The Simple Dollar
The bigger the difference between the external temperature and the internal temperature of your home, the more work your air conditioning or furnace is going to have to do. It doesn’t matter how much insulation or how well air sealed your home is, it’s going to happen. Given enough time, your home is going to adopt the temperature of the outdoors, and the further away the temperatures are, the faster the change is going to be (at first).
Here in Iowa where I live, temperatures can range from as high as 105 F in the peak of summer to as low as -15 F in the harshest part of winter. The reality of losing heat in the winter and gaining heat in the summer is a pretty serious reality for us.
Of course, the temperature doesn’t stay there all the time. For example, the average high temperature in Des Moines in June is 82 F, and the average low temperature in January is 14 F, with peaks and valleys all around those temperatures.
Now, if we keep our house at 70 F all year round, we’re going to be trying to lower the temperature 12 F in the peak of summer and heat our home 56 F during the peak of winter.
That means our air conditioning is going to run sometimes during the summer and our furnace is going to run quite a bit in the winter, which is fine.
However, let’s say we adopt a more sensible temperature policy. We keep our home temperature at 78 F during the summer and 62 F during the winter.
Now, we’re simply trying to lower the temperature 4 F on an average day in the summer, and we’re only raising our home temperature 48 F in the winter.
Because we adjust our home temperature seasonally, our air conditioner doesn’t run much at all on an average summer day. It also runs significantly less during the winter because the difference between the outdoor temperature and indoor temperature is siginificantly lower.
Of course, the reason to run air conditioning units and furnaces is for personal comfort. That’s why we have them, after all.
Thus, in order to find the right temperature for each season, we had to experiment. We would try a certain home temperature for a day or two, then try lowering it or raising it by a degree. Eventually, we found a summer temperature and a winter temperature that provides us with comfort all year around.
The best part? During the significant part of the year where the temperatures largely hover between 62 F and 78 F, we don’t run anything at all. We just open the windows. That’s cheap climate control.
Try experimenting with “summer” and “winter” temperatures for your own home and turn off the furnace and air conditioning when the temperature is between those two numbers. Your energy bill will thank you.
This post is part of a yearlong series called “365 Ways to Live Cheap (Revisited),” in which I’m revisiting the entries from my book “365 Ways to Live Cheap,” which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere. I
If you have a forced air heating and/or cooling system like many people do, it might be worth your while to pull the cover off of a few of the vents and peer inside.
If you’re lucky, it’ll look pretty clean in there. There might be a bit of dust, but nothing too bad.
If you’re unlucky, you’ll see giant clumps of dust in there that are serving no purpose other than blocking air flow.
Remove those dust bunnies immediately. They’re doing nothing more than blocking the flow of air out of the vent, which means your air conditioner is working to produce cool air that’s never making it to the room that you want to be cool (or your furnace is producing hot air that’s never reaching a room you want to be warm).
In fact, you should clean all of your vents, even if you spy just a bit of dust in there. Dust can build up over time, gradually reducing air flow into the room.
How can you clean out these vents? The easiest method is to just use a vacuum cleaner attachment.
All you have to do is unscrew the vent covers (if necessary), put on an appropriate vacuum attachment, and suck out the bunnies. Don’t jam the vacuum attachment so far into the vent that you could lose your attachment; just take care of all of the dust near the opening. This will go a long way toward maximizing the air flow from your blower.
Of course, it’s worthwhile to occasionally have a professional clean out all of your vents. This is something worth doing if you have a heating and cooling specialist in your home to perform a repair, as this is a service they can easily provide. There can be a lot of dust buildup in areas that you cannot conveniently reach and they have equipment that can easily clean it for you.
How often should you do it? I try to clean our vents once a year. I do it as part of a spring cleaning routine early each spring. It really doesn’t take all that long. I’ll have a specialist give the air ducts a more thorough cleaning once every few years, usually when I need one for a separate concern.
You may want to do it more often if you live in a particularly dusty climate, such as someone living near a gravel road.
For us, part of the benefit of cleaning out the vents is that it reduces allergies. Sarah was extremely prone to allergies as a child and this has seemingly passed on to at least one of our children. Clean vents means cleaner air for him to breathe, which means more restful nights of sleep.
Does this really save money? Once you’ve cleaned them out for the first time, an annual cleaning is more of a preventive measure. It’s that first cleaning (if you haven’t done it in a while) that can really save you money. If you start opening up vents in your home – particularly the out-of-reach ones – and find lots of dust in clumps in there, you’re going to significantly raise the efficiency of your home’s heating and cooling system, and that can do nothing but save you money on your energy bill.
My parents still live in the house I grew up in, a small two story house in rural Illinois.
My parents share a bedroom on the main floor, where the kitchen and living room also reside. The upstairs mostly just contains two bedrooms and a small “landing” connecting the two.
Since it’s just the two of them living there now, there’s little use for them to go upstairs most of the time. So, in order to save money, they’ve just installed a thick curtain leading to the upstairs and closed all of the air vents up there. They open up the vents a day or so before guests come so those rooms can reach a reasonable temperature.
In the summer, it gets stifling hot up there without the vents open. It’s pretty chilly up there during the winter without the vents, but not freezing (thanks to the rising heat from below).
The thing is, the climate upstairs really doesn’t matter to my parents. They almost never go up there, so why should they bother spending a dime heating or cooling that area?
Closing that area off simply saves them money. They’re not wasting energy cooling the hot upstairs during the summer or heating the cold upstairs during the winter, and that savings is reflected on their energy bill.
At our house, we only have one room worth closing off – the guest bedroom. Most of the time, we keep the door shut and the vent in that room closed. We only open it up a day or two before guests come so that the room will be pleasant for them.
