Monday, December 21

Happy Holidays

Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year!

I'm headed to Alabama to spend Christmas with my mom.  I'll also visit my Dad's side of the family on Christmas Day.  I am driving the 500 miles to Birmingham, but was able to find 9 mystery shops along the way to help pay for the trip.  Today I am shopping 7 Exxon gas stations.  With bonuses, I will earn $235 in fees and $42 in gas and inside purchases.  The free gas should cover my fuel for the entire trip.  I am staying at an Econo Lodge tonight ($54, paid with a gift card I bought at Winn-Dixie to earn Fuel Rewards).  Tomorrow I am shopping two Chevrolet dealerships.  I will earn $182 plus receive a free oil change and tire rotation.  All these shops are within a reasonable distance from the route I would already be taking.

While visiting Mom, I'll take her out for gourmet tacos on a mystery shop.  I'm also painting/repairing two mailboxes at my rental properties.  I'm saving $80 in labor and the work should take me less than an hour.

I plan on returning home on the 26th.  I'll spend the last week of the year doing some rideshare driving and setting my 2016 goals.

Saturday, December 19

Stand Up for Yourself and Negotiate (the ROI is amazing!)

Lately I've been frustrated by the high cost of some things.  Most people just pay whatever something costs, but whenever possible I try to negotiate.  The extra time and effort it takes to ask for a better price is often well worth it.  Just this month I've saved $300:
  • As you already know, I've been remodeling my kitchen for several months.  I bought countertops at IKEA, and the first step was having someone measure my kitchen.  I thought I was ready for the measurement, but when the first person came to quote the price, he immediately said that my cabinets were not level enough.  He was in my home less than five minutes, and no special equipment was involved.  I even agreed to an appointment time that coincided with the estimator being in my neighborhood.  Since the cabinets weren't level, I was told I would have to pay a trip fee.  I assumed it would be well under $100 based on what an electrician or plumber would charge to diagnose an issue, but the bill from IKEA was $225.  I firmly told the employee at the store that this was not acceptable.  I was willing to pay something, but thought $225 was too much for a 5 minute visit at my house.  When IKEA stood firm, I threatened to pay the $225 fee but cancel the entire remainder of the project.  The employee said she would talk with management and the installer and give me a call.  A few hours later, she called and told me they would waive the entire fee.  I saved $225 where most people wouldn't bother to complain.
  • When I signed up to drive for Lyft, I was promised a $50 bonus after my first 20 rides.  For some reason, I never received the bonus.  It took four separate emails over about two months, but my persistence finally paid off, and I was promised the bonus would be applied shortly.
  • On the more classic side of negotiating, while we were in Cozumel we walked into town, but were worn out and thinking about taking a taxi the 1.5 miles back to port.  Based on what an Uber would cost here in Tampa, I knew the $8 I was quoted was more than I wanted to pay.  I had to ask three drivers, but I finally found one willing to take us for $5... but only after walking away did the driver beep his horn and tell us to get in.

Be honest.  Be firm.  Know what you will do next.  That's all it takes to score a better price.  At IKEA, the employee told me that because I did not cause a scene and was professional with my concerns, they appreciated that I was standing on principles and that was the reason that they helped me.  I didn't raise my voice or try to lie about why the estimator had to make a second visit.  I just calmly stated that the price was too high (and swallowed my pride by admitting I made the mistake by not leveling the cabinets properly).

Have you had success with negotiating the price of something or with complaining about an unfair situation?  What was the outcome?

Tuesday, December 15

Our Free Carnival Cruise

It worked!  I took advantage of a couple hacks to save some serious money on our cruise.  Winn-Dixie always offers Fuel Rewards for purchasing gift cards, but for Black Friday they were offering 5X the normal reward, which is the equivalent of a 10% rebate.  In addition to paying for the cruise with gift cards, I applied the remaining gift cards to my Sail and Sign Account, which I then cashed out in the casino.

Total Savings:  About $250 in free gas, plus 12,500 Hilton Honors points for using my credit card to buy the gift cards.

In addition to redeeming the gift cards, I charged my credit card in the casino to earn even more cash back.  Since Carnival does not charge a transaction fee when you charge your Sail and Sign card at a slot machine, I charged about $1,700 to my card to earn just over 5,000 Hilton Honors points.

My luck didn't stop there.  I also played some blackjack while onboard.  There is a sucker bet called "Lucky Ladies", where for as little as $1 you can place a side bet that your first two cards equal "20".  If your "20" is in the form of 2 Queen of Hearts, you win $125.  However, if you have 2 Queen of Hearts, and the dealer has a blackjack, you win $1,000.  My jaw dropped when I hit on the Lucky Ladies.  My $1 side bet won me $1,000.  The pit boss and my dealer said this was the first time they had ever witnessed this particular win.  Of course, I gave much of that back during the week.

Total Winnings from Casino:  About $700

We had a great, frugal trip.  There was plenty of alcohol - we brought two bottles of wine onboard, received a voucher for one free drink each based on our loyalty, attended an art auction for free champagne, and bought two small bottles of rum in Grand Cayman that we carried back in our pockets.  I was randomly selected to receive a $50 spa gift card, so I splurged a bit on a facial and neck and arm massage.  We also had a $100 onboard credit for being a shareholder, which was applied towards gratuities.  And, the casino gave me $50 in free chips for booking the casino rate for the cruise.  We took advantage of one excursion, which we booked privately.  We did cave tubing in Belize.  The all-day tour, with lunch, was $35/each plus tip.

If not for my luck in the casino, I wouldn't be able to call this a free cruise.  But discovering this new trick using gift cards and then cashing them out turned out to be a very lucrative way to lower our costs.

Saturday, December 5

My Frugal Miser - November Expenses: $11,420


November was a gluttenous month.  Some of the spending was on gift cards that I haven't used yet.  Retailers make aggressive offers during the holidays so I like to "pre-pay" future purchases when I get a discount.  As an example, my Chase Freedom credit card offered me a 10% rebate on purchases at Amazon, so I purchased a $1,500 gift card.  I also bought restaurant, fuel and home repair gift cards.  In preparation for our cruise, I purchased several Carnival gift cards and will attempt to cash those out during our cruise.  I am effectively getting cash at a 10% discount by buying Carnival gift cards at Winn-Dixie to earn Shell Fuel Rewards.  I am crossing my fingers that this hack will be successful.

One large expense in November was the re-purchase of my base kitchen cabinets and installation charges.  I could not get the cabinets level on my own and had to buy them again in order to hire a cabinet installer to do it for me.  It was a very expensive mistake.  I've been thinking more and more that I need to stop attempting home repairs on my own:  I'm just not good at it.

November Expenses:  $11,420

$1,537 Auto ($301 for 6 months insurance, $6 for car washes, $155 gas, $335 depreciation, $739 Rideshare Car depreciation)
$67 Bank Fees
$0 Clothing
$0 Computer
$2,148 Entertainment (movies, gambling, alcohol)
$600 Food
$0 Gifts Given
$3,285 Household/Housing/Home Repair
$141 Health and Dental Insurance
$0 Investment Expense
$92 Interest Expense
$7 Medical/Dental
$9 Miscellaneous
$0 Personal Care
$0 Subscriptions
$955 Taxes
$568 Uber/Lyft Expenses (excluding fuel and depreciation)
$251 Utilities
$1,759 Vacation and Recreation

November Expenses, Excluding Vacation and Home Repairs:  $8,099

Thursday, December 3

My Frugal Miser - November Income: $9,631


November was a solid income month.  All my rental properties are occupied and rents are current.  I worked full-time driving for Uber and Lyft and was paid for a fair amount of mystery shopping work, too.



November Income $9,631

$657 Mystery Shopping and Hospitality Jobs
$1,532 Uber
$574 Lyft
$6,645 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 don't include changes in investments from capital gains/losses or dividends.  Most of my investments are in retirement accounts anyway, but this category will grow as I start selling my rental properties and I will probably change this policy.
  • I include merchandising and hospitality work in the mystery shopping category since the companies that I shop for provide this extra side work. 

Thursday, November 5

The House Finally Sold!

On landing in Las Vegas I checked my email, and it's official:  I sold one of the rental properties in Birmingham.

Originally purchased in 2006, I sold it for the same price I paid 9 years ago.  I lived in the home for about two years when I worked at the software company, but began renting it in 2008.  I tried to sell it in 2012, but the buyer talked me into doing a lease-purchase option instead.  Three years later, the buyer decided to downsize and moved out.  I listed it in March, worked with an agent friend for a few months, then switched agents.  It's been under contract for a few months, as the buyer's financing has taken much longer than it should have to be finalized.

This is a bittersweet end, as I created some amazing memories here.  But I also feel like a burden has been lifted.  Being an absentee landlord is harder than I estimated.  It's safe to say this won't be the last property in Birmingham that I sell.

