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Archive for July, 2008

Travel--and Mortality

July 13th, 2008 at 12:32 pm

I'm getting ready to travel to my mother's this week--my first plane trip in two years. My sister has flown recently, so she brought me up to date on all the new carry-on regulations--glad I learned about that *before* going to the airport.

I also checked out the size of my old carry-on and found that it was a couple of inches bigger than regulation. Most of the time that might not matter, but I figure in this day of packed flights and charging for baggage, they'll be more likely to check. Anyway, I found a carry-on that's within limits on sale for 51% off at the LL Bean outlet--because the color is being discontinued. So I was happy with that find, especially as my mother is aging, and I figure that at some point in the foreseeable future I will probably have to do a great deal of cross-country flying back and forth.

That's on my mind as I've been witnessing first-hand the decline of an elderly man in my congregation who has been ill this year. I had visited him (and his wife, who was also hospitalized at the time) in hospital on New Years, and then three weeks ago heard that he was in hospice. So I was very surprised a few days ago to hear that he and his wife would be hosting Shabbat services at their assisted living facility this past Friday night.

I went, and Frank was in much better shape than he had been the last I saw him, though the change in his appearance was shocking compared to that of just a year ago before illness took its toll. He seemed in good spirits, and I was hopeful that he would have a while yet.

But it turns out that that Shabbat service was a good-bye. I received word by email that he died in his sleep last night. I know that he suffered a lot this last year, but I'm glad that his last Shabbat was such a pleasant one.

It seems so odd, to be going to a service hosted by a fellow on Friday and then to his funeral on Monday.

Learning to Coupon

July 7th, 2008 at 09:38 pm

I've spent some time the past couple of days looking at some of the coupon sites and trying to learn how to use coupons intelligently and without an extensive waste of time. Here's a brief summary of what I've learned. Lots more detail available at www.couponmom.com and hotcouponworld.com, the primary sites I've been learning from.

1. General goal in couponing: buy when the price is at its lowest, and stockpile anything that you regularly use that's nonperishable. To know when prices are low, keep a price book where you track prices by date, store, and price per quantity.

2. To make it easy, don't clip coupons right away. Just save and date the inserts and file them.

3. There are two separate types of coupons: manufacturer and store. While you can't use two manufacturer or two store coupons on the same item, you *can* combine a store coupon with a manufacturer coupon for increased discount.

4. Some store will double the value of coupons. Know your store's doubling policy. If you can combine a double coupon with a sale, you might even get an item for free!

5. You generally get the best deals by combining a coupon or coupons with a store sale. To match up sales with coupons, there are a couple of options. Both start with pulling the weekly grocery circulars from those stores you frequent (usually published in the Sunday paper) and browsing through them for sales on items you buy. Then either (a)search though CouponMom's grocery database to find if there are current coupons for those items; or (b) look at the Grocery Game section of Hot Coupon World, which is organized by store and shows the week's sales. On the right is a "find coupon" button that will tell you if there's a coupon to be had in a recent weekly circular. On both sites, the coupons are listed by source (SmartSource, RedPlum, or PG&E) and date, so if you've saved the inserts and dated them, it will be easy to pull the coupons you'll need right before you go shopping.

6. If a coupon + sale leads to a good deal, that's the time to stock up--which means you'll need to get multiple coupons. You can subscribe to the Sunday edition of many newspapers for $1/week (there's a link to subscription savings on the coupon mom site), or ask friends and relatives who don't coupon to save them for you. There are also lots of coupons you can print from your computer; check your store's policy about accepting these.

There's lots more to learn on these sites and I'll explore them more eventually, but I've learned enough for a start. I'll be documenting my savings and putting them towards my $20 Challenge and seeing if I can break the back of the Grocery Monster!

Day 1 Efforts:
Grocery store sale: Buy 4 boxes of GM cereal, get $4 off, + two coupons for same cereals, each offering $1 off of two boxes --> $6 off cereals whose full price would be $15.56. That's a 38.6% savings, and $6 to my $20 Challenge (which I've not been pursuing so far this year).

A good start--we'll see if I can do better the next time!

Comparing Expenses now vs 2000

July 7th, 2008 at 08:17 pm

I found an old file last night that contained a summary of my expenses that I created in August 2003, so almost exactly 5 years ago. I pulled out the current data and compared the two. Here's how my expenses have changed, and why:

First, there are two categories of expenses I have now that I didn't have in 2003: school books (fortunately work pays for tuition) and home maintenance, as I'm now an owner.

Biggest increase is eating out, up 193%, or 24%/year. Why? Call it either laziness or busyness. The past two years, I've been working a full-time job, a part-time job, and going to school part-time. Cooking is fairly low on the priority list at the moment. Going to work on this.

