Home > Archive: December, 2008

Archive for December, 2008

Good Bye! Adios!

December 16th, 2008 at 06:08 pm

In a few hours, my dh and I will hop on a plane to visit family in Central America. Not sure I'll have Internet access while there, so I probably won't be able to keep up with SA member blogs, but I do look forward to catching up on your posts in a few weeks. To my blogmates at SA, may 2009 bring you good health, the love of family and friends, peace and prosperity.

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Happy Holidays!

Unplugging the Cat

December 15th, 2008 at 07:07 pm

My cat is a casualty of my frugality, my dh teases. Why? I am unplugging the electric water bowl that filters and circulates her drinking water. The vet recommended this special bowl for my old cat, MC, before he passed away from kidney failure at age 18. I loved MC so much that I would have done almost anything to extend his life... and this bowl was one of the things I tried. According to my vet, cats prefer running water (an instinct from the wild). So, many cats will drink more if the water is "moving."

Well, the fancy bowl wasn't intended for TC, but she inherited it when she adopted us last December. The bowl is a royal pain in the patootie to clean, but I do it religiously and meticulously, otherwise it gets very yucky. Since we will be gone for a few weeks I do not want the pet sitter to deal with the chore of the weekly water bowl cleaning.

So, it's getting unplugged... and TC will have to get her fresh water daily from a large porcelain crock. No doubt, we might save a few pennies on the electricity, but that is not my motivation for unplugging it. TC will probably miss the running water because she likes to play with it, but at least she stays out of the toilet unlike MC... that used to be his favorite place for a drink if we forgot to put down the lid. And, I can always give TC back the special bowl when we return.

Or then again, maybe I will donate it to

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Town Cats for their elderly guests.

Whirlwind Day

December 14th, 2008 at 02:22 am

Today felt like a super hectic day partly because I have so much to do before we leave on our trip in a few days. I started out early and dh went along on the errands, so that made things a little easier. I did get a lot done today:

~Went to UPS and mailed Christmas package for my DDs and SILs
~Went to bank
~Made 10 Secret Santa deliveries
~Went to Staples to buy ink for the printer

Back at home:
~Entered grades on the web-based grade sheet for my class
~Did a load of laundry
~Ironed clothes I'm taking on trip
~Tried cutting TC's nails... (gave up)
~Wrote thank you notes for birthday gifts
~Confirmed with pet sitter and ride to airport
~Answered flagged email

Back out again:
~Had a late lunch with the professional group I am working with

Dh is now fixing his own dinner and I am not hungry at all after my late lunch. He is very good at fending for himself. In this afternoon's mail I received a pleasant surprise: a check for $1128.25. It is from a job I had offered to do pro bono but my former boss decided to pay me... and I'm happy to take it. I will set aside ~$400 for taxes, ~$400 to savings, fund 10 more Secret Santa gifts, and take the rest on the trip.

I still have lots to do:
1) Stock up on cat food and litter
2) Clean out refrigerator
3) Pack items that wrinkle
4) Go to bank again
5) Buy cleaning supplies the house cleaner wants
6) Make a doctor's appointment (for mid-January)
7) Pick up prescriptions
8) Make the rest of the Secret Santa deliveries
9) Type instructions for the pet sitter Animal Smiley 031
10) Take TC to get her nails trimmed (or she'll scratch the furniture)

And I'm sure there's more that I just can't think of right now.

Why Do We Have a Mortgage?

December 11th, 2008 at 07:24 pm

My daughter asked me why we would carry a mortgage if we could pay it off. Why not pay off the loan and not have a PI payment at all? Well to start with, my dh and I have different financial positions. While I could come up with my 50% of the loan, it would strain dh's resources to do likewise (it's complicated). So we will continue to have a mortgage on our CA house. And, thanks to a tip from monkeymama, we are now in the process of refinancing to 4.875% and this will save about $225 a month from the current payment. But assuming we could simply pay off the loan, would it be a good idea?

To answer this question using the new 4.875% numbers, I started with a

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calculator that weighs various aspects of home ownership including the impact of property taxes, your standard deduction, and your tax rate. I also calculated the interest portion of our payment and what we could reasonably earn if we left the money in the bank. Here are the figures:

Annual payment (interest): $9263
Tax benefit by having a loan (per calculator above): $1936

Amount of interest earned on $190000 invested @ 4% = $7600
Minus 30% in taxes = $2280
Net investment income = $5320

Amount saved if we paid off mortgage: $9263 minus (5320+1936) = $2007

Bottom line: We could save ~$2000 a year we paid off the $190,000 loan, assuming my calculations are not flawed in some way. But we have decided not to for several reasons. Primarily, dh feels contributing his 50% of the payoff would deplete his cash reserves. We plan to live here only 5-6 more years, then we will sell our townhouse or rent it if we cannot sell. By not paying off the loan, we have access to larger cash reserves for future plans that include travel and possibly buying property in a foreign country. So, this compromise works for our situation.

