Just tidbits about money and finance.

Friday, March 31, 2006

Good Articles at CNN/Money Today

Meet The Parkers from the Extreme Savers series. I liked this couple. They sound like real people. I love the photo of their Halloween costumes.

Will the deficit ruin my retirement? A question I've always wondered about. It's part of why you should factor in inflation when setting your target retirement goal. The future's brightness or dimness is going to effect how far your dollars go. I liked the advice that says you shouldn't panic. Don't panic, but do plan. Planning is the only way to prepare yourself for the possibilities.


What Are Your Luxuries?

Jonathan asks What are your luxuries?

I have to think about this one because some of them are must-haves, though I know I could live without them. Living off-grid for 10 days while camping really forces you to evaluate what it is that you need for living and what's nice, but not essential.

Things I absolutely must have:
1) Clean-smelling soap, shampoo, conditioner, good lotion, Chapstick, 100% cotton towels in large sizes.
2) 2 Down pillows. I've tried other kinds but they don't fluff as nice. One for under the head. One to hug.
3) Warm blankets. I don't use a down comforter at home, but my 20F-rated sleeping bag sure is.
4) A good chair for my desk.
5) Quality ear plugs for blocking out the world when I need some quiet but can't get to a quiet place.
6) Good food. Cheese, good bread, and meat. If can get those at every lunch and dinner, I'd be quite happy for the rest of my life. I actually get cranky if I don't eat animal protein at least once a day. But I do occaisionally have a meatless day. If it's really good food, I don't notice its absence. But my stomach will.
7) Good wine and beer. I love me the Guinness. I love a great red wine. Cheaper is better, but I've had $70 merlots from Silver Oak that have rocked my world. I can be happy with an $8 Rioja if the moment is just right.
8) Intellectual stimulation. Books and puzzles. I absolutely cannot live without diversions like these. Online print media doesn't satisfy me like a book or newspaper.
9) Driving. It's a luxury to say, 'I want to drive there' instead of riding the bus. Some days, there is great pleasure in driving ridiculously fast for a few moments in the summer with the windows open.
10) Travel. I love taking trips for the weekend, or overseas, or camping. My time off is a luxury I cannot live without.
11) Living in the city. To me, I'll drive an insane commute to my office rather than live in suburban hell.
12) Paying extra to be unlisted in the phonebook.

Things that are actual luxuries I could live without if I must.
1) Quality pens and paper. I love a well-balanced fountain pen. I love a nice chewable Bic Stic. (Yes, I know, chewing on pens is bad for my teeth, but I do it all the time when I am thinking.) I still send snail mail and I still like receiving it too. Journal keeping is fun for me and I like putting my thoughts onto nice paper.
2) Quality wool and fiber products. I've got a stack of cashmere sweaters, handspun wool shawls, hand knit socks. The time and effort is crazy expensive, but there is nothing like a custom fit sock.
3) Good dishwashing detergent. I like the suds they make when I wash the dishes.
4) Rubber gloves. My posh blue vinyl ones spare my hands. See #11. The thickness makes a difference!
5) Ice skates and boots. I have a wonderful pair of semi-custom skates. I wouldn't trade them for the world. I'd rather die than skate on rentals again.
6) Broadband access. I love it. At work and at home.

So readers, I pose to you, what are your luxuries? I once dated a boy who told me that he'd spare no expense for food. One of our first dates was Nancy Oakes' wonderful restaurant Boulevard in San Francisco, so I knew he meant it. What about you? What will you spare no expense for?


4 Interviews with Women Personal Finance Writers

Four women personal finance writers on the Diane Rehm Show's 2006 archives.

  • Judith Levine
  • Liz Perle
  • Michelle Singletary
  • Jane Bryant Quinn

    As many of you know, I love NPR. It's free and one of my favorite charitable contribution recipients. Diane's show is on during my workday, but I love to listen to the show and her callers while I'm spinning yarn or knitting at home. The only interview I've had a chance to hear is Jane Bryant Quinn. I think my favorite part was when she revealed that she's had her own dog of investments too and that she's not a perfect investor. Sometimes I read PFblogs and I think these people are all too perfect for me. I make mistakes a lot. I try to learn from them, but it's nice to hear that even the gurus make mistakes too.

    So check these out. Listen to Diane Rehm more often when you aren't listening to Money Blogger Podcast.

  • |


    Thursday, March 30, 2006

    Ebay Update

    I ran two used book auctions. One sold, the other did not. I mailed the package today, but I made a mistake. Being frugal and a little environmentally conscious, I re-used a white USPS Priority Mail box. BIG MISTAKE.

    I wanted to send the books by Media Mail rate since it's discounted from regular postage, but slower. But because I used the white box with the red and blue stripes, I was not allowed to send it via Media Mail. So while I charged a fixed fee for shipping, I ended up losing 15 cents. It's not a lot, but when you're sending a $4.00 package, it's annoying.

    But I made my first sale! Yippee! Netting myself $3.85.



    Wake Up Ladies!

    The Wall Street Journal ran an article on Feburary 22, 2006 discussing long term care costs. As the article notes, it's especially important for women.

    Many women spend their declining years taking care of their spouses and loved ones. By the time they are in need of assistance, there is no one left to help them out. Their longevity becomes a financial liability. She ends up in a long-term care facility on Medicare or Medicaid to pay for the bills.

    The compelling figure is that 11% of seniors will rack up between $100K-$250K in expenses. An additional 5% will pay over $250K .

    What's a girl to do? There's really only two things outlined in the article.

    1) Buy a long term care insurance policy. Most are for 3 years, which the article points out will only delay impoverishment. The sidebar in the article says 8% of the folks who buy this type of insurance exhaust the policy, i.e. stay longer than 3 years in a facility.

    I have to tell you a sad story here. While I was working for the nursing home facility (field installing servers), I met a lot of different folks. One day I was accosted by this nice bouncy and friendly resident. She was full of questions. Turns out this sassy granny in her jogging suit wasn't a resident. She was visiting her husband. He'd been in there for 10 years after a debilitating stroke. 10 years is a long time.

    2) Longevity insurance. It's a lump sum payment you make after age 55 which will give you guaranteed income later in life. But the catch is if you get sick before you reach the age when the payouts start. You'll be screwed in the meantime if you haven't saved enough.

    So what to do? SAVE NOW. Above all else, save money now.

    There are a few things I saw that gave me some comfort about nursing homes. One is that the staff, or at least most of the staff really cares about their residents. It's a job, but it's not without emotions. The second thing is that the nursing home administrators will work with a family to get them covered to stay in the facility. Even if that means helping people apply for Medicaid. The other sidebar in the article says that 6% of seniors who go into the home paying their own way will end up on Medicaid.

    The last thing is that even young people can end up in nursing homes. I remember one bitter young man, a smoker. He was wheelchair bound and living in the facility until his legs healed up enough for him to go home and care for himself. He had had a catastrophic accident of some sort and didn't have anyone at home to help him, so the state put him into a home.

    So many of us are maybe one or two financial disasters away from the poorhouse. Start saving now, little by little. Plan now for the future before it arrives.



    Paging Mapgirl! Come In Mapgirl!

    My email address was buried in a post somewhere. I figured if folks wanted to reach me privately they could leave a comment since I moderate them.

    But since some folks want a quicker, faster way to reach me, I figured I should open an email account for this blog. It's got this really catchy name. 'mapgirlsfiscalchallenge' at Google's mail service. I know it's really long. I thought about taking 'MapgirlsFC' but oh well. You're going to have to be really motivated to reach me and type in all those letters.

    But please do email me. I love responses, emails, comments. Let me know if there is anything I can do for you here on this blog, answer a question, explain something better, etc. I keep telling myself that I hate doing tech support, and yet somehow I remain ever eager to help others on their financial paths. (In a non-professional way of course.)

    Thanks for reading!



    Frugal Fashion Advice

    Whenever you read a fashion magazine, they tell you how to go from day into evening by changing all your accessories. Buy a single item of clothing, but accessorize it for different looks!

    Sure, ok. Save money buying one thing, and then load up on accessory crap! GREAT! Where's the savings now?

    Try DE-accessorizing. Today I almost put on two necklaces. I try to wear a necklace I got from my boyfriend everyday, but I have a pretty bead necklace I got recently which matches my shirt even better. I exercised some discipline and wore only one. What are you wearing? Earrings? Rings? Necklaces? Belts? Brooches?

    I stick with simple and classy. Pearls, single pendants, plain rings with no stones to fall out. (Diamonds do fall out of prong settings. Just ask the lady at work in tears who lost a 1.5 ct solitaire. Luckily someone found it a month later and the janitors hadn't sucked it up while vacuuming.)

    I tend to have a lifestyle that doesn't lend itself well to jewelry on the hands and wrists. I knit, spin and dye my own yarns. That stuff snags or just gets in the way. I remember lofting my bed in college and smashing up my class ring to the point where it couldn't be worn. I'm still sad about that.

    Simplicity and less conspicuous consumption is the key. Deaccessorizing is probably hard for folks who think they look more 'together' with all that extra junk on. I remember reading once in The Official Preppy Handbook, by Lisa Birnbach, to paraphrase, 'put on all the jewelry you want to wear and then take one piece off.' Why stop at one? Try two or three.



