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Saturday, December 15

Planning for 2013

I always look forward to this time of year, not for the holidays (sure, spending time with relatives I rarely see is nice) as much as because of my annual planning ritual.

Without a map it is much harder to reach your destination.

I have friends who fly by the seat of their pants, and it is scary to imagine what they'll do when they are no longer able to work for a living.  There's no planning for retirement.  Heck, they barely plan for next month.  Then I have friends who set measurable goals.  Guess which of my friends are best prepared for rainy days?

My map adjusts for traffic.

My goal setting combines financial, physical and fun goals.  It is flexible enough to allow for changes when life presents detours, yet challenging enough to keep pushing me to be a better person.  Most of the goals are financial-related because it takes money to do the fun things, so if I meet my financial goals I should be able to do the fun things I would like to do.

Around the end of the year I will have firm goals and will publish them here.  Here's a sample of what I am working on:

  • Weight loss (at least 25 pounds)
  • Increasing my Net Worth (by better than I did in 2012)
  • Lowering Utility Expenses
  • Decreasing Debt
By setting short term (month-to-month), medium term (annual) and long term (lifetime achievement) goals, I have purpose.  I can measure my progress and feel either success or failure.

Thursday, December 13

No Cruise

Talk about a letdown.  Our 7 day cruise departed on Sunday.  We wrapped up the hospitality work Friday night, spent the night at an Atlanta hotel, and planned to drive back to Clearwater on Saturday.  Saturday morning I received a call from the wife of my best friend.  He was in cardiac arrest and they were headed to the hospital.  He didn't make it.

On the one hand, I feel good that I was in contact with my friend as recently as Thursday.  In fact, we were on the phone throughout the day as he was fretting about the latest financial crisis his family was in.  On Thursday evening he called to tell me his pancreatitis had returned.  Since he's been in the hospital so many times for it, I didn't think much of it.  Along with numerous other ailments, this time it got him.

Needless to say, we rushed from Atlanta to the hospital in Birmingham.  I stayed through the visitation on Tuesday evening.  The family decided on cremation and opted not to have a funeral.

In case anyone is curious, Carnival Cruise Lines doesn't issue refunds or credits if you cancel a cruise the day before it departs.  That hurts but I understand that they are unable to fill the cabin at such late notice.  Still, it would have been nice if they offered some sort of credit toward another cruise.

In addition to the cruise ordeal, my best friend was also a tenant in my most expensive rental property.  The financial impact of his passing goes much further than the canceled vacation, but hopefully I can get things worked out with his wife soon.

Thursday, December 6

My Frugal Miser - November Expenses: $5,761

During November my total expenses were high but a large part of this was from paying some of my property taxes.  I was mostly frugal with my personal expenses and they were down slightly from October.

I ran out of free gas near the end of November, so a marathon trip to Birmingham and Atlanta added to that expense.  Food was also higher because we ate out a lot while on the road.

November Personal Expenses ($1,339)

$112 Auto (all for fuel)
$0 Bank Fees
$0 Clothing
$25 Entertainment (movies, gambling, alcohol)
$210 Food
$0 Gifts Given
$606 Household/Housing/Home Repair
$159 Health and Dental Insurance
$39 Medical
$0 Miscellaneous
$0 Personal Care
$0 Subscriptions
$0 Taxes
$163 Utilities
$27 Vacation

November Business Expenses ($4,422)

$1089 Mortgage Interest (rental properties)
$159 Interest on Debt (not including Mortgage Interest)
$3174 Rental Properties - Maintenance and Repairs

Total November Expenses : $5,761

  • I don't include principal payments in my expenses, only the interest portion of my monthly mortgage bills.
  • I expect Auto Service to increase, but it hasn't yet.  The Corolla has over 155,000 miles on it.
  • My deadbeat tenant has moved out but many of her belongings are still in the house.  Most likely there will be some expenses in December associated with getting the property ready to rent again.

Monday, December 3

My Frugal Miser - November Income: $8,725

I am satisfied with my income in November.  I have one deadbeat tenant, so my rental income was off slightly.  I did well with mystery shopping.  October was a busy month (most of my mystery shopping pay is from work completed the month before).  Last month I speculated that November would be a slow month but I picked up a large gas station project ($770) as well as a hospitality job.  My December income should be solid even with a 7 day vacation and the holidays.  However, January's mystery shopping income will definitely be down.

November Income
$2,142 Mystery Shopping
$6,502 Rental Income
$82 Other Sources
$8,725 Total Income for November


  • I don't include transactions in my retirement accounts.  This includes rental income, dividends and capital gains and losses.
  • I include merchandising and hospitality work in the mystery shopping category since the companies that I shop for provide this extra side work. 

Saturday, December 1

Ways to Make Extra Money : Hospitality Work as an Airport Greeter

Today and the last two days I have been working a hospitality job in Atlanta.  There are many types of hospitality jobs so let me explain what I've been doing.  This particular assignment requires me to "meet and greet" people attending a meeting.  For the first two days I worked at the Atlanta airport for a total of 18 hours.  There were fewer than 30 guests arriving at different times and my job was to hold up a sign at the arrivals lobby and take the guest to his chauffeur.  Today I am working five hours at the hotel where the meeting was held.  I will be making sure the guests are all taken back to the airport at their designated time.

This work is easy, but it is definitely not for everyone.  Yesterday I worked 13 hours (I could have chosen fewer hours... but I like to make money and long hours never bother me).  About 25 guests arrived yesterday, which means about two guests per hour arrived at the airport.  Imagine standing on a non-carpeted floor, in the same spot, for 13 hours straight.  Now, I did have some down time, particular in the last couple of hours where there were longer gaps between arrivals.  In that down time I was able to grab a snack, stretch and charge my phone.  The pay is much better than minimum wage, and since I am a contractor I can deduct expenses from my pay so that the entire amount isn't counted as income.

I do hospitality work through Buckalew Hospitality.  There are many other companies that offer this type of work, but all my jobs have been through Buckalew (he has some high end hotel mystery shops, also).  The type of work varies, from well-paying to lower end.  This year I have worked a trade show booth for a pharmaceutical company, staffed a registration desk at an engineer's training conference, and next week will be staffing a desk at a hotel for a pharmaceutical meeting.  Usually the higher paying jobs are the ones where I am unsupervised.  Obviously these jobs come after you have proven yourself and can be trusted, so it is usually easiest to get the lower paying jobs at first.

My stay in Atlanta will come to a close shortly.  Tonight I am mystery shopping a limited service extended stay hotel.  Because of its limited service, the report looks easy:  I take photos of the room, kitchen and bathroom as well as an exterior shot of the entrance.  I also rate the cleanliness of several specific items and the service I receive at the front desk.  Because of its limited service, there are no staff interactions besides check-in and check-out.  I also do not have to rate any food service since there is none.  This worked out well.  My hospitality job ends at 8 PM tonight, so I will be tired and it will be late.  I needed a place to stay, so it's a free night.

Sunday, November 25

Making Lemonade, Sweeter

I'm still in Clearwater (wearing shorts and a t-shirt, mind you) even though I planned to be auditing gas stations in Tallahassee today.  Last night I checked my calendar and realized I made a planning error.  I have to work a hospitality event in Atlanta beginning Thursday the 29th.  But I was leaving Birmingham to return to Clearwater on Wednesday the 28th.   That driving would have sucked.  So, we rearranged a few things so that I am making one trip, not two.  Even better, I picked up two cell phone shops in Tallahassee paying $25 each, so tomorrow I will earn $218 instead of $168.

It's going to be a bear of a day - nearly 250 miles of driving followed by 14 shops followed by data entry.  But sticking around Birmingham an extra day will make everything easier later in the week... and I will save on gas.  I expect to earn about $700 this week, which is a decent amount considering Tuesday and Wednesday I'll mostly be goofing off and evicting my deadbeat tenant.

Cold weather, here I come.

