Cutting Costs

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Put the Phone Down!!!If you have a cell phone, and you’re not the type to have it surgically implanted to the side of your head, chances are, you’re paying too much.

I’ve been with Virgin Wireless for just over a year now. The service has yet to fail me and I’ve covered a lot of ground over the past few months. Who needs “the network”, right?

The best feature though has been that, over the entire year, my cell phone bill has been $84.80.


Some out there, I’m sure, pay that much for just one month of service. For me, it’s a year. Think about the savings.

A thousand dollars? Or eighty-four bucks? Hmmmmm…

I know which route I’d take.

Actually, I already took it.

And look what happened to my consumer debt as a result…


I think not.

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Plymouth Horizon

So we are looking for a car.

It’s the season.

We lost the Sable when a deer slammed into it.

That left us two vehicles — our intrepid 1995 Taurus and our diligent and appropriately appointed 1991 Volkswagen Fox.

As you can see, we do not buy new cars here.

Although, that was not always the case.

Early in our married life together, when the future looked bright in every way, Mary and I bought two new cars back to back.

The first was stingy on gas and practical — a Plymouth Horizon. You remember, Plymouth’s answer to the VW Rabbit. The car was ice blue, with cloth seats and got over 30 miles to the gallon around town and better on the highway. And Mary and I took good care of that car.

Until the car was rear-ended as she waited to enter I-91.

Then, we bought our navy blue Taurus wagon. If we could have, we would still be driving it. But the car bottomed out at 216,000 miles. Who says American cars can’t break 200,000? At the end, the car could not make it up Kelly’s Hill, and we let it go.

Since then, it has been a menagerie of cars, mostly Volvo wagons with over 200,000 miles on them, and Tauruses with over 150,000. The kids, who were so young once, do not quite remember the salad days when we drove new cars. They pine for something that looks good and runs well.

And this, I confess, makes me a bad father because I continue to settle on these old clunkers with no car payments and short lives. At least, they are safe, but even now I worry because the Fox does not have airbags.

So we are looking for a car.

This is how I go about it.

I get on the internet and check craigslist. You can find anything on craigslist, especially, cars, car parts, whatever might have once resembled a car to an actual fine car with a pedigree like a Benz or Lexus.

When I find cars, I email the link to my kids for their approval.

For instance, I found an Escort in Southington, whose owner was just tired of the car and wanted to get rid of it for $500. Bingo.

Then there was a 1988 Honda Accord in Meriden. The car had 139,000 original miles. A Honda with 139,000 miles. Come on, that is like a new car, even though it was built in 1988.

The list goes on, but you get the point.

From there, we looked at cars in Manchester, Norwich, and Norwalk.

I didn’t stop.

I found a Saab in Manchester, N.H., that looked good and added it to the list.

“Dad, what are you doing?” one kid asked me. “I called for that Saab. It’s in New Hampshire. The guy who answered the phone told me I was crazy to drive all that way for an $800 car.”

“Come on,” I said, “it would be fun. We’ll drive up, spend time with Uncle Harold, and check out the car.”

Of course, I have no idea what registering an out of state car would be like, and would I really like to be driving back and forth to complete the paperwork.

Heck, it sounded like a good idea.

Another choice was the 1983 BMW 320i with only 140,000 miles on it. That would be a fun car to own.

And it would fit our budget.

I did tell you I’m working with a budget — between $500 and $700.

I feel somewhat guilty about that.

I mean how good can a car that’s going for that paltry sum really be?

I’m going to be sending my kids out in one of these. Am I crazy?

“Dad,” I heard from one of the 20-somethings, “you know I’m not materialistic, having grown up in this household, but I do think aesthetics are important.”


Just to make sure I knew what was being addressed I looked up the definition: Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary states: “1. a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of the beautiful and with judgments concerning beauty 2. the description and explanation of artistic phenomena and aesthetic experience by means of other sciences.”

It was two days later when I responded, “I’ve been thinking about what you said about aesthetics. I’ll tell you what aesthetics is. Aesthetics is getting from point A to point B with good gas mileage and safely.”

