How I Save on Tolls

Ever drive out of your way to avoid tolls? I’ve been doing it for the better part of a decade.

I can get to work in about 25 minutes if I drive straight up the Parkway, but I hit two tolls: the entry toll plaza is 75 cents, and another toll of $1.50 at the exit toll closes to my workplace. The grand total: $2.25.

But there’s a work-around for that $1.50 toll — I can take another exit (with no toll) and avoid it by driving an extra 4 miles. It tacks on an additional 5 minutes to my commute, but if I’m not running late, it works well.

I have an alternate route, too: I can take the Turnpike, where the toll totals $1.15. And this doubles as the shortest commute to work, distance-wise, by a few miles.

Coming back home, there’s no $1.50 toll on the Parkway, so it’s my best route home — the Turnpike would be another $1.15 to get home, so I’m saving 40 cents.

What’s the furthest you’ve ever driven out of your way to save a buck?

Save1.com: Save Money, Feed the Hungry

As I’ve probably mentioned a billion times before on this blog (and in real life to all my friends and family), I love a deal. And to get a deal, you have to do some research before buying. I’ve never been a spontaneous Sally — I need to find the best price AND, hopefully, a coupon or promo code before making a purchase, whether it’s clothes or a major appliance or a cable/internet/phone bundle (see our new FIOS contract triumph).

You have to really search well to find promotional codes for online retailers. Not all stores offer online discounts, but it can’t hurt to look.

There are also a number of websites that “collect” promo codes for a number of retailers in one place. Some of the more common ones include CouponCabin.com, Coupons.com and RetailMeNot.com.

But the one that’s most impressed me is a newer site called Save1.com — for every coupon or discount code you use for one of their featured retailers, they donate a portion of their commission to feed hungry children. The company is family-owned and represents more than 5,000 merchants, and since October 2012, they’ve provided more than 95,000 meals to malnourished children through their nonprofit feeding partners.

I’ve found great coupons for discounts and free shipping for major department stores like Macy’s and Gap, and I’ve also come across other retailers we use, such as RadioShack and BestBuy.

So not only can you save money, you’re helping others. And I can get behind that.

Scrooge McDuck, I Am Not

It’s a given that everyone has different financial priorities. Some people have hobbies and enjoy spending their hard-earned cash on something as simple as crocheting supplies, or as complicated as wine-making. Others get a kick out of scouring the sales racks for high fashion finds. Still others travel as much as they can.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are the folks who won’t spend a dime on anything they don’t need for their day-to-day survival, or they’re socking away their extra funds for a rainy day or for retirement.

Me, I’m somewhere in the middle. I’ll (likely) never be able to buy a $400 purse without going into convulsions and wanting to return it for a full refund RIGHT THIS SECOND. I can’t even bear to gamble, because it’s an almost guaranteed loss thanks to my crappy luck at the slots or the roulette table. (Blackjack? I at least stand a chance.)

I don’t want to judge anyone who chooses to spend their money differently than I do. We all have different expenses, different incomes, and different financial outlooks. Some people want to save it all for old age. Others say you can’t take it with you. I will occasionally cringe if someone tells me how much they spent on a pair of new shoes, but I swear I’m only thinking about how much it would hurt me to drop a few hundred bucks on a pair of Louboutins.

I just hope I don’t come across like Scrooge McDuck.

 

Less Time, More Money Spent

Time isn’t something I have a lot of anymore. What used to be “free time” is now spent playing with and caring for our 2-year-old, cleaning up toys and doing more laundry. I’m planning her meals and ours — when I have the time. Coupons? Only if I have the time to cut them from the fliers or load them onto my club card. Or if I remember to do it before running out to the store. If I don’t have coupons for stores other than grocery stores, I just don’t go.

I also have less time to compare prices. Sometimes, I just have to run out and pick up baby wipes, coupon or no coupon. Diapers, I have those covered — I’m enrolled in the Amazon Mom program, and those boxes show up at our front door like clockwork. We’re out of cat litter? In the pre-child days, I’d check out which store had it on sale. That rarely happens anymore.

Now that Miss Frugalista is 2, I’m hoping I can get back to my old penny-saving ways, because a buck here and a buck there adds up. Just don’t count on me turning up with a new pair of Louboutins on my feet anytime soon.

Refinancing Our Mortgage: We Did It!

