How We Avoided A Smaller Tax Refund (And What We’re Doing With It)

Have you done your 2018 taxes yet?  Are you one of the unfortunate people who are seeing a smaller tax refund this year?  If you are, I hope that it won’t impact your finances in a negative way.  Thankfully, we were able to avoid a smaller tax refund this year.

tax refund checklist

How We Avoided A Smaller Tax Refund

When we got our tax forms back, we were happy to see that we’re getting a little more back than last year.  While many people think getting any sort of refund is bad thing, I actually welcome a refund.  We don’t count on the refund.  For us, it’s just nice to have money that isn’t a temptation to spend during the year.  The removal of that temptation is worth the small interest we’re foregoing.

So, how did we avoid a smaller refund? There were two main reasons.

Read moreHow We Avoided A Smaller Tax Refund (And What We’re Doing With It)

12 Easy Ways To Save Money

Everybody wants to save money, right?  Saving money gives you opportunity and financial security.  If you want a few ideas on how to get started, here are a few.

how to save money
Save your money!

Our Tips For Saving Money

Before we get started, let me just point out that these are things we do to save money.  They work for our household, but they may not be for everybody.  In any case, I hope they give you some ideas to get started.

Brew Coffee

I can’t tell you the last time I set foot in a coffee shop.  If we get gift cards for Starbucks, we usually sell them.  We either make our own individual cups or pots of coffee.  This saves us big time.

Read more12 Easy Ways To Save Money

Are You Doing The Right Thing The Wrong Way?

For years, I’ve undertaken a strategy to make sure that I was getting enough water.

For years, I was doing it the wrong way.

At work, I have a cup that I keep at my desk that gets filled from a container that I keep in the fridge.  I like cold water, so I pour water from the container in the fridge into my cup, then fill the other container and allow it cool off.  Both containers held about 2.5 cups of water, so if I drank three containers worth per day, I was getting a good intake of water.

mb-201309waterThis seemed to be working, until one day I realized that I was going about the right idea (staying hydrated) the wrong way.

What was wrong?

What I was doing was drinking a majority of the water in the morning.  I’d often be done with all three fill-ups by the time I finished lunch.

I had always heard that your body adapted to how you drank water and just figured that timing didn’t matter.  But, one day when I stopped to think about it, I realized that there were clues that I was not drinking water the right way:

  1. I was going to the bathroom too much in the morning – The old rule is that what comes in must come out, so when I looked at the number of times I was getting up for quick bathroom breaks, I realized it was too much
  2. I was getting up in the middle of the night – This is what really clued me in. I realized that I was waking up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, at least once, often twice.  When I looked at it further, I realized that I was drinking at least a cup or two of water in the evening, presumably because all the water I drank in the morning had already been processed, and my body wanted more.

Once I realized this, I changed my habits.  I still drink the same amount of water during the day, but I spread it out, so that by lunch, I’m only about 50-60% of the way through the three fill-ups, and I’m drinking water until I leave for the day.

This spreads out my water intake, and keeps me hydrated longer.  After making this conscious switch, I realized that I was getting up a lot less in the middle of the night because I didn’t drink as much water in the evening.

There you have it, an example of doing the right thing, but doing it the wrong way.

This happens with money more than you think.

Since this is a personal finance blog, let’s take a look at how this principle can be applied to money.  It’s easier than you think.  Just look at some of these tenets of good personal finance, and let’s think about how a good idea could be executed poorly:

  • Budgeting – Creating a budget is a great idea as it allows you to track and allocate your money, but if you don’t track things properly, you miss certain categories, or you allocate funds improperly, you could come out no further ahead than before you started budgeting.
  • Investing – It’s pretty much a standard that as you’re working, you should be investing money for retirement.  This is a great idea overall, but if you invest the wrong way (not checking the fees of your investments, not having a proper asset allocation, taking too much risk, or taking too little risk), you could be disappointed in your returns.
  • Saving – Whether it be for an emergency fund, a home improvement, or a dream vacation, saving money is always good, right?  Well, not if you don’t look at it in the big picture.  If you’re stashing money aside but only paying the minimums on your credit card balance, you could be doing more harm than good.
  • I’m sure that the list goes on….

