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Gave Myself a $400+ Raise

September 25th, 2012 at 02:06 am

Well, the truth is it feels like a raise. Today I signed the papers for refinancing two rentals that are my sole and separate property. I have been thinking about it for several years but dragged my feet, mainly because I didn't want to deal with B of A (the current lender), and home values had dropped dramatically. But values are finally creeping up again.

I remembered the name of the loan broker I used when I bought the houses. He used to be with Countrywide (now B of A) but is now w/ a small mortgage company. He was able to get a rate of 3.625% locked in with no points. This is an excellent rate for investment property. I also decided to have impounds because it makes life easier for me. I will no longer have to deal with tax bills or annual insurance premiums... only HOA fees.

It will take about 15 months to recover the closing costs but after that I will have about $447 a month net, after paying for property management and reserving funds for HOA fees to be paid twice a year. Wish I'd done it sooner, especially since I've had a negative cash flow of ~$65 a month.

The cash flow will come in handy... we are expecting out first grandchild (a boy) early next year and I will want to start a college savings account. It's never too early!

Travel $avings

September 24th, 2011 at 06:20 pm



Tomorrow dh and I leave on our next adventure, a month-long trip that will take us to eight European countries. The first leg of the trip will be two days in Barcelona followed by a 12-day Mediterranean cruise to celebrate a friend's retirement. Then we are back in Barcelona for a few days before flying to Geneva to spend time with my cousin. After a few days in Geneva, we'll take a train to Basel to begin a one-week cruise on the Rhine. Our trip will end with three days in Amsterdam before returning to the USA.

While planning the trip I discovered it's sometimes cheaper to buy a round-trip ticket, even though you just need a one-way fare. For example, a one-way flight on Swiss Air from Barcelona to Geneva was $592 (Economy Class). By booking a round trip ticket, I paid $177 (and it is Business Class to Geneva and Economy Class for the "return" trip). Baggage weight limits are lower in Europe and we each have a 50 lb. bag. Business class allows more weight, otherwise I could have spent ~$35 per RT ticket.

Other savings: I booked the first cruise through Costco Travel, and even though the price was exactly the same as through Royal Caribbean, Costco gave us a $500 on-board credit. The river cruise was a 2-for-1 special on Viking. I will use my Chase Sapphire card to pay for hotels in Barcelona, as well as meals and extras, because there is no foreign transaction fee with this card. And at home, I saved ~$150 by putting the garbage, paper, and TV satellite on hold, and by skipping one of our bimonthly house-cleanings.

We finally closed escrow...

September 7th, 2011 at 12:36 am

on our California condo... three weeks late, but at least it's done. We had to be patient due to buyer's loan issues that necessitated signing FIVE extensions to the contract. It's a good thing we knew and liked the buyer otherwise we would have gone with the backup offer and would have had a speedier close.

It's been over a month since we moved our belongings from the condo. Although we really loved our home, we decided to sell because we just didn't use it enough to justify the expense of keeping it. It will be nice to save the money we've been shelling out each month for expenses plus the substantial equity from the sale. Moving and consolidating two homes into one was a project I do not want to repeat anytime soon.

We hired a nationally known company because we thought they would be more reliable. Wrong. The movers showed up 12 hours late. We had to stay in a hotel an extra night because they started the job at 9:30 p.m. and worked until 12:30 a.m. Then they started at 8:00 a.m. the next day and finished at 1:30 p.m. We spent the next night in Nevada because we left CA too late in the day to make it all the way home. Of course, the final cost was MUCH more than the estimate, and even though the movers were respectful and friendly, they were not as careful with our furniture as some of the local movers we've used.

All in all, we survived the move and the furniture survived, although with a few more scratches than before. The task of blending two households into one involved sorting items for donation, giving away loads of extra furniture, household items, and clothes, putting some furniture into storage for my stepson, and shredding old financial records and personal papers. Whew! Glad that is behind us but it has given me renewed motivation to streamline financial record keeping and to think twice before buying anything new for the house.

Update on the Condo Sale

July 28th, 2011 at 03:01 am

Tomorrow dh and I leave for CA to finalize the sale of the condo... escrow papers will be signed on August 2. We are selling it for 95% of what I paid in 2003. That is how bad the real estate market is in Silicon Valley. Still, I'm grateful it sold, although I won't celebrate until escrow actually closes on August 15. I've seen too many sales unravel at the last minute.

The woman who is buying the condo is a neighbor and a lovely person. She lives with her sister who owns the unit attached to mine and she even has a key to our condo. I gave it to her a few years back because she keeps an eye on things while we travel. So now the sisters will have adjoining homes. How wonderful! I really like our complex and it is rare for a unit to come on the market, so I'm happy our house ended up with someone who already loves living there.

While we're in CA we'll be busy attending dh's family reunion, spending time with friends and my sister, and packing and preparing for the move. The movers will arrive August 3 and there's much to do. I'm giving away a lot of furniture and household items to avoid bringing them back to ID but we will still have plenty that is being moved.

We rented a storage unit in ID for the furniture and household items we're keeping. Dh wants to give all of it to his son who would like to buy a house when he returns from his deployment in Iraq in November.

In the event escrow falls through, we may decide to rent the condo. Our realtor says she can rent it for about $2,500 a month which seems high, but I'd rather not go that route. We also have a backup offer but I don't know the details. In any event, with the furniture gone, we wont be staying there again so we will just wait and see what happens.

And, finally, after much debate, we are selling the Prius to dh's daughter for a great price. She needs a reliable car but she has very bad credit so she can't get a loan through a bank. In the past, she has always been unreliable about repaying loans from her dad but my dh bails out his kids time and time again. He and I are very different in this regard, but that's the subject of another post.

