Stockpiling Works For Us (At Least For Now)

One of my long time favorite bloggers, Funny About Money, is contemplating something that you rarely hear about: Quitting Costco.  She’s finding that, for her, not going to Costco is actually saving her money.

I think that many people don’t even consider such a thing.  They just assume that Costco saves them money by giving them lower pricing, with the tradeoff that you have to buy in larger quantities in order to realize the lower per-unit pricing.  So, the kicker is that you have to use more in order to really realize the savings.

After my wife took a recent trip and left me the pile of stuff to put away, as is our arrangement, I started taking a look at our stockpile in our pantry to see if waste was leading to us actually overpaying for items.

I’m happy to report that we went through our entire pantry shelf and found just two items that we threw out because they were past their due dates to the point where we no longer felt comfortable using them:

A can of cream soup and a half a box of taco shells, both which expired in early 2014.

And, what’s even better: Neither of these items was bought at Costco.

So, it seems that for us, the food we buy at Costco to take advantage of the lower per-unit pricing actually gets eaten.  This is a good thing.

We’re still keeping an eye on Costco, though, because I think there are factors that come into play that affect our ‘value proposition’.  For example, am I the only Costco member who’s noticed that they’re shifting more and more food items to organic options?  If you have this as your preference, then I suppose this is great, but for people who don’t necessarily have the budget and/or see the benefit in making every item an organic item, it gets a little frustrating when something that used to cost $7 now costs $12 because they switched to an organic option.mb-2015-03-checkbook

Every trip we take, we seem to find at least one item on our ‘regular’ list that we either have to choose to pay more for to get organically, or switch back to our grocery store to purchase the non-organic option.

Right now, we still save money with our Costco membership, but it’s started to occur to us that if Costco really wants to shape themselves as the Whole Foods of the bulk warehouse shopping category, they might very well lose us as customers.

But, as Funny points out, it’s always good one way or another to really take a step back and make sure that you’re getting value from your membership.  Although Costco memberships have become a way of life for many, she’s found, as I’m sure have many, that savings aren’t necessarily a guarantee.

Readers, do you save money with your Costco (or other warehouse) membership?  How often do you check and how do you evaluate your return on investment?  

Copyright 2015 Original content authorized only to appear on Money Beagle. Please subscribe via RSS, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or receive e-mail updates. Thank you for reading.

Don’t Let Automatic Payments Bleed You Dry

Automatic payments and subscription payments of every kind sure are convenient. Ever wonder why they’re so convenient? Because the companies you are paying want to make sure that you keep paying, forever if possible! An automatic customer is the best possible situation for a company. Customers are hard to earn. But once a customer is on board, they tend to stick around. Get enough of these customers lined up and a company can expect stability for a long time to come.

However, this isn’t always in the best interest of the individual customer. Just because you’ve been a loyal customer to your car insurance company for many years doesn’t mean you’re getting the best rate. Far from it – oftentimes industry events and new competition could mean that you’d enjoy better terms and payments with many other companies in your town or region. But automatic payments help to keep you from thinking about that fact. Companies that accept automatic payments would like it if you never really thought about their service at all.

You see this a lot in the way Internet Service Providers treat their customers. Most consumers only have access to one major ISP in their metropolitan area. Local options may be available, but these will not be able to compete against the financial might and infrastructure of an international ISP. Still, these alternatives exist and the major ISPs will do what they have to to make sure that not many of these customers leave for these competitors. If you have an account with a major ISP, you’ll be able to call their customer service number and ask for the “Customer loyalty” department. Here, you can talk about how you’ll leave the company if you don’t get a better rate. Usually, you can lock in a better deal in just a few minutes. If they don’t give it to you, leave for one of the competitors.

The same is true if you have accounts with energy providers, other utilities, or car insurance payments as mentioned above. In all of these cases, industry disruption introduces consumer saving opportunities. The problem is, most people aren’t plugged into these news events so that they can notice them when they happen. It’s important, therefore, to periodically take an hour or so and call up competitors to see what better quotes might be had. You might be able to save hundreds of dollars a year, or more, simply by taking the time to do this once in awhile.

Finally, it’s important not to let subscription payments go endlessly. Many times, people subscribe to goods or online services, only to stop using the service/product, and forgetting they are paying for it in the first place. Perhaps you signed up for Amazon Prime a couple years ago and went crazy with subscriptions for everything from baby wipes to peanut butter. Take the time to clear that up. Or maybe you signed up for lots of different web entertainment services, but you don’t use them any more. Take the time to eliminate those and look for savings elsewhere. You’ll save a lot of money.

Copyright 2015 Original content authorized only to appear on Money Beagle. Please subscribe via RSS, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or receive e-mail updates. Thank you for reading.