Wednesday, November 4

My Frugal Miser - October Expenses: $3,210


I kept my spending in check last month.  The largest expenses are all related to income-generation.  I did lose a good bit during our Las Vegas trip.  Since the hotels and food were free and the flights were roughly $100 each, the $675 I lost doesn't hurt as bad (it still hurts though!).

Every other category was reasonable.  Since I don't have a mortgage, the $319 I spent repairing/maintaining our 50 year old home is reasonable.  A bit of good news:  when the house closes later today, my HELOC will be paid off.  This will eliminate a $125 monthly interest expense.

This afternoon I am returning to Vegas for the AAII conference.  I will also attend a Hilton Grand Vacations timeshare.  In exchange I will receive 15,000 Hhonors points and the $299 deposit I put down will be refunded.  I am receiving a 3 night stay in a one bedroom unit as well.  I should also run into Andy from Tight Fisted Miser at the airport when  I arrive.  He and his girlfriend will be leaving as I am arriving.

October Expenses:  $3,210

$1,251 Auto ($290 gas, $295 depreciation, $566 Rideshare Car depreciation, $100 AAA dues)
$44 Bank Fees
$11 Clothing
$0 Computer
$741 Entertainment (movies, gambling, alcohol)
$184 Food
$0 Gifts Given
$319 Household/Housing/Home Repair
$141 Health and Dental Insurance
$0 Investment Expense
$141 Interest Expense
$0 Medical/Dental
$6 Miscellaneous
$0 Personal Care
$0 Subscriptions
$7 Taxes
$66 Uber/Lyft Expenses (excluding fuel and depreciation)
$190 Utilities
$115 Vacation and Recreation

October Expenses, Excluding Vacation and Home Repairs:  $2,995

Monday, November 2

My Frugal Miser - October Income: $11,269


October was as strong as September, but the sources of my income shifted.  Last month I did more hospitality work, including a week-long gig in Chicago.  I did less rideshare driving as a result.  All properties are rented, including the house I am selling (closing is scheduled for Wednesday!).


October Income $11,269

$2,633 Mystery Shopping and Hospitality Jobs
$872 Uber
$203 Lyft
$7,265 Rental Income
$296 Other Sources

Notes:.  
  • I don't include transactions in my retirement accounts.  This includes rental income, dividends and capital gains and losses.
  • I don't include changes in investments from capital gains/losses or dividends.  Most of my investments are in retirement accounts anyway, but this category will grow as I start selling my rental properties and I will probably change this policy.
  • I include merchandising and hospitality work in the mystery shopping category since the companies that I shop for provide this extra side work. 

Monday, October 5

My Frugal Miser - September Expenses: $8,273


I wasn't as gluttonous as the numbers suggest.  Some of my September spending was in the form of gift cards I have yet to use.  MyPoints had promotions with its Swappable site, so I bought quite a few gift cards, affecting the areas of Vacation, Food, Home Repair and Clothing.   Similarly, I bought fuel gift cards to take advantage of Chase Freedom's expiring 5% cash back on fuel offer.   I also purchased a $500 Carnival gift card at Winn-Dixie to earn Fuel Rewards.   I read that you can apply the gift card to your onboard account when you cruise and then cash out the positive balance, so I'm going to give this a whirl.  The only major expense last month was the purchase of our kitchen counter tops, which was nearly $3,000.  

One category to point out is Vacation spending.  Remove the $500 Carnival gift card, and I only spent $540 on vacationing last month.  This includes four round trip flights:  2 to Denver last month, and 2 to Las Vegas later this month.  Frontier and Spirit have had aggressive sales.  We both flew to Denver and back for under $100, and our round trip flights to Las Vegas were just $122 each.

October looks like a more frugal month.  We will work a hospitality job in Chicago during one whole week, and all our expenses are paid for that.  I have enough gas cards to cover all the driving I do this month.

September Expenses:  $8,273

$1,963 Auto ($539 gas, $455 depreciation, $968 Rideshare Car depreciation)
$45 Bank Fees
$100 Clothing
$0 Computer
$144 Entertainment (movies, gambling, alcohol)
$304 Food
$0 Gifts Given
$3,979 Household/Housing/Home Repair
$141 Health and Dental Insurance
$0 Investment Expense
$162 Interest Expense
$0 Medical/Dental
$6 Miscellaneous
$0 Personal Care
$0 Subscriptions
$0 Taxes
$124 Uber/Lyft Expenses (excluding fuel and depreciation)
$264 Utilities
$1,040 Vacation and Recreation

September Expenses, Excluding Vacation and Home Repairs:  $4,120

Saturday, October 3

My Frugal Miser - September Income: $11,273


What a month!  My September income was the second best of the year.  All properties are rented, and I even received $500 from the one I am selling, as the buyer took early occupancy.  The closing date for the one I am selling has been delayed and I will receive $500 every two weeks until the house is sold.

Mystery shopping and hospitality work took a hit as rideshare driving for Uber and Lyft became a bigger priority.  However, in October we have some solid hospitality jobs scheduled, which will help this category bounce back.

I received four paychecks from Uber and five from Lyft.  I'm starting to think I can make a decent side income here, but the hours are long and my hourly pay is quite low.

September Income $11,273

$380 Mystery Shopping and Hospitality Jobs
$2,274 Uber
$1,080 Lyft
$7,377 Rental Income
$163 Other Sources

Notes:.  
  • I don't include transactions in my retirement accounts.  This includes rental income, dividends and capital gains and losses.
  • I don't include changes in investments from capital gains/losses or dividends.  Most of my investments are in retirement accounts anyway, but this category will grow as I start selling my rental properties and I will probably change this policy.
  • I include merchandising and hospitality work in the mystery shopping category since the companies that I shop for provide this extra side work. 

Monday, September 28

On Simplifying...

I've been working on a few things to simplify my life.  I've always been a fan of focusing on what you are good at and eliminating or delegating the rest.

Real Estate

The house I listed in March is ALMOST sold.  The buyer's lender has taken a long time to get the loan in order.  Over the weekend the buyer offered to rent my house until she buys it.  I said "yes" right away.  The buyer will pay $500 rent every two weeks, plus I was able to take the utilities out of my name.  The house should close within the next couple of weeks, but it is quite a relief to add a little income while getting my buyer fully "bought-in" on this house.  There's no backing out now as far as I can see.

The plan is to methodically sell all my Birmingham properties.  I'm not in a hurry to do this, but whenever an opportunity presents itself, this is what I will do.

Finances

Recently I closed out one of the bank accounts I had opened as a mystery shop.  I also dejunked my wallet by taking out all but a couple of my credit cards.  The ones I am not using are kept in the safe.  There's something refreshing about having a nice thin wallet.

Work

Meeting season is kicking off tomorrow.  I'll be more picky this year about the jobs we do.  There's no reason to drive to Orlando for $100 on a busy Uber day when I could earn twice that here at home.  I've been keeping copious notes on when Uber/Lyft are busy in my area.  Tuesdays and Wednesdays seem to be the slowest days for rideshare.  I will continue to refine my work schedule so that I am only working when demand is healthy.  There's nothing worse than giving someone a ride 10 miles away, only to be stuck in that area for half an hour without another fare.

Life

Back at the homestead, we still don't have a kitchen.  The base cabinets aren't level, and it's been a real struggle.  I have to focus on a solution to this ASAP.  As far as recreation goes, we've taken advantage of our Busch Gardens passes twice.  We also planned an impromptu trip to Las Vegas later in October.  I found a cheap airfare combining flights on Spirit and Frontier and decided that getting out of town would be good for us.

Things are headed in a positive direction, and this is a good time in my life.  I'm finally seeing some progress on checking off my to-do list.  

Tuesday, September 22

Why I Decided to Drive for Lyft

I've been driving for Uber going on three months.  At first I didn't think it would work out.  I was frustrated by the low fees and unpaid miles.  Things have begun to improve.  One of the strategies I did to make rideshare driving more profitable was signing up for Lyft, Uber's main competitor.

What Are the Differences Between Uber and Lyft?

From a driver's perspective, Lyft cares more about our success:
  • If you are logged onto Lyft for 30 hours per week, including 10 of the designated "Peak Hours", and accept 90% of the requests that come your way, you receive a 10% bonus on your weekly earnings.  Work 50 hours and the bonus is bumped up to 20%.  Uber has no such incentive.
  • The Lyft app includes a tipping function.  When a ride ends, the customer can easily add a tip to the total fare.  Uber does not offer this, and actively encourages customers to stiff their drivers.
  • On minimum fares, Lyft pays more.  This is because Lyft does not include the Safe Driver Fee in the minimum fare calculation - it is added to it.  On a $4 ride, the driver receives $3.20 with Lyft but only $2.40 with Uber.  That $.80 difference starts to add up when I drive on the beach, where minimum fares are standard.
There are some disadvantages to Lyft:
  • Fewer people use Lyft.  It is only sustainable for me when used in conjunction with the Uber app.
  • The requests that do come in are sometimes really far away.  I've had three requests that were almost a half hour drive to the passenger.  The longest request was 43 minutes away.  This is due to there being fewer drivers using Lyft.