Selling CA Condo

June 26th, 2011 at 03:16 pm

A year ago we debated whether to rent or sell our condo in CA. We eventually decided to do neither, and just held on to it to use when we visit family and friends in the Bay Area. Now a year later, we have decided to sell it, largely due to the high cost of keeping it vs. the amount of time we use it... only about 6 weeks in 2010. So far, in 2011, we have been at the condo less than 20 days.

We are not planning to move back to Silicon Valley any time soon because we are enjoying living in ID too much. A few benefits are cleaner air, reduced traffic, lower cost of living, and relaxed pace compared to San Jose. But the best part is being close to my DDs/SILs who live nearby.

Unfortunately, property values in CA continued to decline last year so our asking price is ~95% of what we paid in 2003. But since it's costing us over $25,000 a year to keep, it's a good move financially. These costs include PITI, HOA fees, utilities, housecleaner, the cost of insuring/maintaining the Prius that we keep at the condo, etc. At least we have some equity, so it's not as bad as some folks who are underwater.

The taxes and interest at the condo are write-offs, so we will possibly owe more income tax, but it will be offset by the savings in annual expenses.

Here is a picture of the cute little patio at the condo. MC, the cat, crossed the rainbow bridge in 2008:

Bubble and Squeak

May 25th, 2011 at 10:28 pm

Today we deviated from our usual breakfast of oatmeal or cold cereal and had a different but delicious breakfast using left over mashed potatoes and cabbage (very frugal):

Menu
~ Bubble & Squeak
~ Organic pork sausage patties
~ Fried Eggs

I decided to make bubble and squeak after watching a British comedy where it was mentioned. Apparently it is a common dish in the UK and it gets its name from the noise it makes while cooking. It's a good way to used leftovers. There are many variations to the recipe, including using meat in the mixture. Following is the recipe I used.

Bubble and Squeak
3 tbsp. butter
1 small onion
2 c. shredded cooked cabbage
2 c. leftover mashed potatoes
salt and pepper to taste

Saute onions in butter until tender. Combine cabbage and mashed potatoes. Add to skillet, and press with fork to form large cake, cook over moderate heat until well browned. Loosen cake with spatula, slide onto plate and flip back into skillet so uncooked side is down. Cook until browned. Slice into wedges and serve.

I'm Still Here

April 7th, 2011 at 12:09 am

It's been a while since I posted, so I guess an update is in order. My dh and I have been busy traveling. In early March, we spent a week on the Oregon coast. The weather was cold and we had some rain, but it didn't dampen our spirits. We enjoyed whale watching right from the condo balcony, walked on the pristine beaches, bird-watched, and dined on fresh seafood. Our favorite restaurant is Mo's which has the BEST clam chowder. A timeshare exchange made this a very affordable trip.

In late March we were in Cabo for a niece's 25th wedding anniversary and their renewal of vows. We stayed at the Dreams resort that is pricey, especially if you choose the all-inclusive option. Through our timeshare exchange company (Interval International Getaway), I reserved a one-bedroom suite with a kitchenette for $759 for the week. We saved on meals, especially breakfast and lunch, by preparing our own. Cabo has a Costco, two Walmarts, a Sam's Club, and every American fast food restaurant you can think of. In fact, it is a Canadian and American vacation and retirement haven.

Currently, I am in NYC, spending a week with my ds who is on spring break from her teaching job in CA. We are having fun with her two-year-old grandson, but are doing lots of sightseeing while he is in pre-school. His parents are taking a vacation to Turks and Caicos while we babysit. I had never been to the annual Macy's Flower Show and it is beautiful. Not to mention that Macy's is the biggest department store I've ever been in.... with nine floors to shop, three Starbucks, a McDonalds, a full restaurant, and more. I love NYC!

Next Friday, we are off to El Salvador (1 week with family) and then flying from there to Costa Rica (two weeks of bird-watching and trekking). I've been so busy I haven't updated my travel blog but will get to it one of these days. In the meantime, another
adventure calls.


Hefty Costco AmEx Rebate

March 1st, 2011 at 06:17 pm

Last Thursday we received a Costco American Express rebate check for $1,019.59. These rebate funds will go straight into our travel savings.

According to the year-end summary we spent 53% of our total expenditures on travel, a category that pays back 2%. It's a good rebate program but it pays to monitor transactions to ensure expenditures are assigned to the correct category. A few months back, I found an expense that should have been tagged as travel but wasn't. The correction resulted in an extra $67 on the rebate.

We charge everything possible on our Am Ex account and pay the balance in full each month. There are just a handful of items I can't charge (e.g., property taxes), but if they take Am Ex, it goes on the card. I especially like paying for gas because this category pays back 3% and it means ~16 cents per gallon savings at the current price of gas. Another good feature: the card has no annual fee.

One drawback is that some places still do not take Am Ex, but in that case, I use my Chase Freedom card that also has a decent rebate program.

American Airlines and Expedia Are No Longer Partners

February 27th, 2011 at 04:31 am

This afternoon, while confirming upcoming travel reservations I learned that as of January 1, 2011 Expedia and American Airlines no longer have a business partnership. An Expedia agent told me the breakup is due to "incompatible computer systems." However, I'm sure there's more to the story. Too bad... I often use Expedia to make reservations, and I frequently travel on American because it's one of the partners connected to my mileage program.

Now when you search flights on Expedia, American is not included in the lineup of airlines offering flights. I tested it out with a hypothetical trip from San Francisco to NYC and found that American had the cheapest flight for my travel dates/times. If I had chosen to fly on one of the airlines from the Expedia search, I would have paid about ~$48 more for the lowest round trip fare.

American Airlines and Expedia should try to patch things up because researching flights will now take longer for consumers who want to use Expedia but who also want to check American's fares. It also complicates matters for those who sometimes schedule different legs of a trip on different carriers. Fortunately, there's Travelocity... it still offers flights on American Airlines.

