Another of My Frugal & Financial Quirks

Oh, the neuroses multiply. Today, I fully recognized another of my fabled frugal quirks: If I want to get rid of an old box, I faithfully cut the UPCs off the box of every major item we purchase.

Well, maybe that’s two quirks.

1. I hold on to the original packaging of most electronic items, or other merchandise if I deem it will be useful sometime in the future. You never know, in 2024, I might finally need to put the bed blanket back in the plastic zippered pouch it came in. Cell phones, handset phones, laptops, cameras — you name it, I have the box around here somewhere. I kept a lot of the boxes to Baby Frugalista’s stuff for a while, just in case we needed to return a defective swing or Pack ‘N’ Play.

2. When I finally decide to toss one of these boxes — either after I can no longer return the item for a refund or I go on a decluttering binge — I have to cut the UPC out and save it. Many times, the item’s model number and serial number are also printed above or below the bar code. I’ve never actually had to use it, but it will eventually help if I need under-warranty service on any of our stuff. Again, perhaps in 2024.

Lest you picture our house as a box-filled hovel, realize that we rarely buy new electronics and use the hell out of most other things. I do periodically throw stuff out, and any boxes we’re still holding on to are carefully secreted away in one of the closets or in the basement storage area.

As for papers and books, I gleefully admit that I hoard those. In fact, I’m staring at a huge pile of papers right now. It’ll get done, eventually. Right after I rake the leaves in the yard this weekend. Or not.

Emergency Fund vs. Savings Account: Do You Need Both?

There are so many great articles on PF blogs about emergency funds, and I can’t stress enough the need to have one. But how exactly do you go about creating one? Is it just a savings account that’s off-limits, or do you set up an entirely new account in addition to your savings and checking accounts?

Investopedia‘s definition of an emergency fund:

An account that is used to set aside funds to be used in an emergency, such as the loss of a job, an illness or a major expense. The purpose of the fund is to improve financial security by creating a safety net of funds that can be used to meet emergency expenses as well as reduce the need to use high interest debt, such as credit cards, as a last resort.

We have a savings account that we only touch in times of emergencies. It’s a simple bank account, separate from our retirement savings accounts (which are also hands-off until that blessed day we say “adios” to our jobs… you know, when we’re 80). So that savings account is our emergency fund. We make deposits when we can, and do not take any money out of it unless we have to.

We’ve been lucky enough to never have had a true emergency, but we have used money from the account for large purchases, such as for our upstairs carpeting job. I only had to “borrow” a bit from it when I was on my six-month maternity leave, which I repaid as soon as I could when the paychecks started coming in again.

But I’ve always replenished it, and it’s continued to grow. Worst-case scenario, there’s enough to cover about 8 months of expenses — mortgage, bills, car insurance — if we ever find ourselves without jobs or in dire financial straits.

J.D. Roth of Get Rich Slowly has this take on emergency funds:

I think it’s wise to keep your emergency money someplace that’s not too easy to access. (Ignore this piece of advice if you know you’re disciplined enough not to use the money for other purposes.) You might, for example, open an account at a bank across town. Or deposit the money with an internet bank. Don’t carry a card tied to the account. You’ll still have access to the cash when you need it, but you will be forced to consider your actions before making a withdrawal.

When CDs were paying 4-5% interest, I had some of our money in those. But now, I could only get 2% interest — if I tie it up for 5 years. Thanks, but no thanks.

So we’re happy with using our savings account as an emergency fund. I don’t know how other people do it, but this method works for us. If you aren’t good at keeping your paws off your emergency fund, it might be better to look into putting it into a CD — that way, it’s harder for you to access it.

Recycling Everyday Items

Recycling plastics and other materials such as aluminum and paper has been an ingrained behavior since I was a kid. I remember our school celebrating the 20th anniversary of Earth Day in 1990, and that’s the year I learned all about recycling. So I do my best to reuse and recycle as often as I can – whether reusing old clothes for projects, re-upholstering old chairs or simply putting aluminum and plastic containers in the recycle bin.

