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Having Frugal Fun My Way

July 19th, 2014 at 03:23 pm

Having fun does not have to be expensive. Heck, having fun can actually cost almost nothing or even nothing at all. Being retired, I have more free time to fill than the average person(1*). And I do fill it -- without having to resort to endless hours of tv watching or rocking chair napping. I have no trouble finding interesting fun activities to pursue without having to spend an arm and a leg to pursue them. The thing is I think anyone can do that. Using me as a case study, here is how and why.

Having a low-cost hobby is a big first step. Something that you enjoy doing, that you can do for hours at a time, and that does not require the constant spending of substantial amounts of money. Preferably, something that is also good for you -- whether physically, mentally or spiritually. Something to keep you engaged and your wallet out of trouble!

For me, that something is actually several somethings. I hike(2*), which only costs me the price of gasoline to get to one of my nearby parks and trails. I read history(3*), which -- if I wished(4*) -- could cost me nothing more than the cost of fuel to occasionally drive 5 miles to the library. I play pc strategy games(5*), which costs me nothing at all as long as I stay happy (which I do) with the 4 games I bought 10 or more years ago for a total of less than $150. And I blog(6*), which also costs me nothing other than the price of yellow pads and disposable mechanical pencils because I prefer to do almost all my writing that way.

Taken together, these activities can more than fill my free time. They keep me interested and mentally involved on a daily basis. They can be mixed and matched depending on the weather and my mood so that I always have something leisure to do. And they do not drain my wallet.

But there are many other frugal fun hobbies to pursue. For a modest one-time cost for the equipment, one can do bird watching... digital photography (no cost for film or print paper)... biking... surfing... skateboarding... rollerskating... astronomy... playing an instrument... just to name a few at random. And for no money at all, one can visit art galleries and museums... take online courses at sites like Coursera... and so on. There are many other frugal leisure options besides what I do.

So it is totally possible to have lots of fun without crashing one's budget(7*). Oh, I of course also do fun things that cost money((8*). Like eating out, traveling, going to concerts, etc. But still my typical week is filled with daily leisure activities that cost little or nothing. For less than $10 a week (mostly for gas) and without a single minute of mind sucking tv programming, I get 35 or more scheduled hours of rewarding leisure blogging, hiking, reading and pc game playing -- not even counting evening library-DVD-movie-buffing and classical music listening. And that is a heck of a lot of frugal fun my way.

The takeaway: There are obviously many fun things to do that do not require the constant spending of money for fees (like golf), or materials (like most crafts), or a major piece of equipment (like a boat). Frugal fun that anyone can afford to have is all around us for the doing. And anyone can make life fuller and richer by doing them.

# # #

(1*) Making Time For Fun:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/04/08/making-tim...

(2*) My Love Affair With Hiking:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2013/12/23/my-love-af...

(3*) Time Traveling With History Books:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/04/03/time-trave...

(4*) My Books -- A Huge Frugality Exception:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/04/25/my-books-a...

(5*) My Strategy Games Rainy Day Passion:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/01/07/strategy-g...

(6*) 200 Words A Day That (Hopefully) Matter:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/05/07/200-words-...

(7*) My $18K Annual Baseline Budget:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2013/12/29/my-18k-ann...

(8*) A Discretionary Fund, Not a Discretionary Budget:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/03/29/a-discreti...

A Frugal Tale of 2 PCs (Part 2)

June 15th, 2014 at 10:40 am

Last year, I had to choose between spending $350 for a new laptop computer or spending $113 to get both my desktop pc and my laptop back into service.* Of course, I went the frugal route** and regained the use of 2 computers for one third the cost of buying just one. Unfortunately, my Gateway laptop has now developed new problems that actually make replacing it the frugal way to go. Luckily, I have found a way to also keep using my old Gateway that makes the cost of my new laptop tax-deductible. Here is how.

My Gateway laptop's screen suddenly went black. It had been flickering slightly for a few days, but this was finally the end. One second I had a fine screen image and the next I had nothing. My local pc repair shop offers free diagnostics so I took my poor pc there. The tech confirmed that my screen was dead... priced out an installed replacement screen at $170... and showed me the keyboard command to shunt the laptop's image signal to an exterior monitor. And that would give me a frugal solution. But...

My laptop's operating system had become another problem. My Gateway's operating system is Windows XP. I knew Microsoft had stopped "supporting" Windows XP in April. But I did not realize what that meant until the tech explained it to me. No support means no more software updates automatically downloaded and installed when you shut your pc down. And no software updates means no software "patches" to combat new hacker threats. My XP system had become an open door for hackers to access my laptop anytime I went online. All my financial accounts and passwords were now at serious risk of breach.

Now repairing would cost more than buying new. I could have a "late model" Windows 7 operating system for $190 installed. I could replace my screen for $170 installed. And I would have to spend $70 to clear my Gateway of any and all viruses and malware it had picked up. That all added up to $430. Instead, I bought a brand new Asus Transformer Convertible Tablet/Laptop for $374 total. With more computing capability than my Gateway. Preloaded with Microsoft Office, which I did not have on my Gateway. And perfect for my under-development hiking blog side business.***

But my old Gateway will still help keep things frugal. I have a spare working monitor! So I just connected it to my Gateway using the keyboard command the tech showed me and my old laptop became usable again. I just will not use it for financial or other password-sensitive stuff. The Gateway is now my "fun" internet computer, dedicated to Retired-To-Win blogging and web surfing. Why bother doing that? Because it makes the purchase of the my new Asus laptop tax-deductible.

My new Asus is now my "business" computer. I will use it for portfolio stock management**** and for TrailWalkers Club*** work. This makes the $374 cost of the Asus a tax-deductible business expense. And therefore brings my true cost for the Asus down to under $300. (To be exact, $296 if I factor in the cashback reward.*****) Sweet!

The takeaway: There is more than one way to skin a cat. And more than one way to be frugal. When a piece of equipment stops working, don't just run out to buy a replacement. Always look first into repairing what you have.****** Then go with the frugal flow.

# # #

* A Frugal Tale of Two PCs:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/01/11/a-frugal-t...

** How I Do Frugality Without Sacrifice:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/04/12/how-i-do-f...

*** For Fun And (Maybe) Profit:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/05/01/for-fun-an...

**** How I Stay On Top Of My Stocks:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/04/09/how-i-stay...

***** Raking In Credit Card Cashback:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/03/11/raking-in-...

****** Repair It or Replace It?:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/03/31/repair-it-...

Free Gourmet Coffee Every Day

June 11th, 2014 at 11:30 am

I drink fancy, schmanzy Tully's French Roast Coffee. I get it in little individual serving "K cups" that I brew in a Keurig coffee maker. These K-cups come in boxes of 18 that retail at $11.78 (with tax) where I get them. That works out to 65 cents per cup of coffee. But I do not pay a single penny for my coffee and have not for a couple of years. Here is how I manage that.

First step: I use cashback cards. And I always make sure that I am taking advantage of each credit card's quarterly 5% cashback promotion.* My Discover cashback card has promotions like that. So I make sure to carry that card in my wallet and use it whenever I can get that 5% cashback leverage on purchases I am going to make anyway.

Second step: I leverage my cashback redemptions.** For the Discover card, that means that I redeem my cashback Discover dollars for Bed Bath and Beyond gift cards instead of cash. Doing that gets me a $25 BBBY gift card for just 20 Discover cashback dollars.

Third step: I wait for the BBBY discount coupons. These come regularly via emails and via postal mail flyers. And they are good for either $5 off a $15 purchase or 20% off a single item.

Fourth step: I go get that free coffee. Here are the numbers from my most recent BBBY coffee raid. I gave the cashier two 18-cup boxes to ring up at $11.49 each, for a total of $22.98. Then I gave her a $5 off store coupon, leaving a balance of $17.98. Add the 2.5% food sales tax, and the final total was $18.43. To pay, I handed the cashier a $25 BBBY gift card. And I walked out with my two 18-cup boxes of Tully's French Roast Coffee and $6.57 credit still left on my BBBY gift card.

