Be Prepared or Be Me

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We had some nasty storms roll through over the weekend. There was a lot of tornado-ish activity, 70 mile-an-hour gusts of wind, hail, and an electrical blackout.  For almost 24 hours, we were living in the stone age, with nothing but smartphones for internet, and high-lumen flashlights being used to see.   With no cartoons for the girls, we were forced to read them bed-time stories, while my son and his friends were forced to use their imaginations to entertain themselves.

Every time we called, the electric company added 12 hours to their estimated repair time.   Amazingly, they came in 7 hours ahead of schedule, if you don’t count the first two revisions.

By Saturday afternoon, we were out shopping for things we should have already had ready.

For years, we had discussed buying a generator.  For some reason, it never became a priority.  We have a large freezer and refrigerator full of food.   With no electricity, a generator was suddenly prioritized.   All of the places near us were sold out of budget-priced generators when we decided it was better to drop $400 on that than to lose $600 worth of food.   We did find one, eventually, but it would have been better to take it out of the garage than have to shop for it when we needed it.   Naturally, 10 minutes after we got it home, the power came on.  Do yourself a favor:  if you own a home and have a small corner available for storage, start shopping for a generator. Pick one up on sale instead of waiting until you have no real choice.

We have a ton of batteries.  It’s one of the things we stock up on when they are on sale.  Unfortunately, our broadest-beam flashlight takes a 6-volt battery, and we don’t keep a spare.   By the end of the night, it was getting pretty yellow and dim.  Another night would have killed it completely.   This wasn’t a widespread blackout, so there was no shortage of batteries, but it would have been nice to have the spare already at home.  Check your emergency supplies and make sure you have replacement batteries that fit everything you need.

The one thing that would have improved the night most is a good lantern.   We had our 5, plus two of my son’s friends all trying to play board games by flashlight.  A lantern could have been set on the entertainment center and lit most of the room.

For everything we were without due to the blackout, the one thing I truly missed was the air conditioner.  When the storm died, so did the wind.  Completely.   Opening all of the windows didn’t help at all.   Other than that, it was nice to have everyone forced to interact.   Nobody was whining about being bored and we were all having fun.

I want to schedule a pseudo-blackout more often.

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Watching My Debt

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I’m so excited.  Yesterday, I transferred the final payment for my personal line of credit.  This LOC was originally my overdraft protection LOC that had worked it’s way up to $6000 at 21%.    Today, it is non-existent.

We started to pay down debt on April 15th, 2009.   Since that time, we have paid off  $22, 370.70 of our debt.   That isn’t $22,370.00 in payments, that is a $22k reduction in our total debt!   By my calculations, we have made approximately $28,000 in payments to get that reduction.  Next week, we cross the line for 25% of debt eliminated.  This is a good day.

Over the last 14 months, we’ve settled into much more responsible spending and saving habits.   It no longer feels like we’re sacrificing our lifestyle.   We’ve built up a useful emergency fund and set aside money for some things that we know are coming, like braces for my son.   In 6 weeks, we are taking our first debt-less vacation.

Now, we start on the long slog to the end.   We have 3 debts left to pay:  Our last car loan(ever!),  one credit card which was an accumulation of pretending we were making progress on our debt by combining many debts onto one card, and finally, our mortgage.    The car will be paid by the end of the year.  When summer childcare expenses are over, we’ll be making triple payments until it is gone.    After that, we have a long, slow couple of years paying off the credit card.

It hasn’t always been easy, but right now, it feels good to look at the progress we’ve made.

Update:  This post has been included in the Carnival of Debt Reduction.

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Buying on Craigslist

Funny sign: Tripping Hazard

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On Friday, I talked about selling safely on Craigslist.  Today, I’m going to talk about buying safely and getting a good deal.

I love Craiglist.  It’s safe to say I’m a fan. We’ve refurnished most of our house for 10-15% of retail by being patient and persistent there.   We scored a $1200 oak entertainment center for $200, a beautiful oak headboard/storage thingy for $150, a nice china cabinet for $70 and much, much more.   There are a lot of deals to be had, but you have to be careful.

I never buy anything without either a picture or a model number. Stock photos do not count.  I want to see an actual picture of the actual item.   With electronics, I want the model number so I can tell exactly what features it has.    If I can’t positively identify the item, the seller gets an email.  If I don’t know what it is, I’m not interested.

Once I have the item identified, it’s time to hit Amazon and Google for a quick price check.   Acceptable prices vary, but I’m generally looking for 25% of retail for items that aren’t collectible or antique.

