what “driving it until it dies” really looks like

Two summers ago, I shared about our sturdy Toyota Camry that we’d been driving for more than seven years. Much in keeping with the recommendations of financial gurus like Dave Ramsey, we kept driving the Camry long after we would have preferred a newer or different vehicle. It’s hard to let go of something that runs that well in favor of taking on a new car payment!

Last November, after eight years of loyal service as our main vehicle, the Camry had an oil cog split in half. This destroyed the oil pump, timing belt, and quite likely the engine. While it is still possibly that a small part and two days’ work may reveal that the engine is salvageable (and Keith intends to give that a try sometime), it is essentially a ruined vehicle and it is likely that we will not be able to do anything more with it than sell it for scrap.

In retrospect, this has raised some discussions for us. It was at about this time last year, well in advance of the part breaking, that we began to seriously consider looking around for a different vehicle. There was no obvious reason not to trust the Camry any longer, but for some reason, and it’s probably just that it was at 210,000+ miles, I was beginning to doubt that it would last for much longer without a significant issue arising. We considered purchasing a newer vehicle, something that would better fit our growing family. Our thought was that it would be worth it to sell the Camry before it hit any major issues, thus getting as much as we could for it while it was still worth something.

Having just come off a long season of unemployment, though, we weren’t really in a position to spend much more cash than the car was worth, and it seemed irrational to let go of something that was working well in favor of buying something different which might have it’s own set of problems.

So we chose to keep the car. But it was a decision point. We said things like “We’ll drive it until it dies.” And then it did actually die, and we did actually run it into the ground like we had always said that we would, and in retrospect I kind of wish that we hadn’t. I kind of wish that we had sold it before it was too worthless to do anything but sell as junk.

Had we sold the Camry last summer or used it as a trade-in, we would have easily had $1500 to $2000 more to put toward a newer vehicle. We couldn’t have known that it would die so tragically and all at once, rather than nickel-and-diming us, but selling it while it was still an asset was not a bad idea. If we are faced with a similar choice in the future, I think it likely that we will make a different decision than we made this time.

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Published in: on June 5, 2012 at 7:35 pm  Leave a Comment  

twelve minutes well spent

Amount that our bank charged us in overdraft protection charges last month: $24

Amount that our bank wanted to charge me to order “free” checks online: $22

Time spent calling a telephone banker to politely ask why our checks weren’t free: 10 minutes

Time spent wondering aloud to telephone banker why our bank didn’t email me that our account balance was low (as should have happened according to the automatic low balance alert that I had set up): 2 minutes

What happened then: got our checks for free and got our overdraft protection charges refunded

Total time spent: 12 minutes

Total amount saved: $46

Result: smug satisfaction on my end

Published in: on September 8, 2011 at 2:46 pm  Leave a Comment  
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yard sales!

It’s yard sale season, and although I haven’t hit them as often as I would have liked to this summer, my little ones are old enough now to do tolerably well when I drag them around town to yard sales for an hour or two on Friday mornings.

We’ve made some great finds this summer. I forget how very worthwhile it is to spend those few hours going to yard sales each week until I stumble across several worthwhile finds in a row. Here are some of my favorite finds from this season:

new pair of Doc Martens for Keith: $3
decent pair of Keen shoes for Keith: $2
about seven pairs of jeans for Keith with lots of wear left: $14
Little Tikes play tractor that Abraham absolutely adores: $2.50
complete Narnia series on CD for Keith to listen to at work: $10
Blueberries for Sal, one of Rilla’s favorite books: $.50
several other good children’s books: about $1 each
several yards of vintage yellow fabric for me to sew with: $3
purple wool blanket to make a jumper for Rilla: $3
several books for our box to send to South Sudan: about $1 total
nice wooden salad bowl (like yours, Morgan!): $.50
nice wooden coat tree: $2

total cost from this list: about $45
total cost for these items if bought new: easily $470 or more

I really love it when I find deals like these. Although I haven’t read it in a while, I remember that the book The Shrewd Christian talks about the importance of having a home manager who is watching the back door, so to speak, while the main income-earner is bringing money in the front door. I love that aspect of being a stay-at-home mom who is in charge of our finances. I love having the time – of course, I have to make time for it, but still – to be able to go to yard sales and find bargains that are better than any online sales. For example, Keith has needed black dress shoes for a few years now. How nice to be able to be aware of that and able to snatch up a great pair of brand-new, good quality ones that fit him for $3! Saving that much money in a few hours makes me feel like I got “paid” quite a lot of time for my hourly work!

