Archive for February, 2010

I have coupon guilt…can I confess it here?

I’ve never been the best clipper of coupons. Sure, I’ve saved a few.  What I’ve rarely done is actually take them to the store and use them when I purchase a product!

credit to: weblogs.baltimoresun.com

I must be a marketer’s dream come true.  Pass the coupon under my nose, give me the reminder about your product, and I might buy it.  Brilliant – if I actually remembered the coupon.

Years ago I admitted I was no coupon contessa, so I just stopped saving them all together.

Lately, in my quest to put every red cent toward debt reduction, I’ve turned my eye to coupons once again.

This week, I actually managed to take two coupons and use them at the grocery store. Seems harmeless right? Except now, I have this guilt over the whole affair.

Off I went to the grocery store with my list, a coupon for cat litter, as well as a coupon for egg noodles. The cat litter was on sale, $5.99.  My coupon was for $1.00 off.  Cool deal.  The coupon I had for egg noodles was also for $1.00 off.

As I got up to the cashier and she rang through my cat litter and coupon, I noticed the coupon was showing as -$4.00 on her screen.  I’m looking at the screen with a puzzled look.  Just as I’m about to open my mouth to say something, the cashier yells over to the cashier next to her and says “can we take this coupon?” and the other cashier says “yeah, why not?”  My cashier looks at her screen, looks at me, and says “good for you!”

I’m thinking okay, we both see the same thing, we’ve acknowledged it’s not quite right in our indirect way, and we’re moving on.  Then she scans the egg noodles and the coupon. Instead of it registering for -$1.00 it shows up as -$2.00.  The egg noodles were only $1.99 to start with!

She looks at me and says “something’s funny with this coupon, it’s being double counted.”  I wait for some solution to this problem.  She then says “who cares” and carries on again.  For a moment I’m dumbfounded. Did I just get $6.00 off my groceries because I actually remembered to bring $2.00 worth of coupons?

I walked out with cat litter that was $1.99, and they paid me one cent to take away a bag of egg noodles to feed my family. I felt like that lady in the IKEA commercial where she runs from the store, yells at her hubby waiting to start the car. Except I don’t have a car, and I can’t yell at the bus. (I can, but it’s a worthless pursuit)

Thinking I’d perhaps gone blind, or mad, I came home and checked my receipt. Yep, I did get $6.00 off. This was a few days ago. I’ve been feeling guilty ever since.

The only saving grace I have in the scenario is my confidence that the cashier knew exactly what was going down, and was totally disinterested in having any different outcome. In this crime, I had an accomplice. No, I didn’t beg her to do the right thing.

Under a big magnet on the fridge is a stash of more coupons. I’m sure I’ll use many more of them. I just hope there isn’t as much guilt when I do.

Toronto Hydro makes me happy!

I never thought I’d be excited about a utility company, never mind getting the bill from the utility company! Toronto Hydro has done some cool things lately around encouraging energy conservation. I’m loving it.

They’ve recently introduced time-of-use billing.  What’s that you ask? Well, simply put, when there’s a peak demand for power, you pay top dollar to use it.  When the demand is moderate, you pay a bit less. When there’s low demand, you get a bargain (or at least, that’s what Toronto Hydro would like you to think).

I’m not confident, but I think there has always been a slight difference in hydro rates depending when it was used.  Toronto Hydro is going out of their way to make sure people know about this now, and they’re marketing their socks off.

Recently, while I was waiting for a bus, the one that was approaching passed me by without stopping. (It was full). As I watched it drive away, I noticed a big advertisement on the back of the bus. It featured three identical laundry baskets.  One laundry basket was worth 9.3 cents/KwH, the middle was worth 8 cents, and the last was only 4.4 cents/KwH.  What was the difference?  The time the laundry was done.

Hey, I’m a visual learner.  This really spoke to me.  Since then I’ve seen the same concept applied to the dishwasher. The point being – you can get the same load of laundry or same load of dishes done for a less than half the price if you do it when there isn’t a demand on the energy.  It’s brilliant!

We’ve had to implement a certain amount of discipline around here to not just fire up the dishwasher when it’s full.  Now, we’re learning to make use of the timer on the thing and set it to go when we’re all in bed.  The laundry is a different matter.  Hey, we’re a family. We have laundry. Lots of laundry.

