Wednesday, December 31

Ways I am Reducing Expenses (my Personal Burn Rate) in 2015

One of my 2015 goals is to reduce monthly spending, net of vacation and home repairs, to $1,250.  In order to do this, I need to look at costs I can control (such as eating out) as well as those that are relatively fixed (like insurance).  Some thoughts:

  • I've already reduced my health insurance costs by shopping for a new plan.  Last year I did not take advantage of the new plans being offered under the Affordable Care Act.  I spent Monday afternoon evaluating my eligibility and my options.  While I will have to change doctors, I found an HMO plan that has a lower deductible and lower out of pocket fees for things like doctor visits and prescriptions.  I qualify for a voucher that gets me this better plan for $105/month less than I paid in 2014.
  • In 2014 I reduced auto expenses by replacing the S-10 with an Aveo.  Another, unanticipated, savings came from moving to a new house a few miles away.  I'm in a more central location, so I drive less.  In 2015 I will save money by reducing the amount I drive.  Between the bicycle and my 2012 Piaggio Fly 50 scooter, my driving will mostly be limited to income-generating activities including mystery shopping, hospitality work, and tending to my rental properties.
  • While it isn't included in monthly spending, and I don't regularly post the expenses associated with my rental properties, I plan to shop my property insurance needs for the first time.  I spent over $7,000 on insurance in 2014, and that's with $5,000 deductibles on every property and no claims history.  It's time to find savings and I am confident that investing some effort here will be worthwhile. 
  • Finally, there's food.  While eating out is a simple pleasure, it costs so much more than cooking at home, which is also usually healthier.  I think one of the reasons we eat out is because we don't have food available at the house that appeals to me.  By spending a bit more on groceries to add variety, I hope to reduce the amount we spend in restaurants.  Overall, this should reduce the amount we spend on food.

Monday, December 29

Keeping my Personal Burn Rate low

Last week while visiting Birmingham I sat down with the former CFO of the software company where I used to work.  One of the topics he brought up was the concept of a Personal Burn Rate, which is basically an individual's recurring monthly expenses.  We talked about how lifestyle inflation limits the options people have to pursue opportunities.  He recently left the company and spent several months traveling Europe and sailing with his wife.  I asked what his next move was, and he was elated to have options because he has kept his Personal Burn Rate low.

If your fixed expenses are too high, you won't have the flexibility to choose when you want to work or how you want to invest your time.  I see this all the time in the mystery shopping industry:  desperate shoppers with a mountain of bills accept piddling jobs just because they are trying to stay above water.  But instead of this being an "every little bit counts" situation, the shopper is just digging a hole that's harder to get out of.  That $7 job might cost $10 in vehicle expenses alone when you take into account depreciation and maintenance.  Sure, it's $7 today, but now the shopper has to come up with $10 in a couple of months because they took the $7 job.  It's insane.

I've been spending these last days of 2014 looking at my own Personal Burn Rate.  I ask myself, "Where can I reduce expenses with the least amount of pain?"  As I do this exercise I am keeping a list of how I am reducing my Personal Burn Rate.  I'll share some examples later this week.


Saturday, December 20

Brickell, Miami

We're back in the good ol' US of A now.  After arriving in port early this morning, we had a nice final breakfast in the ship's dining room and leisurely got ready.  Customs is so easy when arriving by cruise ship.  There was no inspection at all.  A customs officer looked at my passport and declarations sheet and thanked me.

From there, we walked across the bridge into downtown Miami and took the free Metromover tram to Brickell, which has a pretty cool village-feel to it.  I had to make a sizable deposit at Wells Fargo (I made several fee-free withdrawals at the ship's casino to garner rewards points on my credit card).  Now we are hanging out at Starbucks until the Megabus leaves at 4:40 PM.

I'll post more about the cruise later.  We had a fabulous time and I can't believe how quickly it came to an end.  Besides some gambling, two drinks and a little miscellaneous spending, I didn't bust the budget.

On Monday I head to Birmingham for the holidays.  I haven't visited my Mom this year nor my father's side of the family, so some catching up is in order.

Thursday, December 11

Bon Voyage: Eight Night All-Inclusive Vacation for Two For $500!

Tomorrow morning we are headed to Miami for our 7 Day Eastern Caribbean cruise.  The cruise visits Nassau, St. Thomas, San Juan and Grand Turk.  For less than $500, we are spending one night in Miami and 7 nights aboard Carnival Glory.  This is the ultimate in frugal travel:


  • We are leaving the car at the house, so no parking fees.
  • We will take the PSTA buses from the house to Tampa's Marion Transit Center ($10).
  • From there, we ride the Megabus to downtown Miami ($36 roundtrip).
  • We spend the night in Miami at a high-end hotel.  It's a mystery shop, and lunch, dinner, breakfast and alcohol are all covered).  I also am paid $50.
  • If we need transportation while in Miami, we have (2) $10 credits on Uber to use.  If not, we'll use it to get home when we arrive back in Tampa.
  • For two, the cruise was $619.  This includes the cruise rate of $174 each ($24.86/day/person) plus taxes and port fees.
  • I have an onboard credit of $117.78.  This includes a $100 shareholder benefit and a random $17.78 credit.  I usually receive these small unexplainable credits when I cruise.  The only explanation I saw in the online forums was that if port fees drop, Carnival refunds the savings as an onboard credit.
That's an all in cost of $665, less my $50 shop fee and $117.78 in credits for a total of $497.22.  Of course, gratuities will add to the cost as will any money I lose while gambling.  

There are some other ways we will be frugal onboard, particularly with mitigating the cost of alcohol:
  • Carnival allows you to bring one bottle of wine and one 12 pack of soda per guest.
  • I reach Gold Status in their VIP program on this cruise, so we will be invited to a cocktail party while on board.
  • The art auctions give free champagne.
  • If I gamble enough, all my drinks in the casino will be free.  Last cruise we did this the first night, so all our drinks were free.  Unfortunately, I lost a good bit of money trying to get the free drinks, so I have to be more careful this time.
  • We typically eat all meals onboard, even on port days.  
I am 100% convinced that for the moment, cruising is the best value one can get for the vacation dollar.  The cruise industry has added so much capacity, coupled with recent snafus that scared some people away from cruising, that costs are artificially low.  It costs less to cruise than the airfare alone would cost to visit any one of these locations.  Then you'd have the cost of your hotel, food and ground transportation on top of that.


Sunday, December 7

My Frugal Miser's 2015 Goals

Once again it's time to lay out the annual roadmap.  I actually start thinking about what I want to accomplish several months before the year begins. Publishing my goals keeps me accountable:  it's a constant reminder of what is important to me.

  • Health:  Lose 12 pounds
Last year I finally began losing weight.  This year I do better.
  • Debt:  Reduce balance on 5.75% mortgage to $30,000.
This mortgage is for the last home I lived in before moving to Florida.  I bought the house in 2008 and took out a 15 year mortgage.  I would like to reduce the balance (currently $62,186) to $30,000 by 12/31/15 and pay it off in 2016.
  • Spending:  Average monthly spending, excluding Vacation and Home Repairs, will be less than $1,250.
Keeping day-to-day expenses in check is vital to Financial Independence.  There is still much to be done at the new house, and I will be prudent with how much I spend fixing it up.  I will also be smart when planning vacations, but don't want to limit spending on Experiences by a contrived dollar amount.
  • Leisure:  Take another international trip
We visited Ecuador for three weeks in September, 2014.  It is difficult to explain how such a trip affects one's life.  We were exposed to a different culture, one that lives much simpler than the always-connected lifestyle of the average American.  It was a wake-up call on what is really important.  A side benefit was that we walked everywhere and ate less, and I lost weight during those three weeks.


That's it.  I have four primary goals, and I'm going to reach or surpass each of them next year.

