Monday, September 05, 2011

Electric Bill Update and Self-Hatred

Happy Labor Day to all my US Friends!  I thought I would give you an update on my electric bill experiment.

As you might recall, back in late July I received a whopper of an electric bill (for me) at $191.  I had been basking in keeping my thermostat at a low temp and enjoying the cool air conditioning.  I decided to do a one month experiment to see how low I could get my electric bill.  I started only burning lights in room I was in, and burning one light instead of two.  Again, I live in a 4 room, 1100 square foot house so this was not a problem.  I also turned my daytime AC setting up to 80 and my nighttime setting to 76 (had been 76 days and 72 nights).  I'll admit that several times, mostly while cleaning the house, I would get hot enough to manually lower the temp a couple of degrees for a few hours but mostly I stuck with the plan.

I received my bill again in late August and IT WAS $2 MORE than the previous month.  I allowed myself 5 minutes of venting to the cats and then sat down to do the math.  The previous bill was for 30 days.  The new one was for 31 days.  And it was extremely hot during the month so presumably the AC had to work harder to keep the house at 80.  For my July bill my average daily useage was $6.36/day.  For the August bill I lowered it by 0.14/day and it was $6.22/day.  This amounted to a 2.2% drop, which amounted to $4.34 less per month. 

For me this isn't a significant enough change to warrant being just slightly uncomfortable.  If I had to cool a bigger multi-level house and was dealing with a bill twice that amount I think it would make a difference. 

For the past 12 months I've been doing a lot of beating myself up about the debt I'm carrying.  For the past 15 years I have lived well within my means, certainly using my credit (mostly for home improvements) but paying it off within a few months.  In late 2007 I was actually completely out of debt.How did I let this happen?

I took 2 hours to go back through statements and I made a list of the expenses I charged because they were too large for my monthly cash flow to handle:

1.  2 root canals, 2 dental extractions, one crown and one bridge in one year, all in excess of my annual dental insurance limit. 

2.  $2500 above what was covered by insurance to replace a storm damaged roof.  This constituted mostly an upgrade from 15 year to 30 year shingles and I believe it was a sound investment in my home.

3.  About $6,500 to redo a small bathroom because of black mold and also because the floor was falling in.  I believe this was also a sound invenstment in my property.

4.  $1500 for emergency treatment for a cat with extreme breathing difficulties over this past 4th of July weekend.  When I adopted her as a rescue I made the committment that I would give her the best care possible.  This was a no brainer.  I absolutely will always make sure my cats receive the care they need because that is the responsibility I took on when I brought them into my home.

Now I'll admit there was some retail therapy in there.  During this period I spent 5 months in Santiago and 1 month in London on business and I did do some shopping but that was minor stuff that would have been paid off in a few months.

The thing I neglected to do was get out of denial about the economy.  Every with the large credit cards charges for my health, essential repairs to my home, and essential care of my cat, I should have been able to pay all of this off within a couple of years.  But I kept living within my 2006 means even as the economy tanked.  Lesson learned.  For a couple of years I kept watching the news and saying "Thank God that hasn't touched me" when in fact it WAS touching me.  I neglected to begin immediate cutbacks, and this was a mistake.

I also put a bunch of eggs in one basket.  I was so sure that once a formal review of my job responsibilities happened my company would realize the immense effort and personal sacrifices I've made and would give at least a small salary increase.  And I assure you that there have been immense efforts and personal sacrifices made.  But this was not to be, and in today's economy I am fortunate to have a job, and a job that I love, no less.

So I've decided to stop beating myself up.  I've buckled down and cut back and I'm tackling this debt one month at a time.  It took me 4 years to build it up and by my estimates it will take me 4 years to get out but I'm doing it.  I can stand anything for 4 years.  I mean, I was married to a man I couldn't stand for 2 years.  This is easy in comparison!

Next installment:  How I gave myself the raise I needed and improved my health at the same time.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Charitable Giving

Charitable giving is the one thing no one should give up.  And if you aren't doing it, start now!  It feels good, and someday you might be in a position where you depend on others to give.

I lost a friend last Monday.  I didn't know him - he was one of those friends of a friend on Facebook.  I saw his posts for about a year and finally, several months ago, I friended him.  Michael was irreverant, with a brilliant wit.  Very few days went by when he didn't post something truly off-color on my wall and make me laugh out loud.  Michael was one of those people who "got" you from day one, and could see where the line was, and spent his time going right up to it but never crossing it.  Not many people have that kind of sense.  I have family who don't get me.