Of course, there are the dud days too, when we go out for a few hours and find nothing. But even then, all I’ve lost is a few hours, and I think that the days when I stumble on heaps of useful items are well worth the overall time invested!

Published in: on August 25, 2011 at 10:53 pm  Leave a Comment  

tips from Miserly Moms

I’ve been reading Miserly Moms by Jonni McCoy this month. It’s one of the better practical finance books that I have read, and although it’s not my very favorite, I do recommend it.

One key point of this book is that being a stay-at-home mom (rather than working outside the home) may save more money than you would ever guess. I agree with this. It’s not the first time we’ve heard it or crunched the numbers, of course, but I would just add my voice to the testimonies of this book: In our experience, there is a tremendous amount of money saved by me being able to be home. Beyond the most important benefit of being able to raise our children how we want to, having extra time saves a tremendous amount on food, vehicle expenses, clothing, and all kinds of other variable costs. Even little things like having time to return unnecessary purchases or call a credit card company to question a fee can add up to quite a lot of extra money.

Here are three other principles from Miserly Moms that I found particularly helpful:

1. Chart Grocery Prices. I’ve been wanting to do this for a while but hadn’t figured out a good system. Jonni uses a chart with sections for each food item, and then next to that has columns for Average Price, A Good Sale, and Once in A Blue Moon. I haven’t done it yet… ugh, the work involved to do it the first time!… but I know it’s going to be really useful. For example, I know that 99 cents a pound is a great price for organic apples, but does Costco really have the best price per ounce for extra virgin olive oil, or would that be cheaper to buy through Amazon when they have a sale combined with Subscribe & Save on a certain brand? That kind of thing. Knowing for sure what the best price is in every situation would be a tremendous help to saving money.

2. Take Good Care of Your Teeth. As the author noted, this might be kind of an odd thing to put in a finance book. But it was a good reminder for me. I haven’t been taking the best care of my teeth since having children… it’s kind of easy to forget about things like showers and flossing when you reach a certain level of exhaustion… and the reminder of the costs of root canals (not to mention the long-term effect of bad teeth on a person’s health) really sobered me and gave me a renewed vigor for careful brushing and flossing.

3. Have Good Medical Insurance. I know that some people view this as a no-brainer, but we have never had medical insurance unless it was covered by work (so, for like six months out of almost seven years of marriage). Keith has been unemployed for the last three months, so now is not exactly the best time to add on a new expense, but I think that we will join up with Samaritan Ministries healthshare program in the next year or so. In general we are careful to seek out healthy food, avoid chemicals, take supplements, and use alternative remedies, but we are beginning to feel that it’s time for us to have a better safety net in case of big unexpected medical needs.

One last thing that I appreciated about this book… I can’t find the quote now, unfortunately, because I just returned the book to the library… was that Jonni clearly differentiated between frugality and being miserly. The point of being frugal is to live a better life. We still spend money on things that matter. It’s just that once you start being more careful in your spending, you realize quickly how very many things don’t matter.

Published in: on March 29, 2011 at 12:40 pm  Comments (1)  

making good use of clothing guarantees

Keith’s work requires that he tromp through a lot of brush and woods each day. As you might imagine, continual contact with brush, trees, and weeds can really ruin clothing quickly! He had destroyed several pairs of great jeans within a short time before we realized that we needed to find some workwear that would last longer than the average stuff.

