Good News From The Gas Company

I was really nervous about our gas bill.  The period for the last bill (early/mid-December to early/mid January) was cold.  We had a lot of days where it didn’t get above 20 and the nighttime temperatures were in single digits.  The furnace clicked on and off at a pretty rapid rate.

Still, I was hopeful that the bill wouldn’t be too high because, prior to the heating season, I discovered and repaired a leak around the fan in our master bedroom that had been whisking air into the attic at what had to be a pretty alarming rate, since the leak was occurring at the highest point in our home.  I know that the fix worked because our bedroom, which had been noticeably colder in the winter in years past, was now a more comfortable temperature.

Years past had given me the following bills for the same month:
2008: $185
2009: $219
2010: $246

I think gas rates went up a lot between 2008 and 2009, and the increase last year was explained largely by the fact that it was the first year that we kept the temperature higher all day rather than dropping it down during the year, since my wife was now staying at home with our child.

Still, this year’s cold temperature made me think it could be higher yet again.

So, I was happily surprised when the bill turned out to be $227.

We actually decreased our usage by about 5% from last year.  This with what I know was one of the colder months we’ve had since we moved in.

I would love to see that go down again next year.  I’m hoping that new glass block windows in the basement and re-caulking around some of the windows (things I have on my 2011 to-do list) will continue to improve our energy efficiency.

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2010 Review of Annual Spending Categories

Last year, I presented an outline of some of our annual recurring expenses, and looked how we did for the previous year.  I thought that was a cool thing so here’s our 2010 numbers compared to prior years.

There are a grouping of expenses that occur on a regular basis.  I have attempted to group these together and ‘level’ the cost of these expenses, similar to how many utility companies will try to get you on a single payment for the year.  In my case though, I do this for about a dozen or so different things, and then make a single contribution towards this ‘leveled fund’ that covers the expenses.

Here are the expenses (rounded to the nearest dollar):

Netflix (Video Rentals)

2008: $113
2009: $85
2010: $63

We stayed on the lowest tier plan which has worked out well for us.  In fact, with all the busy times we have, plus with what we find on TV, we’ve discussed the possibility of dropping this altogether for now.

Cable TV and Internet

2008: $1,166
2009: $1,031
2010: $1,102

We kept everything the same.  The higher costs were due to the typical rate increases that cable companies throw your way.

Groceries

2008: $3,990
2009: $3,700
2010: $3,900

We kept clipping coupons and finding deals.  The price of items went up this past year, plus Little Boy Beagle is a full time eater, so this wasn’t too bad.

Costco (Household and Food)
2008: $1,248
2009: $1,453
2010: $1,625

We buy most of our cleaning supplies, and some food staples through Costco.  I expect this number will continue to climb as we buy more and more baby stuff through there, as they have pretty good deals on select items.  A good chunk of the expenses earlier in the year were for baby formula, which is expensive anywhere but a pretty good deal if your baby is cool with the Kirkland brand.

Auto Insurance

2008: $2,710
2009: $2,287
2010: $2,142

We had raised our deductible and dropped rental car coverage in mid-2009.  Having the cost benefits associated with those last an entire year allowed us to actually drop our expense levels here.  Yay!

Secretary of State + Roadside Assistance

2008: $277
2009: $279
2010: $332

This covers license registrations as well as our dues for AAA Roadside Assistance. Our costs went up this year as it was the first year I had to pay the full registration fee on a more expensive vehicle we had bought in late 2009.  Unless they raise registration fees as a road funding option (something they have discussed), this should hopefully decrease, since our cars will get older and be worth less.

Gasoline

2008: $2,335
2009: $1,399
2010: $2,216

Gas prices went back up and we drove more.  We took a few camping trips, driving based vacations, and visits to family that took a lot of gas.  We also realized that in 2009 my wife drove a lot less in the summer because of just having had the baby.

Electric (Lighting, A/C, Power)

2008: $857
2009: $1,101
2010: $1,261

Last summer was warmer than normal so we ran the A/C more.

Natural Gas (Dryer, Water Heater, Furnace, Appliance Service Plan)

2008: $1,393
2009: $1,469
2010: $1,400

Last winter was relatively mild for a good portion, so even though rates went up slightly, we were able to temper our usage.  This winter has been pretty cold so I’m expecting a jump this year.

Water

2008: $849
2009: $900
2010: $952

Rates have been going up by double digits, so even though our costs are going up, our usage is actually declining.  This fall, I invested in a second meter which will track our lawn watering usage and not charge us for the sewage portion (about 45% of the bill), so hopefully costs will stay the same or even go down despite a 14% rate increase that went into effect around this time.

Garbage and Recycling Collection


2008: $315
2009: $211
2010: $178

Our cities single hauler contract was in effect for the entire year, so we saw full benefit of the lower rates that the city got for residents.  In addition, the level of our recycling gives us coupons that we’ve used to save for eating, buying household items, and lowering our grocery bill.

