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Friday, March 30

Common Sense Frugality: Stop Buying Crap

I wanted to wrap up the week with one of the best tips I know: Stop Buying Crap.

  • First, I question the need for expenses most people take for granted.  Six months ago I shaved my head.  I haven't paid for a haircut (which was $7 a pop at the cosmetology school) since.  I haul my garbage ($48 every 3 months) either to the dump or to a dumpster at one of my condos.  I've also learned that clothes last a really long time, especially if you wear them more than once before washing and air dry them on a rack or clothesline.  
  • Second, and this is something I'm working on, I try to pay for quality when I do purchase something.  Not long ago my primary criteria when shopping for something was finding the cheapest option available.  But I've been burned by refrigerators that go bad after 3 years, vacuum cleaners that last under 12 months and shoddy work by a cheap HVAC installer that flooded a room, requiring the carpet to be replaced.  I've learned to read online reviews before I buy something to better understand which products are made to last.  I also look at guarantees and warranties to determine which companies stand behind their products. 
Paying for quality over price is new to me, but I'm having a ton of fun learning what to look for in products that are built to last.  Are parts made of plastic or metal, and how thick is the plastic from one product to the next?  Is it pressed wood or solid?  Can I return it if it breaks, and do I have to pay a processing fee to return the item that is nearly as much as the replacement cost?  These are all questions I've begun asking when I buy something.

A perfect example of how I have deployed my "quality over price" mantra was last month when I bought a new bathtub for one of my rental properties.  The old me would have found the cheapest tub, or might have used one of those re-bath outfits that spray a coating over the old tub.  The new me looked online to find the highest rated, most durable tub available.  I want this bathtub to last 25 years, particularly considering how expensive installation costs are.  

Wednesday, March 28

Common Sense Frugality: Use Less Electricity

In 2010 the average household spent $110.55 per month on electricity.  Alabama, where I live, claims the highest monthly bill in the lower 48 of $147.69, thanks in no small part to our oppressive summers.  But at the Frugal Miser homestead, the bill clocks in at an average $46 per month.

How do we keep our electric bill less than 1/3 the average for my state?

  • Most important, we let our bodies adapt to the temperature instead of rushing to turn on the A/C or the heat.  In the last six months I have turned on the thermostat fewer than 5 days.  In the winter, dress in layers, drink hot drinks and wear socks!  In the summer, drink water constantly.  Most people don't drink enough water anyway, but this is the best way I know to cool my body in the summer.  We also use ceiling fans to circulate the air, but only when the room is occupied.  It is a complete waste to run a ceiling fan in an empty room.
  • We unplug most things instead of just turning them off.  Energy vampires, which are those appliances such as the TV or your computer that continuously use a small amount of power when plugged in, account for a not insignificant up to 20% of your monthly power usage.

I've learned to leave the TV off when I'm not watching it.  Seems obvious, but before I might be sitting at the couch checking emails while the TV was on, completely oblivious to what was actually showing.  When I'm out mystery shopping, sometimes I'll bring my laptop with me and enter my reports at the library, using their electricity.  Once you make a habit out of being energy efficient, it takes almost no effort to save real dollars.  By choosing NOT to be the average household, I am saving about $1,200 per year on my electric bill alone.

Tuesday, March 27

Common Sense Frugality: Stop Wasting Water

If you've never watched the documentary Tapped, do yourself a favor and check it out.  I streamed it free on Netflix.  After watching it I feel stupid having ever purchased a bottle of water.  Really, with a little planning is there ever a need to buy this stuff within the confines of the US of A?  The water that comes out of your tap is  just as good, if not better.  In fact, often all you're getting from bottled water is what comes from the tap: Dasani is 100% tap water.  That $.99 you pay at the gas station is for the convenience of having it served cold in a plastic bottle.