Wednesday, December 3

My Frugal Miser - November Expenses: $6,548



I spent, and spent, and spent in November.  Fortunately much of it was pre-spending to take advantage of holiday deals:  I bought $1,550 in gift cards ($100 in the Entertainment category, $900 in the Home Repair/Household category and $550 for restaurants), and I also bought $75 worth of Groupon/Living Social deals I have yet to redeem.

Accounting for the gift card/deal purchases, I spent around $5,000 in November.  I paid property taxes of $1,355.  Next year I will qualify for the homestead exemption, so this category should be cut in half in 2015.  I spent nothing on fuel thanks to mystery shopping and Shell's Fuel Rewards.  Much of the auto depreciation came from mileage accumulated while mystery shopping along with trips to Orlando for hospitality work.  I bought a new computer (for only $145!) and have sent off the old one to sell.  The old one was less than a year old, but was such a piece of crap that it kept freezing up whenever I used Quicken.

The other major expenses were home repairs.  I covered a portion of the deck to add privacy and protection from the elements and installed baseboard in the master bedroom.  I also bought curtains, blinds and several miscellaneous things to finish off the bedroom.  Last, I booked our flights and car rental for the May trip to Omaha for the Berkshire Hathaway meeting.  Allegiant had a fare sale when they announced new service to Omaha, so I booked early.  I even splurged for assigned seats on an exit row(!).

November Expenses:  $6,548

$388 Auto ($0 for gas, $385 for depreciation, $3 for car wash)
$0 Bank Fees
$0 Clothing
$145 Computer
$277 Entertainment (movies, gambling, alcohol)
$869 Food
$0 Gifts Given
$2,568 Household/Housing/Home Repair
$0 Home Insurance
$245 Health and Dental Insurance
$0 Investment Expenses
$0 Medical/Dental
$29 Miscellaneous
$(6) Personal Care
$0 Subscriptions
$1,355 Taxes
$185 Utilities
$523 Vacation and Recreation

Tuesday, December 2

My Frugal Miser - November Income: $9,576


My income in November was excellent.  I collected rent from every property and had several mystery shopping payments from October come in along with two hospitality jobs I did in November.

Cash flow was meager, as I started paying property taxes.  Across all properties I owe more than $10,000 in property taxes this year.

November Income $9,576

$1528 Mystery Shopping
$8,113 Rental Income
$(64) Other Sources

Notes:.  
  • 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. 

Friday, November 28

Huge Gift Card Deal at Winn-Dixie Ends Tonight

Winn-Dixie has a Black Friday special on the purchase of gift cards that can also be combined with a free appliance program and credit card multiplier.  Here's how I saved:

  • Every $50 you buy in retailer gift cards (I bought Amazon, Lowe's, and Regal Cinemas) earns you a $.25/gallon discount at Shell (worth $5 if you buy 20 gallons).  That's a 10% rebate on your gift card purchase.
  • For every $10 you spend at Winn-Dixie, you earn 1 point towards a free small appliance (blender, toaster oven, coffee maker, crock-pot, etc.).  Spend $600 on gift cards to earn the 60 points needed for a free appliance.
  • Use a credit card with a grocery store multiplier.  My Hilton Honors American Express gives me 5 points per dollar spent at the grocery store.

I bought $1,200 worth of gift cards, mostly to Lowe's since I am still remodeling the house.  For that, I earned $120 in free gas ($.25/gallon * 24 increments of $50 * 20 gallons), a free coffee maker and blender, and 6,000 Hilton Honors points.  Sweet deal!  The only caveat is that I have to redeem my gas credits by December 31.

Monday, November 24

Just Being Frugal (Deals, Deals, Deals!)

All's quiet on the Frugal Miser front.  I wrapped up back-to-back meeting jobs last week and have worked a spattering of mystery shopping jobs, but this week is really slow.  I've been taking advantage of shopping deals with all the extra time I've had.

I bought a Living Social for Dealflicks, which offers select showtimes at Carmike (Muvico) at a discount.  We paid $12 for two tickets and two popcorns and saw Nightcrawlers.  Then they offered popcorn and the opening night ticket to Dumb and Dumber 2 for $2.  I also bought two tickets to see Journey next March for $20 each, which is a steal since there aren't any other fees like when you buy tickets on Live Nation.  My partner is half Filipino so seeing Journey is a treat since the lead singer is from the Philippines.

I've been stocking up on restaurant gift cards since the holiday deals are fairly aggressive this year.  I used a credit card that gives me 3% back to buy gift cards at Olive Garden.  They come with a $10 bonus card for every $50 gift card you buy, plus Shell Fuel Rewards is offering a $.20/gallon discount for every $100 you spend at Olive Garden this quarter.  I'm also planning to buy a $100 gift card at BJ's to receive four Pilsner glasses.  I did that last year and the glasses are really nice.

Finally, I've been couponing the last couple of weeks to receive a number of free deals.  CVS and Walgreens have both offered free stuff, including toothpaste, laundry detergent, candy, gum, pain medicine and more.  Then I picked up two bonused Publix mystery shops and combined my shopping with coupons for heavily discounted food including pasta, canned vegetables and 100% juice drinks.

We are leaving for Miami on the 12th.  I am shopping a high-end hotel that night and we leave for our cruise the following day.  Those 7 days at sea will give me the chance to think about and plan for my 2015 goals.

Thursday, November 6

My Frugal Miser - October Expenses: $4,113



October was an expensive month, but almost half of my spending was on home improvements, not recurring charges.  I paid a plumber to remove a major blockage in the sewage, bought a new toilet, ceiling fan, shelving for my bedroom closet, a miter saw, and several sheets of drywall and buckets of mud.

I added 1,621 miles to the odometer.  In addition to the increase in mystery shopping last month, I worked meetings in Boca Raton and Orlando.

The only category where I regret my spending was Food ($419).  We spent around $160 stocking up on groceries, but the balance was for restaurants.  I always eat out when we go out of town for work.

October Expenses:  $4,113

$907 Auto ($20 for gas, $380 for depreciation, $100 for AAA, $25 to change address on ID, $382 for 6 months insurance)
$0 Bank Fees
$67 Clothing
$0 Computer
$166 Entertainment (movies, gambling, alcohol)
$419 Food
$136 Gifts Given
$1,898 Household/Housing/Home Repair
$0 Home Insurance
$245 Health and Dental Insurance
$0 Investment Expenses
$0 Medical/Dental
$29 Miscellaneous
$64 Personal Care
$0 Subscriptions
$0 Taxes
$177 Utilities
$4 Vacation and Recreation


Tuesday, November 4

My Frugal Miser - October Income: $8,724


My income in October was solid.  I collected rent from every property, including extra rent from my trouble tenant at Townhouse #3 and an extra two weeks rent at Townhouse #1, which was recently rented.  The new tenant receives a 100% Section 8 voucher.  Some landlords don't like the program, but I like the certainty of the monthly rent check and the increased likelihood the tenant will stay put for the long haul.

I did a fair amount of mystery shopping, but my out of pocket expenses were high and won't be reimbursed until November, making my October figure artificially low.

October Income $8,724

$59 Mystery Shopping
$8,594 Rental Income
$71 Other Sources

Notes:.  
  • 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. 

Friday, October 31

Remodeling Update

We've spent the last several days working on the master bedroom (photos to come).  Skimcoating the walls was labor-intensive.  I wanted smooth walls where there was texture before, and it took massive sanding followed by 4-5 layers of skimcoating (which is thinned-down mud that you roll on and then smooth over with a squeegee) to get it to look smooth.  The ceiling had no insulation nor any drywall, plus the ceiling fan was threatening to plummet to the ground every time I turned it on.  I replaced the junction box with a stronger one and then we hung all new drywall.  Hanging drywall on a ceiling, without any tools to hold it in place while screwing it in, is something I never want to do again.  It was physically demanding and mentally frustrating.  But it's done, and we didn't have to hire anyone.  Next, we plastered over the cracks and the nail holes.  Since I'm just an amateur, it was obvious that a smooth ceiling was going to reveal the joints between sheets of drywall, and I refuse to stare at those imperfections every night in bed (talk about insomnia!).  So, I "settled" for a popcorn-textured ceiling, the amateur's best friend when it comes to hiding imperfections.  I bought an amazing power sprayer called the Wagner Power Tex, and we are midway done applying it to the ceilings.  It's quite messy, but the work goes fast and so far I am happy with how it is looking.

