Don’t Feed the Alligators

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

Archive for the 'Household' Category

Broken Pipes

Creative Commons License photo figure credit: Remy Sharp

A week or so after our new tenants moved in, it was reported to me that their toilet wobbles.  A quick inspection found that the screws that hold the toilet down were not tight, so I tightened them.  It took about 2 minutes in total to diagnose and fix the problem.

Fast forward about a month: ScrapperMom discovered that a leak had developed in the basement ceiling, almost directly under the tenant’s bathroom.  The leak was at the low spot in the ceiling, which happens to have an access door built into it for reaching some shut-off valves and other stuff.  My immediate fear was that when I fixed the toilet, I broke or unseated its seal.  

This was just before we had our baby, so I was not in a good position to try to investigate and repair the problem myself. I resorted to calling a plumber.  After investigating, he said that there is a leak at the seal in the toilet, but that it wasn’t the bulk of the problem.  It seems that our approximately 90 year old cast-iron waste drain stack had rotted clean through just below where all of the tenant’s fixtures drain into the stack.  The plumber fixed the toilet seal and applyed some temporary epoxy to patch the hole in the stack.

The plumber returned today to permanently repair the hole.  The first thing he had to do was to cut a hole in the wall in the tenant’s apartment and then cut another hole in the ceiling in the basement.  Then they had to cut out a section of the old pipe and install the new one.  They did a nice job minimizing the collateral damage and cleaning up after the fact, but plumbers don’t typically repair drywall.

All together, both plumbing repairs came to nearly $1,400, and the drywall isn’t even fixed yet.  We have an emergency fund, but because we also put a little bit away into a slush fund every month, we did not have to dip into it.  I’m not happy about spending $1,400 on something that I can’t really enjoy all that much (not that I don’t REALLY enjoy indoor plumbing).  But that’s life.  I guess this is another one of those little things that reminds me that I’m an adult now.

Now I need to go investigate the weird noise the car started making last week…

Have you had any unexpected expenses lately?  How did you deal with them?  Leave a Comment below!


photo figure credit: MITBeta

In the spring of 1998 as I prepared to graduate from college, I made a classic personal finance blunder: I bought a $1500 surround sound receiver on my credit card.  At the time I was earning about $240/week before taxes, which means that I really could not afford this stereo.  It took me many years to pay off that credit card since there were obviously many other charges on this card, though no single item this expensive.

Fast forward to 2004: Having at least partially learned my lesson about buying things I could not afford (the receiver wasn’t the last…), I still owned the receiver and it still had a prominent position in our home theater setup.  Imagine our disappointment when the volume control started to go south.  When pushing the volume up or down buttons on the remote control, the receiver would display the corresponding message, such as “Volume Up”, but the volume knob would not turn as it once had.

Bravely, I disassembled enough of the receiver to get a good look at the volume control, hoping that an obvious loose connection was apparent.  I didn’t find anything obvious, and after reassembling, the control started working again.  For a while.  When the knob stopped working again, I discovered that if I gave it a couple of quick raps, the control would start working again.

The “knock on knob” solution worked for another 5 years until last December.  No matter how much knocking I did, the volume control would not come back to life.  I started to think about having to replace the receiver, which prompted this post: Replacing Items That Put You in Debt.  Then ScrapperMom asked a simple, but brilliant question: “Can it be fixed?”

“Duh,” I thought, “why didn’t I think of that?”

When I disassembled the receiver in 2004 I made sure to take a number of pictures of the parts that appeared to be broken (one of which appears above).  So I went back to those pictures and found the part number for the board.  Then I visited the manufacturer’s website and found a place to search for parts.  I put in the information I had and quickly received an email back with a couple of possibilities.  Hmm.  I called the phone number at the bottom of the email and asked if I could speak to technical support.  The tech who came on the line (almost immediately, by the way) knew the troubleshooting for this product, which hadn’t been manufactured in almost 10 years, cold.  Within 5 minutes I was armed with enough info to diagnose the root cause of the problem.  After testing out the receiver, I found that the motor that drives the knob was bad, and I ordered a new assembly for about $43.

Yesterday, a friend who has lots of experience with soldering delicate electronic parts to circuit boards came by and had the old part off and the new one on in about 45 minutes.  We checked out the receiver and the volume control works fine now.  Lest you think to yourself that that’s all fine and good if you have a friend who can solder, my initial research for this volume control problem indicated that the part and the repair would have cost about $100 at a qualified service center.

By doing a little research, getting my hands dirty, being resourceful (i.e. calling Bryan), and being reminded not to Pitch, but Fix, we have saved ourselves at least several hundred dollars on not having to buy a new receiver.  Yes, we could have survived getting up to turn the volume knob for quite a while (if you can imagine that horror!), but modern society has made the remote control ubiquitous, and having quick access to volume control with a newborn and a toddler in the house will save our sanity for sure.

Do you have a story about fixing instead of pitching? Let’s hear about in the Comments below.

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Little Feet

photo figure credit: MITBeta

As I exclaimed here, Daughter #2 was born at home last weekend.  This was a joyous experience for everyone involved, from ScrapperMom herself, to the doting midwives, to ScrapperMom’s parents, to me.  We’ve learned a number of lessons that we will take to heart the next time we have a baby.  Some of these involve the homebirth itself, some relate to parenting in general, some are financial and others aren’t. With that, this post will have its off topic points, but should contain enough finance related bits to keep everyone else interested.

