Sunday, April 30, 2006

I'm Back! & Thoughts on Warranties

The good news: My computer is back and fully functional.

The bad news: I lost everything on my hard drive, and I hadn't backed much up, which stinks.

More good news: I paid $0 for the cost of repairs/replacement which would've totaled $300+, thanks to the extended warranty my parents got me when I bought the computer. (I paid for the computer myself, but the purchase took place right after my college graduation, and the extended warranty-- which cost about $190-- was part of my graduation present from my parents.) It turns out that it has paid off financially-- the $190 plan has now covered at least $400 worth of expenses, and it's still good another 14 months or so-- but I had originally decided against it, and it's only thanks to my parents' generosity that I ended up with it. I've called them up and thanked them again profusely for that gift!

So to make this semi-topical, how do you approach things like extended warranties? Do you think they make good financial sense in general, and/or for specific items?

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Technical difficulties; pfblogs.org addiction; free ice cream!

Please bear with me and my technical difficulties (my home computer crashed! ouch!)... hopefully we'll be back to normal in a few days. 

My now-limited internet access is forcing me to confront my pfblogs.org addiction! I can't just say "Oh, well, I'll just look through the most recent 50 posts"-- I end up going through page after page after page until I'm all caught up.  There are so many great posts in the personal finance blogosphere every day, and I hate to think of missing any of them! 

Wish me luck for a speedy and non-costly fix to my computer woes...

Now, on a cheerier note, I'm off to get my free Ben and Jerry's ...

Friday, April 21, 2006

Frugal drinking, and other wisdom from my commenters!

I must admit, I would love having commenters even if y'all had nothing substantive to say. But then I get all of these wonderful suggestions to top it off! You guys are awesome!

From my frugal drinking post, for starters:

Mapgirl and LA Money Guy recommend getting well/rail drinks instead of the more expensive call drinks.
Him and Jonathan Radande remind me that I don't have to always have alcoholic drinks when I'm out, and Jonathan adds the suggestion to buy beer in pitchers instead of bottles.
Young Guns recommends shopping around for happy hour specials.
Jose Anes has a whole post about it, go check it out!
Nippy suggests drinking verrrrrry slooooowly... good call.
And Dave has a few recommendations, including having or attending parties instead of going out.
(Plus everyone agrees with me that you should drink at home first before going out!)

Also, way back in my early blogging days (yes, a whole month ago!) I got some great suggestions about yummy coffee drinks on my Coffee Talk post, including:

Jenn suggests adding hot cocoa mix to the coffee from the communal pot at work.
Juut brings in teabags and uses the hot water at work.
And Mom2fur and an anonymous commenter plug using flavored creamers in regular coffee.

And last but certainly not least, Claire suggests donating to charities by check if possible so part of your donation doesn't go to credit card fees (in response to I think I need a "giving plan"!)

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Feeling Festive and... Carnival-y?

There's been lots of raving about this week's Festival of Frugality at Punny Money, and it's justified, in my opinion. Nick makes it very easy to figure out which posts you're interested in and which you aren't, and adds his own tips and his own voice. Don't miss it!

There's also the Carnival of Personal Finance, which was at Five Cent Nickel this week.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Ben and Jerry's Free Cone Day!

Yes, it's been announced-- next Tuesday, April 25, is Ben and Jerry's free cone day this year! Time to get in one of those long lines to receive your complimentary scoop. The hours are noon to 8pm, and you can check here to find locations near you that are participating.

I love free things, I love ice cream, and I love Ben and Jerry's (although I loved them more before they got bought out by corporate giant Unilever), so this is something I look forward to every year.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Can you be frugal when you're out drinking?

I don't particularly enjoy going out drinking to bars or clubs, but my boyfriend does, so sometimes I acquiesce in the spirit of harmony and compromise.  And there are the occasional situations with coworkers or others when I decide that the social benefits outweigh my initial disinclination.  But I must admit that part of my hesitance is due to my frugality, and so I appeal to you-- how do you manage to be frugal or semi-frugal on your nights out?
 
One thing that drives me nuts is that there never seem to be any prices listed for alcoholic beverages-- are we supposed to just order and not care how much we're paying?  That's something my frugal nature has a very hard time with!  But I feel like a big dork asking, since no one else does.  Sometimes I'll order the drink specials even if I don't think I'll like them, because at least I know their price!
 