I've also been working on the master closet.  The previous owner used bifold doors, which I really dislike, as well as awkward wood shelves and wooden closet rods.  I tore out those shelves and extended the wall so that there is now a smaller entrance and have installed wire shelving.

Next up is painting the walls and laying floors.  The concrete floors will require a thorough cleaning, as there is drywall mud and popcorn texture everywhere.  I'm using vinyl plank flooring, which is about as easy as it gets in terms of installation.  Once that is done, all that is left in the master bedroom are miscellaneous tasks such as tinting the windows and adding blinds, installing the new fan, moving furniture in, and enjoying the new room.  It's so close to being done and I am so excited.  Since we moved to this new house, I've been sleeping on a mattress on the floor in a tiny room.  Sleeping in a real bed will be amazing.

Saturday, October 18

Boca or Bust

Tomorrow morning we head to Boca Raton to work the registration desk at a convention for four days.  Normally I would have declined the job, as the hours are short and therefore the pay doesn't justify the cost of getting/staying away from home.  But since I haven't worked much lately outside the home, why not?  I was able to schedule a hotel mystery shop for one night, and the other two nights are at two Choice Hotels to take advantage of their "Earn One Free Night With Every 2 Stays" promotion.

Progress on the remodel continues.  I built a wall to enclose the master closet, moved the entrance door to the bedroom, added insulation to the walls and ceilings, and am in the middle of installing drywall on the ceiling in the master bedroom.  That last task is no fun at all mostly because we don't have any of the tools that make holding a 40 pound piece of drywall in place easy.  We are holding it up by hand as I screw it into the joists.  It sucks.

Good news with my rental properties:  every unit is currently rented as of Friday.  I still have a late-paying tenant at one of the townhouses, but everything else is smooth sailing.

Saturday, October 4

Ecuador: What I Loved (and What I Could do Without)

It's hardly been a week since we returned from three weeks in Ecuador.  I wanted to vacation there to test it out as a possible place to retire.  I was interested in the cost of living as well as the quality of life.  For me, quality of life includes a number of factors including the availability of modern amenities, the ease of getting around and the friendliness of the people.

I like to think I am flexible and accepting of people who are not like me.  My way isn't necessarily the best or only way to go about living, so I accept that people from different cultures live differently than I do.

For example, I embrace how Ecuadorians have a "live and let live" way about themselves.  There just aren't a lot of rules around here, but somehow it works.  I love small government and often think the United States is bloated with bureaucracy.  In Ecuador, I never saw traffic laws enforced, or jaywalking.  I believe one reason the cost of living is so much lower is because of the lack of government involvement in day-to-day life.  Street vendors are everywhere, and I seriously doubt the elderly ladies selling bread from a basket or the five year olds hawking lottery tickets are properly licensed to do such things.

If I were to move to Ecuador, I would almost certainly live in Cuenca.  It is the third-largest city, and has year-round spring-like weather.  Most of what I say below is representative of Cuenca.

What I Really Like About Ecuador
  1. Everyone owns a phone, but no one does the zombie-walk down the sidewalk with their head down, oblivious to their environment, as is the norm in the US.  You almost never see people even talking on their phones while in a crowd.  They step aside, into a park or the foyer of a building, to take a call.
  2. Ability to live without a car.  I thought my home in Florida was convenient.  It doesn't compare to the convenience here in Ecuador.  Sure, just about everything you need is within a ten minute walk.  But even better, the public buses are just a quarter (and half that for seniors) and a taxi to anywhere in the city is $2 or less.
  3. Restaurants - variety AND price.  We discovered a delicious vegetarian restaurant that offers a full lunch, tax included, for $3.50.  Other places are as low as $2.25 for lunch.  By full lunch, I mean soup, salad, entree, rice, vegetable, juice AND dessert.  The variety of food is astounding.  I can't think of any cuisine that isn't available.  We enjoyed Chinese, Mexican, traditional Ecuadorian, Indian, and Italian over the last week.  There are dozens of bakeries and ice cream shops.  Street vendors sell food on almost every corner.  You can't go hungry here.
  4. The lack of transients and homeless people.  In three weeks I only saw one intoxicated person, and I never saw anyone who was obviously homeless.  Virtually everyone is well-dressed and proud in Ecuador.  
  5. The weather.  This is worth mentioning twice.  In the two weeks we were in Cuenca, there was only one full day of rain.  We visited in the dry season, so I'm sure this is not the norm.  However, the temperature IS constant.  The morning lows were around 50 and by early afternoon it was usually in the low 70's.
What I Don't Like About Ecuador
  1. Noise.  I'm not talking about your typical, urban noise.  One night around 1:00 AM, a motorcyclist started revving his muffler-less engine, and it lasted more than an hour.  The streets are so narrow here than the buildings amplified the sound as though it was just outside my window.  Car alarms are louder than anything I've ever heard, and no one is ever in a hurry to deactivate them.  Cars honk at each other constantly.  Approaching an intersection, a car honks to alert other cars they are coming.  Bumper to bumper traffic?  Drivers blare their horns.  Every morning around 6:30, the propane man drives slowly down each street, constantly honking.  The trash and recycling trucks do the same thing.  Fireworks go off at random hours of the night.  It sounds like gunshots, but after doing some research I learned it is just Ecuadorians celebrating their love of noise.
  2. Dog poop.  In Cuenca, it's everywhere, all over the sidewalks.  This is a concrete jungle (Cuencanos LOVE their concrete), so there's hardly any grass anywhere.  Dogs just go on the sidewalks, and the owners don't clean up the mess.  I noticed this wasn't such a problem in Guayaquil.
  3. Carbon dioxide.  The public buses belch out black plumes of smoke.   It gets really bad.
  4. Rude people.  Again, this has to just be cultural differences.  We would be walking down the sidewalk, and a group of women would look our way as they exit a store.  Instead of waiting as we pass, they will take up the ENTIRE sidewalk, walk slowly, sometimes even just completely stop while they talk to each other.  The streets are so narrow that due to traffic, sometimes you just have to stand there and wait for them to move.  And when there is a line, like at a cash register, someone will just jump ahead of you, as though you weren't already in line.
  5. The custom of negotiating for everything.  This doesn't bother me as much as some gringos (we frugal misers take pride in getting the best price!), but basically, I've been told that gringos are asked to pay more for things.  I was cautioned to always negotiate taxi fares before getting in a taxi, and to agree to a price before accepting any goods or services.  It just feels like a game that gets played too much.  Sure, in the US, negotiating is expected at times, such as when you buy a car.  But in Ecuador, the custom is to negotiate the price of bananas for crying out loud.  What's wrong with set prices for smaller purchases?

Friday, October 3

My Frugal Miser - September Expenses: $3,059



Just under half of my spending last month was vacation related.  I spent $690 in Ecuador and $619 for a 7 day cruise we are taking in December.  The cruise is a real bargain:  $25 per day per person, plus taxes.  I will receive $50 cash in the casino and a $100 onboard credit as a shareholder bonus.

I was only billed $10 for Internet (I thought it was $20 when I signed up) - what a bargain!  The electric bill was pretty high ($113), but I expected that since we haven't insulated the ceilings or walls yet.

Most of September we were in Ecuador, but the financial impact was minimal.  In a way, the cost of going there was offset by the savings from not working on the house.  I confess though that we only put off the inevitable expense of repairing the house.  I will blog about the cost of the Ecuador trip separately.

