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Archive for October, 2013

Minor car problems and my raise

October 31st, 2013 at 12:45 pm

I blogged last week about needing new brakes. The battery in DW's car died, and needed to be replaced. DW also mentioned that her brakes are starting to make funny noises. And, driving home from work last evening, I noticed that the check engine light cam on in my truck. I'll get that checked out today, of course, hoping that it's nothing major.

These little things sure can add up.

Today was pay day. Also, I got a small raise at work, and that raise is included in today's check. Most of the raise will go toward my increase in retirement savings, so not much in the way of increased monthly cash flow.

Halloween Expenses

October 28th, 2013 at 12:48 pm

I touched on Halloween spending in a comment in CCF's post on Friday. I thought I'd expand a bit here.

We'll spend very little on Halloween. The kids each got a pumpkin to carve. They were given to us by our in-law's neighbor. I blogged about that a couple weeks ago.

We carved the pumpkins last week. DW and the girls made three flavors of roasted pumpkin seeds - garlic, one flavored with chili powder, and a sweet one flavored with maple syrup, and some other spices that I'm not sure of. Roasted pumpkin seeds don't last very long around our place.

We don't buy candy to hand out, because trick-or-treaters don't visit our house. When I was a kid, my mom drove us to all of our rural neighbors, then we would go to town. The funny thing is, that the rural folks all gave out the big candy bars, and home made popcorn balls - the really good stuff. I guess kids (and parents) don't want to waste their time actually driving from house to house anymore.

And, we won't be spending anything on costumes for the kids this year. We typically don't spend much on costumes, because DW is a seamstress, and usually sews something for the kids. This year, one of my SILs bought outfits for my kids.

Remember about a month ago, when we had that family picture taken? After the formal pictures were taken, the photographer took some fun pictures of the kids. My SIL bought capes and masks for the kids (her three and our four). The outfits were purchased from the MSU Alumni Association. They made really cute pictures, that were a real hit. But ... she spent $15 per outfit. Fun pictures or not, I wasn't keen on the $60 spent for my kid's outfits.

SIL said that they are an early Christmas gift, which is fine. But, I'm sure she'll still buy Christmas gifts for my kids.

Our kids will wear those outfits for Halloween.

My kids are: DD1, the biggest kid in the middle; DD2, the red head second from the left; DS 1, third from the right; and DS2 on the end.

And, yes this picture has been featured on the MSU Alumni Association's Facebook page.

Past Due Water Bill

October 25th, 2013 at 09:30 pm

We got a past due sewer/water bill today. It's from our former residence. It seems that our renter left without paying her water bill. The amount past due is $145.12. Apparently she went a while without paying.

Included in the mailing is the form I signed on July 16, 2011 acknowledging that we were responsible for any unpaid balance. There's also a cover letter citing the city ordinance (1044.12) that allows for placing a lien on the property for any unpaid sewer/water service.

Darn it.

I know I'm morally obligated to pay the bill. But I don't want to. I want to be done with that money pit of a house.

Grinding Brakes

October 24th, 2013 at 04:49 pm

The brakes on my pickup started to make not so good noises. DW wanted to use my pickup today, to deliver a dresser that we don't need any more to a new foster mom. That dresser is short and long and takes up a lot of floor space. We have an armoire (how do you spell armoire? I'm getting red squigglies under the word.)to replace it, that is taller and takes up less floor space.

The armoire used to house our TV, but we got a new flat screen TV as a gift from my parents last Christmas. The flat screen is mounted to the wall. The armoire has been sitting in a not so got spot for far too long.

I had already set an appointment with our mechanic to fix the brakes, so the new foster mom will have to wait a couple more days.

The brakes are getting fixed right now. I need new calipers and new brake pads. The estimate is $275.

We attended a conference

October 21st, 2013 at 01:27 pm

DW and I attended a conference near Detroit on Saturday. It was a conference for parents of children with special needs. Tickets would have cost us $65 each, but we had our tickets given to us. Our niece's MIL works for an adoption agency near Detroit, and her agency had purchased a booth, and received complimentary tickets, and she gave two of them to us.

The conference was good. I'm certainly glad we went. We were able to find two break out sessions that had very good information for us.

There were six break outs in two time slots (three sessions per time slot). The way the conference was structured was that each of the break out speakers spoke to the entire group in the morning for 15 minutes each, to give an idea of their break out. And, in the break out, they went into greater depth. So, we had a chance to listen to the all of the speakers.

