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Monday, February 27

My Frugal Miser - February 2012 Goals Review

So technically I still have a couple more days to work on my goals, but hopefully I'm not jumping the gun by stating that I achieved everything I set out to do this month.

Tangible Goals

  • I wanted to reduce the balance on my Chase Freedom card to $6,000.  I've gotten it down to about $5,500.
  • I wanted to end the month at 237 pounds, a 4 pound weight loss.  Sunday morning I weighed 236.4, so I'll claim victory here, too.  I didn't make a heck of a lot of changes other than exercising a bit more and skipping a couple of mid-afternoon cravings.
  • I wanted to earn $1,500 from mystery shopping, and I did...technically.  I made north of $2,000 this month, but much of the income was from work I did in previous months.  For example, I received nearly $400 from the Freeman Group for hotels I shopped in September, 2011.

Not so Tangible Goals

  • I wanted to reduce the amount of electricity we use.  The bill I received last week was the lowest it's been in some time (8 kWh per day, on average).  What I've done differently this month is not using the TV merely as background noise when I'm on the computer.  And, the thermostat was completely turned off all month, even on the handful of days when it actually should have been used to heat the house.
  • I wanted to read more, and I did.  I read Boomerang, by Michael Lewis, which attempts to explain why places like Greece are in economic crisis (Lewis says Greeks are lazy and Icelanders should stick to fishing, for example).  I am about halfway through In Cheap We Trust, a history of thrift in America.  I also read a lot of magazine articles as well as Warren Buffett's 2011 shareholder letter, which he released Saturday.  Good stuff.
  • I wanted to work on disposing of my still-living-but-confined-to-a-nursing-home grandfather's things.  I spent a good bit of time doing just that and then turned over the keys to a couple that runs an antique store near his home, who will be holding an estate sale at some point.  Problem solved (I hope).
All in all it was a good month.  I would have liked to have done more mystery shopping the last two weeks as things really slowed down, but otherwise I feel I was productive.

Thursday, February 23

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

I've been using my Republic Wireless service for two months already and thought I should update you on my experience.  First off, one of my core values is expense reduction:  I am continuously looking at ways to reduce expenses that do not help me generate income.

What I Like

  • Saving Money.  Last year with AT&T I spent around $100/month for my plan.  Now I pay $19 + tax.  I am saving about $80 per month, plus my calls, texts and Internet usage are unlimited.
  • Burning Calories.  One collateral advantage to this new plan is that I am exercising more. Why?  Since I'm not worried about going over on my Internet usage I can stream Pandora and NPR on my phone.  I get excited about walking now since this phone is also an MP3 player.  
  • No contracts.  I had to pay $165 to divorce AT&T.  If things don't work out with Republic I won't have to do that.

What Could Improve

  • Sprint's Coverage.  Republic relies on the Sprint network, which doesn't cover as expansive an area as AT&T.  I've been without service in some areas.
  • Small Annoyances.  I ported my number to Google Voice but when I send a text message it uses the number I was assigned by Republic, so people don't always know it's me.  When I access voicemail I have to enter a password.  I'm not a fan of anything that slows me down.
Overall I'm not looking back.  I have an extra $80/month now to pay off debt... what's there to complain about?

Friday, February 17

Debt be Damned, the Update

Just 45 days into the new year and I've made so much progress paying off my debt.  More importantly, it feels great.  I've been reflecting lately on my mood - I've been stressed and depressed a lot.  Rather than air my frustrations on the blog I just don't post.  But I realized a couple days ago that the stress and emotions are because of my debt.  It doesn't matter that I used debt to invest in rental properties ("good" debt).  I may as well have been spending money on crap from Target.  Debt is debt.  I get the stress from being handcuffed to it regardless of the reason I have it.

By the end of February I will have reduced my total debt by $20,000.  That's absolutely amazing.  While I can't continue the same pace (there's not much left to sell), it's even easier to keep paying it off because I have less interest to pay on the declining balances.