    Wednesday, March 29, 2006

    New Links & Money Blogger Podcast

    I've added a bunch of new people tonight to the blogroll on the left.

    I wanted to give a special shout out to Money Blogger Podcast. Scott does a great job with these interviews. There's jazzy music to start it off, which sounds very professional to me. Usually I don't listen to MP3's. I listen to streaming radio from one of three stations, WAMU, the local NPR affiliate in DC, Theory Radio, or Play The Records Radio.

    I saw Money Blogger Podcast but never really paid attention till I followed a tracking link there. I was really shocked to see that I was mentioned in Boston Gal's interview, so I just had to listen. I am extremely flattered to be mentioned by Jane Dough. You see, Jane's blog is my inspiration. It all started this past January, not long after New Year's, I got a random instant message from a friend pointing me to her blog. I got hooked by her inspiring posts and motivation. I started reading her regularly, Madame X and the entire PF blogosphere. Within about 2 weeks, I had my own PFblog. It's been a lucrative friendship. Jane's gotten me off my duff to call for my long lost DC tax refund.

    I look forward to listening to all the podcasts and catching up. There's many of my favorites on there. I can't wait!



    What Makes You Feel Poor?

    Money Dummy wrote this in response to Madame X's post on what makes you feel poor. I think both posts are excellent. Madame X asked a really important question about how we *feel*. It's another mind over money relationship that I'm glad she brought up. She's very thoughtful that Madame X.

    I liked Money Dummy's commentary because it shows that you make yourself feel poor by the reponse you give when making a choice about how to spend money. She recognizes that being postive about the choice you made is the better option rather than labeling yourself poor. Because when that moment arises when you're faced with making a similar choice, rather than calling yourself 'poor' you'll just realize you're making an active choice to spend your money differently.

    If you were entertained and occupied with free things, would you even realize you were poor? I used to play in the dirt as a kid, digging up worms, making mud pies, 'soups' of flower petals, water and dirt in buckets. I was doing this until I was in 3rd grade. I bet kids today would turn their noses up at make-believe play like that.



    Cobble Cobble!

    Does anyone still visit a cobbler? Excuse me, a shoe repairman?

    I have these great Joan & David square-toe loafers I bought at the Outlet in Petaluma, CA years ago. (Marked down to $80.00 for $120.00 shoes. That's $10.00 a year for the last 8 years!) They need some tender love, but I can't for the life of me, find a good cobbler anywhere in Northern Virginia.

    For $15.00-$30.00 bucks you can repair your shoes to the point where they look and feel new, but without the blisters all over your feet from breaking them in. I know that pointy toes are all the fashion rage, but I really don't care what people in the office think about these shoes. They're so damned comfortable I don't want to trash them just yet.

    That's my frugal tip of the day. Take your shoes to the cobbler for some TLC.



    On this week's Festival Submission

    Saving Solider took a lot of issue with my Festival submission. He jumped all over me highlighting the downsides.

    1) There's a reason why there's a question mark in the title. I'm not saying that it's fully guaranteed like FDIC. I think I outline some of the risks in the post. I was just presenting a personal finance idea that appeals to me.

    2) Along with the risk of participants defaulting, I also outline how participating is potentially less risky than some other investments because of the sociology of immigrant status. Imagine you are an immigrant who barely speaks English. Banks aren't willing to lend to you because you have no credit history. You aren't willing to go to the bank because no one there speaks your language. You can barely fill out the form. You don't have pay stubs. You don't have tax returns, a mortgage, or a credit card. What do you do to raise capital then? For many people, participating is the best and only way of raising entrepreneurial capital for buying a business for $30K-70K. What if you want to raise more capital? You aren't going to screw over your friends. And word will get around if you do. My mother's gossip channels run around the country, into Canada, and Korea, of course.

    3) My reasons for considering participating are that I know this social group very well. These are families who took care of me while my parents were hard at work. These are the people who went to church with me. They will be the pall bearers and eulogizers for my parents, guests at my wedding. I have a lot of trust in this group. As I stated, it's about vetting the participants, something not easily done over the Internet with a credit rating on

    So I have very good PRO arguments why I should do this. I see Saving Soldier's point, but I'm not in it with con-men. I'm in it with my extended community of people who are like family to me. If anything, I'm the young one who's most likely to let them all down if I get laid off.

    I may have made a mistake in writing about this subject at all, but to me, 'geh' is a real life example of micro-financing like Grameen Bank and If you set it up right, it can work. I've watched it work and it can work very well.



    Tuesday, March 28, 2006

    3 or 4 Years Into a Mortgage?

    This is a great article from CNNMoney. It kind of highlights the problem of ARM's and easy credit/access to money. My favorite point is that the 3rd and 4th years of a mortgage are when most forclosures happen. Then there are relavant statistics on who has mortgages and who doesn't.

    It's worth reading. It kind of highlights why I'm saving up a cash cushion right now instead of putting all my money towards my debt. Techincally, per Kiplinger's tools, I should be putting away almost $8000.00 in cash reserves. If I meet my goal this year, I'll be halfway there.



    Update On My Cheap Haircut

    I know it's totally uneven on the bottom. But my girlfriends didn't even notice I cut it until I pointed it out to them. It's still long hair. Though as soon as I took my ponytail down, they saw how badly I had it hacked off. Since I wear my hair up most of the time in a bun on ponytail, they agreed that I can get away with this. However since it was craft-day, they offered to trim it up for me. It's nice when your friends are frugal with you.

    I have noticed immediately that I use less shampoo and conditioner. I am trying to stretch out this expensive bottle of salon conditioner which I bought to rescue my hair from the damage of a cheaper silicone-based hair product. (Silicone is very bad and dries out the hair, though it's marketed as a way of making it smoother and sleeker.) I can tell already that I use at least one third to a half less every day.

    This hair experiment is definitely a keeper. I know if I have a fancy event or wish my hair to look really good, like for my cousin's wedding this summer, I'll go to a salon for a real trim, but at this point, I'm very happy that I've put off spending $40.00 for another few months.

    There was a commenter on the previous post about getting a cheaper cut from national chains. Well, I've gone to Haircuttery many times for a cheap blunt cut. It's about $12.00 for a cut now. Add on a long hair charge or two for the length of hair, tax and tip, it's easily still a $35.00 cut. My hair was so long, that it's been dry cut before and I've received a double long hair charge at establishments like this.

    What's interesting is that one of the girls at craft-day has naturally curly hair and her boyfriend (who was in attendance) cuts her hair for her. She says that the curls tend to hide any mismatched lengths, so it's more forgiving than poker-straight Asian hair. Give it a try! What's the worse that can happen? You have to go to a salon for another cut.



    Festival of Frugality #16 is Up!

    Dawn at Frugal for Life has the newest Festival of Frugality available now.

    This Festival has the most submissions ever this week. She's divided them nicely into concept categories. I think it's a really good way to sort them out. Everyone out there can shop for a good deal and often knows where to root them out. I think the real meat of Frugal Living is found in those posts at the very bottom that help you maintain your frugal mindset.

    Cheers and good luck with your frugal journeys!



    Checkout The Checkout

    The Checkout is one of my favorite consumer news websites. It's the WaPo's blog by Caroline Mayer. It's a good one stop location for product recalls, class action suit information and general news of use to consumers when the go shopping. (The recent yogurt post and its follow up are two of my favorites since I'm also kind of short.)



    Depreciating Bribes

    Much has been written about former Congressman Randall 'Duke' Cunningham's nefarious bribery activities, so I won't write about it here. But a small half column article in the WSJ caught my eye.

    The Treasury Department is auctioning off this man's ill-gotten gains, namely some antique home furnishings which a defense contractor purchased for $12,000.00 and had delivered to Cunningham's house. Presumably Cunningham asked for these items so that he didn't have a paper trail of cash deposits to be tracked through the the bank. It seems that this stuff isn't worth the money that was paid for it, or that they can't command top dollar for it at auction.

    From the article:
    [Victor Weiner, an independent appraiser from NYC] says, Mr. Cunningham's items aren't that impressive..."I would have taken the cash."



    Monday, March 27, 2006

    Free Starbucks Coffee!

    I just ordered a two tech books from Barnes & Noble. I got a free sample of Starbucks coffee. Not just for one small pot, but enough for 3 or 4 of those small pots for one or two people.

    They must think that if you're a developer, you need caffeine. Well, in this case, I do.

    There are three books total in my order and for some reason all three shipped separately. I think that the second shipment may also have coffee in it, which is great. What's not so great is that I am a dork and I bought a book I already own. That's ok. I'm going to take it to a brick and mortar Barnes and Noble for a store credit.

    I am hoping that when the third book arrives, it's got more coffee!



    Traffic Directions

    This is going to sound like one of my automobile focused posts, but it's really about web traffic.

    Tim at asks what draws in subscribers to his feed.

    In the few short months this blog has been open, I've tried to follow FreeMoneyFinance's advice on generating web traffic. He's got pretty good advice and a lot of it has worked for me.

    1) Comments drive traffic. Be polite, funny and helpful, folks will naturally click-through to your blog.

    2) Participate in Carnivals and Festivals. It really drives traffic to your site from all over the Internet.