I don’t remember how we happened to learn about Duluth Trading, but they have Fire Hose Work Pants that come with a “We Dare You to Wear ‘Em Out” guarantee. Basically, they are well-built pants that are made out of fire hose material. They do hold up longer than most pants, but eventually they too wear out. That’s where the really great part comes in. For the cost of $7 to return-ship the frayed or torn pants, Keith gets a new pair of the same kind of work pants. This can be done over and over again! And it doesn’t have to be exactly the same pair of pants; we’ve discovered that you can get a different size or color if desired.

I’m in the process of returning a pair of Keith’s pants to Duluth today, and I’ve got to say, this is such a great system! It probably wouldn’t work so well for somebody who wasn’t so harsh on their clothing or who didn’t take the time to return the pants, but for us, this is a great deal. We have paid for two pairs of pants from them, and this will be the second or third time returning a pair in exchange for new ones. What a good investment!

Published in: on September 16, 2010 at 12:54 pm  Comments (3)  
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driving an older vehicle

There are moments when I really detest our car.

Don’t get me wrong: I am thankful to have a reliable vehicle. At 203,000 miles, she is still running strong. We’ve been driving Dory for nearly seven years and still have had to do only routine maintenance and very few side repairs, such as replacing a cracked window and a broken ignition.

It’s just that she is so low to the ground, and the seats are so very uncomfortable, and it is so very awkward to get two small children in and out of their huge carseats in the backseat, and it is so annoying to have to cram groceries in every nook and cranny, and I wish I could take the stroller with us all the time instead of just on select trips. My bi-weekly grocery shopping trips to the city an hour away are becoming a thing of immense exhaustion and much inconvenient maneuvering. I’m tired of having no room in the car to change a diaper, I’m tired of taking everything out of the trunk to get the stroller in, and most of all I’m tired of those darned uncomfortable seats.

And I wish there was a windshield wiper on the rear window. And maybe dual climate control. And a CD player. And I wish that one of our rear seat belts wasn’t broken. And I wish there wasn’t that blind spot where the huge molding on the back window interferes with my line of sight.

This is really nothing new. I have been fighting discontentment with Dory for various reasons for a few months out of every year for oh, the last six years or so. Overall, she’s a great car. But the discontentment has been strong lately, so we have been analyzing the situation again and reminding ourselves why it is not yet time to get a different vehicle. Here is the reasoning:

  • We’re driving Dory less than 1000 miles per month right now. I see no reason that this car wouldn’t last easily until 225,000 miles, meaning she has at least a few good years left in her.
  • Most of my miles are highway miles, so if the average speed (between town driving and highway driving) is 50 mph, then I’m really only in the car for 20 hours per month.
  • If we were to get a newer car, we’d want to get one that was good quality and thus would last us another seven years or more. If car payments were $300 per month, and if we were only driving it 20 hours per month, that means that we would effectively be spending $15 per hour for the privilege of driving the new vehicle, or $20 per hour if you count gas.
  • As uncomfortable as Dory may be, the four of us can still fit in her and she still works for us. I look forward to the day when we get a higher vehicle with more room in it, but the ability to pay down other debts still seems more important than paying $20 per hour for the privilege of driving a newer car.

I think that for me, when it comes to things that are such strong wants that they are almost becoming needs (such as getting a newer vehicle), it is exceedingly helpful to analyze the cost ratio. Our car is not nickel-and-diming us; on the contrary, she is saving us car payments and is holding up tremendously well. The gas mileage is good, the air conditioning works, and the vehicle is acceptable in every other way. For now, it behooves us to continue driving Dory and continue putting more money toward our already-existing debts rather than taking on new ones.

And when the time comes to get a new vehicle, we will just be that much more grateful for it. Right?

Published in: on August 31, 2010 at 12:15 am  Comments (3)  
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thoughts on groceries: buying in bulk

We are big fans of buying in bulk.

I lived half an hour from the nearest grocery store during my teenage years, and my parents bought nearly everything in bulk. We had two or three freezers full of meat, bread, and milk. The pantry was full of canned goods bought by the caseload during good sales. We even had a root cellar laden with six months’ or a year’s supplies of onions, potatoes, and carrots.