Once you've stopped paying for other people's water, it's time to look at ways to reduce your water bill.  Here are a few things you can try.  Remember, at home you are most likely paying two bills when you turn on the tap:  water AND sewer.
  • I wash my car when it rains.  This is how Warren Buffett washed his car when he was younger.  Zero water used, plus it's faster than rinsing it myself.  
  • I skip a shower from time to time during colder months.  If I haven't exerted myself, I'm not dirty, and a hot shower dries your skin out.  
  • To cut down on laundry I wear clothes more than once before I wash them.  This works particularly well for pants; not so well for t-shirts and underwear.  Most of our clothes are air-dried, as the clothes dryer is one of the most expensive appliances in the house, energy-wise.
Once upon a time I would have thought it was penny-wise but pound foolish to focus on saving money by saving water.  But in my home, our water bill is the most expensive utility bill we pay.

Monday, March 26

Common Sense Frugality

I'd like to think that I've found the right balance between making frugal choices and living a "quality" life.  Sometimes I read suggestions on blogs like "make your own deodorant" and "order takeout so you don't have to tip the server" and think how ridiculous it sounds, at least to me.  Really what I think about the person who says it is that surely they have too much free time.

Common Sense Frugality is all about being naturally frugal.  I used to think that I had to use a certain amount of deodorant, for example, or I'd stink.  By drinking a ton of water and cutting out red meat I'd like to think I don't need as much as before.  Even so, who pays more than $1 or $2 for a stick of deodorant, anyway?  I get about six weeks out of one stick and at $2 we're talking less than a nickel a day.   Making my own deodorant doesn't move the needle.

I also tried an experiment where I completely turned off the water to my toilet and used water from my rain barrel instead.  I've since stopped doing it.  It's not that it was a bad idea - there was little effort involved, frankly.  Rather, it's too subtle a change.

You might be asking whether I've abandoned my frugal ways altogether, and the answer to that question is a firm NO.  I've just refined my practices to be both efficient and meaningful.  This week I plan to highlight some of the meaningful ways I practice Common Sense Frugality.

Thursday, March 22

Mystery Shopping a Funeral

Mystery Shopping a Funeral is Kind of Weird
I think I may have stooped to a new low.  During the first week of April I am mystery shopping two funeral visitations.  Seriously.  Is it just me, or is that a little bit creepy?  My instructions are to check the obituary listings in the local newspaper to find a funeral visitation to attend.  While I'm at the visitation I am supposed to hit up one of the employees for information about planning my own funeral and see what they tell me.  I also have to see if a memorial DVD is playing and whether flowers were neatly displayed.

Why would I do something like this?  Glad you asked.  Simple:  each completed shop pays $150.  In the world of mystery shopping, there are very few opportunities that pay as well as this.  I think I was paid somewhere close to this to go through the mortgage application process once.  But besides hotels, cash integrity shops and distant gas stations, most shops pay under $20.

Is this my new life?  One day I'm stepping into a truck stop shower, the next I'm crashing some family's last farewell.  Just goes to show that nothing is immune to the mystery shopping bug, not even death.

Thursday, March 15

Truck Stop Showers

Is it desperation?  Restlessness?  Sheer boredom?

Whatever it is, I've stooped to a new low in my quest to mystery shop across America... the truck stop shower.

In fact, I've shopped six truck stop showers this week.  They've ranged from gross, like the one with a splash of dried pee on the toilet seat, to homely, such as one that featured a bowl of mints on the counter.

I've never used a truck stop shower before so I've learned some things.  First, it's expensive to bathe on the go.  A truck stop shower ranges from $10 - $12.  When you purchase a bath, the cashier gives you a receipt with a code on it.  Some of the truck stops list the shower number on the receipt and you go to that shower, enter your code, and the door buzzes open.  Others require you to watch a video monitor and wait for your customer number to come up to see which shower you've been assigned.  The showers tend to be low end but mostly clean, more like an Econo Lodge than Hampton Inn.  You get a sliver of a bar of soap, a towel which might not smell of diesel fuel if you're lucky, possibly an oscillating fan, and your very own toilet.  The toilet part could be handy when it's clean enough to use.