Some of the items I recycle:

  • Tin cans. These are from canned goods like vegetables, chili, diced or crushed tomatoes, and any other foods that come in this type of container.
  • Baby food jars and plastic containers. We go through three of these a day (breakfast, lunch and dinner) for Baby Frugalista, so I’m happy to recycle them.
  • Aluminum cans. I usually drink one can of Coke Zero a day, sometimes two, so they also get tossed into the recycle bin.
  • Plastic bottles. Lest you think I’m a huge soda addict, I also go through one liter of seltzer a day during the week while I’m at work. Occasionally, my husband will drink a Snapple, in either the glass bottle or the bigger plastic container.
  • Shower items. Shampoos, conditioners and body washes mostly come packaged in recyclable plastic bottles.
  • Plastic Ziploc bags. This one depends on what was in the bag– if it’s a non-residue-leaving snack, I’ll turn the bag inside out and wash it, letting it air-dry for another (non-food) use, such as storing rubber bands or paper clips.

Other items that can be recycled are plastic food containers such as Gladware or Tupperware, plastic hangers, plastic and paper bags, newspapers, magazines and books. We reuse plastic bags at least once, mostly when cleaning out the cat little. Paper grocery bags can be reused at the grocery store on the next shopping trip for a 2-cent credit; sometimes, I put the extras out with the paper recycling at the curb.

If we didn’t recycle, we’d be contributing a good amount to landfills. I know a number of people who don’t bother to sort their recyclables from their regular garbage, and honestly, it drives me nuts if I think about it.

Every little bit helps, but I still think I could be doing more. What other items do you reuse and/or recycle? Am I missing anything in particular?

Doctors’ Offices Overcharging for Co-Pays

In the past few years, I’ve had interesting experiences at the numerous doctors’ offices I’ve visited while managing my and my daughter’s health. I’ve discovered that a number of times, we’ve been charged too much for a co-pay, or charged the co-pay in instances when one wasn’t necessary at that visit.

For us, a primary care visit merits a $20 co-pay; a specialist visit is usually $40. So If I see my primary care physician, it’s likely I have to cough up the 20 bucks; if it’s the endocrinologist, it’s $40.

Our health insurance company sends statements via mail every time it processes a claim, and it shows when a co-pay should — or shouldn’t — be charged for each particular visit. Thanks to these statements, I’d previously learned that my ob-gyn annual checkup is considered well-care, meaning there’s no co-pay payment required. And any other visits to the ob-gyn are only $20. But I’d been told to pay $40 per visit to this doctor, each time (excepting prenatal visits).

A few days ago, Baby Frugalista’s pediatric ophthalmologist sent us a check to return our last $40 co-pay — the follow-up visit didn’t necessitate another co-pay. Bless them — $40 is nothing to sneeze at! But I had to show my ob-gyn’s office staff that my visits there should only rate a $20 co-pay. They finally switched it, but I didn’t get a refund for overpaying a few times.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m grateful that we have good health insurance coverage at a (fairly) reasonable price. But you’d think the front-end staff would know when a co-pay applies, and when it doesn’t. Especially since we have a major health insurance carrier (Blue Cross Blue Shield).

Have you ever taken a look at your health insurance statements to see if you’re being overcharged for your co-pays?

Tips for Staying Cool During a Heat Wave

We’re in the middle of a heat wave here in the Northeast. It’s been in the mid-90s for days now, and it’s going to top 100 degrees for the next three days, if the weather forecasters are to be believed. I know lots of folks deal with this hot weather for much of the year (Nevada and Arizona, I’m lookin’ at you), but that’s out in the fabled “dry heat” area of the country.

Come to New Jersey, and enjoy our famous high-humidity summers. July and August can make you feel like you’re in a sauna 24/7. For all the attitude we throw out at you, we’re total wusses when it comes to dealing with the heat.

Unless you don’t mind inside temperatures soaring into the 80s, scorching temperatures mean scorching electric bills. I don’t know anyone who refuses to put on their air conditioner once it regularly reaches the upper-80s around these parts (even a cheapskate like me). But there are a few things I do to stay cool and to keep from losing my mind when the electric bill comes in each month.

1. Keep the air conditioner on — but at a higher temperature. It doesn’t have to be set at 60 degrees all day and night. I find that I’m comfortable at night with the temperature set to 76 degrees (yes, you read that right). That’s because the air conditioner counteracts the humidity in the air, making it feel even cooler in the bedroom. The air conditioner in Baby Frugalista’s room is also at 76 degrees at night during these warmer summer months.