September Expenses:  $3,059


$224 Auto ($31 for gas, $193 for August and September depreciation)
$0 Bank Fees
$0 Clothing
$0 Computer
$101 Entertainment (movies, gambling, alcohol)
$174 Food
$37 Gifts Given
$533 Household/Housing/Home Repair
$0 Home Insurance
$245 Health and Dental Insurance
$0 Investment Expenses
$514 Medical/Dental
$146 Miscellaneous
$143 Personal Care
$0 Subscriptions
$0 Taxes
$145 Utilities
$1,309 Vacation and Recreation

Notes:

  • I forgot to record  the odometer at the end of August, so the depreciation is for two months' driving.
  • Personal care expenses will be going down soon.  I spend $100/month on Healthy Wage (a bet that I would lose weight) and $43 on Weight Watchers.  Unfortunately I'm using neither of these but will stay on until the 6 month wager is over.
  • Home Expenses were for repairs and a new vacuum cleaner.  I don't have a mortgage on the new house because I paid cash for it. 

Wednesday, October 1

My Frugal Miser - September Income: $7,668


Nearly all my income in September was passive.  Other than a handful of mystery shops I did not work last month.  The vacant townhouse run by the management company has a new tenant and I am expecting rent from that unit for October.  My September rental income includes rent from every property but that one.


September Income $7,668

$525 Mystery Shopping
$7,101 Rental Income
$42 Other Sources

Notes:.  
  • 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, September 27

Back in the US of A, Feeling Frugal

We made it back to the house just before 5 PM yesterday.  It was a long day that began the night before.  We arrived at the airport around 8:15 for our 11 PM flight Thursday, then in Miami had an almost five hour wait before boarding the Megabus for the journey from Miami to Tampa.  In addition to the cheap bus tickets ($1 each), I tried Uber for the first time to get us from Tampa to Largo.  I received a $30 credit to try Uber, so the total cost was just $2.  It was either that or wait nearly four hours for the bus to take us home.

Customs was a fairly easy process.  After having seen Locked Up Abroad, I was expecting more scrutiny with all the recent drama around terrorism and drugs.  At the airport in Ecuador we did not have to take our shoes off or remove the laptop from our bag.  Once we landed in Miami, I used an Express Kiosk to inform the government I was carrying nothing illegal or valuable, then answered a few questions about why I left the country and the type of work I do.  No one inspected my bags.

Today we took advantage of free admission to the Dali Museum for county residents.   All the area museums offer free admission one day each year.  On the way home I redeemed my Shell Fuel Rewards.  For every $100 I spent at Lowe's in the last few months, I earned a nickel off a gallon of gas.  I paid $1.52/gallon and stocked up on 20 gallons of fuel.  I also turned in 10 ink cartridges at Staples (good for a $20 voucher for free stuff) and took the recycling to the local dropoff point.  We've avoided paying for garbage service by recycling most everything and disposing of trash as needed.  Quite the frugal day!

Thursday, September 18

The Cost of Getting Around in Cuenca and Guayaquil, Ecuador

Transportation costs are significantly less in Ecuador, thanks in large part to subsidized energy prices.  Many vehicles use diesel fuel, which costs 76% less in Ecuador than the world average ($.29 per Liter, which translates to $1.10 per gallon).  Gas is also subsidized and is 55% less than average at $.58/Liter ($2.19/gallon).

Combining lower fuel costs with the average wage of around $800 per month means it's cheaper to use a taxi or city bus than to it is to own a car.  Here in Cuenca, you can go virtually anywhere in the city for a $2 cab fare.  Even better, taking the bus costs $.25, unless you are a senior citizen, in which case you only pay twelve and a half cents.

The great thing about Cuenca is that walking is also a convenient option.  After taking a taxi from the bus terminal to the apartment we are renting, we have relied on walking to get us where we want to go.

Speaking of bus terminals, the cost to travel between cities in Ecuador is ridiculously inexpensive.  We traveled from Guayaquil to Cuenca, a four hour scenic bus ride through the Andes mountains, for just $8.25 each.

Friday, September 12

Cuenca, Ecuador

Inside the New Cathedral, built in 1880
The domes of the Cathedral are visible from all parts of Cuenca.
Incan Ruins
Parque Calderon is the gathering spot in the middle of town.
Murals grace the sides of many buildings

Thursday, September 11

Plink (Plink.com) Shuts Down, Redemptions Not Allowed

I received an email this evening informing me that Plink, a loyalty rewards program, is closing its doors - shutting down the company - effective immediately.  Here's the text of the email they sent:
To Our Loyal Plink Members, 

With much sadness and heavy hearts, we are sorry to tell you that Plink is closing its doors. As of today, the Plink site will be shut down and the program will cease to function. 

As a start-up, we are reliant on continued funding and over the last year we have been unable to secure any additional funding. Unfortunately, without that funding, Plink can no longer continue to operate. As a team, we did everything we could to keep Plink alive, but we have now run out of time and options. 

We owe a huge debt of gratitude to our loyal members who have supported us for the last three years. As a team, we want to thank all of our members, for their loyalty and continuing to stick with us to the end. We couldn’t have made it this far without such an amazing loyal, committed group of members. 

We also want to thank all of our advertisers and partners who supported us over the last three years. It was their belief in us and willingness to support a small start-up that allowed Plink to grow. We are proud to have partnered with some of the largest restaurant and retail brands in the United States. 

Moving forward, all Plink accounts will be closed. No further points can be redeemed. Thanks to all from the Plink Team. 

Any further questions can be directed to support@plink.com. 

Sincerely,
The Plink Team 

What sucks is that, near the end of the email, they advise "No further points can be redeemed."  The thing is, I made purchase decisions based on the incentives being offered by Plink.  To deny me the chance to redeem my points is low down.  The company should have maintained a separate account ("Redemptions Payable") for what they owed their members.  Instead, they used the funds in daily operations.  This is wrong!

Unfortunately, I can't see how raising a stink is going to accomplish anything.  The company is shutting down, so funds aren't there to make things right.  Guess the lesson here is to always redeem points in your loyalty programs sooner rather than later.

Fortunately, there is another site I have used heavily:  Ebates.  I've been paid hundreds of dollars in Ebates by linking from their site to do my shopping.  For example, as I've been remodeling my new home, I've ordered from Lowes.com, receiving a 2% rebate every time.  Even better, by ordering online, Lowe's prepares my order and has it ready for me at the front of the store.  Gotta love that!

Monday, September 8

Examples of Grocery Prices in Cuenca, Ecuador

Guineo Orito
There is a chain in Ecuador called Tia.  Tia reminds me of Dollar General with its assortment of food, clothing, household goods and school supplies.  They also stock beer and hard liquor as well as fresh produce.  So far we've visited three Tia outlets as the store is more like an American store than most of the alternatives.

Where Tia is different are the prices of local products.  Today I bought a pack of 9 baby bananas for $.70, a green pepper for $.08, two apples for $.66 and a medium-sized bag of sugar for $.50.  What's crazy is that I could pay even less if I went to the mercado and bought from a produce seller.

Not everything is priced so low.  I bought sugar instead of Splenda because a pack of 100 was $6.99.  Soda is about the same if you buy the large bottles (1.95 L here instead of 2 L), but cheaper if you purchase a single serve bottle ($.57 for 500 mL, which is 16.9 oz.).


Friday, September 5

Eating Cheap in Guayaquil, Ecuador

All this for $2.25, tax included

Almuerzo is the best value, but there were other choices, too
In Guayaquil, many of the restaurants in the Centro (downtown) area offer Almuerzos Ejecutivos (Executive Lunches).  Basically, it is a Monday-Friday special marketed to workers on their lunch break.

Almuerzos (literally translated, "lunch") are fixed menu meals.  You start with soup and then have a couple of choices for el Segundo ("second", the main course).   Today's main entree choices included marinated chicken, breaded calamari, or beef.