While it’s not a common occurrence for the things I buy, some sellers do lie. The technical term for this is “fraud”.   Fraudulent sellers needs to be kicked in the shins.   Before I go to actually see an item, I do enough research that I will hopefully be able to pick out a fraud or forgery.   The easiest way to tell if the backstory is a lie?  If you are given a backstory, it’s probably a lie.  Never assume that the seller is telling the truth about the little old lady who only drove her TiVo to church on Thursdays in the summer and never went above channel 10.  The story is always a lie. Check the condition yourself.  Check the value yourself.   If you can’t verify it, it isn’t true.

If you are buying tickets or documents, know what you are looking for to tell if it is a forgery.  If you can’t tell, ask the seller to meet with someone you trust who can verify it.   Ticketmaster tickets are laminated, so they glare slightly in the light. If you hold the tickets up to a strong light, the white parts will glow blue.    Finally, if the ticket looks like it was printed at home, don’t trust it.

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="196" caption=" "] [/caption]A few months ago, a local couple was trying to buy a car on Craigslist.   When they met the buyer, he took their cash and their car and left them on the sidewalk in an unfamiliar neighborhood.    The moral of the story?   Ride the bus. That, and always meet in a public, well-traveled spot.

If the seller suggest escrow, he’s probably actually the deposed ruler of Nigeria in need of someone to help him get his fortune safely out of the country.  You should immediately give him your name, address, social security number, PIN, place of business, all of your bank accounts, and the kidneys of your first-born.  He’ll hook you up. Really.

Don’t do that.   On the internet, escrow=fraud, almost every time.

Rental fraud is an issue I have absolutely no experience with, but it’s common in places with a competitive housing market.  The felonious candidates for extremely prejudiced termination will scan the real estate listings, and post some on Craigslist as a rental unit with a low-ball price.   People get excited for the extreme deal, shut off their critical thinking skills, and hand their nest-egg over to someone they’ve never met so they can keep the scam from being snatched up by some sucker who’s just a little bit slower at dumping his wallet into a crowded room on con-artists.   It’s a big decision, so take the time to research it and do it right. Find the ownership records and the owner.   If you’re buying, get an actual realtor to help you.  They are worth the money.

Tips for Buying Safely on Craigslist

Don’t wire money. Ever.   If someone suggests that for an internet sale, ask for their address and send a leg-breaker their way.  They are trying to steal from you.

Trust your gut.  If something smells fishy, it probably is.  Walk away.

Don’t ever give out personal information.  Nevernevernever.  Not your address, not your favorite flavor of chewing-cud, nothing.   Keep it private.[caption id="" align="alignright" width="196" caption=" "] [/caption]

Meet in a public place.  Criminals tend to dislike witnesses, so go somewhere that has them by the score.

Bring a friend. I may be a bit of a chauvinist or over-protective, but my wife doesn’t bring money to go meet strangers on the internet without me.  If your local laws allow it, consider bringing some form of protection with you.

Craigslist can save you a ton of money, but it brings some risk with it.   Keep yourself safe.

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3 Simple Ways Keeping Your Spending Organized

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On of the biggest problems we had with controlling our finances was knowing where the money went.   Have you ever said “Honey, do you realize we spent $900 eating out this month?”   I have.   The amount we spent on some categories was mind-blowing.    Maybe some people don’t see $900 at restaurants, $400 on clothes, or  $300 on books and movies as a problem, but I do and it was ridiculous!  We’ve dialed back hard on the unnecessary spending and the first step was to understand our spending habits.  That was a painful self-examination.

Here’s what we did:

  1. Have a Budget. This is quite simply the most basic step in organizing your finances.  If you don’t have a budget, you don’t have a plan for where your money will go.  Without a plan, your money goes on about its business without consulting you.  Your money does not like you. It will do its level best to get as far away from you as fast as possible.   A good budget is like shackles for your cash. Never underestimate the value of a good pair of shackles.
  2. Use a Spending Journal. Before we went cash-only, I was a no-cash spender.  Every purchase was with my debit card and every receipt went into my wallet.  That’s a disorganized, but effective spending journal.   When it was time to balance the checkbook, I could look through my receipts and no exactly where the money went.  It was nice to have a chance to wave good-bye and send it a postcard as it ran away from home.  Other people use a small notebook or even–for the truly cutting-edge–the register that comes in a box of checks.  Whatever system you choose, make sure you use it.  If you don’t know where your money has gone in the past, how can you plan for the future?
  3. [caption id="" align="alignright" width="196" caption=" "] [/caption]
  4. Use a Ledger. Most people call this the checkbook register.   I use Quicken.   About once per month, I sit down with any receipts we’ve generated and the list of transactions on the bank website and I balance the checkbook.   I note everything we’ve spent, flag everything that has cleared the bank, and make sure all of the numbers match.   This gives me a chance to review everything we’ve had incoming and outgoing and address any abnormalities while there is still a chance to get the bank to address problems.

How do you track your spending?

Update:  This post has been included in the Carnival of Personal Finance.

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