The benefits of having a lot of food on hand are far-reaching. Lots of ingredients means lots of supplies available for many types of meals. Having enough food to last a family for a month or two means that groceries take care of themselves if there is an unexpected shortage of time or money to buy more food. And perhaps most importantly, it means having the freedom to buy in bulk when the price is right.

Keith and I have used this same mentality in our years of marriage. In the college years, it meant something more akin to buying Mountain Dew and Shin Ramen in bulk. (Seriously!) Now that we live more than an hour from our grocery stores of choice, it means buying most of our nonperishables in bulk, and even some perishables as our family grows in size and in appetite. There are some extra considerations, though, and I’m going to delve into those a little bit here.

Costco is a fantastic source for cheap prices on many bulk items. Salsa, toilet paper, sundried tomatoes, hummus, onions, pesto, dried cranberries, frozen chicken, fruit leather, almonds, yeast, tomato sauce, dry noodles, spices, salmon patties, and plain yogurt are some of our favorite things to get from Costco. I think the savings in toilet paper alone probably makes our yearly membership worth the cost. The trick, though, is that not everything is cheaper at Costco. The salad mixes are a great deal, and so are a few other vegetables, but most of the fresh produce can be found elsewhere for a lot less. Lesson #1: Just because a store has a lot of cheap bulk items doesn’t mean that all of their bulk items are cheap.

Another consideration for us in our current living quarters is that we just don’t have that much space. This makes buying in bulk a lot more tricky. A two-month’s supply of feta cheese can fit easily in our freezer, but a three-month’s supply of chicken broth requires a bit more planning. We have to make sure that the amount we save on the items bought in bulk will make up for the fact that it will take up a large segment of our storage space. Otherwise, we would either end up with groceries spilling into our living space, or we would have to cut back on buying something else in bulk which would actually save us more money. Lesson #2: Don’t buy in bulk just to save a few cents, unless you have a lot of room for it.

A third consideration is whether having a certain item in bulk is a good idea. We can buy pesto in large containers, freeze it, and have it last a while because we only have pesto noodles once every other week or so. But what about something like ice cream? The last time I went to Costco (on a hot August day!), I very nearly bought a case full of delicious-looking chocolate-and-almond-coated ice cream bars. My rationale at the moment was that it would save us money on ice cream. But we usually only buy one quart of ice cream every few weeks. Had I brought home ice cream in bulk, we would have gone through it much more quickly, rather than reserving it for a special treat, thus costing us more. It is for this same reason that I don’t buy chocolate chips in bulk. I adore chocolate chips, and I will quickly eat through a ten-pound bag of them all by myself in one month. Tasty, but a big extra expense. And that’s not even to mention what it does to my waistline. Lesson #3: If buying an item in bulk causes you to consume it more quickly, it may not be worth buying in bulk.

There are exceptions to this, of course. When we buy broccoli or snap peas in bulk, we go through them more quickly than we would otherwise, because we want to eat them all before they go bad. This just means that we rotate these foods in and out of our diet. When we get sick of broccoli because we had to consume a bunch of it just before it went bad, then we don’t buy broccoli next time. I think it works out. The important thing with buying fresh stuff in bulk, though, is making sure we do consume it all before it goes bad; otherwise, it wasn’t worth the extra cost. Lesson #4: Don’t buy in bulk unless you will use all of the item before it is no longer useable.

I’ve mentioned Costco several times in this post, but only because it is our bulk store of choice. You can always buy in bulk at other stores when they have good sales. I tend to buy several pounds worth of items like tomatoes and avocados from Fred Meyer, because their daily low prices are lower than the daily low prices of Costco. Combining coupons with sales at Fred Meyer often results in much lower prices than I have found anywhere else. I have raised more than a few eyebrows by piling dozens of cartons of Pacific Foods soups in my cart when they are on sale, but the long-lasting value of great deals is well worth it. Lesson #5: When something you need is on sale, consider getting a lot more of it!