Today I enjoyed a beef soup, along with marinated chicken, rice and a pasta salad, which had ham in it.  Fresh juice was also included.  The total price:  $2.25.

This was more than enough food, but we remembered a bakery we saw earlier in the day inside a grocery store.  We stopped for Pan de Pina and two bottles of water.  The pineapple bread was $.30 each and the 500 mL water, $.31.

As long as you are willing to eat like a local, you can eat in Ecuador for really cheap.

Tuesday, September 2

My Frugal Miser - August Expenses: $3,889



I am really looking forward to when I finish work on our new home.  With no mortgage and more normal expenses for repairs and such, our monthly spending will noticeably decline.

We added Internet ($20 a month) but offset that expense by downgrading our Republic Wireless plans (a temporary reduction from $80/month to $15/month).  However, the electric bill is going to be higher because we are running the A/C more.   Some of the ceilings and walls are uninsulated, and by noon the inside temperature passes 90 degrees without A/C.  I'll be working on making this home more energy efficient.  Another way we are saving is by not paying for trash service.  The community recycling center is a mile away, so we recycle the majority of our trash.  What remains we will dispose of at the other house until it gets rented.

We are leaving for Ecuador on Thursday.  I don't think our three week vacation there will add any substantial expenses in September.  In fact, some of our costs (food, transportation, housing) may go down.

August Expenses:  $3,889


$119 Auto ($12 for tipping the valet at the conference we worked in California, $107 for gas)
$3 Bank Fees
$23 Clothing
$0 Computer
$97 Entertainment (movies, gambling, alcohol)
$398 Food
$17 Gifts Given
$1,584 Household/Housing/Home Repair
$0 Home Insurance
$245 Health and Dental Insurance
$0 Investment Expenses
$514 Medical/Dental
$0 Miscellaneous
$143 Personal Care
$0 Subscriptions
$0 Taxes
$196 Utilities
$551 Vacation and Recreation

Notes:

  • The only gas I had to buy was during our work in California.  I had enough stored from mystery shopping to cover our local needs.
  • Much of our food expense was also from the California trip.  I did have a stocking up trip to Wal-Mart when we moved to the new house.
  • An old crown broke, and it cost $513.50 to pay for a new one.  My dental insurance only pays half of my costs for this kind of work.
  • Personal care expenses will be going down soon.  I spend $100/month on Healthy Wage (a bet that I would lose weight) and $43 on Weight Watchers.  Unfortunately I'm using neither of these but will stay on until the 6 month wager is over.
  • Home Expenses were generally for repairs.  I bought a new stove and a router for Internet.  The balance was from a variety of things I had to buy.

Monday, September 1

My Frugal Miser - August Income: $7,823


August was mixed.  I barely did any mystery shopping, but the hospitality work in California paid over $900.  My perennially problem tenant did not pay any rent last month, but it's been promised this week.  The management company found a new tenant for the vacant townhouse, but it is a Section 8 tenant, which means the move-in will take a little time, so no rent on that unit either.


August Income $7,823

$1,462 Mystery Shopping
$6,211 Rental Income
$150 Other Sources

Notes:.  
  • 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. 

Sunday, August 24

Get Frugal and Save Money - Wal-Mart Savings Catcher

Now that we've settled into our new home, I had to find a new grocery store.  Pinellas County, FL isn't short on options, with 12 Publix Supermarkets and 4 Wal-Marts within a 4 mile radius of home.  Last week I heard an advertisement on the radio for a new app from Wal-Mart called Savings Catcher.  Ever the frugal miser, I was intrigued by its promise:  automatic price matching for all your purchases.  

This is as easy as it gets:  after buying your groceries at Wal-Mart, you enter the receipt code into an online app.  Within about 3 days, Wal-Mart will send you an e-Gift Card for any difference in their price versus local competitors.  I entered two receipts last week, and I've already received an e-Gift Card for $2.99.

Spending money shouldn't be fun, but I confess to being giddy when the first email arrived announcing my rebate:  I paid $1 for spaghetti sauce, but Albertson's had it on sale for $.79.  CVS had 2 liter soda on sale for $.75 (good for a $.69 rebate), and I saved $.03 on a green bell pepper.  I also saved on cantaloupe ($.08) and burritos ($.28).  For my first receipt, I received a refund back to a gift card in the amount of $1.29.  Even more exciting, I made a second trip the next day.  All I bought was a bag of cat food for $4.24.  For the cat food, Publix was offering it for $2.54, so I received $1.70 bag for the one item.

The new Wal-Mart Savings Catcher is a game changer.  Before, they offered a price match, but the onus was on the customer to find the lower price and mention it to the cashier.  That took too much time for me (who wants to spend an hour to save $1.29?).  But now, all I do is type in my receipt code.  There's peace of mind knowing I'm guaranteed to get the lowest price available.  Loving it!

Sunday, August 17

Taking a Frugal Trip to Ecuador

In 18 days we depart for Ecuador for three weeks!  This has been something I wanted to do for quite some time, and while there is the obligatory anxiety, I'm also super excited to spend some meaningful time in a foreign country.

One advantage of not being tied down by a traditional job is the flexibility my schedule provides.  I leveraged that flexibility by waiting until flights were reasonable.  For most travel, getting there can be the biggest expense.  We're paying less to fly to Guayaquil, Ecuador than we paid to "discount" airline Southwest for our recent trip to Las Vegas.

Save Money on Travel


  • Our two roundtrip flights were $772.  This was considerably less expensive than the other times I have looked at travel to Ecuador.  To keep costs low, we are flying non-stop from Miami to Guayaquil.  I chose an evening departure flight and overnight return to avoid overnight lodging in Miami.  
  • We will be leaving the car at the house, avoiding parking fees.  We will board a bus outside my neighborhood, then transfer to an express bus to Tampa.  From Tampa, we are taking the Megabus to the Miami International Airport.  Since I booked far in advance, our two way tickets on Megabus were only $6.00.   It actually costs less to travel by bus from Tampa to Miami than it will cost from our house to the Tampa bus terminal ($14 for both ways).
  • We will rely on public transit in Ecuador.  Taxis and buses are super cheap there.
  • I ordered two large backpacks so that we don't have to worry about moving wheeled luggage or paying extra to carry that luggage on buses.  

Save Money on Lodging

  • We will be in Ecuador for three weeks, but the accommodations should only cost $391 ($18.62 per night).  The first three nights I redeemed Hilton Honors points for the Hampton Inn in Guayaquil.  Then we spend two weeks at a hostel in Cuenca followed by four days at a hotel in Guayaquil.
  • The hostel in Cuenca provides bicycles, so we won't need a car.  Bus fare in Cuenca is only a $.25 if we decide to use that instead.  

Save Money on Food

  • We will adopt a locals diet (eating the local cuisine is part of the fun!).  
  • Eating from street vendors is common, but even a basic restaurant meal can cost about $3.

When we aren't busy moving and working on the new house, I'll be spending my time preparing for our journey.   This includes brushing up on my Spanish, planning our sightseeing, and figuring out how to travel ultra-light.



Saturday, August 16

My Frugal Miser - July Income: $10,893


July was a strong month on the income side, but I still spent more than I brought in.  My income included payment for the June mystery shopping road trip, which represented over $3,000.  One of my rentals is empty, but all my other properties received rent income.  I don't expect the empty townhouse to be rented this month.


July Income $10,893

$4,310 Mystery Shopping
$6,561 Rental Income
$22 Other Sources

Notes:.  
  • 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. 

Thursday, August 14

My Frugal Miser - July Expenses: $13,570



We made it back to Florida a little after midnight last night.  The California hospitality job and Las Vegas side trip were just what I needed to wipe away the stress of working on the new house every day.  I've reserved a moving truck for Tuesday.  Between now and then we have plenty to do, mostly cleaning up the mess from all the repairs we've done.