The conference was put together largely by a husband and wife who have a special needs son. Apparently they have visited 14 states, trying to find Drs., therapists, etc. for their son. They invited six of the people that they have found who have helped them to speak at this conference.

Half of the speakers represented alternative type medicine, which doesn't appeal to us.

I actually won two door prizes! The first was a small picture frame with a Best Buy gift card taped to it. I'm still not sure of the value of the gist card, but would guess it's $20 or $25.

The second door prize was the "Grand Prize" and it was a 7" Kindle Fire HD. Retail value of about $180. I've never won a grand prize before.

We're thinking of returning the Kindle, and using that toward the purchase of a refurbished iPad mini (full Apple warranty). We got an iPad as a gift last Christmas, so we already have several apps that we've purchased for it. It would cost an additional $80 for the iPad mini.

The conference lunch was gluten free/casein free. I'll just say that the lunch did not agree with my digestive system, and leave it at that.

A weak spot in my personal finances

October 11th, 2013 at 07:54 pm

I have a weak spot in my personal finances - I have more than one weak spot to be sure, but I'll speak of only this one for now.

That is, getting reimbursed for expenses at work.

I just submitted a reimbursement form that stretches back all the way to the middle of July, and the total for the reimbursement is $827.80.

When we were butt-broke, I had incentive up the wazoo to submit expenses. And, when I make a major purchase, I get it submitted right away. But, we're not butt-broke right now, and none of these expenses were major - they were small to medium sized.

I know I need to get on a schedule where I submit expenses at the end of each month, no matter what. I know that in theory. Putting it into practice is an entirely different matter.

Our Adoption Subsidy

October 9th, 2013 at 02:43 pm

I've blogged about the adoption credits we've received for adopting our boys, but I've never blogged about the monthly adoption subsidy payments. Maybe that's because any recurring government payment is "sensitive" or "private" or maybe has a bit of a shameful connotation.

Our total monthly adoption subsidy for the the two boys is $1,936. We'll receive a subsidy payment each month until their 18th birthday. The payment will increase a bit when each child turns 13, because teenagers are more expensive. The payment could also increase if the Michigan Legislature votes to increase it, but they just did that a year ago, and the payment hadn't been increased since 1992, so I'm not holding my breath on that.

The way I look at it is that we have an agreement with the state of Michigan to parent a couple of boys whose natural parents couldn't do the job. Of the two boys' four natural parents, three have served significant time in prison (one is there right now). If we raise the boys in such a way that they don't end up in prison, I'd say that the state of Michigan has made a good investment. And, I think we're doing a bit better than just keeping them out of prison. Hopefully they will contribute to society in a positive way.

The boys also have special needs, and lots of doctor appointments(DS2's neurologist is in the Detroit area, about two hours away), and are still in diapers (yes, at ages 5 and 3, still in diapers). They are more expensive to raise than our two girls, both from an economic and emotional standpoint.

So, the adoption subsidy is nice. We happened to adopt the boys when the state of Michigan was broke, and state budgets were being cut all over the place, and DW fought tooth and nail to get the subsidies, because our state Department of Human Services originally denied the payments. We also had a good Probate Judge working with us. He threatened to drag the DHS person 2 1/2 hours from Lansing to justify her decision to deny our payment in his court room.

That's all. I just wanted to get that off my chest.

Hunting Land

October 7th, 2013 at 03:00 pm

It was a fairly low spend weekend. No major cash expenditures.

We visited my in-laws Saturday. Our niece and her husband will be returning to South Africa, for probably another two years as he finishes his doctorate, so we stopped to say good bye.

While we were there our kids were invited to a neighbor's house to pick pumpkins. I struck up a conversation with the neighbors. They are real estate agents that specialize in selling hunting land in a five county area in Michigan, including the county we live in. They said that my general area is one of the hottest for hunting land sales.

I asked about sales prices. They said that most sales were in the range of $2,200 to $2,700 per acre,and that "square 40s" (a forty acre parcel 1/4 mile X 1/4 mile) are the hottest sellers. I asked if those sales were typically made to groups of hunters buying together. They replied that sometimes 40 acre sales were made to a group of two hunters, but usually one. For a group of multiple hunters to buy land together, the size usually has to be 120 acres or more.