“I figured.”

Go figure.

At least I know all the money we’re spending on college and not on cars, isn’t going to waste.

This was a freelance column in the local weekly in town. You know, the page in the middle that’s geared towards the blue-hairs out there.

I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that I’m lone reader in the 18-35 age demographic for the entire newspaper, actually, not just the middle page. Yes, the type is even larger on this page. I’m not kidding.

Anyway, I just though it was a neat story and, to a certain degree, something that I wish I could do.

Just think — a $500 car would only have to last around 60 days before you’d be saving substantial money by driving it. Best of all, you could theoretically have a “new” car every few months. That’d be pretty neat.

My only hurdle is the fact that I don’t really know anything about servicing a car. I mean, I can change a tire and even top-up the washer fluid (though I’ve only done that once), but that’s where I draw the line.

So, obviously, I’m not a great candidate for driving a clunker on its last legs.

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Mrs. ButterworthBut I didn’t call Geico.

Maybe I should have?

15 Minutes are so hard to find these days…

I also doubt that Mrs. Butterworth would have answered the phone there anyway and that would’ve left me somewhat disappointed…

Anyway, it all started last week when I received my renewal notice from Allstate.

Yes, the same Allstate that screwed me over royally with my homeowners insurance.

To their defence, they’re also the same Allstate that didn’t raise my premiums after I essentially totaled my BMW.

It’s a love/hate relationship.

Anyway, I recognize the moderately thick square envelope every time it arrives and it’s never good news — basically nothing more than a HUGE bill.

My premium this time was $1102.20 for the next six months.

That’s actually up around $31 since this time last year.

Sure, that covers my two cars but, even still, I’ve always felt that $2200 per year was a little steep. Perhaps not after the accident, but prior to that, definitely.

So flipping through the entire policy, and thinking about raising my deductible or just plain lowering some of my coverage to save a few bucks I noticed that it listed me as a “32 year old single male.”

A few problems with that… First, I’m only 31. Second, I’m married. That last part is factual. I am male.

Now, in addition, I’d received one of those canned cold-call emails in the middle of the night from my Allstate insurance agent. You know the kind. After they’ve made their pitch for something they always close with the standard, “If you have any questions about your policy, please don’t hesitate to ask!”


I filled out the online form and said, “I got married back in 2006 but my policy still lists me as single. Will that get me any sort of discount? Please?”

I didn’t bother to mention the age issue as I’ll be 32 by the time the policy takes effect.

My agent’s secretary responded yesterday morning via email asking me to call the office to “confirm” the marriage.

After spending 4 minutes and 20 seconds on the phone during my lunch hour, I’m happy to report that my new 6-month premium is $885.40.

Over the span of a year, that’s over $400 less! That’s HUGE!

But now I’m kicking myself for being so friendly… I should have demanded the discount retroactively for the past 2 years…

Nah, a $400 savings is good enough for me…

Game Worn Edmonton Oilers JerseyLast year I mentioned that I had a hobby — an expensive hobby.

I collect game worn hockey jerseys.

I sure some, actually MOST, are saying, “What? There’s a market for such a thing?” Amazingly, yes. And they’re expensive. Really expensive.

The “best” one in my collection right now would pull in nearly $10k at auction right now. Think about that. That’s crazy!

Back then I said that I’d spent well in excess of $75k on this hobby over the years. And though I never mentioned it, it was also about that time that I put a soft cap on my spending to try to curb the excessive amount of money I was throwing into it.

The limit was two hundred dollars per month. Hardly frugal, but most often times not enough to purchase anything that would interest me.

For a few months I went well over that spending limit, but I was always telling myself in the back of my head that $200 was the limit. Try not to go over $200. You can’t afford it.

It didn’t take long for me to start making deals with myself. Well, I’ll spend $350 now and then next month I won’t buy anything.

Of course, that didn’t work at all.

Something would peak my interest on eBay or in a memorabilia auction, often times less than a week later, and I’d plunk down another $750 for some dirty and torn polyester.

Still, it was progress. I was, in fact, spending less using this wishy-washy method.