I won't complain about the money, though.  I've earned $150 shopping these six showers.

Friday, March 9

Decent Week

With a new month comes new opportunities, but mystery shopping just isn't as fulfilling lately.  I have done several shops this week but the pay has been low - $5 or $10 for each shops usually.  With gas so high I am barely breaking even.

Instead of banging my head against the wall I've made the most of the situation.  I had to have the bathtub replaced at one of my properties.  That type of work is more than I want to take on so I hired someone.  To save a little I agreed to finish the drywall and paint.  When I finish my tenant will have an almost new bathroom.  It feels good to do some manual labor.

I also visited my grandfather in the nursing home and mowed his lawn.  He is a little more than an hour away and has a fair sized lawn.  I combined this trip with four mystery shops and made a day out of it.

My partner is off work today so I probably won't do too many shops.  There is a clothing store shop on the other side of town and I have a couple of coupons for a free movie at a theater in that area so we might do that.

Wednesday, March 7

Poor Service? Call and Complain

Not getting the service you expected?  Let them know.
One of the advantages to living frugally is that I have time.  Time to make sure I am treated fairly.  Time to compliment when someone exceeds my expectations and time to coach when appropriate.  Today I wanted to give an example of how to effectively lodge a complaint.

First off, and this is really important, you should never bully a company to take advantage of them.  This is just plain wrong and downright dirty.  I worked at a company once (I only lasted three months as I couldn't stand it) where the boss routinely contacted vendors and basically told them they were the scum of the earth.  He would rant and holler about taking his business elsewhere and make ridiculous demands for price concessions, just because he wanted to save a buck.  This behavior isn't what I promote.

What I am talking about is standing up for yourself.  Last week I was emailed my DSL bill from AT&T, and my bill was 25% higher.  I would always be surprised by such a steep increase (even though for me it's just $5 a month), but I've had so many issues with AT&T* that it was the principle of paying even a penny more for crappy service that bothered me.  Last Saturday I spent more than an hour trying to speak with a live person to find out why my bill had increased.  After getting locked out of my online account twice, disconnected from the broken phone tree three times, and ultimately chatting online with a completely useless rep, I was told the billing department was not open on weekends.

Yesterday I called the billing department.  I calmly, but firmly, stated that I was not happy with 1) not being notified that prices were being increased, and 2) wasting my time on Saturday trying to be assisted.  I asked for an explanation for the price increase and for monetary consideration for my wasted time.  Initially, I was told that it is not their policy to compensate me for my time (no surprise there).  I was also told that letters and emails had been mailed to explain the price increase, of which none I had received.  I was expecting my request to be rebuffed, which is why I had reinforcements up my sleeve.  For the last two weeks the local cable company has been installing lines in my neighborhood (for the last four years DSL has been my only option for Internet service).  I explained to the rep that I was not happy and that I was certain my cable company would begin offering service in the near future.  This is where I got some help.

The AT&T rep asked if she could place me on hold, and after a brief pause she returned with an offer.  Her offer was to upgrade my service and cut the price of the upgraded service by 50% for six months.  She even explained that if I still wasn't satisfied in six months I could call back to see if something else could be done.  The offer keeps my price at the old rate I was paying, but triples my DSL speed.  In six months time I'm sure my cable company will be offering high speed Internet, and then I will be able to make a fair comparison of both services to see which works best for me.

Don't give up.  If a company values your business, but isn't meeting your expectations, let them know.  It's good for the company to know because it lets them see areas where improvement is needed.  And it's good for you, the customer, because you will often get some help.

*When I first signed up for AT&T I purchased a faulty router directly through AT&T.  The router worked about 80% of the time, but anyone who relies on a steady Internet connection knows that won't work.  It took more than a year before I finally determined it was the router causing my problems.  I replaced it and the problem was solved.  Of course, AT&T refused to refund my money for the router because I had owned it for more than a year, even though I had called numerous times to complain when my service was out.