Doing the math, I leveraged 14.74 in Discover cashback dollars by almost 60% to get coffee worth $23.55 after tax. That is a nice win. And I got those Discover cashback dollars just for using that credit card on 5% cashback purchases I would have made anyway. That is a win-win. Free gourmet coffee every day. Win-win-win.

The takeaway: Playing the Frugal Game my way*** will put a smile on your face every time.

# # #

* Raking In Credit Card Cashback:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/03/11/raking-in-...

** Leveraging Up CashBack Rewards:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/03/18/leveraging...

*** Playing the Frugal Game is Fun!
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2013/12/14/playing-th...

Cashback Cards ARE Worth The Effort

June 4th, 2014 at 11:15 am

Some people think that there is not enough money in cash reward cards to go to all the trouble of managing them. Of course, I do not see it that way at all.* Check this out.

I just placed a $2692 order for 16 new windows. I made sure to charge that purchase on my Discover cashback credit card, which is running a special 5% cashback promotion on home improvement store purchases.* By doing so, I got a $135 credit in cashback dollars from Discover. And I will leverage those cashback dollars** to get anywhere from $168 to $270 in good-as-cash gift cards to use on goods and services I would buy anyway.

To score all that free money, all I had to do was (1) know that Discover was running that special promotion, (2) sign up for the promotion, and (3) make sure I carried that card in my wallet when I went to buy the windows. It just took a little credit card management on my part to capture a big cashback payout. It is worth the effort. Here is more on that.

In the first place, cashback card management is just another fun round of the Frugal Game*** that I love to play to save money without really giving up anything.

Second of all, it is not chump change I am getting here. My annual baseline living costs are around $18,000**** and I figure about $8000 of that is credit card billable. At a conservative 2.5% average cash back on that $8000, that is 200 cashback dollars. Factor in a modest 25% average redemption leverage** and my found money goes up to $250 a year. But that is just from my baseline living expenses. I also spend another discretionary***** $10,000 a year for fun stuff. And all of that is credit card billable. So add another $300 to my yearly found money from putting in a little effort into the management of my cash reward credit cards. That means that in total I am adding $550 a year to my discretionary fund for just taking an hour or less every 3 months to check a few credit card websites and rotate a couple of credit cards in and out of my wallet. I am getting over $100 an hour for my effort.

No, I do not pay more in order to get cashback rewards. For example, I bought those 16 windows at a big box home improvement discount store. I timed the purchase to get a 15% special sale discount that saved me $475 over and above the store's already discounted price. And I used a $25 store coupon to push down my cost even further. So the 5% cashback I got from Discover was on top of the $500 I would have saved without using the card.

And, yes, I will pay off that window purchase charge when the credit card statement comes in. Which is what I do with all the purchases I charge on cashback cards. It is all good.

The takeaway: Doing cashback credit cards is worth it to me in principle because I never leave money on the table. That would not be very frugal.

# # #

* Raking In Credit Card Cashback:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/03/11/raking-in-...

** Leveraging Up CashBack Rewards:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/03/18/leveraging...

*** Playing the Frugal Game is Fun!
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2013/12/14/playing-th...

**** My $18K Annual Baseline Budget:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2013/12/29/my-18k-ann...

***** A Discretionary Fund, Not a Discretionary Budget:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/03/29/a-discreti...

Frugality As A Way Of Life

May 10th, 2014 at 02:09 pm

I have consciously practiced frugality without sacrifice* for about five years. It made very good sense to me to do so because this powerful personal finance tactic enabled me to arrive at much lower baseline living expenses** and drastically accelerated my arrival at financial independence.*** But I am there now, with passive income that greatly exceeds those baseline living expenses. And yet I continue to be vigilantly frugal. So I have been questioning why I am still doing this -- and whether I should continue to do so. Here is what I have figured out.

A dollar saved is a dollar earned. There is no good reason not to save money when doing so takes no effort. Like buying my gas at the lowest-price station on my normal driving route. Like paying for that gas with a credit card that returns 5% of that low cost to me.**** But what about when it (at least) seems to take effort?

Frugality can be fun. My hiking/handyman jeans are a good case in point of frugality as a game.***** I needed "new" jeans because I had shed a lot of excess weight. I could have just bought an inexpensive $10-$12 pair at WalMart with no financial stress. But no. I kept wearing my cinched up jeans on hikes and while handy-manning. I looked in thrift stores whenever I was going by one anyway. And after 3 or 4 such tries, I found jeans that fit me for $3. I enjoyed that frugality win. I still do whenever I think of it.

Frugality is good business. I cannot imagine making a large purchase or arranging for a major service to my home or vehicle without first doing some serious comparison shopping.****** And the objective of that effort is to save money -- to be frugal. No one bats an eye when a business or government agency seeks a low bidder for its purchases and service needs. I do the same. Not to do so would be to waste money.

Frugality keeps me financially independent. If I go "off the reservation" and let my baseline living expenses swell, those expenses could -- in theory and in time -- exceed my passive income. And my financial independence would end -- unless I went back to being frugal.

But frugality is not always necessary. That is the point I am at. I have no problem continuing to practice frugality without sacrifice where my basic living expenses are concerned. But I marvel that I extend that frugality to spending my discretionary funds.******* It is just NOT necessary. And I do not always do it. But it is my norm to do it.

Being frugal must be me! Somewhere along the line, I internalized frugality in principle, as a life value, as part of who I am. And I get a kick (sometimes big, sometimes small) out of each and every frugality win I score. Because to me it really is a game. A fun game I play every day as a way of life. And I have concluded that is a good thing.

# # #

* How I Do Frugality Without Sacrifice:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/04/12/how-i-do-f...

** My $18K Annual Baseline Budget:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2013/12/29/my-18k-ann...

*** My Financial Independence Key:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2013/12/17/my-financi...

**** Raking In Credit Card Cashback:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/03/11/raking-in-...

***** Playing the Frugal Game is Fun!
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2013/12/14/playing-th...

****** Big Job Estimates Save Me Big Money:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/03/20/big-job-es...

******* A Discretionary Fund, Not a Discretionary Budget:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/03/29/a-discreti...

My Books: A Huge Frugality Exception

April 25th, 2014 at 06:40 pm

(I now blog weekly on frugal living, personal finance & earlier retirement at:
retiredtowin.com)





I am very focused on being frugal in everything I do and with everything I buy. I always do a mental check on whether I really need something before I buy it. Whether I already have something I can use to fulfill the purpose. Or whether I can fix something I have instead of buying a replacement.

But not where my books are concerned.

I could simply borrow books at the library. But I don't just love reading books*. I love collecting them. I really feel good being surrounded by books in a cozy library room. Books are my good friends.

So I make a big frugality exception where my books are concerned. I spend my discretionary money** to buy them (even though I've kept the average cost per book to around $5). I spend money on custom-built bookcases to display them. And, most expensive of all, I've spent money on having an entire room in my home dedicated as a library to house my book collection.

Since 2006, I've read 225 books. I still have them all. AND I have another 200 or so waiting their turn to be read.

My books are my big break with frugality. I've spent over $2000 on the books, more than $1000 on their bookcases, and dedicated a $15,000 room to them. It's all gone to satisfy a want, not a need***. But the satisfaction I get from my books is priceless!


# # #

* Time Traveling With History Books:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/04/03/time-trave...

** A Discretionary Fund, Not a Discretionary Budget:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/03/29/a-discreti...

