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?

5 Ways to Save Money On Summer Cooling Costs

summer cooling costsSummer weather can be a welcome relief from the cool (and sometimes freezing) temperatures that can accompany winter and sometimes spring. Here in the Chicago area, after a brutal winter, this warm weather feels like paradise!

Of course, as great as this or many other things in life are, it’s hard to get something for nothing. As I learned years ago from my father, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Most of the time, there is something we give in order to receive.

In the case of this warm and sometimes humid summer weather, this means we have to pay for cooling down. Yes, air conditioning is not free. Wouldn’t it be great if it was? We have to pay for energy, so this becomes like many other purchases in that it doesn’t hurt to look for a few small, relatively painless ways to save a little bit of money.

I’ve written before about ways to save on energy costs, with tips that cut across seasons.  Specific to warm weather months, here are 5 ways to save money on air conditioning costs:

Use a Programmable Thermostat

When you’re home, of course you want to be comfortable. I’m not into the idea of being uncomfortable just to save a small amount of money. But if you’re not home, it doesn’t matter. It’s not like the carpet or furniture will be suffering if the temperature is a bit warm!

So, for example, you can have the temperature 5 degrees higher when you leave for work. When you come back, it can be cooled down pretty quickly. This concept could apply even more so to when you’re traveling. No need to cool a house that nobody is in!

Close Shades or Curtains

By keeping the windows uncovered, and sunlight going through them, you’re heating up the home a bit. Instead, keep things shuttered in rooms that you don’t need the light at that point in time. This lets your air conditioner work as hard as it needs to, instead of doing some extra work to keep things comfortable.

Replace or Clean AC Filters

Keeping filters clean is a good habit to get into. Depending on how you’re set up, it could entail cleaning a filter or replacing periodically. I’ve talked to people who rarely change a filter, as in once a year, which find crazy. Do it much more often, not only for living well but also to save on energy costs.

Minimize Oven Use

Okay, I know that it’s tough to avoid using the oven. And I’m not advocating that you stop using it, obviously! But maybe there are times we can use it a bit less when preparing food. The oven actually heats up the home more than we think, which causes the AC to work harder. Which, in turn, costs us money. Occasional substitutes could be grilling, or maybe just preparing food once in a while that doesn’t require tons of oven time.

Open Those Windows!

At night, we aren’t worried about the sun. Additionally, that warm weather during the day will likely be cooled down at night. If the temps are comfortable enough, sometimes opening the windows to let a cool breeze in the home can work just fine.

My Questions for You

How do you cut down on cooling costs in the summer?

Do you have any other tips to share?

Weddings and Money: Follow Traditions and Dreams, or Be Practical?

cash or traditional wedding giftsHow do you feel about getting cash as a gift for a birthday or holiday?

Frankly, at this point, I’m giving gifts rather than receiving them.  That’s the way it goes as a parent.  Though innocent homemade “Happy Father’s Day” cards from your kids do qualify as gifts, and mean more than anything :)

But yes, if I do get a gift, I’m totally cool with it being cash.  I’ve written about the topic of gift cards as gifts, and frankly they make sense.  After all, they’re called “gift” cards!  So ultimately cash or near-cash equivalents are nice gifts for some (even if not all) people.

So while cash might work in many cases, what about for weddings?  Do you think cash is an appropriate wedding gift?

This came to mind as I read a recent WSJ article on wedding gifts of cash.   Apparently, there are people really putting cash gifts to good use.  As in, collecting a really nice amount of money instead of traditional gifts, and saving the stash for a specific purpose.

To me, this makes sense.  Let’s stop and think about it.  What would you rather have:

  • Wedding China you’ll rarely use, or a great start to a  down payment on your first home
  • New kitchen appliances, or the beginnings of a joint retirement fund
  • Upgraded silverware, or an emergency fund to protect you financially as a couple

You get the idea.

Really, this brings to mind a bigger question of whether or not wedding spending in general can be more oriented toward starting a prosperous future together, instead of having a singular focus on one day.  Yes, I spent a fair amount on a wedding/honeymoon too.   That being said, there are people that go all out for that one day.