ScrapperMom and I decided early in the pregnancy of Daughter #2 that she would try to give birth at home.  (Please let me know in the comments if you would like to know why we made this decision, and if there’s enough interest I will try to put together a concise, coherent post on the topic.)  Daughter #2 arrived about 9 days earlier than she was expected. Which leads me to lesson 1:

  •  Babies can come at any time. So be prepared.

A number of the problems that we have encountered in the first week of our daughter’s life can be directly attributed to lack of preparedness.

Example 1: ScrapperMom has been cooking extra food at nearly every meal she has prepared in the last month and freezing the extra.  This has left us with a freezer full of food that will help us eat well, frugally, and without much preparation time in the coming weeks.  The problem is that it takes several hours or days to thaw something out to eat.  So during her labor and following the birth, we kept running to the take-out menus to figure out where our next meal was going to come from.  Over $70 was spent, to feed all of the people here, on take-out food on the day our daughter was born.   (Thanks to my parents and in-laws for covering much of this cost.)  My mother-in-law hit upon a great idea the next day when she went out and bought a couple of pounds of cold cuts, rolls, chips, etc. — enough to last a few days and satisfy a number of mouths that came through the house during that time

Example 2: The car seat was not in the car yet.  In my scramble to put the seat in the car before we had to take the baby to the pediatrician’s office, I could not find a metal bracket that was required for the installation.  We have two bases for the car seat, and each has a place to store the missing bracket.  We need the bracket for only one of our cars, yet both of them were missing.  I considered running to Toys R Us to buy a new base for $25.  I figured that I could take the bracket out of the new base until I found one of ours and then return the base for a refund.  This is, perhaps, not the most ethical way to do things, but it was pragmatic.  Eventually I found one of the brackets on the floor of the car that didn’t need it and I was able to install the seat.

Example 3: When giving our daughter her first bath, we could not find the scrubby brush that we used on Daughter #1 at that age.  Nor could we find an infant sized towel.  All of these things were in a closest that ScrapperMom had planned to go through and clean this week, before the baby was due.  Since baby came early, I found myself standing there holding a reasonably clean, wet, crying newborn who I eventually wrapped in a couple of receiving blankets to dry her.

This lesson can be extrapolated to many areas of our lives, especially personal finance. Are you prepared? Do you have an emergency fund? Life insurance? Disability insurance?

Lesson #2:

  • You have to look out for yourself first.

Over the days immediately following the birth, I found myself playing host to everyone from the midwives to family and friends. Because the birth was in our house, I went into host mode. I realized only after the fact that they were all there for us, not the other way around. When people were in our house, I neglected many of the things that I should have been doing: laundry, dishes, toddler naps, doggie care, etc. I should have been more careful about not letting guests interrupt what needed to get done, because this just bunched all of these chores into a shorter period of time later (and left us with a surly 2 year old). Better yet, I should have asked these people to help me get these things done so that I could make sure that we all got enough rest after a busy few days.

We must also look out for ourselves when it comes to personal finance. No one cares more about your money than you do. We must manage our own retirement accounts, we must fund retirement accounts before college funds, we must be responsible for our own finances because no one else is going to do it for us.

I have several more lessons that we have learned that I will share in another post soon. Do you have any experience with home births or comments or questions about ours? We’d like to hear about it in the Comments section below.


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!

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Days 'til Christmas

Creative Commons License photo figure credit: aussiegall

Despite our best efforts we still didn’t sit down to do our shopping until about a week later than I would have liked. Unfortunately, with a work trip for MITBeta, a new baby on the way, and an apartment to be rented, we were preoccupied earlier this month. Because of my frugality and my past experience with Amazon I still choose to use Free Super Saver Shipping, even though they warned things may not reach us by Christmas. I will have to wait and see if this was a prudent choice. We are buying multiple gifts for most of the kids so my hope is that at least some of the gifts arrive on time and in a perfect world Amazon is managing expectations and everything will be in on time anyway. I haven’t had problems in the past and everything usually arrives in the nick of time. As of this post a lot of items have already shipped despite the late estimates. Amazon does a really good job of managing expectations.

One regret I have is not using the click thru option for shopping with Amazon. MITBeta and I are big fans of public radio and like to support it when we can. I obtain almost all my news from this source and feel like it’s nice to give a little back. Our local station has an option to click thru from their site to do your Amazon shopping. Although I remembered this fact while we were shopping for gifts, when I actually placed the order I forgot to click thru. I will try to remember this for next year.

I have decided it would also be a good idea to add Christmas cards to the budget for next year. It may not change the overall total since we came in under budget but it is an anticipated cost that can add up. I ended up buying 75 photo cards from Costco which had the best prices around for around $20. I think I typically spend about $40 for a similar amount of cards. In order to mail these cards I bought stamps, 100 for $42. So I think a safe budget number for cards would be around $60 and it pays to look around for the best deal.

Another thing that no one probably thinks about is swaps and charitable giving. Swaps are a great way to cut down on the amount of gifts purchased, while still sharing in the tradition of giving. If you are involved in a few different swaps each year it is probably a good idea to add those to your budget. If you have a couple of swaps with friends and work this could account for up to an additional $100.  It’s also nice to donate to charity at this time of year and MITBeta’s work has organized giving for Toys for Tots.

We do not want to forget our readers who may celebrate other holidays this season. I’m sure budgeting for Hannakuh gifts would be no different. Both holidays have anticipated expenses and are something to add to your yearly budget in order to avoid the holiday shopping crunch and credit card run up in January! But let us not forget that the most important thing this holiday season is spending quality time with friends and family.

We like to extend our warmest wishes to all our readers this holiday season!

Editor’s Note: All of the gifts that we ordered from last week have arrived and are wrapped. Hooray for Amazon and free shipping.