Thursday, August 30, 2012

How Much we Saved Ditching This Year’s Summer Vacation

It was a tough call to make to ditch this year’s summer vacation plans. We actually started off the year planning two summer vacation trips, but ended up taking neither. We expected to be taking a trip out west to Washington and another trip down south to Florida, but due to several factors, neither of these two trips came to fruition.

While this was somewhat of a blow to our summer fun, it certainly ended up saving us some money to put to use in other areas. Here are some of the issues that came into play with our various vacation plans, how they affected our decision, and how much they saved us in the process.

Transportation Issues
As our vehicle ages (it’s over 10 years old now), it moans, groans, creaks, cracks, coughs, and hiccups a bit more than it used to. When we used to travel on vacation to Florida, we typically took our own vehicle since it provided us transportation while there and kept us from having to rent one; however, while we still like our vehicle, we don’t have the same confidence in it we once did. Therefore, we nixed this year’s summer drive to Florida.

Savings: $500 in gas for the drive there and back, $400 on food and entertainment while there, $30 for an oil change, and undetermined wear, tear and general depreciation on our vehicle.

Baby on the Way!
Since my wife is now well into our second pregnancy, doctors don’t really recommend that she fly. This therefore, cut out any thoughts about flying to Florida or Washington for either vacation (and since we weren’t driving to Florida, we certainly weren’t going to drive to Washington from Chicago – a 2000 mile trip).

The cost to fly to our destinations would have been about $800-900 with either trip.

Savings: $800-900 for our trip to Washington or $300-400 to Florida (since we would have paid $500 to drive otherwise).

Family Matters
Instead of us going to visit my mother, she came to visit us from Washington. This gave us a vacation of sorts, since we do many things with her that we don’t normally do when it’s just us. And since she stays with us rather than having to pay for a hotel room, she covers most of the additional costs of these family activities. This helps us save money, yet enjoy special activities such as going out to eat more often, heading out for a train trip downtown, taking road trips, and taking part in similar activities, relatively cost free.

Savings: $200-300 for meals, activities and entertainment around town.

New…or at Least Different Home
When we bought our new home just a couple of months ago, we looked for a location that would provide us with cheap and convenient entertainment. Knowing that my wife was pregnant and having experienced a duller, more subdued suburban location in our previous home, we wanted a place that provided ample opportunity for activities in close proximity.

The abundance of things in to do just blocks from our home in our new location, acted as a sort of replacement family vacation this summer. Exploring the area, taking trips to the library, doing walking tours of the area’s historic homes, going to nearby parks, heading to the zoo, and conducting similar activities made for fun, yet affordable family entertainment that helped buffer the loss of our two planned vacations.

Total Savings
Overall, from ditching both summer vacations this year, we likely saved between $1,500 and $2,000 total. These extra savings have helped us not only purchase our new home, but save for the birth of our second child. And while we likely could have scraped by either way, having this extra cash as a cushion relieves some of the financial stress that we might have encountered otherwise and makes things just a little easier and more comfortable when covering some quite significant costs such as a home purchase and having a baby. Plus, it will allow us to put a little more money toward the “new car fund” that we’ve recently started.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Will Buxton's First IndyCar Race

Anyone who knows me, knows that I'm a huge open-wheel racing fan.  Here's a link to a great article by Will Buxton (well-known pit reporter to us Formula 1 fans) about his first IndyCar race experience this past weekend at Sonoma.

Very cool, to be sure.  Sounds like he had a fantastic time, and his experiences mirror the welcome feeling I've always received at IndyCar events.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Thrift Store Savings

A recent Your Money post written by Mikey Rox of Wisebread.com reviewed10 items to buy in thrift stores. I was not too surprised to discover that with the exception of two items -- artwork and vinyl records (well one, if you consider a picture frame artwork) -- I had hit the mark on buying all of the products on the list in -- if not a thrift shop -- at least a resale environment (i.e. thrift shop, antique store, garage sale, estate sale, etc.).