As expected, all those repairs added up.  After finding termites, I paid $1,900 to treat the house.  Two new entry doors have been ordered, an electrician made repairs, new floors have been installed, and the house was painted.  We did the floors and paint ourselves, but I hired someone to install the entry doors.  I spent nearly $10,000 in July on repairs at the new house.

There were some other large expenses, too.  After negotiating my hospital bills from the May incident, I had to pay $1,079.  I paid $300 to take a 0% cash advance from one of my credit cards.  I also bought a Steak n Shake gift card that I haven't yet used to take advantage of a bonus promotion (received $125 but only paid $100).

July Expenses:  $13,570


$250 Auto ($124 refund from GEICO from canceled policy, $6 on gas, $267 for depreciation, $101 to insure the moped)
$300 Bank Fees
$38 Clothing
$0 Computer
$120 Entertainment (movies, gambling, alcohol)
$403 Food
$35 Gifts Given
$11,381 Household/Housing/Home Repair
$0 Home Insurance
$245 Health and Dental Insurance
$0 Investment Expenses
$1,079 Medical/Dental
$0 Miscellaneous
$143 Personal Care
$0 Subscriptions
$(565) Taxes (refund)
$136 Utilities
$6 Vacation and Recreation

Sunday, August 10

Free Trip to Las Vegas (well, sort of)

We spent six days through Friday afternoon working an incentive trip in Dana Point, CA.  The incentive trip was for a large, publicly traded company and the red carpet was out for the top salespeople who attended:  the first evening’s entertainment was Aerosmith, followed by an assortment of dinner cruises, open bars and sun and sand activities.  The hospitality job was super easy and five of the six days we mostly just sat behind a desk staring at the Pacific Ocean.  With a steady wind and highs in the 70s, it was a welcome respite from slaving away in the new house under the heat of Florida’s August sun.

Normally I wouldn’t be able to justify such a trip, but by being creative we covered our travel costs (the company that hired us did not reimburse our expenses).  I used Hilton Honors points and stayed at a Hampton Inn that was a half hour away.  We stocked up on groceries at Wal-Mart and ate pitas with hummus and spinach every night, along with $2 bottles of wine.  Since we were less than 300 miles from Las Vegas, and booking our flight and car via Las Vegas would save money, that’s what we did.

So here we are, enjoying the day in Vegas.  The five nights we are here are all free, so the only added cost of taking this mini-vacation was a few days car rental, a little food, and our gambling.  In anticipation of this trip, I ordered the American Casino Guide, which has several pages of coupons in it.  Yesterday I redeemed a free buffet and a couple of game play coupons.  We won $20 using the gaming coupons.  I have more to redeem throughout our trip.

Sometimes, when you desire something, you find a way to make attaining it possible.  This hospitality work fit the bill, as the money we are being paid should cover all our expenses for this trip (unless I gamble too much).

Sunday, August 3

Final Update on Negotiating High Medical Bills

Last week I received good news on the $1,481 ER Doctor bill.   My medical negotiator informed me that the group for whom the doctor works applied a charity care credit to my account, bringing it to zero.

My entire $1,481 bill was waived.  I paid nothing.

I don't know how their process works, but I was never asked for income or asset verification or vetted in any other way.  Frankly, I think the amount I still had to pay for the emergency room (almost $1,000) was more than enough for all the "services" I received.  Still, it's amazing that they would just completely waive all charges.

Saturday, July 26

The Week Ahead

We decided to take a day off from the house project.  We've basically worked on it every day since I bought it last month and my partner is getting burned out.  I have a movie theater mystery shop that we will do this afternoon.  Then we plan to visit the library before stopping at Lowe's to buy a few supplies for the house.

Speaking of the house project, it's going well (pictures coming soon), but there is so much left to do.  We are going to move in as soon as the living room is finished.  When we do move in, only two bedrooms and the living room will be completely done.  So much has been going on:  in addition to new floors and painting, I've repaired faulty plumbing, replaced blown fuses, serviced and cleaned the air conditioning unit, replaced interior doors, and done a thorough cleaning.  We've been able to do most of the work ourselves.  I did call an electrician out to replace the main breaker and check the integrity of the electrical system.  I'm also hiring someone to install new entry doors.  One of the largest unexpected expenses will happen in the coming weeks:  we are having the house fumigated to treat an active termite infestation.  I was under the impression when I bought the house that it had been treated already, but apparently not (and I did not require any termite bond or inspection because I really wanted this house).  This alone will cost $1,900 and we can't be in the home for three days.  They are putting a tent over the house to treat it.

Next week I have a few restaurant shops lined up.  On Friday I have a local route of gas station audits.  Saturday we fly to Vegas.  We are working a 6 day hospitality event in Laguna Beach, CA and then will spend five days playing in Vegas.  The work basically pays for a free vacation, plus it gives us a break while the house is being fumigated.

Things are coming together quickly.  My goal is to move everything into the new house in mid-August.  The remaining improvements can be made as my bank account recovers from all this spending I've been doing.

Monday, July 21

Update on Negotiating High Medical Bills

During our Las Vegas vacation I had a health scare when I swallowed a piece of meat down the wrong tube.  In trying to cough it up I got bronchitis, but before that diagnosis I was concerned I was choking.  The urgent care doctor refused to do anything (after charging me $100 to refer me to the Spring Valley Hospital  ER!) because he was concerned about the severity of my symptoms.  I went to the Emergency Room and sat in a room for three hours.  A nurse took my blood, a technician performed a chest X-Ray, and my vital signs were monitored.  The cost of those services was nearly $5,000 (that's not a typo!), but after the insurance benefit, I was responsible for almost $3,000.  Since I have a high-deductible plan, the only benefit of having insurance in a case like this is that I pay a lower rate that the insurer has negotiated.  I am responsible for 100% of the bill until my medical costs exceed $6,500 in a calendar year.

After receiving the first of three bills,  my initial thought was that an error had been made.  No one pays $5,000 for bloodwork and a single X-ray, do they?  I called the hospital's billing department.  One trick they use to discourage you is make you wait on hold.  It was 40 minutes before I spoke with a live person, and every 20 seconds I was encouraged by a recorded voice to make payment online or through the automated system.  When I finally spoke with someone, I felt like I was talking to a brick wall.  The employee was not helpful at all, insisting that my bill was accurate and that they absolutely do no discounting.  She did offer me a convenient payment plan, but she missed the point that I thought they were ripping me off.

Yes, I said it.  The Spring Valley Hospital in Las Vegas ripped me off.  But rather than accept this nonsense, I did some research online.  I called in reinforcements in the form of a medical bill negotiator (I used My Medical Negotiator, but there are a couple of options out there).  It took some time, but the person I worked with, Dennis Dobecki, was able to negotiate a 30% discount.  That's not a huge amount, but it saved me $400 on the ER bill.

I also submitted the bill I received from the doctor who "cared" for me.  I saw him for about three minutes, and he never laid a finger on me.  Those three minutes were billed at $1,481.  I haven't paid it yet, but am crossing my fingers that My Medical Negotiator can work some magic on it, too.

Saturday, July 19

Remodeling a House on a Budget

I've spent much of the last three weeks working on this foreclosure that is about to become my home.  I just hate to spend so much money on myself, so I've been working overtime to find frugal ways to make this house into a home.

