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Does Saving Money Save You Money?

Clearance Deal of the DayCould not live without!  (never used)

 

When you read a blog about saving money, you already possess the most important aspect needed, proper mindset.  Financial awareness is a key component in saving money over the long term.  It’s very easy to think that saving a dollar here or there is no big deal.  For instance, I always use those credit cards which give me the highest return on every purchase.  I have an American Express Blue Cash Preferred card that gives 6% cashback at the grocery and I will use it every single time.  My wife on the other hand will go to the grocery store and just grab any card available.  Her rationale is that if she is only spending $20, that card would only save $1.20 so it’s no big deal.  However, every trip to the gas station, grocery store, or other retail establishment offers a chance to save.  The way I see it is that if I’m going to be making the purchase either way, why not put it on a credit card that will reward me for that purchase?  Why use cash when I can pay with a credit card and get an instant discount a discount that comes after I shop for the best prices and use cashback portals!

The biggest problem for many of us comes from trying to save significant amounts of money by purchasing things we otherwise do not need.  The “Extreme Couponing” craze is one such example of this as those people who follow these methods clip every coupon every week.  If I can buy a can of beets for 10 cents each why not do it?  Because nobody likes beets, they’re garbage, they taste gross and you just wasted your money! This is the opposite of not using your discount when the amounts are small.  You use the discount on items that are deeply discounted, but do they offer a value to you?  If you were some kind of masochist with a beet addiction 100 cans of beets is a fantastic deal and likely saved you about $100, but if you are a normal human being then you probably would have been better off burning the $10 you spent.

This phenomenon is not only present in the extreme couponing circuit.  In fact, every trip to Target provides an opportunity for those demons lurking on the endcaps to claw at your soul.  As you walk the perimeter of the store you see the red homing beacon that are the red clearance stickers.  They sing to you from the cream colored shelves like Sirens in the Tyrrhenian Sea.  Powerless over the possibility of saving tremendous amounts of money you are pulled into their orbit.  Assuming you are not currently reading this while at Target, let’s speak rationally about these fine deals.  Clearance items are only a deal if these are things you would normally buy anyway.  If you have been looking for a bedding set, and had decided on one that was $300 and you find one on clearance for $50 this is a superb deal.  By contrast if you are walking down the aisle and see 80% off a camo beer coozy that says , “My neck may be red, but I’m well read” don’t buy it.  Actually, you’re probably getting this ironically, you can go ahead and get that.  The point is that these items that are “only a dollar” really tend to add up over the course of the year.  In fact these can add up far faster than the “only a dollar” rewards my wife loses when she fails to use the right credit card.

It’s far too easy to base your savings off the MSRP rather than what you truly value an item to be worth.  A better exercise would be to look at these clearance items and ask, “Do I need it? Do I really want it? Would I buy it anyway?  What is it worth to me?”.  So if you walk past the endcap and sunscreen is on sale at 75% off go ahead and pick some up because you probably need it and if you don’t buy it now you will buy some day.  If you walk past the aisle and there is something you have always wanted, but price has kept you from buying it then I think this is a fair purchase.  The Suze Ormans of the world would disagree and advise you to only buy absolute necessities,  fund your emergency savings, fully fund all retirement accounts and then with anything leftover spend money on your wants.  My opinion on this is that sometimes you need to spend some money on the things you want.  So if there is a lamp or shirt you think looks great buy it.

The problem with these deep discounts is that we often go overboard on these clearance items.  In the haze of getting a great deal we often make purchases of things that we do not need or even really want.  As I am composing this my wife came in the door with 3 big bags from Target.  She purchased an $18 lifejacket for $5.38, not a bad deal since our kids will need a lifejacket next year and if she did not make the purchase on clearance we would have paid closer to 20.  However, she also purchased a rug which was on sale for $7.50, she wanted a rug, but I have a feeling that all things equal she never would have bought this style.

My wife happened to be the person who peaked my interest on this topic.  She said, “I used to never look for sales and just buy things I wanted.  I think that I spent less back then than I do now.”  Her hypothesis was that when you go into a store and do not look at prices (but have limited funds) you only purchase things you really want.  Both of us have been guilty of going to Target and buying multiple items, especially clothing, which were on sale.  When my beautiful wife last cleaned out her closet there were multiple items new with tags.  Just as bad there were countless items that she wore only once.  She is not the only one guilty of this either.  I have gone into the store at certain times of the year and bought 5 pair of shorts, but only ended up wearing 3 of the pairs and only a couple times.  Once it’s time to wear them again I’ve undoubtedly gained or lost weight making them useless.