Tips for Saving Money During a Long Trip

December 13th, 2010 at 07:42 pm

In a few days my dh and I will be taking a trip that will take us away from home for six weeks. In preparation for being gone for an extended period, I have put the following services on "vacation hold:"

~ DISH TV
~ Trash
~ Sewer
~ Newspaper
~ Netflix
~ House cleaning

I calculated we will save at least $255 by placing these services on hold. In addition, I placed our mail on vacation hold, although it can only be done for 30 days at a time.

Before leaving, we will turn off the pilot on the gas fireplace, shut off the water valves to the washer, and turn the water heater to the low setting. The forced air heater will be set to a lower temperature (60) but not so low the pipes will freeze, and the ice maker will be shut off. This will save on the gas bill and protect the house from water line mishaps. (Years ago, after a two-week trip, we came home to a flooded house due to the washer hose breaking).

We will call our credit card companies to alert them we will be traveling out of the USA and give them the names of countries where we will possibly use our cards (i.e., Devil's Island, St. Lucia, Brazil...).

While we are traveling, we will keep our cell phones on "Airplane Mode" to avoid long distance roaming fees but will keep the Wi-Fi option turned on. This will allow us to check our email whenever we are in free Wi-Fi range (e.g., many hotels, cafes, and airports). I will also contact ATT about international data plan options in case I need to use my email from my iPad when we are out of free Wi-Fi range.

Another thing I do when we travel is send family a copy of our itinerary so they know how to contact us in case of an emergency, especially if our cell phones are turned off. I will also email myself an encrypted spreadsheet with our credit card numbers and phone numbers in case we lose the cards, and I will email myself an encrypted pdf of my scanned passport for the same reason.

And lastly, I carry my medical records on a flash drive that was given to me by our HMO. My comprehensive health records are on an encrypted pdf that requires a password to open, just like the documents I email to myself.


Our trip will take us 1,000 miles down the Amazon River to Manaus.

Are Timeshares a Bad Investment?

November 4th, 2010 at 01:32 am

I recently read an article about bad investments and was not surprised to see timeshares on the list. Timeshares frequently get a bum rap, although there is some truth to the notion that timeshares can be a bad investment. If you buy a timeshare as an investment, you will be disappointed if and when you go to sell and see how much it's depreciated. But it’s hard for me to wrap my head around the idea that people actually buy timeshares thinking they will resell them for profit.

Most timeshare owners I know bought for a variety reasons, but investing to make money is usually not one of them. However, I want to make a distinction here between making money and saving money. We think of our timeshare as "pre-paid" vacation time, and so far we are on track to save quite a bit. Read on and I will illustrate how, using our own timeshare as an example. But first let me share the "plan" we had in mind when we bought.

We intend to use our timeshare about 20 years (hopefully more) before we hand it over to an interested family member. Or, if no one in the family is interested, I can guarantee we will find someone willing to take it over. This means we would put the title in their name and they'd be responsible for the annual fee, currently about $400 a year. We're not interested in selling... we'll be happy to give it away when we've had enough. And yes, as the years go by, the fees will go up. No doubt about that, but so will the cost of hotel rooms. So here is how I break down the actual cost of owning our timeshare:

2003: Paid $10,300 (cash... no finance charges or loan fees to include)

Divide $10,300 by 20 years = $515 a year
Add $400 maintenance fees: $515 + $400 = $915
We use our timeshare an average of 10 days* per year: $915 divided by 10 = $92 per day
This is for accommodations that would normally run ~$250 to $300 a day or more. Not bad, even if you add ~$200 a year in lost interest on our original expenditure of $10,300.

*By leveraging our time and/or points, and traveling during off-peak times, we might stretch it to 14-21 days a year, greatly reducing the cost per day. We are also able to split weeks, convert to points, borrow from next year, and carry over for further flexibility. This will be an option now that we're retired and can travel during the off-peak months.

Our timeshare accommodations are typically a modern condo that sleeps 4-6 people. The unit will have a fully stocked kitchen, linens, washer and dryer, several bathrooms, and many other amenities such as swimming pools and workout rooms. We enjoy inviting friends and family to join us, and we can do this at no additional expense.

Some of the places we've been through our timeshare exchange network include:
Wolf Creek, Utah - 7 days
Sonora, Mexico - 7 days
Sedona, Arizona - 4 days
Carmel, California - 3 days
Bear Lake, Utah - 7 days
San Antonio, Texas - 7 days
Payette Lake, Idaho - 3 days
Las Vegas - 2 days
Orlando, Florida - 7 days
Mérida, Mexico - 7 days
Honolulu, Hawaii - 7 days
Brian’s Head, Utah - 7 days
Oregon Coast - 7 days (planned for 2011)

So, the bottom line is that we pay the equivalent of ~$92 per day for accommodations that would cost ~$250 per day minimum, and this approach supports our quest to save money while we enjoy traveling to different states and countries.

Sonora, Mexico:


Sedona, Arizona:


Carmel, California:


Bear Lake, Utah:


San Antonio, Texas:


Payette Lake at McCall, Idaho:


Orlando, Florida:


Merida, Mexico:


Honolulu, Hawaii:


Brian Head, Utah:

How I Saved $4840

October 5th, 2010 at 05:01 pm


Tomorrow morning dh and I leave for three weeks in Peru, flying out of SFO. We usually fly coach unless I can get a great deal like the one I did for this trip.

We are flying first class RT and the tickets for this itinerary would have cost $5,868. I ended up spending "only" $1,028.26 for two RT tickets to Lima by doing the following:

~ Used most of the the miles I had in my account (not enough);
~ Paid to transfer 15,000 miles from dh's account (still not enough);
~ Bought the remaining miles I needed to make the transaction.

If we had flown coach our tickets would have cost around $1,410 for two RT fares. Our first class tickets are still ~$400 cheaper than the coach fares.