Some of our favorite things to buy in bulk are listed in this post, as well as some things which we purposefully choose not to buy in bulk. What about you? What are some of your favorite things to buy in bulk? What are some things which you have regretted buying in bulk?

Published in: on August 23, 2010 at 2:16 pm  Comments (2)  
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thoughts on groceries: using coupons

I still haven’t totally worked out my opinion about using coupons at the grocery store, but I am greatly inclined to agree with Trent at The Simple Dollar: using coupons often ends up costing you more money. If you base your grocery shopping around your coupons, you end up buying name-brand stuff that you didn’t really want that’s not on sale just to get $1 off, when really you could have bought the generic brand, a brand on sale, or something healthier for the same price.

I would absolutely love to be proven wrong on this, but thus far I have not been able to see a huge value in using a lot of grocery coupons. I followed one blog for about a year in which the author chronicled her weekly grocery shopping trips and how much she saved at the store. The reason I have not been inspired to follow suit is that the foods she ended up with were things like soda, chips, hot dogs, and lots of other stuff that really lacks in nutrition. She saves a ton of money every month, probably spending less than $50 total on groceries, and yet I can’t bring myself to feed my family that way. Like I’ve said before, we try to eat primarily organic foods, and our meals are usually based around fruits and vegetables. I find it more useful to buy cheap organic produce from Fred Meyer, cheap healthy chicken from Costco, cheap organic beef from independent farmers, and cheap organic grain foods (pasta, bread, rice) from Costco than to hunt down coupons for the less-healthy, higher-priced equivalents of these items at other stores.

That said, I do use coupons whenever they are applicable to me. Costco doesn’t accept manufacturer’s coupons, but they do have coupon books that come out every few months and I make it a point to use those. Parents magazine has coupons now and then for 20% off diaper orders on Amazon, so I am able to stack the subscribe-and-save with the 20% off to get Seventh Generation diapers for cheap. Fred Meyer often has in-store coupons as well as stackable brand coupons for things like organic cereals and pasta sauce, so I use those when available. Usually though, I just buy according to the sales, and I think that is working out pretty well for the kinds of foods we want to eat.

The one area in which I need to start seeking out printable online grocery coupons is dairy. I would really like to begin getting raw milk, but I have been meaning to do that for a while and for now we are still just buying expensive organic grocery store milk. I know there are $1 off coupons for that if only I could remember to find them. I get cheap healthy-ish yogurt and cheese from Costco, and pasture butter from Pilgrim’s or Azure Standard, but we haven’t been eating other dairy because I haven’t been able to find good prices for it yet. Maybe I should get going on that.

To differentiate grocery coupons from all other coupons, though, I should add that I absolutely love to use coupons in other areas. We use an Entertainment book or Restaurant.com coupons whenever we go out. I have begun using Groupon – carefully, though, to make sure that I don’t buy something I wasn’t already planning to buy. I click on eBates before buying things at most online sites; so far that has given us $49.90 in cash back rewards. I click on His Place Church before buying on Amazon, as a small fraction of what I spend then goes back to the church.

But back to the subject. That’s where I am at with grocery coupons. What about you? Have you found that using grocery coupons has saved you money without compromising your nutrition?

Published in: on August 20, 2010 at 11:37 am  Comments (4)  

thoughts on groceries: getting started

After Keith and I got married, my first job was working at a grocery store for six months. It was quite humbling to me at the time, as I felt that I was qualified for several better jobs in our small town. As it turned out, though, working in the Customer Service department at IGA was one of the most mentally challenging positions that I could have taken, as well as one of the most informative.

Looking back on it now, I am convinced that despite the low pay, working at that job has turned out to be a financial asset for us. Tasks like balancing the till sheets for the cashiers, forking out petty cash in return for small wins on lottery tickets, and processing UPS orders taught me quite a few small lessons. These included the futility of buying lottery cards unless you are quite lucky and have a well-tested method, the large profits made from superfluous grocery store items like flowers, and the benefit of sending many packages with UPS rather than the Post Office.

