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Archive for January, 2012

Another year, another Kiplinger "save 1000s" story that doesn't apply to me

January 29th, 2012 at 07:24 am

I subscribe to Kiplinger. Much of it isn't relevant but I like reading it, if only to get a sense how the other 1% lives. Wink Once a year they publish a list of quick tips to "save thousands" making changes that take 15 minutes or less. Let's see how much I can save.

1. Ditch that expensive airline credit card. $0 n/a
2. Lower the interest rate on your plastic. $0 n/a don't carry a balance
3. Avoid bounced checks and costly overdraft charges. $0 n/a I'm careful not to overdraw
4. Set up bank alerts to avoid fraud and unexpected fees. $0 n/a check my account often enough on my own
5. Switch to energy-efficient lighting. $0 n/a (It's not that this wouldn't be a good switch, but our utilities are tied to our condo association dues and don't vary. This tip will cost, not save, us money if we take it.)
6. Sign up for automatic federal student loan payments. $0 already done
7. Install a water-saving showerhead. $0 n/a AND already done
8. Slay your energy vampires. $0 n/a (though I will look into the Belkin Conserve Smart AV that they recommend; if we get it this tip will cost us $29 vs. saving us any actual money)
9. Find a low refi rate and a good lender. $0 n/a (mortgage still under water)
10. Put in a programmable thermostat. $0 n/a can't do, wouldn't save us anyway
11. Score the best-priced seat in the house. $0 n/a This is another that would cost us if we took the tip, since we hardly ever go to shows or games.
12. Unsubscribe from deal emails. $100? I think that's how much I spent on restaurant gift cards and restaurants that I wouldn't have gone to otherwise. Then again, I still would've gone to restaurants on dates, so I probably would have spent the same amount, just on a familiar restaurant. So is this one technically $0?
13. Improve your fuel economy. $0 don't own a car, and the carshare service we occasionally use doesn't charge us for gas
14. Use a car-buying service to get a great deal. $0 n/a; would cost us a ton if we took this tip; $15,000?
15. Spot lower prices shopping online. $? This one is kind of interesting; they say a toolbar from FreePriceAlerts.com will alert you if it finds a better deal while you're shopping online. May need to check that out. They say annual savings $200.
16. Rent designer duds instead of buying. $0 N/A!
17. Haggle like an expert with spending apps. $0 n/a; this is another that would cost me a ton to use, because I have a super-cheap prepaid plan instead of a smartphone.
18. Listen to free audio books. $0 n/a; I never buy books for myself, just ask for them as gifts from family. Don't listen to audio books.
19. Lose your landline. $0 already done
20. Text for free. $0 n/a would need to have an iPhone or Android and a data plan, so this tip would cost me money if I followed it. (I will, however, pass along info about the "Textfree" app to a friend who was wondering about something like this for her smartphone.)
21. Dodge fees on treasury investments. $0 n/a don't buy bonds
22. Slash expenses with exchange-traded funds. $? It says you do this in your brokerage account; does my Vanguard Roth IRA count? Probably not, so I'm guessing $0 n/a
23. Sidestep taxes on bonds. $0 n/a I just don't see myself buying individual investment stuff at this point in my life and getting much out of it. They estimate $380 annual savings if you invested $50000, and I definitely don't have that kind of money to put in low-yield investments.
24. Switch to the latest generic drugs. $0 already done
25. Raise your deductibles. $50 I can't say outright this is n/a because I haven't looked at my homeowner insurance policy lately; possibly I do have a $500 deductible that I could raise to $1000. Kiplinger says you could save up to 25%, so the max I could save would be $50. No auto insurance so that part doesn't apply. They say I could save $584 but I think the most I could save is $50. I will look into it, though.
26. Reshop your life insurance. $0 n/a Currently the only life insurance we have is NT and I each have a plan with our employer that doesn't cost us anything.

So, let's see what I'll save if I take their (applicable) advice.
Unsubscribe from deal emails: $100
Spot lower prices shopping online: $200
Raise your deductibles: $50
Total: $350

If I actually saved this much, I'd certainly be happy. I suspect it won't be that much.

How about you? Will these Kiplinger tips help you save "thousands" this year?

Trip totals

January 23rd, 2012 at 05:47 pm

The last of our Mexican purchases came through, so I was able to calculate our actual totals rather than estimating exchange rates.

We came in $662.93 under budget!

It was a short trip, and AA didn't cost much for sitting on our laps on the plane, and we budgeted a lot of money. So not that surprising. But we all felt like we got everything we wanted, and splurged WAY more on impulsive purchases and pricy food/drinks than we normally do, so it wasn't a trip where we felt like we were trying to hold back to economize.

