Don’t Feed the Alligators

A Personal Finance Blog from a Small-Scale Landlord’s Perspective

Archive for November, 2008


Val photo figure credit: ScrapperMom

Yesterday evening, ScrapperMom and I had to let our first “baby” Val pass on to Doggie Heaven.  Valkyrie was an 8 year old Great Dane that we bought together shortly before we were married.  We loved taking Val to the dog parks in the Seattle area when she was a puppy.  Later, Val got a tour of the country, visiting Yellowstone, the Badlands,  Mount Rushmore, and Madison, Wisconsin among other great destinations while moving back east.

Val took training classes off and on, and eventually earned her Canine Good Citizen award. She loved going for rides in the car and taking walks in all kinds of parks.  When we bought a house we added another puppy to the mix.  Orion and Val eventually became good buddies.  Val loved to go under stuff, and tables were her favorite.  She also loved laying in the sun, and would follow it as it moved across the floor or the yard.  She was universally described as “sweet” and loved having company.

When she was just 3, Val was tentatively diagnosed with Wobbler’s Disease, which is a degenerative instability of the cervical (neck) vertebrae.  The disease started out with Val dragging her rear foot on the ground while walking, and over the next 5 years progressed to the point where she could no longer stand up.  When she did stand up, she often fell.

Yesterday was a day that I dreaded since the day we first considered buying a dog — we knew inevitably that we would lose her someday.  However, the decision we made in the presence of our vet yesterday was an easy one to make.  Val was clearly in pain most of the time, having taken a turn for the worst this past weekend, and really had no quality of life left.  There were no wags left in her tail.

We will miss her dearly, and hope that she has found green fields for running and beds of clouds for sleeping in Doggie Heaven.  We desperately hope to meet her again when our own turns come.  We love you, Val, you were a good dog.  Goodbye.

Here are the lyrics to a song that sort of captures my feelings.  And please visit:

Val — A Life in Photos

OLD BLACK CAT by Ian Anderson

My old black cat passed away this morning
He never knew what a hard day was.
Woke up late and danced on tin roofs.
If questioned “Why?” answered, “Just because.”

He never spoke much, preferring silence:
Eight lost lives was all he had.
Occasionally sneaked some Sunday dinner.
He wasn’t good and he wasn’t bad.

My old black cat wasn’t much of a looker.
You could pass him by ? just a quiet shadow.
Got pushed around by all the other little guys.
Didn’t seem to mind much ? just the way life goes.

Padded about in furry slippers.
Didn’t make any special friends.
He played it cool with wide-eyed innocence,
Receiving gladly what the good Lord sends.

Forgot to give his Christmas present.
Black cat collar, nice and new.
Thought he’d make it through to New Year.
I guess this song will have to do.

My old black cat…
Old black cat…

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fall scene

Creative Commons License photo figure credit: controltheweb

We had a slight altercation this week with the neighbors. As I sat to eat breakfast I looked out to the sound of leaf blowing. I was somewhat astonished that my neighbor (a renter of the house next door) was blowing the leaves from his side yard into my driveway. Now I may have not noticed this new pile of leaves if not for the fact that we had cleaned up the whole back, side yard and driveway over the weekend and had filled about 15 leaf bags. Trusting in the decency of humanity I made the assumption that he was putting the leaves there for ease of picking them up after he was finished. Plus with a toddler covered in syrup I was in no position to run out and approach him about the situation and what his plans were.

Fast forward a few days. The leaves sit where they were blown, in our driveway. The landlord for the property is parked in the driveway. I run out to have a word with him. I calmly explain that his tenant had blown leaves into our driveway and I did not appreciate that since I had already cleaned all my leaves and the leaves in his side yard were his responsibility. He proceeded to tell me (remember I am 8 months pregnant) that they were my leaves because they fell off my tree and it was only fair that I picked them up. He also told me that he is a very busy man (aren’t we all) and didn’t have time for fall maintenance. I told him it is not my fault that leaves from a tree in my yard fall into his yard. Unfortunately that is how leaves work. My mother-in-law knows this all too well. The winds are never kind to her and leaves often end up piling up in her yard regardless of where they fell from.