I have to admit it takes time, research, and creative thinking, but there are ways to not only save money on air fare but to end up with better seats. In case you're wondering why I didn't use my miles for coach fares, they were not available. Airlines limit the number of fares that can be purchased with miles in each of the seating categories.

Pay Day and a Raise

October 1st, 2010 at 02:40 pm

Before I retired, payday was always the last weekday of the month and it was my responsibility to pick up payroll checks at the Business Office and take them to my school site for distribution. If an employee had direct deposit, they got a voucher instead of a paycheck. Paydays always put everyone in good spirits even if it was only once a month. We usually had a staff potluck that added to the upbeat mood.

Now that we're retired, our "payday" is the first day of the month and our pensions are direct deposited to our bank accounts. Deposits to savings are automatic and since most of our bills are on auto-pay, there are few, if any, checks to write. There are no more contributions to be made to our retirement accounts. Our fine-tuned budget works well to meet our needs. Payday does not seem all that special anymore.

Nonetheless, I was pleasantly surprised today when I checked my bank account and saw I received the 2% COLA, which is supposed to be issued every October 1. Due to the bleak state of the California economy, I was afraid there would be no COLA. To celebrate, I'm taking dh out for pizza... so there goes my raise.

We keep telling ourselves we're fortunate to have pensions backed by legislation that supposedly makes them secure. But the skeptic in me wonders how long California will stay solvent. So I'm wary of the worst that could happen and glad we've saved enough to at least pay our basic expenses if our pensions dry up. As bad as it would be to lose our pensions, at least we’d have a roof over our heads and be able to buy groceries. But our traveling plans would need serious modification.

My dh often comments that being retired is like having a week of Saturdays. And I'm not complaining... it's great to have the time and flexibility to do whatever we feel like doing and best of all, to have "jobs" we can't be fired from. But I still miss the celebratory atmosphere of payday.

Chase Freedom Card

September 22nd, 2010 at 06:50 pm

I am a dedicated credit card user who is in it for the rewards. While some folks are adamantly opposed to using credit cards, it has never created a problem for me. I closely monitor my transactions and my credit card balance is paid in full each month. Most transactions are budgeted items that I would have had to pay for one way or another. Paying my card is done with a few clicks via the "bill-pay" option.

A few months ago I switched from a card that had a $75 annual fee (an airline card) to the no-fee Chase Freedom card. Since I'm already a Chase customer, it's easy to monitor my card online. Plus, I get extra points for each transaction, bonus points at selected merchants, and 5% back this quarter on department stores, movies, and groceries.

Today, I logged on to the Chase Freedom Ultimate rewards site and in less than a minute used 2,500 points to request $25 in cash to be transferred to my Chase savings. I like how easy it is to access my rewards and how quickly they add up. For example, in the last two months I had less than $1,900 in transactions but earned over 3,400 in rewards.

Love Our Senior Discounts

September 17th, 2010 at 07:27 pm

For the past week, dh and I have been staying at Brian Head, Utah. Many people have never heard of it but it is in a beautiful corner of the state, high (and I do mean high) in the mountains. With the summer crowds dwindling, we thought this would be a good time to visit nearby Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park.

Two years ago, dh purchased the lifetime senior pass to enter any national park, along with up to three adult guests. The senior pass is a bargain at $10 and is available to anyone 62 or older. The entrance fee to Zion and Bryce Canyon is $25 per car or $12 per person, so we saved quite a bit. We also used it to enter Cedar Breaks National Monument, although the entrance fees there are only $4 per person.

We opted to stay in Brian Head, an hour and a half scenic drive from the national parks because we reserved a comfortable 1-bedroom condo at a beautiful lodge for only $139 for the week. This was done through our timeshare exchange program. The elevation at Brian Head is 10,350 feet, something we were unaware of although it turned out to be a good thing. In about two weeks we will be traveling to Peru and staying at Brian Head gave us an idea of the effect of high elevation on our bodies.

It did take about a day to get acclimated to the high elevation, but we learned some important things: stay hydrated, take it easy for a day or so, eat carbs, and avoid alcohol.

Here are some pics... while they last:

Cedar Breaks National Monument is only 5 miles from Brian Head. Here they get 400 inches of snow annually and close the park in October:


Bryce Canyon visitors can drive right in. It has spectacular vistas... it's like a cross between Sedona and the Grand Canyon:


Zion National Park is open from May 28 until December 1 and is a national treasure. Visitors can go deep into the park by shuttle only, and these run every 6-8 minutes. There are many hiking trails, from moderate to challenging. We went on two hikes, to the Weeping Wall and the River Walk. Here is a shot of some of the interesting Zion hoodoos:


Vent Cleaning Scam

June 19th, 2010 at 03:43 pm

Yesterday morning we had the vents to our forced air heating and cooling system cleaned and the process was a nightmare. Why? We chose a company based on a coupon we received in the mail, and they had a hidden agenda. We get coupons all the time but I chose this company because they gave a "15% senior citizen discount." All the coupons charged about $65 for the service which included "free" dryer vent cleaning.

So why was it a scam? Well, the minute the two men started the job, one got busy working while the other, Leo, said their "service" included a free inspection of our furnace. Hmmm... first red flag.

After the inspection, Leo began a high pressure sales pitch trying to sell equipment and services ranging from $850 to $150. Leo began by telling us our furnace needed cleaning and the air in our house was 70% more polluted than the outside air.

First of all, a few months back PGE came out and inspected our furnace and said all was OK. We said no to the $150 furnace cleaning. Then Leo wanted to sell us a UV Cleanser... $850 but we would get a special price of "only $499." Again, we said NO. I told him I don't spend that kind of money without researching it first.

Then Leo insulted me by asking, "Are you Jewish?" I responded, "Are you suggesting that I do not want to spend money because I'm Jewish? It's very insulting to make remarks like that about any group of people, and it's none of your business..." I would not be ashamed to be Jewish but I was angry because it projected a pejorative attitude. When Leo saw how angry I was, he said, "Oh, I'm Jewish" and he walked away.