When we bought our modest Cape Cod home back in June 2009, we thought interest rates on mortgages would never drop lower — they were already at historic lows! We got a 5% interest rate on our mortgage and put 20% down so we’d avoid paying PMI (private mortgage insurance). You know, doing it “right.” It’d be our one and only mortgage for the rest of our lives, barring a big lottery win.

Oh, how wrong I was on both counts.

First of all, mortgage interest rates have dropped even further in the four years since we purchased our home. And then we busted that whole “only one mortgage, ever” idea.

I’d flirted with the idea of refinancing our home last February, when interest rates were around 4%. But I knew despite the 20% down payment and principal-building monthly payments, we weren’t going to crack that magic 80% loan-t0-value ratio come the crucial appraisal time — home prices were still fairly low for the Northern New Jersey/NYC metro area.

I decided to bide my time. By December, I was back to researching home prices in our area, brokers, banks and their corresponding rates, and figured it was worth a shot.

After a ton of Internet research, I decided I wanted to go with Guaranteed Rate, a newer mortgage company out of Chicago. I found a representative, Joe Cafiero, out of the Philadelphia area who was very active in answering questions and assisting others on Zillow.com, and who had a great rating across the board. And he wound up being even better than the loan officer from our local bank who worked with us on our original mortgage.

Our stellar credit scores (hovering thisclose to 800, but actually 800 at one credit reporting agency in my husband’s case) allowed us to lock in a 30-year mortgage interest rate at 3.375% for 55 days, at .25 point. Yeah, points suck, but if you’re going to stay in your house forever like we are, do the math for each interest rate/points option — it’s usually worth paying a little more up front to save tens of thousands of dollars in interest in the end.

 

The Paperwork — Ack, Ack.

This was the most tedious part. It took forever to scan in all of our supporting documents, as they would jam in the feed tray of my dad’s printer/scanner, and I had to start from scratch because of the craptacular software. And I didn’t want to send the company a billion PDF files. It was a few hours of my life that I’ll never get back, but it got done.

Then the appraisal had to happen — and the estimate had to come in at a certain number so we could (again) avoid the PMI payments (a complete waste of money — they don’t go toward the principal!). I was on pins and needles the entire week it took to get the appraisal report.

Amazingly, the appraisal came in very close to what we were looking for. But in order to get to that 80% LTV ratio, we would have to make up the difference by paying $3,000 toward the mortgage principal. Otherwise, we’d be paying PMI for a few years. In the end, it was a no-brainer: Pay the $3,000 toward the principal now, rather than make PMI payments toward nothing.

The next step was getting through the underwriting process. After submitting our 2012 W-2 forms, we waited. Three days later, we had full approval for the new mortgage loan. The refinance was actually happening!

End Result

Our closing was scheduled for last Friday — the day that crazy blizzard named Nemo slammed into the Northeast. The woman from the title agency barely made it to our house — she’d already moved up the closing a few hours since we were home. After signing a bajillion pages, initialing a few thousand more, and handing over a sizeable bank check, we were good. Then we watched her head back down our front steps in her five-inch heels and prayed she didn’t fall.

Dropping our interest rate from 5% to 3.375% is saving us a whopping $362 a month in a lower mortgage payment. The closing costs will be recouped in 10 months. Even though we made 3 1/2 years of payments on the original mortgage loan, we’ll still save nearly $60,000 in interest by the end of this new 30-year refinance mortgage loan. And I’m hoping with some well-timed extra principal payments, we’ll be on track to shorten this mortgage by a few years.

I think we did the right thing. The numbers say we did, at least.

Looking for Ways to Cut Expenses

I think our spending is getting out of hand. Thanks to my Mint app (which I’m finally paying attention to), I can see where all my money goes to, and it’s eye-opening. Not to mention cringe-worthy. While we’re not buying anything ridiculously expensive, all of the little things are adding up.

Maybe if I lay out all of our major expenses here, it’ll be easier to figure out if there’s any room to cut our costs. We can’t change our mortgage or property taxes, so I’m not even going to lay those out here – we don’t qualify for a good refinancing deal at this point, and we have a decent rate — 5%. I’m also not going to lay out our babysitting costs, but they’re a great deal cheaper than daycare thanks to my friend’s mom, who’s like another family member to us. So that expense won’t change, either. A third budget item that can’t be changed, and is increasing: our health insurance. Starting in January, the same coverage will cost an additional $75/month (pre-tax) out of my husband’s paycheck. Awesome.