Then as I saw my debts falling (and the credit card balances evaporate), I started to think, “Wow, in a few months, when I reach my goal and I’m totally debt free, I’ll be able to blow like $2k per month on hockey jerseys!”

That was in May.

May was also the last time that I purchased a jersey.

This is the first time since the summer of 1997 that I’ve gone an entire month (let alone TWO!) without acquiring anything.

Now, this shirt-less streak originally started because I was reminding myself of the reward (the $2k budget) at the end of the tunnel. That kept me from reaching for my wallet (and keeping tabs on what was on the market).

But now, since it’s been so long since I’ve been active in the buy/sell/trade world of the hobby, I’m finding that I don’t really miss it all that much.

That isn’t to say that I’m abandoning my collection or that I won’t still actively pursue certain jerseys that I’d like to acquire, but I’m no longer salivating over a sweet $2k/month budget either.

For my future finances, that’s a good thing.

And you know what? It’s a good thing for my collection too.

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Hess Gas StationRemember when it was routine to be asked, “Cash or charge?”

I’m too young to have ever been asked that question. Or so I thought…

Around a month ago, a Hess station not too far from my house went retro. They started asking that question again because they started selling gas for two different prices. Paying cash got you a 10-cent/gallon discount.

Within 24 hours, it was like 1979 again with lines of cars waiting patiently (or not so patiently) to fill up.

But just at that Hess station.

Down the street, the Exxon station was all but empty. Same thing at Shell. Valero too.

Before long, other Hess stations followed suit.

It was about this time that the Attorney General stepped in saying that it was illegal for Hess to be charging customers more for using credit.

In response, Hess argued that they weren’t charging more for those using credit. Rather, they were discounting the price for customers paying cash.

Wow, how’d the lawmakers miss THAT loop hole? Apparently, they did…

So, a few weeks ago on my way home from work, I had to fill up. The Hess station closest to my house is right next door to a Citgo — they practically share a parking lot — but they had a difference of 15-cents for the price of a gallon.

As I’ve said before, I’m not one to price-shop for gas. I’ll go where ever is the most convenient, but as these two stations are right next door to one another, well, I pulled up to the pump at Hess.

I unscrewed my gas cap, turned around to face the pump, dug out my wallet and only then remembered that I don’t usually carry cash. Oh well, I thought, I’ll just charge it.

Turns out, I couldn’t. They had duct tape over the card reader. I looked at the other seven pumps. They had duct tape too.

Then I saw the handwritten note on the pumps, “Prices are for cash only. Sorry, no debit or credit.”


I pulled through and filled up at Citgo. On credit. Using pay-at-the-pump.

The next time I had to fill up I bypassed Hess and went straight to Citgo. Their price was now competitive with the Hess next door but guess what?

They’d taped over their card readers too. “Cash only.”

What the hell?

So I come to find out that it’s a technology issue.

Modern gas pumps aren’t able to dispense the same product for two different prices. In addition, most gas station signs aren’t large enough to display two prices (or technically, 8 prices for all of the different octane levels and diesel) like they used to be, so now some gas stations are just going “all cash”.

Thankfully, this issue only seems to become a problem near select Hess stations, but now that one Citgo has followed suit, the other Citgo across town is probably growing jealous. How long before they do the same thing?

Am I going to have to start carrying cash?

As I think I’ve said before here on PIAC, I’ve only paid cash for gas once in my life. Once. And that was also the only time I’ve ever been inside a gas station after filling up.

No, I’m not that young, but I was fortunate to have grown up in a town where Mobil test marketed “Pay-at-the-Pump” and even a very early version of the SpeedPass. With my mother’s credit card in hand, it was often my job to fill up the family minivan. I never had to venture inside. Not once.

But now, well, I just might be forced to fall victim to all of that eye catching cigarette advertising inside!!! Oh my!

Sometimes it feels like we’re going backwards technologically.

But really, I guess what upsets me the most about a two-tier price structure is that it’s going to make the average (ignorant) consumer think that MasterCard and VISA are to blame for high gas prices and, well, that couldn’t be farther from the truth…

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Utility BillsI like to think that I’d thought about this in the back of my mind before we even left, but I didn’t think the difference would actually be that sizeable.

