Extreme Couponing: A Big Ol’ Hot Mess

The dumpster diving Extreme Couponers. Photo from press.discovery.com

A lot of folks on the interwebs have been writing about TLC’s new show, Extreme Couponing, so I’ll keep this short…  If you haven’t seen the show already and you have a fondness for watching train wrecks, it’s a must see.  These people are nuts. 

The extreme couponers featured on the show spend up to 40 hours per week clipping coupons and planning their shopping trips.  Many of them order coupons from special clipping services.  Others wander all over town rounding up unwanted newspapers in order to amass their coupon collections.  One woman even goes dumpster diving (along with her children), to recover coupons discarded by others.

These nutjobs achieve pretty spectacular savings of 90% or more for their efforts.  They shop at grocery stores that will double or triple the value of the coupons, and they take advantage of items that are already on sale.  Often, they end up getting items for free.  This all sounds good, right?  Why am I calling them nutjobs?

If you’ve seen the show, you get it.  If not, trust me… They are NUTJOBS!  First of all, this little hobby of theirs consumes their lives.  Virtually all of their free time is spent figuring out how to get 600 toothbrushes for a penny a piece or how to get 90 cans of lima beans for free.  Secondly, extreme couponers have ridiculous stockpiles of crap that they keep in their houses.  Basically, these people are highly organized hoarders.  Their garages are filled with row after row of shelves stocked with lifetime supplies of canned food and toiletries.

The strangest part of the whole thing is how protective these nutjobs are of their “stockpiles.”  One would think that a person in possession of 2,000 sticks of deodorant might be willing to donate some to a local homeless shelter, but not so.  Instead, they pay for supplemental insurance to protect their stockpiles.  If they move across country, they spend thousands to relocate everything.  When they take the cameraman through their stockpiles, the extreme couponers always have a weird look in their eyes… I’m just waiting for one of them to start running through their rows of shelving yelling “my precious!” in a super-creepy Gollum sort of way.

On the bright side, this show has made me feel slightly less bad about being lazy when it comes to couponing.  It’s nice not to feel associated with these people in any way.  Viva la sanity!

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Payin’ My Automobills (Yeah, that’s a Destiny’s Child Reference. Don’t mock me.)

There are certain types of spending that just plain suck.  Sometimes you have to spend money on things even though you don’t really feel like you’re getting anything for it.  Utilities would be one example.  Of course I realize on an intellectual level that paying my electric bill is keeping me comfy in my home.  But when I write that check to Delmarva Power each month, I feel like I’m spending money and have nothing to show for it.  Utilities just aren’t sexy, and I gain very little satisfaction from paying for electricity.

Car maintenance and repair often falls into the “sucky spending that isn’t the least bit satisfying” category.  Driving isn’t any more enjoyable after getting an oil change.  Replacing worn-out brake pads is certainly important, but new brake pads don’t make your car look newer or sportier.  So when I learned that I was going to have to spend $500 on car repairs as mentioned in my last post, I was quite grumpy about it.

The biggest chunk of the $500 repair was for two new tires, an expenditure providing very little gratification.  But the second biggest chunk of the bill was for the replacement of two belts (A/C & alternator and power steering).  Sounds decidedly unsexy, no?  How much satisfaction could one expect to get from $135 worth of belts (especially the non-accessory kind)?

A lot, it turns out.  I can actually feel a huge improvement in how my car drives now.  I guess this is the kind of thing that sneaks up on you, but I didn’t realize how much my car had started vibrating at higher speeds.  And since I feel that speed limits are just suggestions (and usually not very good ones), my car was vibrating a LOT.  Now it’s a smooth ride all the time.  Also, the car no longer shakes violently when the AC or heat are turned up all the way.  Okay, that one didn’t sneak up on me, but I kinda just ignored it and kept the climate control on a lower setting. 

