would be waiting for me to swap cars. This is where my expectations were exceeded. If all Enterprise had done was deduct $150 from my bill, I would have been satisfied. But, I wouldn't be praising them. When I reached the rental booth a second manager was waiting. He apologized again and asked me what I'd like to drive. He suggested two choices: a Mustang convertible or a Chevy Camaro. Since I'd never driven a Camaro (only salivated at the one in Transformers!), that's what I chose. And, to top it off, he told me not to worry about refueling the car before I returned. This could have been a very valuable offer, but since we planned to stay put in the same area the last two days we used very little gas. Still, it was an unexpected gesture that I really appreciated.

    All in all Enterprise made a great recovery. It would have been very easy for me to swear them all for all future rentals and talk bad about them every chance I get. Instead, they took care of me. Good job, Enterprise.

    Friday, September 9

    Frugal Las Vegas - Actual Spending v. Budget

    I set a fairly tight budget for our 9 day vacation to Las Vegas and Phoenix. The goal was to spend under $2,000 for the two of us.

    Here is how I did:

    • Round Trip airfare : $266.40 actual v. $266.40 budget
    • Parking at Airport : $30 actual (gave our friend gas money) v. $0 budget (over by $30)
    • Baggage fees : $0 actual v. $0 budget
    • Rental Car for 9 days : $214 actual v. $364 budget (under by $150)
    • Gasoline : $122 actual v. $100 budget (over by $22)
    • 3.5 star Hotel off the Strip : 4 nights FREE
    • 5 star Resort in Phoenix : 2 nights for $185
    • 2.5 star Boutique Hotel in Vegas : 3 nights for $82 (over by $29 - pesky resort fee)
    • Food : $153 actual v. $180 budget (under by $27)
    • Souvenirs : $0 actual v. $20 budget (didn't bring home any clutter)
    • Other Uncategorized : $28 v. $332 (under by $304)
    • Gambling expenses: $270 v. $500 (under by $230)

    Budget : $2,000
    Actual: $1,350

    Results: Under Budget by $650

    Notes:

    • Even though I had selected a Ford Mustang Convertible, we were given a dreadful Chrysler Sebring. After 7 days of problems we traded it in for a sexy Chevrolet Camaro.
    • I did not budget for the resort fee for our 2.5 star hotel. Guess it slipped my mind. I hate resort fees (especially when they cost 50% of the room charge) but at least it included wireless Internet.
    • Uncategorized: $7 admission to Red Rock Canyon, $2 tip for valet (used once), $19 for three movies (once at first run theater and twice at dollar movies)
    • Personally, I am most impressed by our food budget. We averaged $8.50 each per day. No, we didn't eat fast food for every meal. Our meals included smoked salmon, lobster roll, freshly prepared sushi, gourmet burgers, and more. I completed one mystery shop in Phoenix (all but $15 of the $75 tab was covered). I also received several free meals and only spent a few dollars each time for the tip. We only ate twice a day most days since we (over)ate at several buffets. Lastly, I bought two Groupons in Vegas and saved half off those meals.

    Wednesday, September 7

    Heading Home

    All good things come to an end. I'm at the airport now, about to head home. In the next couple of days I will post my spending and compare how I did to my $2,000 budget. I'm pretty sure I spent less than I had budgeted for just about every category.

    This next week is going to be crazy busy. I'm closing on House #9 on Monday. Monday is also the day a close friend of mine is visiting from Pennsylvania, so that will keep me occupied. I'm also attempting to refinance my house at a lower rate. I doubt my request will be approved since I am self-employed. Yesterday a loan officer called and based on that call I'm not too optimistic.

    Monday, September 5

    My Frugal Miser - August Expenses: $5,116


    In July my total spending was very close to what it was in June. But, I was a lot more frugal in July. Included in the amount this month is a $500 earnest money check I wrote for the townhouse I am trying to buy. If I end up buying it I will re-categorize the expense. If not, I will post it as income in when it is returned to me. I spent over $400 on new tires which will probably last me the life of the car and includes balance, rotation and road hazard warranty for life. The only other unusual expense was $185 for a prepaid hotel room for our vacation at the end of this month.

