Cheap Thrill$ in Omaha

Frugal Living In The Heartland

Home Repairs: The Contractors

I promised to tell you about the contractors I used on recent home projects.  It’s been a revolving door of workers here at Chez CT, and more will be here before summer.

Our siding replacement was done by Done Right Home Improvements.  I have a neighbor in commercial construction who stopped by and admired the work.  That’s huge. I still wish it had been scheduled for later in May, instead of late March, but it was actually a blessing to have the distraction during a week when something else was happening.  The siding project kept my mind off the other issue (totally out of my control, but major) most of the time.  I’ve already recommended Done Right to a neighbor who asked who did the work.  Reasonable cost.  Super nice contractor (Jared) who went above and beyond to fix a nagging issue.

The painting of the new siding was done by Omaha Painting Company.  Beautiful.  Awesome price. Done in one day.  Troy and his on-site guys were really easy to work with.

The mudjacking of the front steps was done by Mixan Mudjacking out of Springfield.  I would have gone with the (very intriguing) high-tech product of the other “basementy” guys, but they have a minimum dollar job cost to do the work, and I needed one thing done, not several projects.  (A for effort on the upsell, though.)  The Mixan mudjacking process was so cool to watch!  It didn’t make a mess, and it took about an hour.  The Mixan guys were fun and informative, too.  Next time I’ll have them do the filling of the gaps that remain after the jacking, because my arthritis was not kind.  (Look for a post on that fun project soon.)

And there were the mice.  I think we’ve finally addressed the mice.  Brad at Advanced Pest Management is awesome.  Has been since the day I called him in tears about the flying ants infesting my bathroom.  The mice are not so awesome.  Disgusting, actually.  We’ve found a few areas where they were likely coming in, nesting, and dying.  Last week I cleaned them up (Shop Vac has been properly disinfected), caulked, Great Stuff-ed, sealed, etc.  And tonight we set the traps, because every once in a while we find another one.  Anyway, Brad comes out twice a year and we see very few bugs, usually when it’s time for another spraying.

USA Hoich Irrigation got our sprinklers started, and this year there were only two broken sprinkler heads.  The guy came right on time, and was done in an hour, repairs, startup and all.  Only thing is, someone has to be here because the controller is in the garage.  Still, the timing worked out great, and we’re set for summer.

So there you go.  Lisa’s List.  HA!  I’m having a chimney cleaner come out soon, and I think there will be repairs involved.  We’ve used one company a few times, so we’ll see how it goes again.

Just a reminder: get your AC check up before it gets too hot outside.  I’m setting up that appointment, too.

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Money Makeover — A Tight Month

Squeeeeeeek!  That’s our budget.  After a few months of comfortable expenses within the budget, we find ourselves up against budget numbers.  The age-old struggle, as they say.

Aside from paying for the siding, and the paint, and the mudjacking (all of which were budgeted and covered comfortably), we’re finding it a challenge to keep within the other set budgets.  We have four more days of month and we’re past our limits in some areas.  Not by much, of course, but $10 here, $20 there.

How did this happen?  Oh, I know exactly how!  We were under budget in so many areas for a few months, we got a little too confident in our spending.  My big spending was with the groceries and paper products, and that’s mostly what I do buy.  It’s a case of falling prey to marketing, but it’s all on me.

At the beginning of the month, I started hitting those “savings” blogs again.  You know the ones, that list every deal at the big box store, with links to coupon matchups and stacks.  Every. Single. Deal!  And I got sucked in.  I thought I was okay, and got things that I knew we needed for the month in the way of groceries and non-groceries. I used the coupons, got the gift cards, and used them for the next purchase.

But here’s where I failed: I got caught up in doing “deals” throughout this month rather than staying focused on controlling purchases.  I have to remember that when I stick with the process that has worked (for staying on budget), I stay the course and meet my goals.  But when I “spend more to save more” I go over budget and don’t meet my goals.  The stockpiling, that lifestyle, worked when my boys were younger, when life was busier, and when we didn’t really stick to a budget.  And the lifestyle certainly works for many people — I’m certainly not knocking it generally.

