We paid off our mortgage. We contacted Provident Funding and requested the full amount due including any accrued interest, the money was sent via bank wire, and the loan is recorded as paid in full. As you might imagine, I spent many hours contemplating this move. In a somewhat anticlimactic fashion, the letter below warning us we had to pay the property taxes ourselves was the first physical acknowledgement of the occasion. I found it amusing that it was addressed “Dear Homeowner”, as I never really felt like I owned my home until now.
A bit of history. When we first bought our home, we looked at the common rules of thumb regarding house affordability and ended up paying 20% down with a initial mortgage less than 3 times our combined income. Indeed, we qualified for the mortgage on my wife’s documented income alone. We thought about getting a 15-year note but went for the flexibility of the 30-year note, while paying it down at the 15-year pace. Over subsequent refinances, our interest rate dropped from 6% to 3%. Even though this made our required monthly payment much less, we kept up the higher monthly payments which had us on the pace of a 10-year payoff.
Many people enjoy the convenience of Amazon Prime, which for $79 a year gives you free 2-day shipping with no minimum purchase requirement, a decent streaming-video library, and a so-so Kindle book lending library. You may also know that you can share your shipping benefits with other people in your same household (with the ability to use multiple shipping addresses). At the same time, many people choose to get their stuff shipped to their workplace as one of those addresses. Amazon now explicitly allows you to share your shipping benefits with four other coworkers, which mean 5 coworkers can get free 2nd-day shipping by splitting $79 a year. See Share Your Amazon Prime Benefits:
Free or paid Amazon Prime members can share their shipping benefits with up to four additional family members living in the same household, or up to four coworkers. Other Amazon Prime membership benefits such as Prime Instant Video and the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library can’t be shared.
[...] Amazon Mom and Amazon Student members with Amazon Prime shipping benefits and customers receiving a free 30 days of Amazon Prime benefits with Kindle Fire won’t be able to share their benefits.
Only the primary owner gets the video streaming, but I think the shipping benefits are worth the most as Netflix only runs $7.99 a month with a bigger library. The only slightly hard part would perhaps be to collect payment, but really a free lunch per year should do it. Go make some friends!
Every once in a while I get asked “do you think I can afford XXX?” and I think to myself this must be what it’s like to be Suze Orman. Since I’m throwing out rules of thumb, let’s get to cars. This will be a controversial one, but I like it and following it has worked out well for me.
Car Affordability Rule of Thumb
You can afford a car if you can pay CASH for it while still making timely progress on your other goals. I repeat: If you can’t pay cash for it, you can’t afford it. By cash I don’t mean retirement savings in an IRA, I’m talking about actual cash in the bank (or at least something you could quickly sell for cash in the bank).
If you have to justify it with “I’m in medical/law/computer/finance/basketweaving school and I’ll be making the bucks soon!”… no you still can’t afford it. If you justify it with “I need a brand new car because I need something reliable and anything less will explode! Do you want me to die???”… no you still can’t afford it.
For the 4th week in a row, the #1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 is “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis featuring Wanz. It’s also currently the #1 download on Amazon MP3 Top 100. The song is about… frugality? …buying clothes from Goodwill? …how paying $50 for a brand-name t-shirt is stupid? From Wikipedia:
Macklemore spoke to MTV News about the meaning of the song: “Rappers talk about, oh I buy this and I buy that, and I spend this much money and I make it rain, and this type of champagne and painting the club, and this is the kind of record that’s the exact opposite,” he explained. “It’s the polar opposite of it. It’s kind of standing for like let’s save some money, let’s keep some money away, let’s spend as little as possible and look as fresh as possible at the same time.”
Here’s the YouTube version (some explicit NSFW lyrics!) and also a link to the clean version. Is this a sign? Or is it just a catchy beat like Gangnam style?
Forbes has an article about how the share economy is taking off. The primary focus is on AirBNB, which lets you rent out a room in your home with ease and last year booked around 15 million nights of stays. I’ve written about some of these sites before, and while I mostly forgot about them, some people are going quite well with them. “Almost anything you can buy new, you can also rent from a stranger.”
One person lives off of income generated by renting his house out whenever he can (while he cordons himself off to an unattached area). One person makes more money dog-sitting from home than working at Starbucks. One person rented his car out part-time for more than the monthly payments, so now he has three cars being rented out. Yet another drives his car around ridesharing every night and is basically a taxi service. These people may be the exception rather than the rule, but is it proof that the next generation of millennials really don’t care about ownership anymore? Is it better to just have access to whatever you need when you want it? Peer-to-peer everything!
Here’s an infographic from the print version of the article that lists sharing websites of all types from around the world, with the data source being Rachel Botsman of CollaborativeConsumption.com.
