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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 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

  • $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

  • 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.