Lyft is a great supplement to Uber income

First off, I was offered a $50 sign-on bonus for joining Lyft.  The only requirement was that I provide 30 rides, which I have already done.  One of the worst things in this industry is downtime between rides, and having two platforms open decreases the time I have to wait for my next request.

The Numbers

In my first week, I only logged onto Lyft over the weekend.  I was logged on for 17 hours and received a net payment of $191.46, which included $22 in tips.  The week of 8/31-9/6 was my first full week on Lyft.  I was logged on for 30 hours and received $292, which inclued $33 in tips and a $28 Power Driver Bonus.  I should note that most of the hours I logged I was not actually driving.  In fact, many of the hours I was sitting at home, running the clock to try to obtain my Power Driver bonus.  I succeeded at that in week 2.  The most difficult part was accepting 90% of my requests, since you are naturally inclined to ignore requests that are too far away.

Summary

Now that I've been driving Lyft for a few weeks, I'm finding a lot to like about it, but only as a supplement to Uber.  If Lyft was more popular with riders, I would choose to only do Lyft since it has a tip function and opportunity to earn bonuses.  I'm learning to ignore far-away requests, even though that means forgoing the bonus I would earn if I accepted 90% of the requests.  Sure, a $30 bonus is nice, but not so enticing if it means I am driving more unpaid miles and time to pick up a passenger.

Sunday, September 6

My Frugal Miser - August Expenses: $3,508


August spending wasn't too bad. I kept food expenses low.  I bought a kitchen sink and some missing pieces for the cabinets, which is reflected in Home Repairs.  Mystery shopping helped keep the gas tank full, even though I used a ton of gas working as a rideshare driver.  Depreciation on my vehicles was the largest expense last month.


August Expenses:  $3,508

$1,463 Auto ($202 gas, $216 depreciation, $749 Rideshare Car depreciation, $137 service, $159 insurance)
$49 Bank Fees
$8 Clothing
$0 Computer
$144 Entertainment (movies, gambling, alcohol)
$156 Food
$10 Gifts Given
$890 Household/Housing/Home Repair
$141 Health and Dental Insurance
$0 Investment Expense
$141 Interest Expense
$0 Medical/Dental
$0 Miscellaneous
$4 Personal Care
$0 Subscriptions
$0 Taxes
$110 Uber Expenses (excluding fuel and depreciation)
$135 Utilities
$255 Vacation and Recreation

August Expenses, Excluding Vacation and Home Repairs:  $2,416

Wednesday, September 2

My Frugal Miser - August Income: $9,811


My August income was solid.  All properties are rented except the one I am selling.  The closing date for the one I am selling is this month.  I am thrilled to be taking the first step to liquidate my Birmingham properties.  This will be a long process, as I need to get the most out of those assets as possible.

Mystery shopping and hospitality work came in strong as well, but most of that income was from work I completed in July.   I spent more time driving for Uber and Lyft and less time on other work.

I also received an unexpected check from the nursing home for $310.  My grandfather passed away in 2013 so I am unsure why they are just now settling his balance.  I imagine it had something to do with a Medicare reimbursement that covered his care.

Once the house closes, I plan to invest the proceeds.  I should start seeing additional Dividend and Interest income (reported in Other Sources) as I deploy those funds into passive investments.

August Income $9,811

$1,421 Mystery Shopping and Hospitality Jobs
$806 Uber
$197 Lyft
$6,985 Rental Income
$401 Other Sources

Notes:.  
  • I don't include transactions in my retirement accounts.  This includes rental income, dividends and capital gains and losses.
  • I don't include changes in investments from capital gains/losses or dividends.  Most of my investments are in retirement accounts anyway, but this category will grow as I start selling my rental properties and I will probably change this policy.
  • I include merchandising and hospitality work in the mystery shopping category since the companies that I shop for provide this extra side work. 

Monday, August 17

Tunica is Dying a Slow Death

Sam's Town:  a false wall hides the shuttered second floor.
I've been fascinated by struggling businesses all my life.  When I was a teenager I watched as Century Plaza Mall and Eastwood Mall in Birmingham slowly ceased to exist.  Rather than just be stunned by their demise, I wanted to know what happened.  How did a thriving mall - one of which was once the largest enclosed mall in the South - completely shut down?

Lately I've been studying an entire region that seems to be headed in the same direction.  Before casinos came to town, Tunica, MS sat in the poorest county in the U.S.  The per capita income was $6,500 in 1990 and unemployment sat at 13.1%.  New casinos promised to change things.  And it did, for a while.  While the population of the area only grew slightly, a consequence of poor infrastructure, per capita income expanded to $16,153 in 1994 (it has stagnated since, and was only $15,549 in 2013).  Though there wasn't a population boom, there was improvement in local facilities as gaming tax revenues funded a new jail, courthouse, arena and expo center, expanded library and airport, and other municipal buildings.

Alas, the tides have once again turned.

Gambling

 Demolition: the only activity at the shuttered Harrah's.
Mississippi gambling revenues are at their lowest in 27 years.  In 2007, non-tribal revenues in Mississippi hit a record $2.89 billion.  In 2013, they were $2.13 billion.  Remove the healthier Gulf Coast casinos from the comparison, and you see a 33% drop in revenues from 2007 to 2013 in the Mississippi River gambling market, from $1.58 billion down to $1.07 billion.  In 2014, revenues fell 7.8% at river casinos to $988 million.

Tunica is a place you go to gamble.  That's it.  There's no movie theater.  No bars or nightlife district.  You have to go to Memphis, 40 miles away, for that.  Today, even the casinos are struggling to stay afloat.  In June 2014, Harrah's shut down, laying off 1,300 employees.  It was once the largest casino between Las Vegas and Atlantic City, and the closest to nearby Memphis.

Other casinos continue to struggle.  There isn't one strip of casinos here like there is in Vegas.  There's the still-strong powerhouse of Gold Strike, Horseshoe, Tunica Roadhouse and Bally's.  These are the closest for those driving from Memphis, and weekend business is booming.  Weekdays are much slower.  Continuing southward, the Fitz sits alone and between the other casinos.  The Tunica Queen Riverboat cruise, adjacent to the Fitz, offered dinner cruises along the Mississippi River.  It shut down in July.  The southern-most casinos are the closest to the city of Tunica (all the "Tunica" casinos are actually located in an area called Robinsonville).  Sam's Town, Resorts and Hollywood Casino are all clustered together at the end of Casino Strip Resort Boulevard, and seem to be struggling the most based on parking lot counts.  Sam's Town has closed its second floor casino, shuttered retail space, and not maintained its hotel.  Many sleeping rooms still feature CRT-style televisions, poor Internet connections, and dated furnishings.

Retail

Rue 21: it's so bad, a sign promises they won't close.
Two malls in Birmingham closed because other malls opened in newer parts of town.   This is happening now in Tunica.  The largest retail development is the Casino Outlets, which opened in 1999.  Today, only a handful of stores remain, and the center is about 80% vacant. Tanger Outlets is building a 310,000 square foot center in Southaven, 26 miles away in the Memphis area.  When it opens in November, will any retailers remain at Tunica's outlet mall?

Continue south to Downtown Tunica, and more of the same.  Besides a small Piggly Wiggly, one may shop for groceries at Dollar General, or perhaps one of the convenience stores.  Many buildings sit empty.  The Main Street area has a beautiful courtyard, but only a smattering of antique stores, discounters and a couple of banks and restaurants.  Most of the buildings are for government offices, with an emphasis on welfare services such as WIC and subsidized healthcare.  The nearest Wal-Mart, CVS or Walgreens are 20 miles away.

Other Casualties

Westgate Resorts: a concrete pad with exposed pipes.
Other businesses in Tunica are threatened.  A number of hotels, including Microtel, Quality Inn, Days Inn and Best Western, are located nearby.  These hotels serve the almost exclusive purpose of housing gamblers.  It was hard not to notice the empty parking lots at these hotels.  Outside of weekends, only a handful of cars were parked outside.  Westgate Resorts, a timeshare close to the Gold Strike, is a testimony to overly ambitious plans.  The development was literally halted in mid-construction, and only a handful of units were ever built.  Those units that were finished are in disrepair, with ailing roofs and poor reviews.  The property is ranked 18 of 19 hotels in Tunica on Trip Advisor.

With gambling establishments now operating throughout the United States, Tunica is no longer relevant.   The leaders in this region made an all-in wager that gambling alone would make Tunica thrive.  That focus, and the complete lack of alternatives, is killing this town.  It is probably too late to revive the gaming industry here.  Adding other entertainment such as a theme park or cinema is unlikely.  One possibility is manufacturing.  A few small plants dot the agricultural landscape already.   Inexpensive land along with highways already in place, coupled with cheap labor, could attract companies to this area.  To be certain, the only sure bet around Tunica is that the gaming industry will continue its slow demise.  I wager that another closure, likely in the southernmost area of the market, will happen in a matter of time.