I wanted to share a few of the ways I have saved money while remodeling my new home:

  • I'm painting the house using Oops Paint.  When the home center mixes a batch of paint for a customer, sometimes the buyer changes their mind about buying the paint.  It's perfectly good paint, and the color is sampled as a splotch on the lid.  I've bought several $44 gallons of paint for $5 each.  I figure I will save about $200 by painting my house with someone else's unwanted color.
  • Every time I visit the home improvement store, I look at the clearance shelves.  Yesterday I bought a $2,800 Samsung French Door Refrigerator for under $1,200.  It was a floor model and there is a noticeable dent on the bottom front.  The same warranty applies and it is being delivered to my home for free.  I've found numerous other items I needed that were on clearance, ranging from blades for my utility knife ($.25 for 5) to dying plants for the backyard (50-70% off original price).
  • On top of the clearance prices, I use 10% off coupons or $10 off a $50 purchase Project Starter coupon.  I buy these in bulk off ebay.
  • Probably the most impactful way I am saving money is by doing most of the work myself.  While not always fun, it's very rewarding when I successfully complete a task.  For this project, the DIY work includes painting, laying vinyl plank flooring, replacing faulty plumbing, replacing out electrical outlets and switches, installing interior doors, and building a wraparound deck.  There's plenty left to learn, and I hope I can tackle new insulation, sheetrock and cabinets myself.
I'm enjoying this project because I know I get to live in it soon.  I keep from burning out by only working 4-5 hours at a time.  Some days that's all I do; others I will return in the late afternoon to do more.  Once we are able to move in, I'l be able to finish the rest of the house more conveniently.  Hopefully in the next week or two I will have enough of the house ready so that we can do just that.

Wednesday, July 9

Rental Property Portfolio: Mid-Year Update

I stopped reporting how much I spend to maintain my rental properties at the end of last year.  I wanted to post a mid-year report on how my rental properties are performing.

Currently I own 12 houses.  I live in one of those and two are held by my retirement account.  Since I won't be able to touch my retirement account for a few decades, I never report the income I receive from those two properties or the expenses associated with them.  That leaves 9 properties that I rent and report in my monthly income:  4 townhouses, 1 condo, and 4 single family homes.  They all are located in the Birmingham, AL metropolitan area.

When I moved to Florida in 2012 I planned to hand off the management of my Birmingham properties to a property management company.  The plan was to do this whenever a property changed tenants.  After turning over the first two (both are townhouses), I sat back and watched how my property manager performed.  Frankly I have been disappointed.  When I managed my properties I never had more than a couple of weeks of vacancy.  One reason for lower vacancy was that I accepted tenants with blemished credit, while the management company has supposedly tighter standards.  Vacancy is probably the biggest expense a landlord has, so I give the management company an "F" when it comes to placing tenants.  It took about 6 months for each property to be rented, and one of the tenants has been nothing but drama (so much for tighter standards).

Of the 7 remaining properties, one has been handled by a different management company since I bought the single-family home in 2009.  I've had the same tenant in that property, and all is great.  The other three single-family homes are also doing well, as each has had the same tenant for years.  That leaves two townhouses and one condo.  The condo is low maintenance, but its small size and nosy neighbors means I have a lot of turnover.  Fortunately, my exiting tenants have always referred the next tenant and there has been zero vacancy at my condo.  One of the other townhouses has an excellent, low-maintenance tenant:  I placed the tenant in August, 2012 and have had zero calls from the tenant for service.  The tenant has his rent deposited directly into my account as a payroll deduction through his employer.  The last townhouse is the one I am always considering evicting.  The tenant has been with me for three years, and he's always behind on his rent.  But, every time I am about to evict him, the tenant pays up.

My Frugal Miser's 1H 2014 Rental Property Income Statement

Income:  $40,628
Less
Mortgage Interest:  $4,340
Personal Interest:  $1,004
All Other Expenses:  $11,658

Net Income:  $23,626

Year to date, the largest expense was property insurance ($4,879), followed by mortgage interest.  Nearly $3,000 was spent on repairs and improvements for the condo, primarily for the laminate floors which replaced the carpet throughout the condo.  

For the first half of 2014, I had nearly $4,000 per month leftover after all my rental property expenses were paid.  

Monday, July 7

My Frugal Miser - June Income: $7,925


One of the reasons my expenses were so high in June was because I went on a mystery shopping road trip.  Virtually all of the $1,159 vehicle depreciation expense was for miles driven while mystery shopping.  And, because I was paid for these shops in July (the check for that one route was $3,600), my income in June was very low... I deducted the hotels and service reimbursement charges from the income that I did receive in June, making what I report here seem even lower.

There is more drama with the rental properties.  A tenant at one of the two managed townhouses reversed the $1,500 she paid in May for back rent and reimbursement for utilities.  I wasn't billed for my negative balance, but I won't be receiving a check from the management company again until I bring my balance back to a positive amount. I received rent from all my other properties.  Finally, I sold the S-10 to Carmax and am reporting the $1,500 I received in Other Sources.

June Income $7,925

$174 Mystery Shopping
$6,220 Rental Income
$1,531 Other Sources

Notes:.  
  • 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, July 5

My Frugal Miser - June Expenses: $5,724



I finally closed on the house in June.  Starting in July I will have considerable home repair expenses from all the upgrades the house requires.  We aren't able to move in yet - the HVAC system needs to be replaced, plus it would be nice to have floors.

There were some large expenses this month.  I insured the house for a year.  I took the highest deductible, highest hurricane deductible, but also the best liability coverage (there is so much fraud in my area that I want to be protected against lawsuits).  That was $900.  I also upgraded our phones.  The battery was no longer holding a charge, and I had gone cheap when we bought the old phones by choosing a single band phone that did not have a signal in many places outside Florida.  The new phones cost $650, but I will receive a $200 rebate in the form of a VISA prepaid card.  We have Republic Wireless, so the phones are not subsidized.  Since we don't currently have Internet access I did upgrade our data plan to 4G.  Finally, I spent $772 on two round-trip tickets to Ecuador.  One of my 2014 goals is to travel internationally, and we will do so in September (more details to come).  The flights were significantly less expensive (more than $200 saved) than they had been every time I checked before, so I pulled the trigger.

I haven't paid the medical bills from the ER visit while we were in Vegas.  On principle, I am working with a medical bill negotiator to try to reduce the fees.  My bill was nearly $4,000, and all that was done was one chest X-Ray and blood was taken.

June Expenses:  $5,724


$426 Auto ($58 for service, $3 for car wash, $3 for tolls, $362 for fuel, $1,160 for depreciation)
$0 Bank Fees
$8 Clothing
$0 Computer
$78 Entertainment (movies, gambling, alcohol)
$265 Food
$0 Gifts Given
$687 Household/Housing/Home Repair
$900 Home Insurance
$245 Health and Dental Insurance
$0 Investment Expenses
$0 Medical/Dental
$0 Miscellaneous
$143 Personal Care
$0 Subscriptions
$0 Taxes
$979 Utilities
$772 Vacation and Recreation

Sunday, June 29

I Bought a House

My New Project:  My Future Home
Last week I closed on my second Florida property.  It's a 3 bedroom, 2 bath, 1,100 square foot home that needs a lot of work.  Only the kitchen and dining area have floors; everything else is bare concrete.  I think the air conditioner needs replacing, as do all the kitchen appliances.  There was interior water damage from a leaky roof, so some walls and ceilings are missing.  The good news is the bank (I bought a foreclosure) replaced the roof already.

This is what the kitchen ceiling looks like right now.
I have a fair amount of experience with rehabbing foreclosures.  However, this is easily the biggest project I've taken on.  The plan is to rehab two of the bedrooms first so that we can live in the house while we work on it.  These are the least damaged rooms in the home, as they only require a fresh coat of paint, floors, and some other minor repairs such as replacing damaged doors.

One of the ways we will keep our costs down with this project is by using 10% off coupons from Lowe's.  I was able to purchase 5 of these from ebay for $8.

 We have a big trip planned for September, so my goal is to finish the project by the end of August.

Saturday, June 21

Mystery Shopping Road Trip Update: Big Stone Gap, VA

What a week!  I left home at 2:30 Monday morning for my first stop in Ashburn, GA.  Six days and just over 2,000 miles later I am settled into my hotel in Big Stone Gap, VA.  This week I completed 26 auto dealership service shops (one oil change and 25 tire rotations) and one fast food restaurant.  I earned $2,041 in mystery shopping fees this week.