I suppose if the couple makes great money and/or has wealthy family footing the bill, it changes things a bit. Plus, I’ll admit, we all have the right to spend on something we truly value.  If a perfect, dream wedding day is something that’s worth more than a home down payment – then everyone has the right to what they want to do.

Just to make clear, I’m not saying that obtaining cash and saving money for practical things should be a singular focus either.  That makes life no fun, right?  I’m just thinking that maybe there should be a balance between living for today and planning for the future.

And keeping that balance might mean thinking about weddings a bit differently, in terms of traditional vs. cash gifts, and lavish versus tastefully budget-conscious celebrations.

My Questions for You

What do you think of cash gifts versus more traditional gifts?

Do you think that weddings in general should involve dreams first and practical considerations later, or should priorities be reversed?

5 Ways to Change Priorities and Spend Less Money

changing money prioritiesLike anything, our knowledge about personal finance grows over time. Or, at least we hope it does. If we’re keeping an open mind and have a desire to learn new things and improve ourselves all the time, we should naturally evolve as managers of our money.

I’d like to believe that this is the case with me. Considering I’ve been writing about money for over 4 years now, there has been ample opportunity to think about it and facilitate a change in perspective on different topics within this realm.

In an effort to step back and practice some self-awareness, I’ve thought a bit about how my spending has changed over the years.   Now, I’m not talking about from the time I was a teenager to now. Rather, I’m talking about even my 20’s and early 30’s, when I was a working professional but not a parent and in a different phase of life.

I thought I knew a lot then, but as it turns out I’ve learned a lot more since then. Some things that were valued then, are not priorities at this point. At least not to the same level.

Here are 5 ways that my spending has changed as I’ve gotten older:

1) Spending less on cars

Now, I have to say that I never went crazy with this. So, perhaps I’m not really spending a ton less than before. However, I certainly had eyes for nicer cars. Like a tiger spotting its prey, I looked at upscale cars as the type of things that would be mine someday. You know, as a part of a certain lifestyle.

Well, those thoughts are gone for the most part now. I currently drive a Honda that I bought used a little over 5 years ago, and have no interest in buying anything else. While this car won’t last forever, I’ve proven with my previous vehicle that I appreciate the value of driving a car to 200,000 miles and beyond. It beats constant payments as the alternative.

2) Less interest in home upgrades

At one point, I had a place with granite counters, new hardwood floors, a marble bath, and so on. Yes, I have to admit that it was nice.

However, I don’t see why any of this is truly necessary. Nice, yes. Worth paying and arm and a leg for? Not for me.   The quality laminate counters I have now, and basic baths, work just fine. Actually, a bigger factor for me when spending on living arrangements is simply location. The location in which I live is more important than having something nicer but in a sub-optimal location. A prior post I wrote on school districts and homes illustrates this current line of thinking I have.

3) Fewer purchases of brand name clothing

Back in the day, I enjoyed getting clothes for work at Nordstrom. Now, I should admit that I never really liked shopping at all. Rather, I would go maybe twice a year and get things purchased when on sale. In particular, they had this anniversary sale that had really high quality stuff on sale for discounted prices. I even bought non-work stuff there, for the weekends.

Well, I don’t do that anymore. While I still believe that it’s important to dress well for work, it doesn’t have to cost a fortune to do so. Shopping at other more mainstream retailers, while targeting sales, can be a great way to buy good clothes at a modest price.

Further, as I’ve gotten older, I guess I don’t care about this stuff as much anyway.

4) Spending less on haircuts

In the past, I would fork over $35 or more on haircuts regularly. At some point, it became clear that a lot of money could be saved by spending half that amount, and getting an indistinguishable haircut.

Now, I don’t recommend this for everyone. However, for guys with straightforward shorter hair, there can be significant savings over the course of the year by doing this. And, with little downside – at least for some folks. I wrote about this topic in a prior post where the question of how much to spend on a haircut was asked.