I guess I'm just naive, but it seems insane to me to spend 100K on hunting land! But, then, I'm surrounded by 200 acres of family-owned hunting land, and I don't hunt.

And, I would guess by all the bill boards and radio ads that I see and hear around here from banks looking to lend for hunting land that the majority of sales are financed. I wonder if they put 20% down?

I suppose the buyers also look at the purchase as an investment, figuring that the price will appreciate when they are ready to sell.

I've heard that landowners can command a $20-$25 per acre fee to rent their land out to hunters. Many farmers don't want hunters on their ground at all. My brother-in-law allowed hunters on his land at one time, but he was called to settle one too many hunter-hunter arguments, so he doesn't put up with it anymore.

My dad allows his cousin's sons to hunt his ground, and he doesn't charge them anything. They are very gracious, and they give my dad gifts, and a share of the meat.

The way I look at it is that I'm glad to have the deer around my house harvested. It's less likely that I'll run into a deer with a vehicle!

Budget Plans and other stuff

October 4th, 2013 at 01:50 pm

I blogged a few months ago about enrolling in budget plans for our heating fuel and electricity.

So far, things have been going well. Our heating fuel supplier simply charges us a flat rate (last years usage divided by 11), and June is the settle up month for any over or under payments. We've paid a flat rate each month Jul.-Sept. October's payment will be automatically withdrawn from checking on the 20th.

Our electricity plan is a bit different. They charge us a rolling average of the previous 12 months bills, so payments aren't equal, but they are normalized. Our electric bills tended to be erratic in the past, not only for variations in monthly usage, but also because we report our meter readings to the electric company each month. We have a choice, but we save $5 each month by self-reporting our meter readings (the electric company audits our reporting by checking themselves a couple times a year).

I try to report usage on or about the 15th of the month, but sometimes I'm earlier and sometimes I'm later, and I have, at times, forgotten to do it at all, but I'm getting better with that.

I looked at the electric company's web site yesterday. I checked out our bill payment history. (OVER THE TOP FINANCIAL ANALYSIS WARNING) I calculated the average of the 12 prior to enrolling in the budget plan, and the 9 months after enrolling. What I found is:

For the 12 months prior, 3 months were within 10% of the average billing, 5 were within 20%, 2 within 30% and 2 were outside 30%.

For the 9 months since enrolling, 2 were within 1% of average, 1 was within 3%, 3 were within 5%, 2 were within 7%, and only one was outside 10% of the average.

In statistics, they would call that "a lot less noise in the data".

While I'm on the subject of utilities - we've gotten three bids back from geothermal installers. Bids range from about 15K to about 17K. Even if we saved until the end of next summer, we wouldn't have enough without borrowing. We're probably going to wait on that.

I also entered my employer HR web site this morning. I enrolled in the FSA program again for 2014. This year I contribute $1200 into the FSA. Next year I'll contribute $1,500, or $25 more per month. We over spent this year, and a big reason for that was DD2's root canal. If we end up over contributing for 2014, we still have Jan., Feb., and Mar. 2015 to use it up.

Finally, I increased my contribution to my retirement plan by one percentage point.

That's it for now, have a great weekend.

My Friend M

October 3rd, 2013 at 12:44 pm

I saw my friend M yesterday. M is a federal employee. M is usually a very jovial, happy person. Yesterday, he was not. M has no idea when he will get paid next.

He went into his office on Tuesday morning for a partial day to change voice mail greetings, and set up e-mail bounce backs. He also had a conference call where he was instructed to secure the office, and watch the news for information for when to report back to work - yes, watch the news.

M is about my age. He has three kids, they are about the same age as my three oldest. His wife is a SAHM, and they are a single income family.

M said he is looking for day work. He has a CDL, and can haul stuff. Or cut wood. Or do whatever to make a buck.

I get the sense from M and his family that they don't over spend, or under save. But, I have no idea. Probably three years ago, very few people though that we over spend and under save.

What I seem to be hearing is that the shut down will probably end on the 16th of October when congress will be figuring out what to do with the debt ceiling. A 16 day shutdown doesn't seem to be that long, unless you are a federal employee with three kids, and a single income.

The Basement and Scrap Metal

October 2nd, 2013 at 02:15 pm

As most all of you know, we renovated and moved into my family's farm house four years ago. We completely renovated the main living area, and cleaned up a lot of brush and overgrowth outside before we moved in. And, we have been working at renovating the outside of the house since.