4 Reasons Why I Love My Smart Meter

Do an Internet search for ‘smart meter’ and the results aren’t pretty.  Most of the top results are articles or blog posts complaining about smart meters and pretty much suggesting that everybody that has one is going to get cancer.

To that, I say, hogwash.  In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that I love my smart meter.  Yes, I used the word ‘love’ and even if I’m the only person in the world, so be it, but I think as time goes on, more people will find that their smart meter is not something to complain about, but instead something to embrace.

First of all, what is a smart meter?

For those that might not have yet been introduced to the concept, a smart meter is a different version of the standard electrical meter that sits on the outside of your house that measures usage.  The traditional meter has dials that have to be read to calculate energy usage.  A smart meter has a digital display.  In addition, a smart meter transmits this data on a regular basis to the electrical company.

This data transmission is where people seem to have the problem and think that they’re evil.  I’m here to tell you that they’re not.

Here are four reasons that smart meters are good:

  1. They’re automatic – Say there’s a big storm and your power goes out.  You have to let the power company know by picking up your phone and calling them, right?  Not so with a smart meter.  A smart meter, by design, will check in every few minutes, so if the power company sees that a meter or group of meters is not checking in, they’ll know that the power is out, and they’ll know the size of the outage.  Now, of course it doesn’t hurt to call the power company anyway to report the outage, but if you have a smart meter, chances are they already know by the time they take your call.
  2. They’re accurate – Three times out of the last twelve months, our gas bill was completely off.  Two of those were during the winter months, when snow made it hard for someone to come read the meter, so they estimated our usage.  The other time someone either read the meter wrong or wrote down the wrong number,
    A meter that isn't smart.
    A meter that isn’t smart.

    so our bill came in at around $400 instead of the $100 I was expecting.  Although they fixed it, I had to make a call and spend time traipsing outside to get an accurate reading.  With a smart meter, the meter transmits your usage and that creates your bill.  Simple as pie.  No estimated bills.  No mixing up of numbers by someone reading the meter.  Ever since our smart meter was installed a few years ago, we’ve had 100% accurate results.

  3. They help save energy – Our power company offered us a device that allows us real time tracking of our electrical usage.  All I had to do was plug the device in, plug it into our internet router, install an app, spend a few minutes while the device and our meter synced up, and now I can go into the app at any time and see real time usage.  I’ve gone through the house, flipping on and off lights, or turning on and off appliances, and have seen the change instantly.  Data like this can help people make better decisions.  And, I think the possibilities even go beyond that.  We sometimes go away during the winter months.  We can launch the app, while we’re away, and see that usage is taking place so that we know the furnace is cycling on and off at a regular basis.  Say we logged into the app and saw a stop in the pattern, we might know that we’d better call someone so that we can avoid coming home to burst pipes.  So far, this seems to be a pretty localized program, but I’m going to guess that it or something like it will eventually be standard so that we we can individually tap into the smart aspect of the smart meters.
  4. I think the dangers listed are a myth – For some reason, smart meters seem to be the one device that people think will give them cancer because of transmitting data.  This is from people that likely have a wi-fi router in their house, who use cell phones, cordless phones, and other forms of wireless communication, and did I mention that all of those devices are on the inside of your house, so they’re the ones that would likely be more worrisome, whereas the smart meter is sitting on your outside wall, therefore providing less exposure to any invisible death rays.  And, even though smart meters are regularly sending out pings and data information, it’s only actively transmitting around 1% of the time.  All things considered, if you’re really worried about invisible communication waves frying your brains, I think smart meters are probably pretty far down the list of real, actual problems.

I think one of the concerns that people have is that they actively choose to put wi-fi routers and cell phone routers and other devices in their home, where often they don’t have a choice in whether a smart meter is installed.  The power company just shows up.  While I see this as a concern, I think, again, that of all the things to fret about over which we have little or no control, there are many others things that I think would come up above a silly, old electrical meter.

Readers, what do you think about smart meters?  Would you pay not to use one?  Would you use the monitoring and real-time tools available?

Copyright 2015 Original content authorized only to appear on Money Beagle. Please subscribe via RSS, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or receive e-mail updates. Thank you for reading.

The Neighborhood Bully Is Quiet, For Ten Months Anyway

In 2014, I agreed to join our HOA.  I took on the role of Secretary and agreed to do so for a two-year term.

This brought me front and center to dealing firsthand with a long standing member that I’ll call Howard.  He was one of the first owners in the neighborhood when it was built in the mid-1990s and has been on and off the Board for most of that time.  I’d dealt with him before when I made some inquiries to the Board, and I knew that he had an aggressive personality, but it was only when I joined the Board that I really got the full picture.