So last Monday I started seeing posts about Michael finally ending his journey.  I immediately contacted a friend because I thought it was one of his pranks, but I found it disturbing, and I wanted the backstory.  Michael truly had passed away.

Michael had ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease).  And I didn't even know.   He was in a wheelchair, unable to swallow or breathe on his own, unable to speak.  But because of the ALS Association and the technology and hospice care they made available he was active and in touch up until 48 hours before he died.

So Tuesday, after the initial tears, I decided the only thing was to take action.  I'll be walking in the October 22 ATL Walk to Defeat ALS.  I've set a fundraising goal of $1,000, and thanks to the generosity of friends I'm now just over halfway to my goal.  A couple of people have given $100, a few have managed $50.  Most are in the $10 - $25 range. 

My point is:  You don't have to give a lot.  And if you have $10 or $5 or even $1 to give to a good charity that does good things there is no reason to feel that you aren't doing enough.  Just GIVE!

If you truly can't give money, give time.  Do a walk, and use the power of social media to raise funds!  Use the wonderful, capable body you were given, and make a difference in the world.  Donate blood!  It doesn't hurt.  I promise.  Register as a bone marrow donor.  For goodness sake make sure you are an organ donor!  Here in my state this is connected to your driver's license, and the renewal fee is even discounted if you indicate that you want to be one. 

I would have given Michael my marrow, or a kidney, or a portion of my liver if it would have kept him around to make me laugh.  He was truly one in a million, and the world is a shade darker without him.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Conspicuous Consumption

We all do it to some extent.  The key is to identify where you're doing it and then CUT IT THE HELL OUT!

I am always amused to read most advice from the experts about cutting back.  David Bach's "Latte Factor" comes to mind.  His advice is to cut out one trip to Starbucks per day to save something like $1000/year.  I don't go to Starbucks anyway.  It's COFFEE, people.  You can spend $30 on a perfectly fine coffemaker that will last you 10 years and then buy whole bean coffee and grind it in the store yourself for $7/pound and I assure you it's a perfectly good cup of coffee. You could even spring for an expresso/latte machine and you would still be saving.  Admit it.  What you want is for someone to make you feel important.   I hate Starbucks more than Walmart.  Walmart certainly is hell, but they offer products people really NEED at a very low price.  Starbucks INVENTED a "need" and have sucked money out of people who have bought into the bullshit.  I don't need a barista who remembers my name and writes smiley faces on my cup to make me feel important.

OK, PER DAY?!?!?!  Are there actually people who go to Starbucks more than once a day? 

Again, this is fucking COFFEE.  COFFEE, people.  Get a fucking clue.

I have a coffemaker.  It was $23 on sale.  I spend about $14 a month on whole beans that I grind in the store.  I can set my coffeemaker to start brewing 10 minutes before I get up in the morning.  I can drink coffee all freaking morning IN MY JAMMIES for pennies.

If you go to Starbucks every day you better have 12 months of living expenses in a savings account that you don't touch ever.  If you have children you also better have four years worth of college expenses in a different savings account for each one.  If you have this and still go to Starbucks every day I need to NEVER EVER hear you whine about not having enough money. 

So back to the original topic.  CUT IT OUT!  A very long term friend of mine is a freelancer in the film industry.  She makes well in excess of $100,000 per year.  She has a pattern of receiving a check and spending it.  On guitars and keyboards (she doesn't play but wanted them in the house so if someone visited and wanted to play they were there).  On stupid shit like Hello Kitty crap.  On eating out every night because cooking something in her own well equipped kitchen is such a chore.  She has no 401(k).  She has no savings account.  When work doesn't come in she sells her miscellaneous crap on ebay to get through.  I earn half what she does.  I put 13% into my 401(k).  I put $50 per paycheck into a long term savings.  I have my debit card set up to put $1.00 into short term savings every time I swipe it.  And I've several times offered to lend her a few thousand to get her out of the mess she's in.  NOT RIGHT.

STOP SPENDING.  Every damned penny saved is a penny earned.  Last December I got rid of my landline.  For several years the only calls I got were from politicians and telemarketers.  I was paying $20 a month to keep the ringer turned off.  Do you really need 450 TV channels?  I miss my Travel Channel so much but so much of TV can be seen online for free only minutes after it airs.  I cut out cable in 2005.  I'm still alive. 

I eat nutritious, fresh food.  I want for nothing.  I have six damned cats who all have regular annual vet visits.  YOU CAN DO THIS TOO!  Just cut out the crap.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

On Debt

Credit is a necessity.  You have to have it.  Unfortunately, it's far too easy to let it get out of hand.  This is the position I find myself in now.  I am making my monthly payments on my 3 major credit cards, and in excess of the minimum, but I'm just not comfortable with the amount of debt I'm carrying.

