Don’t Feed the Alligators

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

Archive for the 'Credit Cards' Category

Bizarre

Creative Commons License photo figure credit: Kecko

Over the last several weeks we’ve put a lot of mileage on our rewards credit card. We’ve been stocking up on gift cards from our local grocery store due to the fabulous deal that they offered during tax season.  The use of our rewards card here sweetened the deal even more, since we get 5% cash back on grocery purchases, and the purchase of gift cards counts as groceries.  Unfortunately, the credit limit on this card was not high enough for us to be able to put all of the cards that we wanted to buy on it in one cycle, so I made two mid-month payments to ensure that we could receive all of the rewards we had coming.

Because of a too strange to explain here situation, we actually charged $3,000 online and decided to cancel the order before it shipped.  The merchant was great about the order cancellation, and we had no problem with this.  I noticed on the credit card website, however, that our available balance went down significantly.  I know how credit card transactions work, so I assumed that our card was authorized for the big purchase, which reserves the money on our card for some period of time, but the charge was never completed.

A few days went by and our balance was down to less than $100.  My experience was that authorizations only last for a couple of days at best.  I waited another two days, but there was no change in the available balance.  I sent an email to the credit card company’s customer service department inquiring about why the available balance was so low.  Here is the response that I got:

“Upon review of your account, the reason you are showing only $79.00 in available line of credit because you utilized your entire line of credit during this billing period in the amount of $XXXX.xx. According to the terms of [credit card company] Revolving Card accounts, you may utilize your entire assigned Line of Credit one time within a billing period. Even though you are making payments within the billing period, your available line of credit will not be reset until the next statement closing date on 04/30/09.”

So basically the credit card company was saying that the credit limit applies not to my balance but rather to how much I charge in total in a cycle.  I thought this response was strange for a number of reasons.  The first of which was that I had never heard of such a thing.  The second was that the amount I had charged was already greater than 125% of my credit limit.  I didn’t happen to have the terms of my account handy, so I took the company at its word and chalked this up as a way for the company to limit the amount of rewards they have to pay out each month.

Imagine my surprise when a day later our available balance suddenly increased by exactly $3,000.  It seems to me that there are only two explanations for this: the first is that the credit card company took pity on our plight and gave us a break on the terms, in the amount EXACTLY equal to the purchase that we made and then cancelled.  The second is that the authorization for the purchase finally rolled off the books.  I’m going to assume it was the second, but I haven’t contacted the card issuer to confirm.

What intrigues me the most about the whole situation is why the credit card issuer answered the way it did.  Either the terms cited are true but not observed, or they are not true and the customer service representative flat out lied.  If the latter is true, why?  Was it so hard to actually look at our account and see that there was an outstanding authorization that was limiting out credit line?  I’m just baffled by the response on this one, and if the rewards program wasn’t so darned good I might consider at least calling them on this or even finding a new card to use.  As it is, there’s been no harm, so no foul either.

Have you ever had a bank or credit card company do something bizarre like this?

03.22.2009
Money

Creative Commons License photo figure credit: borman818

I have just about wrapped up our tax return for 2008 and it looks like we’re getting a pretty sizable refund. This poses two questions: What should we do with the refund?

and

Should we change our withholding to avoid getting such a large return next year?

This post is about the first question, and the second will be covered in Part II.

ScrapperMom and I talked for a while about what to do with the refund. Given the current economic climate and the fact that our emergency fund only has about 3 months worth of expenses in it, we considered simply saving the money. It would add about another 1.5 months to our e-fund. This would give us some extra security, but would not help us to reduce our monthly obligations at all.

The other option is to use the refund to pay down some of our other debts. We’ve got a mortgage, car loan, and low interest, fixed rate credit card. Throwing it at the mortgage would be decidedly unsatisfying for two reasons: one is that it represents about 1.5% of our balance, so I’m not sure it would even qualify as a dent. The other is that it locks up our cash, at least until we sell our house — and we have no short term plans to do that. The credit card debt is the result of a renovation that we made to our rental property, and represents a deductible business expense. The tax refund will pay about 2/3 of this debt. With the low interest rate and the tax-deductibility making the effective rate even lower, low monthly payments, and the inability of this payment to provide relief from our monthly minimum obligation, this is also an unattractive option.