I thought this whole conversation was mind boggling and was at a total loss for words. He even offered me some leaf bags so that I could pick them up myself. How nice…

Of course MITBeta was not very happy with this outcome and being the diplomat that he is went back out to have a word with our neighbor’s landlord.  As I watched from the window I saw them chatting for a while and then I noticed them picking up the leaves together. It took them about 10 minutes total and MITBeta reported back to me that the landlord had apologized to me for our earlier conversation.

What do you readers think? We feel that raking leaves is an unfortunate but necessary evil of having glorious shade. It’s Murphy’s Law that he who has no trees will have all the leaves blow into his yard. But I’m pretty sure the leaf code suggests that I do not need to go get those leaves from my neighbor’s yard. We like trees and will suffer with fall clean-up because we are too frugal to pay someone to do it for us, whether I’m pregnant or not. How about you? Do you loathe raking? If you own properties, do you use a landscaping company to clean your properties?

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Creative Commons License photo figure credit: cinz

We have a 10+ year old stereo receiver that I paid $1500 when I was a senior in college (and in all likelyhood paid several hundred more in interest in the years that followed).  The motor that controls the volume knob on the stereo when you use the remote control has been on the fritz for over 4 years.  Now, whenever the remote doesn’t work, I walk over and rap hard on the volume knob until the motor starts working again.

We have a universal remote control that has truly lived up to its name: Harmony.  Logitech makes a line of these remotes that allow not only my wife, but also anyone who visits our house the ability to turn the TV, stereo, DVD, VCR, Tivo, etc. on, off, change the channels, fast forward, etc., with little to no coaching in a very intuitive way.  It even has a help button on it that gets things back on track if necessary.  Over the last year or so some of the buttons have stopped working.  As a stopgap measure I was able to reprogram some of the lesser used buttons to take over for some of the failing ones.

As I look around our house, I see many items that we purchased when we made more money and had less expenses, items that put us in debt, or items whose purchase kept us from getting out of debt: laptops, a big screen TV, stereo, fancy universal remote control, espresso machine, air purifiers, exercise equipment, etc., etc.

Some of these purchases are doing nothing but collecting dust, and that’s okay.  We’re older, we’re wiser.

Others, however, are essential, daily use items.  The stereo and the remote are two examples, as is the TV.  Someday these things are going to wear out, die, or otherwise stop working and require replacement.  What I struggle with now is the question of what to replace these luxuries with.  We have gotten used to having some expensive things, many of which we could not afford when we bought them — but now having done so, paid off the debt, and gotten on with life, find many of these items to be indispensable.  When these items do inevitably die, do we “deserve” to replace them with like items?  Do we need another 43″ TV?  $1500 stereo? $600 coffee maker?

Luckily for us, the nature of technology has made it such that we can buy replacements for many of these items that are many times better than what we’ve got now, and are also several times cheaper.  An eight year old 43″ rear projection TV can be put to shame by a 40″ flat panel display for less than half the price paid for the original TV.  A similar cost reduction and improvement can be found in the stereo market.

Yet despite the ability to replace many of these items with lower cost, higher quality products today, there is still the nag that I feel every time I start to spec out something like this.  I always start to need this feature or that feature that I don’t have today, but can’t possibly imagine living without for the next 10 years.  The truth is that many of the features that I overpaid for on these current items I don’t even use: 800 lines of resolution on my standard definition TV (nobody can even tell me how to take advantage of this…), 7 channel, multi-room capability on the “flagship” receiver, etc.

Additionally, the cost bar has already been set high by these initial purchases, and since we’re in a better financial situation now than we were 5 or 10 years ago, the rationalization starts to creep in: Go ahead, by another $1500 receiver — you’re going to use it every day, you’re going to keep it for 10 years, it’s going to sound so much better than the $750 one — in fact, spend a little more this time since you’re so much better off.

And herein lies the difficulty with keeping our financial house in order: we’re human and we have wants, dreams, desires, etc.  It’s not easy to deny oneself the things one “deserves”.  Many people have estimated what percentage of personal finance is math and what percent is psychology.  All seem to agree that the former is low and the latter is high.