Cell Phone Service 

2008: $871
2009: $931
2010: $1,330

We got smart phones and upgraded our plans.  This figure includes not only the increase in cost per month but it also includes the cost we paid for the phones as well as a Square Trade warranty to cover each phone (over 60% cheaper than what the phone company wants you to pay)

Pets

2008: $995
2009: $1,045
2010: $1,365

I’ve always heard that older cats are expensive and this is true!  Our cats 14 and 10, and both are now on special food diets and medicine to treat their particular ailments (the 14 year old has diminished kidney function and the 10 year old has chronic constipation), so the food and meds are more expensive.  In addition, we needed some additional trips to the vet  for the older one to regulate the right dosage of the medicine she went on to treat her kidney issues.

Others

There are a few other categories that I track spending for, but for various reasons, I will just list them.  In some cases, we haven’t included these as spending categories for long enough to do a comparison, and in other cases I don’t feel comfortable posting the details. I think that this provided a pretty good window into our spending in key categories.

Though we track spending on a month-to-month basis, I am finding that looking at it from a bigger time frame allows you to really see spending habits over time, and pinpoint where opportunities for significant savings might come into play.

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When That Extra Week Goes Against You

Ever few months, you always hear the shouts of glee from people who get paid every two weeks.  That works out to an ‘extra’ paycheck for two months of the year.

My employer pays twice per month, so there are no ‘extra’ payments for me.

Really, they aren’t extra, of course, but it’s just the way and the frequency that they’re paid to you.  In the end, two individuals making the same salary will end up with the same amount of pay regardless of the payment schedule that their employer has set for them.

But, I digress.

One thing that I don’t ever hear is how this situation can work in reverse and how this can bite you if you’re not careful.

I’ll use our grocery shopping as an example.

We budget a standard amount per month for grocery shopping.  To make it even, I’ll say that it’s $300 per month.  My wife goes grocery shopping every week.

So, the simple conclusion is to say that the weekly budget is $75.  This is true for most months, but if you do the math, this works out to 48 trips per year.

Since there are 52 weeks in a year, this means that there are either:
a) four weeks per year that we go hungry
b) four months per year where we have an ‘extra’ shopping trip.

Well, option a isn’t even an option so of course we go with option b.  Which can hurt if you’re not careful.  If you’re on a strict budget, then you have to budget $60 for those months where you’ll do five trips.  If you’re on a somewhat modified budget, then you’ll probably look at it over the course of a year.

That’s kind of how it works for us.  We might, for example, spend $350 in a five-shopping-trip month but only $270 in a four-trip month.  Or something similar to that.  In the end, if your budget can absorb some of these ups and downs due to calendar events, you should be fine.  But, you should be aware of this because it can sneak up on you.

Not just in the grocery store either.  If you do such things as fill up your gas tank, go out for a Saturday dinner, rent a movie once a week, or any such ‘regular’ activity, you should be aware that certain months will affect your spending, then budget accordingly.

So, while the ‘extra’ paychecks that many love are a great thing, the ‘extra’ costs that we often see on the flip side of the coin are not so great!

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Check To Make Sure The Cheaper Option Is Still Cheapest

One of my cats has been on a special diet for a number of years due to a minor health issue that caused more than a few trips to the vet back in the day.  The special food contains higher fiber content which he needs to supplement his diet and keep his inner workings in tune.

The vet prescribed a food that fits the bill for what he needs.  At the time, I did some research and found that the price they wanted to charge me was significantly higher than what I could get it for online, through a web site called ‘Pet Food Direct’.

My vet (grudgingly) wrote a prescription for the food, and I commenced purchasing it through Pet Food Direct.  They were great, and even with shipping costs added in, the price was significantly cheaper.

For awhile.

Over the years, the price kept increasing steadily.  I typically bought the food by the case, and the price per case would seem to increase a dollar here, two bucks there.

Recently, the other cat also developed a health issue of her own (she’s fourteen and a half) and she also needed to go on a special diet.  I got the price that the vet wanted to charge and logged into Pet Food Direct to see if it was cheaper.  Much to my surprise, it wasn’t.  The vet was able to provide the food at a cheaper price.

I asked the vet what their cost was on the first cat’s food, and lo and behold, they are now cheaper than Pet Food Direct.  The actual cost of the food is technically cheaper with Pet Food Direct, but the shipping costs push it to now be a higher price point than the vet.

I contacted Pet Food Direct and politely inquired if they would be willing to either reduce the price or shipping to match what I would pay at the vet.  They politely e-mailed me back and said that they could not.

So, it’s back to using the vet for purchasing the food, though I will be more adept at shopping around and making sure that, whenever I need to stock up, I do so via the cheaper option.

Lesson learned: Always make sure that what you think is the cheaper option remains the cheaper option.

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