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Sunday, January 31

A Frugal Miser's Guide to Panama City, Panama

Panama Skyline from the boardwalk near Casco Viejo
This week my partner and I have explored Panama.  It has turned out to be a great place to visit.  In comparison to Ecuador, the country is more modern, English is widely spoken, and American-style amenities are readily available.  But while doing my research I was surprised that some information that would have been helpful was missing.

Metro de Panamá

Panama's new rapid transit system is a single-line subway that runs from the Albrook Mall to San Isidro.  At each station there is an electronic kiosk where you must pay $2 to purchase a permanent fare card (called Sistema Integrado de Transporte Publico Urbano).  You also have to load funds at this kiosk.  Each fare on the Panama Metro is 35 cents ($.35) as of January, 2016.  My advice, if you plan to use public transportation, is to buy your card using a $5 bill and select the option to have the $3 balance loaded to your card.  To pay, you hold your card over a QR reader at the turnstile, which turns green to let you know you swiped the card properly.  You do the same thing when you exit the rail, so keep your card handy (it only charges on the way in though).  Our hotel, the Holiday Inn Express in the financial district, was about a five minute walk to the Iglesia Del Carmen stop on Via Espana.

Using Uber

Originally we were going to rent a car, but the Payless counter was closed when we arrived at 3 AM (the website said it was open 24 hours).  I have heard that taxi drivers will overcharge tourists, so using Uber was an easy choice.  The same app I use in the United States works in Panama.  To get from the Tocumen Airport, I paid a $25 base fare and $2.65 in tolls on the Corredor Sur.  That's a little high, but slightly less than a taxi.  Once at our hotel, Uber was super cheap.  Minimum fares in the city are just $2.  As of January, 2016, there is an $.80 base charge, $.10 per minute and $.20 per kilometer ($.32 per mile).  This is ridiculously cheap.  The added convenience of pre-entering your destination reduces any communication problems (our driver spoke some English).  Plus you don't have to worry about being charged gringo prices.

Stocking Up on Essentials

Close to our hotel, on Via Espana, we found the Rey Supermarket.  It is an American-style supermarket, with a bakery, coffee shop and pre-packaged deli sandwiches.  Grocery prices were clearly marked, and there was no tax on food.  We did pay a 10% tax on beer.  Balboa Beer, one of the national brands, was $.64 per 12 ounce can.


Just about every American-brand hotel has a presence in Panama.  You can find lower prices if you shop other hotels and hostels, but we like the comfort of an American brand when we spend the entire day in unfamiliar settings.  Our hotel was somewhat less expensive than it would have been in the United States.  The Holiday Inn Express was a newer property with modern amenities.  The weekday rate was $78 and weekends were $73.  I paid in advance for a lower rate.  I was particularly impressed with the breakfast buffet, which was included in the rate.  There were several hot items, including scrambled eggs with pork, two types of potstickers (weird for breakfast, but tasty!), yucca patties, pancakes, and a couple of marinated meats.  There were also several fruits, cereals and juices.  This was far superior to the breakfast you would get in the U.S.

Eating Out

$8 lunch from a vendor at the Fish Market
There were a variety of options.  I saw several American brands, including Subway, KFC, McDonald's, Domino's, Taco Bell and Wendy's.  Local chains included Pio Pio (just like KFC) and Niko's Cafe. If your English is limited, Niko's is easy because you select what you want from a cafeteria line.  Overall I didn't think food prices were drastically different in Panama than they were back home.  I was disappointed by how bland some of the food was.  Back home I am a heavy hot sauce user, but none of the restaurants offered it, not even KFC.