Whether as gifts for others or items of our own, here is how we stacked up against the Your Money list of secondhand items to buy in a thrift store.

Shirts/Pants
Yes, I’ll admit, I get many of my shirts, shorts and pants at the thrift store. What do you want me to say? I just think it’s a financially smart move. They’re great deals, often for name brand products in lightly used condition, and at a fraction of the price that they would be found in a retail setting. Living across the street from an awesome resale shop doesn't help.

I’d estimate that I probably buy multiple shirts each year in the resale setting, and I rarely spend more than $3 a shirt. I can often get great cargo shorts for about the same price and really nice jeans for $4 or $5 a pair. And the same goes for my wife and son. The savings are literally hundreds of dollars each year on clothing related costs for our family.

Furniture
We don’t do a ton of furniture shopping at resale shops or thrift stores, but I’ll admit, such venues can certainly be great spots for such finds. We have most of the furniture we need and live in a small condo, so we aren’t typically looking for more; however, we have picked up things like one of our televisions, a few chairs, bookshelves, and similar items in resale environments.

Books
The great thing about buying books, videos and similar items in a resale setting is that they’re often super inexpensive. Sure, we get many of our book and video needs met through the local library for free, but for items that we’d prefer to own or that aren’t available at the library, we may be able to pick them up for just 50 cents or less in a thrift store or resale setting.

Better yet, when we’re finally done with them, we can often make some, if not all of our money back through resale stores, garage sales or as tax deductions by way of charitable donations.

Artwork/Home D├ęcor/Dishware/Accessories
There are all sorts of fantastic items that we’ve found at thrift and resale shops. I have kind of a drinking glass fetish (I love vintage or just plain cool glasses of all varieties), so I have to watch myself when I’m out and about in these settings. However, getting many of our glasses (often just 25 or 50 cents a piece), vases, candleholders, candles, and even stuff for our kids, such as toys and our new baby’s entertainment play center ($6), is very convenient and saves us a ton of money in the process.

 
Sources:
Rox, Mikey. MSN.com. “10 things to buy in thrift stores.” http://finances.msn.com/saving-money-advice/250145961. August 11, 2012.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Saving Big on Insurance Costs

I’ve been with the same insurance company for nearly two decades now. And once I met my wife, she eventually switched over to my insurance provider as well.  Since then, we’ve used their services for our automobile, renter’s, and eventually homeowner’s insurance coverage.

Over the years that we’ve been with our particular insurance provider, we’ve recognized some significant savings by way of a variety of policy discounts. Here is how we saved nearly $2,000 in insurance costs in just five years.

Auto Insurance Savings
The greatest savings we found came by way of discounts on our auto insurance policies. During this time, we recognized savings from several different reductions on our premium. Here is the breakdown of these discounts:

• Multiple Line – $754.35
• Multicar – $210.30 (we only had this discount for two years since we eventually downsized to one vehicle)
• Antitheft – $19.55
• Good Driving/Accident Free – $363.37
• Vehicle Safety – $25.12

The total for all our discounts on this policy during the five-year period was almost $1,400.

Renter’s Insurance Savings
Before we ever bought our home, we rented an apartment for a number of years. Our renter’s insurance was fairly cheap, typically ranging right around $100 a year. Over the last five years, we rented for two of them before buying our home for the next three. Since our policy payment was low to begin with, it kept our savings in this area low as well; however, they were savings nonetheless.

• Home Alert Discount – $8
• Home/Auto Discount – $29
• Claim Free Discount – $23

Our grand total in renter insurance policy savings for the two-year period came to $60.

Homeowner’s Insurance Savings
After renting, we bought a home, which we held onto for three years before selling. As with our other insurance policies, we recognized some good savings in this area as well.