How much does that save us? It’s really hard to accurately judge it, but I can say that during the summer, we don’t save very much because the guest bedroom is usually cool except on the hottest of days. During the winter, however, it can get downright cold in there, which means we’re saving money on heating.
Closing off a room is pretty simple. If you have forced air heating and cooling, just close the vent in that room and keep the door closed. You can also stuff a towel or something like that underneath the door to stop the air flow even more.
If you’re closing off an entire floor, as my parents are doing, you might want to check out the ventilation coming out of your blower unit, which you’ll usually find near your furnace. Often, there will be a separate vent for each floor in your home, so simply shutting off that single vent will do the trick. In these cases, there’s often a small wing-tipped bold that you can turn to close off the air flow to the desired floor. This isn’t true for all forced air systems, but it’s true for many of them, particularly newer ones.
If you have baseboard heating, see if there are specific controls for the room you wish to cool and turn them all off.
How much will you save? It depends on a lot of factors, ranging from the insulation in your home to how well the room is sealed off. The simplest way to see that you’re saving money is to compare the temperatures inside and outside of the sealed room. The greater the difference, the more you’re saving.
If you have a room that you’re not using, take the simple steps of closing the vents in there and keeping the door closed. Those steps will save you on your energy bill.
Most of us recognize that powering down the computer after using it can save us some significant money when it comes to our energy bill. A typical desktop computer uses between 75 and 250 watts. On top of that, the monitor sucks down another 15 to 80 watts.
If you were to leave that machine running for 20 hours (say, when you’re done using it in the evening until you get home the next day), you’re going to be using 1.8 to 6.6 kWh of energy, which, depending on your energy rates, can be anywhere from $0.25 to $1 in energy use while your computer sits there and does nothing.
My parents, for example, would often leave their computer sitting unused for days, costing them at least $20 a month on their energy bill.
Why do this? Convenience, mostly. When you want to use your computer, starting it up from scratch can take several minutes, which can be annoying. I often go get a snack or a beverage and use the restroom while I’m waiting for my computer to start.
The value of powering down your computer to save energy and the value of having your computer ready to go at your convenience at any time is a balancing act.
Sleep mode helps with this, of course. Sleep mode can trim your computer’s energy use down to as little as six watts, and you can set it up to start automatically when you’re away from the computer for a while. The drawback here is that whenever a process happens on your computer, such as an incoming Skype call, the sleep mode immediately stops and you’re back to the large energy use.
My solution? When I’m not at the computer, I put it in “hibernate” mode.
People who use laptops are probably already familiar with “hibernate” mode. What it essentially does is makes a copy of your current session – the programs you’re running, the web pages you have open – and saves it to disk, then shuts down the computer.
When you start the computer again, rather than running through the normal startup mode (which can take several minutes), it just loads up that session that was saved, which takes maybe five or ten seconds.
In some ways, hibernation offers the best of both worlds. It enables a very quick startup (as you would get from leaving your computer on all the time) but also provides the energy (and financial) savings of not having your computer on all the time.
As I noted above, this is a feature commonly available by default on laptops, but most desktops don’t have this option enabled by default. If you’d like to use it on your desktop computer, here are detailed instructions for enabling the “hibernate” option on a Windows 7 desktop computer.
Give “hibernate” mode a try on your computer. If it works as well for you as it does for me, it’ll become yet another way to save money on your energy bill while still having the convenience of a computer quickly at your fingertips.
Jennifer writes in:
I just moved to a new city for work and I don’t know anyone here. Most of my new coworkers are nice, but we don’t have a lot of interest overlap and they spend a lot of money on stuff. I’ve gone out a few times to clubs, but that’s the usual boring club scene.
How do I find friends that are financially sensible in a new city? I want friends that are perfectly happy to come over for a potluck dinner or play a card game or, when we go out, hit a free concert or go play disc golf at a park.
Finding new friends who are sensible with their spending can actually be a significant challenge for frugal people, particularly if they’re not strong extroverts. I’ve faced this very challenge myself. Thankfully, there are a handful of techniques that work really well together for solving this challenge.
First, find things that you’d like to do yourself in your community. You seem to like to play disc golf and go to free concerts, for example. What other things do you enjoy doing, either by yourself or with others, that don’t involve just sitting at home?
For example, if you enjoy playing board or card games, does your community have a board game club? Most major cities do. Is there a free concert series in your city? Does your city have some public disc golf courses?
I’m sure you’ve only listed some of your interests. Just spend some time figuring out where you would go for fun in your new city, then go do those things.
The key thing to remember is that other frugal people are likely to enjoy doing similar things. Yes, there will be some people there that you don’t mesh well with, but the best place to find people who have similar interests and values to your own is to go to events that you enjoy and match your values and see who’s there.
The next step is to be social. Talk to people who are at these events. Get to know them a little bit. Chat with the person you’re playing a game with. Make some small talk with the person next to you at the free concert.
You don’t necessarily have to become best pals with this person. In fact, you’ll probably never see most of the people you chat with ever again. What you’re looking for is a few nice people that seem to click well with you.
For me, the real key is to identify people who seem to regularly appear at things that you’re interested in. If you see the same face at two different concerts and then they pop up at the disc golf course, that’s probably a person you can build a friendship with.
I built one of my closest friendships in college simply because I just kept running into this person at random moments. We didn’t have any other social connection; we just seemed to have several common interests.
If you have a particular passion, get involved with it. For example, if you really like disc golf, see if there’s a disc golf league in your area or if the local parks and rec department would like to have a volunteer to get the ball rolling.
This pretty much guarantees that you’re going to meet and interact with people that have a similar passion as you, because those people are going to be drawn to that activity as well.
The real key to all of this, though, is to have the courage to say hello and introduce yourself. If you just sit in the corner waiting for someone to notice you, it’s going to be very hard for a friendship to blossom.