 

Our Current Monthly Expenses

$530: The monthly payment and insurance on Mr. Not-So-Frugal’s truck (my car has been paid off for years. Read: old)

$280: Gas for two vehicles

$175: Cell phone bill (3 phones: two smartphones and a simple phone for my dad)

$185: TV/Internet/Home Phone (yes, we really have one of those)

$225: Average utility bill (ranges from $150-$300 monthly, depending on the season)

$300: Cigarettes for Mr. NSF

$400: Groceries/food. Includes takeout once a week, about $25

$500: Credit card debt payment

$475: Pre-tax deduction for employer-provided health insurance

$60: Diapers & veggie pouches for Miss Frugalista

$50: Lunches (I brown-bag it 95% of the time; Mr. NSF grabs a small salad or a cup of chili from the work cafeteria now and then)

$20: Netflix – 2 DVDs plus streaming

$9: Newspaper on Thursdays and Sundays

 

Minimal wiggle room:

Utilities: I installed a programmable digital thermostat earlier this year, which definitely helped reduce some of our heating bill costs. I also have insulated curtains on our large front windows in the dining room and living room to keep the sun out in the summer and the cold out in the winter. Now that Miss Frugalista isn’t an infant anymore, we can keep the thermostat set a few degrees cooler and layer up (sorry, husband).
SAVINGS: Varied, but a few bucks a month

TV/Internet/Home Phone: The home phone would be a logical cut, since we both have cell phones and only telemarkers call our home line, but we’re in the beginning of a new contract with Verizon FIOS and I can’t do anything about that at the moment. My husband loves his movies, so we’ll be keeping the $30/month full movie-channel package.
SAVINGS: None

Cell Phone: We recently upgraded to smartphones, and the data packages upped our bill by $40/month. Nothing to cut here, as we’re using everything except the darned minutes – and we’re already at the “cheapest” family plan.
SAVINGS: None

Car Payment/Insurance: We’ll finish paying off my husband’s truck in April 2014. It’s already at 0% financing. As for car insurance, I (reasonably) raised the deductibles on my 9-year-old car.
SAVINGS: $10/month

Credit Card Payment: I don’t want to reduce this because we owe $3500 on our credit cards. We’re just not going to add to it any more. Instead of buying something (usually a larger purchase; soon, will be Christmas presents) on a credit card, we’ll use our debit cards instead. We may have to reduce our credit card payment, but at least we won’t be adding to the debt.
SAVINGS: None

 

Where we can cut:

Newspaper: I’m being a bad journalist when I say this, but with the Internet, newspapers are useless to me. I don’t even need the Sunday paper for coupons anymore, since I can get them online and either print them out or load them on my grocery store’s club card.
SAVINGS: $9/month

Takeout: We don’t need to order food for a dinner every weekend — maybe limit it to twice a month.
SAVINGS: $50/month

Lunches: Sometimes we’re just in a pinch and need to buy something for lunch, but I’d like to see us cut this expense in half.
SAVINGS: $25/month

Shopping: Miss Frugalista needed some new clothes and shoes for the fall/winter (we finally ran out of hand-me-downs!), but she should be set until spring now. I also bought myself some winter clothes to augment my post-baby-body collection (ugh), and spent $250, with coupons. I probably could have done a better job of looking for cheaper clothes, but fall/winter stuff isn’t on clearance yet, and I needed stuff now. I don’t plan to buy clothes again until spring.
SAVINGS: Varied

 

Wish we could get rid of:

Cigarettes – $300. Mr. NSF wanted to quit a few weeks ago, but some bad news got in the way and threw him off track. I hope he can really try to quit soon, both for his health and our budget.

Netflix DVDs – $11.99. With the full-out movie channel TV package, plus streaming through Amazon Prime and Netflix, I don’t understand the need for DVDs, too. I’m also the person who could live without TV. I don’t see a compromise here, because it’s unfair to my husband, who really, really enjoys watching movies and doesn’t spend money on any hobbies. I guess TV *IS* his hobby.

 

In the end:

Our liquid emergency fund would last about 5-6 months, which is fairly healthy, but we haven’t been able to add to it much this year, with the bathroom renovation and unexpected car repairs eating up our free cash. My husband also needed his first-ever pair of glasses, which followed getting an eye exam for the first time in nearly two decades. And we rarely go out.