Saturday, November 24

Making Lemonade

What started as a slow-looking end of the year is looking better.  I've mentioned that I am in the process of evicting a tenant.  Tomorrow I am leaving for Birmingham to file the unlawful detainer with the court.  I found a route of 12 gas stations in Tallahassee that will earn me $168 in fees, which will more than cover the cost of fuel for this jaunt.  I also have a couple shops in Birmingham lined up.

Before our cruise December 9th I now have two hospitality events in Atlanta to work.  From 11/29 to 12/1 I am working an airport meet and greet and on 12/7 I am working a one day pharmaceutical conference in Atlanta.  The idea is to get as close to Birmingham as possible with these jobs so that I can do whatever I need to do with the eviction.

I've been spending the last few days doing very little and enjoying it very much.  Sure, I would have worked if the opportunities presented themselves, but it is what it is.

Monday, November 19

Mystery Shopping My Way to Zero Debt

November and December have been the toughest months for me to earn a living through mystery shopping.  I have done well this November but I've had to take shops I normally would not.  This month I've already earned $1,600 but the rest of the month looks bleak.  I've noticed that mystery shopping companies try to schedule everything before Thanksgiving, which means the last week of November is usually dead.  Likewise, December shops are usually finished by the middle of the month.  So far I have seen very little opportunity in December.  I have signed up for an oil change and a discount grocery store - that's it.  Maritz is the company that provides me the most work and I don't see anything coming up for December with them.  Nothing.

It's not necessarily a bad thing that my calendar is getting lighter.  I still haven't evicted my nightmare tenant so at least I will have more free time to focus on what needs to be done there.  I am going on a 7 day cruise December 9th so that week was a wash, anyway.

I am coming to terms with the fact that I won't be mystery shopping for the rest of my life.  Maybe on the side this is a great way to get a free meal or some extra cash every now and then.  However, as a "profession" it is a tough business:  even when I'm not out working, I'm checking dozens of job boards for shops, planning upcoming trips, studying job requirements, or keeping track of what I am owed.  In the end it is a good deal of effort with minimal reward besides the flexibility of not having a 9 to 5 desk job.

I've been thinking a good bit lately about my future.  Most immediately, my goals are focused around paying off the debts on my rental properties so that I own this lucrative income stream free and clear.  After that I should have real flexibility - not just with my time, but with money in the bank to pursue new challenges.

Tuesday, November 6

My Frugal Miser - October Expenses: $2,876

During October I was mostly frugal.  For a second month in a row my rental property expenses ($213) were on the low side.  As I prepared to move over the summer I added a clause in my leases that my tenants were responsible for the first portion of repairs.  This was intended to cut down on nuisance calls but has had the unintended benefit of cutting down on overall expenses as well.

I would love to reduce my personal expenses to $1,000 or less each month, but at $1,386 I won't complain.  I mystery shopped so many gas stations that my out of pocket expense was only $7.  Food for two people was $166 thanks to all the restaurant and grocery shops.  Entertainment expenses were higher this month.  I spent more on alcohol thanks to a stocking up trip at Trader Joe's in Sarasota.  We also took a casino cruise where I lost $50 at blackjack.

October Personal Expenses ($1,386)

$7 Auto (all for fuel)
$12 Bank Fees
$0 Clothing
$174 Entertainment (movies, gambling, alcohol)
$166 Food
$141 Gifts Given
$504 Household/Housing/Home Repair
$139 Health and Dental Insurance
$0 Homeowner's Insurance (paid annually each June)
$0 Medical
$35 Miscellaneous
$0 Personal Care
$0 Subscriptions
$0 Taxes
$208 Utilities
$0 Vacation

October Business Expenses ($1,490)

$1095 Mortgage Interest (rental properties)
$182 Interest on Debt (not including Mortgage Interest)
$213 Rental Properties - Maintenance and Repairs

Total October Expenses : $2,876

  • I don't include principal payments in my expenses, only the interest portion of my monthly mortgage bills.
  • I expect Auto Service to increase, but it hasn't yet.  The Corolla has almost 155,000 miles on it.
  • I started the eviction process on one of my tenants last week.  There will be some associated expenses in November.

Friday, November 2

My Frugal Miser - October Income: $6,408

October was an average one for income.  My rental income was down.  One tenant wrote me a bad check; another paid his October rent at the end of September.  I wish I earned more from mystery shopping, but truth to be told the next couple months will probably be the same or lower.  November and December tend to be slower months.

October Income
$1,225 Mystery Shopping
$5,160 Rental Income
$23 Other Sources
$6,408 Total Income for October


  • I don't include transactions in my retirement accounts.  This includes rental income, dividends and capital gains and losses.
  • I include merchandising and hospitality work in the mystery shopping category since the companies that I shop for provide this extra side work. 

Wednesday, October 31

On the Road Again

Before sunrise I'll be headed north Thursday.  I'm mystery shopping several gas stations in Columbus, GA and will spend the night there.  On Friday I shop some gas stations in Auburn, AL, a payday advance in Birmingham, and begin a merchandising route there.  I also have about 20 gas stations to mystery shop in Birmingham.  It looks like I will earn about $500 from the work I am doing, plus free gas.  

While in Birmingham I have to begin the eviction process.  My newest tenant, who was referred to me by my  best friend, has turned out to be a scam artist.  She sends me small amounts of money, which is the only reason I've waited this long to evict her.  Between unkept promises and the bad check she wrote me, it's time for her to find a new home.  I dread having to rent the townhouse again so soon.  I really thought I was positioning myself to be able to settle down in Clearwater and not have to deal with vacancies for a while.

If everything works out the way it should I will be staying with my mom while in Birmingham.  Our relationship is such that she quite possibly will change her mind the day I arrive.  No worries - I've slept in the Corolla before.

When I return to Florida I have a big project waiting for me.  It's a new petroleum audit that looks rather tough.  I have 43 stores to do over 5 days.  Each store pays $14 so in total I will earn $602.  I just have to keep reminding myself how much I will make when I get discouraged.

Tuesday, October 23

Frugality, Florida style

One of the joys of moving somewhere new is figuring out the best ways to save money.  When I'm not shopping or exercising I am practicing extreme frugality:

  • One of the Corolla's tires had a nail in it.  I passed up every repair shop until I found one that offered to repair my tire for $10.  
  • I've figured out the best spot in my house to sit to "borrow" Internet from the unsecured connection provided by an anonymous neighbor (thank you, Netgear7).  This helps immensely for the short bursts of Internet I need to enter a shop or search the job boards.  
  • We still haven't succumbed to cable, so DVDs borrowed from the library have become our primary form of family entertainment.  I also recently subscribed to the Wall Street Journal by redeeming some airline miles for a 39 week subscription.
  • My $99 K-Mart bicycle is paying dividends.  I've lost almost 15 pounds in the two months we've been here.  I've also eliminated a number of trips in the car including errands and mystery shopping that can be done by bike.  It feels so good to shop a convenience store or restaurant and get paid to do it with no out of pocket costs whatsoever.
  • Rather than using electricity to charge our phones or computers, we bring the chargers with us when we go to the library.  
  • With the weather finally moderating (highs in the mid 80s, lows in the 60s), we have shut off the air conditioning and rely on windows and ceiling fans.  I expect our future power bills to be much lower than the $99 we spent in our first month here.
  • I've diligently worked on reducing our food budget.  Last weekend I shopped 7 grocery stores ($70 in free groceries and $49 in fees).  I am also doing more reimbursement-only mystery shops if it means scoring a free meal.  Right now Food is the budget category I am most focused on reducing.
Overall I think we are making some frugal choices that don't entail sacrifice.  Once I have a few months under my belt I can take a quantitative approach to this by examining my budget to see how I am doing.

Monday, October 22

Last Week Recap and Plans for This Week

On the income side, last week I mostly looked for mystery shopping scraps.  By scraps I mean that most of what I did was the reject stuff other shoppers through under the table for the dog.  It's not as bad as it sounds.  I do get paid more for picking up the leftovers, plus the editors aren't so anal when they are facing a deadline and need to get a shop done.  Still, I only earned $297.48 in fees and $254 in reimbursements.  I am finding the Tampa Bay area a much more competitive market.  There are still shopping opportunities, but they don't tend to pay crap.

