Monday, March 21, 2011

Craigslist to the rescue

Bike SchoolImage by PortocalaMecanica via FlickrPrissy keeps growing. Her pants get short. Her knees come up to her chin on her bike. (Didn't we just buy her a new one?)

She's a teenager. A small one, but a teenager none the less. And she bikes to school. She's had lots of adventures on her bike. Like kids who let the air out of her tires. Or the time she fell in to the pond--bike, backpack, library book and all.

And the bike is too small. I hit the local bike shops and was completely shocked at the prices of new adult sized bikes. Shocked, I tell you.

"Do you sell used bikes", I asked the clerks.


I heard about a cool place called Bikes Not Bombs that trains city kids to fix bikes, sells them at a profit, and uses the money to support their operations to do stuff like send recycled bike parts overseas where people are trained to repair and make new bikes, which contributes to their local economies, and provides reliable transportation for people who need to get to work.

Unfortunately, the bikes didn't fit Prissy and the prices didn't fit our pocketbook.

I was a little skeptical when someone suggested Craigslist. First, a lot of bikes get stolen in our neck of the woods, and I didn't want us to be the market that supports that. Second, I've had great experiences selling on Craigslist (you find junk you don't want, you take a picture, somebody comes to your house, gives you cash, and takes away your carp), but I've never bought anything. Third, I didn't really know what to look for.

But after enough bike shop trips, we kind of solved the last problem. I emailed a few folks about ads they posted. We found one that seemed like it might work. It was in somebody's parents' garage, and they just didn't need it anymore. $65. (The cheapest new bikes were upwards of $300). Done and done.

They were thrilled to get rid of it. Prissy loves her new grown up bike. Happy dance.
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Thursday, February 3, 2011

Keeping personal expenses in check when on business travel

I have a funny life. At home I'm dirt poor, never go out to eat, or to the movies or to much of anything that isn't related to a kid's performance.

But I travel frequently for business. I stay in nice hotels, eat at fancy restaurants, and have this second life of luxury. On my company's dime. I don't abuse my expense account. I'm honest about what I spend, and I'm not extravagent compared to my colleagues.

But the "extras" in a business traveller's hotels really add up. Like $4 for a bottle of water in the room. $15 for a movie. And don't even get me started on the minibar.

So I bring my cheap ways with me. If I have time, I stop by my public library before  my trip to get a DVD to watch on those late evenings after a business dinner when I'm too wired to sleep. Or, if I don't have time, I grab a favorite DVD from our collection (from the the time before we stopped spending money on such things). Or, failing that, I may even buy one from iTunes or rent from Amazon. Still much cheaper than hotel pay per view.

I buy a bottle of water and a snack, if I need one, at a local drug store.

I use my corporate credit card for as many expenses as I can so that I don't have to wait to file my expense reports to get reimbursed. I forgo the rewards I might earn if I put them on a personal card. But since my personal cards have balances (I know, I know) I also forgo the interest that the issuers would charge me.

I even save money for my employer. Instead of paying $15 a day for internet access in the room, I bought a Wireless USB dongle from Virgin Mobile, which usually ends up being much cheaper, and more flexible. (Typically, the hotels I stay in have free wireless in the lobby, but not in the meeting rooms or guest rooms.)

If the cost is the same, I use my frequent flyer airline and my rewards point hotel. The rewards are slow to come, but may help me bring one of my kids, or even Mr. Poorhouse, on an exotic trip some day. 

The one thing that is tricky is bringing gifts to kids of friends who live in my destination city or bringing souvenirs home to my own kids. I probably spend too much on this kind of thing. Any of you have ideas for keeping the cost of guilt presents down?

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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Unbinding the TV again--and the phone too

P TelevisionImage via WikipediaSo, it turns out the 3-for-1 Internet/Phone/TV deal I bragged about here wasn't such a good deal after all. About a year ago, we found out it would be cheaper to add TV services to our Verizon FIOS Internet and phone service. What we didn't realize was that it was a 6 month teaser deal and that there was a penalty for cancelling the services before 12 months.

So the moment that our contract was up, we ditched the TV again. We already jetisoned our home phone service in favor of Callcentric VOIP, which uses a router in the basement and our regular handsets. For about $5 a month we saved $40 a month on our Verizon home phone service, which we rarely use. (Callcentric has unlimited calling plans for more, but we never even come close to our allocated minutes on our mobile phone plans, so we don't need one.)

We all have mobile phones now (a safety things since the kids are sometimes on their own after school), but we weren't ready to get rid of the landline yet. You see they are young and frequently misplace or forget to charge their phones. OK, I'm guilty of that too. Anyway, we wanted to be sure we still had emergency service (Callcentric can provide 911) or could get in touch with them if they are home alone. The service has been great, though we still use it rarely. Oh, and we got to keep the same phone number. They took care of porting it.