Rather than buying multiples of things you like a little, buying one thing that you really love can be a better deal.  At the beginning of the summer I bought one pair of golf shorts for regular price, but only bought one pair.  I wore these shorts a couple times per week all summer long.  At the end of the year they were 50% off so naturally I bought 5 pairs!  Yet I have worn each pair only once.  One pair is still in my closet untagged.  Basically I spent $20 and wore the shorts 30 times (60 cents per wear), but spent $50 on the discounted shorts and worn those only 5 times ($10 per wear).  So even though my closet looks better with more choices, I’ve likely wasted money overall.  Of course the best option would have been to buy only 1 or 2 pair on clearance and then wear them and I’m saving money.  The problem with clearance deals is they usually don’t work like that.  You end up overspending on things that you don’t need because you feel like you’re saving money.  Unless we think about this consciously we are all subject to doing it.  Which brings me to the question, does anyone want to buy a case of corn on the cob holders?  Accidentally bought too many.  Asking for a friend.

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How We Bought 4 Plane Tickets, 7 Nights Hotel and 7 Nights SUV Rental for $40

Anyone who has read previous entries to this blog knows that two of my favorite things to do are spending time with my family and getting good value. This year for our fall trip we decided to, once again, fly to California. This is usually a trip that would be beyond our grasps financially due to the immense expenses involved with flying across the country. To make this trip a reality I relied on various points and miles programs offered by hotels.

IMG_3710

 

Itinerary

 

The trip included flying into San Francisco then looping around to Yosemite National Park, Sequoia National Park, Monterey and back to San Francisco. This itinerary required 4 round-trip tickets from Louisville to San Francisco, 7 day SUV Rental and 7 nights of lodging. The total cost for only these expenditures would have been $3,256. If you were pricing this out you probably could have searched for better deals and alternate lodging, but the prices I included were for the exact same flights, rental car and hotels that we used. This MSRP value assumes that you just booked the going rates without using other discounts. If you are not interested in the details of each portion of the itinerary scroll to the conclusion section where I will outline all the details including points used and the price without points.

 

Flight

 

We flew Southwest using Rapid Rewards Points, which are tied to the actual cost of the flights. Therefore when flying Southwest whether purchasing tickets with cash or using points it is extremely important to purchase tickets at the lowest fare (which also means the lowest points). Since our youngest child is 25 months old he is over 2 years old his ticket costs the same as an adult fare. This required us to purchase 4 tickets. As soon as the month of October opened up for booking I started checking Southwest on a weekly basis (at least). They offer new sales every Tuesday, some sales are great and some sales are pretty weak. The great thing about Southwest is that there is no fee to cancel your flights, so if you book at one price and the next sale is better you can cancel those tickets and book again.

 

In June the price of tickets round-trip dropped to $350 each (plus $10 for taxes and fees). If I had not prepared for this then the cost for tickets alone would have been $1,400 (plus $40 for taxes and fees). Since I qualified for the Companion Pass, any ticket that I book on Southwest allows me to add a companion to travel with me free of charge. Anyone reading this who has the companion pass, but not enough points to book tickets that way would have paid $1,050 for the tickets (plus $40 for taxes and fees). Since we had the Companion Pass and enough Rapid Reward Points I was able to book this flight for 61,734 points. Alternatively Chase Ultimate Reward Points transfer to Southwest at a 1:1 ratio meaning I could have transferred as many points as I needed from Chase Ultimate Rewards with no cost.

 

Car Rental

 

Since our itinerary required a great deal of driving renting a car was a necessity. Since we have a stroller and a few bags I decided to go with an SUV for this trip. I used carrentalsavers.com to look up rates and found that Alamo offered the most value. I then went to my Chase Ultimate Rewards account to book through them as they offer a “pay with points” option which gives these points a value of 1.25 cents per point.

 

We rented a 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee which would have cost $433.68 for 7 days booking directly through Alamo after taxes and fees were applied to the total. In lieu of this I was able to book the week using Chase Ultimate Reward points. The total was 20,696 Chase Ultimate Reward Points which actually ended up getting me 2.1 cents per point. To put this into perspective my wife and I both got 25,000 Chase Ultimate Reward points when we signed up for the Chase Freedom card which has no annual fee. So that amounts to about $500 worth of signing bonus for each card.

 

If you are considering this particular itinerary keep in mind that we drove the rental car over 1,000 miles. We spent $152 on fuel that we paid for using point earning cards, but did not pay with actual points.

