Longer Shower’s Flat Fat Fees

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The more I look to save money, the more often I am finding it’s done over a fairly lengthy amount of time, and a year seems to be where it’s at for me and my family right now. Why a year? Well, I for one have found that I can barely blink before Christmas rolls around from year to year. It seems just long enough to make those pesky “insignificant” amounts (i.e. cup of coffee, vending machine snacks, late fees for utilities) add up to where it seems significant. So we’ll take a look at something we all pay and plan to pay indefinitely, but rarely have the forethought to do anything about to make our lives easier: utility bills.

Flat Fees

First, I love a flat fee. Who doesn’t? It’s awesome to know exactly what your bill is going to be each month, and never think about it. Our gas bill is like that. Some time a couple of years ago, we contacted our gas company and asked them about an average bill pay plan. Someone mentioned they work with their customers and we decided to investigate. Turned out our average monthly gas usage based on a year was $90. So that’s what we pay per month, $90, whether we use that much or not. The gas company keeps whatever surplus there is on those months we don’t use as much gas, like in the summer, and credits our account. When we use a ton, say in the winter months, the over credited amount goes to what we use. We pay one flat fee all year-long, and the gas company keeps our gas on. I can’t say I know all about it procedural wise, I am not employed at the gas company, but the logic is sound.

Not all utilities work this way, but that doesn’t mean the average payment can not be made, all it takes is a little forethought and research.

As I added up our electric bills, I found that we spend roughly $1500 to $1600 per year in electricity. Personally, I was shocked we spend that much. I’m not sure why the shock factor, I suppose I’ve never considered the cost on a yearly basis. I normally just cringe when the bill hits the mailbox month to month and hope it’s not too high. So after finding the sum total per year, Karen and I decided we would start setting $130 a month aside for electricity, regardless of how much the bill is. Some months, this self-induced premium will cover the lower amounts, and we’ll just stuff the leftover in an envelope; other months, the bills will be too high for $130 to cover, so whatever’s in the envelope from lower months will come out to save the day. Do this with your water bills, trash bills, or whatever bills you happen to pay a variable amount on.

Use Less

As Jeff Foxworthy notes in one of his comedy routines, “TURN SOMETHIN OFF!” I cannot count the number of times I’ve went behind my four-year old princess to turn out lights. She’s tall enough to reach the light switches now, and she utilizes every inch of her vertical reach in order to make sure all rooms are well-lit. To not follow her means that I just as well throw my money on top of a lamp shade, let Babygirl flip the switch and slowly watch it burn.

Along those lines, cut the shower time. If you have teenagers, you know this is a must. I want someone to invent a way to cut showers off by remote, or put a timer on the shower head (maybe I’ll invent it). When 10 minutes is up, so is your shower, get in, get all crucial areas washed, finish up any bonus areas, and get out. Money is flowing down the drain.

“That’s a little strict!” You say? How many gallons is your household using a year? Do you know?I can get in and do all things shower and get out in seven minutes. A family can’t help but save money when everyone is running that kind of efficiency in the bathroom.

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Late Fees

The dreaded late fee will destroy a yearly budget. Pay utility bills on time. A late fee not paid is money in our pocket. We used to be terrible at this, but realized it was happening a while back. If payday didn’t fit where it should so we could pay it on time, call the utility company and get your due date changed. Most places are pretty reasonable to work with you if they aren’t the size of Podunk, USA.

Try some of these things out and see where the finances are in a year! It might just save you on aspirin too.

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Paper or Plastic? Or…Boxes?

“Please stop throwing away the bags.” Karen asked for the second day in a row as the bag hit the bottom of the trash can. I normally store my lunch in what has come to be known as “Wal-Mart” bags and toss it after emptying the contents of plastic containers that held whatever leftovers we had from the night before.

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“Why?” I thought with confusion in the five seconds it took her to answer the question right after I had thought it.

“We don’t go to Wal-Mart any more.”

This is not a post railing against Wal-Mart or any other big chain retail or grocery store. They have their place in our life, but they don’t have it as often as they used to. I remember one Saturday complaining to my wife that it seemed like we had just been to the same store the day before. Shortly after we realized we had actually been to that same store for something nearly every day that week!

After my family woke up and realized the way we spent money, groceries were automatically an area we began looking at closer. I have to give credit to my frugal wife, she is the one who took charge of this area of our lives and is doing an excellent job. These are a few observations I’ve noticed since we started to live differently:

Budget for groceries

Make an amount that should be spent on groceries, now according to Dave Ramsey, double it. We spend way more than we think we do. Once that’s set, start planning.