*** My Financial Independence Key:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2013/12/17/my-financi...

Outsourcing A Move The Frugal Way

April 22nd, 2014 at 01:52 pm

I have hired moving companies to relocate our household across town, across state and across the country. No more, though. Ten years ago, it cost us $3000 to have a 3-bedroom household moved 1000 miles from Florida to Maryland. Four years ago, it cost us $1200 to move that same household just 80 miles from Maryland to Virginia. Now I have found a better way. A way that saves a whole lot of money while still hiring out the hard work of loading and unloading. Here is how that works.

A moving company provides a truck to move stuff and a crew to load it, move it and unload it. For that bundled service, moving companies charge big bucks. But there is another much less expensive way. Rent the truck. Hire the loaders separately. Drive the truck yourself. And keep the savings in your pocket. Here are the numbers on how that worked for me on my most recent 100-mile household move.

I rented a 20-foot truck from U-Haul. That cost $40 for a 12-hour day, $28 for insurance, and $154 for driving 220 miles. I picked up the truck at my new city and drove it 100 miles to the house I was leaving. There I met a 2-man loading crew that I had hired over the internet through movinghelp.com. Those guys loaded the truck in 3 hours for $150. Then I drove the truck to my new home. There I met a second 2-man crew that unloaded the truck in 2 hours for $100. (Hiring different crews to load and unload saved the $125 it would have cost to have the loading crew follow me to my new house to unload.) All that was left to do was for me to return the truck to U-Haul.

Adding the $75 cost of gasoline to the other expenses I have listed, this 100-mile move cost me a grand total of $547. That is less than half of the $1200 I paid 3 years earlier for essentially the same job. (And I reused the boxes I had saved from a previous move, so I had no out-of-pocket for that.) Playing the frugal game* again -- to win.

# # #

* Playing the Frugal Game is Fun!
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2013/12/14/playing-th...

Ditch Digging At 65: Frugal or Cheap?

April 18th, 2014 at 10:44 am

The 65-year old was me. The ditch was a 100-foot long, 15-inch deep, 2-foot wide trench for a French drain to be installed along the back of my house. Twenty bucks an hour is what it would have cost me to have a handyman do the digging. So the question to ask myself (and you) is whether I was nuts to dig the trench myself. Here is what you need to know to decide.

My wife and I worked on the trench together. I swung a pickax to break up the hard-clay ground and she shoveled out the dirt. We dug out the trench in a total of 10 hours over the course of 2 Saturdays. Needless to say, after each digging session we were used up for the day, the balance of which was spent going out for a "reward late lunch" followed by DVD movie watching on the couch. We were tired, but not so much as to be muscle sore the next day.

Altogether it took us 20 man/woman hours to dig out the trench. Figuring that a younger (and fitter?) handyman would have been at least 20% faster than we were, we could have hired out the work for a total cost of $400. So we saved $20 for each hour that my wife and I individually put into digging that ditch instead of putting that time into going out to have fun somewhere.

Could we actually afford the handyman? Yes. In addition to having a home improvement fund holding over $20,000 at the time, we had a net positive household cash flow after basic living expenses of $2500 per month.* So a lack of money was not the reason for all that DIY digging.

What was the reason? Responsible frugality? Overboard "scroogerism"? Not wanting to pay for something we could do ourselves with tools at hand and no special skills required? And should I be regretting "burning up" two Saturdays to do the digging -- or be glad to have that $400 still in our pockets to do something else?

What really bothers me is the loss of the 2 Saturdays. We swung that pick and that shovel for 5 hours each day -- swung them until we were too tired to dig any more or do anything else. So both days went to nothing but the trench digging. At $100 per man/woman day, I would buy back those days in a New York minute. Those 2 days were worth more than $100 each to me. Much more.

I would feel differently if I had been able to do something substantial "for me" with part of each of those days. If we had limited our trench digging to 2 hours a day, we would have had enough time (and energy!) left to go somewhere and do something. And we would have had $80 "found money" (4 man/woman digging hours for the day at $20 per hour) with which to do that something.

So that is the deal I am making with myself from now on. The time I spend each day on obligatory tasks and non-fun projects will be limited so as to allow enough time each day for some enjoyable/fulfilling activity**. I will not "tucker myself out" on the have-to-do's. I will see to it that I have enough energy left for a want-to-do. Just like everyone else, I live life -- and use it up -- one day at a time. From now on, I am making sure that each one of those days counts for me.

# # #

*My $18K Annual Baseline Budget:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2013/12/29/my-18k-ann...

**Making Time For Fun:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/04/08/making-tim...

Frugal Fun: Hiking Civil War Trails

April 16th, 2014 at 11:33 am

I have to count myself lucky living in Virginia. This state is ground zero for the Civil War. That has made it super easy for me to find lots of places to get hiking exercise, enjoy nature and learn history all at the same time. Going to those places gets me out of the house. But doing civil war hiking "right" is a travel project I have to plan for. Here is what I do.

Each month (between April and November) I pick out a Civil War battlefield to explore. It could be a National Park like Antietam, a Virginia State Park like Staunton River, a county-level park like Cold Harbor, or even a privately preserved battlefield like First Day Chancellorsville. Once I have targeted a site, I pick out a motel for the one-to-two night trip. And then I get down to some serious research because I want to go prepared to really understand the ground I will be hiking.

First stop on the internet is the website for the park I will be going to. Second stop is the Civil War Trust website. Between those 2 websites and the links I will find on them, I will end up with a very respectable list of articles about the battle and -- most importantly -- battle maps and hiking trail guides. I will preview all this material a day or two before my trip, planning out which of the battlefield trails to do and in what order. And I will be set to go.

Upon arriving at the battlefield, my first stop will be the visitor center (or kiosk) if there is one. Often, a short film on the battle will be showing at set intervals. Or a narrated dynamic 3-dimensional battlefield map presentation will effectively show how the opposing forces moved and how the battle developed. And almost always there is a booklet to buy giving an in-depth account of the battle. It all contributes to the pre-hike mental immersion in the battle that I make part of my overall experience.

The rest of my first day at the battlefield I will spend getting a "preview" of the battle by driving around the site and walking some of the shorter trails. Then it is onward to the motel, where I will spend the evening undergoing that in-depth immersion by drilling into and crossreferencing all the battlefield maps and background information I have gathered together.

Doing that total immersion gets me psyched up for the next day's heavy duty hiking*. And gives me the knowledge I need to identify and prioritize which trails to be sure to do (because very often there are just too many more miles of trails than I have stamina to hike them).

The second (and sometimes the third) day of my Civil War excursion will be full-on hiking*. Clipboarded trail guide and battle map in hand, binocular and camera pouches on my belt, I will cover as many trails as I can. Trails where I walk the same ground that an advancing unit covered as it approached the enemy entrenchments. Trails that take me to key positions or high-ground vantage points from where I can visualize the ebb and flow of the conflict as the day of battle wore on. And there are always trail markers at significant spots, adding explanation and color to my first-hand re-experiencing of an armed engagement 150 years or so in the past.

It is all great fun to me. The hiking is good exercise. It is almost always over hills and through woods that put me in touch with nature. And it takes the history reading I have done about the battle and makes it vividly real and a lot more understandable.

And, of course, it is also frugal as all get out. With both national and state lifetime park passes, I pay no entrance fees. With the right combination of motel and bring-along supplies, my full travel cost for a 2-day, one-night outing is less than $100 (and maybe $160 total if I am doing an extra night). Loads of fun for little money. What else could I ask for?

# # #

*My Love Affair With Hiking:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2013/12/23/my-love-af...

Frugal Entertainment Boonies Style

April 15th, 2014 at 12:35 pm

It used to be a snap for me to provide myself with free or darn near free home entertainment. I lived in a town where I had unlimited use cable, a DVD-friendly library, and an outstanding state park some 3 miles from the house. It was a perfect setup for my primary leisure activities: computer gaming*, classical music listening, movie watching, history book reading**, and hiking***. Alas, no more.

We have moved to a much more rural location that improves my overall quality of life but has presented me with some entertainment challenges to my frugality without sacrifice mindset****. Here is what I have been able to do about it.