 

Hotels

 

When creating an itinerary involving multiple destinations the hotel accommodations are the most difficult and arguably the most important of the trip. Using Google Maps I plotted out the trip to the best of my ability. We arrived in San Francisco, saw some sights in the city and headed toward Yosemite. I found that the Modesto and Turlock area was about half way between these two locations. Finding lodging near a national park is very difficult and you pay dearly for the location and often give up a lot in quality of hotel (unless you pay much more). I decided that Comfort Suites worked well for our night in Turlock. We booked a double Queen suite which had two queen beds and a pullout couch. This room was one of the bigger hotel rooms that we have stayed in and it was very nice. The normal cash cost for this room was $139 plus tax per night. It cost us 16,000 choice hotel points. If you sign up for the Choice Hotels Visa you get a 32,000 point signing bonus which would cover 2 nights.

SimplisticSaving.com Comfort Suites Turlock

 

After visiting Yosemite we made our way toward Fresno which is almost directly between Yosemite and Sequoias. Our plan was to have 2 nights in Fresno, one night between Yosemite and Sequoias and another night spent after our day in the Sequoia National Park. Using Club Carlson Reward Points we were able to stay in a Country Inn & Suites which worked out quite nicely because when you have the Club Carlson credit card you get your last night free on a stay of 2 or more nights. Obviously there is more value if you only stay two nights. Normally a room costs $92.50 per night or 15,000 Club Carlson points. Since we have the Club Carlson Visa we used 15,000 points for 2 nights which is 7,500 points per night.

 

After our second night in Fresno we headed to Monterey. This is the only portion of the trip that I did not book in advance. We could have stayed using points for the night, but instead we opted to use Hotel Tonight. Hotel Tonight found us the Best Western Plus in Monterey which is directly on the beach. The normal cost for this is $160 per night plus $18 per night parking. On hotel tonight it was $132 plus $18 parking. A total of $150 for the night. Using American Express Membership Reward Points to wipe out this charge cost 22,000 points.

SimplisticSaving.com 17 Mile Drive Monterey17 Mile Drive in Monterey, CA

 

After our day in Monterey we traveled back to San Francisco. I decided that stopping halfway between Monterey and San Francisco would not only be more economical, but it would allow for us to get to the hotel a bit earlier and relax. We stopped in Silicon Valley at the Four Points by Sheraton – San Jose. This hotel usually runs $180 per night, but I was able to book a room for 4,000 SPG points. My wife and I both have an SPG Credit Card which awarded us a bonus of 25,000 points for signing up. This offered a great value. Although this was a lower category hotel for the chain it was still beautiful. Starwoods Hotels include W, Westin, Sheraton and many high end brands.

SimplisticSaving.com Four Points Sheraton Lobby

Picture of the Four Points by Sheraton Lobby

 

Our final stay was for 2 nights in San Francisco. We stayed at the Radisson in the middle of Fisherman’s Wharf. The location was superb and the hotel was updated in 2012. We were very impressed with the accommodations. The normal rate at this location is $299 per night and parking is an additional $50 per night. Like Country Inn & Suites, Radisson is also part of Club Carlson and we were able to use 50,000 Club Carlson Reward Points for this stay. The normal charge for points is 50,000 points per night, but having the Club Carlson Visa allows your last night of a 2 night (or longer) stay to be free. Along with this huge benefit you are given Gold Elite status which we found very beneficial at this hotel. When we arrived at check-in they told me that as a VIP member my room had been upgraded free of charge to a balcony room on the top floor. As a Gold Elite member they also waived the $50 per night parking charge. When we arrived in our room there was a “welcome gift” of a bag of kettle corn waiting for us in the room. Attached to the gift was a card thanking us for choosing to stay at their hotel for our trip. My children and I went to the pool while my wife got comfortable in the room. Someone stopped by the room during that time to bring us extra towels and a couple bottles of water to welcome their “VIPs”. The sign up bonus for the Club Carlson Card is 85,000 points, plus you get the last night booked with points free and are automatically upgraded to Gold Elite status. On this stay alone we used 50,000 points, but managed to save $299 per night on the hotel, plus $50 each night on parking. So for this stay 50,000 points equaled over $700 in value! That’s not even considering the free upgrade to the balcony room closest to the bay with a tremendous view of Alcatraz.

 

IMG_5123                                                                                                                    Actual Unobstructed View From Radisson Balcony – Blue Angels Flying Over Alcatraz

 

Conclusion

 

All told we received $3,256 in value but paid only $40 for flight, lodging and SUV rental. I put a valuation of dollar per point received. Many of these calculations depend on how they are used. For instance, American Express Membership Reward points used for this stay were worth less than a penny each, but can be used much more beneficially when transferred to another program. SPG points were worth 4.5 cents each used at this particular location. The value of hotel points can be a bit skewed because if I had not had hotel points I would not pay $180 or $350 per night for a hotel room. I would probably sacrifice a bit of quality for a lower price. However, using points allows the user to splurge and afford things that normally would have been out of reach.