We've done nearly nothing in the basement. When my grandparents lived there, they called it the cellar. It's dark and damp and musty and dusty. Really, the only thing we've added new down there is a water pump and water softener. We've removed some of the major clutter, but have really done nothing of great significance to clean it up.

We had the insulation guy come last week to apply spray foam to the basement walls. The cost was $800 for an inch and a half of foam. The presumed insulation factor is R11, and we hope to save about 20% on heating costs, or about $44 per month, based on last year's heating costs.

When the spray foam guy was done, he suggested that we paint the walls, to help preserve the newly applied foam. We did that this weekend. We also cleaned trash and clutter.

Some of the trash was scrap metal. So, I took yet another trip to the scrap yard. I estimate I had 80-100 pounds of scrap in the load. I say "estimate" because the scale at the scrap yard was not working.

I drove my pickup up to the gate, as usual. I drove my pickup on to the scale, as usual. After the guy at the scale gave me the thumbs up, I drove to the scrap pile, threw off my scrap, and drove back around to the scale, as usual.

After he had weighed me empty, the guy at the scale gave me my slip, so I could take it up to the office to get paid. I always look at the weigh slip before I drive off, because I'm always curious about how much the scrap weighed. The "full" weight was exactly the same as the "empty" weight. I studied the numbers again to make sure my eyes weren't deceiving me, and sure enough - they were exactly the same.

I got out of my pickup, and showed the guy the slip, and told him the weights were the same. He studied it, asked me to drive off so he could re-tare the scale, and asked me to drive back on. Something was clearly wrong with the scale.

The guy said he would mark me down for 300 pounds of scrap. I said - It wasn't that much. He said - How about 200 pounds? I said - Sounds good.

The 200 pounds was worth $16. I could have gotten $24, if I had agreed to the 300 pounds, but in reality I had $6 or $8 worth of scrap. But, it was their scale that was broken.

October Financial Reflections

October 1st, 2013 at 02:31 pm

For the past couple of years I've done some extra financial reflection in the month of October. It was three years ago this month that we finally woke up, and started to pay serious attention to our finances.

A couple things happened that month. DW received a freelance check (that was in the days before four kids, and she did some freelance work). I think it was a couple thousand dollars. We also had our second of three sets of renters move into the our for sale house. I think the house had been vacant since July or August - a couple months anyway. We were also about $450 past due on one of our CCs. That CC had a whopping 32.99% APR.

Within the same week that we received DW's freelance check, we received a letter from the above mentioned CC. The CC company (Advanta) was offering us a deal - if we paid the $450 that we were past due, they would cut our interest rate to 16.99%. We jumped on the deal, and sent the check that day. Advanta kept their end of the bargain, and cut our interest rate. Most of the rest of DW's freelance check went to various other debts.

That bit of momentum got the ball rolling for us. I dug in, and totaled all our CC balances, compared the balances to each card's interest rate, and realized that (after the $450 payment, and interest rate cut on the one CC), we would still be paying very nearly $200 per month in CC interest alone.

The first step I opted to take was to find a 0% APR transfer to a new CC. My credit score was in a shambles, and I didn't qualify for a new card at that time. Another thought I had was to borrow against my retirement fund. I actually went to a bank, and picked up the forms to apply for the loan. I think they were offering an 8.99% APR on the loan. I don't remember for sure, but I may have filled out the paperwork, but I never did submit it.

That previous August, I had stumbled upon the SA forums when my mom and dad had a question for me about retirement savings. I had asked the question for them, and passed on the answers, and never did return to SA until I was faced with the question - should I borrow against my retirement fund to pay off CC debt (or, shift unsecured debt to a lower APR with my retirement fund as collateral, to be more precise). Thankfully I asked the question, and thankfully the forum regulars steered me away from that choice.

DW did qualify for a 0% APR 3% balance fee card that next January. The limit was $750. We transferred that, minus the 3% fee, and ended up doing two more balance transfers until the Advanta debt was paid off this past January.

It would be another six months before I found the Blog side of this site, and those of you who have been following my blog for most of the pat 2 1/2 years know the rest of the story in gory detail.

You also know that we've stumbled at times, and have had help along the way. But, as I remember that seemingly unbearable, rocky mountain that we faced three years ago, I can't believe that we've turned it around.