Dealing With Limited Internet Access
There is no cable service where I live. No high-speed phone line internet either. All we can get is satellite internet service and that is not unlimited. Whereas before I got unlimited use for about $50 a month, what we get now is 10GB of data service for $60.51 a month. To me that means no more internet streaming of video or music. So we have had to be creative to develop alternatives.

Creating A Classical Music Background
In our previous location, I streamed classical music from Pandora's free internet music service while I worked on my computer or read my books. Here I am having to create my own service. So I have bought 2 decent-sounding CD player systems for a total of $115 and placed one each in my reading room and my computer nook. By frequenting yard sales and thrift stores, I am building up my classical CD library at a buck a throw. I am up to 15 CDs, working my way up to 25 plus-or-minus. At that point, I will have solved my background classical music challenge for a total cost of $140 to $150.

Getting Access to Movies and TV
In our previous location, we had already dropped TV cable service. We did most of our movie and tv-program watching through Netflix (at $8 a month) and Amazon Prime Video (a free bonus with Amazon Prime shipping service). But where we live now we do not consider internet video streaming a viable option. Aggravating our little problem a little more, our new county's library system is decidedly not DVD-friendly, so we cannot use that either as a source of video entertainment.

We have taken 3 steps to bridge this "visual entertainment divide." For $25, we have purchased a long-distance TV antenna which now makes it possible for us to tune in free TV stations from 2 major cities within 50 miles of us. We are using our already existing 300-plus DVD collection as our movie library. And we have found a thrift store where we can buy and trade back the same DVDs we buy so that our net cost per DVD viewed is 53 cents.

Finding Trails to Hike
In our previous location, my lifetime senior citizen state park pass got me in free to that great trail-rich state park that I had within 3 miles of the house. Here there are no state parks nearby. But there are 2 hiking-trail county parks within reasonable range (5 and 10 miles away). And I got myself a free county park pass so that admission fees still do not come into the picture.

All told, I think the entertainment challenges presented by our new location have been frugally met. Goes to show, where there's a (frugal) will, there's a way.

# # #

*My Strategy Games Rainy Day Passion:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/01/07/strategy-g...

**Time Traveling With History Books:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/04/03/time-trave...

***My Love Affair With Hiking:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2013/12/23/my-love-af...

****How I Do Frugality Without Sacrifice:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/04/12/how-i-do-f...

How I Do Frugality Without Sacrifice

April 12th, 2014 at 11:12 pm

Frugality without sacrifice is the basic guiding principle of my personal finances.* It is what has made it possible for me to have a very comfortable basic lifestyle on just $18,000 a year.** But how do I actually practice frugality without sacrifice -- as opposed to frugality as sacrifice? Or as opposed to disguised unfrugality? I do not think the answer is so obvious. So here is how I see it.

In my view, practicing frugality without sacrifice is based on one key concept and one key question. The key concept is: to do instead... not do without. And the key question is: is it worth it to me... not can I afford it.

To do instead, NOT do without. I used to stream music on my PC using Sirius, which cost me $4 a month. Now I stream music using Pandora, which is free. I am doing instead, not doing without. I used to use a credit monitoring service that cost me $13 a month. Now I use Credit Karma and Credit Sesame, which are both free. I am doing instead, not doing without. I used to use Comcast cable to view television, which cost me $50 a month. Now I use a long-distance rooftop antenna and Netflix, which costs me $8 a month. I am doing instead, not doing without. My real life examples go on and on. The point is that I am practicing frugality without giving anything up -- without sacrifice.

Is it worth it to me, NOT can I afford it. I thoroughly enjoy chuck steak at $4 a pound or less. I can afford to buy ribeye at double the price. But any taste difference I might detect is not worth the extra cost to me. When I traveI, I am extremely comfortable staying at Best Western for around $75 a night. I can afford to stay at a Hilton for considerably more. But any extra amenities I might have available are not worth the extra cost to me. I drive a 1996 Dodge Dakota.*** I could afford to write a check for a new truck. But a new vehicle is absolutely not worth the extra cost to me. The point is that I am practicing frugality without feeling deprived or feeling that I am missing out -- without sacrifice.

I believe the bottom line question is whether one is happy with one's frugal spending choices -- or resentful of them. If one is happy with those choices, then one is practicing frugality without sacrifice. And, guess what. I am happy.

# # #

*My Financial Independence Key:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2013/12/17/my-financi...

**My $18K Annual Baseline Budget:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2013/12/29/my-18k-ann...

***My Oldie-Goldie Thrifty-Nifty Truck:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/03/25/my-oldie-g...

A Frugality-Without-Sacrifice $7500 Windfall

April 12th, 2014 at 11:03 am

I just received a letter from the manufacturer of my recently installed roof shingles. The shingle manufacturer is offering to send me a check for $7500 as "full release from any and all claims you have arising out of or in connection with the shingles." That is a $7500 refund on an $8000 roofing job! Is this money that I will have to use to have the roof redone because I went too cheap to begin with? Or is it a sumptuous windfall from my frugality-without-sacrifice* approach to personal finance? Here is the story so you can decide.

Last Fall, I applied my high-outlier-low-outlier approach to getting big job estimates to have my roof replaced.** I saved many thousands and still got a top quality job by a top quality installer using top quality shingles and carrying a full warranty on both the materials and the installation. At the end of the job, the installing company sent its inspector to check the results. He told us there could be a variation in the color of the shingles from what that color was supposed to be. I looked, but how would I tell if the nice color of the shingles was the nice color they were supposed to have? We agreed to have the manufacturer's inspector come take a look.

The manufacturer's inspector came, took photos and went. A short time later we received a letter from the manufacturer telling us that "the color problem you are experiencing will remedy itself after exposure to the elements... so please allow an additional 90 days for this process to take place... after which we will reinvestigate the matter."

Well, I guess they must have reinvestigated and found the color problem to still exist. And so I have that $7500 offer to settle my claim.

IF I had practiced frugality AS sacrifice, I would have looked for and settled for the cheapest roofing job I could get using the cheapest shingles I could find. But that is not what I did. I practiced frugality WITHOUT sacrifice* and looked for the lowest price I could get for a quality job from a quality installer using fully warrantable quality materials. And so, I have my top quality roofing job, shingles that are a bit off-color (to an expert) but still look nice, and an unexpected $7500 check on its way.

Is this dumb luck or the expectable reward from not being penny wise and pound foolish? You already know what I think.

# # #

*My Financial Independence Key:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2013/12/17/my-financi...

**Big Job Estimates Save Me Big Money:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/03/20/big-job-es...

New Or Not?

April 10th, 2014 at 12:32 am

The most compliments I ever got on a tie was on one I got at Goodwill. My most favorite armchair I found at a used furniture store. And in the late 1990s, my colleagues and clients practically drooled over my 15-year old Ford Thunderbird. Very, very often I have done just as well or better buying used instead of new. So when does it make sense to me to buy new? Here is when.

When time matters. It can take quite a while to find the right used item. In contrast, I can find a new item almost instantly googling online. So, if there isn't time -- or I do not want to make the time -- to search for used, I will go ahead and buy new.

Electronics. I do not trust used radios, computers, cameras, tvs and so on. Not unless they are so dirt cheap that I am prepared to just lose the purchase price. So if the used price is $30 or more, I buy new.

Items priced below $20. My time is worth at least $25 an hour to me. So at a $20 new item price point, searching for a cheaper used alternative is not worth it to me. My time is worth more to me that the amount I might save by searching.

Other than that, though, used items are fine with me. Used items can work just as well as new ones. They can look just as good as new ones. They can save me a lot of money that I can then put to good use on other things. And buying used helps me lead a comfortable life on a baseline budget of $18,000 a year*.

# # #

*My $18K Annual Baseline Budget:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2013/12/29/my-18k-ann...