    August Expenses

    $496 Auto ($33 for oil change and air filter, $178 for 6 months insurance, $285 for fuel)
    $0 Bank Fees
    $2 Clothing
    $211 Food
    $65 Entertainment (movies, gambling, alcohol)
    $0 Gifts Given
    $36 Household
    $100 Health Insurance
    $0 Medical
    $912 Interest on Debt (not including Mortgage Interest)
    $1000 Miscellaneous (earnest money on townhouse)
    $405 Mortgage Interest (primary residence)
    $780 Mortgage Interest (rental properties)
    $17 Personal Care
    $0 Subscriptions
    $96 Taxes
    $188 Utilities
    $809 Vacation

    Total August Expenses : $5,116

    Notes

    • In July I posted $500 to Miscellaneous for the earnest money deposit for House #9, but that has been reversed. I was required to post $1,000, which is reflected in this month's budget.
    • My food budget was for two people. I averaged under $7 per day for two people in August.
    • Fuel expense of $285 is directly related to the mystery shopping trips I took. I'm okay with expenses that generate income.
    • Only $69 of the $809 I spent in the Vacation category is from the Vegas trip I am on right now. I spent $445 on a 5 day Carnival cruise ($445 for 2!) we are taking at the end of November. Amazing deal! I also paid $295 to register for the AAII Investors Conference being held in Las Vegas in November.
    • Interest on debt usually runs a little more than $100 per month. I took out some 0% rate cash advances on credit cards to buy House #9. I did have to pay an advance fee of 3% on one and 5% on the other so this is a one time spike.

    Friday, September 2

    My Frugal Miser - August Income: $5,855

    In August I made more than I spent, but only because of all the mystery shopping I did. I did three marathon mystery shopping trips which accounted for the majority of the income. As always, any expenses I incurred such as gas or hotel was deducted from income before I report it.



    August Income
    $1,706 Mystery Shopping
    $4,895 Rental Income
    $(746) Other Sources (negative)
    $5,855 Total Income for August


    Notes:

    • I had negative income from other sources because I helped out a couple of friends with short term loans. In September I should be paid back for these loans.
    • As of August 31, all my properties are rented AND all my tenants are current with their rent. Refreshing.

    Tuesday, August 30

    Frugal Las Vegas - the Food Budget

    Our 9-night vacation has a total budget of $2,000. While I'm not worried about our spending on most categories, the food budget is going to be a challenge. Fortunately I do have a discretionary line ($332) that I can borrow from.

    Our food budget for the trip is $180. Since I was sure we would overindulge ourselves whenever a buffet was involved, we mostly are planning to eat two meals a day. This morning our breakfast is free. We are staying at the Suncoast (off the strip), and one of the freebies they sent me in the mail is for two free breakfast buffets.

    A lot of people would find it hard to eat dinner for two for $20. But this is Vegas. Between the possibility of "earning" free meals through gambling and some of the more aggressive dining options - Ellis Island, as an example, features a sirloin steak, soup or salad, baked potato, vegetable and beer for $7.95 - I am not too stressed about making budget.

    Monday, August 29

    Frugal Vegas or Bust

    This afternoon we head for the airport. We'll be on our way to 9 days in Las Vegas and Phoenix. It's one of the longest vacations I've taken. I have a lofty goal for this trip: to keep my budget under $2,000.


    The frugality begins with our transportation to the airport. Instead of spending $12/day to park at the airport, a friend will take us. Incidentally, we are super light packers. We each have one carry on suitcase and a bag with reading material and my laptop. I also scanned restaurant.com and found a gift certificate for us to use in Phoenix. My partner, who is half Filipino, wanted to treat his mom, sister and grandmother to dinner at a Filipino restaurant. I used an 80% off code to buy a $25 gift certificate for $2. Another of our meals will be at a fine dining restaurant. Of course I'm not paying for it - it's a mystery shop.