Next, Leo tried to sell us a washable filter for $150. We already use high quality disposable filters (~$20 each) and it had recently been replaced, so we said no. Leo then said he (Leo) could not believe my dh would not spend money to have clean air in the house, especially since I have allergies (something my husband shared when Leo asked why we were having the vents professionally cleaned).

Then we found out the service did not include cleaning the cold air return vent... that was $35 more. I said OK on that only because they had the grill off and hanging and it's located in a place that is too high for our only ladder to reach. Since moving to this condo, we've given away most of our tools and equipment.

Next, Leo told my husband we had holes in the vent off the heater and poked his finger through one to show him. But wait, for $200 he would duct tape it. By now my husband was fed up and told Leo to just go. So we ended up paying $65 + $35 minus 15% discount. My dh later patched the vent holes... he said he couldn't prove it but thought Leo purposely made the holes.

I had planned to pay by CC to get points but ended up paying cash because the invoice required me to put my CC number and CVC code. Leo was such a hustler that there is no way I would let him have this information. I later called the company and told them I would be filing a complaint with the BBB and explained why. They offered to return 50% of the cost.

So the lesson learned from all of this is that next time I decide to have our vents cleaned, I will ask some questions before booking the appointment:

~ Will you try to sell me other services or equipment?

~ Does the service include cleaning ALL the vents, including the cold air return?

~ Is the technician named Leo? :-


We're Moving

May 18th, 2010 at 04:06 am

A few months back dh and I decided it was time to make Idaho our legal residence... we plan to spend more than 50% of our time there, and it makes sense from a financial standpoint. We bought our ID home in 2006. We will definitely save on some basic expenses:

Homeowner’s insurance:
ID - $320
CA - $578 (changed carriers)

Registration for my car (2007 Murano):
ID - $74
CA - $376

Auto Insurance:
ID - $1067
CA - $1459 (two cars)

State Income Tax:
ID - 7.8%
CA - 9.55%

State Sales Tax:
ID - 6%
CA - 9.25%

Property Tax Homeowner's Exemption Savings:
ID - $1,005
CA - $70

When I use Sperling's cost of living comparison calculator, it's 42% cheaper to live in Idaho than our city in California. We've been in Idaho for about two weeks now and I definitely notice the savings at the grocery store and the gas pump.

We will keep the CA condo in Silicon Valley, at least for a few years. We have family and friends in the Bay Area that we will visit frequently so the condo will be used regularly. And, when it gets too cold in Idaho, or if we have to fly out of SFO or SJC for one of our trips, we have a nice place to stay. The Prius will remain at the condo for use while we're in CA.

In other news, I am scheduling some landscaping work in our back yard using Basalite pavers/stones. Right now, the back yard is a patch of grass with a small concrete patio... that's it. My vision is to create an "outdoor room" with pavers and stone planter boxes to be filled with perennials and annuals. We will also plant a tall, narrow tree for privacy in one corner. The work is scheduled to be done in June. Before and after pictures to be posted when the work is done.

Getting Creative With Coffee Filters

February 11th, 2010 at 07:06 pm


A friend sent me an email with these tips on using coffee filters and I thought it would be worth passing along.

Who knew! And you can buy 1,000 at the Dollar Tree for almost nothing, even the large ones.

1. Cover bowls or dishes when cooking in the microwave... coffee filters make excellent covers.

2. Clean windows, mirrors, and chrome... Coffee filters are lint-free so they'll leave windows sparkling.

3. Protect China by separating your good dishes with a coffee filter between each dish.

4. Filter broken cork from wine. If you break the cork when opening a wine bottle, filter the wine through a coffee filter.

5. Protect a cast-iron skillet. Place a coffee filter in the skillet to absorb moisture and prevent rust.

6. Apply shoe polish. Ball up a lint-free coffee filter.

7. Recycle frying oil. After frying, strain oil through a sieve lined with a coffee filter.

8. Weigh chopped foods. Place chopped ingredients in a coffee filter on a kitchen scale.

9. Hold tacos. Coffee filters make convenient wrappers for messy foods.

10. Stop the soil from leaking out of a plant pot. Line a plant pot with a coffee filter to prevent the soil from going through the drainage holes.

11. Prevent a Popsicle from dripping. Poke one or two holes as needed in a coffee filter.

12. Don't use expensive strips to wax eyebrows... use strips of coffee filters.

13. Put a few in a plate and put your fried bacon, French fries, chicken fingers, etc. on them. It soaks out all the grease.

14. Keep in the bathroom. They make great "razor nick fixers."

15. As a sewing backing. Use a filter as an easy-to-tear backing for embroidering or appliqueing soft fabrics.

16. Put baking soda into a coffee filter and insert into shoes or a closet to absorb or prevent odors.

17. Use them to strain soup stock and to tie fresh herbs in to put in soups and stews.

18. Use a coffee filter to prevent spilling when you add fluids to your car.

19. Use them as a spoon rest while cooking and clean up small counter spills.

20. Can use to hold dry ingredients when baking or when cutting a piece of fruit or veggies. Saves on having extra bowls to wash.

21. Use them to wrap Christmas ornaments for storage.

22. Use them to remove fingernail polish when out of cotton balls.

23. Use them to sprout seeds. Simply dampen the coffee filter, place seeds inside, fold it and place it into a plastic baggie until they sprout.

24. Use coffee filters as blotting paper for pressed flowers. Place the flowers between two coffee filters and put the coffee filters in phone book.

25. Use as a disposable "snack bowl" for popcorn, chips, etc.

OH YEAH THEY ARE GREAT TO USE IN YOUR COFFEE MAKERS, TOO.