Plan a trip once a week

Don’t underestimate this point. Gas isn’t cheap. Whenever we are making a single trip to the store, we are hit with a double whammy. The money we are going to give some merchant for whatever item we happen to make the trip for, and the gas we are spending to get to and from the store. If we go more than once, it’s multiplied. Right now gas is about $1.85 a gallon on average here in OK. My wife and I live 6 miles away from our local Wal-Mart, her car gets roughly 24 miles to the gallon. Say we make two trips a week to buy groceries and what not; that is 12 miles each trip, so if we go 2 trips, we are spending 1 gallon of gas, minimum. Multiply that by 52 weeks in a year and we’ve spent the same amount we would in the store alone on one trip, $96.20. Doesn’t sound like much huh? Remember, this is JUST to go to the store, not to a ball game, not to drive to work, or any other fun family function. It’s even better if it can be planned on the way home from work.

Make a grocery list BEFORE going to the store

One would think this goes without saying, but we won’t. Think before leaving. Write down the days of the week, think about eating for each meal, each day. Put together a menu. Once the menu is built, buy the ingredients needed for it.

Combine ingredients across different meals to save extra.

For instance: This week, I’m eating oatmeal for breakfast. I am forcing myself, because high cholesterol dictates this. I will also be eating chicken of some sort at least twice this week, so I buy a big flat of it, to make sure that there is enough for myself, Karen, and left over for our lunches. Sandwiches are a good cheap meal: bread, lunch meat, cheese, mustard, veggies to go on sandwich. How about some beans? Good fiber! Yes, write it down. Need stuff for kids? Pizza, cookies, fruit, or how about they just eat what we eat? Got it all wrote down? Let’s go!

Try some place different

Do some research about discount grocery stores, there may be one near that will help save a bundle. According to Money & Career Cheat Sheet, here are a few of the more affordable stores across the nation. Incidentally, we love Aldi’s. It’s in the next town over, but it’s well worth the gas spent (or saved because we planned accordingly). I just had a friend exclaim how she’s going to Aldi’s today, she’s heard too much good about it. Sure, patrons have to bag (or box) their own groceries, but it makes grocery shopping affordable. It’s good for the environment too. We use Aldi’s own boxes to put our groceries in, rather than them crushing them and sending to a recycler. No plastic bags for me to throw into the bottom of the trash can and then go to a landfill because I’m not thinking when I come from home from work.

'That's Jeb Lambert. He was actually the first one to say 'paper or plastic'. Before that everyone said 'plastic or paper'... I mean, can you imagine?'

 

Eat what is bought

Again, this should go without saying; but I can’t count how many times we have bought good, wholesome groceries and they rotted in the fruit or vegetable crisper while we went on a fast food bonanza. Lately our refrigerator looks naked just before a trip to the store. One would think we aren’t making it, but we are, we are just controlling ourselves. Babies aren’t starving, the boys are fine, and K and I might be losing weight because we are making wiser decisions without going to the local Sling-A-Bean Burrito Shack.

Take advantage of discount coupons

Okay, I was going to try to go without mentioning coupon clipping, but I would be lying to say we haven’t had a cheeseburger or pizza every now and again. The only time we buy them, though, is when Karen gets a fancy coupon the store can redeem on her smart phone through email. It comes in handy in a pinch, but a pinch only comes once a week, and it’s BUDGETED.

Finally, give this a TRY. If it gets screwed up, so what? Try again. Savings will come but don’t give up! It’s food, we have to eat, but we don’t have to eat from stores that think they are monopolies. Save gas and coupons, save money by not bingeing because a grocery list was made, and relax. Everything’s going to be fine. Me and mine are out to prove it.

Pitfalls of the Climb

It’s interesting how just about the time a person thinks they are standing on solid ground and can breathe for a moment, the ground falls out from underneath their feet. That’s been our experience over the past few days.

'No. . . this isn't the fiscal cliff.'

 

Many companies do biometric screening for insurance credits as an incentive to keep employees healthy and well. It’s good for the employee, who can get a decent bonus to stay in shape; and it’s good for the insurance company, who doesn’t have to pay as many claims to employees who are staying well and away from the doctor. Such is the case with my company. Let’s just say, I wasn’t healthy enough to make the cut. It’s something that I am now making a full-time project and has lit a fire under me to change my habits, routines, and diet so next year the wellness credit will be mine. In the meantime however I found that the lack of said credit is more than likely going to eat up the money I save in carpooling, so there’s that.