 

Retail Price                   Actual Paid               Points                $/Point

 

Southwest – Louisville to San Francisco                                          $1,440                                $40                61,734                   .023

Southwest Rapid Rewards

 

Alamo Mid-Size SUV Rental (7 Days)                                                 $434                                  0                  20,696                   .021

Chase Ultimate Rewards

 

Choice Hotels- Comfort Suites Turlock                                             $139                                   0                  16,000                   .009

Choice Priveleges

 

Country Inn Fresno (2 Nights)                                                           $185                                   0                 15,000                    .012

Club Carlson Rewards

 

Best Western Plus Monterey Beach Resort                                    $178                                   0                  22,000                   .008

American Express Membership Rewards

 

Four Points by Sheraton – San Jose                                                $180                                 0                    4,000                    .045

Starwoods Preferred Guest

 

Radisson Fisherman’s Wharf                                                         $700                                  0                   50,000                   .014

Club Carlson Rewards

 

Total

$3,256                             $40                   189,430                   .017

 

 

 

 

 

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How we did our California Vacation on a Budget (across the country)

Flight

In June of this year planning commenced on a 6 day fall vacation.  We had initially planned to fly from Louisville, KY to Orlando, FL, but Southwest had a special sale for flights into San Diego for the same price.  Since we had never been to California we decided that a California Vacation would be the best choice for us.  I purchased the plane tickets using points earned from signing up for Southwest Airlines.  I booked a flight for daughter and me, which cost about 36,000 points total.  At the time of booking I had only earned 105,000 Southwest points and had not yet earned my “Companion Pass“.  Once I earned the additional 5,000 points to reach 110,000 I earned my companion pass and simply clicked on my flight to “Add a Companion”.  At this point my wife was added to the itinerary.  Total out of pocket for our cross country flight was $15 round trip.

Car Rental

I knew we would need a car to get around California.  I wanted to rent a vehicle that would be big enough to accommodate our car seats and luggage.  With these options in mind we decided to get an SUV, although my wife was really pushing for a convertible.  I searched online coupon codes and used CarRentalSavers.com .  I found this website to be the best because it included the best coupon codes.  I looked at many different sites and found this one to be at least $30 cheaper for the week. Other sites may have been comparable or even cheaper if we had a normal rental, but ours was one way.  This meant we picked up the car in San Diego and dropped off our car in Santa Ana as we flew out of John Wayne Airport.  The car included unlimited miles and was a very nice car.  We had no trouble at Alamo and even used the kiosk when picking up the car, which allowed us to forgo getting hassled about all of the extra insurance and other upsells.

Lodging

IMG_6042First Hotel 

Obviously we needed to find a place to stay each night of the trip.  Since we were staying 3 days in San Diego, 1 day in Anaheim, 1 day in LA and 1 night near our departing airport a condo or house were out of the question.  Finding an area in San Diego for our home base was not a problem at all.  We stayed near La Jolla and Torrey Pines as it provided better prices, access to La Jolla and was only a 20 minuted drive back to San DIego Zoo.  We knew we needed a hotel close to Disneyland in Anaheim so that was not much of a problem either.  Our day in LA proved to be a bit more difficult because the city is so big and traffic is not great to drive through.  I ended up booking a place that was vouched for by my cousin.  It was near Burbank, supposedly close to Universal Studios, but actually ended up closer to North Hollywood.  The last night we stayed in Huntington Beach which was a quick 15 minute drive back to the airport.

IMG_6696View from Country Inn Room

We stayed at a Country Inn and Suites in San Diego which I highly recommend.  It was in a beautiful location with a nice view of the mountains out our window every morning.  They also had an excellent breakfast which really worked well to save us money on food as one meal was included in the price of our stay.  Most travel blogs emphasize staying in really expensive hotels.  One of my problems with sites such as Priceline is that their rating system puts no value on free breakfast.  I strongly disagree with this valuation because if we were to go out for breakfast and get eggs, waffles, sausage, juice, yogurt and milk it would end up costing us at least $20.  Sure we could go to a fast food place and the 4 of us could eat for less, but it would be far less substantial.  We ate breakfast in our hotel 5 out of 6 days.  The last day we had to be at the airport before breakfast was served.  We ended up buying breakfast at Carl’s Jr. and it cost $9 and that was just for my wife and daughter.  My daughter was complaining that she was hungry 2 hours later.