When I wasn't shopping I was exercising.  On some days I combined the two:  Saturday we biked 11 miles round trip to shop a fast casual restaurant.  It feels good to save a gas, burn some extra calories, and make a little money.  I am building stamina and taking longer bike rides.  Several of our jaunts have exceeded 10 miles.

This week looks depressing.  I have several restaurant shops scheduled, most of which are reimbursement-only.  When you're handed lemons, you make lemonade, right?  At least our food budget will benefit.  Next week I have to return to Birmingham to evict one of my tenants.  I put together a solid mystery shopping route around this so that I won't come out of pocket for gas and will earn about $500 in fees during the trip.

Saturday, October 13

Just Shopping

I haven't had much to say because I've been doing so many mystery shops.  This has been a solid week as I have earned about $600 from mystery shopping in the last 7 days.  My routes have included gas station audits, hotels, several restaurants and car dealerships, and a few random shops thrown in for good measure.

I expect November and December to slow down.  Lately I've earned the majority of my income from one company (Maritz Research) and most all the projects I've been working this month are supposed to span the rest of the year.  Since I've already picked up every shop in my area, there probably won't be many opportunities through Maritz unless another shopper cancels shops they were assigned to or I create a route outside this area.  Taking Maritz as an example, there are only SEVEN open shops within a 50 mile radius of my house, and I can't think of any new projects they will be releasing for 2012 completion.

Looking back at previous years activity, December tends to be the slowest month of the year.  I suspect most MSC try to close our their year before the holidays, which pushes some work to November.  We are taking a 7 day cruise December 9th-16th and then I will likely be visiting family for the holidays.

Monday, October 8

One Year Later and a Milestone

One year ago I set an ambitious goal:  reduce my total debt to $400,000 within a year.  $400,000 was a nice round number, making it easy to remember.  But I wasn't sure whether I would be able to make it.  On October 7, 2011, I owed over $444,000 to various creditors, most of whom are mortgage companies.

A couple of weeks ago, as I was reviewing my goals for the year, it dawned on me that this particular goal was nearing its deadline.  I anxiously opened up Quicken and pulled up the report I had saved, a report which gives me a monthly total and a sexy (to me, anyway) graph detailing my progress.  I couldn't believe it:  on September 21, my debt stood at $400,190.15.  That absolutely made my day.

Needless to say, I reached my goal, so it is time to set a new one.  Since I was able to pay off $44,000 of debt in 12 months, I want to be a bit more ambitious this time.

By December 31, 2013 my total debt will be less than $350,000. If I sell one of my properties before then, I will adjust my goal to account for this... no shortcuts allowed!

Friday, October 5

Thank You, Dad

Today is my father's birthday.  He passed away 10 years ago at the age of 53.  It was sudden and unexpected, so I wasn't able to say goodbye.  I still remember the last time I saw him:  it was about 10 days before he passed.  I had received some mail at his house and we met at a Chevron in Leeds, AL so that he could give it to me.  He told me he had been feeling weak and was on his way to a doctor's appointment to get checked out.

When I think back to what made me a Frugal Miser, I remember how Dad set the example:

  • Dad believed the only debt you should have is your mortgage.  You appreciated what you had more when you paid for things in cash.
  • Dad paid for quality.  He used Craftsmen tools because he said they were guaranteed for life.  
  • Dad took care of the things he owned.  He never let the grass get too high in our yard, and he washed his truck every weekend.  He regularly checked the air in his tires (and in our bikes) and taught me the importance of checking the fluid levels in my car at regular intervals.  Dad was a neat freak, too.
  • When I was really young (maybe 8 or 9), Dad made me and my brother each a piggy bank out of a peanut can.  He told us when we had $100 in the piggy bank he would take us to his bank to open our own savings account.  He gave us chores (some mandatory but many optional) so we could earn extra money.  This gave me the foundation for the value of a dollar.
  • After the divorce Dad would take us out to eat when he picked us up on Friday evenings.  We got to pick wherever we wanted to eat, but he told us how much we could spend, and we stuck to it.  He wasn't stingy, but we definitely had to be mindful of our budget.

Thanks, Dad.

Thursday, October 4

My Frugal Miser - September Expenses: $3,725

During September I did well at controlling most of my expenses.  I was particularly happy with the $213 I spent maintaining my rental properties.  That category has been high this year and it's nice to see it this low.  I would like to spend no more than 10% of my rental income on repairs and maintenance but it has been higher than this in 2012.

My personal expenses were about where I would like them to be.  I did spend $330 to make the last of two payments on our cruise vacation we are taking in December.  I am hoping my fuel expense ($258 in September) will be lower moving forward.  I traveled to Birmingham three times last month and don't expect to be making that trip as often in the future.  I also think we can lower our food expense, maybe to below $200/month if we eat out less and I take on more mystery shops.

September Personal Expenses ($2,230)

$327 Auto ($69 for service, $258 for fuel)
$0 Bank Fees
$23 Clothing
$86 Entertainment (movies, gambling, alcohol)
$296 Food
$15 Gifts Given
$819 Household/Housing/Home Repair
$139 Health and Dental Insurance
$0 Homeowner's Insurance (paid annually each June)
$0 Medical
$0 Miscellaneous
$0 Personal Care
$0 Subscriptions
$0 Taxes
$199 Utilities
$330 Vacation

September Business Expenses ($1,495)

$1101 Mortgage Interest (rental properties)
$180 Interest on Debt (not including Mortgage Interest)
$213 Rental Properties - Maintenance and Repairs

Total September Expenses : $3,725

  • I don't include principal payments in my expenses, only the interest portion of my monthly mortgage bills.
  • I expect Auto Service to increase as a percentage of my budget.  My Corolla just hit 150,000 miles and I have no plans to get rid of it.

Wednesday, October 3

My Frugal Miser - September Income: $8,963

September was a solid month for income and I also kept my expenses in check.  Today I'll focus on income.  My rental income was about where it should be, but one of my tenants paid his October rent early and two of my tenants are behind on their September rent.  Mystery shopping income was actually high than I thought, proving that the transition to a new state was fairly smooth in that respect.  In the future I do plan to be more selective though with the shops I select.

September Income
$1,648 Mystery Shopping
$7,235 Rental Income
$80 Other Sources
$8,963 Total Income for September


  • I don't include transactions in my retirement accounts.  This includes rental income, dividends and capital gains and losses.
  • I include merchandising and hospitality work in the mystery shopping category since the companies that I shop for provide this extra side work.  In September more than half my mystery shopping income came from working conferences or doing merchandising routes.

Monday, October 1

Relaxing, Frugal Weekend

I would have liked to have done some end of month/quarter bonused mystery shops, but the Tampa Bay market is heavier on the supply of shoppers than was Birmingham, so there was nothing out there.  I did complete a couple shops but nothing worth noting.

On Saturday we went to St. Pete, which is less than 20 miles from home.  It was Free Arts weekend, and we participated by attending the Dali Museum and the Museum of Art.  I enjoyed the Dali museum so much - I never knew much more than Salvador Dali's name,  but now I want to read up on the artist and get to know him.  His art was thought provoking and clever.  We also treated ourselves to dessert at Ceviche.  They have a Tres Leches that is out of this world.

Yesterday we exercised.  Clearwater hosted a boat race over the weekend and I didn't realize it ended Saturday until we biked to the staging area.  Fortunately we got to see some race boats up close as the crews were breaking down and departing.  Then last night I had a fast casual mystery shop to do.  It was 5.3 miles from the house, and the original plan was to drive, but then I started wondering how bad it would be to take out bikes, which is what we did.  It was great exercise, and over the course of the day we biked about 15 miles.