Another challenge we’ve run across is a balance that has come due for my college course work. It was not a charge I was expecting to pay as I expected the Pell grant and student loan would be covering it. I received a refund not long ago for the amount of the balance due, so I assumed the balance was paid over and above and that was the reason for the refund. Turned out the opposite was true, the refund check they sent us was actually supposed to pay the balance that is now due and we simply had to “pay the refund back” as the good folks at the bursar’s office so eloquently put it. My eyes couldn’t roll back in my head far enough to accommodate the frustration I was feeling. In the end, we had to pay the balance due from our meager savings.

Ah yes, and to add insult to injury, my son’s “pay as you go” phone comes due every 30 days. Not every 31 days, every 30 days. Meaning that the amount is taken from our account a day earlier every month than it was from the previous month if the month had 31 days in it. Since there are several months that have 31 days in it, when that bill comes due is basically a moving target, this month it debited our account in the negative by $10.

I was hoping at the very least to have a positive balance to report once we were paid on the 15th….

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I must admit, a couple of days this week I wanted to throw my hands up, stick my head in the snow and ignore it all, or freeze to death of hypothermia. I grab the rope, ready to repel, or just jump off the metaphorical cliff face in frustration, harness or no harness (a bit mellow dramatic I know).

All of these things are annoyances. Pitfalls on the journey up the mountain. Nevertheless, we have to keep going, at a slow pace, even trudging if need be. IT’S GOING TO BE SLOW GOING. Pay more attention to billings, get out the paper, write it all down, and build the budget again. Hammer another stake in the cliff face and pull ourselves back up.

 

“It’s Not About How Hard You Hit, It’s About How Hard You Can Get Hit…and Keep Moving Forward!”

Since beginning to log our journey to keep ourselves accountable there have been several ups and downs emotionally, spiritually and mindfully, and it’s only been a week!

Starting good behavior does not negate the effects of bad behavior over years. My family and I are broke because we’ve been behaving how broke people behave for way to long. Spending more than we make, not sticking to a budget, spending money meant for savings or emergencies, eating out all the time and just not paying attention took us nowhere fast. Even though we are now seeing correct mindsets and practices toward financial changes, we are not seeing the immediate results that we would like. Saying you are saving $720 a year is noticeably different than having $720 in your bank account now. Duh…It takes a year!

Time isn’t the problem, time is going by whether we like it or not. Our attitude is the problem, and we know it. We’re impatient. Most of us, if we are honest, quit when we don’t see immediate results. We’ve all heard it before, we live in a microwave society; but it’s more than that isn’t it? We live in a wifi society! We live in a microprocessor society! No more dial up! I honestly believe as a youth it may have done my character good to see the little guy on AOL frozen in time for a couple of minutes as I listened to the irritating screech and whir and hum of a dial up modem trying to connect to my mom’s old phone line. Today…I would go bananas to endure that!

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We are taught in school that sums and products are immediate answers: 1 + 1 = 2, 2 x 2 = 4 and so on. I cannot remember a time however when someone taught me 1 + a month + a week + 1 = 2, or 2 + a day + effort x 2 = 4. Time was never factored into the equations we were taught in school, but there it is…time…staring us in the face. Ten years may as well be an eternity when a person thinks of the financial peace they would like to have when it ticks by mere seconds at a time. Those seconds are also the very thing that robs a person when they sit and wait because they feel powerless, or it takes to long. People are waiting for something to happen instead of making what they desire happen over time.

Inaction and time are a troublesome combination. Passivity keeps us from setting goals and pursuing them. Because no goals are set, when hard times happen, it’s easier to sit down, throw our hands up and say “I quit.” When the bill collector calls after the mind has been set to do better, it says, “sit down, take it easy, try again tomorrow.” It is the voice that whispers, “Monday is a good start day, do it then. For now, eat a taco, you deserve it.” Tomorrow and Monday will come! Is reaching the goal any closer?

Is the destination you’d like to be at nearer? No trip is taken without a person’s mind being fixed on it. When it’s written down with an expected time line it starts to become reality. How many places have we never been to, but because Maps had a documented route and how long it took to get there, we traveled with ease? How many times have we thought about going somewhere, but weren’t truly excited until we hang up the phone after making reservations? But did we sit down and wait for vacation time? No! The trip might be a month away but we automatically started preparing for the it! How? We ask questions of what we might need. We do our research to see what kind of help may be needed while we are there. We save money, we write down the activities we want to do on our trip. We don’t sit idle! When we do sit idle, we may miss opportunities to enjoy something we otherwise would not.

“What keeps me going is goals.” Said the late Mahammad Ali. Who better to understand that if a person has goals, they will strive to meet them? muhammad-ali-in-action.jpg

People who have goals will rise up in the morning to chase them, even when it doesn’t look like there’s any hope. They will run after it even when their legs hurt, when they are miles away from their destination, when they fall down, and when a mountain is in their way. They will fight for their goals even when that mountain is ready to crush them. They are unstoppable.