Mapgirl suggests saving money by being a lightweight-- done!-- but the only real tip I can offer is to have a drink or two at home before you go, thus paying for fewer drinks while you're out.  Oh, and of course, have your expensive favorites only at the beginning of the night; stick to the cheaper stuff once you start losing the ability to tell the difference! (For example, I dislike beer-- yes, another reason why drinking cheaply is a challenge!-- but I usually have one as my last drink of the night.) But beyond that, I've got nothing.
Is there any hope for me, or is it impossible to combine frugality and alcohol?  Should I really just try to let go of frugal thinking when I'm out?  What do you do?
 
(PS: I'm more looking for general thoughts, rather than specific drink suggestions-- but I wouldn't turn down the latter, either!  Are there any cheap drinks with rum that don't involve cola?  Any girly drinks that aren't ridiculously pricey?  I know part of my problem is that I'm too picky!)

Sunday, April 16, 2006

It Can't Hurt to Ask! Part 1: Airline Compensation

One of the most prominent and useful pieces of personal finance wisdom is, of course, "It can't hurt to ask!" Whether it's asking for a lower price on a service you already use or a product you want to buy; getting a refund or a replacement product when something goes wrong; or myriad other things-- the rule is, if you don't ask, you won't receive! But if you do ask, you'll be surprised what you get.

One area where this has big payoffs is when you're traveling by air. Now, there are very few circumstances where airlines are mandated to offer compensation (at least in the US; flights out of EU airports have a whole list of guarantees for passengers, so look into those if you're a world traveler!). Unless you're involuntarily bumped off an overbooked flight, there's little that falls into the "legal obligation" category. Of course, it's not just about the legal obligations; airlines want your business! Unfortunately, many of the inconveniences of air travel are so common that you're unlikely to get much in return.

But, of course, it can't hurt to ask! I've been particularly successful in situations where my flights have been canceled as a result of mechanical problems. (If it's caused by weather, that's generally considered an "act of God," and it's a whole different story.) Twice in the last few months, I've received $75 vouchers from United because of cancellations. Both times, I was rebooked onto a flight about 3-4 hours later (although in one case, I called and got the voucher processed before successfully boarding as a standby on a flight about 1 1/2 hours after the original). Both times, I was originally told by the frazzled agent at the customer service desk that there was no compensation offered, but when I tried by phone all I had to do was ask and wait for them to verify there was indeed a mechanical cause for the cancellation, and then: "Okay, we can send you a $75 voucher for travel on United anytime in the next year."

So that's one circumstance where I'd especially encourage you to ask for compensation... but at the airport or anywhere else, don't forget, it really never hurts to ask (politely and respectfully, of course) in any situation where you've been inconvenienced.

What are your experiences with getting compensated for inconvenience while traveling?

Friday, April 14, 2006

Thoughts on taxes and ethics

Well, I've finally finished my taxes-- whew! I did a quick estimate months ago and knew I'd owe, so I didn't rush. I owe $250 to the IRS and $60 to Illinois, which I'm pretty satisfied with-- a big refund is, in everyone's favorite phrase, "an interest-free loan to the government," so it's good I didn't end up with one... but getting surprised by a large amount owed is no fun, either!

It's an interesting time of year, because everyone has such different thoughts about taxes-- really, about the government. (I've done a bad job of keeping track of the posts I've read on this subject, but I may edit this to add them to the bottom as I dig them up. If you've written a post on your thoughts about paying taxes that you'd like me to add, let me know!)

I am very, very torn. In some ways, I feel a lot like Her at Make Love Not Debt:

Call me a communist, but taxes make me feel all warm and fuzzy. I like the idea of everyone in America sharing what they have and working together for the common good. Of course I’m not naive: I know that not everyone pays their fair share, and a great deal of tax revenue is mismanaged or used to better the lives of only a select few. But when the majority of Americans make a significant contribution, amazing things can happen!

I definitely believe that creating a just and healthy society full of happy individuals requires that we all pitch in. Whether it's those things that we all benefit from as individuals (like public services), or the kinds of programs that help the disadvantaged or unlucky among us, I think we all end up better off when we all share the costs and responsibilities involved in supporting the common good.

But then I read blogs like The Picket Line, written by a tax resister:

The U.S. government is imprisoning the harmless, butchering the innocent, and ruling like a criminal syndicate over a country that dreams of itself as a democracy. And it’s doing this in part because I and people like me are paying for it. I can be of better use to my country than this... I hope to reduce my taxable income, both by stopping the flow of my income and through whatever clever deductions I can find, to the point where I pay no federal income tax this year.