If you see a familiar face popping up at events, go introduce yourself. The worst thing that will happen is that a friendship won’t click, and that just puts you back where you started. The best case scenario? You have a great new friend to hang out with.
Unless you live in a perfect climate, you’re going to be running your air conditioning and/or your furnace during some portion of the year. Here in the Midwest, both appliances see use as you’ll see a 120 F temperature swing over the course of a typical year (-15 F in the winter to 105 F in the summer is completely normal).
When the inside of your house is at a different temperature than the outside of your house, there’s going to be some heat transfer. During the cold months, the heat in your home is going to leak out. In the warm months, the heat is going to leak in.
The more leakage you have, the more your appliances have to run. The more your appliances run, the higher your energy bill is going to be. As any homeowner will tell you, few things alter your energy bill like an air conditioner or a furnace running all the time.
What can a homeowner do? A homeowner (or even a renter) with an eye toward saving money on their energy bill will take steps to reduce that flow of heat into and out of their home.
One key element in this fight is insulation. It does a pretty good job of keeping the heat where it should be, particularly if your home is well-insulated.
That’s just part of the story, though.
Your windows and door frames aren’t nearly as insulated as the walls in your home. This is particularly true around the edges of your windows and doors, where there can be a gap or at least some looseness.
Air can flow through those gaps, and when there’s a big difference between the temperature outside and the temperature inside, the heat will flow right along with it.
The best solution to this battle – and one that can potentially save you hundreds of dollars a year – is air sealing your home. It’s a weekend project, but it’s something that you can do once and leave it alone while it trims your energy bill significantly in the winter and summer months.
Most of the basic steps of air sealing your home are easy. Put an air-blocking strip on the bottom of any doors that may have a draft. Caulk your windows so that air doesn’t flow through the cracks. Add some insulation where you can. Seal up any exposed ducts. These are all straightforward tasks.
If you want a thorough guide to walk you through all of the steps, start with this guide from the Department of Energy.
Once you do this, you’ll find your energy bill to be lower than last year during your next air conditioning or furnace season. That’s saved money that goes straight into your pocket.
What’s inside? Here are the questions answered in today’s reader mailbag, boiled down to five word summaries. Click on the number to jump straight down to the question.
1. Handling a large gift
2. Free toothbrushes
3. Internet banking and future loans
4. Pieces of inspiration
5. Medical billing problems
6. Getting value from panini press
7. Toilet paper: quality or price?
8. How much should I save?
9. Memorable but inexpensive Father’s Day
10. Starting over with credit cards
A few weeks ago, I spent most of a Saturday to quite a few yard sales in our local area. I took my oldest child with me.
On those visits, I didn’t buy anything and I really wasn’t planning to. So why did I go? I was looking for huge bargains on stuff I knew about (“My son went to college and left behind this old junk…”). I also wanted to show my son a clear example of personal restraint, as I pointed out things at each sale that we could have purchased but chose not to.
Q1: Handling a large gift
I graduated from college last June, and have been looking for a job (in the architecture field, which has been challenging). For graduation, my dad gave my wife and I a very generous gift of $20,000. We haven’t been completely sure what to do with it, and right now it’s sitting in a savings account. We are basically looking at three options. First, we could just keep it in savings with as high interest as possible, and just let it grow. Two, we could use it to pay off a large portion of our student loans, which total about $27,000. Or three, use it to start a small business. Any advice in deciding which route to take?
There isn’t a right answer for what to do with the money. It depends entirely on what goals you guys have.
If I were you, I’d spend some time talking about where you want your lives to be in, say, ten years. What do you want from your life? Do you want to buy a house? If so, when? Next year? Nine years from now? Do you want to have children? When? Do you have a really good and well-researched idea for a small business?
The farther off your goals are, the more I’d lean toward paying off the student loans. The closer they are, the more I’d lean toward the savings account. I’d only open the business if you have a well-researched business plan and a strong desire to run that business.
Q2: Free toothbrushes
Whenever I go to the dentist every six months, they give out a free toothbrush. However, my toothbrushes start to get pretty ragged at about the three month mark. Is it cheap to ask for two toothbrushes when visiting the dentist?
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with asking for another toothbrush at the dentist’s office.
If the dentist has a very strict policy of one toothbrush per customer, then they’ll simply say no, which puts you right back where you started, anyway.
I personally don’t wear a toothbrush that hard, so I wouldn’t have the need to ask for multiple brushes.
Q3: Internet banking and future loans
My question has to do with internet banking and obtaining loans in the future. Due to a divorce and subsequent bankruptcy, I now have a checking and savings account with internet-only banks, as I was unable to open accounts with most of the brick-and-mortar banks in my city. I have two checking accounts with Perkstreet, one for actual checking and one for short-term savings. My emergency fund is saved with Ally. Perkstreet only offers checking accounts at this time, which is totally fine by me. My question is: bankruptcy notwithstanding, will it be more difficult to refinance my auto loan or ever get a home loan with another bank because I do not have a standing relationship with anyone? While I know anything beyond checking and savings is far in the future, I’d like to put the right steps in motion.
I’m unclear why you were unable to open an account with the banks in your city. Whatever the reason was that they denied you an account there, I would resolve it.
If you know what that reason is and have resolved it, the next step I would take is making sure that your credit report is good. Start with the FTC’s website at annualcreditreport.com and verify that everything on your report is correct and that you don’t have many late payments on there (or, even worse, failure to pay).
If you’ve taken those steps, you should be in pretty good shape for a loan. People often get loans from banks where they don’t have active accounts.
I have a huge collection of quotes that I’ve picked up over the years. I dig through them pretty regularly for various things (usually presentations, since my presentations usually just feature a picture with a quote vaguely related to what I’m talking about).
I find pictures because I often look at them in bunches with my children. I try stick to ones that I can share without violating copyright.
