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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.