Don’t Feed the Alligators

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

Archive for the 'Food' Category

Credit Cards Accepted

Creative Commons License photo figure credit: TheTruthAboutMortgage.com

Just about a year ago, ScrapperMom and I decided that we had reached the right end of the Credit Card Contiuum and that it was time to start earning some rewards for buying all of the things that we buy or pay for on a monthly or yearly basis anyway.  We went in search of a rewards credit card.

Rewards credit cards come in many different flavors.  There are air miles cards, new car purchase cards, free gas cards, free coffee cards, cash back cards, and even dedicated 529 earnings cards.  ScrapperMom and I decided that since we could not afford to contribute anything specifically to our daughter’s 529 plan that we would look for a card that would allow us to earn money for her account.

One might think that since we wanted rewards to fund a 529 account, that we would choose one of the 529 rewards credit cards that are available.  Unfortunately, the few 529 rewards cards out there have terms that are worse than those available from some other cards.  For example, one card we looked at has a limit of $300 in earnings per year.  Our goal was to put as many of our purchases as possible on the card, and knew that we would easily exceed the $300 limit.  Another card we looked at was linked to a specific 529 plan that did not fit our criteria for such a plan.

Instead, it made more sense for us to apply for a cash back credit card.  There are a lot of cash back cards on the market, and they all have different terms.  Using the credit card finder at Bankrate.com, we looked through many different cards.  Some, like the American Express Blue card have different rates for different spending amounts.  You have to spend a lot of money before the rates rise to a level on par with many of the other cards.  Most of these cards offer around 1% cash back on all purchases and 3%-5% on certain types of purchases, like fuel, groceries, and fast food.

Ultimately, we chose the Chase Freedom Card.  This card offers 1% cash back on all purchases as well as 3% cash back on things like groceries, fast food, and fuel purchases. You can redeem your cash whenever you accumulate $50 worth, but if you are patient then you can collect $200 and trade that for a $250 return (which brings the cash back bonus to about 1.25%). We can’t use this card for most of our big bills like our mortgage, car, and student loans, unfortunately, but we can use it on a lot of the small stuff like cell phones, satellite TV, Netflix, periodic insurance payments, etc.

In the past year, we have earned over $750 in rewards that we have applied to our daughter’s college savings.  In a typical month, we earn about 75% of our points at the 1% level and the remainder at the 3% level.  Since it only takes about 4 months to accumulate $200 worth of rewards, it’s worth our while to wait until that point to cash out the extra $50, since that’s a much better return than putting $50 per month into almost any investment.

Obviously the key to this whole plan hinges on spending within our spending plan.  We pay this card off every month with money from our checking account.  Again, we don’t use the card to spend on things that we would not otherwise have purchased.  One splurge purchase can wipe out a year’s worth of rewards in no time at all.

Many people have difficulty handling credit cards, and I understand that.  However, many others have aquired the self-discipline to be able to handle credit cards without breaking the budget.  I believe that not using a rewards credit card for things that we are going to buy anyway is just leaving free money on the table.  I have spent years giving the credit card companies my hard earned money, and now it’s time to redeem some of it.

Do you use a rewards credit card?  What kind of rewards do you get?  Do you find it worth it?

In the fall of 2000, ScrapperMom and I made our first big purchase together: We bought a puppy. As two engineers are apt to do, we researched this purchase to the Nth degree: What kind of dog? Who from? How much? Vet? Crate? etc…

When we finally took the plunge, we ended up bringing home an adorable 20 pound Great Dane puppy (from a reputable dealer…). Two years later, we decided that one 120 pound Great Dane was not enough for one household, and that our little deer (pun intended) needed company during the day, and so we made the mistake of bringing home another Great Dane puppy.

Val on Bed

Orion on Bed

ScrapperMom wondered recently how the dogs fit into our financial picture, and Gather Little By Little spurred me on with a recent post about the rising cost of spending on pets.

Below is the result of the report I ran in Quicken to find out just how much we have been spending on our small horses:

Cost of Unconditional Love

Category Cost
Vet $6,589.43
Food $6,555.09
Supplies $4,962.79
Training $3,687.50
Boarding $3,645.00
Dogs $1,966.90
Dog Walkers $1,362.00
Doggie Day School $1,102.50
Damage Repair Payments $218.16
Registrations $209.74
Books $171.43
Supplements $155.15
Dog Shows $132.45
Fines $40.00

Total

$30,798.14

Yes, you read that right. We have spent thirty thousand, seven hundred, ninety-eight dollars and fourteen cents on our dogs since the fall of 2000.