So, we are now ONLY paying for FIOS, which I'm not willing to give up. At $60 a month, with no taxes, it's much better than the $120 monthly bill we had been paying for the last few months. Yay. You'd think we would have learned about bait and switch tactics by now, but I guess old dogs are tough to train.
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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Watch out for business credit cards

Credit cardsImage via WikipediaApparently credit card issuers have found another way to circumvent the new CARD Act protections. They are pushing their business credit card lines, which aren't subject to the new rules.

In an act of decluttering (thank you Fly Lady) I tackled the mound of paperwork in my front hall and found FOUR offers for a business credit card from Capital One. This despite the fact that my credit rating frankly sucks, and I've put myself on the card offers do not mail list. And, oh yeah, I've never done business with Capital One.

Anyway, my business is dead, and it turns out that one of my payment agreements with another issuers prohibits me from applying for an additional card.

Not that I'm going to. But I'm not just getting hounded by Capital One.  0% balance transfer offers are showing up again. Ugh. That's how I got myself into this mess in the first place.

Be careful out there. These big credit card companies are not your friends.  The two cards that I still have have been good to me. They are from USAA and from my credit union. They never jacked up the rates to 30%, despite an occasional late payment. They haven't lowered my credit line.
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Monday, January 31, 2011

Except that it's not retired

I don't get it. Just checked my Citicard statement, and the high interest rate balance is NOT paid off. Despite the fact that I made the monthly minimum payment PLUS the high-rate balance from last month's statement. What am I missing? It says there's another $112 on that balance.

So they really aren't applying excess payments to the high rate balance, are they? Grrr.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Retiring the high interest rate debt

First 4 digits of a credit cardImage via WikipediaAs I mentioned in my New Year's entry, I'm about to retire my remaining high interest rate debt with Citicard. They've been a little weird this year. They've been relentlessly pushing their Payment Partner Plan, which I described here.  I finally decided to sign up for it. It's a cashback program for a percentage of what you pay over the minimum balance.

My Citi account is a little confusing, which I explained in this post. I have some very low-rate balances for life due to balance transfers I made before the credit crunch hit. My other outstanding credit cards are currently at 9.99%. But in the depth of my credit despair,I transferred another balance with a rate that expired after a few months. And then they jacked up my rate. And now that the Card Act says that credit card companies have to apply excess principal payments to the highest-rate balances first, I've been paying as much as I can to retire that balance.

So I figured, as long as I'm paying down the balance anyway, why not get the Payment Partner rebate in the meantime. So I finally signed up.

That was before I checked my credit rating.

Well, my credit rating isn't as bad as I thought it would be but it isn't good. It has some late payments from those dark days. But the worst score is my debt utilization score, which is the percentage of outstanding debt to available debt.  Mine is really high. Part of the reason for that is because I got really ticked off at Discover and Chase when they jacked up my rates to 30% and I closed my accounts as soon as I paid off those balances. That wasn't smart. I should have cut up the cards but left the accounts open.

So if I ever want to refinance my mortgage, my credit rating is going to get in the way. And the Payment Partner Program is going to adversely effect my debt utilization ratio, because they'll lower my credit limit by the amount I pay down.

But wait. It turns out Citi has been lowering my credit limit every couple of months anyway, even before I signed up for Payment Partner. So maybe it didn't make any difference after all.

Let me tell you that as soon as the high-rate balance has been retired, I'm going back to paying the minimum balance on this account. I'll make higher payments on my 9.9% debts, thank you very much. Some partner.
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Saturday, January 22, 2011

I'm in love

with my slow cooker. I hardly cook at all without it anymore.

I have to confess that Mr. Poorhouse does most of the cooking around here. But he's been stressed at work lately and has had less time and energy for the culinary arts. So I lend my hand. Throw stuff in a pot. Turn it on. Come back hours later to food. What's not to love?

This isn't a food blog, but we've saved a ton of money this last year on cheap cuts of meat that cook up delicious in 8 hours or so. 

This week we tried pork chops. You know, it's hard to cook pork chops on the stove. They tend to be tough. But these weren't. They were fall-apart tender. And they couldn't have been simpler. Brown them quickly, add broth and seasonings, cook all day. Take out the chops and for gravy, turn the thing up to high, whisk flour into the drippings, and cook for 10 minutes with no lid. The recipe came from Cooking Light Slow Cooker.

We also find we're more likely to eat (rather than ferment and then toss) vegetables now.  Did you know you can throw a hard squash (like butternut or acorn) or a bunch of sweet potatoes in the cooker in the morning without peeling or any prep other than a quick scrub and stab, and have food cooked and ready to quickly peel and eat when you get home. To me it feels like magic. Cheap. Healthy (no fat). Fast. Er, I mean slow. 

Our all time bestest most delicious recipe was Chicken Korma. The house smells fabulous while it cooks--all cinnamony goodness. You can find the recipe here at my favorite blog on the subject, the fun and helpful, A Year of Slow Cooking

Or, you can get the whole book. It's on my wish list, but if the other recipes are as good as this one, it's a must-have. 