I did my best to keep costs low.  I only paid for one meal each day and avoided expensive hotels as best as possible (the most expensive hotel was $80 + tax).  I mostly stayed in Choice Hotels properties to take advantage of a sweet promotion:  a $50 retail gift card for every two stays.  After tonight's stay, I've already earned $150 in gift cards!

The route I am on is a shorter one:  on Thursday I finally close on the new house.  I have 3 shops for Monday, 4 on Tuesday and 3 on Wednesday.

Sunday, June 15

Another Mystery Shopping Route

Already June has been a decent month.  Between hospitality work and a couple local routes, it's been good to be busy.  I am heading out at 2:30 AM tomorrow morning.  Rather than pay for a hotel, I'll drive 5 hours to my first stop.  The route I have accepted is just 35 stops, but they are spread out and will take a week and a half to complete.  It is decent money; I think I am averaging $77 per stop.

This route kicks off in southern Georgia.  It includes stops in Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.  I am being paid about $1 per mile.  That is a nice amount, but the hotels are more expensive than I would like to spend because most of the towns I am visiting are rural and there is little, if any, competition to hold down rates.  I thought about sleeping in my car but haven't had time to see if that is possible with an Aveo (plus I really prefer a hotel room after spending the day in my car.

In other news, I still haven't closed on the house.  I signed an extension giving Fannie Mae until the end of June to prepare the closing.  I haven't lost any more weight, but am more aware of what I eat since I signed up with Healthy Wage.

Saturday, June 7

My Frugal Miser - May Income: $10,219


Thanks to the rental properties, I had an exceptional month of income in May.  I received rent from every property, including from the tenant I was about to evict.  Fortunately, it appears this tenant is making an effort to get back on track and I won't incur the eviction, vacancy and repair costs I was expecting to have. One of the managed townhouses was also behind, and in May I received two rent payments plus late fees from that property.

Mystery shopping income was fair.  The house I am buying still has not closed, so I scrambled to put together shopping routes to fill in the time I had reserved for working on the new house.

May Income $10,219

$2,129 Mystery Shopping
$8,077 Rental Income
$14 Other Sources

Notes:.  
  • 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. 

Recap of our Las Vegas Trip

Last month we spent two weeks vacationing in Las Vegas.  I posted that vacationing in Las Vegas can be a frugal way to get away, and wanted to review how much our trip cost us.

Flights:  $560
Rental Car:  $203.31 ($14.52 per day)
Hotels:  $307.35 ($21.95 per day)
Gas:  $74.67
Food:  $198.52 ($14.18 per day)
Gambling and Entertainment:  $117
Tips and Miscellaneous Cash Spent:  $200
Airport Parking:  $61.68

Air

One of the largest costs of any vacation is getting there.  Two flights from Tampa to Las Vegas and back cost $560, which was cheap.  I had a $100 voucher from an earlier trip and I planned this trip around when flights were least expensive.  We flew there and back on a Saturday, which is usually a less expensive day to fly since you aren't competing with business travelers for your seat.

Food

We ate well, and I could have easily spent half what we did.  For example, I dropped $71 on one meal when we visited Gordon Ramsey's BURGR.  We dined at a high end Indian restaurant one night.  Those two meals alone accounted for half our food expense.

Hotels

We spent a weekend in Phoenix, where my partner has family.  The two nights there cost $112.  There were also resort fees and small charges for our rooms in Vegas.  I did not have enough comp offers to cover the entire vacation.

Everything Else

I kept our parking costs down by finding an off-airport lot and then searching for discount codes online.  Off airport parking saved us $60 off what the Economy Lot at the airport would have cost.  We went to four movies while on vacation but only had to pay for two:  I scored free passes to an advance screening and we received two tickets by earning points on our Player's Card at one casino.  We also visited the Botanical Gardens for free by taking advantage of reciprocal membership privileges.  We consumed more alcohol than was healthy, but all that cost was a couple dollars in tips each time.

Advice for Others

I use Las Vegas Advisor to find deals on food and entertainment.  They publish a Top Ten list each month of the best deals in Vegas.  I also log into my Player's Club online accounts to see where the special deals are located.  Boyd has special hotel rates when you enter your card number (for example, we spent $20 per night for 3 nights at Main Street Station).  I also look at where the promotional offers are each day.  That's how we obtained free buffets, gifts including a bottle of vodka and a t-shirt, and free movie tickets.  For gambling, Downtown Las Vegas is cheaper than the Strip, plus the Fremont Street Experience provides free nightly entertainment.  My game of choice is Video Poker, which I actually won money on throughout the trip.  I also spent some time playing live poker, where I basically broke even.  I played a little Blackjack.  During the entire trip I only played on one slot machine.  It's a game at Binion's that I have always played when I go there.  This visit I won a little on that machine.  Bottom line:  the casinos make their money on slots, so play at your own risk.  Video Poker, played using perfect strategy, has over a 100% payback when you include the value of free alcohol and Player's Club promotions.  Similarly, live poker is a game of skill.  Stick to games where you have the edge and you will lose less.

All in all, we had a great time and we didn't go into debt in the process.  I spent $1,722.53 for the two of us to vacation for 14 days, which amounts to just $123 per day.  And I am already thinking about our next Vegas vacation.  While it will be shorter in duration, I will also challenge myself to be even more frugal:  I want to see if we can spend under $1,000 on our next trip.


Thursday, June 5

My Frugal Miser - May Expenses: $2,886



My gluttonous ways continued into May.  While I need to spend less than $1,667/mo. to achieve my spending goal, I was way over.

First, the good stuff.  I received $680 in refunds, net of expenses, by switching from 21st Century to GEICO for car insurance.  That's huge and I learned that loyalty is meaningless, at least when it comes to car insurance.  I was with 21st Century for about 12 years, but GEICO proved to be significantly less expensive for me.

Entertainment spending includes the $100 I lost in Las Vegas.  Two weeks of gambling and all it cost me was $100, so I'm not complaining.  I also spent over $900 on vacation expenses.  This includes the trip to Omaha at the beginning of the month as well as the Vegas trip.  In Vegas I included our meals and all tips in the vacation category.

Other notables include the $480 in bank fees.  I took advantage of a large 0% cash advance offer on one of my credit cards.  There was a 3% fee upfront for the advance.  I had a medical emergency while in Vegas, and part of the cost of that was paid in May.  I am awaiting the ER bill.

May Expenses:  $2,886



$(341) Auto ($0 for service, $680 INCOME for insurance refund, $152 for fuel, $187 for depreciation)
$480 Bank Fees
$21 Clothing
$0 Computer
$138 Entertainment (movies, gambling, alcohol)
$192 Food
$21 Gifts Given
$659 Household/Housing/Home Repair
$245 Health and Dental Insurance
$0 Investment Expenses
$160 Medical/Dental
$133 Miscellaneous
$158 Personal Care
$0 Subscriptions
$0 Taxes
$82 Utilities
$937 Vacation and Recreation

Monday, May 26

Back to the (Mystery Shopping) Grind

We returned from Vegas on Saturday evening.  Wasting no time, I spent Sunday in the Gainesville, FL area doing gas station audits.  Because today is Memorial Day there aren't many shops I am allowed to do, but we are doing a bar integrity audit at lunch.  Then tomorrow morning I leave for two days in Jacksonville for gas station audits.  It sucks that I have to travel so far for work, but my area has so much competition that I have to do this to earn a living.

On Thursday I am finally closing on the new house.  Then on Saturday we leave for Orlando.  We are working a hospitality meeting there for four days, followed by a day in Daytona to audit more gas stations.  When we return to Clearwater I have two days worth of work lined up (more gas stations!) and then the mystery shopping calendar clears up a bit.  This is good because getting the new house in order will be my top priority.  There's so much that needs to be done there.

I'll post more about our Vegas trip later.  The good news is that in two weeks I only lost $100 gambling.