Friday, May 25, 2007

I'm a Winner!

I've just received the prize that I won in FiveCentNickel's anniversary contest: Frances Leonard's Book Time Is Money: A Million-Dollar Investment Plan for Today's Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings. Heehee, that Nickel's a kidder—I'm guessing that "Time is Money" was perfect for me because I was the lame a$$ (with dollar signs) who took so long to reply to his "you won" email. Or maybe FCN read my "about me," wherein I mention being one of the age groups mentioned in the subtitle. In any case, it appears that he really put some thought into this. I'd be really curious to know how he decided who got what—was it in order of response? Whose blog he liked best? What did CrazyDude do to deserve the bricks? Does anybody know? You know I was thinking, Quarters are shiny and silver, I-Pods are shiny and silver... :)

Thanks so much, Nickel—the book looks interesting and now I have the long weekend to start on it. Many happy returns.

Happy Memorial Day weekend, everyone! Maybe I'll actually write some sorta-more-real entries, now that I have a little time.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Quarters and Nickels

Soooooooo... I haven't written anything here in six months. (Apologies but really, I didn't think anyone was paying attention. Anyone got a problem with that? Didn't think so.) That's not to say that there hasn't been plenty to write about (the giant, monstrous credit card is a month from being paid off, for example); I just haven't gotten off my arse to do any writing. My thanks to this guy for inspiring me to log back in and join in his shenanigans. Too much fun. I can say this knowing now that I didn't win the bricks.

That said:
Ohthankgodthankyouthankyouthankyounickel for not sending me the bricks. (Having replied to Nickel's sweepstakes announcement so tardily, I was certain that it was me.)

No seriously folks, here's why I'm so happy: If you so much as read the "about me" section here, you'll see that we're in a constant state of renovating and redoing our home—building up and then throwing stuff away. About two hours before I learned that I might be the recipient of said bricks, a bulk trash pickup company that I had hired came and carted away about 500 tons of construction junk (or so it felt, my spouse and I having made said shanty-town-looking giant pile of junk with our own four hands, and having received the raised eyebrows from neighbors and all).

This refuse, yes, included an unspecified number of bricks.

The pile was so remarkable in its own right (again, before I knew anything about winning this contest) that I took a photo of it on my cameraphone for the family home-improvement scrapbook, but am not technologically capable enough to get it off the cameraphone.

I didn't want to sound ungrateful, but I really wanted to tell Nickel, "Like I needed more."

So thanks, big guy, for whatever is coming my way.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

What holiday gift do you really want?

There are always a few people on my gift-buying list that prove just impossible to buy for (*cough* Dad), and I wonder if people think the same about me. When people ask me what I want, the answer is simple: Gift cards.

But aren't gift cards a copout, given by people who can't be bothered to pick a thoughtful gift out?

Maybe. But it beats someone else trying to buy me furniture or clothes.

So I wrestle philosophically with hating to give these impersonal tokens, while at the same time hoping that I receive (lots of) these same tokens.

So, what's at the top of your gift list?

Monday, December 11, 2006

Saving Money on Big Stuff That (Almost) Never Goes On Sale

You have your eye on a pricey item at an overpriced shop like Pottery Barn. You wait and wait for it to go on doesn't. What can you do not to pay full price?

Now that we have had a home for about a year and a half, a big challenge has been actually furnishing it. This house has four (small) bedrooms, a front family room, and a large "real" family room, all of which needed to be furnished. Before living here, we lived in an apartment. I refused to let Spouse bring the futon that's been around since the college days (the result was us sitting on an air mattress for the first two months we lived here!).

Anyway, we're buying good-quality furniture to last...Ikea is not really doing it for us anymore for most things. We've found that Crate and Barrel has a lot of stuff we like but boy, some of their stuff is really expensive. And then a lightbulb came on in my head one day. If you can register for silverware and dishes at Crate and Barrel, can you register for the furniture?