    Tuesday, August 23

    How I'm Funding House #9

    The last couple of years I have spent all my free cash paying down debt. I know this was the best use of my cash, but of course that means I don't have a pile sitting around to buy a foreclosed home.

    The purchase price of the house is $22,500 and I funded the $1,000 deposit with funds in my checking account. I think I will get a credit for property taxes that will have to be paid at the end of the year so I'm looking at a $21,000 outlay. So where to come up with the money?

    Credit cards.

    That's right, I'm buying a house with credit cards. More specifically, I am taking advantage of two balance transfer offers. Both offered me a 0% interest rate (instead of transferring a balance I wrote a check to my bank and deposited the funds into my checking account) for 18 months. I did have to pay a hefty fee for the privilege of initiating the transfer (3% on one card and 5% on the other, or a total of about $925), but that's a fair price considering I won't pay any interest on the money for 18 months.

    So my goal is to pay off this house in the next year and a half. I need to pay about $1,200 toward the balances each month. About half of that will come from the rent I get on the house. I think I can come up with the other half from rents and mystery shopping income.

    Monday, August 22

    Times Are Tight

    The last few days I've been doing as much mystery shopping as possible. My best friend who is also a tenant is behind on his rent after being in the hospital for a week. I had to help another tenant with a personal emergency which cost me $300 (it was either that or her power would have been cut off), and I had to bail a third tenant out of jail due to a fine from 1992 he did not pay (can you believe how desperate that municipality must have been - they sent an officer over 100 miles away to pick him up!). In all I am out nearly $1,500 unexpectedly, right when I need it the most since I'm trying to buy House #9.

    Sure, I could have been mean and said no to everyone. I guess I need to be less nice and more business-like sometimes.

    Monday, August 15

    Good News on House #9

    Late Friday I signed a notarized contract for House #9. It still has to close, but there shouldn't be anything that stands in the way of that. I'm super pumped about it. I'm getting a $65,000 house for $22,500 + about $5,000 for repairs.

    The rule of thumb I've used to justify purchases is that I should be able to charge 1% of the price of the house per month for rent. For example, with this house if my total cost is $27,500 then I would need to charge at least $275 per month for rent. Since I already own three nearly identical townhouses in the same complex, I know I'll be able to charge at least $600 per rent.

    Anyone looking for a 2 bedroom, 1.5 bath townhouse? The living room features wood floors and a fireplace. Anyone? :)

    Friday, August 12

    On Another Mystery Shopping Trip

    I woke up this morning in Enterprise, Alabama. I think I last visited this town when I was a little kid headed to the beach and my dad wanted to show me the Boll Weevil monument. Why am I here? We spent the night here because the Hampton Inn here was an "Opportunity" level hotel - 7,500 points per night ($2,500 spending on my AMEX card for most spending but half that for certain category spending like gas). It turned out to be a good place to stop because I was exhausted.

    Yesterday we completed 13 mystery shops, earning almost $400 in one day. Ten of the shops were tobacco compliance attempts at gas stations, two were photo audits at gas stations and one was a home improvement store.

    Today we head home but will shop 6 tobacco compliance stores on the way. This will bring in about $125.

    Happy weekend to all!

    Thursday, August 11

    Taking Advantage of Cheap Travel Again

    I'm booked for another cruise! This one sets sail at the end of November. I wasn't exactly planning to go on a cruise this soon but the price was so low that I couldn't resist. We booked a 5 day Eastern Caribbean Cruise (2 stops in the Bahamas plus a stop in Key West) for $199 each. That's just $40 per person per day. How? I looked online and saw that cruises out of Port Canaveral (near Orlando) were priced fairly low. Upon further research it looks like Carnival just added a third ship to that port so I imagine they are trying to absorb the extra capacity. The rate online was $239 per person but I received an offer in the mail for $50 casino cash and called to ask about it. When the agent looked it up she said she could discount the rate to $199.

