The “Forever Stamp” Concept Applied to Gas Prices

 

prepaid locked in gas pricesFirst off, I’ve written just recently about gas prices, and how low they have gone. A recent post on $2 gas discussed the topic of these prices that are low relative to recent historical gas prices, and how we might want to keep that history in mind when making big financial commitments going forward.

In other words, be careful when putting your budget together, and don’t make the assumption that gas prices will remain low. I say it’s best to assume they’ll go back up, and if they stay low we can consider it a pleasant surprise. Kind of a bonus, if you will.

Picking up on this theme, I came across an interesting article on Time’s Money site that discussed the concept of locking in gas prices at a fixed rate. This allows a consumer to hedge against the potential that gas will go up.

There were a couple of services mentioned, but one that caught my eye was a small regional group of stations that apparently has a plan like this. In looking at the site, it appears that you can pre-pay locked-in prices at around $1 or so above the current at-the-pump prices. Obviously there are additional details to the program, but this is a high-level summary of what saw.

The way I understand it is this: If gas is $2 per gallon, and you lock in prices at $3 per gallon, you could potentially come out ahead if prices surge back up over $3 as we has seen for quite some time.

It’s an intriguing concept, and it reminds me of the “Forever Stamp” model. Perhaps it’s not quite the same thing, but the idea that you can lock in prices is one that seems like an interesting option for consumers and a novel idea in commerce.

It also seems like one is paying a premium – like an “insurance” premium of sorts – to protect against risk of loss. In this case, loss of money when gas prices skyrocket.

This is something I’d have to really think about before deciding on whether or not to do that. I’m not aware of any local companies offering this sort of option anyway, at least at this time.

Could this idea be applied to other expenditures in our budget?

When it comes to one big ticket expense, housing, we can lock in prices by getting out of the renting cycle and buying a property. Though property taxes could always change, even if your mortgage payment stays the same.

But how about things such as coffee, produce, perhaps even heating oil? It would be fun to be able to “lock in” the price of a cup of coffee that normally costs $1.50 by paying $2.50. Maybe years down the line, when coffee is well over $2.50, we’ll come out ahead : )

Okay, that last example is a bit much. But you get the idea!

My Questions for You

What do you think of the idea of prepaying for gas?

Can you think of any other expenses that would be nice to have a pre-paid, locked-in price option?

Hooray for $2 Gas! Now, Be Careful.

two_dollar_gasGas under $2 per gallon is a welcome sight!

As of this writing, I saw gas for sale at $1.92 per gallon. Just one day prior, I filled up my car’s tank at $1.99 per gallon – and thought that was a bargain. Little did I know that prices would drop about 3.5% in just one day.

Don’t worry, I didn’t lose any sleep over it. I’m not THAT frugal, despite past forays into extreme frugality :)

These prices are at levels that many of us probably thought would never happen again in our lifetime. However, they’re at those low levels now. So, it’s time to celebrate, right?

I think it’s a good thing, and it’s nice to see.  Though as I wrote about several months ago when prices were closer to $3 per gallon, we should squirrel away that money saved on cheaper gas.

This might sound funny, but when I had the aforementioned gas purchase the day prior, I actually saw the $1.99 price on the sign and got a little bit fired up. It was irrational, I’ll admit it. You know, like an overly excited Black Friday shopper seeing a great deal at retail store.

Though I did have to laugh when at the pump I was asked whether or not I wanted a car wash. You know, when the temperature outside is literally 1 degree above zero, it’s quite the humorous question to ask a customer.

Anyway, back to gas prices. With prices at lower levels that in recent history, it’s a great time to remember that recent history. As in, remembering that those prices can go back to those levels at any time. As suggested in a post on Money Beagle, we shouldn’t count on prices being this low – and it might good to spend as if prices were that high.

This all came to mind in a very recent conversation where somebody was talking about buying a bigger house. These people live in a good enough house now, but for whatever reason they’re afflicted with dream home syndrome.   The current place is closer to the city (Chicago), which all other things being equal means that prices will be higher than in more outlying areas due to jobs and other factors.

And what came up as a reason to consider moving further out? Gas prices!

It’s one of those exact things I had hoped people wouldn’t think of, but it looks like some are doing so. Memories are short with some folks all of a sudden, and low gas prices are causing people to get enticed to get more for their money buy considering a home purchase in a far flung suburb.  Human nature, perhaps?

What will be interesting is if we see another wave of interest in such outlying, “exurb” type of places just as we did in the prior housing boom. You know, if gas prices stay at low levels for an extended period of time.