    3) Get linked on non-PF Blogs. I'm lucky to know some longtime bloggers (5+ yrs) as real life friends. They list me on their blogs, though I don't return the favor since I'm trying to keep mine on-topic. (And also because I haven't devoted time to changing this template to make a second sidebar to add non-PF links.) The broader base of readers you can attract, the more traffic you'll have. My blog friends range from knitters, web designers, to political writers. I'm always grateful for the traffic from wherever it comes.

    4) Be grateful for the traffic. If you have new readers, welcome them and acknowledge their presence and how much you appreciate it. Folks who get a lot of press like Jane Dough and Jonathan always thank readers that arrive from new referrals.

    5) Have stimulating content. Write it or reference it, but make sure it's something people want to read. I often hesitate when I'm writing. I ask myself a few questions. A) Is it on-topic? B) Is it useful for other people? C) Is it funny? One of my pet peeves about a lot of PF Blogs is the bombardment of advertisements. I hate ads so much, I don't own a TV because of it. There are some PF Blogs that have an annoying amount of ads, but their content is too fantastic that I can't ignore it. Those sites get my eyeballs because there's always a gem in there.

    6) Make a connection. Often I feel that I'm taking a risk posting some of the things I do. I've been on the interweb since 1992 when I got my first email account. I first discovered Yahoo! in 1994. But even with the fastest broadband speed innovations of the last 10 years, people really only want one thing, a connection to other people. I think part of the appeal of my blog is that I try to write about real things that have happened to me, that ellicit an empathetic reaction. Why are folks like Save Karyn so popular? It's because they've got a compelling story to tell. Folks relate to it. I don't think my story is very compelling, but I know I'm writing about stuff that draws people in.

    7) Patience. Slow and steady wins the race. There are good days, there are bad days. There are days where I don't want to post anything. There are days when I post a gazillion times. Give it time. Things don't happen overnight. Sometimes it's slow moving word of mouth that gets it done. Read The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell if you want some insight on it.

    8) Run themes for topics. That'll keep 'em coming back. FreeMoneyFinance is really good at running a series. I'm not so great, but readers know I get stuck on a topic for about a week even if I don't label things 1, 2, 3...

    9) Read and link to other blogs. This goes back to #1, but making friends with other bloggers helps. Email folks privately. When I first started, I asked Caitlin at Clutter2Cash if I could steal her Save-O-Meter, and my first referral was born! I had a private email exchange last night with a very prominent PF Blogger and we shared a good laugh. I got a new referral link and #6, a new connection. Reach out. The premise of Google's Page Rank system is essentially that if a site is linked to a lot, it must be a valuable site that is a popular destination, therefore, it is useful.

    10) Time your posts. I write most of my content late at night. I publish them out during the next day during those peak coffee-break moments in the work day. I've noticed 10AM EST, Lunchtime, and 4pm EST are three of those moments when people are reading. This makes sure that readers of PFBlogs.Org see my posts in the first three pages at those times. I used publish at 8am before I left for the office, but I noticed if I waited 2 hours, there was a noticable bump in traffic.



    Carnival of Personal Finance #41 is Up!

    Carnival of Personal Finance #41 is available now at Financial Baby Steps. I have to thank the Carnival hostess, the beautiful baby Margo for again posting me towards the top!

    The quick two that caught my eye:

    I liked NCN's 'pouring' of savings little by little into the empty glass of his savings account.

    Health and Savings from Single Guy. I swear, this is excellent advice on maintaining your size, good health and finances. I was ticked off at having to buy all new pants when I got all muscle-y from ice skating. (Went from a size 4 to a size 8!)



    Sunday, March 26, 2006

    DC Area Real Estate Outlook

    A full section from The Washington Post. Gotta love WaPo with the timely feature. The warm weather is just a few weeks away and there were a mad number of open houses today on my short drive to Old Town Alexandria.

    My particular favorite is the guy who wants to buy a condo in the area I live in. I admit, it's insanely priced around parts of Arlington, but if his ambitions are modest, he could probably buy a place for less than $300K. I think he's just being stuck up about where he wants to live. The article does not address exactly why he thinks he can't buy a place in Arlington. I suspect he has some criterion that can only be explained by some weird irrational bias he has about a neighborhood. I won't even speculate about that, but note that he's only looking in Clarendon and Ballston.



    Paycheck Challenge - Update

    I'd better label this the March Paycheck Challenge. I can see myself doing this several times this year until I get it right.

    That last statement makes it sounds like I'm not doing so well, does it? I'm actually doing ok. I have $255.39 less the $17.00 or so I spent on take out Friday (with enough leftovers for lunch on Saturday) and $10.00 I spent on dinner last night.

    My planned expenses till I get paid again on the 31st:
    1 tank of gas, $25.00-30.00 (It's gotten shamefully expensive this week!)
    Meals out, no more than $15 a day for 5 days = $75.00
    2 Concert tickets in NYC = $46.80

    I actually had to charge it because they didn't take my Visa check card online, (Remember those Visa Extras I'm getting?) but I will be putting out a payment to the card company for that amount, just to be disciplined. That total still brings me well under the remaining $255.39.



    $15 Workout?

    I got invited to an Indian Dance aerobics class in Maryland about two weeks ago. I got in for free because my friend is thinking of coordinating a class in Virgina with this instructor. It was very fun, Bollywood/hip-hop dance moves. I am kind of interested in doing it again. But here's the rub. It's $15 a session for about 90 minutes.

    I hate working out. I hate, hate, hate it. I had mandatory athletics in junior high and high school. While it was a fun and good experience in many ways, I hate wheezing from wind sprints in 40 degree weather for field hockey and lacrosse. Hence my desire to get fat eating Cheetos while typing at work. Oh the other thing is that I've been blessed with good genes and quick, but slowing metabolism. I don't *have* to workout to stay thin, I just moderate what I eat.

    Now for a $10-20 cover on a Friday or Saturday night, I can dance for 6 HOURS instead of an hour and a half. I know I'll be all stinky from the cigarette smoke, but I was going to shower anyway. It's a much more social experience going out dancing. If you're out there throwing it down non-stop, it's a great workout, but I admit, it doesn't work the abs like the Indian dancing class did.

    So I can't tell if I want to spend $15 a class for 6 weeks. That's $90. What's a girl to do? Get fat and be frugal? Get fit and be $90 poorer? Go dancing out a lot, but potentially spend even more than $90? It's a tough call.



    Saturday, March 25, 2006

    Oprah's Debt Diet

    I don't have a TV, so normally I wouldn't watch. But through PFBloggers like Boston Gal, Jane Dough, they keep me alert to TV trends I'd normally miss. I can watch clips for free online. Watch some of these clips. They're grotesque. It's like a car accident on the side of the road. You can't help but look. I try not to judgemental because debt happens to everyone, and yet...

    These people are pretty crazy. They're liars. They're cheats and gluttons. (350 pairs of jeans?! Are you freakin' kidding me?) It's frightening. I'm amazed that they aren't deathly afraid of the poorhouse. They just keep on digging their debt hole deeper. That hole is their grave! They all seem to live in the suburbs. Haven't they seen an unwashed homeless person recently? Do they really want to lose the roof over their heads just to keep a freakin' piano in the house and an SUV in the driveway? The beggars on my commute remind me that I am only one or two financial disasters away from being homeless on the street.

    Oprah talks about the relationship between money and emotions, one of my favorite topics. Jean Chatzky mentions that it's desire that makes us keep up with the Joneses. Now I'm not Buddhist, but there is something to the foundation of that religion. Buddhism says that strife comes from desire, therefore you should desire less. I strive to desire less always. Be humble in your desires and needs. I really believe in the Shaker melody, 'Simple Gifts'. (Aaron Copeland lovingly uses it in his classic master work, Appalachian Spring. Scroll down for #7, "Appalachian Spring: Doppio movimento". Bernstein = genius!)

        When true simplicity is gain'd,
    To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd.

    I know I did a very bad thing by buying my lovely Lilly Pulitzer skirt last month. It was feeding a coveting feeling I'd had for years for her work. But I know that I never have to buy another Lilly again. Part of curbing desire is subjugating it. Control it, don't let it control you.

    It's all about mind and money. The biggest thing to getting out of debt is spending less. I make enough, but I spend it. I have only my mortgage and my credit card as debts now, but I know my credit card spending always seems to creep back up. It's the biggest struggle I have in my finances. To live more simply is possible. In this upcoming week, I'm going to try and find some websites about living simply and share them with you.

    [The best free vocal recording I could find was here. Scroll down for it. It's quite good. All the rest of the recording clips I could find on the lousy interweb were plodding renditions and not uplifting as it should be.]



    5 Strategies for Drinking Cheaply

    The best piece of advice is to become a lightweight. (Tip #1) Seriously. Then all you need to do is nurse a single beer all night. That was me in college. The me you saw on Thursday night was a totally different story, but I digress.

    A friend of mine taught me at a young age to tip the first drink really generously so you'll get good service the rest of the night. I can't say that advice has worked for me. Usually it's by being a regular patron and being recognized by the bartender. I'm a bit mousy so it's not me the bartender knows. Go out with your barfly friends to their regular hangouts on their regular nights. (Tip #2) That's another way to keep the bar tab cheap.

    I don't mind buying a round of drinks. I have been known to splurge and pick up five or six beers for my friends. Paradoxically, I am frugal so that I can be generous when I feel like it. We like going to places that serve more than Miller and Bud. We have a preference for dark stouts and ambers. (I love Guinness, but let me recommend a local brew, Old Dominion Oak Barrel Stout, a very admirable beer.) Sometimes it's the wallop a beer packs that makes the difference. (Tip #3) I like Guinness a lot, but I can have just one or two for the night and be perfectly happy.

