Save Money on Pet Costs: Splitting Larger Doses of Frontline Flea Medication

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Updated details for 2015, but it still works! Now that we have two dogs (three for a while), we’ve had to keep a closer eye on pet costs. One regular expense is flea medication, for which we have found Frontline Plus to work acceptably. If you buy it straight from the vet or in a retail pet store it can be around $15 per monthly dose. Here, I’ll show you how we get it down to between $1.50 and $3 per dog per month. That’s nearly $300 a year in savings for us! We have dogs so that is what I’m using for my numbers, but it would work the same way for cats.

Online shopping savings. In the past, we’ve found that the cheapest price has been on eBay, getting costs down to about $8 per dose for the exact same 6-pack product packaging. Here’s an example of the cost comparison for their “Orange box” meant for small dogs (22 lbs and under).

Store Cost (w/ shipping) Cost per 0.67 ml dose
1800PetMeds.com (“retail”) $75 for 6-pack Orange $12.50
Amazon.com $66 for 6-pack Orange $11
eBay (sample listing) $50 for 6-pack Orange $8.33

 

Online shopping + DIY savings. For a while, eBay sellers were selling the biggest size (Red box) made for 89+ lb. dogs along with with glass vials and syringes. The idea is that the consumer could split the medication fluid into smaller doses themselves. I’m not sure what happened, but I believe that the manufacturer Merial pressured eBay and/or their authorized sellers to stop the sale of such kits. I don’t see any such kits available for sale any longer.

I still believe the DIY method can be efffective and safe if done properly. I can understand why the manufacturer can’t officially condone such actions. But I’ve seen articles from licensed vets and also multiple reader comments saying their own vet approves this practice. Pet shelters and rescues also commonly do this.

You can also achieve more accurate dosing for your pet. By default, Merial categorizes dogs into four broad categories: 0-22 lbs, 23-44 lbs, 45-88 lbs, and 89-132 lbs. This corresponds to vial sizes of 0.67 ml, 1.34 ml, 2.68 ml, and 4.02 ml. I don’t know about you, but I see a pretty big gap between 45 and 88 pounds.

They have to make sure even the biggest dogs in the range are adequately dosed, so if you divide the vial size by the largest size for each category in pounds, you get 0.0305 ml per pound every time. So if you have a 25 lb. dog why give them double the dose of a 22 lb. dog? Just give them a bit more (0.76 ml) and you should be fine – and save even more money!

Here’s an estimate of your savings for smaller dogs. For math simplicity, I’ll assume you have exactly a 22 lb. dog. Remember, if you go by the boxes and have a 25 lb. dog, you’d need to get the bigger and often more expensive size of a 44 lb dog. I’ll assume you buy the biggest size (Red box) made for 89+ lb. dogs and split it into the exact same 0.67 ml doses as the 22b size (Orange box) using a glass vial and plastic syringes.

Store Cost (w/ shipping) Cost per 0.67 ml dose
1800PetMeds.com (“retail”) $75 for 6-pack Red
(6 x 4.02 ml = 36 x 0.67 ml doses)
$2.08
Amazon.com $66 for 6-pack Red
(6 x 4.02 ml = 36 x 0.67 ml doses)
$1.83
eBay (sample listing) $54 for 6-pack Red
(6 x 4.02 ml = 36 x 0.67 ml doses)
$1.50

 

Online shopping + DIY savings + Generic brand savings. In 2011, the patent for the main active ingredient in Frontline (fipronil) expired. Generic options now include Sentry FiproGuard Plus and PetArmor Plus. If you bought Pet Armor Plus for 4-22 lb dogs (Orange equivalent), that would cost $57 per 6-pack on Amazon, a savings of 7%.

For some odd reason, you can also find PetArmor Plus for 89+ lb dogs on Amazon for roughly $38 including shipping for a 6-pack of their 89+ lb (Red equivalent). That’s less money for a bigger size!? If you split this package for 22 lb dog, that would work out to $1.06 per 0.67 ml dose.

Proper precautions. Here are some tips to make sure you split your doses safely and effectively.