As for the videos, I watch most of the Ted talks (and share many of those) and I also often use YouTube for music.
Q5: Medical billing problems
My husband is having a hip replacement soon. We’ve researched the hip implant however hospital costs are not available. We’ve contacted the hospital billing department who referred us to the surgery department who referred us to purchasing who referred us back to billing. The billing person couldn’t give any information on account of HIPPA and when we challenged that (because no patient name) we were referred to purchasing. Do you see the dilema?
Any time I’ve been in the hospital the bills are in the mailbox before I got home so SOMEBODY knows what the hospital charges; we’d just like to know what to expect. Do you have any suggestions?
In this situation, I’d go up the administrative food chain a bit. Who is in charge of these departments? I would try to contact those people directly.
It’s often difficult for the first-level customer service people to answer the questions you’re asking here. Often, they don’t have access to the data you want.
I would keep escalating until I could get answers.
Q6: Getting value from panini press
My children got me a panini press for Mother’s Day. While I love the thought and I’ve used it a couple of times to make sandwiches for me and for family members, I don’t really know what to do with it. Why wouldn’t I just cook a sandwich in a skillet with a bit of weight on top of it? I don’t want to just put the item away and not use it and eventually yard sale it because I know my oldest son spent some of his carefully-earned allowance money on it.
If you look at it as just a sandwich machine, it is indeed pretty limited. You can replicate what it does by simply cooking a sandwich in a skillet with a small weight on top (we use another skillet).
However, you should look at a panini press as essentially being a small cooker. You can cook chicken breasts on it or hamburgers on it or portabella mushroom caps on it quite easily. Slice some potatoes or sweet potatoes, dip them in a bit of vegetable oil, and cook them on the panini press.
If your press has a griddle-like surface, you can also cook things like eggs and waffles and pancakes on it.
A panini press has more uses than just sandwiches and it’s worthwhile to experiment. However, don’t use this as a reason to run out and buy one, as you can still replicate many of these uses with the kitchen equipment you already have.
Q7: Toilet paper: quality or price?
I’ve been a long time reader (3+ years) and have a question about toilet paper. I have a reputation in my family for being frugal. I’ve always bought the cheap single ply toilet paper. My family teases me about this choice and have bought me charmin’s ultra soft double ply as a gift for birthdays and holidays as a joke. I am not arguing the quality difference, you get what you pay for. One feels like a soft towel, the other is closer to sandpaper. I just find it hard to throw money down the toilet on your bum. The other argument I have a against buying the nicer stuff is based on my personal habit of always double or triple folding the toilet paper regardless of its thickness. I’m not sure how many people do this, but if I double or triple the thick stuff, as I’ve found myself doing at my families, I feel like I’d go through a roll really quickly. Is there any way to quantify the amount a person might save if he buys the cheap stuff vs the more expensive. I know it depends on a number of personal variables….but if it was only saving me $10 a year I might be convinced to upgrade.
If you triple-fold the sheets, it’s pretty easy to quantify how much you save on toilet paper.
If you buy a jumbo-pack of Charmin like this one, you’re going to be spending about $0.75 per roll. Each roll has 176 sheets on it, which means if you’re using three sheets at a time, you’re going to get 58 uses out of a roll. Each use, then, is going to cost you 1.3 cents.
On the other hand, Scott rolls can be found for $1.16 per 1,000 sheet roll, meaning you’re going to have a cost of 0.35 cents per triple-sheet use. Your generic of choice may be even cheaper.
Now, is that extra penny per use worth it for the comfort? It’s really up to you.
Q8: How much should I save?
I’m a 35 year old professional with a good job now, however I spent quite a few of my adult years quite poor (beans and rice and no fresh food poor). Since graduating with my JD, I’ve managed to save approximately one year of my salary in my retirement accounts, and 15% of one year’s salary (pre-tax) in an emergency fund. I own a home that I don’t live in because I had to move for work. I have tenants who cover basic monthly costs (mortgage, taxes, etc.) however I’ve had to put a significant amount of money into the property because we were hit by a tornado last year and my insurance company simply didn’t cover everything (plus I had some repairs dating back to when I couldn’t afford anything). I’m currently negotiating with my insurance company over the last major repair (approximately $25k). At this point I’m operating under the assumption that they’ll eventually cover most/all of it. I can’t sell the house at this point without a major loss, because my neighborhood was so hard hit by the foreclosure crisis. So I’m resigned to being a landlord for now. Who knows maybe someday I’ll move back there. Right now I’m in a rental about 90 miles away (not commutable due to traffic and a relationship). I have a paid off car, so that shouldn’t be an issue in the short term. My only non-mortgage debt is approximately $25k in student loans, plus an additional similar amount to my dad for school and house expenses. My dad doesn’t need/want to be paid back quickly, so we’ve agreed that I’m to consistently give them $50/month. (Note: My parents are retired and now working in new PT careers. They haven’t touched their retirement funds yet and don’t expect to for quite some time.)
Anyways, in about four years I’ve been able to save approximately one year of my salary in retirement accounts (and another 15% in an emergency fund), by living in a way that simply isn’t comfortable. I was willing to do that temporarily because I was so far behind, and because I never want to be as poor as I used to be again. Right now I’m saving approximately 28% of my salary (pre-tax). I now need to figure out the “middle ground” route. I need more money for my daily/monthly expenses, but I’m so afraid to save less for retirement, and am having trouble determining whether I’m now “caught up.”
Any thoughts or resources would be helpful.
It is really all about comfort level. As long as you’re spending less than you earn and saving the difference, you’re in good shape.
If I were you, I’d target saving 10% of my income each year for retirement and another 15% for other expenses (like eventual car replacement, maintaining the emergency fund, and so on). I’d spend the rest on bills and just living life.