    In my firm insistence of being self-sufficient, sometimes I carry cash and just pay out of pocket for each beer I get. (Tip #4) No one's drinking on my tab and I keep myself to my limit. It's a pretty good strategy if you want to make sure you're not drinking or spending too much.

    Oh, and the killer app on your cell phone isn't that you can call people wirelessly. It's that most models have a calculator. So don't fall back on the excuse of being drunk made you tip generously. Be fair, in a town like DC, please tip 17-20% since the cost of living is high. But if you're too tipsy to figure it out properly, break out the calculator on your phone.(Tip #5)

    I hope I've busted the myth that people who are interested in frugality and personal finance blogging aren't out to have fun. Let's get real here, I love going out as much as the next person, maybe more, but it doesn't have to break the bank to have a good time.



    Friday, March 24, 2006

    I Cut It Off

    I hacked off about 12" of hair tonight. I put it up in a ponytail, not high, but not too low. I bound it with two good hair elastics, and three clear poly bands. (They're like rubberbands, but better for your hair, and cheap.) I was only going to cut off the 10" required for a donation at Locks of Love, but then I thought of the kids who need the wigs and my scissors kept moving higher.

    So I have about a foot-long ponytail to send them. I hope they don't mind the yucky split ends and the dry condition it's in. I would have cut my hair ages ago, but I was aiming for the free haircut.

    Now I can rest easy and I don't have to spend so much money on hair care products. You literally watch it go down the drain. Someone at worked who is bald was surprised that I washed my hair everyday, but some people have to wash their hair everyday. I realize some folks have dry hair and scalps and washing constantly is not a good idea, but we each have a regimen to follow that helps us look our best.

    Jonathan wrote about how much Aveda costs compared to Pert. I have tried the cheapest of drugstore shampoos, and you do get what you pay for sometimes. Quality over quantity is sometimes important, and honestly, the unit cost of a squirt of shampoo or conditioner starts going through the roof when you have to use twice as much get your hair the same amount of clean or conditioned.



    Busy Day

    I finally got around to opening a 180-day CD at Millennium Bank. I had to wait for money to electronically transfer around, but today was the day. I have moved the Save-O-Meter to 50%, though technically I'm about 7 dollars short. NCN Network has the more accurate figure at 49.83%.

    Prime Rate, From the Chicago Fed's handy online glossary

    The interest rate charged by leading banks to their best, most secure customers. The rate is determined by the market forces affecting a banks' cost of funds and the rates that borrower will accept.

    While I was at the bank I saw the rate card for HELOC's. It's much better than the rate I am getting from my original loan. I am considering applying for it on Monday or Tuesday next week. They have Prime - 1.0%. I believe I'm paying Prime + ~1.2%. For all the hassle, I think it will be worth it. I don't need more credit, I just want to retire the old loan to get a better rate. I am wondering if there is any penalty if I do that. Even if there is, I believe that the monthly savings in interest will be worth the change for the duration of the loan.

    While shopping around for rates on, I noticed that a small player like Millennium doesn't show up on their regional rate surveys for either the 6 month CD or the HELOC. There are Prime - X% rates out there, but few places are offering a full percentage point less than Prime Rate.



    My Favorite DIY Sites

    There are two that I just love.

    Not Martha and LJC FYI. I actually found LJC through Not Martha a few years ago.

    Check out their wonderful project pages. Easy step by step instructions. I admit, they are very girly projects for the most part, but creative and cute. There are many gift and baking ideas. One of my favorites is the Shrinky Dink Wine Charms. If you're any good at drawing, you can make them look like your friends!

    Udandi has many wonderful craft ideas as well as being a PFBlogger. Check her out!



    Thursday, March 23, 2006

    Best Prices for Gas on I-95

    I've lived in the DC area for the past few years and spent four years in college in Maryland. I know the drive on I-95 between DC and Philly pretty well. I've stopped at most of the rest areas at least once. In my ongoing quest for the cheapest gas, I've learned a few more things I wanted to pass along.

    1) Don't be a gas snob. Exit 100 in a town called North East, MD, has a Flying J truck stop. It's a little bit off the beaten path but it usually has gas for a good price. It's not a Shell, Exxon or BP, but gas is gas. Buy it where it's cheap. If I'm running low before I hit the DE border, this is usually the place with the best price.

    2) Know what the gas taxes are like. Generally speaking, people think MD has high taxes on stuff, and the same is true for gas. Unless I am going to a cheap section of Baltimore, I rarely find gas cheaper in Charm City than in DC. Delaware, being an income-tax free state has low consumption taxes on everything, including gasoline. Therefore, I usually stop there for gas. Now here's the fun part...

    Last Saturday I left with a half tank. For some reason, my mileage took a plummet recently and I knew I'd have to tank up somewhere along the way. There is one rest stop in the middle of I-95 in Delaware. As you head north, it's on the left side. (Actually, it's also on the left when you head south too.) There are TWO stations at this rest stop, one at the south end and one at the north end. For some reason, these two stations are always priced differently. Due to this price differential, I always play gas arbitrage. The trick for me is to leave DC with as little gas as possible as required for my trip.

    When I got to DE, I saw the south end Exxon station $2.39 and was really happy. When I left, my local stations had it for no less than $2.42, most places in DC had it for more than $2.55! I filled up. What a great price! Well, what killed me was driving past the second station on the north end and seeing that it was $2.35. Grrr. I could have saved about 48 cents more if I saw the other station's price. I made a mental note to stop at the north end station on the way back down. So when I returned south on Sunday, I topped off and got a quarter tank of gas at the north end station for $2.37. When I arrived home, gas was still around$ 2.43, so I made out well and saved around a 70 cents overall.

    I must not be the only driver that knows this because that station almost always has a line of cars waiting there.



    Cheaper Car Insurance

    My insurance company allows me to split my payments into monthly installments, or do it as one lump sum. I'm finding that if I do the one lump sum, I'm better off. Here's a good post as to why you want don't want to do this, especially by direct debiting (same source).

    My insurance is coming due next month. I don't know about yours, but some insurance companies reward loyalty by knocking down your premium when it renews. I'll be looking for that this time around since I've been with this company for 2+ years now. If your company isn't doing that for you, considering calling around and making a switch.

    I found out that as a single female over 25, I'm already paying the lowest possible rate. The only way to make it cheaper is to drive less miles, take less coverage or have a baby. Needless to say, #1 and #3 are a little tough to do without some serious life changes.

    Lately there has been news of class action lawsuits because auto insurers consider your income and education when setting your rate. Some people say that those are actually codewords for race. I beg to differ. What's the point of doing actuarial analysis if you don't differentiate your pools of insurable clients? I assume that income and educational accomplishments matter. I bet there are spaced-out PhDs who are crappy drivers and the rates are adjusted accordingly.

    If we all get lumped into the same pool, therefore it will not matter that I worked my butt off to finish college and that potentially as a group, college graduates have less accidents. I should find an insurer that DOES care about that and cuts a break for alumni. For what it's worth, my current insurer doesn't give a break to alumni from my college, but they do for other groups. (Car insurance tip #1: Ask your insurer if they give discounts for affinity/special interest groups like Kiwanis or college alumni. Many do.)

    If I am in a class of drivers that does not benefit from the differentiation what does it matter that these questions are asked? What about credit scores? Did you know that car insurers pull your credit score? Because people who have good credit scores have less accidents. (Yet another reason to raise your score!)

    There's a few people I'd tag to respond, because they like to play blog-tag, but I'll wait to see who's mouthy enough to leave a comment.



    Welcome New Readers!

    I see since the last Festival of Frugality, more people have subscribed to my feed. I guess that means I have more readers in general, or else a lot of people wanted to know how to sew a coat button. I hope you found the advice useful!

    There's just a few rules about posting comments. That was written a bit testily a few weeks ago, but I wanted to repost it because I've had a few anonymous commenters lately and now it looks like Anonymous is arguing with himself. In the spirit of open debate, please try to leave some sort of moniker, even if it's 24601. (Try putting that on your name badge at a hacker convention. It really freaks them l337 g33k b0yz out when they don't know what every number in the universe is. Virtual biscuit to the first commenter to guess the reference.)



    Wednesday, March 22, 2006

    Paycheck Challenge

    I get paid bi-weekly. Recently I changed my 401k allocation so that I'd have more cash in hand every week. I still want to save a chunk of that into a cash cushion, but I think having a little extra cash is better than charging up expenses on my credit card.

    This week it's worked out well. I don't have any large expenses forthcoming to make me use my credit card. I did order a bunch of books for work and fun, but that was before my direct deposit went into the bank, so I'm still living on my single paycheck so far this week. I've eaten lunch and/or dinner on my debit card every day, so no loose change or unaccounted expenses on Quicken.

    I hope to stretch it all the way till next Friday, the 31st. Wish me luck. I think I can do it, but looking at my checkbook, it will be a bit tight, but my social life is going to be very low key this weekend. I'm only stepping out tomorrow for one smoke-filled night. (I wish I lived back in San Francisco with smoke-free clubs and restaurants.) The rest of the weekend is filled with crafting. If I time my meals properly, I can eat at home.