My take is that we ought to truly enjoy these low gas prices, but NOT count on them when making any budgeting decisions. So I’m doing just as I said in my prior post I referenced: suggesting that we save that extra money we have due to lower gas prices.

My Questions for You

How low have gas prices gone where you are?

Have you thought about how much you’re saving now in total, compared to how much you were spending before?

What are you doing with the extra money you’re saving?

2 Ways to Find Bargains in December

december bargainsThe holiday season can be a nice time to get some bargains. We all know about Black Friday, but what about deals in December?

There are two types of December deals that I’ve enjoyed in the past, and hope to take advantage of this year:

Bonus gift card purchases

Now, some people like gift cards while others don’t. To me, holiday season gift cards are nice, as they allow you to purchase exactly what you want to. While you know it’s the thought that counts when you get that ugly sweater or redundant kitchen gadget, getting what you want and need has its merits.

What I like about buying holiday gift cards is that you might get an extra bonus if you make a purchase. I’ve noticed this in particular with restaurants. A few have offered this type of deal: buy a $25 gift card, and get a bonus $5 gift card or certificate for free. It’s nice to get something back for yourself when buying a gift, right :)

Beyond that, if it’s a place you know you will personally visit anyway, why not just take advantage of the deal and buy it for yourself? It’s like an instant 17% off, just like that!

Post-Holiday sales

Once the holiday season has passed us by, there is naturally going to be a ton of unsold inventory at many retailers. Much of this might be items that they want to clear out, to make room for other products in the New Year.

So, if you didn’t get Black Friday deals, or have new shopping needs that have arisen, there could be a solution. Check out post-holiday deals to get some savings!

Some of these items might be highly discounted, particularly if seasonal. This would be a great time to get a new tree and save it for next year, which of course would mean buying a fake Christmas tree (which we have). Or, giftwrap would be another item that could be bought for a huge discount and kept for the next season

Beyond such seasonal items, more practical things such as clothes, small appliances, and the like might be had for a discount during this time period.

My Questions for You

Do you find ways to make some bargain purchases in December?

Do you have any tips or examples to share?

Save Big on Entertainment by Considering the Next Best Alternatives

save money on entertainmentSometimes we can save big money by considering alternatives.

I was thinking about this concept, which I’ve actually written about before, when I saw that one of my buddies was going to a football game recently.   Here in the Chicago area, that means he was going to see the Bears.

Before we get into the cost aspect of his day, I want to share a little bit of context. This guy isn’t making a ton of money, and has been impacted by divorce. From what I can gather, money is probably tight.

So, when going to the football game, it’s an exercise in indulgence. Here’s why I say that:

  1. There are much cheaper alternatives
  2. You can have many more experiences for the same cost as that one day

Now, I totally get the idea of splurging once in a while. Also, a day of quality time with your kid can be priceless. Bonding and making memories is what it’s all about. So to be clear, I think that part of it is totally cool and I’m not being critical of that.

The thing is, this isn’t the first game this year he’s gone to. So while it may be worth it for non-financial reasons, it’s also a worthwhile exercise to consider other options to accomplish the same goals.

Let’s walk through the costs:

  • Cost of the ticket is at least $80, so 2 tickets is $160. It could be more if the seats were good.
  • Parking must be at least $20, at the least.
  • Food at games isn’t cheap either, so let’s add another $20.
  • Total costs: $200.

This doesn’t include driving costs, or any souvenirs. Again, this is all for one day.

Here’s what I did for the game: watched it at home. Total cost: $0.00.

Yes, I know that it’s not the same thing, but it’s worth considering if that incremental $200 is always worth it, when you can still have fun watching at home.

The same concept of looking at alternatives can apply to other activities. How about movies as an example:

  • Alternative #1: Go to the theatre, buy tickets for two. Cost = $20
  • Alternative #2: Rent a movie from a kiosk, keep overnight. Cost = $1.50
  • Alternative #3.: Rent a movie from the library, keep for a week. Cost = $0.00

You could rent 13 movies for the cost of one visit to the theatre!

Okay, so I’m not all about finding the cheapest alternative at all costs. Actually, I really enjoy going to the movies. My point is that just like the football game example, there are ways we can still have fun without spending tons of money!

My Questions for You

Do you ever think about just how much we can save by considering alternatives?

When it comes to movies or sporting events, do you consider them to be splurges or normal expenses?