Freezer Frugality

April 7th, 2014 at 11:08 am

I buy most of my food on sale. In fact, I will not buy meats, cheeses, breads, lunchmeats, spices or any frozen foods unless they are on sale. Yet at home I always have a full selection of all of those things to choose from. What makes that possible is that I have a freezer. Here is how that works for me.

My "frugality without sacrifice"* approach to food selection involves 2 steps. The first is to buy when meats, etc are on sale and to buy more than I need. If chicken thighs are 99 cents a pound, I will buy 5 or 6 pounds. If chuck steak is $2.50 a pound, I will buy 5 or 6 pounds. If name brand 100% whole wheat bread is $1.25 a loaf, I will buy 3 or 4. Whether I already have some in stock or not.

The second step is to be able to store what I do not need until I do need it. And that is where the freezer comes in. I have found that a properly double-bagged cut of meat can be kept frozen for a year or more without freezer burn and without affecting its taste. The same holds for all the other food items I store frozen. And that means that I can eat anything I want any time I want** without ever having to pay regular prices (except for fresh fruits and vegetables).

But there just is not enough space in my refrigerator's freezer compartment to do this. I need a separate freezer. And, believe me, the investment is worth it. For about $200, upright or locker-style freezers can be had at places like Lowes and Costco. Upright ones allow better access to and organization of the contents. Locker-style ones maximize how much can be stored in the space. Either way, a freezer is my key to eating as well as I want while still saving a ton of money on what I eat.

# # #

*My Financial Independence Key:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2013/12/17/my-financi...

**My $50-a-Week Food Expense:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/03/23/my-50-a-we...

My Better Way To Heat My House

April 6th, 2014 at 07:11 pm

Winter costs me money to heat my house. Over the last 14 years and at 3 different houses, I have heated my home using electric space heaters, a central electric heat pump, a whole house propane furnace, a wood fireplace, a whole house oil furnace and a fireplace propane gas log. The cost for these heat sources has varied widely. So has the hassle each entails. And here is what I have learned works best for me, in a 2-person house.

The first thing I have learned is not to heat the whole house all the time. I am talking about a 3-bedroom-plus-extra-room house where only 2 people live. Most of the time we are in the same room; at worst, we are in 2 separate rooms. Why be heating the rest of the house? We do not.

So I therefore learned early on that whole-house central heating systems are not for me, regardless of what fuel they burn. No electric heat pump, no oil furnace, no propane furnace. Zone heating is the way to go for me. In my last house, that meant space heaters available for use in each room. In my present house, it means the individually controlled baseboard heaters found in each room.

We still need a background heat source, though, for the main core of the house (living room, kitchen, dining room). For this purpose, I found the choice of electricity, propane or wood as a fuel source to matter quite a bit in terms of cost.

Least expensive, of course, is wood; but I have found the required constant tending of a wood fire (and mess) to be unacceptable to me. Electricity as a heat source is flat-out wasteful: the power company is burning a fuel to generate heat that is used to produce electricity, which then arrives at one's house so that it can be converted back to heat to warm the place up. Wasteful, wasteful! So I cut out the middleman by burning a fuel -- propane -- to directly heat the core of my house without any energy loss from conversion (electricity) or transmission from outside (electricity) or transfer from inside the house (all types of central heating).

That means that I had a gas log installed in my fireplace and had it connected to the exterior propane tanks already there to fuel my back-up generator. The gas log cost me $200 to buy and $200 to install. And it is AMAZING how much warmer the house core feels with the gas log set on "low" compared to what it felt like when we were using the central heat pump.

Finally, when it is time to go to bed, I turn off the gas log and keep the bedroom warm with one of those baseboard heaters I mentioned earlier. And I sleep great. It all gives me a contented feeling. As does the money I save by heating my house this way.

# # #



Repair It Or Replace It?

March 31st, 2014 at 07:40 pm

(I now blog weekly on frugal living, personal finance & earlier retirement at:
retiredtowin.com)




I think a lot of people have a "replace it" mentality that makes them jump into buying instead of fixing far too easily. And that -- particularly over the long run -- can cost one heck of a lot of money. Not me. I always try to repair first. And that saves me lots of money.

I am particularly mindblown whenever someone talks about running off to buy a new car because the one they have needs something like a new transmission. How does it make any sense to prefer spending thousands to replace one's vehicle instead of hundreds to repair it and get it running right again? Not me. I budget $1200 a year to keep my 1996 Dodge Dakota* running reliably. And I avoid the horrendous burden of buying a new(er) car**.

But my "repair first" mindset applies not just to big ticket items. It also works on small stuff; the stuff some people don't even think about before they run off to spend money buying new.

Is the heel of my shoe worn? I go to the cobbler, not the shoe store. Is the kitchen faucet leaking? I go to the hardware store's plumbing parts section, not the section where the new faucets are displayed. Is my computer getting cranky? I take it to the repair depot***, not to the dump on the way to the new computer store. And so on.

Being consistent about this helps me keep my basic living expenses below $15,000 a year****. And it leaves me much more money to either invest for the future or to spend on something really fun.

# # #


*My Frugal 1996 Dakota Keeps On Trucking:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/03/26/my-frugal-...

**My Oldie-Goldie Thrifty-Nifty Truck:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/03/25/my-oldie-g...

***A Frugal Tale of Two PCs:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/01/11/a-frugal-t...

****My $15K Annual Baseline Budget:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2013/12/29/my-18k-ann...

Index to All My Frugal Living Posts

March 27th, 2014 at 11:26 am

This index consists of a title link list to all my posts in this category. I will edit/update this post each time I publish a new post on a frugal living topic. And I will set/update the order of that list so that it has as much thematic continuity as possible, regardless of when each post was published.

I hope this makes it easy for visitors to my blog to browse and access all my posts in an organized manner.

Frugal Living Index
(Updated July 19, 2014)

Frugality As A Way Of Life:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/05/10/frugality-...

How I Do Frugality Without Sacrifice:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/04/12/how-i-do-f...

Having Frugal Fun My Way:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/07/19/having-fru...

Playing the Frugal Game is Fun!
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2013/12/14/playing-th...

My Oldie-Goldie Thrifty-Nifty Truck:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/03/25/my-oldie-g...

My Frugal 1996 Dakota Keeps On Trucking:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/03/26/my-frugal-...

My Better Way To Heat My House:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/04/06/my-better-...

Big Job Estimates Save Me Big Money:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/03/20/big-job-es...

A Frugality-Without-Sacrifice $7500 Windfall:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/04/12/a-frugalit...

Repair It or Replace It?:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/03/31/repair-it-...

New Or Not?:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/04/09/new-or-not...

My $50-a-Week Food Expense:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/03/23/my-50-a-we...

Freezer Frugality:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/04/07/freezer-fr...

The Frugal Game: Errand Bundling:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2013/12/26/the-frugal...

Raking In Credit Card Cashback:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/03/11/raking-in-...

Leveraging Up CashBack Rewards:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/03/18/leveraging...

Cashback Cards ARE Worth The Effort:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/06/04/cashback-c...

Free Gourmet Coffee Every Day:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/06/11/free-gourm...

Outsourcing A Move The Frugal Way:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/04/22/outsourcin...

Frugal Entertainment Boonies Style:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/04/15/frugal-ent...

Frugal Fun: Hiking Civil War Trails:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/04/16/frugal-fun...

Florida Snowbirding the Affordable Way:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/03/17/florida-sn...

A Frugal Tale of Two PCs:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/01/11/a-frugal-t...

A Frugal Tale of Two PCs (Part 2):
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/06/15/a-frugal-t...

Ditch Digging At 65-- Frugal or Cheap?:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/04/18/ditch-digg...