Last month, we shut the house down and went on vacation for 10 days. While our excursion wasn’t exactly inexpensive, we had planned for it financially and it has already been paid for in full. We’re right back to our regular month-to-month budget.

So it was a pleasant surprise yesterday when the bills came in. All four monthly utility bills arrived yesterday — electricity, natural gas, phone, and cable — and normally I hate when that happens…

With the exception of the cable bill (which actually went up 1 cent), they were all significantly lower. In fact, the electric bill was the lowest it has ever been since 2004 (when we first started using CFL’s exclusively).

Weather-wise, the previous billing cycle was very similar to this most recent billing cycle. I mention the weather because it’s very strongly associated with the gas and electric bills in our neck of the woods. In the winter, the gas bill alone flirts with the $400 mark.

Granted, summer bills are generally lower than winter bills but sometimes running the air conditioners regularly can inflate the electric bill substantially — sometimes over $200 — but not while you’re on vacation.

Here’s the run down, along with some historical numbers:

Historical Utility Bill Numbers

So, while June 2008’s numbers may have been a little high for a typical summer month (I must have turned the heat on every now and then to get the gas bill that high), comparing my most recent bills to the same billing period last year shows that it still cost us $50 less to keep the house running in 2008.

The fact that the rate on all 4 bills has gone up since that time makes it even a little more impressive.

Bettering that, we’ve got $470/month budgeted towards these 4 bills. July cost us less than half of that.

But really, a $50 savings over an entire month isn’t that much money, I know that, but it’s been a long time since I last spent less than $250 on utilities in any given month…

It was in 2001 to be exact — before I even had a house…

UTstarcom SliceTo those still struggling to activate their new Apple iPhone 3G’s this morning with AT&T or Rogers, I just wanted to let you know that I just “topped-up” my own cell phone plan with Virgin Wireless for another three months of service for $21.20.

So for an entire year (and including the price of the phone), I’ve spent $116.59 on my cell phone.

Less than $10/month.

And I didn’t have to stand in line all day to get my phone. I didn’t even need someone “technical” to set it up for me.

And you know what? I can even make phone calls on it.

BTW, that’s what phones are actually for… phone calls.

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Kill-A-Watt EZ Electricity Usage MonitorSummer is upon us. It came in like a flash.

It was just Thursday evening when I turned on the heat to take the chill out of the air.

By Saturday afternoon though, we were in the mid-90’s and we’ve been there since. It’s humid too. Uncomfortable. Not unbearable, yet, but uncomfortable, for sure.

So before we went to bed on Saturday, I ventured up into the attic to bring down one of the air conditioners. It’s just one of those small window units — I think it may have cost $75 from Walmart a few years ago. Nothing fancy.

We set it in one of the windows in our bedroom and I plugged it into the Kill-A-Watt EZ Electricity Usage Monitor that I got for Christmas. (Thanks Mom!)

I haven’t used the gadget as much as I’d wanted or expected, but the air conditioner is one of the appliances I specifically bought it for.

Air conditioners have traditionally been considered major resource hogs. Likely with reason too…
I remember when I was young, the lights would dim when the big one would turn on. Obviously an energy hog — comparable even to my mom’s sewing machine which would practically turn the television off.

But I was curious to see what it was really pulling down and, more importantly, what it was actually costing me to run. Often times, when I really look at things expecting the worst, they turn out to be not so bad.

The air conditioner was no different.

After two nights of having it run for around 12 hours, the meter read that it was costing me 4 cents per hour to run.

Per day (my daily usage, being just 12 hours), the rate was $1.12.

Dividing that out, it’s actually costing me around 5 cents per hour.

That doesn’t sting so bad.

I mean, if it were something that I ran 24/7 all year long, well, yeah, that would get pretty expensive, but when it’s just at night and only when it’s oppressively hot and humid — well, I won’t hesitate turning it on anymore due to concerns about the electric bill…

A good night’s sleep is definitely worth $1.12.

Can You Dig It?


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