Change of Plans, Part 2

February 10th, 2010 at 07:56 pm

Our trip to Peru in February was canceled due to torrential rains and ensuing floods that washed away the railroad tracks, but we have rescheduled for October. We've been looking forward to the trip for months and the cancellation was a letdown that left us itching to go somewhere, anywhere. Fortunately, our 2010 travel savings has enough to allow some "unscheduled" travel, so I researched "last minute" deals. Unable to resist the bargains, we decided on two weeks in Orlando, Florida. Our itinerary includes St. Augustine, Miami and the Everglades, and the Disney World parks.

Some things that saved money:

~ The first week was booked through Expedia as a package that included airfare, so we saved over $500 (another condo with a kitchen);

~ The second week was booked through our timeshare (Interval International) and will cost $139 for the entire week (studio condo with kitchen);

~ The day-long excursion to Miami and the Everglades was booked using a discount coupon;

~ The car rental was booked through Costco Travel at a 25% savings plus one free day;

~ We will prepare one or two meals each day at the condo, a healthy option that will save money.

We are set to leave next week. Now, if only I could talk dh into going on the "scary" rides with me at Disney World...

Jam-packed January

January 31st, 2010 at 11:40 pm

It's the last day of January and looking back, the month has flown by. We were in Idaho for the first week then drove back to CA. Since weather conditions were very icy, we opted to break up the trip by spending the night in Reno instead of making the 12-hour drive in one day. We stayed at La Quinta, a "pet friendly" hotel that was clean and reasonable (~$63). The hotel didn't charge extra for TC the cat and provided a free continental breakfast in the morning (with choice of warm oatmeal, cold cereal, juice, coffee, yogurt, toasted bagels/cream cheese, hard-boiled eggs, and more).

A few days after arriving back in CA, dh's colleagues honored him at a brunch at the Dolce Hayes Mansion. My DDs flew out from ID for the event, in honor of his retirement and almost 30 years of distinguished service. The day before the celebration, we took the girls whale watching on the coast. This is something I've always wanted to do, but never had. The excursion was reasonably-priced, very successful and one we'll do again. Some of the best experiences are in our own back yard.

We saw an abundance of migrating gray whales... this one flashing its beautiful tail.


We encountered a school of Risso's dolphins. Here a calf is sheltered between two adults.


These California Sea Lions like to pile up on the jetty.


Mid-January, I took off to NYC with my DS. There are some great fares to be had from SFO to NY, even cheaper than flying to Boise. After spending a week with my sister, I realized how much fun it is to have our "girls only" time. Well, we did have a little man with us... my grandnephew who just turned one. One of the reasons DS and I went to NYC was so my grandnephew's parents could take a much-needed vacation. So DS and I enjoyed being grandma and great-auntie for a week. Fortunately, the baby was happy and easy to care for. We enjoyed decent weather... very little rain, and clear but cold (low 30s and high 20s).

Staying in my nephew's apartment was an interesting experience. Their apartment is one of ~22,000 (not a typo) in an East Side complex known as Stuyvesant Town. The apartment is ~700 square feet and they pay ~$2,500 in rent that includes heat, electricity, water, and garbage. I guess this is average rent for NYC.

It struck me as odd that they cannot regulate the heat in their apartment. For my taste, the apartment was frequently too warm, so much that I'd wake in the middle of the night. When I did, I'd look out the window and see many apartments with the lights on and windows cracked open. What a waste of energy, and especially alarming since Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town are having economic woes.

I stayed well below budget on this trip. We saved money by shopping at Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, and in Chinatown for produce, all within walking distance. Dinners were home-cooked gourmet meals but we did eat lunch out several times. The thin-crust NY pizza is yummy but my favorite is Bon-Chon chicken.


In Chinatown, a good place for bargains, I bought dried mushrooms and ginger at reasonable prices for my CA pantry.


On many street corners you can find small "bodegas" that sell groceries and fresh flowers.


One of the most entertaining things to do in NYC is "people watching." This professional dog-walker has her hands full. New Yorkers love dogs.


And for those who want to save time...

2009 Net Worth Analysis

January 5th, 2010 at 02:34 am

Once a year I analyze our net worth to get a current picture of our financial position. For the sake of simplicity, I don't include the value of autos or personal property, and I use the assessed values of real estate, minus mortgages, to determine equity.

I was surprised our net worth actually grew by 3.44% in 2009. It would have been significantly more except that real estate values continued to drop in CA and ID. Nonetheless, I am grateful for the positive growth, far better than in 2008 when our net worth shrunk by 5.6%.

My goal for 2010 is a 5% gain. It will be a challenge now that we're both retired, our income is lower, and we can no longer contribute to tax-sheltered accounts as we have done in the past. CD interest rates at 2-3% are not much help, but if all goes as planned, we will save about 20-25% of our net income. We'll see where things stand a year from now. Check out the page on my sidebar for my 2009 Net Worth Analysis if you're interested in more details.

If you're curious how your own net worth stacks up against other folks in the same age/income bracket, use this calculator to compare. I did, and I learned our net worth is above the median for people in both our age and income brackets.

Free eBooks!

November 29th, 2009 at 11:35 pm

A good source of free eBooks is through Barnes & Noble. First you have to download their free reader. It can be installed on your PC, Mac, or cell phone. I've installed it on both my Mac and my iPhone.

Once you've completed the reader download and installation, you will be able to access from a large collection of free eBooks. Or, you can also buy others. So far, I have gotten the following free books:

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Dracula by Bram Stoker
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Hide in Plain Sight by Marta Perry (this is a "Harlequin Romance"-type novel, not classic literature, but hey... it's free)
Merriam Webster's Pocket Dictionary

To download the free eBooks, you have to create a B & N account (it's free) and enter a CC number. The CC is NOT charged but you will later need to enter the card # to "unlock" any books you've downloaded. Your eBooks, free or purchased, are archived on the B & N website under "My eBooks Library."