There is so much about how the government actually, practically works which I abhor. It underfunds virtually all of the programs I think are most important, and spends huge amounts of money on militarization, war, imprisonment, corporate subsidies and giveways, and interest payments on a spectacularly fiscally irresponsible debt. I'm particularly upset with the use of my tax dollars under the current administration, but many of the underlying issues have been more or less present for decades, and it would be naive to expect things to change dramatically.

I'd like to think of my tax money as providing a great education to children that helps all of them to succeed regardless of their background; as funding subsidies that help all parents afford reliable, high-quality child care that allows them to work and helps their kids grow and develop; as helping all Americans have access to health insurance so that no one's health and happiness suffers needlessly due to being uninsured; as feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, and caring for those who struggle to care for themselves and their familes. I guess the best I can do right now is to know that part of my taxes are going to those things, even though they're being done less well than I believe they should-- and to know that if I were to try to avoid paying taxes, all evidence shows that it's these sorts of programs that are cut when tax revenue is down, while the ones I hate continue to grow and grow under any circumstances.

So, those are my thoughts on the ethical issues around paying taxes. (Although I have another post in mind regarding tax brackets and progressive vs regressive taxation; keep an eye out.) What are yours?

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Carnival of Personal Finance/Festival of Frugality

The Carnival of Personal Finance, hosted at My Money Blog this week, has not only a ton of great posts but also an interesting discussion about the format of the Carnival itself. My two cents? I really appreciate it when the host picks out a relatively small number of posts to highlight, because it's definitely a "value added" service. But I also (both as a reader and a submitter) like having all the submitted posts included in some format, even if it's just a simple link.

The Festival of Frugality is at Canadian Capitalist this week. Go check it out!

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Eating out for free

Recently I had a completely free meal at a place called Noodles & Company, thanks to their "Noodlegram" club. They have pasta/noodles in a variety of styles, from Italian to Asian to American (including the most delicious macaroni and cheese ever), at an ordinary price of about $5-8. After signing up for "Noodlegrams," you receive a free meal after you sign up, and another every year around your birthday.

I was glad to discover it, since I've been enjoying a nearly identical program at Flat Top Grill for over three years now. Flat Top is a really fun, creative, and tasty restaurant, where the idea is create-your-own, all-you-can-eat stirfry (priced at about $15). You just load up your noodles and rice with your choice of sauces, spices, vegetables, and/or meat and they'll cook it up for you and serve. (You can even have them make it for you in soup, salad, or mu shu forms.) They don't have as many locations-- mostly in the Chicago area, although there are a couple other locations in the midwest and one in Arlington, Virginia.

In both cases, I love the deals because: a) there are no strings attached, no "buy X, get X free," so your meal is genuinely free (except for tip, or if you choose drinks, dessert, etc) and you can go by yourself if you'd like; b) they give you at least a couple of weeks leeway so you can choose when to go; and c) you get a free dish at sign-up plus you'll find a coupon for another one every year on your birthday, so it's a free gift that keeps on giving! The only downside is the (rare) promotional e-mails, but they don't bother me. If you have these restaurants in your area, I recommend signing up!

Does anyone know of other good deals like this?

Related:

  • I haven't tried it yet, thanks to plentiful dining coupons in my area, but I've heard good things about Restaurant.com-- a site where you can pay $10 for restaurant gift certificates worth $25 to tons of places. If you're interested, be sure to hunt around first, since there are often discount codes that'll bring that price down to $4-$5.
  • The "Free Stuff" forum at FatWallet often has good deals (it's where I found out about Noodles & Company), although it can be a bother to wade through dozens of posts about things that may be free but probably aren't worth the hassle.
  • Here's a post at Seattle Simplicity about getting free meals through mystery shopping... sounds like it's a result of finding a particularly good mystery shop company, though!

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Gandhi on Budgeting

"As long as you derive inner help and comfort from anything, you should keep it. If you were to give it up in a mood of self-sacrifice or out of a stern sense of duty, you would continue to want it back, and that unsatisfied want would make trouble for you. Only give up a thing when you want some other condition so much that the thing no longer has any attraction for you, or when it seems to interfere with that which is more greatly desired."-- Mahatma Gandhi

I read this quote the other day, and it blew me away. In just a few simple but powerful sentences, Gandhi lays out a clear path to budgeting and consuming in a way that is fulfilling and satisfying.