2. Close the blinds and curtains. Why let in all that unwanted heat? I draw the drapes and pull down the shades in my house most mornings in the summer to keep the sun from shining into our rooms. This works especially well if you have heavy and/or energy-efficient curtains that are better at keeping your home cool in the hotter months.

3. Skip hot meals. Don’t add to the heat by using the oven or the stovetop. Microwaves throw off less heat, but hot food makes you feel hotter. Stick with cold foods such as sandwiches, gazpacho, or fruit.

4. Go find some “free” air conditioning. Walk around a mall or a local big-box retailer and enjoy THEIR air conditioning while getting some exercise (just don’t spend a ton of money while you’re there, because you won’t be saving ANY money). Be sure to shut off your home A/C before heading out of the house!

5. Try a cool washcloth. Run cold water over a washcloth or soak it in a bowl of ice water. Put it on your forehead or on the back of your neck to temporarily bring down your body temperature.

Do you have any other tips for staying cool during a heat wave?

Opening a Savings Account for Baby

While the little one is sleeping, I’m going to try to catch up on my blogging!

On Saturday, I managed to sneak out of the house for an hour — okay, I really didn’t “sneak out” — and left 5-week-old Baby Frugalista home with Daddy so I could head to our local bank and open up a savings account for our daughter. She’s gotten some generous cash gifts from family and friends, so I wanted to start her on the road to saving. And who knows how much college will cost in 18 years!

I needed her birth certificate and Social Security card to open the savings account, which is especially for children under 18. I’m the custodian of the account, so both our names are on it. The account gets better interest than the one for adults! It’s still only 1% interest, but that’s better than the paltry .65% we’re getting. The bank associate even gave me a gift bag for the baby, a little green piggy bank, and a coloring book with crayons. Obviously, she’s too young, but it was nice of them.

So now there’s the start of a nice little nest egg, and we’re going to keep it growing by making a deposit every month.

Did you open a savings account for your child right away? How long did you wait to do it?

Little Bites: Tax Filing Time & Other Chores

Holy crap, it’s March. The past month has been a blur of unexpectedly early motherhood and all the sleepless nights, diaper changes and constant feedings that come with it — and it’s been wonderful. We were caught fairly unprepared when Baby Frugalista arrived five weeks early, but thanks to family and friends, we were able to get our home ready for our new addition. They came through with meals, clothes, diapers and assorted little things that we had yet to pick up.

Now we’re settled into a routine — or as much of a routine as possible with a premature newborn. She’s gaining a lot of weight and growing at a good pace. One thing I’ve found is that our normal budget has been turned upside down. We have to factor in diapers and formula, and I’ve found that my $200 monthly grocery budget has increased to reflect that.

Now that I’m out of work on maternity leave for 6 months to spend as much time with my little girl as possible — and only getting disability and family leave payments for 3 of those — we really need to watch our spending. I’d prepared for the 3 months without income by amping up my freelance gigs while pregnant (because I’m nuts), but that doesn’t mean we should burn through that reserve. Gas prices are headed toward uncharted territory — again — and I’m happy I don’t have commuting costs for the next few months. I just filled up the gas tank the other day, and I’m sure I won’t have to refill it for a day or two. I only bought lunch at work maybe once or twice a month, but that’s a little bit of savings, too.

We’re going to do our taxes this weekend and we’re expecting a nice refund thanks to the mortgage interest and property tax deductions. I’d like to change our withholding status on our W-4 forms at work from “O” to “1” or “2” — it’s better that we get that money put back in our paychecks, rather than get it in a large tax refund.

Other things we’re working on:

Medical Coverage — We’ve added the baby to our health insurance, provided by Mr. NSF’s employer. The pre-tax cost has increased two-fold just to add one little person. Amazing, right? So instead of $220 per month in paycheck deductions, the cost will be $440 monthly.

Will — We do not have a will as of yet, and this is something I’m going to look into. There are advantages and disadvantages to wills (enough for a separate blog post), but there are other options, too, such as payable-on-death designations on accounts.

Life Insurance — Although we have some life insurance coverage through our employers, we’ll lose it if we change jobs. I’ll have to see if getting our own policies is advantageous, in case the unthinkable happens to one of us. We want to make sure our daughter is provided for and that we could keep our home in the event something happens to one of us.

I’m sure there are other things we need to consider, but I think this is a pretty good list to start with.