This question didn't interest me because I expected some fairy godmother to come along and buy everything on our registry—-the key here is the completion discount. Once your event date has passed (and "event date" can be anything from your anniversary or birthday to...uh...less celebrated "celebrations" like Arbor Day), you get a coupon in the mail offering you 10% off anything that's still on your registry. You take that coupon into the store, order your furniture, and then you save some dough (albeit not much, but when you're buying a $2,000 dining room set...that's $200) on items that you were going to buy anyway.

This is a trick that's great to keep in mind this time of year, because your friends and family might actually pony up for (smaller) somethings on your chosen registry, or at least give you gift certificates that you can apply to your big purchase. I've just set up a Christmas gift registry for us on Crate and Barrel (I think we've gotten over the Amazon wish list) so that our friends and family know what we really want.

Q: Does Crate and Barrel care if you do this?
A: No. We create a registy whenever we see something that we like. And every time we take these coupons into the store and they look our names up...they don't blink an eye. Just think of how much this stuff is marked up...they're still making money. If it makes you feel less guilty, put some dishtowels on the registry and ask your brother to buy you those.

Q: Do other stores offer this discount?
A: Yes, tons. I know Pottery Barn does (their completion certificate is sent via email) and I'll bet pretty much any store that has a registry would do this. Just determine beforehand whether they have a completion program discount.

Q: How long does it take to get the completion coupon in the mail?
A: It'll come about two weeks after your event date. So if you really wanted that armoire ASAP, you better make up a celebration that just happens to be tomorrow!

Q: What's troublesome about this process?
A: C&B, at least, makes you call an agent if you want to put furniture on the registry. I don't know why. I don't think that Pottery Barn did this. Also, C&B at least doesn't let you use the coupon online--you have to bring it into the store to use it.

Q: What's really great about these coupons?
A: Sometimes the stuff on your registry actually does go on sale, or they sell the display models of those items. You can still use your 10% coupon (provided that the item was on your registry) for even more savings!

PS--If you, too, are a C&B fan, here's a tip: They're having a furniture sale starting the day after Christmas. The salesperson I know tells me that it will include floor models. While everyone else is buying Xmas decorations for 50% off, you know where I'll be...

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Friends and Money: How do you handle restaurants?

I've been thinking about our friends and their money a fair bit lately, and about how people behave with it, what they spend it on and what they scrimp on. Of course I wouldn't want to be judgmental about any of it, lest they be judgmental about our silly money games and expenditures, haha. And though they're rather disjointed thoughts, here's what I'm thinking about particularly today:

How do you handle the inevitable check-scramble when dining out with friends? You know, when it's a party of eight, and everyone has shared a pitcher or two of sangria, and gotten appetizers and entrees of varying sizes and prices. Is it more annoying to be the guy who nickle-and-dimes everyone else ("I think my total, based on the three nachos I've eaten and the one glass of sangria I've drunk, is $8.34"), or is it better to just divide by eight, with the sort of universal philosophy that everything evens out in the end? I've been on both sides of the coin. When you're broke it's really frustrating to have to chip in for your friend's deluxe sushi dinner when you only had, you know, the vegetables-and-rice special. And I've said, "Sorry, but this is all I owe," likely to the chagrin of a dining partner or two. Do they have a right to be annoyed at that? Maybe. I've been privately annoyed when my friends do that to me. But following the rules of etiquette, personal finance, friendship and everything else, I just don't know what the right answer is. The right answer could sometimes just be "separate checks," but that isn't always allowed at restaurants, depending on their policies (and again, if you're at a sharing-food sort of place, it wouldn't work, anyway). I find that I become the nickel-and-dimer when I'm broke and it's a long way til payday, and I'm a little more generous to the group till on payday. Knowing how I myself operate should make it easier to sympathize and understand when others--okay, not shortchange the group, but get serious about paying for their side salad and only their side salad. Why is it so easy to be annoyed, though? Why am I not enough person to see the signs of others' financial difficulties and just say, hey, your dinner is on me? Unfortunately, for one thing, you never know until the end of the meal that the money issues will happen and two, feeling like a charity case is also pretty crummy.

So what do you do when you eat out in groups?

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

A to-do list for changing jobs

Though I haven't chronicled it here (I would have scared away the one or two readers that I actually have), I've been searching for a job for what seems like forever. The search is over--I accepted a position last week and I start in a couple of weeks. Hooray!