Saturday, August 8

How We Spent Under $500 for a 7 Night Vacation

We love to travel, but our budget is limited.  Some deal with a limited budget by splurging on one nice vacation each year.  That's how Mom did when we were little.  Mom would receive credits from her court-reporting service that she would redeem for Disney tickets or lodging at a beach condo.  She had a savings account just for our annual vacation and put a little away each paycheck to cover travel, meals and entertainment.

I've found creative ways to keep our vacation costs down, but we like to travel more than once a year.   Last week we spent 7 nights away from home, and it cost less than $500.  Here's how:

Getting There

One of the biggest expenses of any vacation is travel.  With gas prices lower this year, we almost drove to Williamsburg, VA.  However, the 700+ mile drive was a deterrent.  Fortunately we have a discount carrier, Allegiant, available to us from the St. Pete/Clearwater airport.  For 2 round-trip tickets I paid $290.  I redeemed MyVegas points for assigned seating.  We picked an exit row that gave us a huge amount of legroom.  Allegiant charges for luggage, but we didn't pay anything because our CabinMax bags fit under the seat in front of us.

Our Splurge

One downside to flying Allegiant is that they don't fly every day.  We would have to arrive a day before I would check-in to the timeshare.  I made the best of the situation by booking a nice hotel outside of Washington, D.C.  I could have redeemed Hilton Honors points for a free room, but the weekend rate for the Hilton Tyson's Corner was just $89, so I opted to bank my points for another trip.  Parking was free and we used the MetroRail to visit D.C.  

Lodging and Local Transportation

Besides the great deal I got for buying a car from Hertz, another benefit I received was a free weekly rental from their fleet.  Our Toyota Camry cost us nothing but gas and airport facility charges.  Our hotel in Williamsburg was a timeshare we mystery shopped.  The hotel was a deluxe condo, with a full kitchen, living and dining room, bedroom, balcony and bathroom with both a shower and an oversized tub.  The room was completely free, and I was paid $163 for attending and recording the three hour timeshare presentation.

Entertainment

Washington, D.C. is a great value for visitors:  virtually every site has free admission.  While only there one night, we spent two full days there.  We visited two Smithsonian buildings, the National Botanical Gardens,  the grounds of the Capitol and the National Archives.  In Williamsburg, I received two tickets to Colonial Williamsburg for $10 each (this was the gift I chose for attending the timeshare presentation).  Our Sea World passes got us into Busch Gardens at no charge, including free parking.  We enjoyed Busch Gardens so much that we visited four times.  We also used our reciprocal garden benefits to visit the Norfolk Botanical Gardens.  It was one of the nicest gardens we've visited.

Meals

The last big expense is food.  Since we had a full kitchen, we opted to stock up on groceries, alcohol and treats.  We spent $75 at Walmart, which was more than we'd spend at home because we treated ourselves to cake, ice cream, beer and wine.  We ate at Chili's one night ($26 for two), Longhorn ($16 w/ coupon), fast food twice ($10) and had beer at a bar in D.C. ($30).  I earned $25 for performing one McDonald's mystery shop.

Bottom Line

While I am listing everything, we used gift cards for much of this, which reduced our cash outlay.  As a further bonus, I didn't pay full price for the gift cards.  For example, I bought a $100 gift card to Walmart using my American Express, which gave me a $30 credit.  For our visit to Chili's I received free gas and a 5% credit card benefit for purchasing the gift card.  The Longhorn gift card was free from a points redemption at MyPoints.

Flight:  $290
Car and Rail:  $83
Hotel:  $99
Food:  $157
Entertainment:  $20
Less Compensation for Recording Timeshare Presentation and $25 for McDonald's shop:  ($188)

Total for 7 nights vacation:  $649 - $188 = $461

Wednesday, August 5

Free Premium Passes to Sea World and Busch Gardens Parks

A couple years ago, shares of Carnival Cruise Lines were pounded after the deadly sinking of the Costa Concordia and a major fire on the Carnival Triumph.  While other investors sold their shares and ran in the other direction, I sniffed opportunity.

We are always looking at ways to save money on vacations and entertainment.  Who pays full price, anyway?  Recently I discovered a low-risk method to "pay" for two premium passes to all 10 Sea World/Busch Gardens parks - for two full years.

These premium passes weren't cheap:  I paid $1,085 all-in for two passes valid for 24 months.  As an investment in our entertainment, this has the potential to be a great value.  If we visit once a month (we live near Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, so this is not unrealistic), admission will cost us about $23 per ticket.  The premium passes also include parking, which saves us at least $15 each time we visit.

However, $23 per ticket to visit a premiere theme park isn't good enough for a Frugal Miser.  Before pulling the trigger on this purchase, I found an attractive investment in Sea World (NYSE:  SEAS).  Truth be told, I was first attracted to the company's stock, which then lead me to investigate the most cost-effective way to get tickets for the parks.  What made the stock appealing was the healthy dividend and the fact the company's shares have been negatively affected by what I think is a temporary problem (similar to Carnival two years ago).  At today's price, each share of SEAS yields 4.8%.  Compare that to a bank CD:  a 24 month CD pays less than 1% interest.  Assuming the dividend is safe, buying 645 shares of Sea World (an $11,000 investment) earns enough in cash dividends to pay for our passes.  At the end of two years, I still own the 645 shares, which I could sell, likely at the same price or better than the stock trades today.

As a value investor, I never pay "full price" for stock in a company.  Two years ago, Carnival stock fell following a series of misfortunes.  Just as I suspected, that company has completely rebounded.  I think Sea World is experiencing a similar situation.  A documentary (Blackfish) hurt attendance, which is down by the low single digits.  However, shares of the company have fallen 52% in the last two years.  Risks are primarily that attendance figures continue to decline, either due to internal problems or another economic recession.  The company has a lot of debt and the dividend is currently higher than earnings.  Both of these issues need to be addressed.  My thesis is that the debt is easily serviceable and the dividend can be covered by improved attendance at the parks. This Frugal Miser smells opportunity.  On Monday I purchased 650 shares of SEAS at $17.67/share.

Tuesday, August 4

Looking Back at my Free Cruises for Life Idea

In May of 2013, I posted my plan  to receive free cruises for the rest of our lives.  More than two years have passed and I thought I would evaluate whether this plan was successful.

The idea was to purchase enough shares in Carnival Cruise Lines (NYSE:  CCL) so that the dividend paid for a free cruise every time we take one.  At the time I posted the article, shares were trading in the $34 range and paid a $.25 quarterly dividend.

How have I done?  In a word:  Outstanding.  Stock in Carnival is now at $53/share, and the quarterly dividend was recently increased to $.30.  I have a paper gain of $19 per share, and have collected $2/share in dividends.  I ended up buying just 200 shares, not the 1,000 that I originally intended.  The $3,800 paper gain, along with $400 in dividends, could pay for seven 7-day cruises for two at the price I paid for the cruise we are taking in December.

Did you get that?  In exchange for investing $6,800, over two years I have received the equivalent of 7 week-long cruises.  I could cash out today, receiving 100% of my money back, plus my gains.

Monday, August 3

My Frugal Miser - July Expenses: $9,925


I spent more than I brought in last month.  We paid for the IKEA cabinets (over $2,500) and I paid off my dental implant.  I also put a $500 deposit down on a December cruise and bought Platinum 2 Year Passes to Sea World and Busch Gardens.  Those passes work out to $23/month each, which is a big gamble on my part that we will divert our future entertainment spending towards theme parks.  The passes cover all 10 parks across the country as well as free parking.  We've already visited Sea World in Orlando last week and will spend some time at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, VA this week.

I began driving for Uber last month.  I earned $1,302.  Since I bought a car just for Uber, I will be able to track depreciation and other vehicle expenses.  I don't plan to break out my spending on fuel though - too complicated.

July Expenses:  $9,925

$1,276 Auto ($79 for gas, $148 for depreciation, $687 for Uber Car depreciation, $362 for service)
$38 Bank Fees
$47 Clothing
$0 Computer
($2) Entertainment (movies, gambling, alcohol) - income this month
$185 Food
$0 Gifts Given
$3,378 Household/Housing/Home Repair
$141 Health and Dental Insurance
$0 Investment Expenses
$2,470 Medical/Dental
$20 Miscellaneous
$0 Personal Care
$0 Subscriptions
$0 Taxes
$83 Uber Expenses (excluding fuel and depreciation)
$228 Utilities
$1,920 Vacation and Recreation

July Expenses, Excluding Vacation and Home Repairs:  $4,637

Saturday, August 1

My Frugal Miser - July Income: $7,461


The house I listed in March remains unsold, but I do have an offer on it.  My agent is working to improve the offer, as it was too low for me to accept as-is.  The empty townhouse was rented in record time.  This is a new management company and they did an outstanding job finding a new tenant.  My handyman also did excellent work getting the property in rent-ready condition.  I will receive rent from this one starting in August.