For us, this was a shockingly large number on first inspection. That’s $335/month, on average, for the last 92 months. That’s a little over $11 per day. I can think of worse ways to spend $11, but I still felt that this spending was pretty high in the grand scheme of our general finances, especially when our budget in the “Dogs” category for the past year has only been carrying about $150/month.

My next step was to see how the spending varied over time, since there was definitely a dual (large) income, no kids period where a weekly trip to Petsmart was no expense spared. So I ran a new report:

Dog Cost Chart

This report is really inconclusive. On the one hand, it’s looks like spending has tapered off since about early 2007. This correlates with the birth of our daughter, so it’s really no surprise that we have paid less attention to our pooches (sorry, pups!) and consequently spent less on them. On the other hand, spending was way up as recently as the middle of 2006.

In looking at ways to cut spending in the future, I identified a number of categories that are not likely to see much new spending anytime soon: Dog Walkers, Day School, and the Dogs themselves. Additionally, there are some categories that are really not fair to charge to the Dog account, such as boarding, since this is really a vacation expense that gets budgeted for separately. A number of other categories don’t see much spending in the first place.

Val and Orion

With the elimination of all of those expenses, we’re still at a $233/month average outlay. There’s a pretty good chance that we won’t be doing as much training, since we don’t have that much time anymore, and the supply bill should stay pretty low since most of the costs there were “startup” costs of ownership. That basically leaves food and vet bills. If you count only those two categories, we’re right down under the $150/month budgeted amount.

I’m sure that we’ll have to end up spending more than this per month, since we’ll inevitably have to buy supplies and other items in the coming years. Maybe we can look for ways to save on food and vet bills for now, and bump the monthly budget up to something like $175 and see how it goes.

How much do you spend on your pets? How much have you spent on your pets? What have you done, if anything, to cut costs on them? What is your cost for unconditional love?

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Frugal Baby Part II: Feeding Baby

Author: ScrapperMom
05.26.2008
Baby Foods

Creative Commons License photo figure credit: twelve paws

Obviously with another mouth to feed it might stand to reason that the grocery bill will increase. Fortunately, we have managed to keep the grocery bill in check with a few frugal baby solutions. Some of these items may not work for everyone, but these are the things that worked well for us when feeding a baby on a budget.

Breastfeeding: This one is a no brainer when it comes to saving money, but I understand that it doesn’t work for everyone. I was determined to make breastfeeding work for us and made sure I had a lot of resources ready in case I got in trouble. It doesn’t necessarily come naturally for either mom or baby. As MITBeta and I found out, it is also a multi-person sport in the beginning, so don’t worry about leaving those Dads out! We realized early on that in order to get the baby positioned correctly and to keep her awake we needed about 4 hands. Also remember in the early days that it is important to watch your baby for clues and not the clock. Breastfeeding works on a system of supply and demand, so in the early days you really want to feed the baby whenever she seems hungry. This will help build a good supply of milk. Visit KellyMom for some great tips on all aspects of breastfeeding. This website is invaluable. The first fews weeks are long and I spent a lot of time on the couch or in a chair, but just made sure the MITBeta had a little table supplied for me with snacks and a drink and I soon became a natural. In the coming months I forgot all about the hard first month as it gradually got easier and easier.

A friend gave me some great tips when I was pregnant and they all helped make the process go smoothly after our daughter was born. Make sure you get all the support you can/want/need in the hospital. Ask all the nurses to check to make sure the baby is latched on correctly. They typically have lactation consultants on staff that can make sure you are doing it correctly as well, so you can avoid problems that can quickly derail your breastfeeding experience (latch-on, supply, and pain are some common ones). Make sure you buy some lansinoh (this product is very important in the early days). We also had a nurse make a home visit (this was covered by insurance because we were in the hospital less than 48 hrs after baby was born) and that was a great opportunity to ask questions and correct any potential problems. We also had a birth doula who came to see us for a post-partum visit as well.