  • Use protective gloves. You’d ideally want to do this with the official product anyway, but you’ll be handling it more when splitting doses so a box of latex or similar gloves is a good investment.
  • Keep medication away from light and air. You can either use a dark, glass vial or keep it an airtight syringe in airtight bag in a dark, cool space. When using a plastic syringe as the applicator, remove any needle! You’re just drizzling the stuff on your dog’s skin surface. You can buy kits of glass vials and plastic syringes on eBay for around 5 bucks.
  • Do not mix and match dog and cat Frontline. The ingredients may be the same, but sometimes they aren’t. Also, even if the ingredients are the same, the ratios are not and that is also important.
  • Don’t overdose! As with all these flea medications, you can do some trial and error to see what brand and dosage level works for your dog. You might need more or less than indicated, but I would avoid going over the max manufacturer recommendation.

As you can see, you get most of the savings from simply doing the splitting. You can get some additional savings by buying online and/or going generic. eBay is often cheapest online source, but I know some folks may be wary of authenticity so Amazon or your local warehouse store may be another option.

Ting GSM SIM Cards: Bring Your Own Phone + Referral Credit

Updated August 2016. Here’s the current status of things:

  • New Ting customers get a $25 credit with a referral link. Thanks in advance if you use it, you’ll be saving my parents some money on their bill, as I set them up with Ting service and an old iPhone.
  • GSM SIM cards currently cost $9 + free shipping via USPS Priority Mail.
  • You can bring over any used T-Mobile or unlocked GSM phone. Ting phone compatibility checker tool. .
  • You can buy a used iPhone 5 for about $109 now, or a used Samsung Galaxy S4 for $110.

tinglogTing provides mobile phone service with a “pay-only-for-what-you-use” structure. While their classic program required Sprint phones, their newer GSM program is compatible with nearly any phone that takes GSM sim cards. Supposedly 80% of smartphones now work with GSM service and have SIM card slots. My old Verizon iPhone 5 was GSM unlocked. Their GSM SIM card service uses the T-Mobile GSM MVNO network.

I’ve been customer of the Ting GSM program with my out-of-contract iPhone 5 for over a year now. Useful links:

  • Ting interactive rate calculator to see how much they would charge you. If you are not a power user or have a lot of variability in your usage, Ting can often save money over time. (Tip: You can set alerts or even hard usage caps, so you’ll never exceed a certain level.)
  • Ting phone compatibility checker tool. Bringing over a used GSM or Sprint phone is the best deal in my opinion. You can find a lot of good, cheap GSM phones on the secondary market now, like the Galaxy S series or iPhone 5 or 5S.

Here’s a screenshot of their NEW rate breakdown:

tingnewdata

Here’s a screenshot of their OLD rate breakdown. You can see that their data used to be much more expensive, working out to $19 for the first GB, $29 for 2GB tier, and then $15 per extra GB of data (billed pretty much down to the penny). As of 8/5/2016, the numbers are $16 for the first GB, $20 for 2 GB tier, and then $10 per extra GB of data (billed in $10 increments). Pretty much no matter what, the new data plan is cheaper than the old data plan.

Verizon Wireless New Plans August 2015: Existing Customers Should Compare Prices

In August 2015, Verizon Wireless announced that it was ending 2-year contracts for new customers. Before, you got a ~$450 discount on a new phone but also got locked into a 2-year contract with an inflated monthly plan price. Now, you have to buy your own phone, but the monthly plan is cheaper. The basic monthly breakdown is that you pick a shared data size below and add $20 per phone line. Unlimited talk and text. Data overages are $15 per GB.

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It was supposed to be simple, but there was still a bit of confusion. Here are some clarifications. Verizon customers with grandfathered or legacy plans can keep their plans if they want to. But if they switch to a new plan, they can’t switch back. Verizon customers currently in a 2-year contract can even keep and renew their existing plan with another 2-year contract if they want to (and get a subsidy).

With the previous structure, folks who finished their 2-year contracts and frugally kept their old phone were still stuck paying the inflated monthly plan price. Reader CJ tipped me off that such post-contract customers should try switching to the new plans with lower monthly prices:

Not sure if you saw it, but Verizon finally got rid of 2-year contracts, which means anyone not currently under contract should switch to the new “Verizon Plan” and save a bunch of $$ instantly. I just did, and for 3GB of data my plan went from around $140 for 2 phones down to $80.

