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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Monday, January 17, 2011

Apple discounts--Is refurbished a good idea?

IPod touchImage via WikipediaWisebread has a great blog post on saving money on Apple products. When Paul just had to have an iPod touch, I told him I wasn't going to buy one for him, so he saved his money, worked for Mr. Poorhouse's boss hanging doorhangers to advertise the business, did extra chores around the house, and sold off a bunch of video games and his beloved DSi (a Santa gift). In less time than I would have predicted for a 9 year old, he had enough money for a refurbished iPod touch.

This was probably 6 months ago. You may wonder if the refurbished products are as good as new. Well, in our experience, yes and no. We bought a refurbished Mac mini for Mr. Poorhouse a year or so ago when his desktop computer failed after many years of faithful service. (The desktop was refurbished too.) No problems.

The iPod touch came with a sticky menu key, but it was workable, so we didn't return it. A month or so ago, the menu key stopped working altogether. I was a little worried about what the support would be like on a refurbished device. We made an appointment and bundled everybody off to the Apple Store. Paul explained his problem to the genius assigned to our case.

Because this is the way we are, we told them that it was a refurbished machine.

Paul walked out a few minutes later with a brand new iPod touch. So yes, I'd say that refurbished is the way to go.

(Oh, by the way, I wouldn't try to get discounts you aren't entitled to, like pretending you're a college student for 10 years. That's just wrong.)
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Friday, January 14, 2011

Book Review: Small Change

Through work, I had an opportunity to attend a library conference this week and managed to score many advanced reader copies of to-be-published books. This was a popular (and frugal!) way to bring home "guilt travel" gifts for the kids (and Mr. Poorhouse) without spending a dime.

One of the books I picked up was Small Change by Sheila Roberts. The author herself was at the St. Martin's booth signing copies. (Did I ever mention I have a little collection of signed books? It started back in the days when I had money and bought books instead of borrowing them from the library).

Anywho, Small Changes is really a self-help book thinly disguised as a novel. It follows three friends in financial straights: our heroine Rachel is reeling financially and emotionally from a divorce and is caught in the trap of trying to buy her children's affection; her friend, one-time rocker Jess has never had a job, and both her husband and son are facing unemployment; and pitiful Tiffany drowns her infertility sorrows by running up credit card bills on things she doesn't need and can't afford.

The women band together in a support group, getting wise about money and finding ways to increase their incomes and decrease their expenses. Of course, they live happily ever after and go on to build their emergency savings accounts in case a rainy day should strike again. The story is almost a morality play for financial control.

And it contains good tips, particularly for women who do not have to work full time. For them, the recipes for cordial and home-made jams to give as gifts instead of over spending on unwanted mall tschakas may make sense. Each of these women learn to transform their personal strengths into a way to make or save money.

For those who can't stomach a self-help book, this novel makes the advice easy to swallow.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

All Hail to the Boys and Girls Club

Photo: jen_maiser via Flickr

The search for affordable kids' activities continues. Despite our longterm best efforts (we started when they were just babies) Prissy and Paul don't swim. As we say at our house, this is a safety issue, and therefore non-negotiable. But what to do? All the pools in our town are private, have a waitlist, and require a several-thousand dollar initiation fee, sponsorship by an existing member, and expensive annual fees. There is no public pool.

A friend of mind mentioned that the local Boys & Girls Club give swim lessons free. Free. I wasn't sure I believed it. Our kids belong to a different B&G Club, which is a bargain for other reasons (reasonable summer camp fees), but charges for swim lessons.

My friend turned out to be right. For the price of an afternoon off from working waiting in line for 2 hours (there is no online registration), I got my kids into lessons.

Of course, that just began the battle, as Paul wanted nothing to do with swimming. So I did what any harried working mom would do. I bribed him. The reward? A trip to Dunkin' Donuts after every swim lesson. Nevermind the irony of following a healthy activity with a supremely unhealthy one. Guess what? After the first lesson, he LOVED swimming, and even, on occasion, declines the bribe trip.

But it gets better. It turns out that this particular club ALSO has free dance lessons. So Prissy, who had to stop her ballet/jazz/tap lessons when the unemployment fairy first visited our house three years ago, is now happily dancing jazz one evening a week. For (yes) free. And instead of $50 or more for costumes, we paid $5 for a tie dyed T-Shirt. Instead of shelling out $45 for family recital tickets, we sat on risers in the common room at the club for nothing. And I have to say, she had just as much fun, and I think learned just as much as when she was in the pricey dance studio.


The digout continues

Photo: krossbow via Flikr

I'm not just talking about the 20 inches of snow that that got dumped on us today. No, I mean the excruciatingly slow process of digging out of debt.

There are hopeful signs. I suspect that as soon as I file my 2010 federal taxes my back taxes due the IRS will be behind us. Our car payments will end in May. Through frugal alternatives and generous gifts from friends, my kids are starting to have a life again.

My daughter goes in for her first orthodontist appointment tomorrow. We're saving thousands of dollars by going to a university dental school instead of a private doctor.

I'm a month away from retiring my last 29% interest balance on a credit card (thanks for nothing, CitiBank).

I finally got the courage to look at our credit scores. We're actually in the A or B category in almost everything, but we get an "F" in debt utilization. But at least we know the worst.

I've increased my 401K contribution to 12%. (I'll be 50 this year, so retirement looms).

I got the washing machine fixed, and even had the piano tuned for the first time in over a year.

Many of our kids' presents this year were hand made, refurbished or otherwise bargains. We even managed to send Christmas presents to our distant family this year.

Mr. Poorhouse and I are both in stable jobs. And Mr. Poorhouse has begun to take absolute delight in clipping coupons.

I've become a fan of The Fly Lady, who is gradually helping me to develop sorely needed neatness habits. I'm thinking she will also save me money in the long run but helping me to plan meals and find stuff that I would otherwise buy replacements for.

And yet...

We're so weary. It's going to be at least another 3 years until we're completely debt free. Unless of course we end up having to replace the 10 year old minivan in the driveway before then. 

I haven't managed to lose weight or increase my exercise. In fact, my weight is taking its toll on my knees, and I'm starting to worry about that. I don't have the money to join a club that has a pool where gravity might cease to be my enemy. I'm in a Catch-22. Can't exercise because of the pain--Pain because I weigh too much. 

So, everything is the same, but not so dire. Stamina's what we need now.