Monday, March 5

My Frugal Miser - February Expenses: $2,501

In February I represented Frugal Misers wholeheartedly.  I spent just $2.39 per person per day on food, for example.  Thanks to mystery shopping I spent nothing on gas and got a free oil change, too.  Even my spending on rental properties was reasonable.

If you exclude special items (6 months auto insurance, $178, and cancellation fees paid to AT&T, $207), I only spent $816 in February.

February Personal Expenses ($1,201)
$144 Auto
$0 Bank Fees
$0 Clothing
$35 Entertainment (movies, gambling, alcohol)
$144 Food
$0 Gifts Given
$4 Household
$0 Homeowner's Association Dues
$139 Health and Dental Insurance
$0 Medical
$0 Miscellaneous
$388 Mortgage Interest (primary residence)
$12 Personal Care
$0 Subscriptions
$0 Taxes
$335 Utilities
$0 Vacation

February Business Expenses ($1,300)

$757 Mortgage Interest (rental properties)
$354 Interest on Debt (not including Mortgage Interest)
$189 Rental Properties - Maintenance and Repairs

Total February Expenses : $3,002

  • Thanks to all the mystery shopping I did at gas stations, I only spent $144 on transportation.   I actually made money on gasoline this month by selling some of my excess gas, but I spent $178 on six month's auto insurance.
  • Bye, bye, high utilities.  In February I paid a cancellation fee to AT&T from when I switched to Republic Wireless.  Absent that fee, I would have spent less than $150 on utilities (electricity, phone, Internet, water and natural gas)!  Now that's frugal.
  • My food budget was for two people. I averaged $4.78 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. 
  • You will see Interest on Debt start to fall fairly quickly starting next month.  I've begun aggressively paying down debt and of course I am starting with the most expensive debts first.

Friday, March 2

My Frugal Miser - February Income: $9,667

I wish I could clone February, financially speaking.  Last month I took in a healthy sum of money and spent just a small amount.  That's a combination I can retire on!   Tomorrow I will take a look at my spending, so today let's took a look at where the money came from.

February Income
$2,381 Mystery Shopping
$7,071 Rental Income
$215 Other Sources
$9,667 Total Income for February

  • I am quite satisfied with my mystery shopping income, but most of the income was earned in January.  February was a slower month and the income I report next month will reflect that.
  • Late fees are my friend!  Normally I expect Rental Income to be around $6,000 when everything is rented.  I had one tenant pay a $155 late fee (last month another tenant paid $257!).  I also took in $180 from our temporary boarder and a tenant who was $200 behind got caught up. Finally, one tenant prepaid part of his March rent.
Taking in a temporary roommate is making a difference.  $180 isn't a lot of money but it covers the major utilities at my house, freeing up cash for debt reduction.

Thursday, March 1

Do It For Me

Last November I learned a lesson  about setting limitations to which rental property projects I do myself and which ones I hire out.  I have a fairly major repair project this weekend that someone is doing for me.

Here it is March 1st and I'm already spending money.  I don't like spending money on repairs.  But one of my townhouses has a cracked bathtub.  There is only one full bathroom in this unit and the tub is leaking into a utility closet on the first floor.  I applied a fiberglass patch a couple weeks ago, but the crack has grown since then and the patch is peeling off, too.  So much for temporary and cheap.

Yesterday I went to Lowe's to try to figure out whether I could replace the unit myself.  I met a really helpful employee who does this kind of work and claims to have 30 years experience doing it.  I did some research online about what it should cost to replace a bathtub/shower unit (materials and labor) and think I am getting a fair deal by giving him the job.

I am paying $800 in labor, plus materials.  That hurts.  A good bit of pain, actually.  But this is a fairly complex project and the unit is occupied.  My guy promises he can complete the project in one day, which means I don't have to find another place for my tenants to bathe.  I also learned back in November that I have a knack for turning small problems into bigger problems, particularly when there is water involved.  Rather than take a chance on breaking something that's not supposed to be broken, I'm going to swallow my pride once again and hire a pro.