In Anaheim, our hotel was literally across the street from Disneyland.  Probably 5 blocks if we walked, but since our Disneyland tickets included parking we just drove to the lot.  This ended up being a great idea since by 11:00 PM Pacific Time both kids were passed out.  Which would have made the extra 5 blocks perilous.  I booked our room through getaroom.com which advertised a rate $20 less than booking through the hotel itself.  Unfortunately they add taxes and unnamed fees which put the total at only $2 less than booking directly with the hotel.  I did book through TopCashBack.com which earned me 10% cashback on the stay, which was pretty nice.  The hotel was the Best Western Plus Stovall Inn, which had very nice updated rooms, but they also charged $10 for parking.  The breakfast there was acceptable, but there were so many people that the staff couldn’t really keep up even with the large dining area.

Best Western Stovall's INN Pool Area

Our 5th night was spent in a Comfort Inn near Universal Studios.  The area was in North Hollywood, which is a bit grittier than we would like.  My daughter looked out the window of our room and asked, “Why would they build a hotel here with this terrible view?”  The view out the window was a local mechanic shop, so we did have an excellent view of oil changes.  This room was also recently updated and seemed clean.  It’s not exactly a hotel I would rave about, but for the price and a place to sleep it was okay.  The breakfast area was very nice and clean.  They had cheese omelets, juice, sausage and typical hotel breakfast items.

Our 6th night took us back south to another Comfort Inn in Huntington Beach about 10 miles from the airport.  It was updated, nice and looked (and smelled) very clean on arrival.  The area is also very nice just a few miles from the ocean.

Activities

Many of the activities that we did on the trip were very low cost or even free.  Walking along La Jolla in San Diego was not only free, but it was among our favorite parts of the trip.  The seals on the beach were amazing to see and the views were breathtaking.

IMG_6124

The San Diego Zoo is how Disney would do a zoo.  I know, you are thinking, Disney basically did a zoo, it’s called Animal Kingdom.  Having been to both the San Diego Zoo and Animal Kingdom I believe San Diego Zoo is superior.  That being said, I’m sure that Animal Kingdom will be pretty great in their 97th year as well.  There was something to see every step of the zoo.  Whether it was an animal exhibit or just the assortment of botanicals.  If you enjoy zoos it is definitely worth seeing.

We also visited Torrey Pines State Reserve which offers a beach and beautiful overlooks.  We paid $15 for parking and that was it.  The only problem is for some reason the restrooms and water were all turned off.  This is problematic when you play in the ashy sands of the Pacific and need to get back into your car.

 

We decided to go to Disneyland on Tuesday for “Mickey’s Halloween Party”, it’s a special event that is ticketed separately from the rest of the park.  Disneyland closed on Tuesday at 6PM and Mickey’s Halloween Party took place from 6-11, but you could enter at 3.  We arrived at the park at 3 and enjoyed it immensely.  Instead of the normal price of admission Mickey’s Halloween Party only costs $59 per person.  They only sell a certain amount of tickets, you can trick or treat throughout the park and most attractions are still open.  There were characters out in full force even when we were leaving.  More things for guests to do means that any one line will be shorter.

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In LA we went to the Getty Center, which is fantastic.  It’s a billion dollar art museum that opened in 1997.  The museum was free which I did not know going into it.  Parking is $15, but that is definitely a bargain price even if you were going by yourself.  It’s not exactly the most entertaining for small children as it is not a hands on science museum.  If my wife and I had gone alone we could have spent nearly the entire day touring the massive collections, but with our kids a few hours was ample.  Just seeing the building itself was worth it to me.

We went to Hollywood to check out the sights and typical tourist type things.  We paid $7 to park at the Hollywood and Highlands Center.  It is a very ornate shopping center built around its view of “The Hollywood Sign”.  My daughter wanted to see Hollywood, hoping she would be discovered.  She looked at the sign for about 30 seconds and said, “cooool” then was ready to see the next thing.  We followed the Hollywood walk of fame.  Saw that TCL Chinese Theater and had fun comparing our hands to the stars.  My daughter was a bit disappointed because she wanted to have her footprints and handprints immortalized in the cement, but alas that will have to wait.  I guess seeing Hollywood is worth the $7 parking charge, but otherwise the experience was ruined by the vendors, celebrity impersonators and people in cheap costumes hoping to hustle tourists out of money.

Huntington Beach was a nice way to end our trip watching the sunset over the Pacific Ocean.  They charged $15 for parking, but only $13.50 if you used a credit card.  Since I was going to use a card anyway this worked out perfectly.  The beach was huge over 100 yard from the parking lot to the ocean.  We were also basically alone on the beach which was nice for pictures.