Current debt:  $427,925
Debt on 12/31/11:  $446,282

I'm almost to the point where I will swear off all new debt, no matter how irresistible the foreclosure.  While it might be wise to use debt to purchase income properties, I have trouble relaxing/sleeping/thinking because the debt is constantly gnawing at me.

Friday, February 10

Mystery Shopping: Making it Work

The mystery shopping industry has high turnover similar to retail.  I've seen plenty of friends, acquaintances and family come and go.  True, one of the benefits to being an independent contractor is that you can do this to fill gaps when you aren't working or when you need to make some extra cash.

Lately I've given some thought to "why."  Why don't people keep at it?  Why is it such a transient industry?  Based on conversations I've had with others along with my own experiences, here are a few pointers for getting the most out of your mystery shopping experience:

  • Be a business owner.   As an independent contractor, you are the boss, so think like one.  Keep your overhead low, and always know your costs.  I would never take a restaurant shop 20 miles away that pays $7.50.  There's a reason the IRS allows you to deduct $.555 per mile for travel:  gas is less than half the cost of operating a vehicle.  You should also consider whether there is any real value in the reimbursement part of the shop.  For example, I regularly shop local grocery stores because the reimbursement is almost like cash:  I would have to buy groceries anyway, so why not let the MSC pay for my groceries?  On the other hand, the reimbursement I receive at the cash advance store is meaningless.  I would never take out a payday loan on my own, so to be reimbursed the fee for doing so has zero value.
  • Add value with routes.  My car doesn't leave the garage for one or two shops.  Last week I shopped 11 gas stations and 2 restaurants in one day.  I left the house before 8 AM and was home by 1 PM, making $128 in 5 hours plus reporting time.
  • Concentrate to mitigate.  Your costs, that is.  Learning how to perform a shop might take an hour and require you to print 14 pages of instructions.  Taking one $10 shop isn't going to cover your costs.  If you are going to invest the time preparing to do a shop, take as many of the shops as you can.  You learn once and then get paid over and over again.
  • Be picky.  This last tip could be the most valuable one.  Nearly every MSC will pay more than the listed amount if they must to get the job done.  Often the shop cycle is a monthly one and the last week of every month is where you make the real money.  I routinely earn $30 for restaurant jobs that normally pay $8.  I've been paid $300 to take 4 gas stations that were out in the middle of nowhere, but I've also been paid $40 to audit a gas station in an undesirable area of my own city (the trick is to do the shop early while the prostitutes and crack heads are still sleeping!).
Of course, the key to all this is to think with a clear head.  If you live a frugal life, you can afford to pick and choose your income.  Some shops (or schedulers) I enjoy and will accept for face value.  But there are others I just won't do.  This mentality keeps me from burning out or flaking, something I never do (flaking, or accepting a job but not completing it, is the surest way to losing your relationship with the MSC).

Tuesday, February 7 Credit Card Arbitrage Opportunity

Who:  Serve is a new Paypal-like service provided by American Express.  Well, it technically isn't new:  I became a Serve customer when American Express purchased Revolution Money Exchange.  I finally got around to activating my debit card this weekend, so I decided to snoop around their site to figure out why I should use Serve.

How:  Use a credit card that earns rewards to fund your Serve account.  The limit is $100/day and $250/month, so the reward for a card with a 2% reward would be $5 every month you do this.  Link your bank account to Serve and transfer the funds to your bank account.

When:  Through June 1, 2012 you can load money onto your Serve card from a credit card fee-free.  Even though Serve warns you that your credit card issuer may charge a fee for this, it is treated as a purchase.

Why:  Why use Serve?  I'm not a spokesperson, so I won't tell you why Serve is or is not better than Paypal. For now I am just taking advantage of the opportunity to earn a little free cash.  I haven't decided whether Serve could one day replace my Paypal account, but since accepting Paypal for auctions on Ebay is expensive, it would be nice if Serve could take its place.  We shall see.

Update (02/24/2012):  I guess this isn't a great idea, after all.  I received an email from Serve telling me that my account had been cancelled.  Included in the email was a portion of the Serve User Agreement that listed the violations I committed.  Apparently it is against their terms to use Serve to provide a "cash advance" to myself and I might have violated National Automated Clearinghouse rules.