Just One More Level…(okay, maybe one more)

“Don’t waste your time chasing things that will never be beneficial to your future.”

April Mae Monterrosa

I used to consider myself a gamer. I love RPG (roll playing games) like the Final Fantasy series or The Legend of Zelda. Knowing this, my wife purchased “Twilight Princess” for Playstation 4 for me for Christmas one year. I thought it was a great gift, finally a game for Dad! I began playing immediately and was automatically hooked. Graphics were great, controls were easy to use, and the story line was exhilarating.

It was also LONG. I played this game every night for two to three weeks until victory was finally mine. The end of the game is always satisfying when it’s been challenging, and I considered that game formidable. I watched the cut scenes glassy eyed, satisfied with the long, hard, magical quest that Nintendo had programmed just for me and considered myself quite the champion. I could sleep knowing all was well with the world. Until….

Programmed into the game is also a timer to tell a gamer how long it took play to the end. Much to my surprise, my time came to a whopping FORTY HOURS! Reality suddenly started crashing down around me. I couldn’t believe it. An entire work week was spent after I got home from my real job to play a fantasy game that was both entertaining and fun, but didn’t change my life in the slightest. There was no education, no Bible reading, no growing closer to my wife and kids by acknowledging they exist, no contributing to the common good of man; it was just a bunch of pixels on a screen which fed some chemical high I had at the time. I don’t think I’ve played video games in quite the same way since.

I started this journey, by taking the time to look at my budget, and it revealed a couple of areas where I needed to spend some extra time. I was able to see exactly what my monthly costs were individually. Cell phones and car insurance were crazy high at $173 and $228 per month respectively. I needed to lower those numbers and I’ve covered cell phone charges in a previous post.

On to a different insurance broker to get a new rate quote on car insurance to save some money (I realize how much that sounds like a Geiko or Progressive commercial). All I needed was a declaration statement from my current provider to send to those providing the quote. Once it was sent, I was glad I did, because I found a local business that provided a quote that will save me not only $500 on my car insurance per year, but another $100 on my mortgage insurance per year (with more coverage). That’s an extra 50 bucks a month in my pocket! Changes will be made as soon as possible.

Most people, when they see their expenses monthly, simply see a number that is going to decrease their income and whatever is left is considered “mad money.” Money they can just spend. They’ve done their due diligence once, and maybe at one point in life the costs to do business to comply with the law, like car insurance, is acceptable to pay, so they do so happily, and that’s great. Then years slip by, as masses of people are being entertained, or chasing some high, like me, before they realize that there’s other companies out there that might give them a better deal.

Successful businesses understand time is money. Why can’t we as individuals? Every single day, countless numbers of people are zoning out through watching television, playing video games, trolling social media and not paying attention to what time it is, or how much time they’ve spent being entertained, rather than expanding their minds or doing something more productive. Turn off the TV. Make a budget. Call another company. You might be glad you did.

I’m sorry, can you repeat that?

A collection agency contacted me today. This major disappointment came about 11 am, right about the time I found my mojo. I remember the all to familiar lines that bill collectors spill just before they proceed to annoy you with information you more than likely already know. “This is an attempt to collect a debt and any information obtained on this call may be used expressly for that purpose…blah blah blah.”

This year has been expensive for our family as far as medical issues. I hate to admit they are mainly mine. In February I had some kind of attack where I was sure I must have had gall stones, or kidney stones, maybe even river stones, but it hurt! The trip we took to the emergency room revealed I had a “mild” case of diverticulitis. I was given antibiotics, pain killers, and an excuse to stay home from work for the next week. The bill that came along with it, after insurance, was roughly $1800, nice.

Normally, I tend to want to get my bill paying over with quickly. “Take it from savings! That’s what the emergency fund is for!” But we didn’t use our emergency bills for emergencies. We used it to pay bills over years and months because we didn’t budget. Karen shook her head because it wasn’t there, and I made payment arrangements for $104 per month and started to kill it with every extra dollar we had, but it didn’t die.