I continue to discover cool places around me.  Yesterday we stumbled upon a grocery store called Nature's Food Patch, which was just like Whole Foods on a smaller scale, right down to the wood floors, olive bar and organic bean selection.  We bought a pound of lentils and used part of it to make a vegetable soup for lunch.

I was so inspired by my ability to bike to the restaurant last night that this is what we are doing this morning.  I have a breakfast shop which is very close to the place we ate last night.  The only difference today is that the sun isn't up yet so it should be a good bit cooler.

Oh, and if you are wondering how I am posting this since I don't have Internet at home... one of my neighbors has an unprotected line, so I am borrowing a bit of their juice.  I figure they probably won't miss it since no one else is awake in the area but me.

Wednesday, September 26

My Experience Sleeping in My Car

Monday night I slept in my car for the first time.  It didn't make economical sense to stay in a hotel, plus I'm stubborn.  Originally I had a trip planned which included an overnight stay in Birmingham with my mom.  We've never been on the best of terms and because I do not wish to detail the story here, I will just say that my plans to spend the night at her house fell through a few days ago.

When my plans changed I did look at hotel rooms, but the least expensive rooms were $50 per night.  I also looked at redeeming loyalty points but even that did not appeal to me.  Why redeem 25,000 points for a place to lay my head for a few hours when I could save them for a frugal vacation?  Then I started thinking,

What's the worst that could happen if I slept in my car?

I did some online research - where to park my car, how to make the car more comfortable, the risks involved.  What I found was that truck stops and Wal-Mart parking lots were overwhelmingly favored by folks who do this thing regularly. Based on my research I decided to fold down the back seat so that I would mostly be sleeping in the trunk of the car.  I just couldn't imagine sleeping in the front seat or snuggled up in the backseat.  I drive a Toyota Corolla; it's too small for that.

I shopped five gas stations Monday night on my way from the Atlanta conference to Birmingham.  At the last station there was both a McDonald's and a Wal-Mart in the same parking lot.  This was my spot.  I hung out in McDonald's while I entered my shops and surfed the Internet, then I pulled into the Wal-Mart lot behind the restaurant.  Logistics were straightforward:  I brought two comforters, three pillows and a sheet.  I folded down the backseat, draped the sheet above stretching across the folded down area to conceal myself from prying eyes and shield some of the lights, and made myself a bed.

It wasn't the best night's sleep I ever got, but I didn't expect it to be.  Fortunately the weather was perfect.  I prefer cooler weather when sleeping and it was about 65 degrees when I fell asleep.  But still, I saved $50 or more and didn't sacrifice much if anything.  This wasn't such a bad experience.  I had a day of mystery shopping to do when I woke up, so I freshened up in the McDonald's bathroom and began the day.

Sleeping in my car turned out to be a frugal adventure, and I imagine I will do it again if the circumstances are right.  I wouldn't recommend it if you have to be dressed up the next day or in a very public setting because taking a bird bath at McDonald's won't cut it, at least for me, and this wasn't the most comfortable sleep I've had.  It's probably something that takes a little getting used to.  For example, I woke up several times and I think it was more out of anxiety than actual noises around me.


Saturday, September 22

Journey to a Healthier Me: First 30 Days

One of the two reasons I moved to Florida was my desire to lose weight.  Back in Alabama I was stuck in a rut, unmotivated and unhappy with how much weight I've gained in my adult years. 

Shortly after arrival I bought an inexpensive, single-gear bicycle from K-Mart.  I didn't want to invest a ton of money until I was sure I would stick to my plan to ride my bike just about everywhere.

I've been using the bike.  In fact, unless I am out mystery shopping, I almost always choose my bicycle over my vehicle.  Even better, I have lost nearly 10 pounds this month.  

What an epiphany.  I kept questioning whether I was just making another excuse for being unhappy when I told myself I needed to move somewhere different in order to bring on this change.  Back in Birmingham, I was too discouraged: 1) living in the same area for 35 years means nothing is new - there was no excitement about exploring because I already knew where everything was; 2) back in Birmingham there were no sidewalks outside my neighborhood, and there certainly were no bike paths.  At least not in the suburbs.  In Clearwater, we've got this wonderful 30 mile bike path called the Pinellas Trail.  I can throw a rock from my house and hit it - it's that close.  And many of the roads have bike lanes.  Additionally, it's easier here to stay off the busy highways that are too dangerous.

Lesson learned:  drastic times call for drastic measures.  I'm absolutely certain I am on my way to better health, and I know it took moving 500 miles away from home to force myself to embrace these necessary changes.

I haven't even touched on the money I am saving by not driving.  I'll save that for another day.

Saturday, September 15

Elton John at the Savannah Civic Center

Savannah, GA 09/15/12
Even with bronchitis he puts on a show


With the Atlanta conference in the bag, I traveled eastward yesterday afternoon, touching down in Savannah, GA.  Tonight we are attending our first Elton John concert.  It's neat that he is on a 5 town, small venue tour as nothing beats the intimacy of seeing one of the legends of music performing in a room with fewer than 10,000 fans.  As the concert sold out quickly, our seats aren't in the most desirable area, but then again, how undesirable can they be in a smaller setting such as the Savannah Civic Center?

Tonight I am also mystery shopping a hotel.  It's an easy hotel shop.  I needed a room for the night anyway so why not a free one?  This will give us the chance to park for free and walk to the concert from our hotel... it's that close.  Plus I hear Savannah is a happening little town.

Wednesday, September 12

Maybe Not Such an Easy Week

Plans for the week changed.  I woke up in Atlanta this morning after a grueling drive last night that got me to my hotel at 1:30 in the morning.  I am working a booth at an oncology conference instead of the meeting I was originally scheduled to do in Orlando.  The pay is much better, which is why I accepted the offer.  Atlanta isn't exactly on the way to Savannah, but since we were already planning to be in Savannah this weekend I guess I'm a bit closer now.

The conference I am working is this afternoon, all day tomorrow and Friday morning.  From there we will head to Savannah for the weekend.  The Elton John concert isn't until Saturday evening, so leaving from Atlanta on Friday afternoon means we can spend the day Saturday exploring the sites in historic Savannah, Georgia.

I plan to write more about doing conference work.  It's a nice way to make extra money.  I don't know exactly what I'll be doing today, but the money is good.  I have to wear a suit (ugh!), but being around a bunch of doctors shouldn't be too tough.

Monday, September 10

Exciting Week Ahead

I'm glad the weekend is over.  As someone who fulfills his commitments even when it's extremely inconvenient, I drove to Birmingham and back to complete a merchandising route I forgot to cancel.  It was 17 stores and the pay was decent enough that I don't feel too bad, but it wore me out.  In total I drove nearly 1,500 miles in 3 days.

This week is much easier, and more exciting.  Tomorrow and Wednesday I am working half days at a convention at a Disney hotel.  I've signed up for a couple mystery shops in Orlando to help justify the travel.  On Saturday we are driving to Savannah for the Elton John concert.  I'm shopping a hotel so our lodging is covered.  Hopefully we can complete some shops over the weekend to make the trip worthwhile.

Other than that, this will be an easy week.  I plan to get some exercise using my new bicycle.  Mystery shopping will be slow this week, but I have 25 gas station audits to complete next week.

Thursday, September 6

My Frugal Miser - August Expenses: $7,759

August was expensive.   Most of the large expenses were move-related:  starting new utilities required hefty deposits, and I spent quite a bit on gas to get everything down here.

On the business side,  I spent over $3,000 repairing my rental properties.  Most of this was because I was getting three of the properties ready for new tenants, but I did have an almost $600 air conditioning repair.

August Personal Expenses ($3,760)
$846 Auto ($180 for insurance, $46 for service, $552 for fuel)
$0 Bank Fees
$6 Clothing
$139 Entertainment (movies, gambling, alcohol)
$324 Food
$0 Gifts Given
$934 Household/Housing/Home Repair
$0 Homeowner's Association Dues
$139 Health and Dental Insurance
$0 Homeowner's Insurance (paid annually each June)
$0 Medical
$0 Miscellaneous
$374 Mortgage Interest (primary residence)
$0 Personal Care
$0 Subscriptions
$98 Taxes
$883 Utilities
$18 Vacation

August Business Expenses ($3,999)

$734 Mortgage Interest (rental properties)
$180 Interest on Debt (not including Mortgage Interest)
$3,085 Rental Properties - Maintenance and Repairs

Total August Expenses : $7,759

  • Nothing more to say - just hope expenses will be lower moving forward!!!