Things are just different for us now.  My stockpile is much smaller and is getting used. I have one less person (with an appetite of two) to feed.  It’s amazing how one less household member affects dynamics.  And, perhaps most impactful, I’m on a mission to really save, not spend.  Save by saving, not save by spending.

While this commitment to stay within the budget is fresh for us, we are mature enough to realize there is a huge learning curve.  This month’s budget is a little in the red, but overall for the year we’re doing very, very well.  The picture for the coming months looks beautiful.

As long as we can squeek by this month, we will do better next month.  The budget rules!

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Growing the Savings

Our savings is growing!  In less than a month, we have saved up half the value of our other emergency fund!  And the interest rate is higher, so that will compound.  I’m giddy!

With the opening of our new savings account (which we are using as another emergency fund), we have the ease of transferring funds immediately from our checking account. This is important because the thought of pulling out papers, writing a check, mailing it, etc. turns me off.  This is why I rarely added extra money to our other emergency fund.  But since now I can transfer so easily, so quickly, and with so much gratification, our situation has already changed dramatically.

This week, we received a nice-sized additional income deposit. It’s already been transferred to our savings, and our financial situation is looking so promising.

We’re keeping much closer tabs on our spending and sticking to our budget, and the extra is going right over to that other account.  Out of sight (the checking account balance), out of mind (compounding unencumbered).  And I must say that having a local account just somehow makes me feel more secure.  And I can go in and sit down with a real person if there is any question or issue.

That other EF just sits there.  We really don’t want to shut the account down.  The minimum I can have auto-withdrawn each month is $50, so that’s happening, and it will be a “forget it” kind of thing.  The balance is okay, but not enough to pay our property taxes, or anything substantial, just a basic minimum emergency fund.

Now, with the better-managed money, we aren’t making extra payments on our auto loans just yet.  The reason is that there is automatic withdrawal for the payments (the loans are at the same institution as our other EF).  Doing anything out of the “norm” is a real chore: there is no way to make extra principle payments, one-time or otherwise, on the loans.  So, as soon as we have enough saved to cover the payoff balance on one, we’ll be doing that.  I can see the payoff balance daily, so I know the goal.  Each month the balance goes down, and our savings goes up, and as soon as we can cover it….bam!  My goal is to knock that out within a year.  Totally doable.  But that will come after a few more big expenses later this year.

Right now I’m just focusing on that growing balance!  Every penny counts, and I’m counting every penny.  Soon they’ll add up to dollars.  With interest.  Upon interest.  Giddy again!

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What I Got For Free This Week

Yippee!  I got free groceries this week!  Not all the groceries, but some of them, and some other really great deals, too.

I’ve recently had to totally revamp my grocery shopping strategy, since my store of choice closed.  It’s been a real learning experience, that’s for sure.  And I’m still refining my ways, but I’m very happy with what I’m saving.  Here’s what I got for free or super cheap, and how I got it:

Lipton sparkling iced tea (lemon), a pear, and cole slaw — I knew that Baker’s had digital coupons and the weekly freebie attached to my rewards card, but I could never get the darn thing to work.  I took some time this week to figure out the BakersPlus.com site, change my bar code, and load digital coupons.  The iced tea was the Free Friday deal, the pear used a .50 DC, and the cole slaw was marked to .99 with a DC for Dole (which had to be entered manually, but it worked).

Another thing I like about my Baker’s card is that I get extra rewards points when I buy gift cards, as well as the groceries.  That gives me about .10/gallon discount once a month, which is really nice.  The gift cards are for upcoming gifts, as well as to restaurants where we will go for birthday dinners this year.