Our Board is made up of five positions, but it was very clear from the first time we got together that he felt he ruled the show.  He probably felt even more comfortable trying to take charge since three of the other four of us were brand new to the board at the time.

Howard immediately set out trying to get his personal agenda fulfilled, which was tied to a personal vendetta that he had with a neighbor a few doors down from him (and it’s worth noting that he has or has had at least half a dozen vendettas with other neighbors).  What did this neighbor do?  Well, they built a house that Howard didn’t like.  The house was built way after any other home in the neighborhood (a fire destroyed the previous home on the lot, and the owners did not rebuild) and Howard did not like that.

I’ll admit, the property that Howard had a problem was an issue with many neighbors.  It was right at the entrance to the neighborhood so everybody saw it.  The house took about two years to complete, and over a year to landscape.  So many neighbors did have an issue.  However, by the time I joined the Board, things had been complete, but Howard still did not like it.

He didn’t like the number of bushes and plantings they put around the perimeter of the house.  He didn’t like that they didn’t regularly edge the grass around the sidewalk.  There were a few other things that he didn’t like and he wanted the Board to address them.

The only problem?  Most everything that Howard wanted the Board to send letters and issue fines about were not actual violations.  Like many neighborhoods, we have bylaws that cover things like fences, swimming pools, sheds, and other things that are commonly addressed for suburban neighborhoods.  But, none of the things that Howard wanted us to go after these neighbors about was tied to an actual bylaw, nor was it tied to a city ordinance.

Would it have been nice to see a bit more landscaping?  Sure.  Would it be nice to have a clean cut sidewalk?  Yeah.  But the problem is that the Board has no right to address these types of things with neighbors when they aren’t actual rules.

When the rest of us took it upon ourselves to look at the rules and realize that they weren’t actually being violated, we sat down at a meeting and discussed it with Howard, who already had a letter crafted and was ready to go.

He didn’t care.

He wanted to send out the letter anyway.

The rest of us, wisely, voted No.

He sent e-mails about how horrible it was to work with the rest of us.  None of us responded.  He tried again.  We still said no.  Another e-mail about how awful we were.

This continued until his term expired.  His position only had a one year term so he decided to ‘retire’.

Uh-huh.  Sure.

Well, a year passed, he was quiet, but then elections were up for most of the positions.

I decided not to run again as did two other people, leaving three of spots open. Sensing blood, Howard jumped at the chance to join.  Two brand new residents filled the other spots.

I exchanged some e-mails with the person that took my position and he asked for any advice and I gave him a few tips about the position but also gave him a simple tip “Don’t get pushed around.” I didn’t name any names or give any detail, but just left it at that.

Well, even though I left the Board, I was asked and agreed to make updates to the subdivision website and to monitor the general e-mail box.  There was a few questions that had come up via the general e-mail that I sent to the individual members.  Everyone responded, and one of them told me that “Howard is no longer on the board.”

This was less than two months after the elections, so I knew something was up.

I got to be pretty close to one of the other members, and so I sent him a note and asked what had happened. mb-201403mower Apparently, Howard wanted to send a letter to all residents about the conditions of yards and lawns and such.   He had drafted a letter and basically sent it out saying that he was going to send it out.  From the sounds of things, it was pretty strongly worded and would certainly have ruffled a lot of feathers.

Again, he probably hoped that the two members wouldn’t know any better and would agree, giving him the majority.  Fortunately it didn’t work out and they told him that the Board needed to meet to discuss.  First of all, the wording was very strong.  Too strong.  Second, the same thing as last year was in play, that the items were not violations.  Third, it’s just a bad time.  We’ve had virtually no rainfall since June, probably one quarter of what we normally get.  So, the fact of the matter is that most people have lawns that simply don’t look that great this year, including mine.  It would take probably $300-400 per month in water bills to keep the grass green.  Howard retired as a VP for a well established company, and it sounds like he had a good career, so this is not a problem, but for many others in the neighborhood, myself included, that extra expense just isn’t going to happen.

Still, he didn’t care, and when the rest of the Board voted him down, this time he didn’t wait until his term ended, he quit.

And I know all of others feel it’s good riddance.

So, we’ll see what happens next spring when two of the positions open up again.  Maybe he’ll try again though it seems like, after so many years of offending neighbors, he might have run out of potential allies.

Ah, the joys of suburbia.

Readers, what is your version of the neighborhood bully and have you been able to effectively neutralize him/her?

Copyright 2015 Original content authorized only to appear on Money Beagle. Please subscribe via RSS, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or receive e-mail updates. Thank you for reading.