    I still have to deposit one paycheck from my side job so that will be my buffer if I go over. But I must absolutely live without my credit card this week. No reason, just some better expense control.



    One Click = $1.83

    Adsense is weird stuff. I had a very low Click-Through-Rate yesterday, but high traffic. You people out there must really want to know how to sew a coat button. Someone clicked an ad and generated nearly all the revenue I have for the month so far. (I get very little from Adsense.) I am glad because I was hoping to send some money off to the Aggregator at the end of this month. Last month I pledged to send them all my Adsense revenue for February and March. I want to make sure their valuable service lasts. I find it the best place for me to skim everything in one spot and select the posts that most interest me.

    Sometime last week, I had an even higher CTR, but low traffic so the single click wasn't worth as much. There must be some weighting between clicks and traffic. I think it's that a high traffic website must have more valuable CTR's.



    Cheap Haircuts

    The cheapest haircut I can usually get is for about $40. That's a wash and cut for a blunt cut and generally an extra charge for having long hair. I wear no bangs. I have no layers. Anyone fresh out of cosmotology school should be able to do this cut. I'm not looking for Vidal Sassoon precision, but if you are, I highly recommend the student hair cuts. For about 2-3 hours of your time, you pay $16 for a precision cut by a student at VS. They are already a licensed cosmotologist, but are at Vidal Sassoon for advanced training. But I digress.

    What I am trying to say is that I hate paying for haircuts. I used to do Locks of Love because I could donate my hair and get a free haircut. They seem to have stopped that program, or changed it so that it's no longer as convenient as it once was. Bummer. I've been growing my hair for the last two years just for them.

    What is a girl to do? Well, since my hair is ridiculously long, I'm going to ponytail it and chop off the length needed to make my donation. Then I'm going to trim it up and see if I can get away with that. Normally in the turgid humidity of the Potomac, I put my hair up into a bun. No one sees the ends anyhow, so they won't know how uneven my cut is. I hope.

    Bottom line, I have three options for cuts, Vidal Sassoon student precision cuts for cheap, Locks of Love free cuts, or at home for free. The only other cheap haircut advice I can offer is to go every 8 weeks instead of every 6. My old hairdresser hated me for going 6 months without a cut because the lines are all out of whack and he had to start all over again. But my pocketbook didn't care.



    Unsecuring Your HELOC

    Note: A HELOC is a Home Equity Line Of Credit.

    Recently Rob and I were discussing this topic. He's balance transferred the remaining portion of his HELOC onto a credit card for 0% interest. I asked him exactly why he did this and he said it was to unsecure the debt. I thought about it, and I guess that makes a certain amount of sense.

    He's trying to get his HELOC interest rate down, which he is. Then he's putting the debt onto a credit card, which is consumer debt, and actually is classified differently from a mortgage when you sort your liabilities.

    Now one could say that he's losing out on the mortgage interest rate deduction, but in the grand scheme of things, I think he's actually going to save some money by paying 0% interest.

    Rob's follow up post is here and he clarifies some of his thinking on this strategy.

    What do you guys think of this strategy? I know Jonathan is all about those 0% balance transfer checks. I've got a HELOC with an adjustable rate that's annoying me to death right now. Do you think this is worth doing?

    More thoughts on this from Jim at Blueprint and his commenters.



    Tuesday, March 21, 2006

    5% CD's at Millenium Bank

    180 Day CD's at 5%, minimum to open is $1000.00. What's interesting to me is that they have a branch about 2 minutes away from my office and three locations around Northern Virginia. If you're out in DC or MD, it might not be worth the drive on the Dulles Toll Road to get here ($2.00 round trip in tolls), but since it's so close by, I can't ignore it.

    Millennium is a very small bank which might be why Bankrate doesn't rate it very highly. Per the Wall Street Journal this weekend, the Green Thumb article by Ron Lieber (bottom box front page of the Money and Investing section), it's rated 'Performing', which is the middle ranking of 5 categories.

    I'm going to have to consider opening an account here next week after transferring some money around. I hope this rate lasts long enough for me to do that.



    Festival of Frugality is Up This Week!

    Free Money Finance is hosting this week's festival.

    I don't have time to read through them all right now, but these look really good. I only read the one about the Thrifty Friends at Miriam's blog.




    Guaranteed 6% Rate of Return?

    I would love to make 6 percent. That's better than any CD is paying right now. What's the catch on the guaranteed return? It's participating in a social network of lending through the Korean community, called a 'geh'. Like the old Hibernian Banks and Building and Loan Societies of old, Korean folks raise capital through their social community networks. Organizing one of the greatest assets of the Korean community, fueling much of their entrepreneurial success in the US.

    Here's how it works:

    You gather about a dozen people who are willing to pay a fixed amount monthly for the number of folks involved. Say the number of people is 12, and they all put in $1000.00. Then you run the network for 12 months with each person getting $12,000.00 when it's their turn. Everyone pays a fixed amount.

    Because these are usually done by entrepreneurs, the amounts can range in the low thousands to ensure that there's money for capital expenditures on a restaurant, garage, beauty salon, grocery, dry cleaning store, etc. These work similarly to micro-loans like Grameen Bank because the social pressure to keep up with your payments is very strong. If you miss out, you won't be invited to participate in the future.

    This topic is on my mind because while I was out to eat with my parents, there was a club in full swing at the restaurant. Since my pop is one of the village elders, everyone stopped by to see us. I like going out with my folks because you get all the gossip at once and you pick up a lot of wisdom from family friends. I had always wondered about the loss of interest on the future value of money for the folks at the very end of the list, but my mom explained that they calculate that in. The people who received money at the beginning add on interest to their payments to the folks at the end of the list. It all works out pretty well.

    I believe that's part of the formalized structure of But truthfully, I'm a little afraid of Prosper.

    These days the trend for older Koreans has been to participate in the network on behalf of their kids. They raise money for weddings, down payments on homes, college funds, etc. My parents asked me if I wanted to participate. I could just send a money order to the organizer. My mom has offered before to help me join one, we've even talked about what I thought I could afford. I think this time I might say yes. I would really like to pay cash to fix my kitchen up, but we'll see. We'll see.



    2 Auctions Posted

    Well, I did it. I got my butt in gear and posted two auctions last night. I think I screwed it up though and I should have sold them in wholesale lots of < 5. If they don't sell, then I'll move them over to as everyone suggested.

    Thanks PFBloggers! This is why I love having this blog!



    Monday, March 20, 2006

    Exploring the Amazon or EBay?

    I've got a lot of books on my shelves. For some reason I'm an idiot and when someone is moving, I take their free stuff back to my tiny apartment for no reason other than it was free.

    Well it's time to start selling this stuff off. I've got DVD's of Star Trek stuff, sci-fi and marketing books. Weird and crazy stuff, yarn coming out of my eyes, ears, nose, and throat.

    I have read Boston Gal's blog and I think I could put this stuff up on EBay after shooting all the requisite photos, etc. She tends to sell books in groupings. I think I'll have to do the same. I hope it's stuff people want. I rarely buy stuff from EBay. I think I've only ever bought one item. However, I think now is the time to try. I am getting irritated with all this stuff that I no longer want. I'm also going to have to have a costume sale as well. I no longer want some of my fun club clothes. Fun times have come and gone and now I just want the cash.

    Why do I feel a bit like Parker Posey from the movie Party Girl? No! Not because she grows up, but because she steals high end fashion clothing and then sells it off when she needs the cash! Though the best line of the whole movie is when she shouts, 'I WAH-NAH BE A LIBRARIAN!'



    DC Tax Update

    Unfortunately, it's not good news. I forgot to fill out my form for a check reissue completely. So it's going to be another 45 days. At least I put it back into the mailbox tonight instead of holding on to it for a week. Oh but when it arrives it will be a happy day!



    Carnival of Debt Reduction #27 is Up!

    Jeffrey has the latest Carnival of Debt Reduction available now.

    Please readers note that he does start off with an admonishment to submitters. You can ignore it or read it, but scroll down for the good stuff. I happen to agree with him and last week's host, No Credit Needed. If you submit to this carnival, please make sure it's on-topic. Thank you.

    I saw some of the submissions last week, but haven't had time to cruise the rest. These are two that I liked though.

    Jim at Blueprint on 0% balance transfers.

    No Credit Needed Network Update:



    Carnival of Personal Finance #40 is Up!

    JLP of AllThingsFinancial has Carnival of Personal Finance #40 available now. Please note that there were over 40 submissions this week. A few arrived late, so please check back later today for any late additions.

    JLP has done a great job categorizing the posts for your reading enjoyment and speedy selection. Make sure to leave a happy comment so future carnival hosts will also do categories too. By the time I host, there's going to be 100 submissions!



    FDR #4 - Seeds of Change Vegetable Lasagna

    2 Stars - **

    It was watery and very soupy which I don't expect in a lasagna. Change the name to 'Pasta with Curly Noodles' and I would have been happier. It tasted ok. The sauce, like many frozen dinner tomato sauces, was very sweet and sugary. There was cheese on it, but I thought there wasn't enough pasta. I could have boiled up a handful of elbow macaroni and tossed them into the bowl to stretch the sauce.

    For the buy one get one free deal I got with the Penne Marinara, it was alright, but I probably won't get it again unless Seeds of Change is on sale and the other flavors available aren't appealing.