Some people strongly desire debt freedom and are willing to live very lean to get there as quickly as possible, but that’s not a solution for everyone.
Q9: Memorable but inexpensive Father’s Day
Over the last year or two, I’ve come to really realize how awesome my dad is. He’s just been a rock in my life, my sister’s life, and my mom’s life for as far back as I can remember. Whenever something crazy would happen to one of us, Dad would just listen and he’d take care of things. I was so dumb for getting so angry with him when I was younger because he’d stop me from doing something even dumber.
Anyway, I’m trying to think of something to give him on Father’s Day to really show my appreciation, but I don’t have much money. I am delivering pizzas while trying to get a good job and there just isn’t a lot of cash. I need your help!
Time. Spend time with him.
Plan a day where the two of you do whatever he enjoys doing. Does he like to fish? Does he like to play board games? Does he like to do yard work? Golf?
Whatever it is he likes, just do it with him for the whole day, even if you find it to be the most boring thing on earth. Don’t grumble about it a bit – this is his day, so do what he wants and put your best effort into enjoying it with him. Pack up a picnic lunch and eat it with him. If you’re not good at some aspect of what it is he enjoys doing, ask him to teach you.
Trust me, it’s just about the best Father’s Day gift you could give him.
Q10: Starting over with credit cards
So I’ve been meaning to get a credit card that benefits me. I have only one credit card that I’ve had for 10 years. Through bad experience (getting into debt over my head), I’ve closed off all of my cards 6 years ago and kept just one, Capital One. My credit score dropped but I have worked on it and it’s up to 740 or so. I don’t have any debt except a house mortgage. I pay off my balance monthly so as to not accrue any interest. It also has an annual fee of $49. I’d like to get a credit card that earns points or pays me back for using it. I want to close my CapOne card because of the annual fee but know that if I do so, my credit score might drop. I don’t want to keep it around and charge a small amount on it to keep it going either. What do you suggest?
If I were in your shoes, I would open a card with whatever business I used the most. Do you use a particular gas station a lot? I’d get a card from them. Do you shop mostly at a particular store? Get a card from that store.
Almost always, those store-branded cards have really good bonus programs when you shop at that store. You can use them elsewhere, but the bonuses will be pretty small (or none at all).
Once you have the card for a year or two, cancel the old one. If you cancel the old one now, your credit history will take a pretty painful shot. If you have another line of credit that isn’t brand new, the drop from canceling the old card will be smaller – and it gets even smaller the longer you have the new line of credit.
After a long day, I enjoy a nice shower. It feels pretty good to stand in there and let the water pour over you. Every once in a while, I simply take a long shower.
Most of the time, though, a shower is just a task to be performed as part of the normal day. With children around, it’s one that needs to be performed quickly, too. A quick shower is a less expensive shower, too.
My target is a four minute shower, though I often go over by a little bit. I count those four minutes from the instant I turn on the water to the instant I turn it off.
When I’m in there, I’m all business. My goal is to get clean and get out so I can get on with the other activities of the day.
Of course, the real question is how much money does such a short shower really save?
Let’s say that you take a twelve minute shower every day, and your shower head produces two gallons of water per minute. If you cut that down to four minutes, you’re saving sixteen gallons of water per shower, or 5,840 gallons per year. Depending on where you are, that will save you $10 to $100 a year in water usage, according to these rates.
On top of that, there’s the issue of water heating. With each shower, you’re using hot water, which is either causing your tankless heater to run for a while or causing hot water to leave your tank and cold water to enter it.
In either case, you’re going to be using some amount of energy to replenish your hot water. Given that energy rates and efficiencies vary greatly, let’s just assume that it takes half a cent worth of energy to raise the temperature of a gallon of water from cold to hot. That means you’ll be saving eight cents in energy costs per shorter shower, or $30 per year.
Remembering that these numbers are very much a “back-of-the-envelope” example, cutting your daily shower from twelve minutes to four minutes will save you somewhere between $10 and $130 per year in water use and energy use, depending on such factors as the flow rate of your shower head, the local cost of water, the efficiency of your water heater, the local cost of energy, and the heat level of your shower.
What if you like a nice long soak in the shower? Go for it, by all means. It’s a pretty inexpensive treat, after all.
However, if you’re like me, the best part of a shower is getting clean. If you do that efficiently, you save both time and money.
This post is part of a yearlong series called “365 Ways to Live Cheap (Revisited),” in which I’m revisiting the entries from my book “365 Ways to Live Cheap,” which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere. Images courtesy of Brittany Lynne Photography, the proprietor of which is my “photography intern” for this project.
What’s inside? Here are the questions answered in today’s reader mailbag, boiled down to five word summaries. Click on the number to jump straight down to the question.
1. 401(k) early withdrawal concerns
2. Soccer in America
3. Money, sanity, and in-laws
4. Keeping old magazines
5. Frugal vitamins
6. Tossing unhealthy foods
7. Divorce and credit
8. Switching credit unions
9. Preparing vegetables
10. Dealing with emotional old photos
Few things are more fun to receive in the mail than a handwritten letter.
In an era where it’s so easy to just type out an email to someone, a handwritten letter seems a bit anachronistic.
Yet, when you hold one in your hand, it’s a wonderful thing. Someone cared enough about you to sit down with a pen and paper and invest the time to cover that paper with their writing and thoughts.
I love handwritten letters, and I usually think highly of whoever sends them my way.