This is not the result of negligence or irresponsibility by any means.  It's because, since 2008, I've had several very expensive unplanned for "emergencies," and they have had to go on credit.  I'm talking one year where I had so much dental work (root canals, extractions, crowns, bridges) that I exceeded my covered annual limit.  BAM.  $2000.  Then my roof had to be replaced due to storm damage.  Yes, it was covered by my homeowners insurance, but I upgraded the quality of the shingles to 30 year, and there was underlying damage to some wood that wasn't covered.  BAM.  $2500.  Last year I discovered black mold in a bathroom that desperately needed to be redone anyway.  I called in a contractor to give me an estimate and he discovered that the floor was also falling in.  They had to tear it out down to the crawl space and rebuild it.  BAM.  $5000 for the demo/construction plus an additional $1500 for new fixtures/paint, tile, etc.  In July this year Camille had breathing difficulties over the holiday weekend and had to go to the emergency vet clinic.  BAM.  $1600.  In a nutshell it has added up and added up faster than I can keep it paid off.

So I have a plan.  I think a plan is crucial.  It's one thing to accept that you're carrying too much debt but without a PLAN there's no way out.  I now know exactly how I will pay it off.  I know exactly how much I am going to pay on each card every month.  Barring any additional emergencies I know I will have the two highest interest rate cards paid off in 20 months.  This will leave one card to pay off (the lowest interest rate but highest balance) and once the others are paid off I think I can get that one under control in 18 months.

So where am I going to find the fundage to do this?  Stay tuned!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Electric Bill

I live in Georgia. It gets really hot in the summer. The first two years I lived in this house there was no central air conditioning. It was terribly unpleasant. Luckily there are about 2 months in the spring and 2 months in the fall when neither heat nor air conditioning is necessary, at least not constantly. The other 8 months I'm paying either GA Power or GA Natural Gas far more than I would like.

My last electric bill was $191. I decided it was time to cut back, and I'll share some of what I'm doing.

1. Install a programmable thermostat. I just installed one of these about 2 years ago and I love it. I especially love it on cold winter mornings. I got a cheapo model, about $45. It has already paid for itself.

2. Turn down your water heater! Most folks have their water heater set far higher than is necessary.

3. Ceiling fans. I have ceiling fans in every room. Now, it might seem counterintuitive to install something that runs on electricity in order to lower an electric bill but they do. Hot air rises, cool air falls. Running ceiling fans in the winter keeps the heat distributed. Running them in the summer supplements the AC. Once a week turn them off and dust the blades! The blades pick up an extraordinary amount of dust and dirt. Regularly cleaning this off will keep them running at peak performance. Also, ceiling fans have a switch allowing you to change the direction of the rotation. This should be done seasonally. In the summer the direction should be counterclockwise. In winter change this so the fan runs clockwise.

4. Turn the thermostat up/down by 2 degrees. My personal rule of thumb is that between outdoor temps of 60 and 80 my windows are open. Kind of stupid that I'm OK with 80 when the windows are open and yet I need to have my AC set at 74, right? So little by little I've changed my thermostat. My daytime setting is now 80, and I have it set to go down to 77 at night for comfortable sleeping. I'll admit that will seem a bit extreme to some but I've honestly gotten used to it already. It isn't so bad. If I'm cleaning or if I get on the treadmill I'll do a temporary override and turn it down for an hour or so but 80 is just fine, and with the ceiling fans running it is mostly quite comfortable. I'll revisit my heat settings when the cool weather sets in but I think I can shave a couple of degrees off there as well. I like it a bit on the cold side anyway.

5. Use your curtains and blinds! Don't just open them in the morning and close them at night. I have one bedroom window where the sun just beats in for a couple of hours every afternoon and if I don't close the blinds during this time period it can get quite hot in there.

6. Lights. This is a hard one for me. I live in a very small house. I firmly believe in decorating with light. Especially in the winter I love keeping at least one lamp on in each of my 4 rooms. It makes it cozy and warm and welcoming. I've put a bit of a lid on that. I don't sit in the dark by any means but unless I'm in the room the lights are off. I've replaced the bulb on each of my outdoor lights with CFLs. I will gradually do the same inside as the incandescents burn out.

7. "Ghost" electricity pigs. Unplug your chargers unless you are actively charging something! If you have power strips turn them off at night and when you are away! I realized a few months ago that my TV has a switch. Even when the TV is off, unless the switch is also off it continues to use power. I haven't yet gotten in the habit of turning that switch off at night so I've put a post it note on my bathroom mirror to remind me.