The time of use rates drop during weekdays at 9 p.m. I’m not always on my game to start a load of laundry at that time.  I may do one load in the washer at that time, and then pop it in the dryer at 6 a.m. the next day, to beat the 7 a.m. deadline for the higher rates again. The weekends are all the lowest rate, so that’s where we’ve really focused our laundry chores.

So far the result has been great!  Not only has the hydro bill dropped about 10% over a short time period, but they have also provided a $75 credit for customers who volunteer to have a smart meter installed in their home.  This allows Toronto Hydro to dial back residential air-conditioners in the event of a greater need for power in the warmer months.

It’s a win-win.

Yesterday I mentioned that I’d budgeted for a $50 hydro bill in March. Today I got the bill. I still have a $50 credit!  Thanks Toronto Hydro. Thanks for letting me be a better consumer and encouraging me to be more responsible to the power grid, and to my pocket book.

March’s budget now balances…again

A few days ago, I told you what I dufus I was running from some VISA charges and forgetting to budget for an annual credit card fee. This had a big impact on my budget for March.

After a few days of re-prioritizing and recalculating, I think I’ve managed to balance the books and keep in a bit of fun. Here’s a few highlights of what’s shifted:

  • Home Depot sent me a cheque for a $175 credit I had on their credit card last week.  This was unexpected, so I plunked that amount to my VISA card.  Thank you Home Depot for the $175 reduction in expenses!
  • We’re not going to spend the entire $550 I budgeted for groceries in February. I’m projecting a $100 surplus by the weekend.  Therefore, I’ll only need to withdraw $450 for March’s grocery budget – up another $100
  • Toronto Hydro had overcharged me in November (by $300), so I paid it before I started ‘the conversation’ with them, to avoid being in hot water with them. They credited me back the money. I anticipate rather than owing them $200 in March as I’d expect, the remainder of my credit will be used and I’ll only owe about $50 – another $150 for the good guys!
  • I’ve eliminated the beer/wine budget – up $20
  • cut out planned expenditures for acquiring some new dishes – up $50
  • no haircuts or cosmetics for March – up $30
  • cut entertainment from $40 for the month to $20 – up $20
  • projected another $80 revenue from my part-time job for March, which is closer to what my actuals to February actually are

I’ll be paying a little less than planned toward my line-of-credit. We’ll be keeping our whopping $30 a month dining out budget, because we had such a good time in February just going out for burgers.

Finally, I’ve added an expense of $20 for books.  There’s a church having a massive book sale March 6, and I plan on attending.  No sense showing up without a book budget! I like to read, and when everybody has read the books they want, I usually try and sell them to BMV to keep the cash flow going.

Although I’m not done quadruple checking March’s budget part II, I’m reasonably confident in saying we now have $120 in the black, instead of the big red hole I saw coming last week.

If I didn’t have a budget showing me all the expenses and revenues, I wouldn’t have seen it coming, and wouldn’t have adjusted anything. That’s when more trouble happens, and I’m very pleased that it couldn’t defeat me this time.

Game on!

Yes, Flyers please…

No doubt my neighbourhood’s mailboxes look much like mailboxes almost anywhere.  Some are white, some are black, some are wooden, some look like art objects.  More and more mailboxes in my area have a little sign on them that says “no flyers please”.

Honestly, I feel bad for these people.  Do they have any idea of the pleasure they’re denying themselves?

Man, I love flyers! I can’t wait for them to arrive on Friday evening. I get excited about it, so do my girls. You can be assured that someone will say over Friday night dinner “hey, it’s flyer night!”  Yep, flyer night is a huge deal in our household.

I spread them out on the coffee table, get my little grocery scratch pad and a pen, and start making notes. Ooooo, toilet paper is $4.99 at this store. I write it down.  A few flyers later, a similar product is $4.49.  First one gets scratched off and replaced with a better deal.  Ground beef on sale at my favourite store – I start planning our menu for the week to include a few good deals.

Since I don’t have a car, sometimes picking up the deals at various stores literally takes hours. I pack up my little grocery bundle buggy, and head down the street. If it’s full, I have to come home and unload, then head out again.  Think of the money I save on gym memberships just walking all over the neighbourhood all day!