The last option is the car loan, which has about the same balance as the credit card. This loan is through our credit union. We bought our van a few years back and stretched a bit for it. We did save a lot of money by buying lightly used, but we took a 6 year loan on it to keep the payments manageable. Since then we have been pre-paying by about 10% each payment, as well as throwing some extra money at it here and there. So far we have shaved over a year off the loan. An interesting thing about this loan that I have not noticed on other loans is that as we pre-pay, our next payment due date keeps getting pushed out. So according to our latest statement, our next payment isn’t due until next year. The nice thing about this is that if we find ourselves in a position where we can’t make the minimum payment on this loan, we can skip it for quite a while by pre-paying now. The same is not true for the mortgage or credit card: if we pre-pay, we’re still obligated to make the minimum payment EVERY month.

ScrapperMom and I have decided, therefore, that the best option for the bulk of our refund is to pay down our car loan. This will cut another year off of our loan, reduce the number of payments left at our present paydown rate to just over 6, and still preserve the security of knowing that, if we lose some or all of our income, the obligation to pay this loan is pushed back far enough to help keep us solvent while we find ways to replace that lost income.

What do you think? Is this the best of both worlds? Are you getting a refund? How will you spend or save your refund? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

Holiday

Creative Commons License photo figure credit: muha…

Happy New Year to all!  As we close the chapter on one year and move on to a new one, I find this to be an excellent time to reflect on the state of life in general, and for the purposes of this blog, Personal Finance.  If you’re a regular reader of this blog you will know that I am a big fan of automating personal finance:

  • Our cash back credit cards get billed directly to our bill-pay account at our bank and the bank automatically pays the full balance every month.
  • ING and Vanguard both automatically withdraw pre-set amounts from our checking account monthly to cover various savings goals like increasing the size of our emergency fund, Roth IRA contributions, savings to cover annual payment to insurance, etc.
  • Bill-pay automatically pays all of our fixed monthly expenses like our mortgage, student loans, car loans, etc.

The only things that we ever have to really worry about paying on time are utility bills, gas and electric.

Given this level of automation, it’s easy to neglect our finances.  They’re not really neglected, but they’re not always getting the attention that they may deserve.  Sometimes we’re saving too much or too little.  Sometimes we’re spending more than we should and don’t realize it.  Sometimes we need to shift saving priorities because goals have been met or circumstances have changed.

I’m apparently such a work-a-holic that I had to take the last several days of the year off in order to burn, rather than lose, vacation time.  I spent the better part of one day and small parts of others catching up on our finances — a Personal Finance Holiday of sorts.  I’m not by far the first person to propose such a concept, and I’ve thought about taking a Personal Finance Holiday for a long time, but didn’t think that I had enough personal finance “stuff” to do to fill up a whole day.  Well, after neglecting to even open Quicken since mid-October, it turns out I did have a whole day of catching up to do.

Usually a Personal Finance Holiday is used to get going on all of the little things that you’ve been meaning to do, but haven’t found the time for (you have been meaning to do these things, haven’t you?):

  • creating a Spending Plan
  • opening a new Savings Account
  • starting an IRA savings account
  • buying life and disability insurance
  • opening a 529 account for your child(ren)
  • writing down or benchmarking your Personal Finance goals

Reading any of the myriad of Personal Finance books available can leave one overwhelmed by the number of things that you realize that you should be doing with your finances.  Taking a PF Holiday gives you the perfect opportunity to sit down and bang all of these items out in one shot.  It also gives you time when you would otherwise be unavailable to do all of the little things that might distract you from actually getting this stuff done, without feeling guilty about it: Can’t do it on Saturday because you have to spend time with the kids; Can’t do it on a holiday because you have to spend time with grandma; Can’t do it on a vacation day because you have to run all those other errands that you’ve been neglecting; Can’t do it on a sick day because, well, you’re sick (right?).