Frugal Things to Do in Panama

Tours appeared to be very expensive relative to the value offered.  Using my smartphone, I could easily look up places of interest wherever we went.  In Casco Viejo, we could have simply joined one of the guided tours we passed, as each guide spoke to throngs of people at once.  Here are a few of the things we did:
View from the Metropolitan National Park
  • We bought a combo ticket for the Frank Gehry Biomuseum and Panal Canal tour ($25 each).  Tickets just to the Biomuseum were $22, so this was a great value.  It isn't advertised, so you have to ask for the combo ticket at either location.  The Uber between the two was $5, and our driver had a newer car with leather seats.  He told us, in English, so much about Panama's history.  We Ubered from the canal to the Albrook mall (less than $4) and took the subway back to the city ($.35) after a quick, late lunch in the mall food court.  
  • We spent several hours walking Casco Viejo.  It is a world heritage site and many of the buildings have been restored to their original splendor.  We took the subway to the Cinco de Mayo stop; it was a short walk from there to Casco Viejo.  We toured a religious artifact museum (free) and took photos of the cool buildings and the boardwalk.  Then we had a late lunch at the fish market.
  • We visited the Metropolitan National Park, which is within walking distance of Albrook Mall.  We hiked two of the trails and caught an amazing view of the Panama skyline.  
  • I peaked my head into the Continental Casino on Avenida Central Espana.  The casino was small, with just a handful of table games, electronic roulette and slots (no video poker).  You have to obtain a card to play any games, and there is a 5.5% tax on anything you cash out from the card.  Fortunately I won a few dollars.  The casino was mostly empty.
Panama is a great place to visit if you are looking for easy international travel.  We flew Spirit from Tampa, connecting in Fort Lauderdale.  The round-trip tickets were $182 each.  I highly recommend using Uber to get into the city (assuming you arrive in the middle of the night like we did, as the buses weren't running then) and the subway whenever possible.  Many people speak English and a lot of the signs are bilingual.  The only part that disappointed me was the bland food.

Sunday, January 17

Busy week ahead

This past week has been an adjustment.  I had planned to drive for Uber, but with the surprise rate cuts my plans changed.  I gave three Uber rides and one Lyft ride this week; my earnings declined by 95%.  I tried to make the most of it though.  I hooked up the new kitchen sink including the faucet and drain lines, then I installed the new dishwasher.  This was my first dishwasher install, and it wasn't difficult at all.  Finally, I moved the mud sink to the utility room and hooked it up as well.  I figure I saved $400-$500 in labor by doing this all myself.  We went to the movies several times.  This week we saw The Forest, 13 Hours and The Hateful Eight.

In a couple hours we will drive to Orlando for the first of five days working a hospitality event.  We are helping a pharmaceutical company with a hiring event.  The work is different than other jobs we've done and I look forward to it.  We will drive home tonight and beginning Monday night we will stay in a hotel in Orlando.

As if that wasn't exciting enough, next Monday we leave for Panama.  I feel unprepared and haven't put together an itinerary yet.  We'd like to visit the Canal, the Summit Zoo and Botanical Gardens, and Panama Viejo.  It should be a blast.

Upon our return, we have six days off before the start of another program.  My partner is only working one day but I'll be working four days.  Combined, I'll be making $1,300 from both programs, which definitely eases the pain from not driving for Uber.

Speaking of Uber, there have been some driver protests in Tampa, some of which the media has picked up on.  I doubt that will make any difference in rates, but it is nice to see people fighting back against these low rates.  Tampa now has the lowest rates in the United States.  Accounting for Uber's commission and adjusting for all miles driven, not just "loaded" miles, drivers in Tampa are only paid $.24-$.26/mile.  That doesn't come close to covering the expenses of operating a car, much less provide an income for the driver.

Monday, January 11

My Frugal Miser - December Expenses: $5,016

December was a mixed bag.  On the one hand, I hit the Lucky Ladies on our cruise.  The $1,000 means I get to report income in the Entertainment category for a change.  I also cashed in Carnival gift cards, which is why the Vacation category is positive.

Interest expense increased.  I miscalculated when a 0% promotional rate would expire on the Amex.  Unfortunately I'll have more to pay in January because my cash is tied up temporarily.  I also had a large dentist bill.  I decided to replace a chipped crown and paid for the crown where I got my dental implant.  I had been putting that off for a couple months.

Everything else was fairly normal.  I bought Mom a washing machine for Christmas and put a ton of miles on the Aveo during the holidays.

December Expenses:  $5,016

$1,781 Auto ($75 gas, $356 repairs/maintenance, $638 depreciation, $547 Rideshare Car depreciation, $165 fines)
$0 Bank Fees
$0 Clothing
$85 Computer
($548) Entertainment (movies, gambling, alcohol) income this month
$413 Food
$406 Gifts Given
$1,408 Household/Housing/Home Repair
$141 Health and Dental Insurance
$0 Investment Expense
$237 Interest Expense
$1,438 Medical/Dental
$2 Miscellaneous
$62 Personal Care
$0 Subscriptions
$0 Taxes
$122 Uber/Lyft Expenses (excluding fuel and depreciation)
$176 Utilities
($708) Vacation and Recreation income this month

December Expenses, Excluding Vacation and Home Repairs:  $4,830

Starting in January I will omit the "excluding Vacation and Home Repairs" line item and just look at the total I spend each month.  The only expenses I will continue to exclude are business expenses, which are normally related to my rental property portfolio.