I budgeted $5000 for the whole trip.

Airfare for 3, hotel for 5 nights, shuttle to & from hotel, and travel insurance: $2083.56

Supplies, food, drinks, trip to Isla Mujeres, souvenirs, misc.: $2253.51

Total: $4337.07

The leftover funds will go toward flying family here to see the baby this year, if anyone takes us up on the offer. We may have to help them out with hotel costs as well (our place is too small to comfortably put people up). We're extending this offer to both Virginia and England relatives (we live in Minnesota). So this is a big head start on saving up for all that!

Big student loan payment (and this one *actually* posted!)

January 23rd, 2012 at 01:39 pm

I sent an extra payment to NT's effed-up student loan today, and when I logged in out of habit, the payment had already posted! Now, there are three payments from October-December of last year that still haven't, and a weird payment that doesn't match any of the other numbers that did post. Nevertheless, it's promising that the system is processing new payments so promptly. Hopefully the old payments will post correctly, retroactively, in my lifetime. Smile

So the most recent payment put $1324 toward principal, bringing us to $2321 down, $179 to go on the January debt goal. AS's two student loan payments at the end of the month should just barely push us over the top.

Inauspicious beginning to my savings goal; pics to make up for it

January 21st, 2012 at 08:57 am

Well, I added $25.46 to the US EF account. Then a couple of things happened:

-Our UK rental management company let us know we had a 300-pound windfall
-But they recommend we buy a 999-year lease, which will cost 600
-And the semiannual fees hit, plus some other random stuff, to the tune of 300-plus

Renters paid an extra month's rent, but somehow I need to transfer 800 pounds (US$1600) from UK savings to cover the lease renewal and 2 months of mortgage payments.

So, our EF starting point was $14,472.57, our goal is $20,000, and we're currently at $12,898.03. Need to save $7101.97 or $646 per month for Feb.-Dec. Not gonna happen, unless I divert extra money from student loan repayment. No, that goal is more important. So I already know we're probably going to fall short on our EF goal for a second year in a row. Frown

So, to get back to a happy place, here are some pics from our Cancun trip!






Quick catchup on financial doings

January 19th, 2012 at 10:03 pm

Well, we got back from Cancun at 1:00 this morning! I was keyed up from the journey so stayed up a couple hours, then slept in until 10. (We took today off to recover from the long journey.)

We had a FABulously relaxing time. The weather was great except on the first full day (Saturday), and we didn't mind because even when it's stormy, it's a warm, picturesque place.

We spent like drunken sailors, but managed to stay under budget (mostly because I'd allotted a huge sum for spending money). Initially I thought we had $180 left over, but then I remembered that I'd been estimating as if 10 pesos = US$1. Actually it only equals 75 US cents. So for instance, if we spent 1000 pesos, I estimated $100, but it was only $75. So as these charges hit our credit cards, they're coming in 25% lower than my estimates.

We don't have much to show for our spending souvenir-wise: We got little wobbly-headed figurines for the kids in AA's daycare; a sweet little dress for her; a conch shell and a starfish; some snacks and treats for NT's work; some tequila, vodka and vanilla from the duty-free shop for ourselves; a CD of photos from an island resort we visited; a baseball cap for AA.

Most of the crazy spending was because the hotel we chose was deep into the hotel zone; getting a taxi to non-inclusive-resort locations to eat or shop away from our hotel was a minimum of 150 pesos ($11.50 plus tip). Usually more. There's also the problem that Cancun taxis don't have meters; you settle the price upfront before the driver pulls away, and they will ask for what they think they can get. One guy quoted 460 pesos to get to a certain place; the driver for the return trip asked for 250 pesos. We finally realized that our hotel had a chart of prices at the taxi stand, so we were able to quote (and get) the appropriate price. (Which is not to denigrate the citizens and workers of Cancun; it's just a certain part of the system that can be exploited and often is. Every worker in the hotel zone, from cleaners to taxi drivers, is insanely solicitous, helpful and friendly. And in downtown, which is less tourist-friendly, they don't speak as much English but are pretty darned patient and nice to stupid tourists who stumble in with about 20 words of Spanish between them.) The bus is much cheaper ... but ... we take the bus all the time in real life. This vacation was about the experience of luxury!