I totally get why people don’t want flyers or junk mail.  I’m not a fan of junk mail, but I think I’d need therapy if somebody didn’t deliver the flyers. There’s the environmental concern – more paper, more waste. I get it. Yep, there are flyers available online.  The problem is, they’re not available in a timely manner, when the sales are actually starting, nor is it the same tactile experience as leafing through them on the coffee table, with a mug of hot chocolate.

When there’s a super good deal on, you almost have to be there Friday night, otherwise, there won’t be any more when you show up sometime on Saturday.

Since I got religion on managing my budget in January, I haven’t been tempted by anything offered in the flyers that I can’t eat, or that we haven’t identified a need for.  Sure, I’ll still look at the shoes, handbags and fancy house stuff offered up for sale.  Unless we can’t function as a family without it, I’m merely window shopping from my sofa. Pretty safe place to do it from.

The grocery store flyers usually stick around for a few days, while the rest usually get recycled Friday night. I pour over them a few times and make sure I haven’t missed any hidden gems. I can walk to five major grocery stores from my home, and take a bus a short distance to a sixth.

Some may find this a bit silly, but I consider flyers to be an investment in my education as a consumer.  Hey, I spend about $550 every month at the grocery store. I need to know where I’m going to get the best bang for my buck.  Four litres of milk ranges from $3.99 to $5.29 within a few blocks.  I like to know where to get it for $3.99. Eggs range from $2.17 a dozen to $2.89. I want to know if a store is offering a two day sale at $1.89 when I should show up and pick up a couple dozen.

To me, the flyers are a gift to make it possible for me to stock up on things my family needs and save a few bucks doing it. I really, really appreciate that. I’m on a mission to be the best household money manager I can possibly be, and if I can save a few bucks every week, I’m certainly going to try and do it.

You won’t see “no flyers please” on my mailbox.  To my environmentally conscious neighbours – I’m sorry if that offends. I promise to recycle them. I just can’t imagine how dreadful Friday night would be without them.

I ran, but couldn’t hide…

I’ve been kidding myself over the last two months about my visa bill.  Yep, as money aware as I am, and even as I upped the ante, I have to admit I was a door knob about my visa bill.

Here’s what happened:  in December, the kids and I had a little vacation, oh and this little event called Christmas.  My visa card was used.  Not overwhelmingly, but it was used.

In January, the nice people at Canada Post delivered my visa bill.  So far, this isn’t a very shocking confession is it?

The dog that bit me, named visa

Here’s how the delusion was born. In January I decided I was going to get serious about money management and debt retirement. Part of that meant I was not going to use my credit cards for day-to-day purchases, because I would use cash for my variable expenses.  However, I do make some purchases where it’s convenient to use a credit card, either for my employer (which are reimbursable expenditures), or perhaps at the pharmacy where I can walk away spending $300 or $400 in one trip.  Since my visa card gives me extra Aeroplan points for purchases at the pharmacy, I like to use it there.  The difference in January, I decided, was to go online and pay my visa bill immediately after I used it.

Really sensible, isn’t it?  I was very disciplined about this.  Anytime I used it, I paid it right away. When I made expenditures that were reimbursed by my employer, my reimbursement went straight to visa. No funny business.

Well, what happened is that I had paid enough to visa in January with my day-to-day use of the card to cover my December expenses.  Cool!  Visa was paid – or were they?

What I didn’t do was actually deal with December’s expenditures. I knew this day would come.

Old reliable, Canada Post, put my new visa bill in the mailbox yesterday.  Well, I owe them $1079!  How is this possible, if I paid visa for every single transaction?  Because I was a dufus and tried to ignore that December actually happened, and there was a bill attached to it.  Instead of dealing with it in January’s bill, I now have to deal with it in February’s, which is due March 8.

I’m such a dope sometimes. As a result of trying to just skate around this, I’ve totally sabotaged my March budget.  Since I always pay my visa bill in full, I have no choice.  I absolutely refuse to pay this with my line-of-credit.