The incompetent management company for two of my townhouses is holding the rent to pay to have trees trimmed.  The trees do not belong to me but are hanging onto my property.  Lastly, my tenants at the condo only paid $500 ($150 short) as one of them lost his job.  Bottom line:  I received NO rent on 4 properties, and a reduced amount on a 5th.  It was a tough month.

July was my first month driving for Uber.  I grossed $1,302.  On Monday I will go over the expenses I had.

July Income $7,461

$1,795 Mystery Shopping
$1,302 Uber
$4,346 Rental Income
$18 Other Sources

Notes:.  
  • I don't include transactions in my retirement accounts.  This includes rental income, dividends and capital gains and losses.
  • I don't include changes in investments from capital gains/losses or dividends.  Most of my investments are in retirement accounts anyway, but this category will grow as I start selling my rental properties and I will probably change this policy.
  • I include merchandising and hospitality work in the mystery shopping category since the companies that I shop for provide this extra side work. 

Wednesday, July 22

Getting Smarter Driving for Uber, but Productive Miles are Low

I continue to drive for Uber, mostly because I went all-in by purchasing another car and am now stuck with it.  It will be interesting to see whether I earn any real income doing this, or if my pay is simply a cashing-out on the depreciation for my car.  If my driving really costs what the IRS says, then I absolutely will NOT report any income from driving for Uber.

The problem with Uber is the unpaid miles between trips.  It's not that I am driving around aimlessly.  Usually I will drop off a passenger and immediately find a shady area to park the car.  The majority of the unpaid miles are incurred after I have accepted a "ping" and am driving to my passenger's pickup spot.  For example, in the late afternoons in Pinellas County there are fewer Uber drivers on the roads, which means I have more requests from further away.  I've been taking a break in the afternoons and turning the app back on between 3-5 PM.  Today, my first pickup was at Largo Mall, 5 miles from my house.  The passengers were going to their home two miles away.  I drove 7 miles, but was only paid for 2.  As I was leaving, another passenger requested a ride.  She was 4 miles away.  Her destination:  .63 miles away.  I received the $4 minimum fare, which was only $2.40 after Uber took its cut.  Basically a 5 mile drive for $2.40.  My next fare was 6 miles away, and after driving halfway in rush-hour traffic, the rider canceled the request.  Since I live in the most densely populated county in the third highest populated state in the U.S., I have to believe my situation is reflective of Uber drivers everywhere.

Now I have to decide whether I should curtail my hours to peak periods only.  For a few hours each morning, and most of the day Friday and Saturday, I receive continuous ride requests and can maximize my paid miles.  If I really am losing money with these unpaid miles, I will have to focus only on periods of high demand.

Friday, July 17

Should I tip my Uber Driver?

One of the common misconceptions about Uber is that somehow the tip is included in the fare.  This simply is not the case.  The truth of the matter is, most Uber drivers are earning below minimum wage.  Even more, tips sometimes make the difference between being paid for a trip or the driver coming out of pocket to cover his overhead for that ride.  Ask yourself this:  would it ever be appropriate to tip a taxi driver?  What about a hotel bellman, or a valet?  Do you tip your server at a restaurant?  What if that person was working just for tips, and received no other income?  In the case of Uber, sometimes that is the case.

The common thread with these roles is that tipping is customary, particularly when service meets or exceeds your expectations.  Uber DOES NOT include a tip in your fare, and there is no way to add one using the app.  The only way your Uber driver will receive a tip is if you offer him one.

It is important to understand how an Uber driver earns his pay.  In Tampa Bay, someone using Uber pays the following fare:

  • $1 Safe Rider Fee - this is for background checking your driver and commercial insurance (the Uber driver is also responsible for insuring his vehicle).  The driver gets none of this.
  • $.95 per mile (the driver receives $.76/mile after Uber's commission).
  • $.13 per minute (the driver receives $.10/minute after Uber's commission).
Uber drivers are only paid when a passenger is in the vehicle.  If I receive a request that is 4 miles away, I am not paid for my mileage or my time driving to your pick-up spot.  If I am dropping you off in a place where there is minimal demand for a ride, I also have to reposition my vehicle to somewhere with more demand.  The time I spend waiting for my next fare is completely unpaid.

If I always had another passenger waiting to be picked up after dropping one off, and that passenger was close by, the fees Uber pays would be reasonable.  That rarely occurs.

What often happens is that I will get an early morning request for the airport.  It's important to understand that I do not know where you are going until I pick you up - Uber hides that from me - so I can't cherry pick the rides I wish to provide.  I probably have driven 5 miles/10 minutes to pick you up.  After dropping you off at the airport, you might assume I am picking someone else up.  Unfortunately, flights aren't arriving at 5:00 in the morning.  Even if there is a pickup, it is a crapshoot whether that passenger is headed to my area (the beach - an unusual destination for morning arrivals) or maybe to downtown Tampa, which is in the opposite direction.

Now that I have a full week of driving to analyze, I can report that fewer than half the miles I drive are paid miles.  While I should be able to improve my productivity over time, it is unlikely I will ever do better than 60-65% of total miles being on the clock.  When I am only earning $.76 per paid mile, having 50% of my driving miles go unpaid means my income isn't covering what the IRS says my vehicle is costing me.

Bottom line:  Don't stiff your Uber driver unless they suck.  Give them a tip.  We make so little that your tip could be the only pay we receive for giving you a ride.  Also, rate your driver a "5" unless you want them to lose their job.  Even though driver ratings are on a 5 point scale, Uber considers any score below 4.6 grounds for termination.

Thursday, July 16

Uber Passengers Can be Annoying

Even though I'm still excited by how easy it is to earn money with Uber, the downsides to being an Uber driver are becoming more obvious now that the honeymoon phase has passed.  It has been a full week since I started driving for Uber, and here are some examples of annoying passenger behavior:
  • Many of my passengers are drunk.  Though the experience varies from one fare to another, the greatest challenge with drunk passengers is when they distract me.  They tend to be chatty, loud, and some of them touch me.   I don't like it when a stranger rubs my shoulders or rests their head on my side.  It is weird.  And just because I am agreeing with whatever you say, don't ask me to shake your hand while I'm driving!
  • People say things in front of me about their private lives.  They tell me about their arrest record, their drug use, and their sexual escapades.  I really am a nerd, because I crave more intelligent conversation than this.
  • I picked up an escort who wore nothing but a skimpy bikini.  She spent most of the ride arranging a transaction with her drug dealer.  Must be an expensive habit because she needed $200 worth of whatever he was bringing her.
  • A group of teens and 20-somethings decided they were going to smoke a cigarette in my backseat, after I told them not to.  I guess they figured with the windows down and the girl in front distracting me that I wouldn't notice the smell.  Guess what?  The passenger after you doesn't want to smell your cigarettes.  The entire trip they debated whether they should roll on molly, get faded on acid, or just get drunk.  At least I'm learning the slang these young folks are using these days.
  • Waiting time is time lost.  In Tampa Bay, Uber pays mileage plus time.  Time is paid at $.13 per minute, less Uber's 20% commission.  That means I make $.10/minute waiting on my passenger.  Six dollars an hour is less than minimum wage.  Many of my passengers have needed to make stops.  A couple minutes is not a problem, but having me wait 15 minutes while you get dressed means I am losing out on more lucrative work.
  • This last example is location specific: sand.  Since I am spending much of my time picking up passengers on Clearwater Beach, I am also picking up their sand.  I'm going to have to vacuum out my car almost daily.
  • Very few people tip.  The later into the night it gets, the fewer the tips.  My best tips have come from daytime passengers, and most of those have been short trips.  Few of my longer fares (say, from the beach to Tampa) have tipped.
What I am learning is that the best passengers are my daytime pickups.  People on their way to work are usually sober and respectful of my car.  My favorite rides are the ones where I am tipped, since only then do I make a reasonable income.  I don't mind driving a group of tourists half a mile if they give me a $5 tip, because I'm going to get another fare as soon as I drop them off.  Sometimes the passengers with the shortest trips feel bad though and will tip me for the trouble.

Wednesday, July 15

All Those Gas Station Mystery Shops Make Sense Now

Last week I had nearly 80 gallons of gas stored in the shed.  It feels so good to use it up, and the free gas has kept my driving costs down.  This is one way I will make driving for Uber just a little more profitable.  Unfortunately, I just ran out of reserves and will have to start paying for gas once again.  At the end of this month I have enough shops lined up to fill up my tank twice, so I do have that to look forward to.