Naturally, my mind moved quickly to the financial concerns related to this new job, namely:

1. I am getting about a 18-20% more here than I did at my last job. How should I spend (I mean, save) this dough?
First off, the 401(k) contribution is going to bump from my current 8% to 10%. I would do more, but there is that giant credit card debt to think of... And I'm trying to figure out the direct deposit distribution that I want to opt for. What percent in the slush fund? What percent in my newly opened Citi E-Savings? Do I open a third T Rowe Price mutual fund, and funnel some over there, too? Or are we just focusing on the Amex payoff? (Which is not even Amex anymore, because I moved the giant balance to another 0% credit card.)

My other big concern is that this raise may put us into another tax bracket--in terms of gross income, but I think we're still safe because we both contribute 10% or so to the 401ks.

2. Rollover issues. I have over 30k in my 401k and I don't know where to park it next. Any ideas? Do any of you (I still labor under the delusion that I have readers, haha) have suggestions? I'm thinking a Vanguard IRA rollover, but maybe it should be something like E-Trade or Sharebuilder, where the options are endless.

3. I'll be bonus eligible! I don't even want to start dreaming about this money yet.

4. The job is closer than my last job was--not by much, but every little bit of gas savings counts. And my concerns about having to buy commuter train passes and such are right out the window.

5. Navigating the long list of new benefits. The new medical plan is more $$ than my last one; must check spouse's plan and figure out whether signing on with that one will be cheaper for us. But do I buy into the employee stock plan and all the rest?

There's a lot to think about. Once I get my act together, the next post will sound more instructional than clueless, maybe!

Saturday, August 12, 2006

How Bleach Saved Me About $1,000

As I wrote a few months back, many windows in our home need to be replaced. About the same time, I had a handyman come in to give me estimates on a few projects that needed to be done around the house—among them, of course, replacing a few windows (and not just the glass, I mean the whole shebang, to the studs).

He came upstairs to examine a few windows and said, “Did you want these repaired or replaced?” I looked at him like he was crazy. Surely he could see how the windows were rotting and moldy—or at least they seemed to me. Why not just take them out and start anew? He said he liked renovating old wood windows, and would start by cleaning the frames in a bleach solution and then filling in any holes or gaps with wood filler, caulking this and sealing that, sanding, and so on from there. (Painting those window cross-bar things seemed like a crazy idea, though!) And in the end, the estimate that he gave me for fixing them was higher than the cost of installing new ones, so I felt vindicated for wanting to replace them to begin with.

But then I got to thinking. It doesn’t take special carpentry skills to use bleach. Let’s see how they’d look if I gave it a whirl…

So I went upstairs armed with bleach, a roll of paper towels, and some old washcloths, adding some hot water to the bleach (no scientific formula here), and going to town.

This simple act worked miracles. The mold (or whatever that black stuff was, but it was gross) came off with not too much effort, though it probably took an hour or two to really clean each window. The windows weren’t rotted underneath, as I had suspected. I literally thought that they were in tatters.

From there, the job of sanding and painting them—even the grilles in between—seemed less daunting. I went out and bought one of those special window-glass razors, too, to peel the old decals and get the droplets of old paint off the glass. I think that was about $6. I filled cracks in the sills with a $3 vinyl sealant, and now it’s almost as good as new.

I did this on three windows. Yes, I used about 4 rolls of paper towels on them, haha, and yes, there was work to be done afterward, but it was very empowering to remember the old frugality mantra of “repair, not buy” and to see how easy it was to put that into action. In this case it was as easy as cleaning, not even really repairing. Yes, there were nail holes in the frames and such—and yes, sanding and painting the outside of these second-story windows is going to be difficult—but now I can put this $1,000 (or probably more, once you factor in the cost of labor) toward more downstairs windows that really do need to go, desperately—these as part of a major room demolition.

All of this just reminds me again how sad it is that some people are lucky enough to have their own homes but just don’t take care of them. This was about the 1,000th example, and I’m sure there will be more, of how the former owners didn’t take care of the home they lived in for 22 years. We are slowly trying to piece it back together.