No Kung Fu For You (OK, Really For Me)

Wow, I wish I had an extra $130 per month. But it’s disciplined spending and a dose of reality that makes me keep a level head and not blow $130 per month.
My wife and I were walking around our local downtown area a week or so ago when I walked by a new place and stopped. It was a martial arts academy, and it reminded me a lot of a martial arts academy that I had participated in for a few months years ago.
Back a number of years ago, I can’t even remember, but I’d say probably 10 or so, a friend of mine brought to my attention a martial arts academy that he wanted to try. I was looking for something fun so I tried it out and I loved it!
The academy featured kung fu as it’s main discipline. It was taught not so much from the perspective of physical combat as it was for self-defense, self-discipline, and to achieve grater peace. Taking part in mediation practices along with the physical training was highly encouraged, especially for those who were working at higher levels.
I never got to the higher levels. As much as I loved it, there were a few drawbacks at the time. It was pretty far away from where I lived. It was probably 30-40 minutes away, which made getting to class as often as I liked difficult. It was also expensive. After the initial sign-up deal, the prices went up to a pretty steep price per month. I don’t remember exactly but it was probably $90.
But back to my story.
Walking by, the logo and the name looked familiar, though it was quite a few miles away from where I practiced.
I ventured in just to see what was happening, and after a minute of conversation, the person I was talking to indicated that it was familiar to me for a reason: It was a second location of where I used to practice!
How awesome. I instantly had thoughts of picking up where I left off. I don’t do as much physical training as I should, and I really enjoyed what I was doing back then. Now, I wouldn’t have the location issue, as the current location is only about three miles from where I live. Getting there and back would be a cinch.
However, there are two things that would simply make this prohibitive. First, is cost. It’s now $130 per month. If I were to use it, I would certainly get benefits of going. And paying that much, I’d definitely be motivated to go and to get as much out of it as I could. But, that price tag is way too rich for our budget. We simply don’t have the wiggle room in our budget with everything else.
The second factor in the way is time. My wife stays at home, but our life is certainly much more busy now that we have a newborn. He’s eight weeks old now and our evenings and weekends are pretty full as it is. As it is, from the time that I get home until bedtime, or from wake until sleep on the weekends, I’m not even sure where all the time goes. I think it would be completely selfish to take the four or five hours a week that I’d be pulling out to go do that.
I think the way I have to approach it is this:
Maybe someday I can do that. It’d be a ways away according to any budget I can come up with, but one can hope, right? But in the mean time, this should serve as motivation to use the workout tools I have. We have a treadmill right in our basement. We have sidewalks around our neighborhood. I have a perfectly good bike in my garage. I could probably take 2 hours a week to engage in these activities, and do them for free. Admittedly, I don’t do much of those now, so I should at least start somewhere.
This is definitely motivation. It’s a bummer that I won’t be able to pick up my martial arts, but that’s simply a luxury item that there isn’t room for, neither from a time nor a budget perspective.

Would You Hire A Driver For Your Own Car?

Personal Finance Playbook is one of the newest additions to my RSS reader feed. I get his articles delivered when he writes them.
One of the articles made me really think about how far I would go to save money.
In this post, PFP writes about how he was planning a bachelor party. He was planning things the right way because there would obviously be some drinking going on, since he was planning alternative methods of transportation other than driving.
First, I applaud his responsibility in that regard. Always better safe than sorry.
However, the post went on to talk about how he was planning to bypass some of the more traditional methods of transportation in such a circumstance, namely a limo or a taxi.
The reason, both were simply too costly.
Again, more applause to PFP for being frugal in that regard. It sounds like he was planning some fun stuff, but the reasoning was that the ‘getting there’ was less important than the fun of the planned events, so why spend the money?
Right on.
The alternative, though, to the three ideas listed above (driving, limo, taxi) was given as this. He was planning on hiring someone from Craigslist to drive his car, where they would be (hopefully) fully sober and available for the egal, vening.

Now, I like the idea of turning your own car into a limo / taxi of sorts. Again, cue up the applause for saving money and creative thinking.
BUT, this idea had all sorts of red flags on it. Specifically:
How do you know if the person you hire is a licensed and safe (driving record-wise) driver?
How do you know that they are trustworthy, in that the second the bachelor party heads inside somewhere, that the person doesn’t peel rubber and head to the nearest chop shop?
Or, maybe a little less dramatic, but what if there is damage to the car in some way? What happens then? What if they pull a ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ and take it for a joyride (if the car is joyride-worthy)?
What are the auto insurance liabilities in the event that there is an accident?
What are the medical liabilities in the event that the ‘driver’ was somehow injured?
I don’t know. Maybe I’m just paranoid but there seems like maybe just one too many ‘what if’ situations that could play here.
If it were me, I know that I’d be nervous about all that, even if I decided to go through with it. I’d be peeking around the corner to make sure that the car was just there and that if it was, there wasn’t a group swapping out my battery and tires with those found from a salvage yard.
I’ll be interested to see how this turns out, so hopefully PFP will post a follow-up when and if he decides to go through with this.
I guess, I’d probably consider other alternatives:
I might see if someone I know is willing to fill this role. Granted, depending on the places that they’re going and the ‘pops’ that might be consumed, this might be embarrassing, but I’d still make sure to leave no stone unturned here.
I might see if the costs can be spread around. Most bachelor parties that I’ve attended generally involve people ‘pitching in’ to ensure the fun times of the bachelor. If everybody threw in an extra $5-10 with the argument being that we all get a ’safe and fun time’, this might make the taxi a more feasible idea without putting the burden exclusively on the host.
What do you think? Are there other ideas? Would you consider this? Let me know what you think.