So we’re living almost paycheck-to-paycheck, without extravagance. Seems like this is the price we pay for having a child and living in Northern New Jersey.

ImpulseSave Review & Giveaway for The Penny Frugalista Readers!

ImpulseSave is a new way to save money.

How hard is it for you to save money toward your dream vacation, an iPad or a new TV? Most of us give in to the temptation of using our credit cards for immediate satisfaction (and immediate debt). What if there was another way to put money aside on the spur of the moment AND see how quickly you’re progressing toward your goal?

That’s where ImpulseSave comes in. It’s an exclusive website service that has people across the U.S. “impulse-saving” anytime, anywhere. There are plenty of opportunities to save your money and protect your assets. Link up your checking account, set up the ‘auto-save’ option, and the money is automatically routed into your ImpulseSave account! Easy-peasy. The account is FDIC-insured, so your money is safely tucked away until you’re ready to use it to pay off a credit card or, like me, buy your daughter a playhouse for the yard!

What I like best about ImpulseSave is the ability to push money over to your account whenever the mood strikes. The “impulse to save” usually strikes when I’m contemplating spending money on something else I need. The instant gratification of saving the $5 you’d normally spend on a latte is pretty neat. And it’s a social community experience, as you can leave encouraging comments for others working toward their own savings goals.

I set up my ImpulseSave so I can auto-save $75 weekly toward a new $300 playhouse for Miss Frugalette (trying out new names!), and my progress bar shows that I’ll meet that goal in 24 days — just in time for summer fun! Other people are saving toward a new iPad, trips to Iceland, or to pay off their credit card debt. I did find the site a bit hard to navigate at first, and would love to see a bit more instruction about how the site works and how to set up auto-saves, but overall, it’s been a good experience so far.

A few great points about ImpulseSave:

  • ImpulseSavers are saving an ADDITIONAL $4,000 a year on average
  • ImpulseSavers are actively saving towards 3 goals, on average
  • The interest rate on an ImpulseSave savings account is 0.40% APY

 

It’s Giveaway Time!

The Penny Frugalista is giving away 20 invites to ImpulseSave!

This is your chance to get into this exclusive site and start saving for the things that are important in YOUR life.

Enter the giveaway by simply entering your email address in the box below and get a chance to be one of 20 lucky readers awarded a coveted invitation to the ultra-exclusive ImpulseSave site. Entries will be accepted starting at 9 a.m. EST on Friday, May 11, and ending at 3 p.m. EST on Saturday, May 10.

EDIT: The contest is closed!

I’ll be contacting the 20 randomly-selected lucky winners after the contest ends. Good luck!

Want to Earn Interest on Your Money? Good Luck With That

The other day, a friend asked me how she can earn higher interest on her money in the short-term.

My reaction? I laughed.

Maybe that wasn’t the right response, but the sentiment would have been the same if I told her it’s nearly impossible right now, unless you want to take a risk. And like me, she’s the financially conservative type. You can gamble on the stock market — which does seem to be on an upward tick — for now — but there’s no guarantee you won’t lose your investment, never mind actually make a buck or two.

Interest rates on savings accounts and certificates of deposit are so minuscule, they’re almost non-existent. I remember getting 5.5% interest on a 180-day CD a few years ago, but you’ll be lucky to get 1% on a 2-year CD. And those online banks everyone was heralding a few years ago? Same thing. Now that Capital One’s buying up famed Internet bank ING Direct, fahgeddaboudit!

 

Our Current Interest Rates

Interest rates at banks are laughable right now. Here’s a quick breakdown of the interest we’re “earning” at our community brick-and-mortar bank (the rates are compounded daily):

Checking: .30%

Savings: .39%

Youth Account: .45%

 

So what is a cautious investor to do? If I wanted to lock up our cash in a 2-year CD (certificate of deposit), it’d earn a paltry 1.095%. Five years? 1.735%. Money market accounts aren’t doing much better, and novice investors aren’t going to be comfortable with ETFs and REITs.

The only thing left is gambling on the stock market, and you have to hold those investments for a year or be subject to higher taxes because of short-term gains — which could negate any profit you’ve made.

In a nutshell? There’s really no surefire way to earn high interest on short-term investments. At least, not for conservative investors like myself and my friend.

Are your bank’s interest rates so low that they make you want to cry? Where are you putting your money these day so it earns some interest?