Monday, February 6

My Frugal Miser - February 2012 Goals

I don't normally set monthly goals because I prefer to focus on longer term planning.  I really dislike the shortsightedness I see in Corporate America - one of the main reasons I haven't gone back - so I definitely want to avoid making the same mistakes many companies make under the pressure to perform every quarter.  So, these "goals" are really just a list of the some of the things I'm working on this month.

Tangible Goals

  • Right now I'm working on paying off the Chase Freedom Card.  At one point I owed $30,000 on this card - I used a cheap cash advance for investment funds.  It's down to $8,700 today.  By the end of February I'd like to reduce the balance to $6,000.
  • I will lose 4 pounds in February.  My weight at the end of the month will be 237.
  • I will earn $1,500 from mystery shopping this month.

Not so Tangible Goals

  • I will consciously reduce the amount of electricity we use.  We will watch less TV, I will spend less time mindlessly surfing the Internet, and we will do a better job turning things off.
  • I will read more.
  • I will start disposing of my grandfather's things.  No, he's not dead.  He's in the nursing home and won't be leaving.  His house has been sitting for several months and it's time to do something with it.

Saturday, February 4

My Frugal Miser - January Expenses: $3,002

Starting this month I am going to separate my personal expenses from business expenses.  I like the clarity this provides.  For example, paying interest on my debts is an expense I took on in order to generate income.  I still want to reduce it, but it isn't like I'm paying interest on a big screen TV.   For expense items that are used both for personal and business reasons (gas, for example) I will list under personal expenses.

In January I was frugal.  If you exclude one-time items (Turbotax, $80 and HOA dues, $185), I spent about $1,000.

January Personal Expenses ($1,283)
$14 Auto
$0 Bank Fees
$0 Clothing
$204 Food
$44 Entertainment (movies, gambling, alcohol)
$0 Gifts Given
$120 Household
$185 Homeowner's Association Dues
$139 Health & Dental Insurance
$3 Medical
$0 Miscellaneous
$391 Mortgage Interest (primary residence)
$0 Personal Care
$0 Subscriptions
$80 Taxes
$111 Utilities
$0 Vacation

January Business Expenses ($1,719)

$761 Mortgage Interest (rental properties)
$364 Interest on Debt (not including Mortgage Interest)
$586 Rental Properties - Maintenance & Repairs

Total January Expenses : $3,002

  • Thanks to all the mystery shopping I did at gas stations, I only spent $14 on transportation.   
  • I didn't have a phone bill in January.  Republic Wireless is turning out to be a super bargain as they decided not to charge monthly fees until they work out a couple kinks.  
  • My food budget was for two people. I averaged $6.58 per day for two people in January. Most of our meals are at restaurants so this isn't too bad.  Mystery shopping and heavy use of Buy One Get One Free coupons helped keep our food costs low. 

Friday, February 3

My Frugal Miser - January Income: $12,647

January was a great month for income, thanks to my lady Cartier... or rather, thanks to the sale of the two Cartier bracelets.  In fairness I should also mention that starting this year I have added an expense category, Rental Expense.  In the past I have just deducted expenses like repairs from income before reporting it.  So that I can better measure how much I am spending on my properties I have made this change.  This of course will increase the income I report but also increase the expense line.

January Income
$357 Mystery Shopping
$6,361 Rental Income
$5,928 Other Sources
$12,647 Total Income for January

  • I earned $275 from the anthrax vaccine medical study, which is listed in Other Sources.  The study continues but the visit frequency, and consequently my earnings, will decline.
  • Normally I expect Rental Income to be around $6,000 when everything is rented.  I had one tenant pay a $257 late fee (I don't mess around with late payers!).  I also took in $130 from our temporary boarder.  This is a charitable situation where we are helping my partner's sister and should end soon.
  • I earned much more than $357 by mystery shopping, but the income was reduced by expenses I have not yet been reimbursed for.  Also, much of the work I did will be paid in February.