Is 7-11 Full Of (Cold) Air?

It’s summertime and that means that it’s time to enjoy frozen treats of all kinds.
One of my favorite summertime treats has always been the Slurpee, which is an icon and one of the things that instantly comes to mind whenever anybody mentions the 7-11 convenience stores.
However, experiences over the recent years have made me question whether 7-11 is full of cold air.
Let me explain.
If you’re unfamiliar with how the Slurpee works, you take a cup, put the domed lid on and fill it through the hole in the top. This ensures that you get a full cup.
What I noticed, a few times that I recently went, was that although I filled the cup to the top of the dome, that it was significantly lower by the time I paid and got out to my car.
Yes, of course I take a few sips while in the store, but was I really sucking enough down to where it was below the level of the plastic dome? It didn’t seem possible.
So, I tried a little experiment and didn’t take any sips to watch what happened to the level. Got my Slurpee, stood in line, paid, and went out to the car.
Took a look, and…..almost to the bottom of the dome!
What gives?
Well, after thinking things through, I determined that the Slurpee machines were most likely adding a bit of extra ingredients to our frozen treats:
If they add a bit of extra air, it fills the cup with less product, which can probably add up to quite a bit of less product used when you consider the millions of Slurpees purchased every year.
Still, air is free so why I am paying for it?
After I figured out their trick, I would actually fill my cup, do a quick lap around the store, and then add a bit more to fil up the cup after the air settled out. Only then would I add my straw and start drinking (so that I didn’t add any of my germs to the machine).
This is one alternative, but I found another that I like even better:
Get a ‘Speedy’.
If you’re lucky enough to have Speedway gas stations near you, you’ll find that they most likely have a frozen drink machine. They can’t call them Slurpees, but they do the same thing.
There’s a few reason I like them better:
First, they don’t add air. When we first discovered that they had the frozen drink machine and tried one out, my wife and I filled them up and did out quick lap around the store. When we went to fill up the cups, we discovered that we didn’t have to! There was barely any settling. This told me that Speedway is giving you what you pay for!
Second, they’re cheaper! The frugal shopper in me noticed right away that their prices are generally 10 to 25 cents less. Granted, this difference won’t make me rich, but the way I see it, I’m getting a better product and for less money. I think shoppers should give their business to the stores that provide this distinction whether it be for expensive items like TVs or cheap items like frozen treats.
Bonus: Speedway is running a summer special for the second straight year (that I’ve noticed anyway), at least in the Michigan area. All fountain drinks and frozen drinks are 89 cents, regardless of the size! So, the price difference is even greater during these summer months when a frozen treat is especially rewarding.
Oh, and in case you didn’t figure out from my opening sentence in this section, my wife and I have dubbed the frozen drinks from Speedway as the ‘Speedy’. Though maybe not as catchy and iconic as the Slurpee, I venture to say that you won’t be disappointed should you have the opportunity to try one.
Happy frozen drink hunting!

Pack And Move Yourself To Save (And Make) Money

I’ve seen a lot of posts from fellow bloggers about moving. It does seem to hold true that summer is the most popular time to move, whether it be to a bigger place or across town or even across the country.
In a lot of discussions, I’ve seen various points or questions raised regarding whether to move yourself or hire movers.
I’ve done both.

  • After college, when moving from my parents house to my first apartment, I ended up enlisting the help of friends and my roommate to move my stuff. That was a pretty simple decision since I didn’t have a lot of stuff.
  • A couple of years later, when moving from my apartment to a temporary living situation, I hired movers. The justifications were that it was relatively inexpensive since I still didn’t have much stuff, it was wintertime, and I had a (at the time) very nice television set that I was afraid of anything happening to
  • A few months after that, I moved again when the temporary living situation expired. I moved into my own condo. Again, I hired movers (the same movers that had done the first move). The reasons were the same. Overall, I sort of regretted paying for movers twice in just a few month time frame, but they gave me a slight discount for the repeat business, and I also justified it because the reason for the temporary living situation was so that I could live rent-free for a few months.
  • Eight years later, when I moved from my condo to our home, I went back to moving ourselves. With the help of friends and family, we were able to handle everything. We were trying to save some money, we had people willing to help, it was spring/summer, and the TV (still with me) was now 10 years old and no longer a prized possession.