Prior to the belt replacements, I had become so dissatisfied with my vibrating, shaking car that I planned to buy a new one at the end of next year.  I planned on getting a Mini Cooper, which would run around $18,000.  While I would still love to have a Mini in the future, I no longer feel that I need one in the near future.  I think I’ll be quite satisfied to continue driving my Honda Accord indefinitely.

The point of this post is that I now view my $500 car repair as an expenditure that saved me $18,000.  Also, now that my current car is perfectly tolerable, I can continue driving it long enough to save enough to (hopefully) pay for a new car with cash.  I haven’t had a car payment in years, and it’s certainly not something I look forward to.  It’s nice that I can now reclassify my maintenance expenditure as “sucky spending that is at least somewhat satisfying.”

Viva la frugal!

P.S.  I like to support small, local businesses when I can, so I want to give a shout-out to Mid-Atlantic Tire in Easton, MD.  I have been taking my car to them for years and they are everything you look for in an auto maintenance shop but have trouble actually finding: They are courteous, knowledgeable, reasonably priced, and honest! 

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Holy unplanned spending, Batman!

The last few weeks have been brutal.  First, it was an unexpected $500 car repair.  Then disaster struck.  Ok, that might be slightly overdramatic.  My Kindle stopped working.  But I consider the Kindle to be the best invention ever, better even than the wheel, and one of the essentials of life, more important even than oxygen.  So I had to immediately spend $250 for a replacement Kindle and case.  (My old Kindle was the original model, so its case would not fit the latest version.)  And now, I have plumbing issues at my house that are probably going to run a couple hundred bucks.

Sigh.

This is why emergency funds exist.  Normally, I would pay for these things out of my emergency fund and then replenish it over the next few months.  But my emergency fund is currently a meager $3,000, which is well below what it should be.  So instead, I’m going to pay for these things partially from my vacation fund, which means my plan for a long weekend in St. Louis to visit my cousins next month is not going to happen.  That is super disappointing, but it’s the right call.  To make that trip, I would definitely have to dip into my emergency fund, and that just isn’t an option.

I also plan to cover these unexpected costs by dramatically reducing my spending on food for the next couple of months.  This means cutting back on dining out, of course, but I also want to cut back on groceries.  I have a lot of non-perishables on hand that will keep me fed for weeks.  I also have a freezer full of venison.  It will be like a little challenge to see how long I can go without buying groceries. 

The past few weeks have really helped remind me just how important it is to keep a REAL emergency fund.  Beefing mine up must become a top priority for the rest of the year.  I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

Viva la Frugal!

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Wine for Dinner: Frugal and Fun!

Last night, I enjoyed an experience I haven’t had in quite awhile:  Wine for dinner. 

There are several advantages to having wine for dinner that are both frugal and fun:

  1. Wine is delicious and filling.  Who needs well balanced meals with protein and other nutrients when you can feel oh-so-good after a couple five glasses of wine?
  2. Inevitably, if I have wine for dinner, I’ll be having a dance party for dessert.  By “dance party” I mean enthusiastic, exuberant, highly physical interpretive expressions of the works of Ke$ha and other great musical artists of our day.  I acknowledge that I might look like I’m having a grand maul seizure when I’m in the midst of a wine-induced dance party, but I really don’t care.  And I’m pretty sure that a highly physical dance party is more effective than any $50/month gym membership.
  3. You really need only five to ten songs for a fabulous dance party that never gets old when you’ve had a few glasses of wine.  Even if you buy your songs in the most expensive way possible (iTunes), this is a cost of only $13 tops.  Not bad for hours of entertainment.
  4. Some snooty people might be thinking, “How could you possibly have an inexpensive meal consisting of wine when a bottle of wine costs at least $15?”  To these people, I say “Ptthph!”  It is not difficult or unusual to find a tasty bottle of wine on sale for as little as $5 a bottle.  Yup, five bucks.  Spending $5 on a bottle of wine is not a huge gamble.  Worst case, it’s not good enough to be a starter drink.  Even a crappy bottle of wine can be consumed after everyone has already had a couple of drinks.  Put these failed experiments out for your guests later in the evening; they’ll never know the difference.  Check out liquor discount stores and ask about their discounts for buying wine by the case.
  5. Wine makes you feel all warm inside.  Dancing around your house in a highly animated fashion makes you feel even warmer.  Go ahead and turn your thermostat down to 60 degrees.  You won’t even miss all that expensive heat. 