The B & N Reader lets you go into full-screen mode and has other handy features. For example, you can "highlight" passages or view the eBook in single or two-page mode.

Flycell Scam

November 22nd, 2009 at 07:13 pm

About a month ago, I took an online "IQ Test" and when I got to the end, I was asked to enter my cell phone number to get a PIN for the "results." Although I hesitated, curiosity got the best of me and I bit. I was texted a PIN, I entered it in on the website and got my IQ number.

So yesterday when I got my ATT bill I noticed it was about $30 higher than usual. After carefully reviewing it, I saw I was being charged for some "mobile purchase downloads." Turns out when I entered my phone number, somewhere in the fine print gobbledygook, I was SUBSCRIBING to Flycell. When they send you a text with a PIN, unless you text them back "STOP," you are subscribed!

I got on the phone with ATT and learned a lot. First of all, I had a block put on my line that prevents any download purchases without a PIN. It's free and part of the "parental controls" option (and we don't even have kids at home!). I further learned that unauthorized phone charges from third-parties is getting to be very common. There is a website gathering complaints for a class-action suit.

ATT was great... they reversed the charges and explained how dangerous it is to provide your phone number online... it could be a phishing scam, like the IQ test I took. So much for having a genius IQ... what a joke!.

I'm glad I check my bills as soon as I get an email alert they're available. Some of the stories I read about on the class-action website told about getting charged for months and months before they noticed.

Using the "B" Word

November 20th, 2009 at 12:29 am

I have to chuckle about a conversation I recently had with a friend I go walking with. She shared she wants to retire in the next five years (she is 55, ~two years younger than I was when I retired). My DF is VERY tired of working but wants to repaint her house before she retires and says she needs to save up for it. I asked if she had used any of the online retirement calculators and she said she had not.

"You might want to check some out..." I told her... "A calculator can help you analyze your budget in relation to your retirement income, so you have a good handle on when you can retire. There are lots of calculators available online..."

"Budget? Oh, I don't have a budget. Except for the mortgage, I like to pay cash, and when I make an ATM withdrawal, as long as there's a decent balance in my account, I'm good. I think having a budget is too much trouble, so I don't bother. I'd never be able to stick to it anyway. I know where I am financially, more or less."

"Hmm. Okay... well, good luck with your retirement plans..." I say no more. What's the point? Yes, some people definitely have simplified view of retirement planning. Now I wish I had asked what she considers a "decent balance" in her checking account.

I Love Tuesdays!

November 10th, 2009 at 07:10 pm

About once or twice a month, on Tuesday, we enjoy the prime-rib special for TWO at one of our favorite restaurants. For only $29.99 it includes a spinach salad, freshly baked bread, and a half carafe of the house wine. The serving of prime rib is so large that we take half of it home for lunch the next day. The special is not on the menu, you just have to know about it and ask...

Tuesday is Senior Day at one of the local cinemas: tickets are $6 for any show, at any time (regular senior price is $9.75).

If you join the "Tuesday Club" at Ross, you get 10% off on Tuesdays. It's free and open to anyone over 55.

And things I love any day of the week:

10% senior discount at my vet ('cuz of my age, not the cat's)... you have to ask for it the first time, then it's in your file.

Going to Costco any day/time EXCEPT on the weekend.

Retirement Accounts on Track

November 9th, 2009 at 05:51 pm

It's weird thinking about my "retirement accounts" because I've been retired for almost a year and a half. I'm fortunate that for the time being, my state teacher's pension enables me to live comfortably and I have health insurance provided at no cost through my former employer. In my early 20s, I got into the habit of saving for retirement, and I never stopped contributing throughout my working years.

When I retired in August of 2008, the plan was to leave my tax-sheltered accounts intact as long as possible, possibly being able to hold off until age 70 1/2 when the Required Minimum Distribution (RMD) kicks in. An emergency and travel savings in taxable accounts rounds out our cash funds. If the need were to arise, I would tap these before the tax-sheltered funds.

Since retiring I hadn't thoroughly reviewed the status of my tax-sheltered accounts (403b, IRA, and 457). So today I analyzed the growth in these accounts from September 30, 2008 to September 30, 2009. I was surprised to see that growth has been 4.6% overall... I expected it to be lower. This is after taking into account that my 457 Plan had 0% growth last year (this account is keyed to the S & P index and makes up ~22% of my tax-sheltered funds).

If my calculations are correct, in ~12 years when RMD kicks in, the RMD will be less than 4% of the total. If the accounts continue to earn @4.6% and I withdraw ~4%, the funds will continue to grow. Of course, this is a hypothetical situation because in 12 years I may need a lot more than 4% to make ends meet... and then there's inflation. My pension has a 2% COLA that may not be enough in the future.

My tax-sheltered accounts include a Roth and a non-qualified annuity that I did not include in the projections because they are exempt from RMD. If I don't have to use these non-qualified funds for my health care or living expenses, then I may use them for a legacy gift. I am considering leaving a bequest to my alma mater to establish a scholarship fund to support single mothers working to become teachers.

It was a dark and stormy day...

October 13th, 2009 at 05:43 pm

Today we are experiencing the first severe storm of the season. I live in a part of CA that has relatively mild climate, so winter storms like this one are not too common. The weather reports have been heralding this storm that was supposed to arrive yesterday and deposit several inches of rain. I even stayed up late anticipating a spectacular storm, but as of the time I went to bed, nothing. Then this morning I woke to the sound of the rain pounding the roof and windows. There is nothing like a good rain to renew the landscape, not to mention how much I enjoy being cozy inside my house when the weather is stormy outside.

Downstairs, the house was chilly, so I turned on the gas fireplace. TC is in heaven because she loves to flop in front of the fire. It's funny because MC, my other cat, used to love to do that, too. There is something primordial about fire... it doesn't just provide warmth, it also seems to soothe the spirit. Today I started thinking about what we would do here in our townhouse if we were ever to have such severe weather that it knocked out the power for a good long while.