If you are currently still under a Verizon contract, you can also switch over to the new plans. If you are currently under a 2-year contract you will have a $40 per phone access fee instead of the new $20 per phone access fee. (That $20 a month is the baked-in subsidy payback. Notice that $20 x 24 months is $480 and the upfront phone discount was ~$450.) Depending on your data plan size, most people will probably see not net change in price, but some may discover a semi-hidden discount.

Bottom line: Verizon has new plans. All customers (on or off contract) should check to see if switching over will save you money. You may or may not discover any savings, but Verizon won’t automatically check for you.

CoPatient: Helping You Answer “Is This a Reasonable Medical Bill?”

copatient0High-deductible health plans are still growing in popularity. While these can be a great way to save on your monthly premiums, it also means that when you do have to visit the emergency room, you get to tackle nearly the entire bill instead of a small co-pay. The problem is that most medical bills cannot be understood by mere mortals. Likely, the doctors and nurses themselves have no clue how that $6,344 bill for a broken arm got generated.

Right now there are honest people that just got their bill, but they are frantically doing internet research because they have no idea if their huge bill is correct or what is “reasonable”. It would be nice for this problem not to exist, but until then I wanted to point out a service called CoPatient. They are made of health insurance company veterans and hire their own medical billers and coders.

You send them your unpaid medical bills, and they review it for free to determine if there are any errors or overcharges. They will send you a free estimate of what they think they can do for you. If you allow them to negotiate on your behalf, they work on a contingency basis and keep 35% of the actual savings. If they don’t save you money, you pay nothing.

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Here’s an example patient flowchart (click to enlarge):

copatient3small

The legwork that the consumer needs to do is request a detailed, itemized bill from the hospital providers. Some tips from ABC News:

Ask what services are covered under your room and facility charges
Ask what treatments were provided
Identify the date and time of when you were admitted
Clarify medical terminology that is confusing
Specifically look for erroneous double charges, for mischarges, and for situations where a charge defies common sense (e.g., a $22 Q tip).

Here are some quick stats, taken from their website and marketing materials:

More than 80 percent of the medical bills that CoPatient analyzes provide opportunities for meaningful savings. On average, CoPatient saves its customers 40 percent on their medical bills. Since its launch in 2014, CoPatient has saved consumers more than $1 million.

According their iPhone app page, CoPatient finds errors on 80% of all bills it reviews and saves folks an average of $3,000. Their FAQ states that it usually takes ~5 days for the review (more for complicated cases), and 3-6 weeks for the appeals and negotiation process. There is no minimum bill size, they will investigate that $500 unpaid bill.

I’ve never used CoPatient myself, but I would definitely consider it if I was faced with a $5,000+ bill that I didn’t understand. I mean, what would I have to lose?

On a related note, this is yet another consumer service that offers to save money on a contingency basis. That is, they only make money if they save you money. A few others:

  • AutoSlash: Helps you track price drops on rental cards. They make money when you rebook at a lower price with them.
  • Paribus: Helps you automatically request price adjustments on all your online retail purchases. They take a cut of the price drop savings.
  • AirHelp, Refund.Me, AirTaxBack: Get fees refunded for certain cancelled or missed flights to/from Europe. They take a cut of the refund.

Costco Pharmacy: Save on Prescription Drug Costs

rxbottleWhile standing in line at the Costco pharmacy, I found myself in a discussion with another Costco member who apparently saves over a thousand dollars a year on her meds by buying them there instead of her neighborhood CVS. (I also got an earful about the Medicare Part D “donut hole“.) I’m fortunate enough that I am currently not on any prescription medications, but OECD health statistics have Americans spending $1,000 a year per capita on pharmaceuticals. A similar survey by Consumer Reports arrived at $768 in average out-of-pocket costs per person.

Here are some things you may or may not know about the Costco Pharmacy:

  • Costco posts their drug price list online for everyone to see. No other pharmacy chain does this. Gee, I wonder why?
  • You don’t need a Costco membership to buy things from the pharmacy. You can simply tell the front door greeter/checker your prescription that you are going to the pharmacy.
  • Costco has their own “drug discount card”, called the Costco Member Prescription Program (CMPP), which is for people who have no prescription drug insurance or whose insurance does not cover all of their prescription medication. This is for Costco members only. Since you never know what drug will be covered or not, everyone should enroll and save 5% to 40% if/when you ever need it. You must fill out an enrollment form and return it to your Costco pharmacist.
  • Costco sells pet medication. The hardest part may be getting your vet to write you a prescription, since many vets fill their own orders as a significant part of their income. The CMPP above also applies to pet meds.