I also found it advantageous to have a pump on hand (you can rent hospital grade pumps, buy cheap manual pumps or invest in a pump that would be good for daily pumping sessions if you plan to pump and work). I have an Ameda pump. My milk came in a few days after we got home from the hospital and even though my little one is took to breastfeeding like a champ, she sometimes just couldn’t handle that kind of volume! Plus I was back at home and now had no one around to help me out. I found it very useful to have my pump all set to go, just to relieve some of that early discomfort and make it easier for the baby to latch on. Now even if you decide you don’t want to breastfeed, having some type of cheap pump may be helpful, since your body will think you want to make milk no matter what, at least in the beginning. Having the number of someone you can call if you run into troubles is a good idea. This could be a lactation consultant, doula or LLL leader (see below).

Your local La Leche League is also a great source of support and encouragement. They typically have meetings once a month. I have been going to the LLL group meetings in my area since our daughter was born and I find a lot of great support there for a lot of parenting issues, not just breastfeeding. It’s always good to run things by other mothers who have been in a similar situation so you can make sure that everything is normal.

If you have tried breastfeeding and have decided that formula is the way to go for your family, you should check out this post about taking advantage of the great deals at CVS. By playing the “CVS” game you can save a lot of money on formula.

Homemade Baby Food: This sounds like a lot of work, but is surprisingly simple. The nice thing is that you really only have to do it for about 4 to 6 months. I started introducing new foods around 6 mos. I tried one new food every few days. I would make a batch of one type and freeze it in small portions (ice cube trays work great for this, see photo above). After a few weeks I had built up a little stash of different items. Some examples that we typically had on hand were sweet potatoes, squash, apples, pears etc. Most things can be cooked until soft and mashed up in a blender or food processor or even just with a fork. Things like mashed potatoes, avocado and bananas are super easy. No special tools needed.

By around 10mos your baby will probably be trying to eat what is on your plate, so you can usually find something on your own plate that you can mash up and give her. Our daughter was grabbing for what we were eating by around 10 mos and by 12 mos I was not pureeing anything anymore. So it was a short amount of time and definitely a money saver. This is a great website: Wholesome Baby Food that has a lot of information on introducing new foods and recipes and tips for pureeing foods. It also gives you tips on when you should introduce different types of foods.

We took a road trip to Washington DC when our daughter was around 8 months old. I brought a lot of frozen food cubes in freezer baggies, along with yogurt and string cheese. We had access to a freezer where we were staying so it was easy to continue feeding her on the road. I was also breastfeeding so that made things easy while we were out and about sightseeing. I fed her in all kinds of places, including the Air and Space Museum and the top and bottom of the Washington Monument!

Hopefully these tips will get you off to a good start, and if you’ve got any more, let’s hear them in the comments!

Click here for actual spreadsheet.

“Budget” is a dirty word in many households, and it’s no surprise why. Budgets are hard to create, hard to keep, and nearly always imply sacrifice. So for the sake of being pleasant, I will refer to budgets in this post as Spending Plans. A budget is, after all, simply a way to spend and earn money on paper before you actually spend and earn it, and therefore the term spending plan makes more intuitive sense to me. Answers.com defines budget:

budg·et (b?j’?t)

  1. An itemized summary of estimated or intended expenditures for a given period along with proposals for financing them: submitted the annual budget to Congress.
  2. A systematic plan for the expenditure of a usually fixed resource, such as money or time, during a given period: A new car will not be part of our budget this year.

The creation of a working spending plan frustrated me for many years, primarily because I was trying to create one using Quicken’s Auto Budget creation feature. The problem I had with it was similar to the problem I had with tracking spending in the past: Too many categories. I was being asked to figure out how much money I would spend on small things like a pair of sneakers simply because I had a Clothing:Men’s:Footware category in Quicken. So if I buy (1) $75 pair of sneakers per year, Quicken would fill in $6.25 per month for sneakers. Multiply this by dozens or a hundred other detailed categories and very quickly the whole thing become unruly.

As discussed in one of my first posts on Getting Out of Debt, one must first understand where his* money goes every month. Some things are easy to figure out: gather up your mortgage (or rent), auto loan, student loan, credit card, insurance, cell phone, and any other bills that are fixed monthly expenses. My list also includes things like Netflix, water, and internet access. List each of these items with the associated monthly payment. I use a Google Spreadsheet for this. You will notice that there are some discretionary expenses in here, and that’s okay for now.