• Home/Auto Discount – $274
• Claim Free Discount – $265

Our total savings on three years of homeowner insurance policies came to $539. This brought our overall savings for all our insurance policies over the past five years to almost $2,000, which is a tidy lump of change that I never even realized we had saved until I totaled it all up for the writing of this article.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Choosing the Right Condo

In a real estate market in which there is plenty of inventory and prices are low compared to recent years, it can be difficult to make a real estate decision. There may just be so many options that it can be hard to begin to narrow down choices. Foreclosures, short-sales, and just bargain basement discounted prices on homes can certainly make it a buyer’s market, and this can leave buyers sorting through a glut of inventory, almost becoming lost in the numbers.

This means that prospective buyers -- such as our family -- must often determine a list of characteristics or attributes of a home or a home’s location to help them narrow down and better define their search area or style of home.

Schools
While we certainly want a home that the entire family can enjoy, with one child that’s almost five and another baby percolating in the pot, schools are a top priority for us. Therefore, while we had to settle for a slightly smaller condominium than we might have otherwise, it was worth it in order to get one of the best school districts in the state for our children.

Walk Factor
We are a one car family. This means that as a work-at-home dad, being without a car during the day -- though it saves us hundreds of dollars on insurance and upkeep each year -- can be slightly inconvenient.

When living in our last neighborhood, I was pretty much stranded at home with no transportation. However, when looking for our condo, we ensured that we searched in areas that were close to the commuter rail, shopping, entertainment, the post office, the library, and schools.

Lower Taxes
In the area in which we eventually focused our search, property taxes on condominiums in most cases were significantly lower than on single family homes. We’re talking 100 percent or more in many cases.

And in many of the vintage condos such as the ones we like, they were this much lower than the newer more modern versions. Therefore, since we like buildings with that vintage charm and character anyway, finding a unit that came with significantly lower property taxes (about $2,800 as compared to our previous home in a lesser area but whose property taxes were $5,000) it was a great bonus.

Price
The price of our condo was what attracted us most about it. At just over $140,000, we ended up paying about half for our condo compared to what we paid for our previous home four years ago. Given, our condo doesn’t have a yard and it isn’t nearly as large as our previous home was, but the location is superb, resale value is better, and in a real estate market that is still unstable, with a lower price there’s less to lose in a worst case scenario.

Monday, August 13, 2012

My $200 Emergency Food Supply

I feel that it’s important to be prepared for any number of emergency or disaster scenarios. From financial collapse to natural disasters, a variety of possibilities are out there that could make it difficult, if not impossible to make it to the supermarket or local grocery store…or even leave our home for that matter.

In such a situation, it could prove invaluable to have an emergency stock of supplies on hand. However, I’m not one to go out and throw thousands of dollars at such a supply. Therefore, I’ve worked at developing a sufficient, yet affordable supply of food and water that could last us a month or more, for only about $200.

The Plan
My plan when it comes to our $200 emergency food supply is to be able to outlast any reasonable emergency relatively comfortably for at least a month…hopefully longer. While this won’t entail indulging in gourmet meals and sipping on expensive wine during this time, we will be able to sustain ourselves on meals that we’d likely be eating anyway – emergency or not – for at least a month, and be able to survive on reduced consumption and meal options for at least another month, maybe two, after that, doing this with a limited space (we live in a 900 square foot condo), and without breaking the budget.

My Supplies and Costs
While I don’t plan to list everything contained within our emergency food supply, I would like to provide a general idea of what we have purchased in larger quantities and in what amounts. While it’s not a perfect supply list, in an emergency we’ll be willing to make certain sacrifices when it comes to portion sizes and healthy eating requirements.

Pasta – $1 per box x 10 boxes = $10

Mixed canned goods – .50 cents per can x 20 cans = $10

Peanut butter – $5 per container x 3 containers = $15

Cereal, chips, pretzels -- $2 per box/bag x 10 = $20

Juice (my wife is a type I diabetic) – $2 per jug x 5 jugs = $10

Flour/sugar/biscuit mix/salt/pepper – $10

Raman Noodles – $2.50 per 12 pack x 3 = $7.50

Jars of Pasta Sauce – $2 per jar x 5 = $10

Assorted crackers, jams/jellies/condiments/cookies/pickles/olives, etc. = $30

One bottle tequila = $10

One container dehydrated milk = $10

10 lb bag of rice = $5

Water – 12 gallons mixed bottled and one gallon containers = $10

Total Cost: About $160

Hiccups in our Plan
As I mentioned, we don’t live in a large space. This means that storage for our food supply is at a premium. This also means that storing gallons upon gallons of water – while largely free since we tend to fill up cleaned out one-gallon milk jugs – is also difficult due to limited available storage space; and therefore, most of the water we’d have on hand during an emergency would be used for drinking, not cooking.