So these are some of the things I'm doing to save in the utility department. I'll get my power bill in the next couple of weeks and I'll be interested to see if these efforts have made a difference. I'll let you know.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Why Frugal?

Well, duh. Unless you've been living under a rock since 2008 you know why. Unemployment hovers around the 10% mark, especially here in GA. Gas prices are out of control. Prices rise but salaries don't.

My personal story: I started with my company as a temp in December, 2002 after having been unemployed for 5 months. It was the worst 5 months of my life, especially coming on the heels of a divorce. My self-esteem was non-existant. I knew that I was nothing but trash. I borrowed $3000 from my parents to make it through and to make sure the divorce was final. In September, 2003 I was hired permanently and refinanced my house in accordance with the divorce agreement - a full 9 months before I had to. My ex was paid $21,500 for sitting in this house and smoking pot and watching me put sweat equity into it for 2 years while he watched TV. I still have no earthly idea how the court arrived at that figure. I hope he's choking on it and I fully believe in karma.

But I digress.

I've now worked for my company for 8 years. I started as an invoicing person and in 3 months was promoted to a buyer. Less than a year later I was asked to go to Tokyo and I thought this was an excellent investment in my future. While I was in Tokyo for a year my company was sold to a corporate conglomerate. I continued to do whatever was asked of me regardless of personal sacrifice. I traveled for months on end to countries where I did not speak the language and somehow managed to thrive, always knowing that eventually my efforts would be recognized in the form of a fair and equitable raise in salary.

It was not to be. After many phone calls and emails I had a salary review (started in April, 2010 and finalized in February 2011) and oddly enough I am exactly at "market value." Like a cut of fucking meat. How convenient. Also I've had 5 "titles" in the past 5 years. I've been A Project Administrator, Project Manager, Program Manager . . . all of which have searchable salaries on the internet, and all of which have salaries exceeding mine in my location. And now I'm a "Senior Project Analyst" which, oddly enough, is a title there is NO SALARY INFORMATION FOR WHATSOEVER. Hmmmm.

I love my job. Truly I love it. I love what I do and I love the people I work with and so "it is what it is." I've revamped my resume and I could start a job search but frankly I've worked a load of jobs and this is the only one I've ever loved. I know I'm worth more. Not a huge amount more, but I know I'm worth more. And yet, since I love my job, and since I've had 2 tiny salary increases in 8 years that haven't even covered the cost of living increase I've had to find it within myself to cut back so I can continue doing what I love.

With two tiny salary increases in the past 8 years my take home is far less than it was in 2004. Our "contribution" to our health insurance increases every year, even as the benefits are reduced. I've managed to increase my 401(k) contribution to 13% when by now it should be at least 17%, if not 20%. When I started, gas was $1.02/gallon. Now it's $3.50 (as of today in GA). My electricity, gas, home insurance, water . . . all have increased substantially. But not the salary.

That said, I am thankful I am employed. I am thankful that I support myself. I have a small list of "want" items. For instance, I "want" a new bed. My bed is 10 years old and it was the very cheapest thing I could afford when I divorced and my ex took the bed. It was better than sleeping on the floor. So, yes. I want a new bed. I "want" to replace the carpet in my "study." None of this is necessary right now. I am able to feed myself with nutritious, good food. I am able to pay my $659/month mortgage. I am able to provide for my feline family and make sure they have their annual vet visits. I am RICH compared to so many and I have nothing to complain about!

And so I have found ways to be frugal. And so these are things I will share in coming posts.

Time To Resurrect The Blog

It has been two years since I dropped my blog altogether, and I thought it was about time to resurrect it. So what have I been doing?

I've been working on my home (as usual). I've been working in my yard (as usual). I will catch up on posting about these projects and will make sure I post some photos.

My last work travel was in September/October 2009 when I spent a month in London. It was incredible.

I'm not sure where the blog is going. First and foremost on my mind these days is finding ways to be more frugal, and I'll be posting quite a bit about this topic since I think it's something on everyone's mind.

Last year I started formally indulging my love of cooking, and I am now a volunteer assistant at a local business that holds cooking classes. I started canning last year and I now count this among my favorite activities. I'll be blogging quite a lot about cooking and canning. I think it goes along with the frugal thing.

And, of course, there will be cats. My feline family is now up to 6. One is, I hope, a foster. I need to find her a permanent home where she can be an only cat.

So. Hi again, y'all! I'm looking forward to this! I'll admit that Facebook diverted my attention for a few years and while I still enjoy that it isn't the same kind of outlet that a true blog is.

Are any of you still out there? Please comment if you are.