So why do we get ourselves in these situations?

Some of the potential mistakes I outlined above seem like no brainers, just like it probably seems obvious to many readers that drinking a ton of water for a few hours of the day and not drinking much after isn’t the best idea, but it’s not always that easy.  Why do we do these things?

  • Mis-information – As I noted above, I had read somewhere that your body would adjust to your water intake.  There’s a good chance I read that out of context or maybe from a source that was just flying off the cuff, but I took at as truth and planted the seed in my mind that allowed it to be truth.  If someone you know gives you a piece of money advice that worked for them, you may accept it as truth, even if it’s not the best idea for you.
  • Habit – Once you start doing something and keep doing it, the process becomes habit.  That can work in your favor as you try to establish an exercise routine, but if you get in a bad money habit, it can work against you.  It may seem perfectly normal to spend $200 on dining out a month simply because you’ve done it for so long, but if you’re busting your budget and can’t figure out why, there’s a good chance that you have a habit or two that you’re not considering that could be affected.

And how do you get out?

If you’re doing a good thing the wrong way, chances are the fix may not be obvious.

  • Don’t give up – If your budget isn’t working, it’s very tempting to just quit the process, figuring that it’s not working anyways, so why bother?  Don’t give up.
  • Look for the root cause – In the case of my water intake, the problem that I wanted to solve (getting up in the middle of the night too much) led to the discovery that I was drinking water incorrectly, and it took going back a few layers to really identify the problem.  Chances are your budget isn’t the problem, but a spending habit within your budget.  You have to be willing to dive a little bit deeper.
  • Ask for help – There are people out there willing to help.  If you can’t figure out why you can’t get your investments working the right way for you, then it could be time to ask for help.  Ask around to someone you trust if they can help or give you a referral.
  • Think outside your comfort zone – Many people would never think about hiring an investment professional because they think they can do it themselves or are unwilling to spend the money.  What they might need to realize is that the cost can be made up quickly if a problem is solved.  A $200 fee for an adviser seems high, but if you increase your returns by $1,000 as a result, then suddenly it turned into a pretty good investment, didn’t it?

Finding out that you’re doing something good, but doing it incorrectly, can be an enlightening experience, but it’s worthwhile to fix and chances are will make a big difference in your life.  For me, fixing my hydration process has resulted in much better and more restful sleep.

Readers, what are your experiences (money or otherwise) with doing something right, but doing it wrong?

Pay Debt Away But Keep New Debt At Bay

One of the things I love most about being a personal finance blogger is reading stories about other people who have reduced or eliminated their debt.

Our debt is pretty simple:

  • A mortgage – We re-financed our original 30 year mortgage (set to pay off in 2037) with a 15-year mortgage in late 2011.  This will put us on pace to pay that off in 2026.
  • A student loan – My wife has one outstanding student loan.  It is a private loan with a rate lock of just over 2% and a payment under $100 per month.  It’d be nice to pay this off early but we’re not changing our current strategy to do so.  Additional cash flow would have to open up.
  • Credit cards – None.  We use credit cards simply to earn cash back rewards
  • Car – None. We have two cars, both fully paid off.

It’s great as I see a lot of bloggers write about paying down debt, paying off debt, or discussing their personal debt payment strategies.  For the most part, they’re usually pretty good.

However, there is one thing that I usually see left off, and that’s to have a ‘No New Debt’ provision, and a plan to reach it.

If you start off with $100,000 in debt, work hard, and pay off half of it, that’s awesome!  What if you have $10,000 in debt, and you pay it all off.  That’s great, too!

And, with most debt payment stories, that’s often the ‘end’, so to speak.

What it doesn’t address is to make sure that number never goes higher.  In other words, if you pay off half of that $100,000 debt, you should make sure to do everything possible to avoid having that number go higher.

If you pay your debt off, congrats, but resist the urge to go splurge, financing a new car, vacation, boat, or whatever that’s going to get you right back in debt.

In other words, here’s my debt payment plan that you should adjust every month.

  1. Calculate your starting debt
  2. Make your payments
  3. Calculate your new debt total (it should be lower now)
  4. Set the new debt total as your debt ceiling

That’s right, every month you need to make sure that you set a goal to make your current total your maximum.