# # #

My Frugal 1996 Dakota Keeps On Trucking

March 26th, 2014 at 03:56 pm

I detailed the financial "secret weapon" power of my 1996 Dodge Dakota pickup truck in another post.* I explained how keeping it instead of buying a late-model vehicle every 5 years lowered my retirement "magic number" by $150,000. How its cheaper operating costs lowered that magic number by another $50,000. And how that moved up my financial freedom retirement date by more than SEVEN YEARS.
But is there a "dark side" to an older vehicle like this? Here is why I say "NO".

Some people think older vehicles have to be inefficient... unreliable... unsafe. But no; that does not apply to my truck.

My Dodge Dakota has never broken down on the road. Has never failed to start up. Has never had to be towed. NEVER. And that is 100% reliability. You cannot get any better. A newer, costlier vehicle could not be any more reliable. (And I can thank my by-the-book maintenance program* for that.)

In an accident, I would rather be in my pickup truck than in any car I can think of. Weight, height, bumper strength, material strength would all be in my favor. But the most important factor affecting my driving safety is my risk-averse driving. I do not exceed speed limits (much). I do not drive on ice, snowed-up roads, or in bad rainstorms. I do not have to, remember? I retired seven-plus years earlier than I otherwise could have thanks to my oldie-goldie, thrifty-nifty truck.*

I know someone is going to bring up comfort as a counter-argument to my vehicular frugality. But expense and extravagance are not necessary to attain comfort. I can drive for hours sitting in my Dodge Dakota car seat without stiffness or fatigue. I keep the heater and airconditioner in good repair so temperature control in the truck cab is just fine. And all the while I am driving I am listening to great classical music on a wonderful sound system that I bought on sale and had privately installed at a total cost under $200. So, no. Neither late model, leather, or over-the-top electronics are requirements for comfortable driving. At least not for me.

I do take a hit on fuel efficiency. I get 20 miles per gallon (mpg) and I drive 12,000 miles a year. That is 600 gallons and about $2100 annually . If I had a newer vehicle yielding 30 mpg, I would burn 200 gallons less and save $700 a year. Fair enough. Choosing to keep my 1996 Dodge Dakota means I have had to build up my savings by an extra $14,000 to cover the extra fuel expense. Overall, though, I am still $186,000 ahead on my financial independence magic number. I am still ahead over seven years. And based on a 30-year retirement, that has increased my post-retirement free years by a minimum 25%. All thanks to that little pickup truck.

But my Dakota experience is just one example of how the right vehicle can help set you financially free. If you need a vehicle that can carry a large family, there is a money-saving one for you. If you need a vehicle with cargo capacity, there is one for you. Even if you need a prestige vehicle for your sales/professional career, there is one for you. (I worked as a corporate sales manager in the 1990s, driving clients around in an impeccably maintained 1980 Ford Thunderbird and my clients LOVED it.) The point is: your vehicle is a choice that is either helping to make you financially free faster -- or it is a choice that is dragging you down and binding you to the working world longer and longer.

# # #

*My Oldie-Goldie Thrifty-Nifty Truck:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/03/25/my-oldie-g...

My Oldie-Goldie, Thrifty-Nifty Truck

March 25th, 2014 at 04:11 pm

I drive a 1996 Dodge Dakota pickup truck. It has over 130,000 miles on it. It runs just fine. It is safe, reliable and comfortable. And it is one of the "secret" weapons that sped up my arrival at financial independence. The big deal here is that years ago I consciously made the choice to treat my vehicle as a means of transportation -- and not as a status symbol. That decision lowered my financial independence "magic number" by $150,000 and cut 8 years off my working life. Here is what I mean.

A status symbol vehicle would easily cost me $500 a month in loan payments and depreciation. If I -- like so many others do -- chose to buy such a new vehicle every 5 years so I could maintain that status symbol impression, that $500 a month would become a permanent part of my baseline budget. And funding that hard-wired expense would require an extra $150,000 in retirement savings (based on an annual 4% safe withdrawal rate to generate the $6000 a year needed to cover those costs).

Not having to bank that extra $150,000 has allowed me to retire 6 years sooner. But the financial power of my secret weapon pickup truck does not end there. Operating my Dodge Dakota is thrifty-nifty too. And cut even more time off my working life.

I do not skimp on maintenance or repairs. My truck gets the full Jiffy-Lube treatment every 3000 miles. Every system is maintained according to manufacturer specs. And once a year, a state-mandated full vehicle inspection identifies and leads to the repair of anything that may need it. My cost for all that is $1200 a year. What would that cost be for a late-model status symbol vehicle? Twice that? More?

And let's not forget the cost of insuring a vehicle. The low $5000 or so replacement cost of my Dodge Dakota lowers my premium payments compared to a late-model vehicle.

If my 1996 Dodge Dakota is only saving me $2000 a year on maintenance and insurance, then that has resulted in another $50,000 I did not have to add to my stash before declaring financial independence. And that meant another 2 years I was able to cut off my working life.

Keeping my truck has given me 8 EXTRA YEARS of financially free life. And that is priceless.

# # #

(There are counterarguments, of course: fuel efficiency, safety and reliability. And we will examine all in an upcoming post.)

My $50-a-Week Food Expense

March 23rd, 2014 at 11:17 am

Buying whatever I wanted to buy, I spent $420 on groceries and other food items for the 2 months of January and February. That's an average of $50 per week for 8.4 weeks (59 days). And that's not as a food "budget", where I set out to limit my spending to $50 a week. No. That's $50 a week buying what I wanted and practicing what I call "frugality without sacrifice."*

I kept my costs down by stocking up on storable items when they went on sale, and staying flexible on my weekly choice of vegetables, fruits and other perishables. Since I only ate out 5 times during that two-month period, the $420 I spent paid for 172 meals plus a robust amount of snacking. Here are the details on how I eat on $50 a week.

My breakfasts consist of oatmeal with milk, strawberries and bananas. My lunches include a ham, turkey or salami and cheese sandwich, a pickle, some beer, and fresh apple. Between lunch and dinner, my snacks may be yogurt, apple and cheese, shredded wheat with milk, or toast with peanut butter.

My dinners are heavy on meat and vegetables, low on starches. Neither rice, pasta nor potatoes form part of my usual daily diet. Instead, on my dinner plate you will find either steak, pork chop, country rib, roast beef or chicken along with large helpings of 2 fresh steamed vegetables such as carrots, broccoli, cabbage or cauliflower. To this I add a large mixed salad and fruit for dessert.

After dinner, I will do more sporadic snacking on crackers with cream cheese, chocolate, or more fruit or yogurt. And I will indulge my extravagant coffee habit.

I am a Keurig K-cup coffee fanatic. My absolute favorite is Tully's French Roast, and I will go through 2 K-cups of that coffee each day. These normally cost 64 cents each in packs of 18. But I manage to get them at a hefty discount. By using store coupons and leveraged cashback redemptions**, I keep my cost down to 40 cents per K-cup. And I keep my food expense down to $50 a week without making any sacrifices on what I choose to eat.

# # #

*Playing the Frugal Game is Fun:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2013/12/14/playing-th...
**Leveraging Up Cashback Redemptions:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2014/03/18/leveraging...

Big Job Estimates Save Me Big Money

March 20th, 2014 at 11:17 am

A few months ago, I had to replace my roof. Some of the estimates I got went as high as $16,500. But by continuing to get estimates based on my "high-low outlier" approach, I was able to get an excellent job done -- with the same materials -- for $8000. Getting these estimates saved me up to $8500.

Getting estimates ALWAYS saves me money. It is critical to the wellbeing of my stash to invest time in getting estimates for major projects. Here is more.

Replacing my roof. Paving my long, long driveway. Installing my whole-house backup generator. Every one of these and many other major home and auto projects could have cost me umpteen thousands more dollars than they did. But they did not -- thanks to my disciplined insistence on getting competing estimates until I find what I call the "low cost outlier" provider.