Here are links specifically dealing with sites that allow you to make money from your own stuff (US-focused only) – be it a room, a car, or your power tools:
A few readers asked for a baby update, and the 6-month-old mark felt like a good time. At this point, she is kinda-sorta sleeping through the night, kinda-sorta eating solid food, kinda-sorta becoming mobile, and 100% awesome! When people ask me how I’m doing these days, I paraphrase a quote attributed to Tina Fey:
I’ve never been so tired. I’ve never been so happy.
Before I go any further, let me say that parenting is a guilt-ridden minefield of books and experts saying “you should ALWAYS do THIS and not THAT”. But really, I feel like the longer I am a parent the less I judge others. What works for me may not work for you. What works for you may not work for me. Most of us are sleep-deprived and just trying to get through the day.
Baby gifts as risk-pooling. I haven’t really written about frugality and parenthood, and I blame it all on my generous and fantastic set of family, friends, and co-workers. I have never received such a large quantity of gifts in a such a short period of time. This gifting custom turns out to be a very clever form of “baby cost risk-pooling”. When a friend has a baby, you get them a gift, spaced out over decades. When you have a baby, 100 people give you a gift. We really didn’t have to buy very many things on our own, and still have a huge pile of unopened clothing and toys to this day. (Also see baby registry review and follow-up.)
Formula & Breastfeeding. Mrs. MMB was very determined and motivated to exclusively breastfeed our child, and she succeeded. I emphasis her, because if it were up to me, we’d probably at least supplement with formula since waking up every 3 hours for months in a row would have broken me. Both of us were primarily formula babies. The hospital was helpful in giving us lactation consultations.
Recent healthcare law changes now require insurance plans to provide a free breast pump for every new child. I don’t know about now, but this led to shortages in our area. We had to wait in line at a Target before it opened as if it was Black Friday, but half an hour later we walked out with a nearly $300 Medela pump for free. Pumping at work has been difficult at times, but with some effort she has obtained a private pumping area. Read the rest of this entry…
I’m surprised I missed this earlier since I love this type of thing, but below is a nicely edited video from Gizmodo showing the 420 square feet apartment of TreeHugger.com CEO Graham Hill. It’s cool how they fit in the claimed 8 rooms using moving walls, floor-to-ceiling storage, and clever furniture and appliances: living room, office, bedroom, guest bedroom, dining room, bathroom, kitchen, and I guess they’re counting the closet as a room? You really have to see it to understand.
I like this concept, especially when efficient use of space allows you to be able to afford to live in the heart of a good city where you can do much of your “living” outside in parks, cafes, bars, and restaurants. I’ve seen the moving wall before inside this Hong Kong apartment (only 344 sf), and much of the furniture is from Resource Furniture (eek, that fancified murphy bed costs $12,000). Installing solar panels (on the window shades?) with battery storage is a nice touch, and I’d consider the portable induction burners and combo microwave/induction oven for my own place.
Like many of you, we have a Flexible Spending Account (FSA) that allows us to pay qualified healthcare expenses using tax-free money. (Did you know that FSA money is also exempt from payroll taxes in addition to income taxes?) I still think the idea of guessing your future healthcare expenses in a use-it-or-lose-it system is illogical at best, but it is what it is. (In 2012, there was talk from the IRS that this policy might be changed.) We recently even got one of those FSA debit cards so at least we don’t have to deal with faxing in receipts when purchasing from approved merchants.
If you didn’t exhaust your funds with insurance copays or deductibles, here’s a quick guide to using up all that cash. First, I should say that some plans allow a grace period until March 15th of the following year as opposed to a December 31st deadline to use your 2012 funds, so confirm with your FSA administrator.
The go-to product used to be buying over-the-counter drugs like cough medicine or painkillers. Effective January 1, 2011, the cost of over-the-counter medications became no longer eligible unless the medication was prescribed by a doctor. Keep this in mind and ask for a prescription for any OTC drugs you buy on a regular basis. Don’t forget, Target and Walmart now offer 30-day supplies for $4 and 90-day supplies for $10 on many generic drugs that are also packaged under over-the-counter labels.
FSA Items Still Available Over-The-Counter Without A Prescription
Eye care (contact lenses, solution, drops)
First aid supplies (bandages, gauze, tape) for emergency kits
Family planning products (birth control, pregnancy tests)
Home testing aids (blood pressure, diabetes, thermometers)
As a reference, I usually check the well-organized lists from health insurers like Aetna or third-party FSA administrators like Conexis. In addition, just about every online drugstore (Drugstore.com, CVS, Walgreens) now has a special FSA-eligible section, but some still include items which now require a prescription under the the new regulations (look for FSA vs. FSARx).