This is somewhat of a problem since things like rice, pasta, noodles, etc. (a large part of our emergency supplies) require water for cooking. Therefore, we’d likely have to utilize the same water over and over again for pasta cooking, and limit our rice and dehydrated milk intake.

Remaining Additions and Costs
There are still a few items that I’d like to eventually add over the next few months to our $200 emergency food supply, but that aren’t necessary to its success. We’d like to stock up on a few more canned goods, add a couple more boxes of cereal (since they have a good shelf life, we like it, and it’s cheap and edible without milk), two or three extra containers of baby formula (since we have a new baby on the way), and a few more bottles of alcohol.

I add alcohol to the list not just because I’d be trapped for an extended timeframe in a tiny condo with my wife and two small children, but because of its various other purposes (treating wounds, bartering, and yes, dulling the pain of suffering through a prolonged disaster scenario).

These costs would likely add another $75 in expenses, bumping up our total emergency food supply costs to around $225.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Free e-Book!

Check out my new e-book, "Past Dark" available for Kindle at Amazon.com.  I'm running a promotion this weekend (Aug. 11th and 12th), so get your free copy today!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Aldi: How we Cut 33 Percent off our Grocery Bills

I’m typically not one to tout various stores or brands, but we recently found a store – Aldi – that allows us to cut our grocery bills by almost a third. And amazingly, in most cases, we’re not finding ourselves having to scrimp on product quality or quantity. In fact, we’re eating healthier now than we were when we were spending twice the amount on our groceries.

It’s kind of an odd story regarding how we stumbled onto Aldi. We actually used to shop there about eight years ago, and while we like their prices, we weren’t really happy with the quality of the goods. Therefore, we moved on to other shopping options that were more expensive, but that we felt fit our personal needs and quality expectations better.

Just recently though, we decided to give Aldi another shot. We had heard that quality there had improved, and we thought it was worth checking out; and boy were we surprised! Prices were great, quality was significantly improved, and they even offered great values on fresh fruit and produce. Therefore, we’ve made Aldi our new stop for most of the food options on our list and are realizing significant savings in the process.

Little Quirks
Besides Aldi, I’ve never been to a store where you have to insert a quarter into a slot on a shopping cart to free it for use. However, Aldi does this because they don’t have parking lot cart returns that would require paid labor to clear. They also don’t accept credit cards, and shoppers must supply their own bags (or buy them at the store for a few cents a piece) and bag their own groceries.

Sound like a royal pain in the rear end? Well, it’s not that bad to us – at least once we got used to it – and it’s worth it for the savings that such small sacrifices provide, since much of the savings that Aldi recognizes on such labor and cost reductions gets passed along to shoppers by way of lower product prices.

Pricing Examples
Here are a few pricing examples from summer 2012:

Frozen pizzas – $1.99. The frozen pizzas we were buying at other stores ran closer to $3.25 and weren’t as good in our opinion. Aldi even has 16-inch pizzas for $4.99 to $5.99, which we tried and really liked, especially considering that a similar sized pizza ordered out in our area would run around $25.

Fresh fruit – Blueberries for $1.49 a pint, whole strawberries for $1.29 a pound.

Pretzels – $1.29 for the best stick pretzels I’ve had in a long time, but then again, I’m kind of a pretzel nut. This compares to over $2 a bag for what we were buying before.

Milk – One gallon of 2% or whole milk for $1.68. Compares to over $2 where we were shopping previously.

Cheese – 16 oz. of shredded mozzarella cheese for $2.99 compare to around $5 elsewhere.