One of the things that I learned with the last move is that by doing it ourselves, we were able to save not only the money for paying the movers, but that I was able to get rid of stuff that I might not have had I not moved.
Let me explain.
When I was doing my own packing (something that I always advocate no matter what, even if you get re-location that will do this for you), I had to touch virtually everything that I owned. Whether it be clothing, knick-knacks, kitchen items, tools, paint supplies. I had to touch everything, and when I did, you tend to start asking yourself the same question over and over:
Do I really want to deal with moving this?
You start thinking about whether this is something that you will use. Whether it makes sense to pack and unpack it. Whether it makes sense to find a new place for once you get settled into your new place.
For most things, the answer is obvious. But, when you’re going through linen closets and basements and the back of closets, and junk drawers, you really start finding things that you can weed out.
So, you can save in a lot of ways:

  • Save money on packing supplies for the unneeded stuff – Less boxes, less packing material
  • Save time in having to pack and unpack items
  • Save space in your new place

Plus, if you’re really industrious, you can take some of that unwanted stuff and turn it into money.
If you have time for a garage sale or can spend some time on Craigslist or eBay, you can turn some of this stuff into cash in your pocket.
In a lot of cases, I imagine that this could even cover the moving costs of doing it yourself.
I couldn’t imagine not having packed all of my own stuff, because I know that if I hadn’t, I would have certainly moved a lot more stuff that would have turned into unneeded and unused clutter.
So, if you can, always pack and always move your own stuff. I guarantee it can add to lots of different type of savings in the end!

Mid-Year Review Of 2009 Goals

It is amazing to me that 2009 is half over, but here we are beginning the second half of the year. Wow!
I thought it would be a great time to take a look at the financial goals I set at the beginning of the year and see where we stand:

  1. Pay regular payments on the mortgage. Admittedly this was sort of a gimmee, but we’ve Achieved Goal and On Track for success throughout the year.
  2. Avoid double digit declines in housing value. Unfortunately, we’re down 11% for the year and the Detroit market will need a lot of time to recover. So we have Not Achieved this goal and I can safely say we are Not On Track for the year.
  3. Sell my car and purchase a new family friendly car. We have Not Achieved this goal but I believe we are On Track for something to happen by the end of the year.
  4. We hoped for a 10% increase in the value of our mutual funds. So far, the market has been kind so we have Achieved Goal, but it’s Too Soon To Tell if we will meet this goal for 2009.
  5. Long Term Savings – We have avoided any unexpected outlays so our reserves are steady. So far we have Achieved Goal, but it’s Too Soon To Tell if we will meet this goal for 2009.
  6. Retirement – We had hoped for a 30% increase in our balance. Between market increases, regular contributions, and matching contributions from my employer, we have already Achieved Goal. Still, it’s Too Soon To Tell if we will meet this goal for 2009.
  7. Level Out Monthly Expenses – So far,we’ve Achieved Goal and On Track for success throughout the year.
  8. Transition to a Single Income Household – Again, we’ve Achieved Goal and On Track for success throughout the year.
  9. Dont’ Freak Out About Baby Expenses – Some close calls, but we had saved well and found some good bargains along the way. I’d say we’ve Achieved Goal and On Track for success throughout the year.
  10. Maximize our rewards for normal spending – We are using a Citi Dividend Card for grocery and gas purchases (paying us back 2%) and have rewards attached to our debit card that gives us nominal points for regular spending. We might be able to do better, but I personally do not enjoy chasing rewards/rates for things like this or for savings accounts, since they change so much. Since we’re getting a level of rewards I’m comfortable with for nearly all of our spending, I’m going to say we’ve Achieved Goal and On Track for success throughout the year.
  11. Reduce student loan balances by 30-40%. Right now, we’ve paid 18% of the balance off. With a single income, we’re not able to pay as much, so while we have Achieved Goal in terms of being on track, I do not expect that we’ll probably come up short so we are Not On Track for this goal. Still, I’m happy with how much debt we’ve paid down and that we continue to do so even in small amounts when we have the opportunity.
  12. Refinance the mortgage – We had hoped to take advantage of the lower interest rates, but unfortunately the declining value of our home has made this all but impossible. We would either have to put another 20% of our home’s current value into a down payment or face PMI costs. Neither of these is something we want to pursue, so we have Not Achieved this goal and I can safely say we are Not On Track for the year.
  13. Begin saving for major home repairs – We want to start saving for long term expenses such as new roof, new windows, new driveway, etc. Due to putting a nice chunk of our income tax refund towards this, we have Achieved Goal and are On Track for the year.

Overall, I think we’re doing very well and I’m pleased with our progress for the year. The biggest bummer is that the home value declines have erased most, if not all, of our equity, making any financial goals around our home pretty difficult until that decline levels out.
Still, given how things have gone for a lot of people this year, I’m very pleased with how we are doing in terms of our financial goals.