Yoplait yogurt, a grapefruit, bananas, and bread — Have you heard about the Checkout51 app?!  Weekly deals load on Thursday mornings.  If you buy the items among their deals, and scan in your receipt, you earn dollars.  When you reach $20, they send you a check! You can combine any qualifying purchases with sales, coupons, etc., and can upload as many receipts as you want each week.  The Yoplait was .40 with a .50 C51, the grapefruit used a .25 C51, the marked-down bananas (for smoothies) used a .25 C51, and the bread was .49 with a .50 C51.

Another bread — I won the Free Bread Friday on Country Hearth’s Facebook page several weeks ago.  I waited till the bread in the freezer ran out, then snagged a nice loaf for the guys with the coupon they sent me.

Cereal, lemons — I discovered the Cartwheel app by/for Target! This app offers discounts from 5% to 25%. You add the deals to your account (there is a limit), then the cashier scans your smartphone barcode and applies the discounts.  But be careful, because the computer does not always recognize and apply the deal.  Customer Service will take care of you, though.  Sales – Target coupons – manuf coupons – Cartwheel – C51.  My head is spinning.  Cereal big boxes 1.14/box. 3# bag o lemons (I use them often) = .31 each lemon (cheaper than Aldi).

I found lots of hamburger buns for .49 (going to Project Hope), cans of RTE chunky soup for .79 (also going to Project Hope), and a nice loaf of French bread for .39 (in the freezer).

And that’s just the food!

Glade auto spray refill — At Walgreen’s I got the Glade 4.99 – $2 manuf coupon, with $1.50 C51 and a $1 Register Rewards, which is effectively .49.  I need to remember, though, that they will only apply your rewards points (for dollars off) when you ask them to.

Purex detergent — Target sale 3.99 – $2 manuf coupon – Cartwheel = 1.59.

As you can see, I’m venturing back to Target, even after “the incident” that upset me so. (Forgiveness.)

I’m heading to Walgreen’s, too, but I’m still finding that the shelves are bare of deal items, so I have to prepare myself to be disappointed each time I go.  For that reason, I only stop there when I’m passing by on other errands.

I even stepped into HyVee this week, for the yogurt and grapefruit.  I need to explore more deal-doing opportunities there.

However, I’m finding that now (as opposed to a handful of years ago when I did the deals routes regularly) the deal-gettin’ is rougher.  So many of us are savvy consumers, hitting the deal blogs, and snatching up the coupons (print and digital).  No matter how well I prepare, there is always a minor issue with missing stock, an unavailable coupon, a product limit or what have you.  Well, it’s only a grocery deal, not the end of the world!

I’m proud of me, too, with regard to my buying habits.  I’m only getting what I know we will use, turning down “deals” more regularly.  There was a time when I had waaaaay too much product in my house.  Then I would end up complaining and donating a bunch.  Well, I’m buying my donations separately these days, still getting great deals for that, and planning that into our budget.  So it doesn’t sit around here for more than a week, and it’s planned giving.

Through all of this shopping, deal-doing, and scooting around, I’m constantly reminded of the Daily Bread we receive.  Not only food for our bellies, but everything.  All that we have is not ours; we are only stewards.  This is why I’m so happy when the budget is met, and the dinners are fixed, and the donations are delivered — His Will is done. So the best free things I got this week were His continued grace, comfort, strength and guidance to do that Will.

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Paying for The Siding: Snagglefritz

Ugh!  I had it all budgeted out.  Tax refunds (as minor as they were) + expected additional income + funds transfer from savings = payment for the siding to be done in late May.

Weeeeelllll, as I already shared, they did it last week.  And it looks beautiful.  And it’s done.  And the guy said he’s not going to push for immediate payment.  Still, I feel like I must pay immediately, because I want no debt looming. And that was the plan.  But while the tax refunds have arrived (can you believe ONE week?), the additional income payment has not, and the process of transferring funds electronically has been delayed for some ridiculous reason, and could take another 10 days, I’m told.

So, my plan is a Snagglefritz.  Yes, that’s a word.  I just made it up.  An issue snagged up, on the fritz, bungled.