 I feel like I should include some sort of disclaimer lest any silly people think that I’m advocating a regular diet of booze in lieu of proper food.  I’m not.  Please do eat your green vegetables.

Viva la frugal!

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An Obligatory Tax Season Post

I am the Queen of Procrastination, so it’s quite surprising that I have already completed and filed my taxes.  This is the first year I’ve ever finished my taxes before the very late hours of April 14th (seriously!).  But I know a lot of folks probably aren’t done with theirs yet, so I wanted to share a great article from one of my favorite personal finance blogs, Get Rich Slowly.

The article is called “The Truth About Tax Deductions” and it’s a guest post submitted by a CPA.  The author, Greg Braun, does a great job of explaining how our drive to finagle every possible tax deduction can actually be counterproductive.  Braun sums it up nicely by stating, “The problem is that saving on taxes usually amounts to spending cash, or worse, signing up for debt.”

Even if you’ve already filed your taxes, the article is worth a read for next year.  It really makes you think about tax management and spending in a new way.

And just in case you’re wondering… I’m getting a tax refund of just under $1000 combined from my federal and state returns.  If anyone else told me they were getting a tax refund, I would encourage them to save or invest the money.  But I’m going to be a bit of a hypocrite and not follow my own advice.  I have an empty bedroom in my house that I would really like to turn into a fully functioning home office, so I’m going to use my refund to buy a desk, bookcase, filing cabinet, and wall shelves.

Should I be saving the money instead?  Yeah, there’s really no way to deny that my emergency savings fund is pretty meager at the moment.  But I’m desperate for a quiet, dedicated workspace in my home.  I know I will be more productive (and hopefully my HotFrugal posts will be much more frequent!) if I can sit down with my laptop somewhere other than on the couch in front of the TV.

I guess I should mention that I also tend to be the Queen of Rationalization, though usually it’s in the area of dessert.  (Most people don’t understand that chocolate is a vegetable because it comes from a bean, so I have to explain that to them.)  Anyway, it’s pretty difficult to live a HotFrugal lifestyle if you rationalize and make excuses for your spending.  I’m going to go ahead and buy my office furniture, but I’m going to do it fully acknowledging that it is probably not the best financial move I could make.

C’est la vie.

(Hopefully the next post will end with the usual “viva la frugal!”)

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Kickin’ Worry to the Curb

When I began living frugally and writing this blog, I really had only one goal: to live comfortably and never worry about money.  Anything more specific than that – building an emergency fund, paying off my HELOC, saving for retirement, etc. – was really just a tactic to achieve the overall goal of financial freedom and comfort. 

I thought that I would achieve this goal sometime in the very distant future.  I imagined that there would be some tangible measure or trigger that would let me know that I could finally stop worrying about money.  Maybe it would be paying off a mortgage and owning a home outright, or maybe it would be reaching a $1 million balance in my retirement accounts.  Whatever “it” was, I mentally prepared myself to wait a good 20+ years before I felt confident enough to say, “I no longer worry about money.”

In actuality, it took only 12 months to reach that point.

Now, don’t get me wrong… I certainly did not achieve any exceptional financial milestones in that time.  I didn’t generate an impressive investment portfolio, and I didn’t pay off my mortgage.  But after 12 months, I did have a focused goal, discipline, and enough progress to feel confident and excited about my financial future.  As it turns out, that’s all I really needed to stop worrying about money.