In general, I think it is a good strategy to pay off your mortgage but everyone should assess their individual situation before doing so.

I'm on track

December 10th, 2008 at 09:00 pm

with my 2009 goal to reduce our carbon footprint. Our gas and electric bill came in ~ $10 higher than the previous month. But in comparing October and November 2007 with 2008, I have reduced energy consumption and saved money. We have had some mild fall weather, so this is likely a factor but I'll keep up the effort.

10/07 $87.16
10/08 $69.54
~20% less

11/07 $90.28
11/08 $79.67
~12% less

Adventures in People Watching

December 9th, 2008 at 07:17 pm

The semester is winding down and now it's time for me to meet with my student teachers for an "exit conference" to review their portfolios. It is a one-to-one meeting that lasts about an hour per candidate. I have been looking forward to these meetings because it's a time to reflect on the semester's successes and progress toward program requirements. Fortunately, I have a solid group of students and have no concerns with any of them... they are all on track.

My students asked to have our meeting at a little coffeehouse that's near campus but situated so that parking is free and abundant, unlike the university. So early yesterday morning, I went to the designated place and found a good table, one that would give us some privacy, relatively speaking, since it is a rather small but popular coffeehouse. It is not unusual to for study groups or faculty to park themselves for hours at this place. Between appointments, I observed those coming and going as well as people who sat at adjacent tables. Although I am not in the habit of eavesdropping, due to the close proximity of the tables I could not help but overhear some conversations.

Among the most "fascinating": Lady A and Lady B

Lady A: "So, you guys get any nibbles on the house yet?"

Lady B: "Nope. The realtor wants us to lower the price AGAIN! There goes any equity we might have. We may as well walk away if it goes any lower."

Lady A: "Oh, honey, I know what you mean. The equity in our house has dropped over 300 grand from a couple years ago. We thought we were all set but we'd be lucky to get a mil for it now. At least we don't have a mortgage."

Lady B: Silence.

Me, to self: Lady A, may I recommend a class in Sensitivity Training?

Another interesting interaction between mother and child waiting in line to order:

Boy (about 4): "Mama, I want one of these!" (grabbing a icing-decorated Santa cookie from display case.)

Mother: "No! Put it back."

Boy: "But I waaaaaaa nit!!!" (in whiney high-pitched voice)

Mother: "I said no!"

Boy: "I hate you!"

Mother: "Listen, you better settle down, you hear me?" Then she says to no one in particular: "He always makes me spend money I don't have!" and proceeds to pay for the cookie when she places her order.

Me, to self: May I recommend Parenting 101?

Our Carbon Footprint

December 8th, 2008 at 03:47 pm

One of my 2009 goals is to reduce our carbon footprint (see sidebar). There are quite a few calculators on the web, but

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the one I like gives me a good grasp on "doable" ways we can reduce our footprint. For our 2-person household, DH and I produce 16.44 tonnes (metric tons) of CO2 emissions. This is below the US average of 20.40 tonnes for a 2-person household. The average for the world's industrial nations is 11 tonnes, so we have lots of room for improvement. The worldwide target to combat climate change is 2 tonnes.

One way to reduce our carbon footprint is to become more efficient with our energy consumption (electricity, natural gas, gasoline). Another of my 2009 goals is connected to my carbon footprint: to reduce our gas/electric bill by 10%. Not only will it save us money, but also will have a positive impact on the environment.

A Special Kind of Christmas Gift

December 6th, 2008 at 07:04 pm

When I worked, my school sponsored an annual holiday food drive and we filled many barrels with food for the needy. My students and their families donated generously, even though most had financial struggles of their own. Our efforts were recognized with awards and accolades, but to me the best reward was seeing the kindness and caring that this effort generated. Now that I'm retired, I do miss this event.

The local paper has been reporting that more than in past years, there is a severe shortage of food being donated to the local food banks. Understandably, the recession is a factor. Many people are challenged to put food on their own table and donating food, no matter how good the cause, is not an option for them right now.