I don’t like this feeling of besnagglement.  Of course I know it will all work out.  Yes, I know it was a blessing to have the mess of the siding work take my mind off of other matters that particular week.  I still don’t like this feeling.

To use a pantry analogy, it’s like all the cans were lined up on the shelves by intended use for each meal, use-by date, and food type.  Then someone came in and moved them all around from shelf to shelf to get to the back of the shelves and bring those items up front, on other shelves.  To put things back in order, make sure items don’t get overlooked or expire, and set up the meal use system again, a bunch of work is needed, and the pantry won’t be easy to use till that work is done.  And, of course, I am the one to do that work.  I guess if it’s not MY plan, it’s His, right?

Now I’m scrambling to rework our spending plan, pay the contractors, and keep a safety net in the now-upset cash flow.  The contractors are going to get paid as soon as possible.  I just need to silent scream for a moment.

Okay, thanks.  ;)

 

 

 

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Money Hit: The Siding And Steps

Part of our Money Makeover strategy for this year was to have the north side of our house resided, and the insulation addressed during the process.  The cheapo panel shtuff is not doing its job anymore, the draftiness is much worse than previous years, and it looks horrible, too.  Unfortunately, it is the biggest exterior wall of our house, and it faces the main entrance street (we live on a corner).  So care in selecting materials and contractors was in order.

This is one of the worst parts of being a homeowner: finding reliable contractors.  Open one web browser with bbb.org/nebraska, and another with Google, begin researching.  Ugh.  I also relied on my observations of contractors in our neighborhood the past few years, and the stash of business cards I’d collected in my file. It shouldn’t be this difficult.

Four contractors did not provide the information I asked for with careful explanation of the project and specific requests for two product estimates.  Loooong story short, I finally found my guy.  Actually, I prayed for it, and God delivered.  The cool thing is that this project will come in under the budget I originally set, which was based on some emergency repairs we had done seven years ago, by another company.  The contract doesn’t include the insulation, but I’ve estimated that, too, and we’re still good.  After all, we won’t know what the insulation situation really is until they start taking off the panels (the point of no return).  It also doesn’t include paint, which I’m still researching, but I can estimate that based on the last time we had the whole house painted. My worst-case scenario is still manageable.

But, there’s a twist.  Isn’t there always?  I originally planned to have the work done in May, so that we could have some additional funds set aside, and so the weather would be nicer.  Well, the crew had a week open.  This week.  Now.  Fortunately, My Guy is flexible on when our payment will be made.  How awesome is that?  We will not have to make payments.  We will not have to forfeit budgeted expenses.  We will be glad to pay for this very soon (anticipating a big check, maybe by the time they’re done).

So they start tomorrow, because it’s pouring rain today.  I’m okay with how the scheduling played out, and am glad for a reason to stay home for a few days.  And I’m glad my little project can keep a crew working!

My research for mudjacking the front porch steps yielded a good deal, too.  The steps have settled 4.5″ and are officially a tripping hazard — I almost took a header on the cement a few weeks ago.  The BBB was helpful again, and the contractor I chose is very professional, with an acceptable product and very doable fee.  I found out one highly-recommended contractor had a minimum job dollar, and that was a huge negative.  Right now, I have certain tasks that must be done, not several just to reach a contractor’s minimum.

In a few weeks I’ll be able to report back on the final verdict and who these contractors are.  Meanwhile, even though I’ll be involved in the insulation consultation, I’m simply trusting that everything will get done, correctly and promptly, and within budget.  There are more important things to think about.

Bottom line: Google doesn’t provide enough reviews, and the BBB is a great resource.  Check it for complaints, violations, and to see if a business cares enough to be registered.  Also, a reliable company will provide insurance and licensing information up front.  Keep looking until you get the service and personality mix you need.  A little prayer helps, too.

 

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Money Makeover — The February Gas Bill Results

Remember when I reported that our natural gas usage was going up significantly for our February bills?  Well, it turns out there’s more to it.