Since I’ve vowed not to spend any more than I bring in, I have to go back to March’s budget and see what I can do to balance the books.  Between this, and the annual fee for my AMEX bill that I mentioned yesterday, I’m facing a serious shortfall.  This means I’m going to have to make some sacrifices in March.

Buh-bye dining out budget for March. Buh-bye any discretionary home decor items. Buh-bye any personal care items or hair cuts. I’m keeping the entertainment budget, but I’ll cut it from $40 to $20.  We can do a few movie rentals on that easily. Not sure how it’ll turn out. I’ll have to let you know.

I’m wondering – where else am I kidding myself. Hmmm…could be a dicey tax season. I can’t predict that right now, but I can continue to be prepared. Other than that, I think I’ve confessed all of my sins.  At least, the money sins…

Fancy Pants Credit Cards – are they really worth it?

The budget for March got a solid kick in the pants today.  What’s the issue – my platinum AMEX card.  Insert big sigh here.

I know there’s an annual fee for this card, and I know what that fee is.  Somehow, I managed to forget all that when I was drafting my 2010 budget.  What a dope!  What I thought would be a minor surplus for March, is now gone, and it’s only mid-way through February.

Yes, I questioned why I have this card.  Truthfully, I didn’t just sign up for this card on the spur-of-the-moment.  I actually thought about it for a couple of weeks before I signed on the dotted line.  That was about a year ago.  I weighed the cost to the potential benefits.

I’m not a big traveller, but I do like to get away with the kids once a year, if possible.  I’ve managed to do this on Aeroplan points in the past.  This AMEX card helps me accumulate those. Just like AirMiles, I can also use those points to purchase things other than travel.

So far this year, I have purchased two major gifts with points (no direct cost to me, except for that annual fee), and I still have enough points that I could take the girls somewhere.  Truth is, the budget doesn’t permit us going anywhere on an airplane this year.  Thankfully, the points won’t expire, and they’ll be there when the budget may permit again.

The other perk, and it’s minor, is a bit of VIP treatment in Canadian airports. I have had a few meals, glasses of wine, snacks and speedy service through security gates with this card.  Is that worth the price of admission  – nope.

So, for now I’ll keep the card. Even if I opt out today, they’ll still take their pound of flesh. For me, it is worth it to pay for the fancy pants card. I imagine at some point that might change.

It’s my first budget killer since I started on this journey in January.  It had to come. Ouch.

Is your Debt-to-income ratio too high?

When I was checking my email this morning, the headline in the sidebar caught my attention.  “Average Canadian family debt reaches $96,000…” it announced. I figured that must mean consumer debt, not consumer debt plus any mortgage debt. Nope, wrong again!

The Globe and Mail also reported similar numbers, but the headline was a little more revealing – Household mortgage debt reaches all time high.

The sickening feeling in my stomach started to brew as I realize my debt, including my mortgage, is far bigger than this. The article then notes the average person’s debt-to-income ratio is 145%.  Ok, I’ll bite. I have no idea what my debt-to-income ratio is.

Ccruising around the net and I found a handy calculator to determine personal debt-to-income ratio. As my heart raced, I put in my numbers.  I was shocked to see that I was in <36% category, which they categorized as a healthy debt load. Huh?

For a moment, my heart returned to a normal rate, and I felt pretty comfortable.  Thankfully, this false sense of security only lasted for a moment.

The calculator asks for minimum payments on credit cards and lines of credit.  For many people, who may not know how to read their credit card bills, sometimes the minimum payment doesn’t even cover the interest!  This strategy would take people many, many years in order to settle their current debts, and presumes they don’t add to them.

The other factor that a calculator can’t take into account, is the state of interest rates right now.  We have been spoiled. Interest rates are at an all time low.  In Canada, Bank of Canada chief Mark Carney has promised to hold the line on interest rates until June.  What happens past June?  Well, it can’t go any lower.  At some point, the rates will go up.  How fast and how high remains to be seen, but they will go up by some measure. That will impact the minimum payments that folks are required to pay.

While this faceless calculator may be telling me “that’s okay, you’re doing fine – as you were young lady“, I’m not taking any comfort in it.  Sure, the situation may be fine today.  For somebody with no emergency savings, not even a month of living expenses tucked away, a job that can disappear with one phone call with no safety net – I won’t get too cozy.