A case in point is my recent roof replacement. I had to do it or my home insurance company was going to cancel my policy. But even under that kind of pressure, I kept getting estimate after estimate until I knew I had found that low cost outlier. And doing that saved me -- at the very least -- $2500 (and maybe as much as $8500)!

I only sought estimates from "name brand" national home improvement companies and from more local outfits with stellar records on Angie's List. The job quotes were all based on the same brand and type of roof shingle and the same installation process. An apples to apples comparison. And yet the estimates that came in were thousands of dollars apart.

The first 2 estimates were fairly close to each other: $10,500 and $11,300. Then the roofing company with the best record on Angie's List came in at $8000. That looked good. But how would I know that estimate was the low cost outlier deal to take? Answer: I had to keep getting estimates until I found the high cost outlier and could establish the price point around which average quotes clustered.

Sure enough, the next 2 estimates were higher by huge margins: $13,700 and an outrageous $16,500. So there was the high cost outlier answer, and a complete cost-range picture. I signed the $8000 proposal. And saved anywhere from $2500 to $8500, depending on which other quote you look at.

Some of you may be thinking about now: "Well, yeah... Duh!... Of course you get estimates for big jobs like that." I had the same thought and because of it almost did not write this post. But then I asked myself: if everyone gets estimates like I do, how are the high outlier cost companies staying in business? Some people -- maybe lots of people -- must be buying those $13,700 and $16,500 roofs because they assume all companies will charge about the same and therefore just sign a deal with the first outfit they call. So I am writing this post to make it ABSOLUTELY CLEAR that there's a better way that will save you huge amounts of money.

Like when I decided I would not live one more winter season with a 300-foot-long gravel driveway. The 5 estimates I got for asphalting the driveway ranged from $5200 to $12,000. My $5200 paved driveway worked just fine for years until I sold the house.

Like when I needed to get 3 huge trees trimmed and cut away from my house. The 4 estimates I got ranged from $950 to $2400. The arborist-led company with the $950 estimate got the job done right and with no problems.

(And so you can see just how unbelievably outrageous the difference in estimates can be, here is one more real-life example from my personal experience.)

Like when I bought a whole-house Generac back-up generator and needed it and its breaker panel installed. Every company I contacted for an estimate was specifically "approved" by the Generac people to install and work on their generators. Every company was going to have to "pull a permit" from the County and have its finished work pass a County inspection. Again, apples to apples. But my low cost and high cost outliers were worlds apart. Like $500 versus $5000. A ten-fold difference! My $500 installation job was done on time and passed inspection with flying colors. But some poor fool out there somewhere paid five thousand dollars for his installation.

It is great to be frugal on day-to-day expenses and I am. But it is critical to the wellbeing of your stash to invest your time in getting estimates for major projects until you find that low cost outlier that will still do a quality job. Those companies are out there and they can save you thousands!

# # #

Leveraging Up Cashback Rewards

March 18th, 2014 at 02:17 pm

I have written before about how I consistently earn 5% cashback rewards on gasoline, grocery, home improvement, restaurant and many other routine expenses by charging them to particular credit cards. But there is more. I have found 2 ways to boost my earned cashback reward by up to 50% at redemption time. Most recently, I have made redemptions that boosted my earned cashback percentage to 6.25% and 7.5%. Here is how.

I just redeemed 20 DiscoverCard cashback dollars for a $25 Bed Bath and Beyond gift card. That is a 25% redemption bonus. Not too long ago, I redeemed 40 DiscoverCard cashback dollars for an $80 Enterprise Rent-A-Car certificate. That is a 50% redemption bonus.

I have learned to never redeem DiscoverCard cashback rewards for straight cash. Instead, I leverage my redemption by obtaining gift cards or vouchers from over a hundred participating companies offering juicy redemption bonuses like the ones I just mentioned. With a hundred-plus outfits to choose from on the Discover redemption website, I always find a useful way to redeem with leverage.

But it is just the opposite when it is time for me to redeem my BankAmerica cashback rewards. Because I have a BankAmerica checking account, anytime I have accrued 20 or more BankAmerica cashback dollars, they can go straight into that checking account. With a 50% bonus on the deposit. I have done it over and over.

I just did it again, turning another 20 BankAmerica cashback dollars into a $30 deposit into my checking account. And isn't that nice?!

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Raking In Credit Card Cashback

March 11th, 2014 at 04:22 pm

For January and February, I've earned $63 in credit card cashback. The $63 came from getting 5% on groceries, 5% on gas, 5% on restaurants and 1.5% on motels and sundries. Using a different card for each spending category allowed me to max out my earned cashback. If I keep this up the rest of the year, I'll receive almost $400 in 2014 cashback just on ordinary expenses. Here's how I'll do it.

The standard credit card cashback is 1%. But most cards do promotions each quarter that yield 5% cashback on specific spending categories. I take advantage of those promotions and carry those cards. So, for the first 3 months of 2014, I'm carrying a Citicard for 5% on groceries, a Chasecard for 5% on gasoline, a DiscoverCard for 5% on restaurants, and a Bankamericard for 3% at Walmart and 1% on everything else. Come April, the promotions will change and so will the credit cards in my wallet.

Knowing what each card's promotions are is not hard. Most card companies send me emails telling me. In March, I'll do a sweep of all my credit card websites to enroll in the promotions. Then I'll put the corresponding cards in my wallet, along with a note to remind me of which card offers what. And I'll be set to go on raking big cashback on everything I buy.

And I do mean everything. Last year, I put a $9000 roofing job on my DiscoverCard and got $112 in cashback for it. If it's chargeable, I keep my cash in my pocket and make sure I charge it.* Taking all my spending into account, this should earn me well over $500 in cashback this year. And there's a lot I can do with an extra $500!

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* (When the credit card statements come I make sure I pay them off. No interest charges for me!)

A Frugal Tale of Two PCs

January 11th, 2014 at 10:56 pm

Not too long ago, while in the middle of doing some web-based stock research, my Dell desktop PC's monitor screen went black. Nothing would bring back an image. Hard shut-offs and new starts didn't help any. And then the PC started to just shut down if I even touched any key on the keyboard.

Uh, Oh, I thought. I have to buy a new computer. But I needed web access right then. So I dug out of storage a 2005 Gateway laptop I had not even started up for 2 years and gave it a try. And it worked, up to a point. Some web pages it loaded very slowly. Some it could not load at all. I made do. And thought to myself: I still need to buy a new computer.

So I fell in love with a new Gateway laptop: well equipped with a 2.2 GHz processor, 4 gigabytes of RAM, 500 GB of storage memory plus lots of bells and whistles. It would cost me around $350 including sales tax. That did not sound bad at all. I certainly could afford it.

Then I thought of all the data files trapped in my presumably dead Dell desktop PC. I had to see if I could recover that data. And that thought eventually led me to ending up with 2 fully functional computers for a fraction of what I would have paid for that lovely new Gateway laptop.

The Desktop PC Gets Saved
I phoned my local Staples Tech Center and found out that for $69 I could have my desktop Dell diagnosed to find out what was wrong with it. Then, if I wanted to proceed with the repair, the $69 would be applied to that repair. If I decided not to get that PC fixed, I could apply the $69 to a retrieval of my trapped data. That sounded OK, so I gave the Staples tech the go-ahead.

A day later, I got a good news / bad news phone call from the tech. Bad news: I had a fried video card. Good news: the fried card was an add-on "upgrade" and the desktop Dell still had its functioning original built-in video card. With a couple of mouse clicks, the tech could bypass the fried video card and have the Dell work off the operational original card. No hardware repair would be needed! And no data retrieval would be needed, either, since the Dell would be functional again.

Great news. But could I have the $69 diagnostic fee applied to another service? The answer was "probably" yes. So I went back to the Staples Tech Center with a 1000 Gigabyte hard drive and a set of Windows 7 system discs, both of which I had bought years earlier but not installed. Would the $69 cover installing both? Yes! So, for $69 out of pocket, I ended up with a re-functionalized desktop PC sporting 10 times its previous storage memory and an upgraded operating system.