Our February 2014 bill sure shows a huge increase from 2013, because we had a mini Ice Age in Nebraska last year.  (And while most of the rest of the USA is experiencing super cold and super snow volume this year, we are not and feel blessed.  We love ya, Boston!)  Previous years do show an annual usage increase, too.

But this year, we reduced our usage!  Our February gas usage was 185 therms (lift your jaw back up, please), compared to last year’s 225.  A big reason for that is my turning the thermostat to 67 degrees and holding it there.  We bundled up when I was home during the day, and when we hunkered down for the few hours before bedtime.  We slept well in the cooler temperature, also.  In previous years, we’ve either set it at 69 and held, or programmed it to increase and decrease.  What a difference two degrees makes!

I also replaced weather stripping in January. That stopped drafts at our rickety storm door, at the back sliding door, and at the door to the garage, which really helped keep the furnace from turning on as much.  And, finally, we did not use the gas fireplace starter this month, like we usually do in the February billing cycle.

Even better news: the cost of gas went down, too, so the portion of the bill for gas was 33.8% less than last year’s number!  WOW!

Going forward, we need to reduce our energy use further.  Part of that includes adding more, proper insulation.  Since we’re getting new siding on the exposed north side of our house this spring, we’ll be taking care of that side.  Our budget only allows that (huge and important) side of the house to be done this year.  In the fall, depending on the budget monthly rollover amounts, I might be replacing the gas water heater with a more efficient one, as well.  I’ve already got leaks caulked, foam plates behind outlet covers and light switches, outlet covers, and window coverings installed.  The air flow issue was addressed in 2012.  I’ll be working on some other projects in this area, but don’t have much to spend on solutions this year.

Oh, yes.  Creativity.  That Mutha of Invention.

Bottom line:  We’re doing better than I thought with energy use, but we need to be doing better.  Our best available options are now expensive ones.

 

What one thing have you done to bring awesome energy savings to your home?

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Money Makeover Snag — The Furnace

First of all, we’ve been under budget for two months!  (Happy Snoopy dance music here.)

It was too cold to go out much, and I decided on fondue at home instead of a budgeted dinner out.  I made do with a lot of things around the house.  And the more I read about this topic, the less I wanted to spend.  Overall, it was a slow and deliberate month.  The excess funds, along with a little carryover from December, were just the extra I was hoping for. I was planning on sending a chunk to our emergency fund in addition to our regularly scheduled transfer.

That’s when the squeaking in the furnace turned to shrieking and all sorts of other noises.  I’m not kidding, it would start in the morning when the blower kicked in, and get louder throughout the day.  It was no longer an intermittent noise — it was intermittent silence amid noise.

The other day I knew I needed to call, but there was one thing after another, and I didn’t get to it.  This morning my back teeth hurt from the noise, so I made the call.  The company I use (Burton Heating & Air) had a team of technicians here within an hour.  Not kidding!  I’m glad I called, too.

The CO exchange unit motor was nearly shot.  When it goes out, there.is.no.heat.  And, because the motor was going out, the ignition switch was pretty worn, too.  Just kick me in the gut!  The technicians presented me with several (six, count ’em, six) options, and DH happened to walk in the door for lunch during their presentation.  We made our decision, and with our service plan discount and another miscellaneous discount, the bill came to $825.  They were back with the parts, finished and gone in another hour and a half.

Guess what!  I had more than we needed and did not become physically ill while writing the check!  It was on its way to our emergency fund, anyway, and the emergency fund is for exactly this kind of situation. And boy, is it quiet. God does provide!

Now, I wouldn’t want to do this every month.  Because that would be stupid.  And just too stressful.  But it happened, and we’re good with the outcome.  What a great feeling.

So, while I’m still sitting on extra cash for our emergency fund, our bad luck comes in threes.  Whatever is coming, we’ll get through it.  We’re prepared financially.

I was also able to send a check to Project Hope this month.  Next month, I plan to send a similar check to another organization we support.  It sure feels great to be able to give like this!