All of this is not to say that if we have the money to do so (which we don’t at the moment), and that we’re meeting or exceeding all of our other personal finance goals, that we should not buy whatever we want.  We most definitely should.  But that still doesn’t mean that we should not approach the replacement of items like this with frugality in mind.  We’re still going to end up with products that are better by our standards than the items that need replacing, but avoiding lifestyle inflation will keep more of our hard earned money in our pockets and working even harder for us on our other financial goals. I hope that when the time comes we’ll have the discipline we need to remember this.

Have you ever been faced with replacing an item that you couldn’t afford the first time? How do you avoid the urge to buy more features than you really need?

Rainy Window

Creative Commons License photo figure credit: Nictalopen

Having just settled in to the reality of ScrapperMom’s layoff, we learned this week that our tenant for the last year will not be renewing his lease.  Assuming that ScrapperMom gets no new work and that it takes us at least a month to rent the apartment, this leaves us with 38% less income in December than in November.  The only thing keeping us even next month will be the raise that I got last month.  This means that all of our savings and discretionary spending has gone to zero in the upcoming budget month.

Thankfully, we have planned well, and have an emergency fund that can get us by for quite a long time under the present circumstances.  Having just received that raise, there is no reason to expect that my job is not secure for some time to come.  Though with a paying down low interest debt in favor of boosting our savings and emergency fund.  We are still overpaying a couple of our loan accounts, and while it’s not by much, I may still have to bring these down to the minimum payment until our income rises again.

  • I’m glad that I have resisted the urge to invest given the down market.  While a great long term opportunity, this would have tied up cash that we may need to have available in a long term investment.
  • I wish that we had made it a priority to increase our savings sooner, despite the fact that we still have some debt.  This would have given us more confidence and breathing room in the current economy to know that we can weather the storm.
  • I wish that we had not bought an alligator.  We’re now feeling more stuck than ever, and I’m amazed out how quickly our fortunes have turned.
  • We’re not ruined yet, so we’re going to be looking for new ways to trim our expenses.  Many of our recurring expenses, like our Netflix or DirecTV plans can be trimmed by $5 or $10 per month.  Two months ago I would not have thought that this would make much difference, but now that every dollar matters so much more it may be worth doing.  On the flip side, we’ll be looking to stir up new business in the form of a new tenant, as well as looking for ways for ScrapperMom to bring in some new engineering work, or perhaps investigate some new opportunities.

    Have you or your families been affected by the economic downturn?  Do you have any ideas for us to trim our expenses or boost our income?  Let us know what you think in the Comments Section below!


    Creative Commons License photo figure credit: michaelrjohnson

    I do a fair amount of traveling for work using my own vehicle. Whenever I do, my company reimburses me on a per mileage basis. I have the option to enter my actual costs, but since these are generally much harder to figure out, I tend to use the per mile option. The IRS periodically updates the Standard Mileage Rate, which is the rate recommended for businesses and business deductions.  This rate goes up and down, and is presently at 58.5 cents per mile.

    This rate is meant to cover the total cost of the use of a vehicle: fuel, wear and tear, periodic maintenance, etc.  Something that has never quite sat well with me, however, is how to use this reimbursement for anything other than the cost of fuel.  By my calculations, it only costs me about 6.1 cents per mile in actual fuel costs, less than 1 cent per mile for oil and tires combined.  So what is the other 50 cents per mile to be used for?  I suppose that some portion of it should go towards insurance, and maybe even the cost of the car.

    Up until now, however, I have been failing to allocate any of that extra 50 cents to anything in particular.  It doesn’t show up as a budget item, and therefore simply ends up in our general slush fund.  Since this is extra money and we won’t miss it from our budget, it occurs to me that I should be using it for something vehicle related.

    The two most obvious choices for this extra money are 1. making extra payments on our existing car loan, and 2. adding to a future vehicle fund.  I’m inclined to opt for option #2 since it adds to our overall savings and does not tie up cash in a low interest loan.  This is especially important in the current economy where anything can happen at any time, and with ScrapperMom out of work.

    Do you travel for work and collect mileage reimbursements?  How do you allocate the “wear and tear” portion of the mileage benefit?