Another winner was pork green chili. I got the recipe from an internet buddy and modified it for the slow cooker. No beans, but lots of kinds of chilis. That was a little more work, but really worth it. Hmmm. I'm making myself hungry.

I have also discovered the magic of steel-cut oats. I set them going at night before I go to bed, and when I wake up, there's instant comfort--no thinking necessary. (I am not a morning person.)

What about equipment? We bought a 6-quarter cooker. It provides plenty of food for the four of us, plus leftovers for Mr. Poorhouse and me to take for our frugal lunches. In our experience, you can skip the programmable thermostat feature. The meat may be to temperature, but it's probably not tender yet. 

At this time of year, the warm, hearty smell of dinner greeting me is mighty welcoming after battling through 20 inches of drifting snow outside.

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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Groupon: Savings or Sinkhole?

People riding Segway scooters by the "Ope...Image by Chris Devers via FlickrWe don't get out much. Our idea of a date is cheese and crackers and a glass of water in front of the TV after the kids have gone to bed.

But I did buy a birthday present for Mr. Poorhouse from Groupon last year. You know Groupon, right?  You sign up, they send you an email every day for some local experience or service at pretty substantial discounts

The offer is generally something I don't want or need. A family trying to reduce its debt isn't in the market for bartending classes or spa days at the local salon. But, one day in the summer, a Groupon offer popped up in my email that represented an experience of a lifetime for Mr. Poorhouse. So I bought him a 2-hour Segway tour of our city for $45. (OK. I actually paid $90. I wanted to go too.) And once his October birthday rolled around (get it, rolled? Segway? Oh, never mind.) we redeemed the groupon on a beautiful fall day. It was wonderful. We saved about 50%. And we will remember it forever.

But of course, now I'm still getting the emails. I haven't spent any more money with Groupon. But it's slightly annoying to wade through the offers I can't afford all the time. 

And if you need to cut your expenses and you think it would tempt to to spend money you wouldn't otherwise spend or don't actually have, it certainly isn't a good deal for you. 
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My grandparents had it right

Sometimes Mr. Poorhouse and I get discouraged. We don't have a social life. Movies, bars and restaurants, and babysitters are not in our budget and haven't been for a long time.

I just remembered, though, that my grandparents didn't let that stop them in the pit of the Great Depression. They went out every Friday night. With their friends. To each other's houses. They brought their pot luck dishes and their kids. The kids passed out in a bedroom as the adults partied late into the night. They didn't drink. They danced, they laughed, they played cards.

My dad remembers those evenings. The kids would sneak halfway down the stairs and watch the shenanigans. Gramps was a hoot, always telling a joke (most of them came from the Marx Brothers), but Grammie would never laugh. Her friends asked Grammie how she kept from laughing. "Sometimes," she'd whisper conspiratorially, "I have to leave the room. I don't want to encourage him."

These people were there church friends, their Kiwanis friends, their Eastern Star and Mason friends. They remained close for life. They were the same group that put on the wedding receptions in the church basement. (That's where wedding receptions happened, not in fancy catering halls or expensive restaurants.) Well into their 80s and 90s, the friends shared fond recollections of the days when they really had nothing but each other.

I suppose we could do something like that. But in our (face it) snooty town we haven't made any bosom buddies. People's houses are McMansions and must be spotlessly clean before someone can come over. (Of course there's probably a housekeeper or cleaning service to see to that.). The main social events are expensive fundraisers at the country club for a nursery school that, face it, doesn't need funding, or a cabaret at $100+ a seat to benefit the local hospital or arts organization. There's even a prom for adults to raise money for the public schools to pay for things the town budget should cover.

I suppose I sound bitter, and perhaps I am.

Do the simpler, frugal days of entertainment still exist where you live?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

End of the gravy train?

Fingers CrossedImage via WikipediaMy sister-in-law is worried. She and Mr. Poorhouse and their brother have each been getting a share of their father's pension since he passed away 16 years ago. They each chose a 15-year payout option at the time.

Except that it's been 16 years. And the checks are still coming. (Well, strictly speaking, the automatic deposits are still being made, but you know what I mean.) And the administrator's web site says nothing about an end date.

So she thinks that she should call them and find out what the deal is, because she's afraid that someday they will say, "Oops, we made a mistake. Give the money back." And we will say, "Uh, oops, we used it for our car payment."

Mr. Poorhouse and I are thinking that maybe the 15 years was a minimum time period, but that the return on the pension was better than expected. At least that's what we're hoping. We've reviewed the documents though, and it doesn't really say that.

I just want the payments to last until May, when our second car will be paid off. If it continues beyond that we had planned  to use the pension payment to do some needed maintenance on our aging fleet and to build up our emergency fund.

I don't suppose keeping your fingers crossed is a sound financial strategy though.

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