Next, I went through the last few months of expenses in Quicken, and pulled out other essentials that aren’t necessarily the same cost from month to month or even year to year: food, fuel, pet care, utilities, etc. I put 4-6 months worth of each of these items on separate lines, and then averaged the each line to get a monthly expense. Utility bills usually have a 1 year rolling history of usage, so this can also be used to predict upcoming usage. Entering all these average or estimated expense creates a starting point.

The next thing I did was to look at expenses that occur on an annual basis: excise taxes on my vehicles, life insurance premiums, disability insurance premiums, Christmas presents, etc. I took each of these annual amounts and divided by 12 to figure out how much I need to allocate to each of these each month. I listed these next.

Last, but certainly not least, I have included my savings contributions. The last place inclusion should certainly not indicate the relative importance of these entries. Indeed, these may be the most important entries in the list under the “pay yourself first” mantra. If you already contribute to a 401(k) plan through payroll deductions, you may not need to even bother making an entry here.

Having entered most of your expenses (most discretionary expenses are still absent), it is now time to enter your income. For most of us, this will be rather easy since we get paid a fixed amount on a set period from few sources. Others with irregular and/or multiple source incomes will have to figure out a way to average this income to create a starting point for now.

Now add up all of the incomes and subtract all of the expenses. What’s left is what you can afford to spend on discretionary items. Is this number negative? If so, you had better go back through your expenses and start trimming until you get to at least zero. If you have an option to earn more income, that can help too. If the number is positive, then you’re already doing better than many people today. Now you need to decide if it’s positive enough to satisfy your wants during the month. The only way to change this number is to decrease other expenses or increase income. You have to weigh priorities against each other, and I strongly suggest that you contribute as much as possible towards consumer debt and savings. My sample budget spreadsheet includes a post-tax savings percentage calculator.

Congratulations! You have now created a budget! Next time we’ll look at how to tweak the budget to be closer to reality, as well as how to manage your budget going forward.

Please see Part II here.

*Too many Web 2.0 contributors would have written “their” (or worse “there”) here because of a political correctness fear of being labeled sexist. Personally, I prefer to use proper English, and “his” won the coin flip. In all likelihood I have made a grammatical or spelling mistake in this aside simply because it would be ironic.

scallop and risotto

Creative Commons License photo figure credit: kweezy mcG

ScrapperMom and I eat out together at “expensive” restaurants only a few times a year: once on our anniversary, and once on each of our birthdays. The last few times that we have been to expensive restaurants I have had the following experiences:

  • I got into an argument with our waiter who refused to run my credit card to pay the balance of a ~$109 bill after I had already given him a $100 bill (a gift from my in-laws) to cover the better part of the bill.
  • I got a dish at a very nice restaurant near our house that was way overcooked (seafood…). I am the suffer-in-silence type (ask me about not seeing a doctor for 3 days after I broke my thumb) and didn’t mention anything to the waitress until dinner was nearly over. She rightly pointed out that I should have said something earlier so that she could bring me something more to my liking.
  • We were given the bum’s rush through a meal at a restaurant in Vegas at which the cost was over $100 per meal.

After these experiences, I am inclined to believe that I can have just as bad of a time for much less money somewhere else. And yet, I don’t have that many bad experiences at less expensive restaurants. Perhaps my expectations are simply that much lower when dining at a local brew pub than at Chez Moolah. Conversely, when dining at a nice place, my expectations are much higher and maybe I set myself up for failure.

And yet when good, expensive restaurants are good, they’re really good. These places treat you like king for a day, serve up a wonderfully presented and flavorful meal, and attend to your every culinary need.

As a result of these bad experiences, I have become a bit gun shy about returning to some of these expensive restaurants. Some will never see us again, but my experiences have also shown that we can have good and bad experiences at the same restaurant, which by extension means that any restaurant on any night is a roll of the dice. The only question is: What are the chances that tonight is going to be a bad night, and am I willing to take that chance with my hard earned and closely guarded money? Or should we just stick to lower expectations and lower risk, even when celebrating a birthday or anniversary?

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