Squirrel Away the Money You Save With Lower Gas Prices

save on gasHave you noticed that gas prices have dropped as of late?

It’s about time! A few years back I wrote about how historical gas price increases outpace inflation by quite a bit, which really put into perspective how expensive gas has become in recent years. I’m old enough to recall paying less than $1 per gallon of gas, around 20 years ago. (Side note: Dang….I really am getting older!)

Anyway, I’ve noticed recently that gas prices have been relatively low by standards of the last few years. This has been corroborated by a recent article from MSN which detailed some news regarding Energy Department forecasts on gas prices. They noted that in 2015, gas prices are projected to be under $3.00 per gallon, which is quite a bit lower than a prediction not that long ago.

So if gas prices do in fact stay low, how would that impact your spending and overall finances?

The thinking among some people is that with lower gas prices, people will have more money to spend on other things. Thus, if more consumer goods are purchased, this could be good for the economy!

Perhaps. But on an individual level, what would you do if your gas expenses were considerably lower on a regular basis? That’s the question I come back to.

I think that it’s probably true that with less money spent on gas, people will have more money available to spend. Math would dictate that. I also agree that with that additional money available to spend, people will generally do just that: spend it.

So basically, this means that the average person out there will not do the prudent thing from a personal finance standpoint. Which would be this: take the extra money that you’re saving on gas, and squirrel it way.

For example, if you were spending $120 per month on gas, but then that dropped to $90 based on price decreases, you could use the $30 to buy other things, or you could increase your monthly investments by that $30.

That small amount adds up! $30 per month equals $360 for a year, and invested over time that could result in quite a bit more.

So I’d like to see Americans take the savings from cheaper gas, and boost their savings instead of spending it. Here’s to responsible personal finance!

My Questions for You

What do you think about where gas prices have gone recently?

When you save money due to regular expenses being reduced, do you offset that by spending more on other things, or do you consciously try to save more money?

 

Ask and You Shall Receive – A Discount, That Is

mattress discountsFor whatever reason, here in the U.S (and Canada, probably) we are conditioned to be cooperative shoppers. In other words, we play nice with the business at which we are shopping, and don’t try to negotiate. If there is an asking price, we’ll either pay it or move on.

Bargaining, apparently, is uncomfortable!

There are exceptions to this, as we know, and one of those is buying a car. If you’re buying a used car, that’s an extra special treat :) Beyond that, buying items on craigslist might be another venue where negotiation is fairly normal. But in most cases, it’s almost a faux pas.

Here is one situation when you should negotiate: buying a mattress.

I very recently had an experience where I was shopping for a mattress that our family needed. I went to a three local places, and found that it was relatively easy to compare their stated prices – and that there were some distinct differences. As in, $100 differences between high/low price for one item among the stores I visited.

So, the last store I went to had what I found to be the best overall prices for what I was looking for. After talking things through with the salesperson, and asking about prices, I came to a pretty good price. I was feeling pretty good about it.

Then, I mentioned that I would walk away. He didn’t come down in price any further, but as I made it clear that I wasn’t buying today, he hustled to give me his card and indicated that the price will hold. If I didn’t ask, I wouldn’t have had this leverage.

At that point, I asked another question: will there be a better price on this mattress soon?

He paused, then spoken in generalities about how that was a possibility. I asked if there was a specific date he knew about, and then he wanted his card back to write something. I gave it back, and he wrote a date on it when he said I should come back on that day. In other words, there would be a sale on that day.

I was pleased, and then walked away. Then, I thought: “why not just ask what that discount would be?”

The next step was for me to turn around, and go back to him asking about that future discount. He hesitated, then told me that it would be on sale for $130 less at that time. And, that I should come back then since it would clearly be worth my while to wait just a little over a week.

What did I do then? I asked him if I could just get that discount now if I bought it right away – in advance of the sale.

He said the most he could do was give me a guarantee of a $130 to be applied on that day – to which I agreed. So, I didn’t get the exact ultimate outcome I wanted, but came really close.

All because of the idea that sometimes we need to get uncomfortable and ask for a better price. There’s often very little to lose, and potentially a fair amount to gain!

My Questions for You

How often do you ask for discounts?

Do you enjoy bargaining, or could you do without it?

Do you find mattress shopping to be a little different than buying most other household items?

The Opportunity Cost of Spending Big on Halloween

halloween spendingGo big or go home.

That’s often the approach of many of us when it comes to certain parts of our lives. Really, I usually take that to mean going all out to succeed, be the best, or have tons of fun. In many situations, it’s a great joy to do so!