What that means, though, is that your debt payment strategy should plan for this.  I have read many articles on whether it’s advisable to save or to have an emergency fund if you are paying off debt.  The answer, based on my advice is: It depends.


Well, if you are in a position where you are risk of emergencies, then yes, you should have an emergency fund.  Do you drive an old car that’s prone to breakdowns?  Do you live in an old house with a furnace or boiler 15 years past it’s expected date?  If these or something like these are in place, then you need an emergency fund.  If you live in an apartment and drive a bike to work, you might not need this as much.

Same goes with savings goals.  If you buy a house and you know you’ll need a new roof in 5-10 years, then start saving along with paying debt.  Otherwise, when that roof goes and you’ve paid every dollar toward debt, you’re going to have nothing left to pay for that new roof.  As good as it is to have paid off more debt, you’ll be violating your debt ceiling’ rule.

That’s not good.

So, make sure your strategy is complete, and if you focus 100% on paying debt, you have the best of intentions but you’re leaving a blind spot, and just like with driving, those can lead to peril in the blink of an eye.

Readers, what is your strategy to pay away and keep new debt at bay?

Just By Asking, I Saved Us $7.50

Back in June, when my wife was going into the hospital to deliver our second baby, I was all about priorities.  Was she comfortable?  Would she get in her room right away?  Would they have her midwife paged?  Could we avoid paying for the phone?

Ever the frugal daddy-to-be, I remembered that last time we were there, we made one phone call during the entire course of the hospital stay, and payed a few bucks as a standard phone charge.  Figuring we could just avoid the phone charge, I asked them if they could disable the phone for outgoing calls.

The nurse told me that they couldn’t, and that it was a bundled charge with the TV.

Bummer.  Kind of a rip-off really, because I’m sure that they know that pretty much everybody is going to watch TV if possible.

Anyways, when the bill came, I saw that the nurse had been lying mistaken.  The telephone and TV charges were listed as separate line items.  The TV charge was $11.50 (still a rip-off, but whatever) and the phone charge was $7.50.

I called and explained that we had requested to have the phone disabled and that we didn’t make any outside phone calls.  Before I even asked, she said ‘OK, well, I’ll go ahead and take the $7.50 off’.


Since those items aren’t FSA card eligible, this was coming straight out of our bank account.  While this isn’t going to put us on the road to riches, I did figure out that this is roughly five or six days worth of diapers for the new baby.  Considering the number of diapers a newborn goes through, I’m mighty glad I made that call!

When was the last time you thought to ask for something removed from your bill?  Was it successful?

Saving A Bundle On Baking Soda

It took a few months, but I was able to put to the test a couple of tips left by a loyal reader (and great friend) regarding baking soda.

In a previous post, I had griped about how Arm and Hammer changed the print on their ‘designed for fridge and freezer’ boxes, recommending them to be replaced every 30 days instead of 90 days.

Reader Cappatia had suggested:

  • Looking at a warehouse club for baking soda
  • Replacing the contents of the fridge box with fresh baking soda

On our last Costco trip, I purchased a really big (and heavy) bag of baking soda for roughly 40% less than I had been getting it at Meijer.

Step one, complete.  Ca-ching!

After that, I went to the fridge and freezer and pulled out the boxes.  Per Cappatia’s advice, I opened up the box, emptied the contents into the garbage, and refilled it.

I did some quick math and estimated that each re-fill used about 15 cents of baking soda.  The price sticker on the box was for 94 cents.  That means that I saved nearly 80% by re-using the box.

Now, the boxes will probably need to be replaced every so often.  The boxes that we use have a little screen on the front that keeps the product in but allows the air to circulate through, which then lets the baking soda do it’s odor absorbing trick.  I noticed that the material on the box in the freezer seemed a bit stretched out, so eventually I figure it’ll have to be thrown out.

Still, if I can get even two or three extra uses per box, it’ll add up to significant savings.  Now, it’s only a few bucks throughout the year, but I’d much rather keep those few bucks in my pocket.

What saving strategies do you use?

Thanks, Cappatia!