Mystery shopping has taken a backseat to Uber, but that's fine by me.  I needed a break.  Besides, the biggest advantage I see with Uber versus mystery shopping is that the job comes to me.  With mystery shopping, I have to search several job boards looking for work.  Then I have to prepare for the job, whether that be reviewing guidelines, printing paperwork, or creating cheat sheets on my phone.  Plus there is all the reporting done afterwards, including uploading photos and writing narratives.  With Uber, if I want to work, all I do is turn on the app and wait for a ping.  When I am done for the day, there's nothing left to do but review my pay statement and update my mileage log.

Our cabinets are being delivered today, and we are itching to get the kitchen back together.  We still won't have countertops.  That is a custom job that I am hiring out and the installers won't take the measurements until I have the cabinets in place.

Next Friday I have an overnight security job through one of my hospitality companies.  Then on Sunday we begin a 3 day meeting in Orlando.  On our return, I have those gas station shops to complete, then we fly to Virginia the following Friday to shop a timeshare.  We'll be gone a week, so it should feel like a real vacation (the shop won't take but 2-3 hours of my time).

I'm in a happy spot right now.  I'm glad I found Uber, even if the pay is less than I thought it would be.

Tuesday, July 14

More Uber Lessons Learned from my first Weekend as a Driver - Part 2

On Saturday, my third day as an Uber driver, I got smarter, but only a little.  My unpaid miles as a percentage of total miles driven was better than Friday, but I still was only paid for 50% of the miles driven.  This has to improve.  My payout was only $117, and I was on the road for 8.5 hours.  I earned $23 in tips from 4 of my 17 fares (two of the 17 were cancellations, but I received a small amount on those since they were canceled after I reached the pickup spot).

I didn't begin until 3:30 PM.  We spent the morning at IKEA ordering kitchen cabinets, so I turned on the app around 3 PM.  I really like beginning my day with whatever fare pings me from my house.  Three of my first four fares were very productive, and little time or miles was wasted (one of the four was a rider cancel, but I still received a small fare since he didn't cancel until I got to his pickup spot).

After the fourth fare, which had taken me from downtown St. Pete to South Tampa, I turned off the app and returned to the peninsula.  It was raining, and I still don't want to waste time trying to learn the streets of Tampa.  Once I made it back to Pinellas County (by now it was 6 PM), it was non-stop activity until just before midnight.  The entire night was a blur, and most of my trips were short.  I spent almost the entire night on Clearwater Beach, and the typical trip was picking up guests from a hotel and dropping them off at a restaurant.  Three of my fares were less than a mile.  It probably would have been faster for the passengers to walk since traffic on the beach was so heavy.  There was a concert at the Capitol Theater, and I had both a dropoff before the concert and a pickup afterwards.  The pickup was a fare to South Tampa.  I like those long rides, but the girls were rowdy and flirtatious.  One of the girls kept rubbing my shoulders, which was weird since I was at least 15 years older than them and was trying to focus on the road.  I still don't know the South Tampa area, so I turned off the app as soon as I dropped them off.  I turned it back on when I was getting off the Interstate, and of course I got pinged.  A drunk guy at a hotel wanted to take his first Uber ride.  He was from Dallas and was looking for a club to continue partying.  He was alone, celebrating his 40th birthday.  I sort of felt bad for the guy, but he was really nice so it made it easier.  He was flirting with me too, but it was easy to ignore him by changing the subject whenever he suggested I clock out and hang out with him.  I'm quickly learning that drunk people do some weird things.

One of the annoying things with Uber is that the passengers aren't always ready to be picked up, and they don't always enter the correct pickup address.  My last fare, which was a paid cancellation, entered her destination as the pickup spot.  Fortunately, I was two blocks away, and it was in the direction I was headed to go home.  When I called the girl, she was at a bar on the beach, half an hour away.  Her speech was slurred and I feel bad for whoever ended up picking her up.  I told her she screwed up (politely, of course) and then canceled her ride.  The fact that passengers aren't always ready is also annoying.  One lady made me wait 15 minutes.  She gave me permission to start the clock though so I was getting paid while I waited for her.

I feel like I know the Uber app well now.  I am quickly learning the streets of Clearwater Beach, including the short cuts and popular restaurants locations.  It's nice when the passenger's destination is a familiar place and I don't need to use GPS.  Still, I'm not sure how to cut down on unpaid miles unless I keep the app running when I make dropoffs in Tampa instead of rushing back to the beach.

Monday, July 13

More Uber Lessons Learned from my first Weekend as a Driver - Part 1

I'm worn out.  It's odd that sitting in an air conditioned car would be draining, but I'm still in my Uber honeymoon phase and the app is making me loose sleep.  It's weird, but the "ping" I receive when someone requests a ride is like a drug - I get an instant endorphin rush every time.  Then when I am home, I am analyzing my shift, reading driver forums and blogs, and trying to figure out how I can be more effective.

On Friday, my second day as an Uber driver, I made some mistakes.  I started my day mid-afternoon by turning on the Driver App while I was at home.  I like it when my first ride is initiated while I'm at the house since I can relax and not waste gas riding around.   The first ride of the day started about two miles from my house, and was a drop-off at a condo on the beach.  It was less than $10, and I drove 6 miles in 15 minutes.  The next two rides were better:  on my second ride of the day, I picked someone up from a beach hotel about a mile from the first dropoff.  The guy was a local who'd hung out with a friend all night.  He was a recovering addict and I had to take him to his counselor.  He told me he would be arrested if he did not report by 11 AM - no pressure!  When we arrived, he asked me to wait and promised he would be back in 5 minutes.  As he left his backpack and phone in the car, I had no choice but sit and wait.  He was a decent guy though, so I was only bothered by the shady characters hanging out in the parking lot.   No one approached me, but three people were in a heated argument behind my car and I was scared it was going to get physical.  When my passenger returned, he had me drive him home, which was on the peninsula but close to the bridge to the beach.  That ride lasted just short of an hour, and I grossed $24.

I decided to stop by Publix for some juice and a snack.  As I returned to my car, I got another ping, less than a mile away.  The passenger was heading to the Hyatt Regency Clearwater Beach.  This was my first trip where I didn't bother using GPS.  It was so much easier just taking someone to a place I was very familiar with.  Even better, he tipped me $5 for the 4 mile trip.  My first tip, and on an $8 ride.  Sweet!

My fourth passenger was on the back side of the Hyatt, and I was pinged as soon as I pulled away from dropping off my last ride.  There was some initial confusion, as when I called the passenger, it was her friend, who had no idea her friend was using her Uber app.  She called her friend up though and three-wayed me.  See, one of the problems with the Uber app is the passenger doesn't always enter their correct pick-up spot.  Even when they do, you usually need to make contact with the passenger to identify them.  Based on the app, I had no idea where my passenger was, as it looked like they pinged me from inside the hotel, which is huge.  Fortunately, it took no time at all to find her.  She was headed home from a job interview.  Home was on the other side of Pinellas County, not far from where I live.  I only grossed $14, and the ride was 27 minutes and 9 miles long.  This is a good time to explain how low the pay is with Uber.  From the $14, Uber only paid me $10.54.  Take the standard mileage deduction of $.57/mile from the IRS ($5.13), and for my time I received $5.41.  That works out to $11.71/hour.  The problem is, my time is only paid when I have a passenger.  In other words, the most I can earn is about $12 an hour, assuming I am driving someone 100% of the time I am on the clock.  To make this work, I will have to come up with ways to keep my vehicle expenses below what the IRS says they should be.

After that trip I decided to return home.  It was getting hot outside, plus I had one mystery shop I needed to get done.  I took care of that shop (free pizza, so there's my lunch) and relaxed at the house for a while.  I turned on the app around 3 PM and almost immediately was pinged.  It was a short distance from home, but the drop-off was at Mellow Mushroom on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard.  It was a quick $7 (after Uber took their money), but then the passenger tipped me another $7.  Sweet!

My next move was a mistake.  The Uber heat map was coloring the area around the Tampa airport.  I figured I would head that way just to see what happened.  My mistake was driving so far to chase after fares.  I drove nearly an hour in traffic to get to the airport area.  The first fare was in a business park with a convoluted address, so I wasted a bunch of time trying to find the passenger, who wasn't answering her phone.  Then I got stuck in the Tampa area during rush hour, and added three more fares, including an airport dropoff as well as a pickup.  The pickup once again was a pain in the rear, because I had to circle around the Interstate to return to the airport, and the passenger didn't answer right away so I had to circle the airport twice while I waited for his call.  The guy was an FBI agent, and I dropped him off at the FBI building near the airport.  It was kind of cool because I didn't know that building existed, and it was a heavily secured area.  I pretended I was on a covert mission for my country.  Patriotic!

My last Tampa fare was my first and only "surge" fare of the day.  I picked up a girl in South Tampa and took her home to Ybor City.  I used the Selmon Expressway, where there was zero traffic.  The drive was easy, and it was a 1.6 "surge", meaning I was paid 1.6 times the normal rate.  Of course, Uber miscalculated the toll I paid by about $.50, but I didn't bother contacting them because I wasn't sure how that worked.  Excluding toll reimbursement, I was paid $14 for a 15 minute ride that was 8.69 miles long.