So, this year DH and I agreed we would tell our close family, the ones we exchange gifts with (children, my sister and BIL, niece, nephew), that what we want for Christmas is for them to make a donation in our name to one of our favorite charities, the local food bank. We do not want to know the amount of the donation, just that one has been made.

Well, we've communicated our wishes, and everyone is on board... a few reluctantly because they wanted to get us "something." But I think everyone will follow-through. I love the idea for several reasons. First of all, we are helping others who are less fortunate. Secondly, no one will have to worry about what to get us. And last of all, DH and I are still working on simplifying our lives and really don't need any more "stuff" cluttering our small home.

Striking a Balance

December 5th, 2008 at 09:47 pm

Today I was reading an article about a young couple in the

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"Millionaires in the Making" series on CNNMoney and something struck a chord with me. The husband in the article said he and his wife work at trying to "strike the delicate balance between saving for the future and living in the present" and that it is not an easy task. What a wise 27 year old! This young couple has saved some serious money, but they also understand the importance of enjoying the present.

This comment prompted me to reflect on my own experience and ponder the question of balance. All my life I've worked hard to save and prepare for my retirement and so now, here I am... retired. The future that was always the carrot that kept me focused is here. It is now. No more saving for retirement for me. I'm here.

In the last 15+ years since my daughters went off to college, I've probably been a workaholic, at least some of the time. My focus was on my job, working long hours, saving for retirement, working even longer hours, saving more... As I reflect about it, in some ways, before retiring, I had lost the balance in my life. And it wasn't because working longer hours resulted in more pay... I was salaried so it did not matter.

So here I am, happy to be retired and retired, trying to be happy. And while it's good to have the security of a pension and money in the bank - more than I will probably need in my lifetime - what was the trade off? I know I should have taken more time "to smell the roses," figuratively speaking.

Now that I'm retired, one of the things I've had to work on is learning to live in the present, to savor each and every day and revel in the simple pleasures that we can overlook when we make work an unbalanced priority in our lives. I have had to learn to get better at having fun and spending the money to do so without feeling guilty. It should not be this hard.

Balance is so important... and while I'm still working on finding my groove in retirement, I hope all the young people out there in the early stages of planning and preparing for the future do not forget to enjoy the present. Work to maintain that delicate balance because you cannot go back and "re-do" your life.

Travelsmith Deals

December 5th, 2008 at 05:22 pm

Yesterday my package from

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Travelsmith arrived. I like many of their products but they can be expensive, so I watch for specials, promotions, or shop their outlet. I tried on the clothes and was very happy with my purchases. With S & H and tax I paid $75.30 for:

~ pair of "Seam Slimmer" black pants to replace a favorite pair (too loose) - $19.98 (retail $79)
~ white Coolmax 3/4 sleeve tee shirt, great in the tropics - $16.98 (retail $42)
~ pair of compression knee-highs to help leg circulation during air travel - $12.95
~ Purse-size Wonder cloth, chemical-free and great for traveling - $9.50
~ Emergency cell-phone charger - Free (Retail $25)

Oh, and they sent me a coupon for 10% off on my next purchase. There's just one little problem... the coupon expires December 1, 2008 and I received the package on December 4. Useless, but they would probably honor it if I squawked. I just don't have anything else I need to buy right now.

So, I saved over $100 for items I will use during my upcoming trip and for future travel as well. Now, I better go find stuff to donate... gotta follow my
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ROT #1.

$9.50 seems expensive for a square of cloth that is only 2 X 2 inches but it is chemical-free and will last for years. This one replaces one I forgot in a hotel room last summer... it's great for travel and gently exfoliates.

Pet Peeve

December 4th, 2008 at 11:46 pm

I have a friend, not a close friend, but someone I've known for a while and a nice person. Sometimes she grates on my nerves a little, so I do limit my contact. Well, I found out something today that's really been bugging me... and I'm beginning to think I might be overreacting. My friend has no children so her little cockapoo is like her "child." Being a pet lover, I understand this and it is not the problem.

When I ran into my friend while on a walk today, I noticed her pooch had on a cute little jacket. I commented that I had bought my cat TC, a cheap little "tu-tu" for her to wear in the Halloween photos I sent to some friends at my former workplace. These friends were instrumental in me adopting TC last December. The outfit cost $3.99 at Ross.... my friends loved the pix and strangely enough, TC loved wearing the tu-tu. It was all in fun.