Bag of 3-lb frozen Boneless Chicken Breasts – $5.99 compared to between $7.99 and $8.99 elsewhere.

The list could go on and on.

We Don’t Buy Everything There Though
We don’t however but everything at Aldi though. We’ve found that when it comes to most of our necessary food items, the savings are typically great. However, on things like toiletries, cleaning supplies and similar items, we tend to look elsewhere for better selection and pricing.

What We’re Saving Now
Compared to what we were spending just several months ago elsewhere, we are now recognizing savings in the area of $100 a month, and that’s on a monthly food budget of just $300!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Costs of Financial Freedom

You might be wondering how financial freedom could possibly be a bad thing. Well, in many ways it’s not, and I certainly wouldn’t trade financial freedom just because of the negative aspects associated with it. Nonetheless, there are certain things about financial freedom that might be considered downsides and can end up costing you money.

While I find that I’m far from wealthy enough to consider myself completely freed from financial woes, my wife and I are lucky enough to have the freedom of employment options (since I work from home and my wife works in the health care industry) to have a great deal of control over where and how we decide to live. This freedom to explore in an effort to find the ideal location to settle however, can lead to several issues.

If You Could go Anywhere, Where Would You go?
With the current boom in health care and health care related roles, my wife can find a job in just about any and every state. And with me being a freelance writer, I can work from just about anywhere.

You would think that this would be a good thing; and in some ways it is, however, having the option to live almost anywhere we’d like, actually presents a problem. This problem is deciding where, out of all our available options, we’d like to live. It’s a great problem to have, but at the same time it causes some real issues. Freedom to live just about anywhere in the United States presents an almost unlimited number of options and with it can come some indecision regarding whether or not a place is the right spot for us to settle.

Many people are attached to an area not because they love it, but because it’s where they work, but when you can work wherever you’d like, it makes it tough to pinpoint any one place specifically. We like the Pacific Northwest during the summer but not the winter. We like Florida during the winter but not the summer. We like the Midwest but it’s not perfect either. The southwest is beautiful but hot. New England is beautiful but cold. California is beautiful but expensive.

As we try various places, we begin to realize there is no one “perfect” place…or if there is, we’ve yet to find it.

Indecision Leads to Increased Costs
Our financial freedom indecision leads us to see a variety of new places, but this in turn leads to a lot of additional costs in the process. Moving from one place to another can get costly, and having to pick up and hit the road again, switch driver’s licenses, change addresses, find places to live, open new bank accounts, order new checks, and a litany of other moving-related chores can add costs to our budget.

Travel Costs and Moving Expenses
We recently moved from the Chicago area to the state of Washington for several months to explore the Pacific Northwest. It was a great opportunity, furthered by my ability to work while on the go. However, it cost us money to pack up all our stuff, put a large portion of it into a rented storage locker, and drive 2000 miles out to Washington.

We’re now preparing to head back to Chicago, and are looking at another 2000 mile trip back. With gas, hotel costs, food, wear and tear on the car, and similar expenses, such trips can get expensive.

Start up Costs
Startup costs between our moves in an effort to figure out where the heck we want to be have started adding up. Having to pay for new licenses, pet and apartment security deposits, utility connection fees, and similar items each time we move, gets costly. And considering we don’t typically meet the “time and distance requirements” for most of these moves, we don’t even get to take many of our travel and moving costs as write-offs on our annual income taxes.

Increased Stress
Again, you might be wondering how financial freedom could possibly lead to increased stress. Well I’ll tell you. Moving to various locations to determine if they are the right places for us to settle is certainly interesting; however, I wouldn’t say it’s easy. Living out of suitcases or off the bare minimum of clothing and furnishings is nice in some ways but stressful in others. Having to pack up everything when we’ve decided a location isn’t right, change addresses with friends, family, work, etc., find new work (for my wife), and travel to and settle into our new location is exciting, yet stressful at the same time.

This is why we’re looking forward to being back in the Chicago area and hopefully being able to cool our heels for a little while.