Maybe you’re thinking that you can’t possibly take a PF Holiday because you don’t have any vacation time.  Well, take it unpaid.  That’s right, it might not sound very frugal or financially prudent to do so, but let’s look at what a PF Holiday is worth:

  • If you use your PF Holiday to open an IRA and put just $100 per month into it, you’ll have $1,227 in one year at a modest 5% average return, and $15,528 in 10 years.
  • If you setup a disability insurance policy, you and your family will likely be able to maintain your standard of living should you become disabled.  If you can’t work for 10 years, this might be worth a quarter of a million dollars
  • If you set up an emergency fund, and use this fund instead of a credit card when a true emergency rolls around, you might save $1,400 in interest on that credit card.

If the average person makes $40,000/year or about $20/hour, then the cost of a PF Holiday on unpaid time is just $320.  It’s actually even lower than that since you won’t have to pay taxes on money that you don’t make (or conversely, if you had worked the 8 hours you would have brought home closer to $250).  So a small $250 investment could be worth tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars over the next decade, and even more beyond that — perhaps even enough to vacation at the beautiful looking spot in the photo above!

In our case, we already have most of our Personal Finance stuff under control, or so we’d like to think, so the PF Holiday was used to catch up on what’s been going on, make sure that everything is going the way it should be.  It was also used to tweak and steer the various Personal Finance vehicles toward their respective goals.

Have you ever taken a Personal Finance Holiday?  Do you need to take a Personal Finance Holiday?  Do you have any new or redoubled goals for 2009?  Let’s hear about your experience in the Comments Section below!

If you liked this article, you may be interested in seeing some related articles:


Lunch

Creative Commons License photo figure credit: kevincole

The last several weeks have been tough and/or busy for us in several ways: the passing of our dog, Thanksgiving, a 4 day business trip combined with ongoing busyness at the office, the hustle and bustle of preparing for Christmas, and — as if that wasn’t enough — preparations for the soon-to-be imminent arrival of Child #2.

So, for my trickle of posts at this space over the last couple of weeks, I apologize.  I give a lot of credit to all the bloggers out there with bigger families than mine who are posting something every day — sometimes on multiple topics and several blogs.  In any event, I want you all to know that I have neither forgotten about, nor abandoned my desire to write about personal finance topics.  So while the near-term schedule really doesn’t show any signs of lightening up, I pledge to at least post more often than I have been.

Now, to get back into the swing of things, I would offer links to several articles that I have been collecting over the last few months:

Juan’s Happy Wife posts here about the economics of home schooling.

Here’s an interesting article that claims an inverse relationship between the age of retirement and ultimate lifespan.  Yikes… I think I’ll retire next week!

Yesterday Boston.com had an analysis that was right up my alley in determining whether it made more sense to borrow from a 401k for a down payment on a house versus paying Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI).

J.D. had a guest post about The Irritation Threshold as it relates to Lifestyle Inflation.

The New York Times had an article on why it’s temping to want to switch to cash, but that risks remain in that strategy.

Lastly, the Wall Street Journal ran a story banks that pay credit card holders to pay off their balances.

Hotel Pool

photo figure credit: ScrapperMom

Michelle asks:

"How was the vacation?"

In a word: Fantastic!  We got to meet the newest member of our extended family (on that side, anyway…) who is already one and half!  We got to catch up with family that we haven’t seen in over 2 years.  We got to know new wives, girlfriends, and old friends a lot better.  Thanks to all of them for taking the time out of their busy schedules, providing places to stay, cooking dinner, etc.  This picture is the pool at the hotel in Orlando, which the kids loved.