Wednesday, September 5

My Frugal Miser - August Income: $8,055

Considering everything else that was going on last month, I earned a satisfactory income in August.  My rental income was about where it should be considering one of my tenants had already paid his August rent and is therefore not included.  I also had to kick out one of my tenants, but fortunately I found a new tenant before the month was out.  Mystery shopping income was quite good, but much of that was earned in prior months:

August Income
$2,394 Mystery Shopping
$5,871 Rental Income
-$210 Other Sources (negative)
$8,055 Total Income for August


  • I don't include transactions in my retirement accounts.  This includes rental income, dividends and capital gains and losses.
  • I cut back mystery shopping in August to focus on my rental properties.  Most of the income I received in August came from work I did in July.

Tuesday, September 4

Settling In

I'm starting to like my new home.  Last week we bought bicycles and I am absolutely loving it.  Because Pinellas County is so dense, I am finding most everything I need can be had without moving the car.  In fact, I have only had to drive to do mystery shops.  There are two libraries within 3 miles, several grocery stores, restaurants, Wal-Mart, K-Mart and much more.  I have already begun losing weight.  Soon I'll start posting updates on my weight loss if I can keep up the momentum.

I haven't been posting often because I still haven't signed up for Internet service.  Between the libraries, McDonald's and Starbucks, I'm never more than a mile away from a connection.  Today was the first day I had shops to enter.  The connection at the library is so much faster than what I used to have at home that I'm saving both time and money.

I'm still working on getting my feet more firmly planted in Clearwater and less so in Birmingham.  I have a merchandising route that I didn't want to give up that will bring me back this weekend.  I'm also working a conference in Orlando and one in Atlanta this month, and attending a concert in Savannah next week.  Guess I haven't quite given up the frantic pace.

Wednesday, August 29

Long Drive

This morning I am checking out of another luxury hotel in Atlanta.  I'm headed back to my new home in Clearwater.  This hotel definitely needs a mystery shopping program.  The view from the 26th floor in midtown Atlanta is pretty nice, but the service has left much to be desired.  I used the hotel's car service to pick up a case of Two Buck Chuck (Cabernet Sauvignon, from Trader Joe's) to take home with me since Tampa/Clearwater doesn't yet have Trader Joe's.  I was excitedly walking through the lobby of this $229/night hotel and was stopped in my tracks by some snooty supervisor who confiscated my case of wine.  Can you believe the audacity?  I had no plans to pop the cork - the mystery shop includes a bar visit so why open my own?  He told me he assumed I was having guests in my room and he did not want to be responsible for someone falling off the balcony.  The only thing is, none of the rooms have balconies and I am shopping the hotel alone.  All of a sudden this highfalutin hotel has transformed itself into a pay-by-the-hour no name motel patrolled by overly aggressive ex-paratroopers turned cops just itching to crack their batons on some crack whore trying to shoot up some primo dope.

Stepping down from my soapbox now...

I've got an 8+ hour ahead of me.  Soon I will crank up the dial on mystery shopping.  I have a few debts I need to take care of before I can really slow down.  I don't plan to shop like I did back in Birmingham but I do need to keep busy the next few months.

Friday, August 24

View from the New Office

View from the 3rd Floor of Clearwater Library
Until I break down and purchase home Internet service, my office overlooks a park and Old Clearwater Bay.  A short walk across the bridge leads to Clearwater Beach and the Gulf of Mexico.

The library is a 30 minute walk from the house.  I can also walk to the grocery store, bank, dozens of restaurants, the historic Capitol Theatre, and so much more.  Soon I will purchase a used bicycle.  With that I can just about go anywhere I need to go.

I moved from a home in the outer suburbs.  Outside that neighborhood there were no sidewalks and it was a 20 minute drive just to buy groceries.

Today marks a New Beginning for this Frugal Miser.  I'm going to get in shape, pay off my debts, and be happier.

Monday, August 20

Chicago and Atlanta

Ace Hardware Paint Plant, Matteson, IL
Yesterday I checked out of a hip little hotel in Buckhead (Atlanta).  The charges were over $600 and will be reversed as part of my mystery shopping agreement.  This was a 2 night assignment, which is somewhat unusual as most shops are for one night only.  It was easier than I expected, plus it paid a small fee.

Before that I was in Chicago for the Ace Hardware convention.  It was a blast, and a huge conference with 17,000+ attendees.  Ace paid my expenses - 2 nights at the Hyatt Regency, meals and travel, plus a token honorarium.  We had Chicago deep dish pizza with Ace's spokesperson, Lou Manfredini, on Tuesday night.

Then Wednesday we took a road trip, visiting an urban Chicago store, large suburban store, and lunch at Portillo's (I had Italian Beef - red meat, yes... one can indulge every now and then).  After lunch we toured the Ace Paint Plant, which was really neat.  The trip ended at 5 PM and then we had the night to do whatever.  Another panelist and I were going to mystery shop a casino, but we missed the bus and he rescheduled.  Instead we took a cab to a nightlife area and hung out for a few hours.

On Thursday we attended the Ace Hardware convention at McCormick Place.  Roy Spence gave an inspiring keynote about "finding one's purpose". He is the founder of the marketing agency (GSD&M) that does advertising for Ace as well as Southwest Airlines, the U.S. Air Force and others.  I flew home late Thursday night.

Today I'm scrambling to tie all those loose ends.  I have a check-up at the dentist, 2 merchandising assignments, and am trying to finish up the townhouse and get it rented.  I've run a little behind with the townhouse but yesterday we did a good bit of catching up.  All that's left is new carpet and a final cleaning, then I can show it.  I already have a potential tenant who I am hoping will be the right fit.  I also need to visit my grandfather to drop off some clothes and mow the lawn at his house.

Not sure when I'll be able to post again.  I'm only in Clearwater for a few days before I return to Birmingham.  I made plans for Mom's birthday month's ago, plus I have to drive the Corolla back.  With everything going on I don't know when I'll have time to be online.

Tuesday, August 14

Moving as a Cleansing Process

Scene from the office:  All packed up!
With barely a week to go before the big move, the Frugal Miser Homestead has been turned upside down.  Unlike most people I enjoy the actual process of packing up and moving my things.  It's a cleansing process, a way to analyze the "things" in my life and question whether they are worthy of coming along for the adventure.

On Friday we took a huge load of donations to the Salvation Army.  Gone are the cheap desk I've hated since the day I bought it, the stack of almost new CDs I came to own after finding them in the attic of one of my properties, and dozens of perfectly wearable clothes that I haven't worn in years for various reasons.

I've resided at my current home for just over four years.  Fortunately I haven't amassed a ton of new things since I've been here.  I was able to whittle down the "office" to just what will fit in a four drawer filing cabinet (what you see in the photo are the boxes full of things that will go back into the filing cabinet when we reach our destination).  And since we are moving south, I purged the majority of my winter clothes.  A side benefit of that is the fact that winter clothes are generally thicker and take up more room, so this frees up a ton of space in my closet.

Slightly off topic but I wanted to mention:  I compared moving trucks from Budget, Penske and U-Haul.  Based on reviews and personal experience, I wanted to avoid U-Haul if possible because of the age and condition of their fleet.  Eventually I settled on Penske.  Since my move date was flexible I played with the dates on their website to find the best price.  For whatever reason, I managed to find dates that were 50% less than all the other dates available.  The move from Birmingham to Clearwater is 500+ miles, but the truck rental is under $200, including taxes.  Guess it pays to compare.

