Free Tivo

Vintage TV set, pt. 2
Image by Marcin Wichary via Flickr

TV is causing problems in my life.

We watch too much TV. Often, we’re only watching because there’s a crappy show in between two shows we do want to watch.   In the winter–during the new seasons–my son has wrestling practice 4 or 5 nights per week, which means I miss the new shows I like.     We recently downgraded our service provider, so there’s no functional guide button in the house.

That all makes me sad.

Then I found out that Tivo’s lifetime service is attached to the unit.  If you sell a unit with lifetime service, you can transfer the service to the buyer.   You can’t, however, transfer the service to a new box.   That means that everyone who upgrades and sells their old box is selling the lifetime service with it.  If you don’t mind having older equipment, you can pick up a used box with full lifetime service for less than the cost of a new box.

After reading Erica’s method of finding 750 extra hours per year, we decided to give it a shot.  We are taking back control of our TV. No more rushing home to catch a new episode.   No more mindlessly channel-surfing to kill time between good shows.  No more commercials.   And a guide!  I like having a guide button.

I started shopping.  My goal was to get a Series 2 Tivo with full lifetime service for about $100 before shipping.  I came close a few times, but always lost the auction, in the end.  I wasn’t in a hurry, and I didn’t actually have the money budgeted, so it was good to lose.

Then, a friend found himself in a situation that didn’t work with a Tivo and decided to sell his heavily upgraded, heavily accessorized Tivo HD for $100 + shipping.  A quick call to my wife resulted in just one objection:  Where were we getting the money? We don’t have an opportunity fund, yet and I needed to take advantage of this quick if we were going to get it.

I decided to make it free.

When I automated all of our bills, I rounded up. If a bill was for $63.50, I paid $64.   If a bill wasn’t exactly consistent, I paid enough to cover the higher amount.   For example, I didn’t have a text messaging plan on my cell phone until December.  Before that, I’d get about a dozen texts each month, so I budgeted for paying for the texts.   If I didn’t get the texts, I’d get a credit on my bill.   I never lowered the automated payment.   All of my bills were set up like that.   My insurance company dropped my rates, but I left the payment alone.   I slowly started accumulating a credit on a number of bills. My intention was to skip a month when the billed amount got to $0, and apply the money to debt.  It was just a mind-game to play with myself to make the debt easier to pay.

I flipped through the bills, looking at the credits.   I adjusted the payments to match the bills this month and found more than enough to buy the Tivo.   This is a purchase that doesn’t influence my budget in any way.   Almost.   This unit doesn’t have lifetime service, so I will be paying for the monthly fee, but that’s been more than balanced out by  reducing our television service.

This is a recently-high-end model for free, as far as my budget is concerned.   I used money that wasn’t even on the table before I went looking for it.  It’s like searching the couch cushions for money to catch a movie.

Now,  I’ll have control of my TV–with a strong measure of convenience to boot–for $13 per month.  The time savings is yet-to-be-determined.

A free Tivo simply because I rounded my bills up when I automated last year.   That’s a pain-free opportunity fund.

Update: After I wrote this, I found out that I dropped the ball in budgeting for child-care now that summer is here and my oldest won’t be in school.   These costs are going up $350 per month.   I spent an hour scavenging the couch cushions of my budget this week.   I had to adjust some savings and repayment goals, but I’ve effectively paid for a summer worth of care for my boy the same way.  Free.

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3 Things Everyone Should Do Before the End of 2010

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New Year’s resolutions are great, but what are you doing the rest of the year?  As we roll into summer and we see the year’s halfway point approaching, it’s important to look at our goals and our progress and see if we’re on track for where we want to be in our lives.

Financially, now is the time to start preparing for the new year.  Don’t be like most people and  wait until December to think about it.

Here’s a place to start:

  • Max out your 401(k). If you are under 50 years old, your maximum annual contribution is $16,500.  If you haven’t contributed to your 401(k), yet, this means you will have to deposit $2358 per month to max it out.  If you would have started at the beginning of the year it would only be $1375 per month.  If those numbers are out of reach, at least contribute enough to get your employer’s match. If your company matches 50% of your contribution up to 5%, you need to be contributing 5%.  If your gross paycheck is $1000, you should contribute $50.  If you do so, your company will be giving you $25.  That’s free money and a 2.5% raise!   With a pre-tax contribution, you are also lowering your taxable wage, so the 5% contribution is not lowering your take-home pay by 5%.  In some cases, it may even raise your take-home pay!
  • Know your money. Take some time to examine your income and your expenses.   What are you having withheld?  Will that leave you with a large tax bill next spring?  Will it give you a huge tax refund, which is just an interest-free loan to the government? You withholding goal should be to pay nothing and receive nothing when you file your taxes in the spring.  The less you withhold, the more you have for your daily expenses, but, if you withhold too much, you risk an unaffordable tax bill and possible penalties later.  Look also at your expenses.  Have you used your gym membership in the last few months?  Cancel it. Do you know every cent you have to pay each month?  Figure it out so you can plan the rest of your financial year. A budget is helpful here.
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  • Own your debt. “It’s not my fault.” “My ex stole my bank account.” “My dog ate the bill.” “My kidneys were stolen and I woke up in a bathtub full of ice and an invoice for services rendered.” “I lost my job.” “I have an X-Box addiction.” “I gave my credit card to a stripper, but we broke up. Go after the stripper.”   Excuses.  Here’s the thing: None of it matters. You owe the debt.  Your choices are to pay the debt or file bankruptcy.   Either way, you need to own the debt and take responsibility for whatever choices you made or debt you’ve accumulated.   Denial is not a successful coping mechanism. Whatever you choose to do, know that it is your choice.  You can’t hide from your bills or your $15/day “Venti Soy Hazelnut Vanilla Cinnamon White Mocha with extra White Mocha and caramel” habit.