It’s probably important to clarify what I mean when I speak of worrying about money.  To me, worry is what I feel when I’m scared or insecure.  I worried about money when I asked myself these types of questions:  Am I going to be able to pay my full credit card balance this month?  If my house needs a major unexpected repair, how am I going to pay for it?  If I become really miserable in my job, can I afford to look for another one?  Am I going to have enough money to retire at a reasonable age?

When I worried about money, I didn’t have answers to these questions.  All it took to rid myself of worry was to have good, solid answers:

Q:  Am I going to be able to pay my full credit card balance this month?
A:  Of course.  My spending has been within budget so I’ll have the cash to pay the bill.

 

Q:  If my house needs a major unexpected repair, how am I going to pay for it?
A:  From my emergency savings fund. 

 

Q:  If I become really miserable in my job, can I afford to look for another one?
A:  If I ever feel miserable because I’m being put in a position that violates my personal or professional ethics, I can afford to resign and live off of emergency savings while I look for another job.  (Note: This is obviously an extreme situation, and not one I have ever been in or expect to be in.  But it’s very good for my peace of mind to know that I can afford to get out of a seriously bad situation.  If I simply didn’t like my job, I would probably never quit unless I already had another one in the bag.)

 

Q:  Am I going to have enough money to retire at a reasonable age?
A:  Yes.  I am contributing to my 401(k) aggressively and when I calculate my compounded return over the next 30 years, I can see that I’ll be in great shape. 

 

It was really important to realize that I could stop worrying about money simply by having a plan and sticking to it.  I’ve definitely lacked discipline in my spending over the last couple of months since I bought my new house, but I know I can get back on track.  In a way, getting off track has been good for me…  I absolutely love my new house and the things I’ve bought for it, but I hate feeling the financial worry creep back into my life.  This has been a good reminder that I love independence and financial freedom more than I’ll ever love things, even beautiful things that make my house look amazing.

The past couple of months have been a financial hiccup for me, but I’m going to take it in stride.  I’m going to use the worry that I feel to reinforce the importance of my long term goals.  There’s no reason why I can’t be worry-free again in a few months, and that’s something I will work toward with focus and confidence.

Viva la Frugal!

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Hello, Dear Readers!

I like to flatter myself and imagine that scores of HotFrugal readers have been wailing, tearing at their hair, and beating their chests with frustration and sadness that there have been no new posts for the past couple of months.  Perhaps I flatter myself just a teensy bit much, but if you’ve missed HotFrugal at all, I have good news… I’m back, baby!

In case you’re wondering where the heck I’ve been, I’ll give you some quick updates.  First, I started a new job that I really like, but it has been very challenging.  I’m responsible for developing market plans for a highly technical product that I knew nothing about when I started.  Learning how the product works and how to sell it has been mentally exhausting, leaving little energy for writing.  Then I bought a new house just two weeks after I started the new job.  I promptly fell in love with it and have spent just about every waking, non-working hour painting, changing light fixtures, hanging pictures, replacing outlet covers, etc.

Now that things have calmed down a bit, I’m excited about writing regularly for HotFrugal once again.  And to be completely honest, I need to start writing regularly again.  When it comes to frugality, I’ve fallen off the wagon a bit in the past couple of months.  The downside of loving my new house is that I’ve had way too much fun decorating.  Actually, I’ve been spending so much money that I’m starting to feel some financial stress creep back into my life.  It’s not a good feeling, and I need to get a handle on it.

Reforming my spending habits and getting back on track will be the focus of several upcoming posts.  I’ll also be writing about managing spending temptations, retirement planning, the importance of fully evaluating and understanding a job offer, and frugal gift giving (‘tis the season, after all).  In addition, I’ll be launching a new look for the site.  My talented cousin, Brandon Gamble of Imago Identity Studio, has designed a new HotFrugal logo that will be unveiled in the near future. 

In the meantime, I’d like to wish everyone a very Happy Thanksgiving!  Have a great break from work, a wonderful dinner, and a frugal Black Friday.  🙂

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