5) Spending less on “things”, while valuing “experiences” more

Again, I don’t think I’ve ever been excessively materialistic. But whatever level of materialism I did have has surely been toned down quite a bit over the years.

Time with family is absolutely at the top of the list, and enjoying time with friends is important as well. Besides that, there are other activities that are prioritized too. I’m realizing that life is short, and what really makes it great are experiences as opposed to “stuff”.

Does this mean one has to live a boring life? No, absolutely not! I think it’s a matter of priorities and reframing things a bit. This might be different for everyone, but for me this means:

  • Making sure needs are taken care of before wants
  • Valuing peace of mind
  • Prioritizing people over material things
  • Realizing that people don’t need to spend tons of money to have lots of fun

My Questions for You

What are your thoughts about these 5 ways to spend less?

Have you noticed spending priorities change for you?

How to Manage the Temptation to Buy Something on Sale

temptation to buyEvery now and then, many of us like to bargain hunt. Sometimes, when presented with an opportunity to buy something for a really low price, the temptation to buy can be overwhelming. Even if we don’t truly need the item, or it’s not a smart purchase overall, we jump all over it.

Yep, the allure of getting a deal can sometimes get the better of us!

I saw this in practice at the grocery store recently, where some guy was getting caught up in buying clearance items in the frozen foods section. Yes, it was food that was actually marked down big time.

In this case, there was a “clearance” area where an entire freezer section was devoted to items that the store had at very reduced prices. Taking a closer look, there were some frozen meals that were on sale for as little as 50 cents! In this day and age, one could apparently buy a meal for that little money.

So this guy was loading up his grocery cart with these meals. There must have been at least 20 in his cart, and he just had this look of excitement about him. I could tell he was thinking something along the lines of “WOW! I’m probably saving $1 per meal right here, and I could eat 3 meals for the price of one at these bargain prices. I’ve got to buy as many as I can…this is awesome!”

Frankly, I can totally appreciate that thinking. There is something exciting about getting a great deal, and it’s a first-reaction weakness that I have had at times too.

But the thing is, I’ve learned that deals are better when they are involving things that you actually want to buy and would otherwise normally buy.

For example, many of those frozen meals are not the most nutritious of items, and quite often have sodium levels that greatly exceed what would be found in more freshly prepared food at home. Not to mention other aspects of the nutritional profile. You can’t get something for nothing!

So, would this guy ordinarily buy these meals, and he was just saving on something he would normally buy? Or, would he normally shop for something different (and healthier), but simply became captivated by the deals he saw at the store?

Who knows, but I’m guessing that there was a little bit of infatuation he had by the extreme deals. At that price, people can be persuaded to buy something they don’t need, or maybe even something that isn’t a good choice. All in the name of scoring a deal.

I’m certainly not perfect, and have made those decisions too. Been there, done that. But this was a good reminder that we should always stop and think before getting caught up in purchasing something just because it’s at a deep discount.

We can ask questions such as:

  • Would I normally buy this?
  • If not, is it a really sensible substitute for something I normally buy?
  • Will I actually use this, or is it something I’m only buying because it’s at deep discount?
  • Is this something that will actually benefit me?

This can apply to a variety of situations, beyond just the food example. Perhaps it could involve a new pair of shoes that look nice and are on sale. They may look nice, but at some point we have to ask ourselves how many shoes do we need? It can also apply to clothing, technology, an upscale car (here is an example of someone rationalizing buying an expensive car), and many other things.

If the potential purchase is a great deal but doesn’t really fit with the above questions, then it’s incremental spending. Then, the deal actually turns into money that could have been used for paying down debt, saving for retirement, or even progressing toward financial freedom.

Okay, maybe I’m getting a bit dramatic with the opportunity costs. But the bottom line is that spending money on things that are a great deal may or may not be worth it, and it just might be good to pause and ask ourselves a few questions first before parting with our hard-earned money!

My Questions for You

Do you ever get tempted to buy things because they’re on sale, or seem like a great deal?

How do you manage the temptation to buy in these situations?