As a follow up to my original post on this topic, I thought I would offer a post-trip analysis on how we did financially. It’s important to note that while we put nearly everything below on our rewards credit card, it will all be paid off by the end of the month because we had already set aside the funding for this trip.

I’ll start with the area in which I feel we did the worst from a frugal perspective: Dining out.  In total we purchased 9 meals out and they totaled $378.  This breaks down to $42 per family-meal, or $17 per person per meal if we count dear daughter #1 as a half person who shared what we ate most of the time.  Given that we ate a total of 22 meals, 9 represents only 40%.  We easily could have converted a couple of dinners out into dinners at home, but then again, we were on vacation…  We did manage to convert a couple of these meals into lunches the next day since the portions were often too big! I should also point out that this total included drinks with meals as well, which as you know can get pretty expensive.  During one meal we paid close to $9 for an 8 ounce rum and coke!

Relating to dining, our grocery bill came in at $141.  As described in the initial article, we had a lot of opportunity to prepare meals, especially breakfasts and lunches.  If you put all of our food spending together, the per person per meal average comes down to $9.50.  The grocery bill includes a 12 pack of beer that we brought to a party, as well as a lot of bottled water that we wouldn’t normally buy at home, but the local water was terrible!

In the category of transportation, we got a great deal on airline tickets: we purchased 3 seats for $597 on JetBlue.  The in-flight entertainment, especially Animal Planet and the XM station for Radio Disney went a long way to keeping our 21 month old busy on the flight each way.  In total, we spent $378 (Yes, exactly the same as on dining out!) on the rental of a mini-van and the fuel we needed for a week.  We drove the van over 500 miles since we went down to Disney, and much of the time the van was nearly at capacity with 4 adults and 2 toddlers in car seats.

Our short jaunt to Disney cost us both on the ticket side and on lodging.  We somehow thought that we still had tickets that we could use at Disney, which would have given us “free” entry to the park.  Unfortunately this was not the case, and we ended up having to buy 2 adult, single day passes for a total of $160.  Yes, that hurt.  The Magic Kingdom is a great place, but honestly I think it’s looking a bit dated, and I’ve been to a number of better parks in recent years that cost a lot less than this.  But it’s the American Way to take your kids to Disney, right?  The lodging for one night was not bad at $90.  This was our share of the split on the condo that we shared with my cousin and his family.

We spent a total of $23 on items that didn’t fit into any of these other categories.  This included a Christmas ornament from Disney, and a couple of magazines at the airport.  We successfully resisted the urge to spend $17 on a fan-assisted squirt bottle in Disney on a 93 degree, scorching hot day.  We also avoiding having to purchase every cute stuffed animal that DD#1 got her hands on.

Last, and far from least, we spent $720 at the Dog Kennel.  As outlined in this article, our dogs are expensive.  It definitely hurts to have to budget 30% of every trip we take to kenneling the dogs, and it’s the first thing that pops into my head whenever we consider a trip.  We spent a few years trying to find the right mix of costs for kenneling.  In this business, the saying is true: You get what you pay for.  We were horrified upon retrieving our dogs from a budget kennel on one trip, and they didn’t want to come home when we tried to get them from a super-expensive kennel.  Eventually we found a “just right” kennel that treats them well — but not too well.  This is certainly an area that will factor into any future pet decisions.  It’s a good argument against having two pets.

In total, we spent $2487.  This is a lot less than ScrapperMom and I spent on a lavish Quebec trip a number of years ago, but more than we have spent on a vacation in some time.  Was it worth it?  It’s hard to put a price-tag on the experiences that we had.  If pressed, however, I would have to say that the cost was worth it since it meshes with our values: notice that we have only a couple of magazines and a Christmas ornament to show for this expenditure.  We don’t place a high value on “stuff”, but rather experiences and time spent with family and friends.  You can’t put a price on that.  This trip would have been a lot less fun if we just went to Florida by ourselves…

We’re already looking forward to a mini-vacation in November as we travel to New Jersey to celebrate a wedding!