The Laptop Gets Upgraded
When I went to pick up my rejuvenated desktop Dell, I brought along my 2005 slower-than-molasses laptop (the one I had dug out of storage when this saga began). Could it get a new lease on life at a reasonable cost? Yes, again!

This laptop had a fast-enough 1.4 GHz Intel processor. It just did not have enough RAM installed to handle today's web pages and programs. An upgrade from its current skimpy 500 megabytes of RAM to a maxed out and respectable 2 gigabytes of RAM cost me a grand total of $43 -- installed.

So I was good to go -- with a reactivated desktop PC and an upgraded laptop for a combined total cost of $113. I saved 2 pieces of still-serviceable equipment from the trash/Goodwill/dead storage heap. I avoided the purchase of yet one more electronic gadget. And I saved $234 in the process.

And I Learned Valuable Lessons
Finally, I learned something more about living frugally without sacrifice. I should not be too quick to discard and replace. First, I should try to repair. Second, I should look for a substitute item among the things I already own. Third, if replacement is unavoidable, look first in Craig List (something I did not even think of doing). This time, following these steps saved me over $200. Next time, they might save me much more.

What about you? Do you try to repair before replacing? Have you got a story about a change of approach from replacing to "enabling" that saved you dough? Have you recently resisted the siren call of a new shiny gizmo to spend your hard earned bucks on?

The Frugal Game: Errand Bundling

December 26th, 2013 at 06:59 pm

Mister Money Mustache has talked in several of his blog posts about the incessant one-stop errand running many of his neighbors seem to do. An early morning run for milk. A midday trip to the post office. Maybe even a late night drive to drop off an overdue rental DVD. I think that is nuts. Two or three errand runs a day is to me absolutely nuts. Even 2 or 3 errand runs a week seem to me a wasteful and unnecessary expenditure of my gas money and my time.

I am a fervent advocate of errand bundling. In my case, I group my errands up so that I can do them all in just one car trip a week. (Because I am retired, I also have the luxury of doing that trip on a midweek day, when store traffic is at its lowest.)

With my list of errands and things to do in hand, I do one loop trip, doing convenient target stops on the leg out to my most distant destination, and then knocking off any necessary side trips on the leg back. Keeping my errands limited to that one weekly trip saves me money on gasoline and vehicle wear and tear. And, just as importantly, saves me time and avoids the chopping up of too many of my days.

But what if I run out of something I need right at the time, you might ask. Well, my answer is that I don't run out. My "secret weapon" there is to always have backup supplies. A second printer ink cartridge... an unopened pack of paper towels... a backup box of cat litter. You get the idea.

What about perishables? The answer there is that I stock suitable substitutes. Cans of evaporated milk to back up the fresh milk. Cans of V8 juice to back up the fresh grapefruit juice. Cans of vegetables to back up the fresh ones. And so on. This way, I never run out of anything. "Emergency" errands are nonexistent for me.

The big deal, the real benefit of my errand bundling is more my savings of time rather than money (though there's that, too). I don't have my days interrupted by silly one-stop trips to get this or that. I can stay focused on my plan for the day. And my free time does not get broken up or nickeled-and-dimed away by needless errand running.

I save some money, too. Every drive into town I don't take saves me $6 in car gas and wear-and-tear. So, if my errand bundling is eliminating just 2 car trips a week, it's saving me $12 a week. That's $600 for the year. That may not sound like much. Yet it's more than enough to pay for 5 or 6 of my two-day Civil War hiking trips... or 15 dinners out with my wife... or 1 or 2 (or even 3!) nice new little tools or gadgets I decide I can't live without.

Errand bundling helps me stay in control of my precious time and lets me live just a little itty bit better. And to me, that's one more retirement win.

Do you errand bundle? Or are you constantly running off to go here and there like a crazy chicken?

Playing the Frugal Game is Fun!

December 15th, 2013 at 12:30 am

A couple of days ago, I was about two thirds through my errands run when I realized I was really enjoying myself. What's this, I said to myself. How can I be having such fun just buying groceries or picking up a ream of copy paper? And then it came to me. I was playing the Frugal Game, I was scoring point after point, and I was really feeling good about it.

Yes. Practicing no-sacrifice frugality puts me more in control. Helps me come out ahead. Gets me in a winning mood. And who isn't going to feel good about all of that?

Too often, when frugality is discussed it is on the assumption that by being frugal one is giving something up. Doing without. Sacrificing one's todays for the sake of one's tomorrows. But that definitely is not how I experience frugality. To me, it is -- literally -- a fun game.

On that errands day earlier this week, I went to the office supply store for some copy paper. Shelf price: $5.79 a ream. But I had gone online for a rebate coupon and I had a credit for bringing in a spent ink cartridge. My price net: $2.00 a ream for 2 reams. Score! And I got even better quality paper than usual, so I definitely gave nothing up.

Next stop, the grocery store. I had room in my refrigerator freezer for more meats and a $5 off coupon in my pocket that I could use if I spent $25. Hey, perfect combination! Ten minutes later, I was walking out with packages of country ribs, steak and chicken -- and a savings of not just $5 but over $15 thanks to my selections. Score! And I certainly won't be giving up good eating either.

(I almost danced a little jig in the parking lot with that one!)

To play the Frugal Game successfully, I find that I have to plan my spending ahead of time. Otherwise, I would not have had those coupons, would I have? Hunting for and finding the deal is definitely part of the fun of the Game.

Last week, I went on a little camping road trip. I planned ahead by making sure I had both my National Parks and Virginia Parks lifetime passes in my wallet. In just 2 days I saved $15 on vehicle admission to the Skyline Drive, $8 on camping in the Jefferson National Forest and $4 on admission to 2 Virginia state parks. Score, score, score! And I got all the same benefits I would have had without the savings.

On that trip, my endpoint destination was Natural Bridge (and Caverns), which sports a hefty $29 admission. But I scouted it ahead on the web and saved myself $6 by pre-buying the ticket. Score! And I gave nothing up on that one either.

I like playing the Frugal Game at home just as well. That's where some people are more likely to think that one has to give comfort up to play the game. But... not so much.

Every day, one of the first things I do on getting out of bed is to turn on my classical music internet radio station. That used to be Sirius, for which I paid a fee every month. But now it's Pandora, which is free. And you know what? With Pandora, I have been able to customize my listening experience so that "my" classical radio station only plays musical compositions I really like! Score on the savings and I improved my listening experience. And I get to start every day with that little win. How cool is that?

Another thing I do every day at home is to use electricity. But I now play the Frugal Game to win by not misusing and wasting electricity. I just got my bill for last month; $48.31 for 425 kWh. A year ago, my bill for the same month was $125.83 for 1107 kWh. Big score! (And another little jig.)

What in heaven's name have I given up by playing the electricity Frugal Game? I have lights on whenever and wherever I need them. I don't limit my computer or television time in any way. I don't keep myself from turning on ceiling fans if it gets warm or a heater if it gets chilly. I have NO idea what I have given up -- if anything -- except maybe the wasteful privileges of walking out of rooms (or the house itself) and leaving lights and electronics on willy nilly... or letting a near-empty freezer just keep churning away 24/7... or being so lazy that I would not take the time to switch out my inefficient incandescent light bulbs?

The bottom line is that my whole daily life is like this now. I am playing an ongoing Frugal Game that keeps rewarding me with little "happy jolts" practically every time I open a bill or whip out a credit card. And it's fun.

Maybe it's that it doesn't take much to make me happy. Or that I have a very strong Scrooge gene in my DNA. Or maybe -- just maybe -- it's that playing the Frugal Game puts me in touch with how much I am in financial control of my life. And that, as they say, is priceless.

How about you? Do you get the same kick out of playing the Frugal Game? Tell us how!