When my daughters were little we lived in the country and heated our house with a wood stove. Winter storms would cause us to lose our power at least 2-3 times each year. The stove not only heated the house, but it also enabled me to cook warm and nutritious meals of beans, soup, or stew and get us through the worst of the storm. One time, we were without power for three days. We cooked on the wood stove and flushed the toilets with buckets of water from the pool. My kids, toddlers at the time, stayed cozy, warm, and well-fed.

With the storm raging outside, I decided that today is a good day to inventory the pantry and assess exactly what's there and to make sure I'm rotating the items to keep up with expiration dates. I saw that Costco sells an emergency food kit for around $85. It has a shelf life of 10-20 years, depending on the storage temperature. I don't think I want to go that route but we have done some things that will help us get through a prolonged emergency.

First of all, we have an emergency box with candles, lighters, matches, flashlights, new batteries, a crank radio, and basic first aid. I keep 6 one-gallon jugs of frozen water in the garage freezer. In case of a power outage, these will help keep the food frozen longer and we can also drink it. I can boil water or cook a simple meal using my Cobb BBQ, making sure it is outside because it uses charcoal which must NEVER be burned indoors due to carbon monoxide emissions. But it heats up quickly with only 6-8 briquettes and will cook for hours.

And then there's the pantry. We keep a variety of packaged soups, canned chicken, tuna, tomatoes, corn, fruit, pasta sauce, pasta, brown rice, lots of dried beans, split peas, and lentils. We could easily eat for weeks with this bounty. So, off I go to take the inventory.

My Shrinking Carbon Footprint

October 9th, 2009 at 05:29 pm

I'm somewhat amazed but very pleased at our progress on the goal of reducing our carbon footprint by saving energy. Here is the analysis of our PGE bill (gas and electric) for the last three months compared to last year:

7/2008 $83.85
7/2009 $63.38
~25% less

8/2008 $99.57
8/2009 $61.91
~38% less

9/2008 $130.14
9/2009 $ 82.02
~37% less

I am home more, but apparently using less energy. Reducing our energy consumption has not resulted in deprivation of any kind. We manage to keep warm on "cold" days and have stayed cool in the heat. On warm summer nights we always open the bedroom window to let in the cool night air. We also changed all the light bulbs to energy saving CFLs. PGE offers a "Balanced Payment Plan" option that is now at $91 a month vs. $125 about a year ago. I don't use this option but it illustrates that we are making good overall progress. This could change... it seems colder this year than last year at the same time. So far, we have yet to turn on the heater but it is waiting with new, clean filters.

Economical Herb Gardening

October 1st, 2009 at 06:40 pm


I love to cook with fresh herbs but find that they are quite expensive at the supermarket and they are also very perishable. Several years ago I began to cultivate my favorite herbs in pots and keep these on the patio. When I need some for cooking, I just step outside and clip. My herb garden includes:
~ rosemary
~ thyme
~ oregano
~ basil
~ mint
~ lavender

I probably have less than $20 invested in the original plants and because we live in a mild climate, they usually last several years. Herbs are easy to care for and great for small or patio gardens. The exception is basil which I buy each spring from Trader Joe's. A a gallon plant is ~$2.99 and I will use it until December.

I also dry my own bay leaves because I have access to a beautiful Bay Laurel on one of my walks. A very small clipping will yield dozens of leaves that will quickly dry and will last for a good long while.

Have you ever eaten a dish that contains lavender? A lot of folks don't realize that lavender is edible and there are many culinary uses. A few years back, at a little quaint restaurant, I tried a "flower omelet" that included lavender flowers... it was one of the best I've had.

Making Travel a Reality in Retirement

August 3rd, 2009 at 11:53 pm

When I decided to retire a year ago, I knew we could live more frugally in some ways but I also knew that travel would be a bigger expense, given that we'd have more time for it. And, after years of working hard and looking forward to retirement, it would be disappointing to have to limit travel due to lack of funds. So, to what extent would we be able to afford retirement travel? To figure this out, prior to retiring I analyzed our projected monthly expenses in relation to our retirement income. I included "travel" as a monthly expense.

For us, travel planning begins with reviewing our calendar and discussing where we'd like to go in the coming year. We take into account visits with family, work/volunteer schedules, other financial obligations, and timeshare options. In 2009, our travel plans have included Carmel, San Antonio, an Alaskan cruise, and a trip to Payette Lake in McCall, ID. Once we know when and where, I estimate expenses for airfare, hotels, meals, and excursions. That amount is prorated and I deposit a monthly amount to the savings account that holds travel funds.

Then I challenge myself to reduce the cost of our planned travel as much as possible. For example, our hotels in Carmel, San Antonio, and McCall were reserved through our timeshare, so aside from the annual dues, there was no hotel expense. The airfare for San Antonio was purchased with miles, so we paid only the airport taxes (~$20). The airfare to Seattle (departure port for cruise) was 50% off because I used my mileage card rewards.

For the Alaskan cruise, we received a "military discount" available to anyone who has ever served in the military, no matter when. We were eligible for the discount due to dh's service during the Vietnam War and this saved ~$500. A few days before the final payment was due, I called the cruise line and negotiated an additional savings of $240 plus $100 onboard credit. A few days before departure the cruise line called to see if we were interested in upgrading to a suite for a reasonable price and we did.

The effort to systematically save and reduce travel costs pays off because the travel fund is growing. I usually deposit any "windfalls" into this account. In 2010, we want to go to Machu Picchu and take a Hawaiian cruise, so I'm starting to plan and save for those already. Retirement travel is possible because we live a simple life with no debt (except for a small mortgage) and we carefully plan and save for each trip. We've always said travel would be a priority in our retirement and we definitely want to make hay while the sun shines.


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