In 2013, Consumer Reports found Costco Pharmacy to offer the lowest prices overall when they compared a basket of popular generic drugs like Lipitor and Singulair. Given the “generic” terminology, I was surprised to learn how much prices can still vary.

Our secret shoppers called more than 200 pharmacies throughout the U.S. to get prices on a month’s supply of five blockbuster drugs that have recently become available as generics: Actos (pioglitazone), for diabetes; Lexapro (escitalopram), an antidepressant; Lipitor (atorvastatin), for high cholesterol; Plavix (clopidogrel), a blood thinner; and Singulair (montelukast), for asthma. The result? A whopping difference of $749, or 447 percent, between the highest- and lowest-priced stores.

Costco was the least expensive overall, and you don’t need to be a member to use its pharmacy. A few independent pharmacies came in even cheaper, though their prices varied widely, as did grocery-store pharmacies. The online retailers Healthwarehouse.com and FamilyMeds.com also had very low prices. On the other end of the spectrum, CVS, Rite Aid, and Target had the highest retail prices.

cr_costcopharm

The basic takeaway appears to be that if any your drug costs are not nearly completely covered by insurance, you should do a price comparison with Costco pharmacy (you can also order meds online using their home delivery option if you don’t have a warehouse nearby). The cost differential can be very significant, especially over time. Adding up your annual savings may convince you to forgo the convenience of that 24/7 drive-thru down the road.

Even if you have prescription insurance, it might still be cheaper to get a 90-day supply from Costco as opposed to paying three co-pays for three 30-day refills. (Watch out if you have Part D though, as paying cash may mean it doesn’t count towards your deductible and thus won’t help you get out of that aforementioned donut hole.)

AutoSlash Review: Car Rental Price Drop Tracker

autoslashfb180Here’s a quick tip that I’ve been using regularly this summer for saving money on car rentals.

A quick primer on car rental reservations. When you make a reservation at most car rental shops, you simply agree to a price and make a non-binding reservation without giving any payment information. You can cancel at any time, without penalty. Technically, even if you just don’t show up there is no penalty besides bad karma. The flipside is that they overbook and occasionally your subcompact turns into a Ford Crown Victoria.

First, book your car rental as early as possible using the best deal you can find on your own, be it through a business account, promo code you found online, or using an opaque booking site like Hotwire or Costco Travel. As there are no penalties for cancellation, so you want to start the process as soon as possible.

(Do not use AutoSlash to make your initial reservation. Well, you can try, and then just wait for the future price drop notifications, but you may not get a very good price initially.)

Next, enter your reservation information into AutoSlash.com to monitor price drops. I first wrote about AutoSlash back in 2011, and while their service has changed a bit due to industry pushback, it can still be a valuable service. (Their initial search service excludes many major agencies, but their price-drop tracking service includes them all including Avis and Hertz.)

AutoSlash will then continuously search for a lower price using your dates and preferences, often using coupon codes that you may not know about. If they can find something lower, they will e-mail you. If the new deal looks better than your old one, you can go through their site and book the new deal. Just cancel your old reservation afterward and you’ll have taken advantage of the price drop with no fees or penalties.

I just went from a $66 one-day rental with Alamo to $29 with Avis:

autoslash2

Some potential minor issues:

  • You may be presented with quotes from lesser-known rental agencies. I normally try to support smaller businesses, but in this case I am wary of being improperly charged for a dent or scratch on the $25,000+ vehicle they are lending me. I have used Dollar/Budget/Alamo/National/Enterprise without any problems.
  • The lower price quotes may not offer pickup at the exact location you booked initially, especially if not at an airport. Depending on your situation, the savings may be worth a bit of a walk or a short taxi ride.
  • You may get a lot of price drop e-mails, and also multiple confirmations of new bookings. I know that for one reservation where I re-booked multiple price drops, I probably accumulated over 20 e-mails.
  • Because AutoSlash uses promo codes it pulls from around the web, I have read stories that a rental agency can deny a price quote because it claims that you weren’t eligible to use that promo code. I have never run into a problem like this (and would otherwise use promo codes from the internet anyway), but I thought that I should mention it.