Q1: 401(k) early withdrawal concerns
Are there some instances where it’s OK to take money out of your 401K to pay off your credit cards? I’m planning on going to medical school next year, a decade after graduating from college. I managed to save $20,000 before I was laid off a few years ago. I’ve since used all of that savings and the income from working part-time to take the necessary courses to prepare me for a new career in medicine. My classes are done, my applications are ready to go, and I’m working full-time again. Here’s the problem… I ran up $11,000 in credit card debt due to not being able to get Stafford loans for my last few classes and from a couple months of living expenses before I was able to find full-time work. I’m now in the position where I can afford my monthly bills thanks to a combination of regular work, overtime, renting rooms in my house and being really frugal. However, my job (which is great experience for my future medical career and has excellent benefits) only pays a few dollars above minimum wage per hour. I am not making a significant dent in that credit card balance, the card is at 8.9 percent interest, and I am barely able to cover the minimum payments of $400/month. I’m very worried about carrying that balance with me to medical school, when I will be living off of loans. I want to pay it off in the next year … but how? I have about $38,000 in my retirement account, and I own a home I could sell, but a Realtor told me I’d be lucky to break even on the sale. I can’t sell my car, which is worth about $5,000, because I live in an area with limited public transportation and need it to get to work. I’m at a loss. Please help!
I would never take out retirement money to pay off credit card debt (or any other uncollateralized debt).
The math makes it pretty clear. If you take $38,000 out of a 401(k) account early, you’re going to owe income taxes on it (let’s say 25% federal and 5% state, but it depends on your tax brackets) as well as another 10% as an IRS early withdrawal penalty. Your $38,000 immediately becomes just $22,800.
If you make minimum payments on that credit card you describe, it would take you a good part of a decade to recoup the loss you’re going to take just from that one 401(k) withdrawal.
Even worse, you can’t put that money back. You’ll have to make future contributions – and you’ll have to make more than you withdrew because of the gains you didn’t earn because you took the money out.
Don’t touch your retirement money until everything else has failed. You’re nowhere near that yet.
I think it’s heading there.
Major League Soccer is setting a new attendance record every year. It has higher average attendance than the NBA and the NHL. In some communities like Seattle, it’s incredibly popular. When I was in the Seattle area last year, I saw more Sounders jerseys than Seahawks jerseys.
The coverage of European football has also grown tremendously over the last decade. When I was a kid, I was vaguely aware that there were leagues in Europe. Today, I can name most of the teams in the Premier League without much effort, simply because the level of coverage in the United States is so much higher.
I don’t think this is a sudden burst and a flameout like the soccer craze was in the late 1970s. This has been a slow build for twenty or thirty years.
Q3: Money, sanity, and in-laws
I met my future wife almost 3 years ago, and we have been dating since then. I proposed in January, and we settled on a summer wedding during July of 2013. We figured that would give us time to pay bills, save some money etc.
Im 25, make between $50,000 and $60,000 per year, and have a couple outstanding credit cards, and a car loan. Total debt (including car which is about $13k, and student loan at about $4,800 left) about $20,000. She is 24, currently works for a friend at a tanning salon, and pulls in about $7200 per year if she is lucky. Total debt for her is about $7,000 of just credit card debt.
Here is where it gets extremely complicated. She wanted to go back to school (was dying to go back and get something she could use in a career, not just continue on with her dead end job at Starbucks.) So being young enough to not get financial aid, I offered to help. That being said, her parents also offered to help, but not financially. They offered to let us live with them while she is going to school and we are paying off bills.
So now we live with my future in laws. We are being extremely aggressive with our bill payoff strategy. I feel it is important that we get all of my revolving bills (credit cards) and all of hers paid off prior to the wedding, so as to not drag bad credit from her to me. She agrees whole heartily with this.
Originally when I proposed, I had every intention of paying for the wedding by adjusting our savings and bill payoff plan (I proposed about 6 months ago roughly). Her parents generously offered to pay for the majority of the wedding (the reception, looking to be about $12,000ish) So we chose a date, chose a venue and booked the venue with a rather sizable deposit. This has given me time to pay off some credit cards, and some loans and get my bills to a solid footing. About 3 weeks ago, however, my fiance and I were hit with a bombshell. Her parents who originally offered to pay for the majority of the wedding, let us know they were completely broke until at least March of 2013 (our wedding date is set in July of 2013) and even then, they may not be able to help much.
I felt crushed. I can only imagine how they felt telling us this after offering to begin with. We are still living with them, as we have absolutely no savings (again, aggressive bill pay offs). We have no money to move out, and will not have much saved by the time the wedding does roll around. If we stay living with her parents until about a month before the wedding, it may work out, but our sanity is taking a toll living with them. Add to everything else the fact that my fiance’s truck gets about 10-12 MPG on a good day, and has been getting worse….we are going to need to buy a different car for her. Looking at how much she spends in gas each month (about $250) it makes sense to get an older reliable car (2003-2005 Honda civic or accord) that gets almost triple the mileage of her current beast. Her monthly gas bill would be reduced by the amount of the car payment itself, the insurance, and even a little bit extra.
So here is the official, not so long winded dilemma. We have to between now and next July pay about $15,000-$17,000 in wedding expenses, save about $4,000 minimum for a honeymoon, buy a car that will cost about $8,000 (obviously this does not have to be paid for totally upfront) Manage to get SOME savings put away, just to move out (about $2,200 to move into an apartment and pay the first months rent with deposits and what not) and yet somehow, still keep our sanity.
Total amount to spend between now and July 2013= on the high side…$25,000 – or roughly half my yearly income. This is doable ONLY if we stay living with her parents until the last possible moment….But…our sanity like I said, is wavering.
My big suggestion is to get married with a very small ceremony with just a few people, then have a party at someone’s house a few days later. Don’t spend five figures on a wedding. Similarly, skip the honeymoon or do something incredibly simple.
You guys are in a world of financial hurt. Don’t spend $20,000 on a giant party when you’re in this situation.
What about the deposit? The deposit is a sunk cost. Forget about it. Look at what you have to spend going forward and minimize it.