    Friday, March 17, 2006

    Purchasing Goverment Bonds: Not a Good Idea!

    It's not they are bad investments, but that the means of purchasing them online is risky. Savvy Saver explains it all for you.

    Consider your alternatives for purchasing these bonds and consider writing a letter. There's no reason why your transaction with the government shouldn't be as safe, if not safer, as those with the rest of the marketplace. Though we all know how that Citibank ATM thing went this past week.



    I Got Tagged!

    Single Ma askes me to name that tune. I couldn't guess any of them. I'm hopelessly unhip. I listen to free radio at my favorite NPR radio station, WAMU here in DC.

    My friends are audiophiles. There are two stations they run that play music 24/7.
    Theory Radio

    They all have a pretty eclectic mix since there's a few different folks doing the programming. The format runs all over the place, but that's what's so good about my friends picking their songs. I get introduced to new things all the time.

    So here goes:
    1. Combichrist, 'This Sh*t Will F*ck You Up'
    2. Hungry Lucy, 'Blue Dress'
    3. Apoptygma Berzerk, 'Kathy's Song' (VNV Nation mix)
    4. Venga Boys, 'Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom'
    5. Dead Men's Hollow, 'Join Me in Drinking', from their debut album, Forever True, Winner of 3 2005 WAMMIES!! (Washington Area Music Awards)

    I never thought I'd like bluegrass and Carter Family covers until I started going to see my friends in DMH perform. But the songs are all singable and peppy.

    EDIT: Play The Records is down right now, but will be available again soon.



    Thursday, March 16, 2006

    What $300K Will Get You

    Firebombed near the Pentagon. Whoops. Just kidding. That's only a slight possibility these days. One of my attendant fears living within the Beltway of our nation's fair capital.

    JLP of AllThingsFinancial has a little game going on. What does $300K get you in terms of real estate. I was pretty pessimistic about this because I looked into a 3-bedroom for my parents recently (future retirement possibility near me, near-term investment property) and those were going for $600K. Extrapolating from that price, I figured a spacious 1-bedroom was all you'd get. I was right for the most part, but then I found this little number

    What I love about this place is that, it's not too far from my current home. We'd shop at the same grocery store. But it's only 109 sq. ft. larger than my apartment, but for TWICE THE PRICE. Last weekend a unit in my HOA similar to mine went on the market for under $200K, so it makes me wonder if these folks were smoking crack when they did their renovations. Note how long it's been on the market. If you're looking to buy a condo, this might be the cherry of the lot. Lowball the offer and see what happens.



    NCN's Cash Only Experiment

    Several times I have tried to live off of my paycheck and my paycheck alone. Tomorrow a new check arrives. I am inspired to try anew the Paycheck Challenge. I was inspired by No Credit Needed's Cash Only Experiment.

    I am afraid that I am going to have to do this differently though. Instead of using only a fixed allowance of cash, I am going to use only my debit card, with those fancy Visa Extras I'm supposed to be getting. I will allow myself one withdrawl of cash over the next two weeks, but nearly every place I'll be going takes Visa, so I think I might be able to do this.

    There are only two things which I will allow to purchase on credit, gas and groceries, because that's when I get better bonuses from Citibank. But that's all. Luckily I bought a bunch of books today, before that paycheck hits the bank tomorrow. We'll see if I can do this, and still sock some money away at the same time.



    Buying Checks Online

    I haven't done it yet. It takes me about 3-4 years to write 200 physical checks. But I am running low right now. I estimate I'll use my last 40 checks in 6 months. Out of curiosity, I started looking at checks online, I was amazed at how little variation there is in themes and ideas. Everything is sort of blah. I love Hello Kitty stuff, but I am *not* about to write hot pink checks.

    The best deals I could find seemed really great at first, till I got to the fine print. Most of the cheapest check places, like Artistic Checks have 2 box special deals that sound wonderful. However, if you read carefully, their boxes only contain 150 single checks in them. Nearly every place will give you a free register and plastic/faux vinyl wallet.

    That's $0.03647 per check, but add shipping $4.95 for the first box, $1.50 for each additional one, it's $0.05797. For all the places I browsed, Artistic Checks had the best two-box price for first time customers. Woo. As I check the shipping prices again, I see there is a $2.25 handling fee for checks, which is separate from the shipping, that makes it now $0.06547! (It's not included on their other non-check products though.)

    The best deal I think is from a place in LA called,CheckWorks, that has 200 checks per box. They're similar to places like Harland, that lots of banks use. But their price is $0.03975 per check, with free shipping if you order online. That's the per check price, whether you buy one box or two. There's only a price break if you buy 4 boxes, but honestly, who needs 800 checks at once? At the rate I'm going, that's 10+ years of checks.

    My favorite product offer though? The Shredder from Checks In The Mail



    Financial Group Therapy

    It doesn't exist, but may be it should.

    I'm just joking but It's Just Money has a very interesting post about discussing financial topics with your friends. What's funny is that this posted was pointed out to me by the person who facilitated my PF Blogging in the first place. He was the friend who fatefully pointed me to Jane Dough's blog just 2 months ago.

    When a friend starts moaning about the bills they have to pay, I always just ask them bluntly about what's going on. I can get an earful, but I don't mind. I think it's good that they are paying some kind of attention to their finances and not just ignoring it completely. I know people who've just let their mail sit and ignore the notices and bills that have arrived. Then they're left with tens of thousands of dollars of mess to clean up.

    Something to think about.



    Wednesday, March 15, 2006

    Money, A Memoir by Liz Perle

    Good posts last week about Women, Mind and Money. Both of them are related to Liz Perle's new book Money, A Memoir.

    I first found mention of this at Serendity Gal. Debt Hater has a more personal story that I found interesting.

    For myself, I doubt I'll seek out this book. I think I have a pretty good idea about how I think about money, even if it's dysfunctional! *winky*



    Are You Buying a Home? Then Read This Book!

    When I bought my condo, the place that gave me the best advice was Peter Miller's Common Sense Mortgage. I read all the personal finance websites out there, looked at calculators, rates and talked with my friends who were buying homes. (I tallied 7 of us in 2004.)

    Miller writes very clearly about the types of loans out there, whether it's an FHA or VA government-backed loan, a traditional 30-year one, a crazy 40-year one, or an ARM. He walks through lots of different mortgage products so you can get an idea of what might be good for your situation. He has charts illustrating the power of extra payments against your principle. It's a slow road to saving $15K-50K in interest over the life of your loan, but it's worth considering since you're building up your equity as you erode your interest.

    Because of my needs, I ended being thoroughly convinced that I needed to get an ARM that would be Principle and Interest and not Interest-Only. Most places don't advertise that they have 7/1 or 10/1 ARMs. But because of this book, I asked my mortgage banker about them. I initially asked for Interest-Only 3/1 quote. After reading this book, I made the inquiry into these other products and found myself with a slightly larger payment (about $50 more per month) with a rate I could live with for the next 10 years. Though I was buying my condo, I was pretty sure I wouldn't be living in a studio for the full duration of the fixed rate.

    I admit, I read a very old copy of this book. It's prabably been revised since 1997. I bought it for $5 bucks at a used book store on a whim. It was probably some of the best $5.00 I've ever spent. After I was done with it. I mailed it to a friend who is anxious to grow roots and buy a home.

    If anything, it'll teach you why today's Interest-Only fad is going to turn into a nightmare. FMF has his own take on this scenario too. More foreclosures are going to happen and a lot of folks are one financial setback away from losing their homes.

    If you are considering buying a home, get this book, read it and stay away from Interest-Only ARMs right now. Read this book and find a product that is right for your situation.

    PS- I've changed the ads on the left to permanently highlight this book. I'll change the ads again when I get bored of them.



    Tuesday, March 14, 2006

    Festival of Frugality #14 is Up!

    Neo's Nest Egg is hosting it this week.

    I like the homemade cleanser. I was just thinking of that the other day.

    Cheap Legos! For my nephew. Right. My nephew.

    The Frugal Homemaker nn her frugal origins and the follow up. Thank you very much for sharing your personal story with us.

    Thanks Neo for hosting!



    Distill Your Blog

    I loved this post at Money Dummy. He asks PFBloggers to pick the one post that's a must read from their blog.

    Please go there and participate! There's only three comments on it, and I think there is much more collective PFBlog wisdom out there. I am interested in seeing what folks think is worth reading from their blog's archives.




    Follow up on Visa Extras - Already!

    IRA mentioned this article yesterday.

    I'm going to have to argue some points though. Wade to the bottom and you'll see how it ties back to the headline.

    1. Though there's no float, you aren't paying credit card interest either.

    2. Security breaches are just as likely with your credit card. While I agree that there is better protection by credit card companies for credit fraud than there is for a debit card purchase that is deducted immediately, your number is just as likely to be swiped. In the wise words of Mad Eye Moody, 'BE VIGILANT!' about your information whether it is credit or debit.

    3. Now that I have Visa Extras on my debit card, is this point valid anymore? True there is a smaller offering of rewards, but like my old Amex Membership Rewards program, it'll grow until there's many more things I don't want. Until there's cash back to my bank account, I suppose it won't really matter at all. But again, back to point #1, I will not have incurred a finance charge or interest if I have the money pulled directly out of my account.

