Don’t Feed the Alligators

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

Archive for the 'Household' Category

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!

Shaw's Cards

photo figure credit: ScrapperMom

This past Sunday morning ScrapperMom was perusing the grocery store circular when this offer caught her eye (my emphasis added):

Choose your tax refund reward. Customers can purchase gift cards with their Shaw’s Rewards Card (for carded markets) at their local store’s Customer Service center.  No tax form or refund check is necessary.  Customers may purchase a grocery store gift card at $250 or $300.  Each gift card will be loaded with an additional $20 for a $250 purchase or $30 for a $300 purchase.  There is no limit for the amount of cards a customer can purchase. The additional bonus amount cannot be used for the purchase of alcohol, fuel, tobacco, lottery tickets, dairy products, prescription drugs or additional gift cards.  Offer is available March 13, 2009 through April 15, 2009.

Shaw’s is one of our local grocery stores (same company as Star Market), and it ran a similar 10% bonus during last year’s Economic Stimulus check mailings.  Apparently the response from customers and reward for Shaw’s was so great that they’ve decided to run this offer during tax season this year as well.  The limit before was whatever the size of your stimulus check was, and we took full advantage.  But I’m really psyched that there’s no limit on this offer.

Clearly this is a great deal no matter how you slice it.  The offer is for a store that we visit at least once per week, where we spend at least $250 per month, and that sells necessities, namely food.  The only real question is how much advantage we can take.  There are a few factors that limit how many of these cards we should buy:

  • How much cash we have available.
  • What the cost is to tie up this cash for whatever time it will take to use up all of the cards that we buy.
  • Whether this is really a no limit offer.

Because we don’t live paycheck to paycheck, we actually have somewhere between $10,000 and $15,000 available on hand in cash that we could use for this “investment” that is not technically part of our emergency fund.  It turns out that we also gave the government too big of an interest free loan last year, so we’re going to be getting a healthy refund which we can also roll into purchasing discount gift cards.

I ran some quick math to see how soon I would have to spend the gift card before we would have just been better off sticking the money in a CD.  I figured out that if I could earn 3.5%, tax free,  on a $300 investment today, it would take 34 months to earn 10% on the initial investment.  That means that as long as I can spend the gift card within the next 3 years (because with taxes it will take longer than 34 months to accrue 10%) I will be getting a better return by buying the gift card.

I asked myself if there were any down sides to this offer as well.  One that pops to mind is that we’ll be tying up lots of cash that we may need for other things.  The nice thing about these gift cards, however, is that we can easily trade them for cash, and if things ever get that bad, we’ll still have to eat, so having grocery cards is not such a bad thing.  Another thing we’ll need to be careful about is where and how we store the cards.  Having the equivalent of thousands of dollars in cash laying around has risks: fire, theft, loss, etc.  We’ll have to figure out a way to deal with that.  Lastly, what if the store goes out of business?  This is certainly something about which to be concerned, but this is a chain that has been around as long as I can remember, stores don’t usually just all of a sudden stop honoring gift cards, and as above we should be able to liquidate them quickly if it comes to that.

We still haven’t decided exactly how many of these cards we’ll buy in total.  We spent about $5,400 on groceries in 2008, so we can buy a lot of these cards and still come out ahead.  Yesterday ScrapperMom went to the Customer Service desk to buy 6 of them and was told that you can only buy 5 per customer per day.  So there is, apparently, a limit, but I still don’t think it should affect how many we want to buy (though if it did I would argue that the ad does say “no limit”).

What do you think?  Should we stock up on $10,000 worth of these cards (or the closest multiple of $300) and get an instant $1,000 back?  Is this a deal that interests you?  How many will you buy or would you buy if you could?  Are there downsides or risks that we’ve yet to consider? Leave a comment below!

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


Spinning Top

Creative Commons License photo figure credit: chefranden

We are all probably familiar, to one degree or another, with the concept of inertia:

“an object will always continue moving at its current speed and in its current direction until some force causes its speed or direction to change. This would include an object that is not in motion (speed = zero), which will remain at rest until some force causes it to move.”

A similar concept is frequently observed in human behavior: It is often difficult to start doing something that you should or want to do, and it is often difficult to stop doing things that you shouldn’t or don’t want to do.  Many people, for example, are not enrolled in their company retirement plans, or are under invested in them, simply because they never filled out the paperwork to do anything different.

Many businesses try to take advantage of this “behavioral inertia”.  Most people have been asked to sign up for a free 30 day trial of something — which still requires a credit card — and after 30 days have forgotten to cancel, as well as 60, 90 and 180 days later.  Many of us have also fallen victim to the gym membership where the cost is automatically deducted from your checking account even though you never go.

It is with this concept in mind that I recently had the opportunity to break my behavioral inertia, if warranted, by reassessing how much I pay for various services.

Two weeks ago I received my auto insurance renewal and was surprised to see that the cost for another year was similar to that of the previous year.  Last year my state changed the way that it oversees the setting of auto insurance rates.  This was supposed to make insurance cheaper for the lowest risk drivers and more expensive for the highest risk drivers.  Since ScrapperMom and I both have the best driver ratings, I expected to see a big drop in our premiums, but this was not the case.

I immediately went to a few websites of competing insurance companies and filled in the information needed to obtain a quote for insurance.  The first site quoted me a price than was 65% that of the quote I got from my current insurer.  The other sites indicated that someone would get back to me, but no one ever did.  I also called my current insurer to find out if the quote was correct and if there weren’t any other discounts that might apply.  The customer service representative said that the quote was correct, and that it was $200 less than the year before.  She was right, I had incorrectly remembered the cost of insurance from the year before.  She also cautioned me about the other quote that I had received.