Even if AutoSlash never e-mails you, at least you have some additional peace of mind that you got close to the best deal on your auto rental. All for free and with minimal effort.

Alternative View: Keep Up With The OTHER Joneses

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We’ve all heard the phrase “Keeping up with the Joneses”. It even has its own Wikipedia page with competing origin stories. Perhaps the greatest marketing trick ever is making people equate social status with material goods.

Instead of worrying about the neighbors who (supposedly) make more money than us, what if we instead looked carefully at the neighbors who make less than us? Their valuable example is what can actually help us grow real wealth. What am I talking about? Michael Taylor of Bankers Anonymous explains in his post Saving is never easy:

But – and here’s a key point that you should understand – if you make $50,000 per year, you probably live on the same street as someone who makes quite a bit less than you, say, $40,000 a year.

Somehow your neighbor making $40,000 has figured out how to pay all the bills and sock away an extra few hundred dollars every month. I don’t know she does it. Frankly, I’m resentful of her success. But I’m also impressed.

Also, she doesn’t understand how the family of four two blocks away can survive on $30,000. And yet, that family does it too.

Meanwhile, in another part of your same town, another family is going completely broke on $120,000 a year. If they could just find an extra 10% more income, they think, the checkbook would balance. They could pay down that ever-growing credit card balance. But each month comes and goes, and the debts grow.

Let’s consider this in the context of financial freedom and early retirement. If you wanted to oversimplify things, you would say that you need to control your spending to the household median income level (say, $50,000 a year) while boosting your household income to double that (say, $100,000 a year). A nice, round 50% savings rate. I’m sure many households who make over $100,000 would laugh at the idea of spending under $50,000 a year. Impossible. Can’t do it. But guess what? Half of all US households are doing exactly that every day, so it certainly isn’t impossible! For some reason of human psychology, it is just incredibly hard to make that choice.

Best Frugal Non-Stick Fry Pan / Saute Pan

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I think it was Alton Brown’s food show that first told me that all non-stick pans were pretty much disposable and simply weren’t meant to last very long. Therefore, you should just buy the standard fry pan found at your local restaurant supply store (these target commercial kitchens, but usually open to the public). My version was to buy whatever was cheap at Ross’s or TJ Maxx for 15 or 20 bucks and then throw it out when things started to stick. However, right now America’s Test Kitchen is sharing the results of their Nonstick Skillets equipment review to registered members (free, only e-mail required).

Is is actually worth it to spend extra money for a better non-stick pan?

Well, yes and no. ATK tested overall design, cooking quality, and coating durability. They made crepes and fried eggs with no oil or other fat. I’ll leave the details to their free site members, but their free video reveals the top winner as the $40 T-fal Professional 12″ Non-Stick Fry Pan, which actually beat out the $130+ All-Clad 12-Inch Nonstick Skillet on merit alone and not value. (There’s a reason the T-Fal is the #1 selling saute pan on Amazon!) Given that All-Clad is usually considered the “gold standard”, that means you can get a top-quality pan for $40 as compared to my $20 discount store pans. I’ve never owned a T-Fal but this will be my next non-stick pan.

You may note that the All-Clad has a “lifetime replacement guaranty against defects”, which some people suggest makes the All-Clad premium worth it over the long run. This warranty requires you to mail in your pan for inspection, and then All-Clad decides whether or not your damage was due to a defect. From reading through the Amazon reviews, this is hit or miss. Some people got new replacements (happy review!) while others got rejections (angry review!). The overall trend appears to be that chips in the coating alone won’t get you a replacement. Considering I could buy three of the better-rated T-Fals and still be ahead in terms of money spent, I can’t it being worth the hassle of hoping for a replacement. I do still like my classic stainless-steel pans from All-Clad though, as they actually can last a lifetime.

Also see: Best frugal chef’s knife and best frugal cast-iron skillet.

Portion Distortion: Change Your Perspective, Eat Better, Spend Less

I’ve got one month left on my $600 in weight-loss bets, and an important tool that has helped me success is portion control. This way, I can still enjoy most of my favorite foods while still losing 1-2 pounds a week. Even naughty things like pizza, pasta, and yes even the occasional chips or french fries. (Of course there are also lots of fruits and veggies to balance things out.)