It seems like this is the approach that many people have been taking in recent years when it comes to spending money on Halloween. A generation ago, it was pretty much a day where kids dressed up, and then went out for trick or treating at night. As grown-ups, we enjoyed the day with our kids and played the role of good sport by handing out candy to other costumed trick or treaters in the neighborhood. The pumpkin was the universal symbol of the day.

At some point, this model changed.

Today, Halloween has transitioned from being a day for kids to a day for all ages to partake. Young adults and even grown-ups dress up and throw parties to celebrate what’s almost become a “holiday” of sorts in some circles. As we know, costumes and parties can be expensive for adults. An article from US News and World Report noted some figures sourced elsewhere which indicated that the average person will spend over $77 just on a Halloween costume alone. Again, that doesn’t even address the other costs of the big day.

It’s gotten to the point where it’s not just December when holiday lights and decorations go up. They’re up at some houses in October too, for Halloween. For-profit haunted houses seem to have popped up all over the place too.

Now, I’m not going to complain and say that it’s wrong. I’m not that old, and think that it’s good to be flexible and adapt to change.

That being said, I prefer to look at it as a matter of choosing between alternatives. And in the fall, there are plenty of such choices for us when it comes to spending our time and money. Personally, I really enjoy the season without spending a ton on Halloween, and know that there are others that find a way to get excited about it in that way too.

Here are 3 ways I either have, or could, spend money on fall activities that will cost as much in total as the $77 one could pay spend a grown-up buying a costume:

Apple Picking: 4 of us went, and got 60 apples for $22. More important than that it, the day was a lot of fun. We got to go outside and enjoy the nice early fall weather, picking fruit straight from the source in the orchard. Kids had a blast finding the different varieties of apples and eating them fresh. These are fun memories they’ll have, and same for us as parents. That’s money worth spending. Total cost: $22.

Pumpkin Patch: Okay, this is a little more Halloween-oriented. It doesn’t involve a fully grown adult buying a costume though : ) Rather, a day outside getting 2 or 3 pumpkins, going on a hayride, having hot cider, and participating in other activities will be in order. Estimated total cost: $25.

Enjoying Football: While I’m a huge football fan, I realize not everyone is. Don’t fear, you can still enjoy the games and have fun. Having a small group of friends over to watch the game doesn’t have to be pricey, as long as they’re not high maintenance people : ) Snacks, pizza, and beverages can be inexpensive if you plan for it. Estimated total cost: $30.

Total estimated cost of those 3 activities: $77.

Okay, for the latter 2 I don’t know the exact cost…and I arranged the math on purpose so that the total would be $77. I’ll admit that, if it wasn’t obvious already! : )

The idea of this exercise is to simply make two points. One is the bigger picture idea that we always have an opportunity cost when spending money, meaning there are other alternatives for the expenditure. The second point is that Halloween costumes and festivities for grown-ups certainly have a high opportunity cost. There are so many other ways to have a lot of fun and stretch our funds!

My Questions for You

Do you spend a lot of money on Halloween (that isn’t kid-related)?

Has your spending on Halloween increased over the years?

Do you think about the concept of opportunity cost, and alternative uses of your hard-earned dollars?

Save Money By Recognizing When Free Becomes Expensive

free can be expensiveFree is good. Actually, sometimes free can be great!

And sometimes, free can be expensive.

By this, I mean free trials of different products or services. What I’ve seen, these often tend to be in the form of a subscription-type of format, where you either:

  1. Pay up front but have the option to cancel and get a refund within a certain time frame
  2. Get a cost-free trial period, and then get locked into payments

I have recently had this happen with my own finances. Generally I avoid such “deals” because of a variety of reasons – and I’ll touch on a few of them later. But in this case, against my usual approach, I recently decided to give a free trial a try.

The free trial was a for an upgraded, “Premium” LinkedIn account.   Now, I have to say up front that I have found LinkedIn to be a useful tool for helping out with one’s career – and it’s worth a separate post on why.   What’s most pertinent in this case is that I thought that by upgrading to a premium account, it would help me give some additional, useful information as well as a few other features.

And besides, I could try it out first before committing to a subscription. Kind of like dating : )

Well, lo and behold, I did sign up and get access to some additional features. However, I then almost started to forget that I had this premium-level account. Frankly, it occurred to me that I’m probably not getting the most out of this upgrade, which is costing me $30 per month.