I decided to get the hell out of Tampa.  Driving in an area I am not really familiar with, in Friday evening rush hour, just isn't much fun.  As I neared my exit off I-275, I was pinged from a hotel I was already passing.  Four guys in town for training at Raymond James' HQ were going to Tropicana Field for the baseball game.  Despite some traffic on 275, it was an easy trip.

I continued working Friday until just before 10 PM.  My net payout for the day was a measly $125.  I had driven 252 miles, but only 107 paid miles.  My lesson for the day:  no more chasing after fares.  Those unpaid miles killed my profit for the entire day.


Saturday, July 11

My First Night Driving for Uber

On Thursday night I started my Uber Driver App for the first time.  It was just a bit scary at first:  Where do I go?  How easy is the app?  What if the passengers aren't nice people?

I left the house around 7 PM.  Since the Clearwater airport is only four miles away, I headed there first after checking their website for arriving flights.  The first flight landed, and nothing.  I waited ten minutes and got bored, so I decided to drive around.  I repositioned to the main strip connecting Tampa and Clearwater, and less than a mile on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard I got my first ping.  The destination was a Christian High School a couple miles away.  I accepted the ping and made it to the school, but then I had no idea what to do.  I couldn't figure out how to call the passenger, and the school was part of a much larger complex so I wasn't even sure where to pick up my passenger.  If that weren't enough, the "passenger" on my app wasn't even the person listed on the screen.  Mom paid me to take her teenage son home.  Fortunately, Mom called me after she saw my car (on the online app) driving around in circles, and after telling her what car I was in her son magically appeared.  It turned out to be a pleasant first experience.  The son took the passenger seat and played on his phone while I drove.  I nervously changed the radio to a Christian station, thinking I was being clever.  He didn't comment so I turned the radio down.  Five miles and 11 minutes later, I dropped him off in his driveway.

That first ride was a good one, because it took me west towards the beach.  I headed back to Gulf-to-Bay and decided I would station myself on Gulf Boulevard.  But before I crossed the bridge, I got another ping.  This one came from Mandalay Avenue, a beach-side strip I knew very well.  Of course, easy wasn't in the prescription, not on my first night!  I drove to the address, which was actually a two-story retail center with no street parking.  I fumbled around with the app, once again trying to call my passenger.  Second mistake: my Republic Wireless phone was set to use Google Voice, but Uber had my non-Google Voice phone number in their records.  When I tried to call my passenger, the phone called me.   Frightened I wouldn't locate my passenger, I logged out of Google Voice and texted the passenger.  She was in the rear parking lot, which was actually on a different street.  I had to convince the lot attendant (parking isn't free on the beach!) that I was just picking someone up, but soon enough I had my second passenger, who took a seat in the back of the car.  That ride was relatively painless, although I took the wrong exit on the roundabout which probably added a few minutes to the time it took to take the passenger to her destination.  $13, less fees, added to the bank.

Unfortunately, my second ride of the night took me to a mostly residential area, and I knew I wouldn't get any fares anytime soon.  I headed back to the beach.  Good idea.  As soon as I hit Mandalay Avenue, I got another ping:  literally from across the street.  I made a quick U-turn and picked up my passengers.  This time, the passengers were awesome friendly.  They were a little younger than me, from Texas, and wanted to chat.  There's was a two-part ride:  we drove to another hotel to pick up their friends, then everyone went to a bar near the first hotel.  The fact that I had two stops was inconsequential to Uber, as I just left the meter running until we reached our final destination.  Easy.

My luck continued, as I got another ping almost immediately.  This one was a beachfront restaurant maybe a mile from the last stop.  It was a group of ladies in town for a social worker's convention.  The passengers didn't enter their destination, and only told me the name of the hotel, so I had to look it up and enter it into my GPS.  What was great about this ride was their destination:  14 miles away.  My four passengers were all from different places, so they were a jovial group and they included me in most of their conversation.  The drive took a bit more than half an hour, and my gross fare was $20.

It was close to 10 PM by now, and even though my last fare was at a hotel by the Clearwater Airport, there wasn't anything going on in the area.  Then I noticed something interesting on the Uber map:  an orange shaded area.  Uber colors their maps to let drivers know where the demand is.  I figured I would head in that direction, but it was more than 10 miles away.  As I drove, an alert popped up saying there was "surge" pricing with fares at 1.5 times normal rates.  Alas, it wasn't meant to be.  Near the Countryside mall the surge, as well as the orange color, faded away.  I decided to circle the mall, thinking maybe a some kids leaving the theater would need a ride.  Instead, I did get a ping, but it was from an employee at one of the mall's bars, who needed a ride home.  I found the passenger easily, and he hopped in the backseat.  He had already entered his destination, so I clicked "navigate" and took him home.  I felt like an Uber veteran, as everything went just as it should.  It was only two miles, but I was ecstatic that I had my first completely flawless ride.

By now it was getting late, and my partner texted to check in.  I was also a little concerned with my phone's battery.  I had the phone plugged into the USB port all night, but I kept getting popups suggesting I use the energy-saver features.  Figuring as long as it was plugged in I was fine, I decided I would take the long way home.  I got on Gulf-to-Bay one last time, heading towards the beach.  The idea was to take the beach south to the next bridge, which would take me straight home.  Before I made it to the beach, I got another ping.  This one was in downtown Clearwater, at the bus terminal.  Someone requested the fare for someone else, so the passenger in the Uber app texted me a phone number to call when I arrived.  I did, and a guy hanging out at the bus terminal answered the phone.  He had been drinking, and we were going to a less desirable part of town, so my adrenaline was up.  Fortunately, the guy was really laid back, and even though he had been drinking, he was nice to me.  Unfortunately, the damn phone died on my way to his apartment.  WTF!  I had no idea what to do.  I remembered the address he gave, so I whipped out my Garmin and entered it into the GPS.  Thank goodness I had that as a backup.  I reached his home, and of course he asked me how much the fare was.  I had to explain that my phone died, but he was cool with that.  I sent an email to Uber as soon as I got home, and they adjusted the fare accordingly.

My first night was quite the adventure.  I'm still learning how to use the Uber app.  When my night began, the app would tell me how much the fare was after each passenger was dropped off.  Then it stopped doing that, and I have no idea why.  I also couldn't figure out how to change screens on the app a few times, which was a little embarrassing.  But I know it will get easier.  I will learn exactly how the app works, which is the biggest source of anxiety right now.  I will also become more familiar with the area, which will help when passengers (many of them from out of town) don't enter their destinations when they request a ride.

Summary

  • On the clock four hours.
  • Accepted all 6 fares I was offered.
  • Gross income:  $61.21; Net income:  $44.17.
  • Moving forward I plan to track paid miles versus total miles driven.  My first day included some preparation driving (test driving the car, taking it home from the dealership, etc.).  Since I will only use the car for Uber, it should be easy to track how much downtime I have both in time and miles.



Friday, July 10

Make More Money - I Drive for Uber

I'm sure this will come as a big surprise, since I haven't mentioned anything about it before.  A couple weeks ago I was looking at an empty work calendar and wondering what I would do with all the free time.  Sure, my kitchen remodel needed to be done, but I dread spending all that money when none is coming in.  Summer is a slow season for hospitality jobs, and mystery shopping is burning me out.  Then I remembered talking with Andy from www.tightfistedmiser.com about how he's dipping his toes into the Uber pool.  I thought, why not give it a try?  I live in a tropical paradise, full of people on vacation.

Signing up was super easy and only took a few minutes.  I had to pass a background check and motor vehicle check, which took two days.  I uploaded copies of my license, vehicle registration and insurance card, as well as a photo of myself.  I was surprised that my Chevrolet Aveo, a really small car, was accepted, but the folks at Uber approved me right away.

Once I was approved, I started reading www.uberpeople.net, the Uber Drivers Forum.  I was looking for tips and tricks on how to be successful.  One of the first things I realized was that the Aveo wasn't going to get me good ratings, and ratings are everything.  After someone takes a ride with Uber, both the driver and the passenger are required to rate the experience on a 5-star scale.  Anything less than a "5" is a failing score for the driver, and if your rating drops below 4.7 you are subject to being kicked out.  That's tough, because some people will rate you a "4" thinking that's a good score.  If your vehicle isn't comfortable, riders will mark off for it.

I spent a few days debating whether I should buy another car, one dedicated to Uber driving.  Truth is, I never liked the Aveo.  The only reason I bought it was because my Chevrolet S-10 was about to become ineligible for mystery shops, and I needed a replacement (in 2013, I drove that truck across the country on a mystery shopping marathon).  Some online research lead me back to Hertz Car Sales, where I ultimately bought a used 2015 Huyndai Sonata.  For now I am keeping the Aveo for personal driving and mystery shopping.  The trade-in was not valued high enough to interest me.  I financed the Sonata for 48 months at 1.99% interest.  As the interest is fully tax-deductible, it wasn't hard to justify tying up the bank's money instead of mine.