Well, my friend proceeded to tell me in no uncertain terms that she would NEVER buy cheap clothes for her little "Fifi" (not the pooch's real name). In fact, all of Fifi's clothes are Louis Dog Products from

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Fur My Pet. Puh-lease! I checked them out online and these dog clothes cost more than I spend on my own clothes. Would you buy your pooch a cashmere outfit that cost $105 and has to be dry-cleaned? Well, Fifi has several, plus a bed that cost over $100 that she "never uses."

My cat sleeps wherever she pleases, as cats are known to do, although she has a little carpet-covered drum I spent $49 on. It saves the furniture because she scratches her nails on it and I also stow all her toys in it. And I thought I had splurged on that. While I will not hesitate to spend on quality food and vet care, I draw the line on designer clothes.

So why is this bugging me? It's not that my friend can't afford it. She is wealthy, although she does not support any charitable causes by her own admission. Once when I was trying to get her to support Kiva, she told me she "doesn't trust" that her donations would actually be used as intended. I just feel that with so many people who are struggling, here is Fifi in her designer duds, living larger than the common man. I could buy 4 or 5 jackets for needy kids with the money spent on one of Fifi's sweaters. IMHO, there is something wrong with this picture. Or am I overreacting?

My Shopping Challenge

December 4th, 2008 at 04:55 pm

Around mid-December we leave for a two-week trip to El Salvador, the country of my birth. I have not been there for two years, so naturally I am excited about seeing my family. We will be celebrating my aunt and uncle's 50th wedding anniversary... a milestone nowadays and definitely one in our family where people either die or get divorced before reaching their 50th. Whenever we visit, DH and I are given the VIP treatment... everyone is kind and thoughtful and we always have a great time.

We will be there for Christmas, so I wanted to bring gifts, even if it is something small. My aunt, age 80, is my mother's younger sister and she has five children, and they are all married and have children of their own... so we are talking about a lot of relatives. Some I do not know well, others I am close to. Altogether, I needed to buy gifts for 26 people including a baby due in May. Packing all of this will be interesting to say the least.

I called this my "shopping challenge" because in keeping with import regulations, I had a $500 limit. Moreover, I rarely see some of these relatives so I don't know sizes, likes and so on. My challenge was completed well before Black Friday. A definite benefit of being retired is that I can go shopping in the middle of the day and not fight the crowds. And did I ever score some great bargains! So far, I've spent $319.94 for items that retail for $712.48. This takes care of 21 of the 26 relatives.

The only item I paid full price for was a beautiful, 8.4-inch digital frame that will be a gift for my aunt and uncle ($99 @ We will take photos of the family and the celebration and get everything set up for them while we are there. Everything else was bought on sale or with a discount of some kind. For the baby-to-be (gender unknown): Carter's blankets/bibs and a 7-inch Kodak digital frame for the parents (@ 50% discount). We spent more on them because they are generously housing us during our stay. For my aunt's five children, I bought five beautiful photo frames (5 X 7) and inserted recent photos of their children. This and some type of candy will be a "couple's gift."

Knowing these are favorites, I bought Sees chocolates, Jelly Bellys, and salt-water taffy. One cousin is getting a bottle of organic Napa Valley virgin olive oil to compare to that of his homeland (Milan, Italy). Three female cousins from a different branch of the family are getting a blouse, top, or Liz Claiborne PJs (I knew their size), and an XO wallet and handbag for a teenage cousin. Oh, and the ladies from the "Italian branch" of the family will also get some imported Italian soaps.

I gave up on the five teenage boys who will end up getting money (a new $20 bill). I just don't know sizes or what teenage boys like for that matter, so I saved myself a lot of stress and decided to just go with $$. The American dollar is the official currency of El Salvador, so this will have to do... money in a card. We'll also give some $$ to my aunt and uncle, hoping they'll use it toward a trip to the USA in 2009... or something special like that. And I know it will be OK because the invitation specifies "regalo de sobre" which is like the "money tree" people sometimes have at celebrations here in the US.

My favorite stores for bargains: Ross and TJ Maxx, hands down. You can't beat their deep discounts on name-brand items, but you do have to look around as sometimes these stores can get picked over. But this doesn't stop me... I am a patient shopper. Costco and Best Buy had good deals on high-quality digital frames. All in all, I am pleased that my "shopping challenge" was a success and that I stayed under budget. Now, I better go see about that packing...

Tax Time

December 3rd, 2008 at 06:19 pm

December is a spendy month for many people, and it certainly is for us because it's the month property taxes are due. I generally pay our property taxes in early December, so today I wrote checks totaling a very tidy sum. This will take care of the first half of the property taxes. The second installments are due in April (CA) and June (ID).