The other source of the spending was that we were in a high-end all-inclusive, but we hadn't paid for all-inclusive. So if we were lazy and wanted to eat their breakfast or dinner buffet, it was gonna cost us. One day we stayed on the beach and ordered drinks and snacks from a waiter who was coming around to the lounge chairs; we ended up spending 1250 pesos (almost $100) over the course of the afternoon. We splurged on a Thai restaurant where we had a little open-air dining... platform? ... covered with a grass roof and with a railing around it. We crossed a short bridge to get to our table, and we were out on the lagoon with the lights of the hotel zone ringing the quiet water in the distance. Un. Believable. It was like being in a dream.

So we paid for convenience, for the luxury of laziness, and once in a while we paid for an unforgettable experience.

This will be our last real vacation for the foreseeable future (meaning next year or so; though we'll try to manage a weekend here and there), so we're glad we lived it up. None of us has ever had such a relaxing vacation, nor one where we were able to unplug and truly leave work and responsibilities at home.

***

Came home to my half-installed "Getting Things Done" way of life, so part of today AS and I cleaned out the front closet so that our filing cabinets are forward-facing and fully accessible, then loaded all of our files (which we'd already labeled and organized) in there. The closet could use some fine-tuning, but everything fits and has a place, so that'll do for now. It was nice to go through the mail and stick it in my "inbox," then clear out my inbox when I had a chance and recycle or file or stick in my purse to take to work as needed. Tasks occurred to me and I added to the appropriate task lists, secure in the fact that I would deal with them when it was convenient to do so. AS spent some time getting her system going, so soon she should be fully on board with the process as well. If all goes well this week and I feel like the system is working for me, I'll show NT what I've learned and get him on board as well.

***

As I was balancing my Number Crunch spreadsheet, I noticed that my paycheck was nearly $150 less than usual, while AS's and NT's were slightly more. I checked mine out, and it showed that federal taxes were $150 more, state taxes $30 more, and my bus pass money wasn't taken out. Since the bus pass is $42.50 before tax, I find it hard to believe that it would cause such a huge jump in withholding. I'm guessing HR messed up more than just forgetting to take out my bus pass money, but I'll have to follow up with them tomorrow to find out. Since NT's and AS's actually went up a bit in the new year, I don't think it's an across-the-board tax hike that caused this. Really hoping we don't have to budget a $300-per-month drop in income unexpectedly!

***

Speaking of my incompetent HR department, the local HR lady who said there might be adoption reimbursement stopped me in the hall to say she might have been wrong about that. The headquarters HR guy told her there was no such thing. She was going to ask the guy she thought had gotten reimbursement for his adoption. He's a big-wig, so it has occurred to me that maybe they have "better" benefits than us peons. *Shrug.* I'd already budgeted for the adoption, so I'm not going to worry about it.

***

When I dipped into my work email to ask the HR manager about my paycheck, I noticed there was a short-notice, all-staff conference call with our CEO regarding "recapitalization" of our company. Sounds scary, but I won't know more until I get in to work tomorrow. I feel strangely blase (must be the lingering effects of Cancun!).

***

I got a packet from the accountant who handled my and NT's taxes last year. Last year I was freaked about him because he kept promising they would come soon and yet he didn't get them handled until the last minute. But, seeing the complicated stuff he did to report NT's UK income, I was glad he'd handled them. So I think I'm going with him again this year. Hopefully he'll be clearer about when I can expect them (if he'd said "April 14," I wouldn't have minded; it was that he kept making excuses and acting like they were just around the corner).

The new tax season reminds me that I didn't do anything about the past years where I was evidently meant to report NT's UK rental income and didn't. If there was a simple way to pay the US what we owe, plus interest, I'd just do it. But I'd have to either figure out how to revise the taxes myself, or hire someone out at several hundred dollars per tax year (2007-2009). The total of what we owe is probably about $1500 (if that), yet it would probably cost about that to get the problem rectified. So I've decided to ignore the problem. The chances of getting caught or audited are slim; if I do, I'll deal with it then.

***

I've been trying to redeem AS's Southwest points for $500 in Amazon gift cards; the points are there, but for some reason I can't order anything. I need to call them tomorrow, because I think I've exhausted every online recourse.

We made some good progress on spending $2500 on my and NT's Citi ThankYou cards; when we do, we'll get $500 worth of Amazon gift cards each. We still have a while before we get there, but we used the cards whenever possible on vacation.

What else? I'm kinda winding down now; brain is shutting down in preparation for overdrive at work tomorrow.