This means that at this point, I’ve spent about $60 on something that I haven’t fully used. The decision I need to quickly make is this: will I make better use of the features (assuming they truly could be worth it to me), or should I cancel altogether. It’s a month-to-month commitment as it is.

Regardless, this exact scenario is why I generally have avoided such free trials in the first place. It’s free for a while and that sounds great, but you then forget about it. The payments then start to happen sooner than you expect, unless you’re very careful. The next thing you know, you’ve spent money that you could have used for other things. Opportunity cost is often real!

My approach toward these free trials has been – and will again be – as follows:

  1. If it’s not something that already find to be a clear value for the regular monthly price, I shouldn’t buy it. The value should be clear, and shouldn’t require a trial.
  2. In the rare event that I do deviate, the subscription should be month-to-month, AND I should set up an alarm or reminder well in advance of the cancellation deadline. At that point, a clear go/no-go decision should be made.

In this case, since I didn’t, follow my usual approach, free became expensive. But it’s an isolated episode : ) Really, all it takes is following a few basic principles to ensure that free stays free!

My Questions for You

What are your thoughts on “free” trials?

Have you ever had something go from “free” to expensive, or simply go against your normal approach with spending?

Inconsistent Pricing: Pay Attention to Save Money

inconsistent pricingLogic has its place. This is not always the case in life, as many things that happen are due to luck, fortune, and emotions. But usually, especially in terms of the buying and selling of goods in the marketplace, there is some logic involved.

Example #1: Grocery Store

If you buy just one item from a store, you might pay more per-unit than if you bought a larger quantity. You know, price discounts can be worthwhile for a business. Perhaps you won’t get a discount for buying more. But certainly, you won’t pay more.

Well, I saw something different at a grocery story recently. I was in the produce section, and noticed that they had a prominent display of figs for sale. Now, the real reason it caught my eye is because I don’t typically see figs displayed so prominently. It’s not like figs are your typical, everyday grocery purchase! But, this store was promoting them.

Figs as an attention-getter. Who knew?

Maybe it’s because this was such an atypical item to be promoted that their pricing also caught my eye. They had a sign noting that they were for sale at $0.69 each, and another saying $11.99 per case. The thing is, those cases didn’t look like they had too many figs.

Intrigued (and wondering why I’m paying close attention to figs, but that’s another matter!), I looked over the cases and saw that they had 14 figs each. That didn’t seem right, so I did a super quick scan again. Yes, it confirmed that I still know how to count. There were 14 figs.

Let’s do the math here: 14 figs at $11.99 equals $0.86 per fig.

So, if you bought them individually at $0.69 each, you would pay $9.66. Buy them in bulk, and you’ll pay $2.33 more.   That’s a 24% penalty for buying the larger quantity.

Say goodbye to volume discounts, and hello to volume penalties.

There could be some real logic here. It’s not readily apparent to me. Rather, it seems illogical.

Example #2: Gas Station

It seems as if many gas stations are located close to one another. Competitive stations are doing battle in close proximity, in heavily trafficked areas.   These are often at intersections where one station could be a corner and another is directly opposite.

Recently, I stopped to buy gas at one station without really checking the prices at the adjacent station. Well, I really didn’t check the prices at mine either. I needed to buy gas, and that’s really I thought of at the moment.

As I was filling up the car with gas, I took a look a look at the price per gallon. Then, I glanced at the other station nearby.

To my surprise, the other station was charging $0.07 less per gallon. And there were a few more cars over there than at the station I was at.

Now, I’m not sure that there is any noticeable difference in the gas. Same octane, just a different brand. If there is a real difference between gas sold by major brands, it’s news to me.

By not paying attention, I got burned. Sure, the $0.07 per gallon difference isn’t that significant. I might have paid a dollar more and that’s it. But still, it was totally avoidable.   Clearly, others must have noticed and were giving the other station more business.

Key Takeaway

Pay attention! Check prices when you’re shopping, and don’t assume that you’re getting a fair deal all the time.

If you’re buying more, you might not be getting any kind of discount. Or, you might be paying more than you would at the store next door. Either way, prices for goods and services aren’t always logical.

With smaller items like I mentioned, the amount involved isn’t a huge deal. But for bigger ticket purchases, the money can add up. That’s where we really need to pay attention.

I don’t have any specific recent examples for big purchases. However, I’m sure those illogical price differences are alive and well out there!

My Questions for You

Do you pay what you’re charged without a second thought, or do you pause and think about discounts and competitor prices?

Have you ever seen any big differences in price between similar items, or other interesting pricing decisions/policies by stores?