The most important thing I learned from the Drivers Forum is that I'm not going to get rich driving for Uber.  In Tampa Bay, passengers pay a base fare of $1 plus $.95 per mile and $.13 per minute.  The problem is, that's not what drivers are paid.  I don't receive the base fare - it goes towards the "Safe Riders Fee" which is used to do background checks.  Uber then takes a 20% commission off the rest of the fare.  As an example, my lowest fare on my first night was $6.48.  From that, Uber deducted $1 plus $1.10 of what remained.  I receive $4.38.  That ride took 7 minutes and was 3.7 miles.  I am only paid when I have a passenger, so downtime and dead miles are unpaid.

Thursday, July 9

Making Money and Getting Free Stuff by Opening Accounts (an Update)

Back in February I decided to play the bonus game by opening up new bank accounts and credit cards just to obtain the rewards offered to new members.  I've been fairly active with this goal:


  • Last week I opened the Chase Marriott Rewards Premier Card.  Just for opening the account I will receive a free night in a Marriott-branded hotel.  After I spend $2,000 in 3 months, I will receive 70,000 Marriott rewards points (up to 9 free nights).
  • In June I opened a Chase IHG rewards card.  After spending $1,000 on the card I received 70,000 IHG points (valued at up to 14 free nights).
  • Earlier this year I opened a Chase Ink Business Rewards account.  The reward here was huge:  50,000 rewards points (worth $500 cash or $625 in travel) after meeting the spending threshold.  I used my SSN, so actually owning a small business is not necessary.
  • I opened an account with TD Bank and received a Fitbit Flex.  Normally that wouldn't be quite enough to get me to open an account, but it also enabled me to sign up for TD Bank mystery shops.
  • In January I was paid $125 to open a business savings account at Bank of America.  Last week I earned $65 for opening a checking account there.  These were both mystery shops and I don't plan to keep the accounts.
I'm still looking for opportunities to do this.  Normally Chase has an offer to open a checking account - I've seen it as high as $200 cash.  The offer isn't valid right now so I'm sitting on the sidelines ready to pounce when it is available again.

Sunday, July 5

Update on the Kitchen Remodel

This new kitchen is tough work!  Other than some mystery shopping, this past week I have focused on getting the kitchen done.  I added a pantry, which was more work than I ever imagined.  In so doing I realized I am NOT a carpenter.  Fortunately I am nearly finished with it.  Inside, I still have some drywall to hang and then the shelving will be the final touch.  I had to re-route an electrical outlet that was inside, which turned out to be harder than I expected.  Pretty much every task has been harder than I thought it would be.

One task we did complete was installing new insulation.  My partner did most of the ceiling work, and it looks pretty crappy, but it won't be visible after the new ceiling is installed.

Before we finish drywall I will probably lay the floor.  I am using vinyl tiles but will grout the edges to make it look better and more like ceramic tile.  The reason I have put off drywall is because we ran out of sheetrock.  I can't fit it in the Aveo and will need to rent a truck or van, but might combine that with purchasing the cabinets so I can get two jobs out of the truck rental instead of just one.

In all I am happy with the progress we are making, but it has been very slow.  Fortunately, we still have a working refrigerator, stove, toaster oven, coffee maker and sink.  There's no counter space, and the sink is just a single mop sink that drains into a bucket, but we are making it work.




Friday, July 3

My Frugal Miser - June Expenses: $2,241


We traveled extensively last month, so there wasn't time to spend money.  We drove to Nashville for a meeting job, so auto expenses are higher than normal.  Also, even though I don't report my rental property expenses on a monthly basis, I should confess that they were quite high in June.  I rehabbed one of my properties, which cost nearly $5,000 last month.

In June I purchased many gift cards for future use, and I categorized that spending as "food".  American Express offered me a $30 credit each time I spent $100 at Wal-Mart, so I bought $500 in Wal-Mart gift cards.  Steak N Shake had a gift card promotion for a $5 certificate for every $20 in gift cards you bought.  I used my Discover card, which was offering 5% cash back on restaurants this quarter, to stock up on those.  Amazon had a special on a few different retailers where you could buy a $50 gift card for $40. This inflated my actual food spending, which was still high at more than $300.

I paid my periodontist $530 towards a dental implant.  This category will continue to be high as the implant costs more than $3,000.

I report my gambling winnings on the same line as my losses.  During our trip to Las Vegas I won more than $800, so there is income where there would normally be an expense.

June Expenses:  $2,241

$630 Auto ($4 for gas, $626 for depreciation)
$42 Bank Fees
$40 Clothing
$0 Computer
($884) Entertainment (movies, gambling, alcohol) - income this month
$1288 Food (inflated, as more than $900 was used to buy gift cards that I will redeem in the future)
$0 Gifts Given
$15 Household/Housing/Home Repair
$141 Health and Dental Insurance
$0 Investment Expenses
$530 Medical/Dental
$0 Miscellaneous
$0 Personal Care
$0 Subscriptions
$0 Taxes
$140 Utilities
$298 Vacation and Recreation

June Expenses, Excluding Vacation and Home Repairs:  $1,928

Wednesday, July 1

My Frugal Miser - June Income: $11,505


The house I listed in March is still for sale.  I fired my agent and hired another one.  My new real estate agent is earning his commission.  He did several things to make the house more appealing and I also agreed to lower the asking price.  I will likely use the proceeds to invest in income-generating investments and to pay down debt.  One of the townhouses remains empty.  My handyman finished his work recently, which included a number of repairs and new paint throughout the house.  I laid new flooring upstairs to replace the carpet.  I mailed keys to Birmingham and signed a management agreement with a property manager.  I'm hopeful I can get it rented before school starts as the school district has some appeal in that area.

With two vacant properties, my rental income isn't where I want it to be.  Still, I did okay in June.  We worked two major meetings and I did quite a bit of mystery shopping.  I also benefited from a one-time event:  my maternal grandfather's estate was finalized, and I received a check for just under $4,000.

June Income $11,505

$1,848 Mystery Shopping
$5,467 Rental Income
$4,190 Other Sources

Notes:.  
  • I don't include transactions in my retirement accounts.  This includes rental income, dividends and capital gains and losses.
  • I don't include changes in investments from capital gains/losses or dividends.  Most of my investments are in retirement accounts anyway, but this category will grow as I start selling my rental properties and I will probably change this policy.
  • I include merchandising and hospitality work in the mystery shopping category since the companies that I shop for provide this extra side work. 

Wednesday, June 24

A Fast Food Restaurant That's Cheaper Than McDonald's, But Much Tastier

Not long ago I discovered a restaurant with prices similar to what it would cost me to assemble the ingredients at home.  Growing up in Alabama, we didn't have Steak 'N Shake - they only recently began opening stores in the Birmingham area, and with just over 500 locations they are a fraction of the size of McDonald's.  I knew very little about the company until its parent, Biglari Holdings, showed up on my radar as a potential stock investment.  The company is now my top holding in my investment account, so fair warning:  I own stock in the company I am writing about.

If you were comparing nothing more than price, the cost of a Steakburger with Cheese, Fries and a Soda is roughly the same as a McDonald's Quarter Pounder with Cheese combo, possibly less.  But have you tasted both?  The CEO of McDonald's would be lying if he said his company's food tasted better.  Steak N Shake offers a comprehensive $4 menu (sandwich and fries, no drink) with some bold tasting choices.  For example, the Nacho Cheese Steakburger has two patties, nacho cheese sauce, strips of tortilla chips and jalapenos.  The Garlic Double Steakburger features a toasted bun with garlic butter brushed on and garlic salt atop the bun, along with two patties and American cheese.  Just don't eat it before a job interview.

Regular menu prices are comparable.  Food is tremendously tastier.  But it gets better.  First, Steak N Shake sends out endless coupons.  Some of those $4 combos become $3.49, and other premium sandwiches are discounted.  Certain hours of the day (Happier Hour), milkshakes are half price.  But that's not the most interesting way to save money.

The real savings are in purchasing gift cards and using the mobile app to pay.  Paying for your food using the mobile app gives you $5 for every $50 you spend, effectively a 10% discount on top of any other discounts you receive.  For quite some time, the company has offered incentives for buying gift cards.  Right now, for every $20 gift card you buy, you receive a $5 certificate.  It's just crazy.  I use the $5 certificate to buy two of the $4 combos, so I pay just $3 for two meals (and of course, I pay with a gift card).  Essentially, you are getting $25 worth of food for $20, a 20% discount.  That $4 combo is effectively $3.20 now.  It's insanely cheap!

I know this food isn't healthy, so moderation is key.  But for prices this low, it makes more sense for me to hit the drive-thru at Steak N Shake than to prepare the same meal at home.