I systematically save for property taxes since becoming my own impound manager a few years ago. (We carry a small mortgage on our CA home, otherwise this information would not be relevant.) There was a time the mortgage company managed the impounds (aka escrow account) but one day I realized that they usually take more then they need, and furthermore, they are earning interest on MY money. To manage the process, I created my own "impound reserve account" and deposit a prorated amount each month (it's an interest-earning savings). The prorated sum is the annual charge for taxes and insurance divided by 12. When it's time to pay the bills, I transfer funds to my checking account.

This strategy works for me because I'm disciplined enough to leave the funds untouched except for their intended purpose. I've known others who tried this method with disastrous results... they treated the impound account as an "emergency fund" rather than as encumbered money. If the money's not there when you need it, what's the point? Just let the lender manage it for you and be guaranteed its availability. Of course, you "pay" the lender for the service by letting them use your money for free.

The best part about taking control yourself: the interest this money earns for you adds up over time. For example, if you pay $6,000 a year in taxes (not unusual in CA), and make prorated deposits of $500 invested @ 2% compounded monthly, you will earn ~ $55. Keep in mind that the full $6,000 has not been in the account the entire year.

One caveat: stay on top of due dates because an inadvertent late payment will result in a fine, wiping out any earnings. This happened to me once when I was distracted by a particularly pressing issue at work, and I simply forgot. And what a dear price I paid for my oversight. So now I program due dates into my e-calendar to ensure a timely reminder.

Another point: if your mortgage includes PMI (mortgage insurance) because you have less than 20% equity, taking over your impound/escrow account is not an option.

Rule of Thumb #1

December 2nd, 2008 at 08:30 am

Over the years, I have practiced what I call my Rules of Thumb (ROT). These are self-imposed "rules" I use to make my life easier or better. For example, ROT #1 helps me keep our small home clutter-free, especially after the massive purging of the

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Great Downsize of '06. Following this ROT makes me think twice before acquiring more "stuff" I can do without (read: clutter, junk, dust collectors, gewgaws, useless objects...). I will share other ROTs later, but here is #1:

ROT #1: For any article of clothing or household item I purchase I must select a similar one I already own to give away.

How does this ROT help me? Well, to start with, I have an abundance of nice clothes, most of which are left over from my working days. And, because I take care of my belongings, these can last a very long time. They still fit and I wear them according to the seasons (sweaters, coats, jackets, shoes, blouses).

But sometimes I spot a good bargain and I begin to think I like it better than something I already have, or maybe some favorite piece actually gets worn out, or a household item gets broken. And, then there's the weight-gain situation. If I gain just a few pounds, some of my favorites don't look so good anymore. So, I might want to buy something new.

But, my ROT requires me to select a similar item (two is even better) to donate, give away, or throw away, depending on the circumstance. This insures I still have room in my closet to actually walk-in, and helps me keep impulse buying in check. It's not always easy to apply this ROT, so sometimes I have to work at it.

My "internal conversation" might go something like this:

Me: Ohhh, look at that cute little fleece jacket...and it's 50% off. I love the color!

Frugal alter ego: Yes, very nice. So, what jacket will you give away?

Me: Hmmm, I want to keep my down jacket, it was expensive and I wear it in the snow. My microfiber jacket is warm and water-repellant... gotta keep that one. I love my red fleece jacket that DS gave me... and the black fleece has zip-pockets I use for my keys when I go walking, so I don't want to give away that one... and...

Frugal alter ego: Well then, you really don't need ANOTHER cute little jacket, after all, do you?!

Anyway, you get the idea.

It's Official

December 1st, 2008 at 03:59 pm

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Kiva contacted me to confirm I have been accepted as a member of their translating team. I applied a few months ago, had to submit my resume and take a translating test (I passed). So, it's official... I am now part of the Kiva translating team, and I will work about 3-5 hours a week on the batches they send me. This is very doable and I have the option to decline an assignment if I am unable to meet the deadline (e.g., due to travel).

Before retiring, I spoke Spanish daily... 75% of my students and their families were Spanish-speakers, so it was a necessity. I also frequently translated newsletters and notices that were sent home with my students. Now, I only occasionally speak Spanish. By translating I will continue to use my skills and perhaps even expand them. Use it or lose it. Plus, it's great to be able to do volunteer work without leaving home, especially for a cause I believe in. Volunteering for Kiva is one of my 2009 goals, so I'm off to a good start.