Monday, August 13

One Week to Go

I can't believe how fast our move date is approaching.  Next Tuesday morning we head to our new life in Clearwater, FL.  The house is substantially packed - just about everything we won't be using between now and then is in a box.  This week is crazy, too:  I am flying to Chicago tomorrow morning to attend the Ace Hardware semi-annual convention.  All my expenses are being covered by Ace as part of my participation in their consumer advocacy panel.

This morning we began the process of rehabbing the townhouse - this is the final property I have to get rented.  The tenant moved yesterday and still has a load of crap to pick up that we moved to the living room.  Today we pulled up the old carpet and hauled it to the dump.  My partner will spend the next couple of days cleaning and then I need to decide what else has to be done.  Besides new carpet I have to make the typical repairs and possibly re-paint a couple rooms.

Unfortunately I have very little time to get the townhouse rented.  I return from the Ace convention late Thursday night, and Friday afternoon we are mystery shopping a hotel and restaurant in Atlanta.  It is a two night shop so we won't return until Sunday.  I have to fly back to Birmingham on the 25th to bring back my car and treat my mom to a concert for her birthday, so at least I know I will be up here again to finish getting the townhouse rented if necessary.

Tuesday, August 7

Comparing Utility Bills from One City to Another

Continuing my fascination with my utility bills, I thought it would be prudent to compare the rates I pay now in Birmingham, AL to what I will be paying in Clearwater, FL.

I started with Water and Sewer, since it's common knowledge that Birmingham has the highest sewer rates in the nation.  I have our corrupt former county commissioners to thank for that.  Of course, they get free water service where they are now, but those of us not incarcerated are left to pay for their criminal activities.

If I use 4,000 gallons of water, my bill in Birmingham, AL would be about $69.34.  In Clearwater, FL, the bill would come out to $49.88, a savings of $19.46 per month, which represents a 28% savings.

On to Power.  Currently my energy usage is a combination of natural gas and electricity.  I use gas for hot water, the fireplace and heat.  In Clearwater, everything will be electricity.  What most people don't realize is that it is actually hotter (only slightly, but still...) in Birmingham in the summer.  The winter weather is milder in Clearwater, and I suspect I won't have to use my heat at all, even though my real estate agent thinks otherwise.

Electric rates are higher in Clearwater - a bit more than $.11/kWh versus about $.08/kWh in Alabama.  However, I believe the milder winters in Florida will mean we can save a meaningful amount of electricity from December-February since we probably won't use any heat.  I guess I'll have to wait and see what the difference is for power.

Monday, August 6

Moving Checklist : Update #2

I'm loving the fast pace of life these days.  Things are just crazy.  Originally I intended to scale way back on mystery shopping, but I've been able to do quite a bit because everything else on the to-do list is getting marked off faster than I expected.

Last Friday I signed a lease on the new townhouse.  This is a serious accomplishment because - get this - I signed a lease on it the day after I bought it.  I was fortunate that a tenant who wanted to rent my condo chose instead to rent the townhouse, so I didn't even have to advertise it for rent.

Also last Friday I cleared out just about everything from my grandfather's house.  We cut the grass and then helped Salvation Army load their donation truck.  I also met with a property manager and will most likely list my grandfather's house with a management company so that I don't have to fool with it.  It is an older house and will require more ongoing maintenance than my other properties, so I would rather just hire someone to deal with it.

Over the weekend I was busy with mystery shops and merchandising jobs.  I earned over $400 in two days, and my legs are sore from all the work.  Today I am shopping 11 auto parts stores ($121) and doing 4 menu board audits ($28).  

  • Close on the house in Florida:  DONE
  • Get the house I live in now rented:  DONE
  • Get condo rented:  DONE
  • Close on new townhouse in Birmingham:  DONE
  • Get new townhouse rented:  DONE
  • Decide what to do with townhouse #2:  Started eviction process on Friday, 8/3.
That's right, I've been forced to do an eviction.  Right now I am in the 7 day window where I've posted a notice on my tenant's door letting her know she has to pay up or get out.  If she is still there after a week I will have to file with my county courthouse.  That's expensive so I am hoping the notice will do the trick.

Next week I go to Chicago.  I am part of a consumer advocacy panel for a major retailer and am attending their semi-annual meeting.  The nice thing about this is that the company pays all my expenses.

Friday, August 3

My Frugal Miser - July Expenses: $3,837

In July my expenses were closer to where I would hope they could be every month.  I spent a fair amount on repairs and maintenance for my vehicle, which I expect since I am approaching 150,000 miles on the Corolla.   All my other expenses were reasonable, though I'd like to get the food budget down some. I guess $214 for 2 people for a month isn't too bad.

On the business side, I did have a hefty $779 expense related to an air conditioner - this summer has been tough on my A/C units.

July Personal Expenses ($1,628)
$559 Auto ($445 for service, $114 for fuel)
$0 Bank Fees
$0 Clothing
$40 Entertainment (movies, gambling, alcohol)
$214 Food
$0 Gifts Given
$29 Home Repair
$14 Household
$0 Homeowner's Association Dues
$139 Health and Dental Insurance
$0 Homeowner's Insurance (paid annually each June)
$0 Medical
$0 Miscellaneous
$376 Mortgage Interest (primary residence)
$6 Personal Care
$0 Subscriptions
$0 Taxes
$164 Utilities
$85 Vacation

July Business Expenses ($2,209)

$738 Mortgage Interest (rental properties)
$242 Interest on Debt (not including Mortgage Interest)
$1,229 Rental Properties - Maintenance and Repairs ($779 for A/C repair, $200 for HOA dues, $250 refund of deposit)

Total July Expenses : $3,837

  • Once again I benefited from mystery shopping by spending just $114 on fuel.
  • I don't have a budget for food but think about $200/month is where I need to be.  This is for two people and includes both groceries and dining out.  Free food from mystery shopping doesn't get counted.
  • After I move, my utilities expense may go down even further.  There won't be a bill for natural gas and there's no way water rates are as high there as they are in Birmingham.

Thursday, August 2

My Frugal Miser - July Income: $6,529

July was just an okay month for income.  My rental income was down:  one tenant did not pay her rent (I'm beginning the eviction process) and another paid his July rent in June.  Mystery shopping income was offset by higher than normal expenses for shops I will be reimbursed for in August.  Here's where it all came from in July:

July Income
$820 Mystery Shopping
$5,644 Rental Income
$65 Other Sources
$6,529 Total Income for July


  • I don't include transactions in my retirement accounts.  This includes rental income, dividends and capital gains and losses.
  • I'm cutting back mystery shopping in August to focus on my rental properties.  Most of the income I receive in August will be from work I did in July.

Wednesday, August 1


I knew that the condo would get rented, but wow!  Monday night I did the walk-thru with the departing tenants.  Their rent was paid through July.  I listed the condo on Craigslist last week and scheduled several showings for yesterday.  It was a long day - never much fun sitting around an empty house waiting for people to show up.  But my patience paid off as I signed up my next tenants.

That's right, folks.  The new lease starts today, August 1st.  I had ZERO days of vacancy for the condo.

Just one more "to-do" I can check off my list.  Even better, there was so much interest in the condo that I was able to schedule three of the potential tenants to instead look at the townhouse I am buying this morning.  It would be amazing if I got the townhouse rented today, the very day I bought it!


Monday, July 30

Moving Checklist

The move is scheduled for August 21st.  Any move can be overwhelming, but since my new home is over 500 miles away, and I am leaving my income stream (rental properties) in Alabama, I'm especially concerned about whether I can get everything done.  I decided to document what needs to happen for this to be a successful move:

  • Close on the house in Florida:  DONE
  • Get the house I live in now rented:  DONE (WOOHOO!)
  • Get condo rented:  Meeting with potential tenants Tuesday.
  • Close on new townhouse in Birmingham:  Scheduled for Wednesday.
  • Get new townhouse rented:  Not started.
  • Decide what to do with townhouse #2:  In process.
The reason I haven't posted in more than a week is because of how much is going on.  Last week I drove to Clearwater and back to buy the house down there.  On Sunday I finalized the lease with the tenants who will be taking over my current home (bonus:  they agreed to a 30-month lease-purchase option and will handle most maintenance and repairs themselves).  