Q4: Keeping old magazines
I love to keep old food magazines. About every three months, on a rainy day, I’ll get out a big pile of them and choose a whole bunch of recipes to make over the next month or two. I just love making new dishes for my family!
The problem with this is storage. If you have a lot of old magazines like I do, they just take up space. Do you have any ideas for frugally handling this?
I do the same thing with food magazines, actually. I keep old ones for a few years and go through a big pile of them every once in a while to ferret out recipes.
My solution for storage is to use a couple document boxes. These are cardboard boxes that are sized to hold paper documents, and they work almost perfectly for magazines. I keep them stored in a closet.
Once every few months, I go into those boxes and pull out a big handful of the oldest ones. I go through them, pull out recipes I want to try (often by literally tearing them out), then toss those magazines. I then add the newest handful to the box on the other end.
Q5: Frugal vitamins
Our family eats reasonably healthy but also sees the value of vitamins and fish oil for my wife, kids, and myself. The kids take a daily multi-vitamin and fish oil gummy. Same for my wife and me, but in pill form. Do you all take vitamins/fish oil? Any tips on finding good deals b/c they’re mighty expensive.
I do not currently take any vitamins. Instead, I just strive to eat a balanced diet.
Your best bet is to buy vitamins in bulk, shop around, and check for online sources.
More than that, though, I would go to my doctor at the next checkup and have a blood screening of all common vitamins and minerals. Use that information as a basis for what you should actually be taking. If you’re normal on everything, continue as you are, but if you’re high on a lot of things, cut back. (Similarly, if you’re low in a certain area, focus in on that area). It might be useful to do this after spending a month or so without the vitamins.
Q6: Tossing unhealthy foods
I’m following the advice of my personal trainer and going through my cupboards to toss out all of the unhealthy food that I find. I’ve put it all in boxes, but now I don’t know what to do with it. It seems like such a giant waste of money to just throw it away.
If it’s unopened, take it to your local food pantry and donate it. Your local food pantry canalways use a donation.
If it’s opened, I would ask my friends if they wanted it. If they do, then I’d just pass it along to them.
After that, you shouldn’t be left with too much. I wouldn’t feel too bad about disposing of a bit of food in the name of health.
Q7: Divorce and credit
My husband and I bought a house in 2007. We then got divorced in 2010. My ex-husband got the house in the divorce. My divorce decree says that I am free and clear of any debt or interest to the house. But, if he does not pay for the house, because my name is still on the mortgage, I am responsible for paying for the house. I can not afford to pay for the house I live in and pay for my old house. I have been told that the only way to get my name off of the house was for it to be sold or refinanced. It was said in our divorce that he had one year to get my name off. He did not do so. I am trying to figure out if there is a way to get my name off of the house, and if he doesn’t pay for it and it goes back to the bank, is there someway to save my credit since he got it in the divorce? I am looking for advice on how to handle this situation. I tried to talk him into putting it up for sale since he is not living in it and the realtor told me I could not, because he got the house in the divorce. What can I do to save my credit if he lets it go back to the bank. I have worked really hard for my credit and I don’t want it to be ruined. I am a single mom with three kids and won’t be able to buy anything with a house going back to the bank on my credit report.
What can I do? Do you have a solution or advice for me please?
If he didn’t follow the divorce decree, you should follow up. The first step is to ask him, of course.
After that, the next step I’d take is to contact the clerk of court from where your decree was issued and ask about the procedure for enforcement. Keep following up on that procedure, as this is the type of thing that can be ignored or swept under the rug by an overburdened legal system.
You have to be patient and persistent. If your decree said that your name had to be removed, then it should have been removed. The law is on your side, but the wheels turn slow.
If you ever feel frustrated or over your head while doing this, contact your divorce lawyer. It will cost you some money, but it will get the situation resolved.
Q8: Switching credit unions
I’m new to the credit union scene and went with a small operation in the most convenient location. In February, I set up checking (still have a primary acct at big bank), savings (emergency fund moved from big bank), a 4-year auto loan, and a balance transfer on a CC that will be paid off in 12 months, according to my budget. They said it would take two billing cycles to set up auto-billpay for my CC. I even followed up in person to make sure. But wouldn’t you know, it only took one. I had already made last month’s payment, so they said they’d reverse their payment. They went in and reversed BOTH payments. The customer service has been lousy and I’m inclined to move my business elsewhere.
Several contacts have recommended another CU in town. Would it hurt my credit score to do another balance transfer after only a few months at this CU? Should I give this CU another chance? I’d like to think I came in with really basic, straightforward requests; I pay my bills on time and love & appreciate auto-billpay. Please advise!
It sounds like you’re in a pretty awful credit union. Their customer service should be able to easily handle these requests. I’d move my business, too.
You haven’t really been with this union long enough to have established a strong relationship with them, so I wouldn’t feel bad about leaving.
This is one of the reasons why I believe that customer service is a huge factor for your primary bank, far more than interest rates and such. What good is an extra 0.25% return on your savings account if you have to deal with messes like these?
Q9: Preparing vegetables
I’ve been trying to improve my diet lately and that means incorporating more vegetables. The problem is that I don’t really like eating them. You’re a vegetarian, so what do you do to make veggies tasty?
I season them. Ground black pepper, oregano, rosemary, basil, and so on. Try herbs and spices until you find what you like.
I really like grilled vegetables. One thing I love to do is dip summer squash and zucchini slices in a bit of olive oil, sprinkle some black pepper and oregano and basil on them, and then grill them until they’re just lightly brown on each side. Delicious.
Another tactic is to wrap vegetables in aluminum foil with an ice cube or two and a lot of seasonings. I then grill this packet for half an hour or so (longer for starchy vegetables like potatoes).
Just experiment until you find things you like. If you don’t like something, never use that tactic again. Try something different next time.