The National Institute of Health has a page on portion distortion, which outlines how our idea of reasonable portion sizes have changed over the last 20 years. (The slides appear to be from 2004, so make that 30 years?!) Everything from bagels to pizza slices to soft drinks used to be much smaller…just like our bodies! The average American man weighs 195.5 lbs now, which is 30 lbs more than in the 1960s. The average American woman weighs 166 lbs now, 26 lbs more. Here are their slides for cheeseburgers and french fries.

portion1b

portion2b

Just this week, I saw a McDonald’s commercial offering a cheeseburger and small fries for $2.50. They look so small now, but would have actually started out as an oversized meal (due to the extra meat patty).

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The double cheeseburger has 430 calories, 24g protein, 21g fat. (The single cheeseburger has 290 calories.) The small french fries (2.6 oz.) have 230 calories, 2g, 11g fat. Bring your own water bottle and you’ll have a meal with 660 calories, almost exactly 1/3rd of a 2,000 calorie day. I’m not recommending this as a daily healthy meal, but I found it interesting that you can still order a 1960s-sized meal on their menu which doesn’t completely blow up your nutrition plans for the week.

This NY Times article has many more ideas for meals at restaurants under 750 calories. What do they say is the “most valuable trick”? Don’t eat an entire portion.

Instead of splitting an entree between my wife and myself, I prefer to order two entrees (we like variety and enjoy sharing) but make sure that we leave enough food for lunch the next day. I do the same thing for meals cooked at home; I cook around the same amount as before (due to habit and my use of recipes) but split it into two meals. At the same time, rarely having to pay for lunch saves me money.

I also pulled weight-loss tricks from other sources like eating less “empty” carbs, including enough protein and fiber to feel fuller longer, and keeping healthy snacks like fruit and nuts around at all times. But realizing that my previous portion sizes were simply too big has definitely helped me the most.

If I wanted to stretch this idea further into personal finance, I could point to how the square footage of US houses have doubled since the 1950s, even as average household sizes have shrunk.

Home Improvement Receipts: Scan Now, Save Indefinitely

housecostbasis2For many people, when they sell a home they don’t even consider taxes. But over time, especially if you live in a relatively expensive area, more and more people will bump up against the federal capital gains exclusions of $250,000 for individuals and $500,000 for couples. (You must have lived in the home for at least two out of the five years before the sale.)

This NY Times article projects that the following share of homeowners in certain high-cost cities will exceed the 250k/500k limits within the next 10 years, assuming just 3.5% annual growth and no further improvements. (Also consider the uncomfortable idea that you really can’t know if you’ll be single or married when it comes time to sell your home.)

housecostbasis

Most importantly, the article provides a good reminder to save all of your home-related receipts because they can raise your cost basis and thus reduce any potential capital gains. It’s so easy, and those little pieces of paper can literally be worth thousands of dollars down the road when the tax bill hits.

In general, you should save all of your home repair and remodeling receipts, although things considered maintenance won’t count (painting, fixing leaks, patching cracks, etc.). Here are a bunch of things taken from IRS Pub 523, Selling Your Home. Don’t take this as specific tax advice, but instead as a potential reminder in case you have done something on this list but don’t have the receipts properly stored away and archived.

Home Acquisition and Closing Costs.

  • Charges for installing utility services, legal fees for preparing the sales contract, title search fees, recording fees, survey fees, transfer or stamp taxes, and owner’s title insurance.

Home Improvements

  • Additions. Bedrooms, bathrooms, garages, decks, patios.
  • Exterior. New roof, siding, satellite dish, storm windows.
  • Interior. Built-in appliances, kitchen modernization, flooring, wall-to-wall carpeting, fireplace.
  • Lawns and grounds. New driveways, landscaping, fences, retaining walls, sprinkler system, swimming pools.
  • Systems. Heating, air conditioning, furnace, duct work, air/water filtration, security system.
  • Plumbing. Septic, water heater, water softener, water filtration.
  • Insulation. Attic, walls, floors, pipes, ductwork.

Physical receipts can get lost or fade over time, but the IRS accepts electronic records so it is quite easy to make a PDF using either your home scanner or just your smartphone. I use the well-reviewed Scanner Pro app and am impressed by its quality, but there are many competitors out there that I haven’t tried. You can then save to a cloud service like Dropbox or Evernote, or simply e-mail them to a searchable gmail account as another form of backup.