I've also been fielding emails from the ad for the condo.  Tonight I meet with the departing tenants to make sure the condo is in good condition; tomorrow I have at least four potential tenants coming by to see the condo.  Then on Wednesday I am buying another townhouse.  I'm hoping that the overwhelming response I received for the condo will spill over and that I can show the new townhouse to some of the people coming by to see the condo.  

If that weren't enough, I have another townhouse that I will probably have to get rented.  The current tenant lost her 9 year old daughter so I have been slow to do anything.  She emailed at the beginning of the month and told me she would be moving out and did not have the rent for July because of the funeral expenses.  It's a sensitive issue.  

I haven't even mentioned my grandfather's house.  I've neglected to do anything about either renting it or selling it.

Needless to say, I have to cut way back on mystery shopping.  I have a bonused route to do this weekend and a luxury hotel in Atlanta to shop on the 17th.  Otherwise I will be very picky about what I do.

Friday, July 20


In one week I close on the new house.  It's here, in  Clearwater, FL

Soon this will be my home.  I am overwhelmed by the emotions of starting over.  I want to lose weight, get in shape, and pay off all my debt.  A change of scenery will hopefully be the kickstart I need.

Wednesday, July 18

Feeling Overwhelmed

Today (Wednesday) is the first slow day I have had in a while.  By slow I mean I only have two mystery shops scheduled and I don't have any outstanding issues at my properties.

Yesterday I completed 11 mystery shops and I repaired an air conditioner.  As luck would have it the Summer of 2012 has been the summer of constant HVAC repairs.  I've had to repair or replace the units at 3 of my rentals in the last 60 days, and the expense has killed my cash flow.

Tomorrow (Thursday) I'm doing some bonused shops on a route north of me.  It's only 4 shops but I'm making about $100.  At 3:00 a potential tenant is coming by to look at the house.

August gets even crazier.  Between trying to move and getting my recently vacated properties rented I will be  on the road a good bit.

Friday, July 13

Surging Forward

I can't emphasize how important goal-setting has been in my life.  Frankly I am surprised how anyone can live without a "compass" directing you on where you should be headed.  Once again I find myself on the brink of achieving one of my 2012 goals (posted here).

For more than a year I've considered buying a house in the Tampa Bay area, and it looks like it's going to happen... finally.  Last week I put in an offer for a small 3 bedroom, 1 bath home in Clearwater.  There were five offers on the house, but my all cash offer with no contingencies for financing, sale of current residence or inspection finally won over the other, sometimes higher bids.  If all goes as planned the paperwork will be finalized July 27th.

If that weren't enough, I'm buying another property here in Alabama.  I haven't written about this because it was such a long shot.  The property is a townhouse next door to one I already own.  The one I already own was purchased as a foreclosure for about $43,000.  This one is not a foreclosure, but the aging landlord is tired of dealing with it and has agreed to sell it to me for $27,000.  I was lucky on this deal, as the current owner never even listed the house on the MLS.  It's practically move-in ready save for a bit of cleaning and likely replacement of a couple kitchen appliances.

I feel like I'm getting in over my head, which is exactly where I want to be.  I always work best under extreme pressure:  give me more than I can handle and I will achieve way more than I would if life were simple and easy.  What do I mean?  Well, not only am I simultaneously purchasing two properties, I am also dealing with 1) a tenant moving out on July 31st, 2) converting my own home to a rental property, 3) a stubborn tenant who I just may have to evict (though not for unpaid rent, so hopefully I can work things out on this one), and 4) a tenant who emailed earlier this week to say she has to move and may not be paying her July rent.

Needless to say, I've got to scale down the mystery shopping.  I've already made a number of commitments through this month for dozens of shops, so my July income shouldn't really be affected.  However, in August I've got to turn my focus to the bread and butter, which are my rental properties.

Tuesday, July 10

Mystery Shopping a Time Share Resort

Perhaps one of the most valuable mystery shops you can do is the time share.  There are different scenarios ranging from full resort stay vacations to "day drive" shops.  Yesterday I completed my very first time share mystery shop.  Since my assignment was a "day drive" I will report on that scenario.

The day drive shop is the most basic one and is given to first time shoppers.  I should note that the company who assigned me the shop normally requires experienced shoppers, so even this basic shop is available only to seasoned mystery shoppers.

The day drive shop is easy.  I was given a list of locations in the Orlando area where retail kiosks were located.  I had to visit any kiosk and express interest in a time share.  This wasn't part of the mystery shop but rather was how I get access to a presentation.  I had to answer just a few qualifying questions about my income and finances and make a $20 deposit, which would be refunded after the presentation.  That part was kind of weird but it was intended to weed out people who weren't actually going to attend.  Why would someone pay to listen to a sales pitch?  Because these kiosks are set up to look like they are offering free or discounted tickets to theme parks.  Sit through a sales pitch and maybe get free tickets to Disney.  Since I wasn't interested in theme park tickets I asked if there were other carrots they could dangle and was offered a $75 American Express gift card in exchange for sitting through the two hour presentation.

I was required to covertly record the presentation.  This wasn't too difficult but I was nervous that something would go wrong with my equipment.  Fortunately my worries were unfounded.  The presentation itself was relatively painless.  I was given a tour of the resort, watched a Powerpoint presentation and met with a salesperson.. and her manager... and some other guy.  My assignment was to express interest until I found out the price, at which point I could end the shop.  The purpose of the shop is to ensure the sales staff are complying with the law in regards to time shares.  There are certain promises they can't make and disclosures they have to provide.

The best part about the shop is the compensation.  I was provided a $102 travel allowance, $200 hotel allowance, $50 shop fee and received a $75 gift card that I got to keep.  Since I wanted to be in the area anyway, this was a lucrative way to subsidize my trip.  In total I received over $400 for little more than three hours of my time.

One last thing.  This shop was different than most I do.  Yes, there was a report.  But, it was quick and easy.  Since the company provided me the recording equipment, I simply mailed back the materials in a prepaid envelope.  The report took about 20-30 minutes.

Monday, July 9

Update from Orlando

It's been a busy but fun several days.  We spent last week in Clearwater, FL looking at houses.  I made an offer on one house but was outbid and am waiting to hear back about an offer I made on another house.  It is unsettling that home buyers in the Tampa Bay area don't seem to have learned any lessons from the housing collapse.  What I have found is that buyers are bidding more than the asking price on these homes.  Once again, insanity.  The first offer I made was at the asking price because I really wanted that house.  At the asking price mine was the third best offer.  Ridiculous.

Today I am doing a time share mystery shop.  This will be my first time share shop so I am nervous.  It is recorded so I'm mostly nervous that I'll run into technical issues and my shop won't be accepted.  Hopefully my anxiety is unfounded because this is an extremely lucrative shop.  I'll probably write more about it this week.

I've done several shops while we have been in the area.  Most of the gas for the rental car has been free and most of the meals are free, too.  I only shopped one hotel so I am coming out of pocket on lodging.

The trip is quickly winding down:  we fly home Wednesday afternoon.  Fortunately, I did plan a day of fun before we leave.  Tomorrow we are visiting Sea World.  I redeemed Hilton Honors points for our passes so the admission is free.  The hotel provides a shuttle so we won't have to pay for parking, either.  If that weren't enough, I am mystery shopping a restaurant for lunch that is walking distance from Sea World.

Tuesday, July 3

My Frugal Miser - June Expenses: $12,939

In June I was a glutton.  I wish I could attribute the higher expenses all to legitimate expenditures like maintenance on my properties.  Unfortunately that doesn't explain the money I left at the casino.  I have a problem with drinking too much when I am gambling and then doing stupid things with my money.

I spent over $5,000 on property insurance last month and nearly $4,000 on a new HVAC system.  I also lost over $1,000 at Sam's Town in Tunica.  On a more positive note, my spending everywhere else was fairly reasonable.