Food

One way we save money on a trip is to minimize our food costs. When we arrived in California we were expected to be absolutely blown away by the prices for food.  I fully expected that if I went into a Subway asking for a $5 footlong they would oblige me with, “Okay sir, that’s one $5 footlong, that will be $28.75.”  This was not even close to reality.  The first night we went to a nice Mexican restaurant that was having huge frozen Margaritas, 5 flavors to choose from for $3 each.  We ordered a margarita, beef nachos, pepsi, and 10 tacos and paid $19 plus a $6 tip.  $25 is cheaper than we eat at the Mexican restaurants in Kentucky.

We try to eat breakfast in our hotel which saves an immense amount of money.  If we had stayed in a condo or rented a house we would have tried to prepare meals at home which would provide huge savings.  Ultimately though, my wife and I value food in much the same way.  I fell like food only gets so good.  Meaning that a $100 meal is not 4 times better than a $25 meal.  We have gone out to very expensive restaurants, but usually feel that they could not live up to expectations.  We might splurge for a meal or two on vacation, but for the most part we try to keep our spending in line with what we spend on food normally.

Total Spent

Flight (3 paid tickets and 1 lap child)                               $30

SUV Rental                                                                      $287

Gas                                                                                  $86.37

Travel Total                                                                  $403.37                                 AVG. $67.23 per day

Food Total                                                                    $166.40                                 AVG. $27.73 per day

San Diego Zoo (2 adults, drink, child free October)     $116.30

Disneyland (3 tickets)                                                   $177

Getty Center                                                                  $15

Torrey Pines                                                                  $15

Hollywood                                                                       $7

Huntington Beach                                                          $13.50

Total Activities                                                             $343.80             AVG.  $57.30 per day

Country Inn & Suites (3 nights)                                      $236.40          The best hotel we stayed in, great staff, great pool, great breakfast.  (78.80 per night using discount, normally $105 +tax)

Best Western Stovall’s Inn (1 night)                              $133.43           Paid for the area near Disney.  Nice Rooms, Awesome pool and topiary area, Adequate Breakfast.  ($10 parking, worst value)

Comfort Inn Universal Area                                            $110.88           Nice room, good breakfast, terrible parking lot, not a very nice area

Comfort Inn Huntington Beach                                       $61.94            Great room, very clean, did not eat breakfast (left too early).  Best value.

Total Lodging                                                                $542.65              AVG.  $90.44 per day

Total Miscellaneous                                                     $66                     AVG.  $11 per day

Trip Total                                                                        $1,522.22          AVG.  $253.70 per day

We could have done the trip for cheaper, but we would have sacrificed some things.  We could have gotten a smaller car and saved a hundred dollars or so.  Driving less miles or having a fuel efficient vehicle could have saved gas.  We could have saved more money by only buying tickets at the zoo ($88), but I am not going to avoid spending at the cost of fun.  We had also budgeted to go to Sea World, but we were enjoying San Diego too much to sacrifice a day doing that.  All around there’s not too much I would change.  Although the Best Western and Comfort Inn were both pricier than I would like and neither was as good as the Country Inn and Suites or the Comfort Inn in Huntington Beach, both about half the price of the Best Western.

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Philosophy on value? Pay the Least Anyone has Paid.

I recently overheard a salesman tell a potential customer that for their budget they needed to lower their expectations.  This kind of mentality drives me absolutely crazy.  Obviously there are situations where people have champagne tastes on a beer budget.  In these cases it’s absolutely reasonable to lower expectations to be more aligned with your budget.  For instance, if I go to a car dealership and expect to get a brand new BMW for the same price as a used KIA, then I probably need to adjust my expectations with reality.  Usually though, if you do your research, you will realize that there is always a better deal to be found.

The couple that I observed were looking for the biggest television that they could get for their money.  From what I gathered they had about $1,000 to spend and did not want an off brand television, they also wanted an LED.  The salesman basically told them that the biggest they could get was a 50 inch.  They seemed to listen to him, but were disappointed.  He presented, as fact, that they either needed to lower expectations or raise their budget.  I knew from personal experience that this was just a blatant lie.  I just purchased a 60 inch LED television for $847 after taxes and everything.  I have seen cheaper televisions this size, but my goal was to maximize value.  On that particular day the salesman was not lying to the couple as there were no great deals going on, but the point is that the better deal will come to those who wait.

It’s easy to just assume that you could sacrifice quality at the expense of value, but this is a false choice to make.  If I go to the grocery store today and bananas are $1.90 a pound unless I cannot wait another moment to buy bananas I will forgo them because I know the price will fall.  The grocer will not come over and say, have you thought about dry beans instead?  I know what I want and I know what price I want to pay.  I will buy bananas at 38 or 48 cents a pound, but even at 58 cents per pound they are not out of the question.  I think the same holds true to many purchases.  If I am looking for a vehicle and want to spend $8,000 and find a used Honda Pilot that books for $14,000 on sale for $9,000 I will still consider this car even though it is 25% over my budget because that extra $1,000 will get me an extra $5,000 in value.  In this example I am making the assumption that the car is really worth 14k, but the seller is motivated.  My point in this exercise though is that even with a budget number in mind it’s good to stay flexible.