    4. Surprise fees. That's interesting. My small coffee shop retailer doesn't take credit cards and he usually tells me upfront there is a fee to use my debit card. I find that if you just choose to swipe your debit card as a credit card, you generally avoid the problem of extra fees.

    Lately being a curmudgeon, I'm taking my credit card out of my wallet today and trying to use my debit card all the rest of the week.



    Carnival of Personal Finance #39 is up!

    Jeffrey has the newest Carnival of Personal Finance!

    He's got a different format this week to highlight the new kids on the block, and the newish ones like me. (It's hard to believe that this blog is only about 2 months old.)

    I read a few at work, but there's just so many! I will highlight Funny Money's since he made me laugh.

    Read and enjoy!



    Sewing Tips: Coat Buttons

    This was inspired by the first two lines of The Budgeting Babe's post.

    If you have a coat in need of buttons. You can sew them back on yourself pretty easily. Here's what you need:

    Upholstery Thread
    Wooden Matchsticks or Pins
    Thick handsewing needle about 1.5" long

    The basics are here, but I have additional tips, which are really justifications for the materials listed above.

    1. Upholstery thread is much stronger than poly-cotton sewing machine thread, which is most likely what someone would buy at a general goods store. Upholstery thread is thicker and sometimes it's waxed to pass through a thick wool coat more easily, which is what a wool fabric covered chair is like. Some folks use dental floss, but they don't make gothy black dental floss just yet... (OMG, Hot Topic, please don't steal my idea!)

    2. You need the matchstick so you don't sew the button too closely to the surface of the fabric. Think about it. This button is to secure the other side of your coat to itself, i.e. another thickness of coat. Therefore, you need a spacer to keep you from pulling your thread too tightly. Stick one or two matchsticks above the button as a spacer. It's kind of tricky to do, but well worth it. Keeps your buttoned up coat from looking puckered, like it's upholstered on you. English Cut has it differently with one matchstick, but that's because he's sewing on suit jacket buttons which don't need a shank quite as long. (He also has a fabulous blog about his work as a bespoke suit maker. He writes about buying quality suits and what to look for in terms of manufacturing. It's very educational.)

    3. A longer needle is good for pushing through a coat. Try to find a needle that is specifically for hand sewing. The eye of the needle is often rounder to accommodate the thread. It's sometimes a lot thicker for forcing through lots of layers of fabric. Which leads to my next point.

    4. A thimble is good to protect your fingers. Use it to push through if you are having any difficulty. There are metal ones with the fingertip covered and not covered, but my mom had some leather ones which I kind of liked as a kid when I figured out what they were for. They slipped less than the metal ones because the needle would dig into the softer leather.

    5. When you are getting ready to tie off, wrap some of the extra thread around, underneath the button. That will make the threads thicker and help secure it from wear and falling off too quickly. Push the needle through the wrapped threads and to the back of the fabric. Then put your knot on the wrong side.

    Give those tips a try. Let me if they are useful!

    My mom likes to spend a few dollars on a larger fancy vintage button for the neck of her coats. She sews it back on and then she doesn't need further adornment, like a brooch that might fall off or be stolen. Antique buttons can get expensive, but they're usually cheaper than a Swarovski crystal pin!



    Monday, March 13, 2006

    Hazards of Buying a Condo

    The Wall Street Journal this weekend had an article about Florida's Condominum Ombudsman. (I'd link to it online, but it's subscriber only) Apparently HOA fights are getting so acrimonious that the state has an office which formally intervenes on HOA election votes. This from a state what popularized the phrase 'hanging chad'.

    I won't gripe about my HOA. They're pretty nice people. I just couldn't go to their meetings due to my prior work schedule (working till 8pm) and participate actively. But I did read the HOA bylaws and found a few things that bug the crap out of me. I won't get into the details but I think HOA's can be really weird repressive fiefdoms, hence my reluctance to get involved with mine. One hears stories about bratty neighbors moving long-standing meeting times (happened to a co-worker), banning people from the pool area (mentioned in the WSJ article), etc.

    All the same, I'd really not want to live in a condo or townhome that's subject to an HOA. I think they're kind of evil. But would I live in an artist's warehouse/collective/collaboration? I don't know. I could actually see that as being a pretty cool and fun thing to do if everyone got along.

    PS - A unit similar to mine went on the market on Friday. They want substantially more than what I paid for my unit, so I guess 2006 is still going to be a real estate appreciating year for me.



    Torn up credit card application

    Much hay is being made about this website and its description of tearing up a credit card application and still getting a new card.

    I've done this and I got a card too. I was either in college or just graduated. I was kind of desperate looking at my financial situation so I decided to open a new credit card to help manage my finances by shifting things around a bit. I realized that I had thrown an application away and I fished its pieces out of the trashcan. I taped it back together and mailed it in. In due time a new card arrived. Since then, I've been trying to tear up my solicitations and applications and dump the pieces into separate trashcans. But usually they end up in the same larger bag.

    Shredding really is the only way to go. However mine is currently broken. Ripping apart will do. So will scissors, but you will get really tired of this after a while.

    Also, don't let your friends just hang out in your apartment/house, or clean up your mail so no one can touch it. A friend of mine had his identity stolen by a so-called friend while in college. I guess he had his mail lying around on a coffee table. Let's just say having a 5-figure blackmark on your credit report makes it really hard to get a mortgage. The sad part is that my friend knows which one of his friends did it because he's the one guy who stopped staying in touch after college.



    Carnival of Debt Reduction #12 is Up!

    No Credit Needed is hosting it this week and it's available for your early Monday morning reading>.

    I think my favorite is by LP Kitten. I really admire her for getting out of debt so quickly in the last two years. Her progress has been amazing. It makes me wonder why I can't get out of my credit card debt faster.

    But Hello, My Name Is... has what might be my motto going forward. 'I don’t want to be normal, I want to be debt free!!!'

    The host also adds a note for future submitters to stay on topic. I agree. That's why I usually send my stuff to the Carnival of Personal Finance or the Festival of Frugalityinstead. I don't think I have anything new to offer in the way of debt reduction because there's already so much stuff out there. Short of some radical experiment to buy nothing, I am not sure what to do right now. I'll post some other time after I've had a long cold stare at Quicken to see where the fat is.



    Sunday, March 12, 2006

    Frugal Tip: Dishcloths and Cloth Rags

    It's hard to save money when you go around wasting food. I just dropped my dinner on my feet. It had a sauce on it that went everywhere. It splashed Thai peanut sauce all over the cabinet door, kitchen door, the rug, the floor, my socks.

    Luckily, I keep a dishcloth around. I used 2 paper towels because they were closest, and almost reached for more, but got the cloth instead. I rinsed it out in the sink. I did feel weird that I was just smearing stuff around, but thought better of it since it would be worse if I did it with a dry paper towel and no subsequent wipe with hot water. The trick to this is to wash the cloths frequently. I only keep them around for 2-3 days as long as I don't get them soaking wet. You can be sure the one I used tonight will be hung overnight to dry and go straight into my hamper tomorrow.

    I've been meaning to write about this for a while because I've noticed at my friends' houses that few of them keep dishcloths in the kitchen. I'm a bit of a tree-hugger so I really don't like using paper towels. Since I'm trying to live more frugally, I'm trying to make my last multi-pack of paper towels last me forever.

    When I was a kid, my mom took my dad's old white T-shirts and cut them up into rags. We used to scrub the floor on our hands and knees with a brush and then dry with a clean T-shirt rag. Wringing them out is actually a good hand grip exercise and works your forearms too. They make good dusting rags too.

    Lately, my ratty T-shirts are getting the same treatment. I cut off the ribbed neck binding and the sleeves, saving the scraps for crafting if they're worth saving. Because T-shirts have a single body piece, I cut it into a front piece and a back piece. Voila! 2 rags! I recommend only doing this with 100% shirts since it's easier to bleach them clean if you are so inclined.



    Don't Ignore Car Maintenance! - A Cautionary Tale: Part III

    So after mulling things over and licking my proverbial wounds I think these are the lessons learned.

    1) Turn the radio down periodically so I can hear if the brakes are squeaking. I generally have the sound up, so I never hear them. I only know the pads need replacement by the feel of them underfoot. At that point, the rotors are usuallly jacked too.

    2) Buy parts at the cheapest place I can find them, but get good quality parts. I had a chat with my dad this morning. I asked him if price made a difference. He said generally price does equate to quality so try to get good parts since they will last longer. I guess that means I'm shopping for NAPA or Bendix brake parts in the future and taking them to the service shop myself.

    3) Have an idea of when stuff has to be replaced. I honestly don't know how much stuff should last on my car. The spark plug replacement was a bit of an eye opener. After reading my car's manual, I didn't need to do it until I hit 105K mi. The chart I really wanted was the 'At A Glance' one on the first page. I doubt the replacement plugs are going to last me 5 years. *gnash of teeth*

    4) If I maintain my car regularly, I might not have to outlay $600.00 all at once.

    5) Smile and be happy that it's done at a regular interval from which I can date doing things.



    PF articles from WaPo

    'WaPo' is local lingo for the venerable Washington Post.

    You may have to register to read these articles. It's free and you don't get spammed by them.

    Do The Math For Lost Pensions: I don't have one and if offered one, I wouldn't participate, but if you're one of the unfortunate, you might like this article. Don't kill the messenger for the bad news.