If you’re like me, you may wonder if a New Year’s resolution is even worth the bother. By chance, I was listening to an NPR interview today with a Dr. John Norcross, a psychology professor who decided to study this phenomenon. Listen, download the mp3, or read the transcript at NPR.org. Here are the highlights:
According to Norcross, 40-50% of people make New Year’s resolutions each year. How did they do when studied over time?
Dr. NORCROSS: In two of our longitudinal studies, 40 to 46 percent of New Year’s resolvers will be successful at six months. So, the half empty is it’s true, most people fail. But 40 to 46 percent is pretty impressive. [...]
You know, I was tired of people saying resolutions never succeed, we shouldn’t even try them. And I said, well, wait a minute, these are life-sustaining behaviors. What’s the alternative? So, the alternative was to track people starting before January 1st with the same behavioral goals, with the same motivation to stop or to take the resolutions but who just weren’t going to do anything then. And that’s – and only four percent of them were successful at six months. So you go from four percent, all the way up to 44, 46 percent by taking a New Year’s resolution seriously and trying to do something about it.
10 times the success rate! So people who made resolutions had a 40% success rate as compared to 4% from those who had the same motivations but didn’t set resolutions. Definitely encouragement for would-be resolvers. More goods news is that the studies found that slips or short lapses in the resolution did not always lead to failure. Many people used the lapses to strengthen their determination.
How to set a good resolution. Norcross recommends setting attainable, realistic, and measurable goals. So lose 10 pounds instead of 50 pounds or “a lot of weight”. Save $100 more from each paycheck vs. saving an extra $15,000 somehow during the year. Grandiose goals set you up for failure, as you need to have inner confidence that the specific goal you set is achievable. This agrees with the popular SMART mnemonic that says that goals should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-sensitive.
So, resolutions are good, especially if you do them right. However, you may want to keep number of resolutions to a minimum:
FLATOW: So you do one thing at a time, you know? Don’t say, I’m going to diet and quit smoking at the same time, because you’ll never get them both done.
Dr. NORCROSS: Well, there’s some interesting research on that. And that is, it depends how much time and commitment you have. If the two resolutions are related, then it may make sense to do it together. For example, losing weight and increasing exercise – most people see those things as going together. But if there are two very different resolutions, you may just be overwhelmed with the amount of time and energy that they call for. So, we ask people never more than two. If they’re related, two is great. Otherwise, just do one at a time.
Google has finally confirmed on their Official Gmail Blog that Google Voice and Gmail will continue to offer free calls to anywhere within the U.S. and to Canada through the end of 2013. Google continued its tradition of making their announcements very late in the year, although many people expect an advanced notice if they do decide to end this free service in the future (or risk some surprised and angry users). This handy service has been free since late 2010.
This should make the owners of the Obi100 (~$40) and Obi110 VoIP Telephone Adapters (~$50) very happy, as it allows you plug in any standard landline telephone and use Google Voice to make free phone calls. The more expensive model allows you to bridge a traditional POTS landline with your new VoIP gadgetry. The Obihai box has been around since January 2011.
If you don’t have one yet, this means that for under $40 you can get at the very least one full year of free phone service including long distance, with no computer required (broadband internet access is required). There is a one-time $20 fee to port your existing number over to Google Voice. Reader experiences have been overall very positive, with easy installation and the monthly savings can be very significant.
Even though I know you can get cheap, basic cell service for under $10, I do find value in having a smartphone with mobile data, for business reasons and mobile hotspot use if nothing else. My current contract is coming to an end, so I’ve been looking for the best current value in smartphone plans.
I kept hearing about a T-Mobile $30 a month prepaid plan that with a little “hacking”, you could turn into an unlimited minutes, text, and data plan for $30 a month with no contracts! Too good to be true? After many hours of research and tinkering around, I finally have it all set up and have been using it for a little over a week. Here’s a summary of what I discovered (ended up being a bit long):
Forgive me frugalistas, but I’ve only recently discovered the retro trend that I call YSIJ – Yummy Stuff in Jars. A friend of ours recently provided homemade passionfruit butter in classic Ball glass jar, which was awesome. Another friend gave us this cookie mix from Williams-Sonoma, which they sell for $19.95:
Upon closer inspection, it’s a Weck jar, which you can buy for under $4 at Crate and Barrel. Aren’t they sexy?
So for a nice DIY gift for well under $10, simply find/create/steal an awesome cookie or brownie recipe and leave out the butter and eggs. Layer the remaining dry ingredients all pretty-like in the jar, stick a nice rustic-looking label on it, add a bow from extra fabric, and you’re done. You don’t even need wrapping paper. Make them in bulk.
You could also bake something that keeps for a while and put it inside – candied nuts, toffee, trail mix, etc. Or cook something like grandma’s marinara sauce. Or actually preserve something, which I have never tried beyond some easy pickles. After they ingest your gift of love via food, they’re still left with a cool reusable jar.
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