When I research prices for an item, my goal is to find a good price and then buy the item for a great price.  If I am looking at a TV I do not want to compromise, but I want the item I want cheaper.  Basically, I want to buy any item at the cheapest price anyone else might have paid.  It’s not that I think I am special, but I do think that if a company can sell a product to one customer at a certain price, and make a profit, then why shouldn’t I get it at the same price?

This is true of products where I use the MSRP and average price as a guide, but will research to find a better price.  Then I try to adjust my expectations accordingly and take advantage of sales.  This is especially true of hotel rooms and car rentals.  My wife and I stayed in a hotwire low priced hotel one night for 40 bucks.  We were not completely satisfied, but for the minimal price it was hard to complain too much.  The next morning at breakfast I overheard another couple saying that they had paid $90 per night and to extend another day would be $105.  This made me a bit angry.  I was certainly glad I scored the hotel room for such a low rate, but if I had been the person paying $90 and a guy next to me paid $50 I would be livid.  I actually let the guy know that if he booked on hotwire he could get the same hotel for $40 and he did just that.  The point I am trying to make is that a better price may be available and it may not even be too difficult to find.  It’s not that I am cheap, but I absolutely want to maximize value in every dollar I spend.

I look at it as a value ratio that would be measured by a simple formula of quality / dollar.  I want to get the most quality, taste, or value per dollar that I spend.  When I buy a car I want to get the best car that I can buy for the money.  When I buy a house I want to get the best $ per square foot, without skimping too much on fixtures.  If I can get a plane ticket for $150 roundtrip why would I pay $300 for the same trip?  These are all adjustable expectations and some are clearer than others, but the point remains that I want to stretch every dollar that I spend. I’ll spend a little more for a little more quality and sacrifice a little quality if it can save me a lot of money.  Overall, these are decisions that every individual makes, but if you are mindful of value maximization you are better off in the long run.

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Picking the Perfect Hotel

If I ask you to imagine the perfect hotel your mind probably conjures up images of grand chandeliers, baby grand pianos and beauties feeding you grapes on the plush mattress of a hand carved canopy bed.  Out the window a beautiful sunset begins to crest over the horizon of an unobstructed ocean view.  The salty air touching your skin only briefly before being dabbed away from the damp, cool, mango scented towel.  This sort of fantasy, multiple room palace probably exists for a price.

If I were to ask you to imagine the cheapest hotel what do you see?  Flicking on the light switch, causes the roach herds to scurry toward cover in the putrid motel room.  You pull back the sheets, which audibly crunch from whatever has hardened to their surface.  Through the fitted sheet you can see the stains on the mattress, although their origin is unknown, the evidence manifested clearly lead you to believe these are bodily fluids of some kind.  This kind of hotel certainly exists and the psycho running it would gladly accept your money.

When searching for a hotel I try to find some definite middle ground in these establishments.  I do not need to check into a pretentious establishment where I am expected to tip every person substantially for doing unnecessary tasks.  I am certain that if I lugged the bags of my entire family through the airport I’ll be fine taking them the next 50 yards or so.  I do not need people looking down at me for staying in their hotel.  At the same time I do have certain expectations in a hotel.  I want a nice, clean place where I can lay my head every night.  I will likely not spend much time in the hotel anyway.  Basically for my family a hotel is a place to store our things, take our showers and sleep until the next day.  So as long as the place is clean, quiet and comfortable I am fine.  All other things beyond that are luxuries.  Although having been updated in this millennium is a nice plus.  If your hotel is still rocking a big tube TV I am going to be a bit put off.

Keeping this criteria in mind I try to find the most affordable option, but I try to keep away from the lowest price option.  The last time I went with the lowest price option in an area was a few months ago.  I booked a room in a Howard Johnson, that was supposed to be a 3 star (out of 5).  It was a Hotwire hidden deal and cost about $40, which was very affordable for a 3 star hotel.  I arrived at the hotel and there was a very sketchy looking couple at the counter.  There was an old white Gateway Desktop in the lobby with a line 6 people deep waiting to use the computer.  The “couple” at the counter turned out to be two guys and a girl (sans teeth) who were fine with just one King bed.  I felt like I needed to shield my daughter’s eyes.  Walking through the hall I really felt like I was surrounded by shady characters.  This is not to say that money equals class by any stretch.  However, when you book the cheapest hotel in the area, it’s also the cheapest hotel for everyone else in the area.  So the guys scoring a three way with a tweaker are also booking that cheap room next door to your family.