Best Frugal Chef’s Knife – America’s Test Kitchen (For 20 Years In a Row!)

fibroxUpdate: ATK just sent me a new review that considered newer chef’s knives that have come onto the market, and the same knife won again! They say it has now been on top for 20 straight years. You can see the methodology and full rankings here, but it requires a free registered account. There’s also a good embedded video that doesn’t require registration.

Original post:

Some of you may be familiar with the PBS cooking show America’s Test Kitchen. The same company publishes the magazines Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country, which you can think of as Consumer Reports for cooking in that they do not accept any advertising and are entirely subscriber-supported. I happened to find a bunch of back issues on sale at a community garage sale a few weeks ago for a dollar. Wow, I can only describe the content as heaven for cooking geeks! Lots of good tips inside.

Common frugal wisdom is that you don’t really need a 15-piece knife set with a fancy wooden block that costs hundreds of bucks, it’s mostly marketing. The 8-inch chef’s knife is often recommended as the most versatile and useful knife. (I’m partial to the Santoku-style knife or hefty Asian cleaver, myself.)

Cook’s Country tested the 8-inch chef’s knives from all the major brands that cost under $50 – Wusthof, Henckels (various), MAC, Calphalon, OXO, Chicago Cutlery, Victorinox and Farberware.

The bargain chef’s knife winner? The Victorinox Fibrox 8-Inch Chef’s Knife outperformed many more expensive competitors including a $50+ knife from the Wusthof Gourmet line and everyone else. The knife was judged to be sturdy, stayed sharp, and had a well-designed, comfortable handle. Amazon has 700+ now 3,000+ reviews with a 4.8/5 star average.

Another frugal chopping tip is that you don’t really need expensive cutting boards, let alone multiple ones for food safety reasons. Simply buy a set of flexible cutting mats to place on top of one cutting board or durable surface. They are thin yet sturdy, and can be rolled up like a funnel for transferring ingredients easily. You can get a set of four CounterArt Flexible Cutting Mats for only $8.50, which are the current best-selling ones on Amazon. Comes with Microban antibacterial stuff and is dishwasher safe.

Big Data Knows If You’re Comparison Shopping… Or Not

cheapscore0One of the few benefits of getting older is that my car insurance premiums are much lower today than in my 20s. But is that low rate caused by insurance companies knowing that I recently switched high-speed internet and refinanced my mortgage twice? Via drawpoker of Bogleheads, here’s an NPR article called Being A Loyal Auto Insurance Customer Can Cost You about the practice of “price optimization”.

“Well, it’s really profit maximization,” says Bob Hunter, with the Consumer Federation of America. He says insurance companies can buy software that compiles an astonishing amount of data on everyone who buys almost anything, anywhere.

“They have all the information on what you buy at your grocery store. How many apples, how many beers, how many steaks,” he says. “They have all the information on your house. They have incredible amounts of information on are you staying with DirecTV when Verizon is cheaper.”

A sophisticated algorithm crunches that data and spits out an index showing how sensitive a customer is to price increases. Only the insurance company knows the index.

From a USA Today article on the same topic:

Many insurance companies now use a sophisticated data-mining technique called “price optimization” to set rates just high enough that inertia keeps customers from shopping around. Research found that the longer customers had been with their insurers on average, the greater their savings when they switched, due to all the rate increases they experienced during their loyal years. […]

A 2013 Earnix survey found that 45% of large insurance companies and 26% of all insurance companies in North America currently optimize prices, with an additional 36% of all companies reporting they plan to adopt this technique in the future. What this means is that given two customers with identical risk profiles, the one who’s judged less likely to switch carriers if his rate increases will pay more.

In other words, forget just FICO scores affecting your insurance rates. Your grocery club card, your mortgage quote requests, your switching from cable to DSL, your social media activity, it all could be funneling into some sort of “Frugal Cheapskate” Score. If you don’t shop around elsewhere, you probably won’t shop around for your insurance so they can hike it up without worrying about you jumping ship.

If you want some hints as to where you should start your comparison shopping, you may want to check with your state insurance department. For example, California provides some numbers for your rough situation without needing any personally-identifying information. Here are some numbers for a married couple living in Alameda Country, driving 9k to 16k a year, with no accidents or violations. The lowest average premiums are coming from USAA, Wawanesa, and Anchor General.

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