    Shrinking your Ecological Footprint: In light of rising electricity rates, there are some good tips in here for reducing electricity consumption and thus your eco-footprint. My favorite are the fluorescent lightbulbs. I only wish the installed lights I have had dome covers to accommodate them.

    Direct from this article is the link to get off mailing lists. Note the longer mail-in option is not free, but costs you postage. Still it's cheaper than the $5.00 they charge you for signing up online.



    Saturday, March 11, 2006

    Don't Ignore Car Maintenance! - A Cautionary Tale - Part II

    I picked up the car after a very long circuitous bus ride through a morass of drunks for St. Patrick's Day festivities. I will hold my sharp-tongued comment the bus route/sights and proceed to a cost breakdown.

    2 bus trips back and forth from the shop - $2.50
    4 qts of oil @ 3.99 - $15.96
    1 oil filter - $9.99
    1 set front brake pads - $49.00
    1 pair front rotors @ 44.00 each - $88.00
    1 set rear brake pads - $50.44
    4 spark plugs @ 4.34 - $17.36
    Miscellaneous shop supplies - $8.00

    Front brake pads & rotors - $130.00
    Rear brakes - $95.25
    Spark plugs - $75.00
    Check alignment - $37.50
    Tire rotation - $20.00

    EPA disposal fee - $8.00
    Tax - $11.96
    Calculation error - $0.07

    Total: $619.00

    -I rarely ride the bus around town since the same amount of money covers parking and I don't have to deal with humanity if I drive. Thankfully, the bus did drop me off close to the bank so I could deposit a check while doing this errand. I got my exercise today.
    -There was no charge for cleaning up my battery.
    -I asked for the tire alignment and rotation to be checked when I filled out the questionnaire. I've gone about 15-20K miles on them so I am glad it was done. The wheel also pulled to the right and I noticed on the drive home it stopped doing that. I actually had the alignment fixed once before but those eejits in PA didn't do a good job of it.
    -Spark plugs are something I've heard I can replace myself, which would sure come in handy to know if I lived in a place where they were being stolen by crackheads all the time. Next time I should think about replacing them myself.
    -The calculation error by the shop isn't worth complaining about. I think it was an honest mistake. He originally quoted me $64.00 each for the rotors, but only charged me $44.00 so I think I probably came out ahead.



    Visa Extras?

    My bank has a new Visa program called Visa Extras. If I sign up before the end of the month, I get a bonus of 5000 points, enough for 2 2,000 point $5 Starbucks cards. I think I'm going to sign up. Right now I have the Citibank Dividend card that is popular with a lot of PFBloggers. I just got another dividend check from them this week. (yes, NCN, I'll be putting some of that into my savings this week.) The only real catch is that it has to be a signature transaction. You can't use the pin pad only. The way they advise to get around it is to say it's a credit transaction, which is easy enough.

    But I'm trying to move away from using my credit card and more into using cash. I like my Visa Check Card, but I think the bank has finally wised up and realized that a lot of folks keep using credit cards for the rewards programs, so why not start one for check cards?

    The rewards are ok, not great. I don't charge up lots of stuff onto my check card because of the way I manage my cash, but I've made more of an effort to use cash to see if it will help curb my spending. Now that I can use my check card in a manner similar to my credit card, I think I might end up with some interesting rewards back. I'll let you know when I get my first reward.



    Don't Ignore Car Maintenance! - A Cautionary Tale - Part I

    I just took my car into the shop. It's a 2001 Nissan Altima SE, manual. It's been very faithful to me, however I'm not so great at taking care of it. I've had to replace the rotors because I didn't replace the brake pads soon enough. I think I have to replace them again today because they've been pretty mushy for a while.

    The mechanic just called, my rear brake shoes also need replacing. This is going to get pricey and I know it's my own fault. How did I get here? It goes back to the annual inspection I put off for a month last November after getting a ticket for it being expired in a different jurisdiction. ($50) There's an auto shop across the street from the house. I took my car in for inspection, oil change, and alignment and they said they don't do alignments, & that everything was fine except one lightbulb. One would think that they would have actually checked the brake pads for some wear. I suspect they should have been replaced then.

    Finding a reliable mechanic is hard. I got a recommendation, but the shop isn't open on weekends. I called Midas, an Exxon station with service bays, and a Nissan dealership. I got a parts only estimate from Nissan. Rotors were $105.60 apiece. That already placed it out of the running. I went to Advance Auto Parts to see exactly how much rotors should cost, and found an overwhelming breadth of options. My pop used NAPA and Bendix, which were in the $70 range. The Midas quoted me a whole package for $415 + tax, and the Exxon $335 + tax. The Exxon quoted me rotors at $64.00 each so I decided to take my car there.

    When I started my car, it had a hard time starting. It was turning over, but I had to give it a little gas to get going. That has never happened before and it occurred to me that the spark plugs probably haven't been changed. I make a mental note to ask about this at the shop.

    For some reason Arlington as a lot of auto shops that aren't full service. It's weird and annoying since there are very few one-stop shops, just like the place that did my inspection. The Exxon however does nearly everything. They make you fill out a questionnaire when you arrive. I note that my mileage is 85K+ miles and mention the spark plugs. The mechanic tells me that I should have replaced them at least once long before I got to 85K miles.

    So while I'm there I ask him to do lots of other work. Really I just want the car to run a good long time more before it needs a new clutch. I'll update you when I get a final price after picking up the car this afternoon.



    FDR #3: Lean Cuisine Steak Tips Portabello

    Another Frozen Dinner Review!

    Lean Cuisine Steak Tips Portabello
    4 Stars - ****

    I love this meal. It's got no starch included for those trendy Atkins/South Beach Dieters. The meal is steak tips (which is always an optimistic marketing term at best) with mushrooms in a brown sauce, coupled with broccoli florets. It's only 180 calories, if you care about such things.

    It's a small portion. I could probably eat 2 of them for dinner. But I love the brown savory sauce. Since the meal lacks a starch, I like to have one or two slices of bread. There's so much sauce in the box that I can strech the meat portion by dipping the bread into the sauce. I notice the skimpy size of the steak tips less that way.

    I also love broccoli, but the floret size is pretty small. It's one of the few vegetables my mother knew I would eat as a kid, tops only. I only found an appreciation for the stalks when I got older and trimmed off the tough green 'bark'.

    The meal goes on sale at my local supermarket for $2.00-2.25, which to me is a good deal. When this meal goes on sale, I always buy it. It always tastes great to me. Sometimes when 5 meals go on sale for $10.00, it's so good, I'll get two out of the 5.



    Friday, March 10, 2006

    Disclaimer: I have family and friends who work at the Beacon on the Hill in Seattle.

    Five Cent Nickel had a post about Coinstar in February. I am not big on Coinstar because they take a bite out of my money. I'd rather pay exact change where I can. However, that's a losing game strategy. I know it is, but I can't help it. My pop will take my coins if I bother rolling them, but who wants to sit and make their hands all stinky with metallic money? (For the record, money, quite literally stinks. It's disgusting. Wash your hands afterwards for a germ-free experience.)

    Lately I've been building up my skills at work by reading books. As everyone knows, Amazon has a lot of books for a good price. Now Jane Dough and FCN both recommend doing Coinstar and getting the Amazon gift card, that way, you don't get the commission taken out of your coinage.

    I'm going to have to consider doing this since tech books regularly cost $50 or more apiece. I'd say 'a pop' but that would imply that the books were light and airy, which everyone knows, Oracle database books don't get published unless they're at least 1.5 inches thick. Larry must have decreed it.



    Cashing out your REI dividend

    Seattle Simplicity reminds us that you can cash it out for free money. Though I suspect this has to be reported onto taxes either way. I didn't even think about that when filing. Hopefully it wasn't a huge amount. Que sera sera. I doubt the IRS is after me for this.

    But if you're looking for free money, you could cash it out. Or save it and combine it with next year's dividend since now they are good for 2 years and not just one. (They expire.)



    The Ministry of Minor Perfidy

    The Ministry of Minor Perfidy is actually a general political blog. It kind of wanders all over the place, due to the broad interests of the Ministers. Johno loves music and baking his own bread. Buckethead is into politics and giant robots. Ross is into socialist healthcare economics. Patton and GeekLethal are the other two ministers and they tend to write from a conservative bent. Be prepared for snarky humor. They are really funny.

    I mention them not as an endorsement of their politics, but because I wanted to thank the Ministers for their linkage and being good friends. Mr. & Mrs. Buckethead let me invite myself over to chill out on beer, takeout and conversation. It makes for a nice frugal evening out.




    FMF at the Money Blog Network had a giveaway contest recently. And I was the winner! I got my lovely prize in the mail tonight. (I was out this evening, total cost was $5.00 and gas money. Cheap!) Included was a Moose Tracks refrigerator magnet. I needed one! I am too cheap to buy them or make them because I know they come in the mail.


    Enter here for the second giveaway!

    BTW, my boyfriend is a big ice cream eater. I found out recently that he's actually a big fan of the Moose Tracks flavors. I'm not a huge sweets fan, but I definitely will steal a few bites. It's good stuff. Now I wish I remember which flavor it was. They certainly make a lot of varieties. I think we'd have a harder time picking a flavor if they carried more than two or three at the supermarket.



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