Next is work-related expenses (books and films I use in teaching, software that I use that's not paid for by work, and office supplies, up 145%, or 18%/year. That figure is somewhat distorted. Back in 2002 and 2003, I was at my poorest in my adult life, patching together a series of part-time jobs rather than having a full-time job (the full-time job I have now began in Sept. 2003). So the August 2003 figure is low; the current figure reflects more of what I tend to spend when I do have a full-time job.

Personal Expenses: up 103%, or 13%/year--mostly because I recently spent about $500 to buy a few professional wardrobe pieces in preparation for job interviews as I change careers.

Medical Expenses: up 71%, or 9%/year

Rent/Mortgage: up 67%, or 8%/year. But back then, I rented. Now I own. So I pay $300/month more, but that includes not just the mortage but homeowner's insurance, property taxes, and an extra 5% that I pay each month towards the principal.

Transportation: up 64%, or 8%/year. Inflation.

Household: up 58%, or 7%/year. Now that I own, I buy a few more things 'for the home' than I did when I rented.

Groceries: up 55%, or 7%/year.

Gifts & Donations: up 24%, or 3%/year.

Utilities: up 20%, or 3%/year. I expect these to soar in 2010 when the rate caps come off in the state (PA). Meanwhile, I've actually managed to cut my phone bill by savvy shopping.

Decreased expenditures:

Pets: Down 6%. Distorted comparison--my Simon was terminally ill June-Aug 2003, so the expenses for 2003 were quite high. He was less expensive to care for for most of his life, and generally Henry has been more so--Henry has more chronic problems.

Entertainment: down 33%. With the increased workload, I've pretty much given up any entertainment other than paying the minimal Netflix fee most months (although I actually have Netflix on hold for the summer), and paying the most basic cable TV bill ($15/month). (I didn't even have cable TV back in '03.)

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Going through this has been educational. I had no idea that my eating out expenses had gone up so drastically, and actually, I thought my grocery expenses had gone up more, but on a per-annum basis, it's about 7%, which is what the inflation on food has been of late. (That doesn't mean there's no need to cut, though; I'm just routinely a fairly high spender in this area and really could stand to get these expenses down.)

The categories where my increased spending far outweighs inflation are the first three. I'm hoping the personal care expense is temporary because of the big clothing outlay. Two years ago, I managed to spend only about $200 for the year on clothes, for two new pair of athletic shoes, so I know it is possible to pull my expenses her way down.

I need to be more cautious on work-related expenses--it's way too easy to give myself work as an excuse for buying a book, and particularly on eating out. Eating out so much has just become a bad habit. And it's very rarely eating out at a sit-down restaurant--it's grabbing a sandwich and a cup of coffee at the convenience store more often than I should that adds up--not the kind of dining out that one gets special pleasure from, but just the convenience of having someone else prepare the food and not having to remember to take it with you.

Market Research Subject

July 4th, 2008 at 04:44 pm

Two years ago, during the summer I had no income coming in, I signed up for a couple of market research panels (e.g., Pinecone), after researching which ones seemed reliable and didn't ask you to buy products upfront (which lots of the survey sites do--they promise money back, but you have to give some upfront). I've been making about a couple of hundred dollars a year from this side venture.

One of the panels I ended up on (by invitation actually, this one I don't think you can volunteer for) is run by my local grocery store--actually by the store that *used* to be my main store, before I "defected" and started spending most of my grocery money at a more upscale chain.

The store whose panel I am on is trying to develop more of an image as a health & wellness-conscious store. They've definitely shown great improvement on this front in the years I've been shopping there. But a couple of weeks ago, they recruited volunteers for a special "health and wellness" assignment. I signed up.

Part one was keeping a journal for a week, recording all activities that I did that I personally considered "health and wellness" related and answering some questions about each. Based on the journals, they selected a dozen people to participate in Part two. I was chosen. So on Wednesday morning, two market researchers came to my house and interviewed me for three hours, video taping the interview and a tour of my house, with focus on things in my house that were health and wellness related. The research interview was really pretty in depth, and not very scripted--mostly the interviewers asked me to elaborate on things that I had brought up, rather than asking me a series of "canned" questions.

After the interview, they went with me on a shopping trip to the grocery store that sponsored the research, and followed me around the store videotaping my trip and commentary.

During the interview, I had waxed so enthusiastic about the store that has become my new "store of choice" that they actually came back and went with me on a shopping trip to *that* store, too (though that one wasn't videotaped, as they didn't have permission--they just snapped a few pictures with a cell-phone camera).

All told, I spent about 8 hours with the team, and got to ask them some questions, too (one has a masters in cultural anthropology, the other background in neuro-linguistic programming and design). And I was paid $250, to boot. So I brought in a wee bit of income and had an interesting experience. I'll be curious what comes of the study in terms of how the initiating store changes in the future!