The new quote that I had received was just for 6 months, and had simply doubled it to get the annual price.  It turns out, however, that a lot of “budget” insurers will quote a low price for the first 6 months and then raise the price in the next 6 months — banking on your behavioral inertia — so that it ends up being equal to or more than an annual quote from another insurer.  I could not get a full year quote from the new insurance company, which made me suspect something was not as it should be.

In the end, I decided to stay with our current insurer, who I have been with for many years.  But I feel good that I at least shopped around to make sure that I was getting the best price, and I also put them on notice, to a certain degree anyway, that I’m not just going to take whatever price they give me without doing my due diligence on the matter.

I performed this same exercise to determine if I’m paying as little as necessary for our TV and internet service.  After looking around, all of the other options were within a few percent, plus or minus, of what we pay now for the same service.  It doesn’t make sense in this case to change providers, but at least I know that I’m not overpaying for the equivalent service.

There are a number of other services that I use that I can reassess as well. I plan to reassess the cost of my cell phone and rental movie service, among others. I’m also going to look to be sure that I’m getting the best deal I can on the interest that gets paid to me on cash investments such as our money market account and CDs — one of which matures in the next month.

Have you been the victim of behavioral inertia or do you have an example of overcoming it?  Share your story in the comments section below.

Loose Ends

Creative Commons License photo figure credit: Andres Rueda

After last week’s post about Falling Back into Old Habits, I jumped right in and made a bunch of small, but important changes or updates to our automated finances:

  • I made our initial contributions to Roth IRAs for 2009.  As I said last time, it’s already February and we hadn’t contributed anything to our retirement accounts for the year.  I logged into our Vanguard accounts and contributed for January and February on both of our accounts in one shot.
  • I also set up automatic deposits for Roth IRAs for the rest of the year.  Now I won’t have to worry that I missed a payment or scramble at the end of the year to come up with enough money to fully fund the IRAs.  This is an example of one of the basic tenets of personal finance: Pay Yourself First.
  • I finally got around to rolling over my old 401k from the company I left over 4 years ago to a traditional IRA.  I wrote about how to do this back in October, but somewhat ironically had not gotten around to doing it myself.  Do as I say, not as I do?
  • I set up a low balance banking alert for my checking account.  I logged into my account last week and saw that I had a negative balance.  A series of bills got paid and I had not yet transferred the money from our Money Market account.  Luckily, the bills were in process and the balance was not “real” yet.  So I immediately transferred enough to cover the bills and then some to bring the account back into the black.  It didn’t occur to me at the time, but several days later I thought there must be a way to avoid this situation in the future.  A few minutes of poking around at the options on the website led me to the Alerts setup page.  Here I could set up all kinds of different alerts.  I chose to be notified by email whenever my balance drops below $1,000.
  • I adjusted the automatic transfers that occur a couple of times a month between our Money Market and Checking accounts to be sure that a situation, like the one described above, does not happen again.
  • I have been managing an escrow account of sorts for all of our annual expenses, such as life insurance, car insurance, umbrella insurance, our Christmas fund, etc.  So far, this money has been mixed in with our general slush fund — by which I mean money that sits in our bank account, but is otherwise presently unallocated — and tracked using a spreadsheet.  This has become cumbersome, and I have decide instead to stash the money that we put aside each month for all of these annual expenses into a new ING Direct account.  So I opened a “sub” account at ING, and then set up an automatic withdrawal from our checking account to occur once per month for 1/12 of the total amount that we have committed to each of these spending plan categories.
  • Lastly, but certainly not least, I created a new spending plan, as discussed in my last post.  This was not nearly as painful as I expected it to be.  My last spending plan, back in November, took a worst case scenario.  This scenario, fortunately, never developed, and we actually have a lot more money coming in right now than I thought.  Because I had buried my head in the sand on this, I have been worrying too much over something that wasn’t as much of a problem as I made it out to be in my head.  I hope I have learned my lesson.

So that’s it.  Each of the above items took only a few minutes, and I took care of most of them in one night.  I like that I am still able to accomplish so many personal finance improvements in one shot like this.  ”Installing” “hacks” like this in our personal finances is very satisfying, and should lead us to financial independence one of these days.

Nail Biting

Nail Biting: A Bad Habit Creative Commons License photo figure credit: coxy

We’ve had a busy few months:

During this time, we have not paid very much attention to our finances.  Most of our finances are automated, so our bills still got paid on time, and I know that we’re generally doing okay.  However, I really can’t say whether we’re still saving enough, or even whether we have anything to save.  

Our busyness is really no excuse for taking our proverbial eyes off the ball here.  The truth of the matter is that I’ve had my head in the sand since shortly after ScrapperMom lost her job.  I really did not want to have to acknowledge the drop in income and figure out how to live without it.  As a result, I haven’t looked out our Spending Plan in months, I have no idea whether we’re spending more than we earn.  I do know that we have not yet made any retirement contributions for 2009 even though we are already 13% of the way through the year, and that’s starting to bug me.

Good personal finance is a habit like any other.  Breaking bad personal finance habits takes time, dedication, and work.  We’re all susceptible to falling back into our old habits, especially during times of stress, inattention, etc.  I gained a few pounds over the holidays (no excuse again…), and I’ve been working to take the excess off again.  Similarly, it’s time to get serious with our finances again.

Tomorrow I will draw up a new Spending Plan.  I will find money to contribute to our Roth IRAs, even if I have to take it out of our savings.  I will forget about our spending over the last month or two and focus on the future.  I will get back into the habit of good personal finance.

Do you fall back into old habits?  How do you get yourself back on track when you do?  Share your story in the Comments section below.