Bottom line:  Life is good, and we’re not suffering in our efforts to adjust our finances.  Our emergency was thwarted and we had enough to cover the cost. We have enough to gladly share with others!

 

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Change, and I Love The Free Market System!

It’s not that I hate change.  It’s that I hate the surprise of change.  The “React to THIS now, CT!” attitude that change often brings.  And it’s not like this 54-year-old gal doesn’t know that change happens, or that it should, or that it’s even sometimes good.  It’s just that the change du jour presented so abruptly, so smugly, as if to say, “Too bad, so sad.”

My favorite grocery store is closing.  I found this out quite by accident at Bag N Save yesterday morning.  I asked the Assistant Store Director why the location wasn’t on the web site anymore, and he matter-of-factly stated that the store was closing in about three weeks. Turns out the employees were told a week before my discovery — like most people, I shop once a week. When I asked when they were going to tell people, he smiled and said they should be soon.  What?!  What my mind (and probably the minds of the other customers) heard was, “Oh, we’ll let you know when we’re darn good and ready.  Meanwhile, just go about your business and let us continue to play our little games.” — or, “No groceries for YOU!

It doesn’t matter that the store has to be closed; I know in my head that it does.  I know I’m so blessed to have so many other options for food and sundry procurement in this city.  I know in my heart of hearts that it will all work out for the employees one way or another, because God does provide.

What matters is how Nash Brothers (the parent company of No Frills and Bag N Save chains) handled this last round of closings: their no-notice position, removing of half their stock three weeks before scheduled closing. No tissues! No deli! No bread! Pitiful produce!  With NO signs to alert customers.  AND not even honoring the current sales flyer.  It’s how they treated the customers, not to mention the employees.  (Although I must say, I was very impressed that the Customer Service Manager thoughtfully called the nearby assisted living facility to alert them to the reduced stock before their scheduled shopping excursion for residents.)

What I haven’t told you is that starting a little over a year ago, Nash started reassigning many (but not all) of the best employees from my store to other stores, whether or not they wanted to go.  One employee was given a few days’ notice of their reassignment, and it was so dangerous and drastic that they had to stop working for Nash.  Nash executives didn’t want to discuss any changes.  I asked them last year; they didn’t care about this customer’s concerns.  Here’s the thing: you can’t reasonably expect to improve customer service and profits when you take away popular and high-performing staff.  You can’t reasonably expect to serve a market, a community, when you give up on a location’s operations.

The unfortunate image you project, Nash, to this former customer, is that you don’t care about the people in the communities from which you draw your customers, the very people who make this city tick.  Oh, I know it’s all about the profit, but really, you should probably improve the store and serve your customers rather than eliminate the options for them.  It’s called giving back; you should try it. You might see a positive effect.  But I see elimination of jobs, elimination of affordable grocery options for lower- and fixed-income residents, and the eventual elimination of this entire chain, which could have been a strong community player.

This means I just need to adjust my grocery shopping strategies again (and you will see the progress here on CT). I chose this grocery option for a long time, and now I will choose another. There are so many solutions to pick from!  Indeed, we are all so blessed to live in such a world, where not only is food plentiful and cheap, but also there are many places to get it.  My choices are possible because of our free market system.  Whatever my value system, I can choose if, how, where and when to spend currency in exchange for goods.  Incredible!  And as my value system changes (time v. funds, for example), my choices can change! (Oh, and, Freedom of Speech!)

MERICA!

This was my favorite store, mostly because of the people I encountered there. I am really going to miss those great employees.  I am really going to miss chatting with and helping those senior citizens in the aisles (because store staff was reduced so much).  But change happens.  Usually it’s uncomfortable.  Sometimes it is made more uncomfortable than it should be, by out-of-touch entities.

Bottom line: I’m no longer supporting Nash stores with my hard-earned grocery dollars.  I will find other solutions for our grocery needs. Competition is good and the free market system is awesome! 

 

I vote with my wallet when it comes to business.  How about you?

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