  • Don't force yourself to give up things just because you should, because it'll hurt more than it'll help. This is so true. When you deny yourself something and tell yourself it's because it's bad or wasteful of you to spend money on it, you feel deprived and unhappy, with the persistent feeling in the back of your mind that if you could only go ahead and buy whatever-it-is, you'd feel better. It's the perfect recipe for splurging on things you'll regret. It's just not a sustainable pattern. If you want to cut back, the real way to do it is to...
  • Identify your priorities and goals, and use them to make decisions about what's worth spending on. Whether you want to retire early, get out of debt, buy a house, stay home with kids, take a more fulfilling but lower-paying job, travel the world, give more money away... whatever it is you really want, you can consciously match it up against the items in your budget, and figure out which is more important to you. That's how real changes occur-- when you get to the point where "the thing no longer has any attraction to you" because "you want some other condition so much." (Or if getting rid of "any attraction" is a little too much to ask, you just have to become conscious of how spending on X would "interfere with that which is more greatly desired.") But no matter how much you want to reach your goals for the future, you shouldn't give up everything in the present. You just need to find a balance and...
  • Figure out what things genuinely bring you "inner help and comfort." I think the key to this is that you have to really think through what's truly important to you, because it's so easy to go on auto-pilot. There are a lot of things that we buy and do because they bring us a pleasure that's fleeting and superficial on a certain level, and we assume that they're making us happy-- but a closer examination reveals otherwise. (And when I say "we," that definitely includes me.) But if we do the soul-searching, we can keep the things that are most important to our happiness and fulfillment today while doing a better job of reaching our goals for the future.
That Gandhi fellow sure was wise, wasn't he?

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Visit the Festival of Frugality

And we've also got this week's Festival of Frugality at fivecentnickel.com.
There's a bunch of great posts, including a story I really liked from Single Mom Extraordinaire. Also: lifestyle tradeoffs from The Bargain Queen.

Monday, April 03, 2006

The Carnival of Personal Finance is Up

Yes, indeed, the Carnival of Personal Finance is up at okdork.com, and I'm lucky enough to be in the "Top 8" for my post on the implications of financial independence/"retiring early." Check it out!

(I feel a little silly doing a post that just says "Visit the Carnival!" since I'm sure that most of you reading this either came to me through the carnival itself, or through pfblogs.org where you can see a half-dozen other posts telling you the same thing. But I appreciate the visits I get from the carnivals, and I want to send a little love back!)

Fun for Chicago-area Readers

Through April 9th, there's a really neat miniature golf course at Navy Pier. All the holes are Chicago-themed, and proceeds go to the Epilepsy Foundation of Greater Chicago. They're designed by top architecture firms, and include a two-level Wacker Drive, Navy Pier, the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 (as featured in the book Devil in the White City) and even one in honor of the World Champion White Sox!

It's $7 a person ($5.50 for kids)... not too bad for an outing for a good cause. My boyfriend and I went yesterday, and although I spent almost as much time taking pictures of the holes as actually playing, it was a lot of fun. (I lost, if you're wondering!) 11th Annual Golf Around Chicago, through Sunday, April 9th. Good times!

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Numbers, Numbers Everywhere...

Many times I've seen advice to keep track of all spending, and many times I've dismissed the idea. "I'm already frugal and responsible," I say, "so that's a lot of work for very little benefit. Why bother?"

But I'm starting to realize that it's a little disorienting not to know how I get from one point to another financially, and the fact that I put a healthy amount into savings every month doesn't change that. If I'm honest with myself, I must admit it's entirely possible that a closer scrutiny of my spending may reveal some changes I should make. And while I'm not ready to commit to following all the steps of Your Money or Your Life exactly, there are some really interesting ideas I'd like to try, and they require detailed tracking of spending.

So for April, at least, I'm going to do it. It may be a bit of a pain, but I think it'll be interesting. Any guesses on whether my standard "estimates" for budgeting are actually close to the mark?

In other numbers news, at the end of the month and the quarter, here's where I stand:

+$16,874.40 cash/savings (actually I have a little more right this moment, but I'm subtracting the credit card bill that will be paid in full on Monday)
+$10,960.19 retirement
-$17,645 debt
+$3,575 "accounts receivable," if I want to be a dork about the terminology (money owed to me by friends & family)

I fell short of my goal to have my non-retirement savings higher than my debt by 3/31, but I should manage that easily by the end of April. But on the plus side, my net worth is now over $10,000! I'm at $10,189 (not counting accounts receivable; it's $13,764 if I include what I'm owed).

Well, after this fascinating tour through my finances, we now return you to your regularly scheduled programming...