Saturday, January 9

What Uber Rate Cuts Mean for this Uber Driver

I woke up to a surprise this morning.  More accurately, after working a 21 hour shift yesterday, I groggily noticed a surprise as I was laying down at 4:10 this morning:  Uber announced a new round of rate cuts.  Thank you, Uber.  I am now confident that yesterday was the last 21 hour day I will ever work.

In Tampa Bay, rates have been cut approximately 30%:

Uber's New Rate Schedule for Tampa

Base Fee:  $1
Per Mile:  $.65
Per Minute:  $.11

Here's what veteran drivers receive after Uber takes its 20% commission:

Base Fee:  $.80
Per Mile: $.52
Per Minute:  $.088 ($5.28/hour)

Here's what new drivers receive after Uber takes its 25% commission:

Base Fee:  $.75
Per Mile:  $.4875
Per Minute $.0825 ($4.95/hour)

A couple notes about these fees.  First, drivers are only paid when a passenger is in the car.  Time and mileage between rides or en route to a ride request is NOT paid.  Second, these are the GROSS Rates drivers receive, before vehicle expenses.  From these rates drivers must deduct fuel, depreciation, repairs/maintenance, insurance, cleaning supplies, self-employment taxes, income taxes, etc.

The new rates represent a 75% discount to what taxis charge in Tampa Bay.  A 75% discount for a superior product.

I can no longer earn money driving for Uber.  Prices must be surging 1.5 times just to equal the old rates, which no one would argue were already very low.  Most people would favor Uber even if Uber's rates were comparable to taxis, since the service is so much better than taxis besides the cost of the ride.  For now, I will focus on driving for Lyft until they decide to match Uber's rates.  Uber is offering driver's guarantees temporarily, but even those are very low.  For example, during non-peak periods, the guarantee is $10/hour before Uber's commission; after the commission it is $8/hour for veteran drivers and $7.50/hour for new drivers.  This is the GROSS amount, before drivers take out expenses.

Knowing this, how can a customer order an Uber with a clear conscience?  Aren't they preying on the ignorant driver who isn't smart enough to realize how much money he is losing?  Is it ethical to take advantage of another person's ignorance?

Friday, January 8

My Frugal Miser - December Income: $10,435

December was great.  Even though we were on a cruise for a week, I managed to bring in $2,300+ from rideshare activity.  I did two small hospitality jobs and a handful of mystery shops.  On non-recurring other income, I received a $500 bonus in my E*Trade account and redeemed Chase Rewards for a $204 cash deposit into my checking account.  I earned most of that through a 10% rebate on the purchase of an Amazon gift card.

December Income $10,435

$531 Mystery Shopping and Hospitality Jobs
$2,023 Uber
$345 Lyft
$6,708 Rental Income
$829 Other Sources

  • 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. 

Sunday, January 3

My Frugal Miser - 2016 Goals

Once again it's time to lay out the annual roadmap.  Publishing my goals keeps me accountable:  it's a constant reminder of what is important to me.

  • Simplify
By the end of 2016 I will move to another personal finance program (something that can be managed online).  I like Quicken, but it is the last PC-only program I use.  I want to do away with my PC completely.  Quicken no longer automatically downloads many of my transactions, so they are helping me along by being broken.

Streamlining possessions is a never-ending task.  I want to do some serious culling of material things in 2016.

I want to spend less time on finances.  I'm not sure if this means consolidating more bank accounts, selling real estate or paying off debt.  It is probably some combination of those things.  Whatever the formula, my finances need to be on auto-pilot.

I also want to reduce the time I spend online.
  • Debt:  Reduce outstanding debt to less than $210,000.
I am closing out 2015 with close to $260,000 in debt.  I'd like to reduce it by about $50,000.
  • Spending:  Stretch my Vacation and Entertainment Dollar.
I want this to be a fun challenge.  We love to travel, and I like the game of finding a deal.  I want to focus 2016 on budget-friendly vacations.  This might mean finding a place with an IHG Pointbreak or HHonors Opportunity-level hotel, or booking a flight to a nearby city to save cash.  In 2015 we spent over $10,000 on vacations and entertainment; we spent nearly as much in 2014.  Since I want a way to quantify this goal, I will plan to reduce my 2016 Vacation and Entertainment spending to $5,000.