Oh, one thing is we may have had a windfall of about 300 pounds from NT's flat; something about a lease extension that they didn't need the money for after all. But the email telling us about it was very confusing because it also seemed to be recommending that we DO extend the land lease for his condo, and that it would cost about 500 pounds. In which case we'd be losing 200 instead of gaining 300. NT has to ask them to clarify. They're a good management company in that they've kept the place rented with very little hassle, but their email communications aren't very well crafted.

Oh yeah! In the course of decluttering for "Getting Things Done," we found a $75 gift certificate for a pilates/yoga/massage place that NT and I had gotten for AS for Xmas a year or two ago. We thought it was lost forever. It doesn't have an expiration date, so maybe she can still use it! Considering we just recently lost an entire year's supply of contact lenses and had to reorder ($275 or so), this is a nice surprise that seems to sort of redress the balance.

Hmm...oh, I have a bit of EF progress to record, but now I'm getting really sleepy, so I'll just update my sidebar later. $25 and 40some cents in interest.

Great to be back! I'll try to post photos of vacation this weekend!

... And relax!

January 10th, 2012 at 03:16 pm

A quick update of a whirlwind week. 2 things were happening simultaneously:

- Reading and implementing "Getting Things Done"

That started first. Then:

- A worrisome blob of blood in AS's ultrasound scan Thursday that looked like it could be a rare condition called vasa previa.

As we learned more about vasa previa and waited for a more sophisticated scan (which was set for today), we continued "Getting Things Done." It helped immensely to make time pass and keep us from fretting too much. Last night we finished gathering up every scrap of paper outside the menu, grocery list and NT's school stuff, and putting it all in manila folders, A-Z, active indiscriminately filed with inactive materials. (I even bought a $20 label maker as the author recommends, to make everything seem more official.) Everything "actionable" is either in a physical in-basket or on a Google tasks list. The next couple days I will try to clear out the closet enough to have our file cabinets easily accessible, and everything will go in there from now on.

AS is on board since she's already read "Getting Things Done" and knows what it entails. NT is very interested to learn as well; once I've practiced it for a couple weeks and can confirm that it IS do-able and DOES make for "stress-free productivity," I will show him how to get onto the system as well.

Still, even with all the exciting organization and decluttering, it was hard not to worry about the upcoming ultrasound. If it was vasa previa, a few things would change:
- We'd have to cancel our trip to Mexico (scheduled to start this Friday). AS couldn't be far from the hospital, since survivability (for the baby) absolutely depends on immediate admission upon labor, and there's always a chance of early labor in pregnancy.
- Parental leave calendars might change drastically if doctor decided that a scheduled C-section at 35 weeks was advisable.
- AS might be spending days or weeks in the hospital, before or after the birth, depending on how things progressed.
- Costs would likely skyrocket for us (a routine birth will be free under her health plan but we aren't sure about one with complications).
- Worrying would be likely to take an emotional toll on the entire household.

So, obviously, it was hard not to run through scenarios in my mind. The filing REALLY helped.

But, happily, today AS had her follow-up ultrasound, and doctors and techs confirmed that it's definitely NOT vasa previa nor anything worrisome at all. In fact, when she said we had a trip to Mexico planned, the tech said "Bon voyage!"

So, so relieved, I feel almost dizzy! But of course, there was a whole other set of to-do's that I'd put off since they might not be necessary:
- Buy swimsuit and sunblock
- Get summer clothes out of storage, and pack
- Research hospital locations near our Cancun hotel (still want to be prepared for other stuff)
- Add some missing TSA security info to our reservation online
- Give key to our friend who will be catsitting

Thanks to "Getting Things Done," I have an easily accessible list and it won't be hard to check things off and be good to go by Friday morning!

I had some random financial updates (both gripes AND good stuff) but I'll leave it for now; want to get home and celebrate the good news in person!

Progress on January debt goal

January 4th, 2012 at 03:17 pm

I am WIPED. Sunday and Monday nights I stayed up late finishing "Getting Things Done" by David Allen and starting to get organized per his plan. Then last night I randomly got no sleep. I'm a 6- to 8-hours-per-night girl; can function on 6, do well on 7 and thrive on 8 (or 9, when I get a chance). Each of these last three nights I've gotten 4.5 to 5.5 hours of sleep. Not good.

So I'll have to update you on my getting-organized progress when I'm more conscious and rational. At this point I feel like I'm hallucinating. But I wanted to quick update my debt progress, since our mortgage payments hit on Tuesday:

US: $436 to principal
UK1: $262 to principal
UK2: $55 to principal
UK3: $58 to principal

All told, $811 paid. That brings us to $997 down, $1503 to go on the January debt goal.