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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 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...

Thursday, August 4

My Frugal Miser - July Expenses: $2,813

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 (9/5/11 update: I reversed this as I ended up posting $1,000 in earnest money in August). 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.

July Expenses

$569 Auto ($472 for new tires, $97 for fuel)
$0 Bank Fees
$15 Clothing
$203 Food
$92 Entertainment (movies, gambling, alcohol)
$27 Gifts Given
$124 Household
$100 Health Insurance
$0 Medical
$115 Interest on Debt (not including Mortgage Interest)
$000 Miscellaneous (earnest money on townhouse - reversed 9/5/11)
$408 Mortgage Interest (primary residence)
$784 Mortgage Interest (rental properties)
$0 Personal Care
$6 Subscriptions
$185 Utilities
$185 Vacation

Total July Expenses : $2,813


  • My food budget was for two people. Just over half was spent in restaurants with the remaining at the grocery store. I mystery shopped a few grocery stores in July which helped lower this expense.
  • The $15 in clothing was a result of spending more than the reimbursement amount for some mystery shops. I bought over $100 worth of clothes for just $15!
  • The $92 I spent on entertainment was almost entirely from dollar movies and wine.

Wednesday, August 3

My Frugal Miser - July Income: $4,795

In July I made more than I spent, but my income wasn't too impressive. It is $620 less than it would have been because I zeroed out my Prosper balance. Prosper is a site where you make small loans to individuals. A couple years ago the site stopped accepting money from my state and since then I've collected payments on those loans I did make. The last loan I made was paid off in July.

July Income
$246 Mystery Shopping
$4,221 Rental Income
$328 Other Sources
$4,795 Total Income for July


  • I "lost" $620 from my Prosper experiment. That's from deadbeats who didn't pay me back. There's still the possibility that I will receive a few dollars from time to time from recoveries but since it will be minimal I decided to zero out the balance in Quicken.
  • My mystery shopping picked up in July but I am waiting on some of the payments. Hopefully that will show up in my August income.
  • All my properties are rented. In July I spent money getting the condo ready to rent and also repaired the fascia at one of the townhouses. Nothing major.

Tuesday, August 2

Frugal Las Vegas - the Budget

I found a cheat sheet in the way of someone else's Vegas Vacation Budget. Over at Budgeting in the Fun Stuff the writer and her significant other spent $2,004 for four nights and five days in Sin City. I'm spending 9 nights but I would like to keep my costs under two grand as well.

Here is how I am budgeting my spending:

Round Trip airfare : $266.40 (one of the two flights was FREE using airline miles)
Parking at Airport : $0 (our plan is to sweet talk a friend into giving us a ride... otherwise a taxi might be the best bet)
Baggage fees : $0 (gotta love Southwest. Besides, we pack light)

Rental Car for 9 days: $364 (Ford Mustang convertible - sure, it's not the cheapest, but it's a FUN car)
Gasoline : $100
3.5 star Hotel off the Strip : 4 nights for $0 (comp based on the gambling I did in 2010 at the mystery shopping conference)
5 star Resort in Phoenix: 2 nights for $185
2.5 star Boutique Hotel in Vegas: 3 nights for $53

Food : $180 (budgeting $10 each per day for 9 days)
Souvenirs : $20 (we're not big on "stuff" but just in case)

Other uncategorized : $332 (this is my "cushion" for unexpected expenses)
Gambling expenses: $500

Total Budget : $2,000

In all my trips to Vegas I've never been to one of the shows. Who knows, maybe we will try one out this trip. If so, my plan is to borrow from the "other" category to fund it. As noted we are planning a side trip to Phoenix. My partner is from there and has family in Phoenix so I thought a little road trip would be fun and would keep us from getting bored with gambling.

An observation about my comped hotel room: I lost a total of $840 during my Vegas trip last year at the casino where we will be staying. While there last year I received I think 3 free meals. Based on that level of play in a single 3 day visit in 2010, I've been offered 4 free nights in the hotel, 4 free breakfast buffets and $100 on gambling credits. Seems fairly generous.

Monday, August 1

Frugal Las Vegas

In less than one month my partner and I will be flying to Vegas. This isn't a typical vacation for me because I will be gone for 9 whole days. Usually I only take 3-4 days but Southwest was having a big fare sale and the cheapest flights were on the days I booked. Sure, that means I will spend more while I'm out there, but I figured it would be nice to really get out of town and get my mind off the day to day cobwebs that stifle my creative side. I hope to return from my trip fresh and maybe, just maybe, with some ideas for new projects.

I'm still working on my budget, but here are some of the things I'm doing to keep the cost down:
  • I have a friend who has agreed to keep the cat, so there won't be any boarding costs.
  • I plan to use up everything in the refrigerator and freezer before we leave so that we can leave it unplugged. It goes without saying that the air conditioner will be turned off.
  • I'm taking advantage of comps so that some of our hotel stays are free.
Tomorrow I'll post a budget.