The most useful knowledge, though, came from just being in the grocery store on a daily basis. I suppose this is information that I would have learned eventually, but I’m glad I learned it early on in our married life. Simple as these points may be, just knowing them has made a huge difference in how I shop.

  • Sale flyers come out weekly. Thus, every Wednesday, I learned to check the flyers at both stores in town and compare prices to find the best deals. I usually purchased food from each grocery store once per week.
  • Most items are on a sale rotation. It is typical for items like spaghetti sauce to be on sale every 4-6 weeks. Instead of buying nonperishable items of that sort whenever I felt like it, I learned to wait until it was on sale and then stock up.
  • On the flip side, it’s important to know the standard price of an item. Buying something just because it’s on sale doesn’t necessarily mean getting a good deal. I occasionally discovered the hard way that the sale price at one store may be higher than the normal price at another store.
  • Saving money on one item doesn’t justify spending extra money on another item. I still have to fight the mindset that says “I saved $4 over here, so it’s okay to spend $2 extra over there.” If you want to save money, it’s crucial to view each item as an individual purchase. Doorbuster sales, the types that advertise $2 boxes of cereal for 12 hours only, are specifically designed to get the consumer to spend more on other items – like milk – which may be marked up. Resist the urge to spend more by just getting the good deals and leaving the rest.
  • Buying from discount stores, the kinds that advertise “always low prices” and few sales, may not save a person as much money as would buying only the sale items at certain higher-end stores. The ones with always low prices may have a section in the front with items sold at very low prices, which causes the consumer to assume that the rest of the store will follow suit. Usually, the rest of the store will be normal in pricing, but the very low prices at the front make a person want to stock up on everything else, too.
  • Although it’s great to buy what I want while it’s on sale, it’s not so great to buy something only because it’s on sale. I often refer back to common-sense questions like, “Do I want this? Did I want it before I came in the store? Would I spend this money on it if there weren’t a sale sign in my face telling me what a great deal it is?” If I’m not sure, I can always wait and come back later. If it’s still on my mind when I get to the checkout line or when I go home, it may be worth going back.
  • Knowing the prices of the items I put in my cart can save quite a lot at the cashier’s register. I have made it a habit to watch each item ring up, as it is not infrequent for them to ring up incorrectly. If I don’t get the chance to see each item ring up, I check the register tape and take it to Customer Service if there is a need to point out errors. Some stores are better than others when it comes to having items ring up correctly. The store where I worked typically had a pricing error every time I went through the checkout line.

It’s kind of silly, but something I started in my IGA days and still often do as I leave a grocery store is check to see how many bags I’ve received for the amount I’ve spent. My goal is always to have averaged less than $10 per full grocery bag. So if there are seven bags in my cart and I’ve spent $65, I consider it a successful trip and assume that I have shopped fairly frugally.

These are some of the foundational principles that I bring along on every grocery shopping trip. What about you? What do you bring along?

I’ll start digging into other thoughts on groceries in my next post.

Published in: on February 24, 2010 at 11:53 pm  Comments (6)  

finance blogs

Normally, the only two finance blogs I read are The Simple Dollar and Get Rich Slowly. But today I stumbled upon another one that I think is worth sharing. Here it is: http://www.wisebread.com/philip-brewer.

The article which has me hooked is titled “Living Cheaply for the Long Haul.” The list of strategies for doing this include buying stuff that lasts, buying stuff that reduces future expenses, stocking up when things are cheap, and taking care of your stuff. These seem obvious, but I have been frustrated by the lack of attention among frugality sites given to these kinds of choices. Buy an okay-looking $35 lamp that lasts a year, or buy a great-looking $50 lamp that lasts ten years… the choice is obvious, right? (Or better yet, buy it off Craigslist, but really I’ve never been able to find a decent lamp on Craigslist, so our preferred method is actually to wait until the $50 lamp goes on sale for $20.)

Somehow I just find it really satisfying to find a blog that thinks beyond a monthly budget to take the bigger picture into consideration.

Published in: on December 18, 2009 at 12:35 am  Leave a Comment