What are your financial plans for the rest of the year?

Update:  This post has been included in the Festival of Frugality.

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Side Hustle: Garage Sale Tips

Garage sale week wasn’t enough.    There are so many little things that I did–or meant to do–that I forgot to include them last week.

  1. Advertise everywhere. I do mean everywhere.   Take out an ad in the paper.  Put an ad on Craigslist.   Have fliers in the grocery store, the laundromat, and any place that has a publicly-accessible bulletin board.    Put big, bright signs at every possible turn to get to your sale.  Assume the drivers a dense.  Don’t give them an opportunity to make a wrong turn or–like I did–put conflicting arrows on different sides of a sign.
  2. Use bait. Set out tools and furniture where they are visible.   Lots of people drive past if they only see knick-knacks.   Tools get the men to stop, furniture gets anybody running a household to stop.    If you don’t actually have any tools to sell, put your lawnmower out with an insanely high price on it.   Heck, if someone wants to pay you 125% of retail for your mower, take it!   I had a number of tools and lawn-crafting gear–actually for sale–near the end of the driveway.    If I can get the people out of the car, someone will find something worth buying.
  3. Price it like you’d buy it. People don’t come to garage sales looking for sale prices.  They come looking to pay as little as possible.  They want the crazy deal.   You’ll have to oblige them, at least a bit.  Price some things very low, and everything else almost very low.   Aim for 25% of retail or less, except for a few special items that you won’t mind keeping.
  4. Don’t be afraid to say no. Some hagglers are jerks.  If the offer is insulting, don’t feel obligated to take it.
  5. Bag the little stuff. Instead of pricing every toy 10 cents, put a handful of toys is a zip-lock bag for a dollar.   Mix some of the bad with the good so the crap goes away, too.   Reject every offer to open the bag and sell the stuff separately.
  6. Put the bags of toys on a table in the driveway. Kids stay out of the confined garage and entertain themselves digging.   Kids are clumsy.  They can’t break your lamp if the don’t come near it.   Parents will welcome something to keep their little brats occupied while they shop.  It’s a win for everyone!
  7. Describe anything that isn’t obvious. Make a lot of signs.   To be clear, make a lot of signs.  Describe the furniture.   Show a current ebay auction for the item.  Identify the antiques.  You don’t want to be forced to sell everything yourself.  Let the signs sell for you.
  8. Start early. Price and sort your stuff a month in advance.   The night before the sale, all you want to have to do is set up tables and unbox your stuff.  Don’t try pricing it then.
  9. Multi-day sales are best. It gives people a chance to tell their friends about it, or to come back and buy the thing they passed up.  Don’t lose out on the buzz!
  10. Save your grocery bags. A few weeks before a sale, I go to the grocery store and ask if they mind if a bundle of plastic bags goes home with me.  The manager has always said it’s okay.   If that doesn’t work, just double bag your groceries and save the bags for a few weeks.
  11. Use blankets and tarps to hide anything that isn’t for sale. People will ask about everything they can see.  Save yourself the hassle.
  12. Plan your layout to let people browse and move. You don’t want a traffic jam in the garage.   Give it a clear flow, with enough room for people to pass each other comfortably.   Three people should be able to pass each other in every row.  It’s not always possible, but try.  If two people can’t pass, start over.
  13. Clean your stuff. Clean items sell better.   Dirty stuff will have to be sold for at least 25% less than clean stuff.

That’s it for now.  More to come, I’m sure.

Note: The entire series is contained in the Garage Sale Manual on the sidebar.

Update:  This post has been included in the Money Hacks Carnival.

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Meal Plans

SIERRA MADRE, CA - MAY 29:  Seventieth anniver...
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When we don’t have a meal plan, food costs more.

Our regular plan is to build a menu for the week and go to the grocery store on Sunday.  This allows planning, instead of scrambling for a a meal after work each night.   It also give us a chance to plan for leftovers so we have something to eat for lunch at work.

We work until about 5 every weekday.   When we don’t have the meal planned, it’s usually chicken nuggets or hamburger helper for dinner.   Not only is that repetitive, but it’s not terribly healthy.  It is, however, convenient.   If we plan for it, we can get the ingredients ready the night before and know what we are doing when we get home, instead of trying to think about it after a long day of work.

If we don’t plan for leftovers, we tend to make the right amount of food for the family.   When this happens, there’s nothing to bring to work the next day, which means I’ll be hungry about lunchtime with nothing I can do about it except buy something. Buying lunch is never cheaper than making it.   I can get a sandwich at Subway for $5, but I could make a sandwich just as tasty and filling for less than half of that, using money that is meant to be used for food.   All during wrestling season, we make 30-inch sandwiches on meet nights for a cost of about $5, feeding ourselves and at least a couple of others who didn’t have time to make their dinner before the 5:30 meet.

No leftovers also means no Free Soup, which is a wonderful low-maintenance meal that leaves everybody full.  Nobody ever gets bored of Free Soup.  (Hint:  Don’t ever put a piece of fish in the Free Soup, or the flavor will take over the entire meal.)

Unhealthy, repetitive food for dinner.  Over-priced, low-to-middle-quality food for lunch.

OR

We plan our meals right and have inexpensive, healthy food that doesn’t get boring for every meal.

It seems to be a no-brainer.   Except, I don’t have lunch today because we didn’t plan our meals and used the last of the leftover hamburger helper for dinner last night.

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

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