June Personal Expenses ($3,432)
$141 Auto (all for fuel)
$11 Bank Fees
$0 Clothing
$1,212 Entertainment (movies, gambling, alcohol)
$202 Food
$23 Gifts Given
$0 Home Repair
$52 Household
$0 Homeowner's Association Dues
$139 Health and Dental Insurance
$559 Homeowner's Insurance (paid annually each June)
$0 Medical
$0 Miscellaneous
$379 Mortgage Interest (primary residence)
$0 Personal Care
$0 Subscriptions
$0 Taxes
$99 Utilities
$616 Vacation

June Business Expenses ($9,506)

$742 Mortgage Interest (rental properties)
$171 Interest on Debt (not including Mortgage Interest)
$8,593 Rental Properties - Maintenance and Repairs (mostly for insurance and a new HVAC system)

Total June Expenses : $12,939

  • Once again I benefited from mystery shopping by spending just $141 on fuel.
  • I don't have a budget for food but think about $200/month is where I need to be.  This is for two people and includes both groceries and dining out.  Free food from mystery shopping doesn't get counted.
  • Most of the Vacation expense was for a one month car rental, which I'm returning next week.  I also included four nights lodging for our trip this week to Clearwater.

Monday, July 2

My Frugal Miser - June Income: $11,701

June was a great month for income because one of my tenants paid July and August rent early.  Unfortunately, it was also an expensive month, as I spent more than I made (more about that tomorrow).  Here's where it all came from in June:

June Income
$2,539 Mystery Shopping
$8,723 Rental Income
$438 Other Sources
$11,701 Total Income for June


  • I had my best month of the year for mystery shopping income.  Of course, much of the income was earned in May.  Still, it was a busy month and there were hefty bonuses on many of the shops I completed.  For this category I combine my reimbursable expenses as they occur with the income that comes in during the month.  Accountants wouldn't like my way but it sure is easy, and over the long run it's 100% accurate.
  • Rental income reflects the additional rent one of my tenants prepaid (a $2,300 benefit).  All of my properties were occupied in June.
  • Other Sources includes $75 for the anthrax medical study (just one visit left though), a rebate for a water heater I purchased and some cash back on my credit cards.

Wednesday, June 27

Frugal House Hunting, Round 2

On Sunday I am returning to Clearwater, FL to look at houses.  When I went at the end of May I had a lot of mystery shops as well as some conference work lined up to pay for the trip there.  I haven't signed up for as many shops this time but I've still found ways to keep my travel costs low:

  • Sunday night I am mystery shopping a hotel in Atlanta.  Right now this is the only hotel I am shopping but there is one more site that could post hotel jobs for July.  It's not looking good though.  
  • I am being reimbursed for another two nights because I am doing a time share mystery shop in Orlando.  This shop reimburses mileage for 200 miles, two nights hotel plus it pays a fee, so it will be my most lucrative shop.  All I have to do is covertly record a meeting with a time share salesperson.
  • We're shopping at least 10 TGI Friday's.  These are alcohol compliance shops so the report is very simple:  the location either passes or fails and then I answer a few additional questions.  I have also signed up for a BBQ restaurant in St. Petersburg for one meal.
  • I am taking advantage of Choice Hotels "Two Stays Pays" promotion - twice.  For every two stays this summer you earn a $50 gift card.  Since there is no minimal stay requirement, I am flipping between two adjacent hotels every night for 4 nights.  Sure, it's slightly inconvenient to have to check out every day, but doing so earns me $100 in gift cards.  The hotels are less than $50 per night so if I consider the gift cards like cash I am really getting a rate of around $25 per night for each of four nights.
  • Unless I find more mystery shops, two of the nights I am redeeming Hilton Honors points.  These will be the two "splurge" nights as we are staying at a newer Hilton property.
  • I've signed up for 15 gas station shops (no pictures!) which will cover about half of our fuel costs.
In total we will be away for 10 nights and I will be paying for 5 of those nights.  My out of pocket expense for hotels will be less than $300 and I earn $100 in gift cards plus more points on the fifth night.  The majority of our meals will be mystery shops or free breakfast in the hotels.  

This sounds like a lot of work but it isn't.  The gas stations only take 10 minutes each, or basically 2 1/2 hours of work.  The time share presentation will last from 1-3 hours.

Monday, June 25

Deadbeat Tenant: Chapter 4

Over the last few months I've been the unintentional recipient of an email exchange between a landlord and his deadbeat tenant.

Cast of Characters
Kandi... as deadbeat tenant
Jan... as cc'ed co-landlord
Ricky... as God-fearing landlord

On Friday we found out that Kandi's computer at work has been down.  However, she promised to pay the rent by June 10th.  \

From: Ricky
Date: Thu, Jun 7, 2012 at 1:11 PM
Subject: Re: Rent
To: Kandi
Cc: Jan

Thanks for the response. We will be looking for the payment.
Jan and I will be praying for you and your daughters. Parenting is a gift from God and is a true blessing, but it can also be very trying and challenging. Especially with teenagers. Prayer is certainly where I draw my strength for it!
Please stay in touch us from time-to-time.


God is great indeed.  He's blessed us with a deadbeat tenant who is now six months behind on her rent.  That's the kind of person I'd like to keep in touch with from time-to-time.

Sent: Monday, June 18, 2012 10:33 AM
Cc:  Jan
Subject: June rent


No rent has been received for June. We need to talk to you TODAY!


Atta boy.  Email is such a threatening avenue for communication.  By golly, I mean today!  Phones are so overrated. 

From: Kandi
To: Ricky
Cc: Jan
Sent: Tue, Jun 19, 2012 7:50 am
Subject: RE: June rent
Ricky, I got back in the office this morning.  I guess you probably think im not telling you the truth but I did mail a money order for the rent.  I texted Jan on Friday and told her if you did not receive by then to please let me know.  I have been in South Carolina for my work.  I actually gave it to my daughter to mail and I called her to make sure she didn’t forget to drop it off.  I will call the post office and see what to do about if it is lost in the mail.  I will find my receipt that you tear off the money order. 


Let's get this straight.  So far:
  1. Deadbeat Kandi really has been calling.  It's just that she's been leaving voicemails on someone else's phone.
  2. Deadbeat Kandi will pay all her back rent as soon as she gets her tax refund.
  3. Deadbeat Kandi has technical problems at work.  Computers were down all week.
  4. Deadbeat Kandi mailed her rent.  Really, she did.  It's just that it got lost in the mail.  Hate when that happens. 

Pretty Ricky is at wit's end.  The Good Lord is testing his faith.  

From: Ricky
Sent: Tuesday, June 19, 2012 8:45 AM
To: Kandi
Subject: Re: June rent

Fair enough Kandi. I have told you before, we will work with you any way we can. I don't want to offend you, but I would like to see a copy of the money order receipt. I don't know how you go about getting a lost money order replaced.

As far as whether or not you're telling the truth, I am not in a position to judge you, only to do my best to show you the grace that God has shown to me.

Please, let's try to get June taken care of and start making some progress on the back rent months so we can all put the past difficulties behind us.
I don't mean to beg, but God's grace has prevented me from ripping your head off and eating it for lunch.  Don't you know we're hungry over here?   You're taking food off our table.  Since torturing you is not an option, how about throwing us a few bones instead?
From: Kandi
Date: Tue, Jun 19, 2012 at 2:18 PM
Subject: RE: June rent
To: Ricky
Cc: Jan

You are not offending me at all.  I don’t blame you a bit.  And I will get it took care of and yes I do more than anything want to get all this behind me and move forward.  I apologize that you both have gotten caught up in my problems.   It was not my intentions at all.

Thank you,


Folks, that's all I got, but I promise to post updates when I receive them.  Interestingly, Kandi's been emailing from her work computer.  Assuming she's been receiving a paycheck, it's hard to fathom how she could be six months behind on her rent.  It's even harder to figure out why these naive landlords haven't evicted her ass yet.