    In addition to the $50 casino credit I will also receive a $50 onboard credit because I pre-paid $100 toward my next cruise when I was on the last one in May 2010.

    More details on my budget:

    5 Day Eastern Caribbean Cruise: $199 per person
    Taxes: $73.69pp
    Hotel evening before cruise: Free (using Hilton Honors points)
    Transportation: We will drive*
    Parking: $4.99 per day (includes free shuttle to port - parking at the port was $15/day)

    *Round trip flight to Orlando would have cost almost $600 for both of us, plus $140 for transportation to the port, so over $700. Driving is 1,200 miles round trip. If gas is $3.50 per gallon and I get 40 miles per gallon, we will spend about $105 on gas.

    We should be able to spend well under $1,000 for this vacation.

    Wednesday, August 10

    No Termites

    I haven't heard back from Fannie Mae about whether they accepted my counter offer, but I did receive a copy of the wood infestation report. Strangely, even though the listing agent said the house was eaten up by termites, the report says there is no infestation and no evidence of prior infestations. My uncle who is my agent said it may be the listing agent was trying to scare me off because he has someone in mind to sell the house to.

    With that I told my uncle I would be comfortable accepting the $23,000 price Fannie Mae offered if they don't accept my offer of $22,500.


    Tuesday, August 9

    Fannie Mae is So Slow

    Typical of government bureaucracy, I still haven't found out if I am going to be buying House #9. Some background: this is a 2 bedroom, 1.5 bathroom townhouse built in the 1980s. The asking price was $23,900; I bid $21,000. Fannie Mae countered with $23,000. I have countered their counter by offering $22,500.

    The only outstanding issue is regarding termite damage. I could not find any signs of damage at the house, but the listing agent said the front of the house is completely eaten up by termites. We are waiting to receive a copy of the termite report.

    I really want to buy this property. I "need" a project to keep me occupied and am confident the ROI will be high. In fact, I should be able to charge $600-$650 rent on this house once I fix it up.

    Surely by the end of this week I will know something.

    Monday, August 8

    Man v. Deck, Continued

    I made a lot of progress on the deck over the weekend. In fact, I was able to pull up a chair and sit on it Saturday. There's still some aesthetic work to be done: filling in the holes in the ground around it, staining it, and modifying the garden so that the deck feels like it's been there a while. I used pressure treated wood and read online that I need to wait 1-2 months before staining it.

    Other than digging the hole - which I could have skipped altogether (and probably will next time!) - this was an easy project. I'm glad I discovered concrete deck piers because using them made all the difference.

    I'll probably avoid most other outdoor projects until the weather cools. It's crazy that in ten minutes time outside working on this I was covered in sweat. I do have a small roofing job I want to do at one of the properties. I've never replaced shingles but I'm looking forward to learning how.

    Here's a breakdown of my deck project:

    • Materials: $248.42 (doesn't include staining or landscaping)
    • Time spent digging hole: 40+ hours
    • Time spent constructing deck: ~10 hours

    Friday, August 5

    Man v. Deck

    I decided I should undertake a summer project to keep myself occupied. It was that or move to Tampa. We figured making some improvements to the house we're in now might quell the boredom that makes me want to move. Over the last month whenever I've gathered enough motivation, we've been digging a hole in the ground.




    The garden is beautiful, but we need somewhere to sit and take it all in. At first we were going to make a stone patio. We measured it out to be about 96 square feet (8x12) and started digging. Thinking it would be easy to dig an even space 6 inches into the ground was the first mistake. I don't have that pretty black dirt like folks in the midwest. Mine is rocky red clay, which isn't conducive to shovels. Still, we kept digging.










    Well, after digging this big hole, we changed plans and now we are constructing a wooden deck. Transporting gravel and sand, tamping the gravel, and leveling the stones became overwhelming. I found plans online to build a wooden deck instead. We probably could have done that without digging a hole, but what's done is done. Of course, the wooden deck comes with its own set of complications. Right now we are leveling the concrete piers which will hold the foundation beams in place. Sounds easy, right?

    Stay tuned...