Q10: Dealing with emotional old photos
I’m 28. My mother passed away two years ago very suddenly. It was a suicide. While not entirely unexpected (she’d become severely mentally ill) it was very traumatic, especially as one of her primary caregivers. I’ve gone to therapy and feel I’ve made a lot of progress. I’m in a much better place in my life now.
I currently have all the photos from my mother’s house. They take up the entire closet of my second bedroom. They document everything from before I was born up until recently. There are thousands of pictures. The albums are the only photos my family has – my mom took them all in the divorce. My dad (who has since remarried) has made it clear he really wants copies of everything, but wasn’t willing to fight my mom for them. Knowing my mother, I don’t blame him.
In the fall, my boyfriend of 5 years is moving from the US to Canada to live with me. We hope to start a family in a few years. I’ve cleaned out half of my closet and storage spaces for him, and made space for anything he might want to display. We want to set up the second bedroom as an office, but with all the photo albums in there (some of which are spilling out from the closet into the actual bedroom) there is no space. It’s depressing to even be in there. I avoid the room entirely, making it a completely non-functional space.
I’ve tried to scan the pictures. Every time, I wind up in tears, reminiscing, without any progress. I’ve looked into online bulk scanning, and it seemed promising. My brother and dad both vetoed sending the photos off for scanning as they’re afraid we may lose them in transit. However, both find the job of sorting/scanning emotionally taxing and have been avoiding it. Something needs to be done, and soon. I’m afraid of losing the photos in a fire or some other disaster permanently. I would ask my boyfriend to help, but he won’t be here for another six months or so.
These photos have been sitting in my closet and weighing on my heart for almost two years now. Do you have any suggestions?
My suggestion would be to find a local photography business that could do this for you. While you might have to pay more, a local business eliminates the risk of having to ship these priceless photographs.
Many of these businesses have a system where they can literally put a stack of photos into the device and the device just automatically scans and saves them. Thus, the price ends up not being too terribly high.
Once you get the photos back, check the digital images. This will be emotionally hard, but you want to make sure that all the images are there and there aren’t any major problems with them.
Got any questions? Email them to me or leave them in the comments and I’ll attempt to answer them in a future mailbag (which, by way of full disclosure, may also get re-posted on other websites that pick up my blog). However, I do receive hundreds of questions per week, so I may not necessarily be able to answer yours.
Let’s look at two people, Bob and Charlotte. Each of them has only one outstanding debt, a $100,000 mortgage with a 3.75% interest rate that has 28 years to go.
Bob is single and doesn’t enjoy dating, so he plans on remaining single for the rest of his life. He wants to retire early so he can get involved with managing the local food pantry, where he works part time right now. He is fully funding a Roth IRA and contributing 20% a year to his 401(k), but he still has extra money each month because he lives simply. He doesn’t really enjoy taking risks and he strongly desires having debt freedom as a personal goal as soon as possible.
Charlotte is married with four children. She and her husband love to go on family trips and plan to keep on traveling as long as they are both healthy. She contributes some to retirement – enough to get her employer’s match – but she intends to stick with her wonderful career until she can’t do the work any more. Charlotte was thrilled to get a mortgage with such a low rate because it meant she has a bit of extra money free to help her children enjoy extracurricular activities and help her parents out as they struggle with retirement. Charlotte’s biggest focus in life is bringing up her children well.
Bob and Charlotte are facing the same debt situation, but are living very different lives. If I were giving these two people advice, I’d tell Bob to pay down his mortgage quickly and tell Charlotte to make minimum payments for now.
Personal finance is rarely black and white. Every person out there has different income levels, different debt levels, different retirement accounts at work, different stress levels, different risk tolerances, different personal and professional goals, different levels of family support, and so on.
All of those issues matter. That’s why it’s personal finance.
Right now, in my life, I am closer to Charlotte’s situation. We have similar goals in that we want to raise our children well, and we both have multiple children and a spouse. However, I don’t really enjoy travel all that much and feel more like Bob when it comes to retirement in that I’d rather be careful with my money now and retire a bit earlier.
My closest friends are either single or married without kids. They have different income levels, different goals, and different risk tolerances. Some of them are like Bob. Others are like Charlotte. Most of them really aren’t like either one of them. Every time I talk with my friends about money, I’m fascinated to find how everyone is doing something different, but everyone has sensible reasons for doing what they’re doing.
To me, that’s the key.
Why are you doing what you’re doing when it comes to your money? Does the answer to that question make sense to you? Can you explain it clearly?
That’s the litmus test of money success: you’re making financial choices for a reason.
Does that reason have to apply to the lives of others? Certainly not. Everyone has a different life, and that’s why it’s hard to say that there are established rules of personal finance.
However, you can (and should) learn things from the choices others make. The decisions and tactics others use might not match your life at all, but it’s likely that you will find something useful in what they’re doing.
You might not agree with why they’re doing it. You might not agree with most of their tactics. But whenever you find someone that has achieved some of the things you want to achieve, they probably have something to teach you.
Whenever you read about or hear about a tactic that doesn’t seem to work for you, just move on without skipping a beat. That tactic isn’t for you, but it might certainly work for someone else.
For example, Bob will probably find a tactic related to inexpensive diapering to be completely useless, while Charlotte probably wouldn’t find a lot of value in minimizing all of one’s possessions. Bob and Charlotte are in different places in their life with different values, so they’ll find different tactics useful. However, there is a lot of overlap in what they will find useful, such as tactics for making an inexpensive and tasty dinner or holding a frugal dinner party.
Invest your time and energy on tactics that do work for you. If you see a tactic that you don’t find useful because it doesn’t match who you are or where your life is right now, don’t waste even a second of your precious energy or time on it. Share it with someone that it would work for (if you know anyone), then move on.
Life’s too short to spend it trying to jam your life into advice that doesn’t fit.