Today it sits at about $600 when my Indian friend called to inform me of his self incriminating recorded line. Then he lets me know that there’s an ADDITIONAL $1538.46 for “doctor’s services” much to my chagrin. Apparently ER facilities bill on one bill, while doctor’s services are invoiced on another. “Why do hospitals not include it all on one bill?” I ask. “Why am I just now hearing about this?” Apparently these are all questions for philosophers; for my foreign counterpart could not answer. I asked him to send me a statement via email and not to call me back between the hours of 8 am to 5 pm because he’s bugging me at work. He agreed, but not before asking me to make payment arrangements…I didn’t make payment arrangements.

billsI find there is a very primal emotion that comes about when I speak with people from collection agencies. It used to happen a lot, long before Karen and I were married. I think it may be a very natural reaction to be upset and defensive about bills a person can’t pay. There’s a very “fight or flight” mentality that comes with it. This heated reaction is exactly why I knew to get what information I could as quickly as I could and get off the phone. I’ve knowingly made payment arrangements for bills I knew couldn’t pay in the past. I wasn’t about to make another emotional decision.

After investigating, I found I do owe this bill, and I’ll pay it; but it won’t be because they backed me into a corner when I was upset about it. We can’t afford to pay it right now, “you can’t squeeze blood from a turnip,” someone once said (probably while talking to a bill collector). we have to take care of food, transportation, and housing, the basics. When a thousand dollars for emergencies  is saved in our account, this bill will be added to a debt snowball and it will be paid. Until then, I do not intend to speak to this collection agency again. Will it ruin my credit? Maybe, but right now I could care less. I don’t plan on using credit in the near future, or maybe ever. It’s not worth not taking care of my family now, and I would rather have the integrity of doing that AND paying a bill I owe, later.

Staying Sane Through Saving

One of the problems in life is the perpetuity of it. We all have routines. Those who brush their teeth twice a day will continue to do so twice a day. If you chew with your mouth open when you eat, chances are it will take an act of God to keep you from noshing with annoying noises. Non-morning people have a hard time getting happy before 9 am, while morning people can’t stop annoying non-morning people. The circle of life seems to spin at a dizzying rate, while we continue to do the same things we’ve always done day in and day out. It takes conscious effort to change.

Karen and I woke up to this fact. It took emergencies to kick us in the butt and realize that one more and we were down to zero. So we changed our mind about the way we spend money on not only non-essentials, but also the essentials. It was time to trim any fat hanging out, and there seems to be plenty. An emergency won’t look so forlorn while trying to do something different. Doing the same things over and over got us into this mess, so we started looking at bills that didn’t have to be the same over and over.

Gas: it’s been the bane of anyone who has a forty-five minute to an hour commute or longer every day since 9/11. There just doesn’t seem to be any getting out of spending the same amount of money on gas week after week if you commute quite a distance between home and work. Or is there? Better gas mileage is what I need!

Many of us start thinking more efficient gas mileage means getting an oil change, or maybe a new car! It’s crazy how we can justify it, but we do. For some reason people think getting a new fuel-efficient car justifies the car payment; as if the $60 savings in gas every month will eventually pay the $230 car payment every month, but it doesn’t..the math doesn’t work. That’s probably an entry for another day.


Why not cut the gas mileage in half on a car I already own by car pooling with someone in my neighborhood? I’m not sure why I’ve never taken the idea seriously before, but I haven’t. “I don’t want to bug anyone.” I think to myself. FYI, if any readers out there want to bug me by telling me they can help me save $720 a year, feel free. By the way, that’s a calculation I figure I will be saving carpooling between me and my sister-in-law, who works across the parking lot from my office. I literally can throw a rock and hit her office window from the parking lot. We both need extra money, she gets off the same time I do almost every day and it helps take a whole extra car off the road (for all you environmentalists out there). I had to think really hard to find a reason NOT to car pool. I have to get up a little earlier, but I probably should be anyway. I’m one of those non-morning people.

Next up, phone prices. Yeah, if you have AT&T or Vorizon, you know what I’m talking about. They have good service, but they’re proud of it, and you’re paying for it. When my phone bill is higher than some car payments I’ve had in my life, there’s a problem. So my wife and I looked at some of that precious data and decided that we would be able to get by on 2 GB less. Shared data of 3 GB for us will save about 20 bucks. Since AT&T have put out a new promotion for no more overage charges, we are happy to let them help! So, multiply that by 12 months and we’ll have saved about $240.

Between the two, I’m looking to save almost $1000. This will meet the first of Dave Ramsey’s baby steps for us. Have a thousand dollars for emergencies. It will mean scraping up and NOT SPENDING the amount that we save, but it will be there. I’m starting to get used to the idea that it will take a while, but I also know that it will be here before I expect it, because good behaviors like this will compound and have ripple effects. It won’t just be all the money we save, but the integrity we receive by continuing the fight this fight. To some, $1000 isn’t much, but for those who feel we are sacrificing our privacy on a ride after a long day, or a few pictures or videos of our favorite media, for normal people – like my wife and I, it will be well worth the saving.