I try to pick a moderate priced hotel with great reviews.  If possible I try to get a 4 star hotel at a lower price using a site like Priceline or Hotwire.  The problem with this method is that I have personally found that Priceline inflates the rating on some of their hotels.  So you may book a 4 star hotel for $50 and be pumped, but then when the hotel is revealed it is an old Howard Johnson that might generously be awarded 2 stars.  So you think you’re getting a room in a Hyatt or W and you are getting an overrated Ho Jo.  There are websites that exist to help make better decisions on hotels and reveal which hotels are available in an area at the particular star rating that you seek.

Over the next week I will be sharing more information about the hotels I decide to book for our upcoming trip and I will likely give a review of whatever hotel is lucky enough to be chosen by me.

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Now until December 31, 2014 any Flight Booked on Southwest is Buy One Get One Free!

You read the title correctly folks, for the next 16 months any flight that I book on Southwest will include a free ticket for my wife!  Unfortunately, this does not apply to everyone, but only applies to very valuable customers such as myself.  As I have tried to make clear throughout every post of this blog, I am not particularly affluent.  I do enjoy traveling, but the fact is that I have not been on an airplane in about 8 years and my wife has never flown.  This makes having the ability to fly so inexpensively even more exciting for me.  Yesterday, I signed into my Rapid Rewards account and found the following:

Southwest Companion Pass Earned

 

As the above photo states there are two ways to earn a “Companion Pass”.  Method A, requires making 100 “qualifying flights” during one calendar year.  As I have already stated, I have made 0 flights in over 8 years.  The other method is slightly more attainable.  Method B, requires you to earn 110,000 rapid reward points over the course of one calendar year.  That is the one I did.  As you can see above, I have accrued 110,519 points.

 

How did I do it?

Obviously that sounds like a ton of points and it is, but there are definitely some shortcuts to take to get you there quickly.  The first thing that I did was sign up for two Southwest Credit Cards, each one had a 50,000 point bonus.  After meeting the $2,000 spending I had 104,000 points in my account!  Gathering the next 6,000 was not quite as easy.  I continued to use my credit cards to gather points at a rate of 1 point per dollar spent.  This earned me 2,116 additional points (I would have much rather signed up for another credit card and received a nice bonus).  I also used the Southwest shopping portal this earned me 303 extra points.  I could have really maximized this method, but it seemed that I always waited too long when a great reward came along.  Some of the best included 9 points per dollar at Staples and 6 points per dollar at sears.  I was going to buy a TV from Sears and that would have earned me the 6,000 points no problem.  I messed around waiting for a big reward total and then feared I would miss getting the pass in time for my flight.  Although transfering points from Chase Ultimate Rewards do not count toward the pass, transfers from Hyatt do count.  I transferred 8,000 points from Chase to Hyatt, then those 8,000 points turned into 3,600 Southwest points.  Not a great ratio compared to Chase’s 1 to 1 ratio, but still earned my pass.

I booked my flight for October back in June when the prices got very low.  With the 110,000 points in the account I was able to book flights from Louisville, KY to San Diego, CA for 18,000 points round trip.  If my wife and I were the only two flying we could fly across the country for 18,000 points total.  We spent another 18,000 points for my daughter’s ticket, but it’s still pretty amazing that a family can fly across the country for 36,000 points especially when those points all came from signing up for a couple credit cards.  Each card had a $100 fee, so we will be able to take 3 round trip, cross country trips for $200 bucks.  If we leave the kids at home we would get even more value.

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How I earned 6% Cashback and 20 points per dollar on Spending this year

 

“Daddy, can we fly on a plane someday?” A simple question set forth by my daughter January of this year. As a father and husband I wanted nothing more than to book a flight to some beautiful destination at that moment. Unfortunately, in my capacity as the personal financial planner I am much less flexible. Absent a wealthy philanthropist deciding to sponsor our family sometimes we will not be afforded certain luxuries.

 

 

A few days later my brothers returned from a ski trip and my mother suggested that we take a big family ski vacation during Christmas Break. In the same way that my daughter’s idea to fly on a plane sounded fun, this also sounded great. However, my mind slipped back into the “how can I make this happen” mode. Obviously to even consider this kind of endeavor we would need to tighten our purse strings and save as much money as possible. We would need to purchase at least 3 plane tickets, which would cost at least $300 each. At this point I stumbled upon credit card offers that may help my family out.

 

 

I have been a long time user of a couple different cashback reward cards and feel that these are fantastic. The first card I signed up for was an American Express Blue Cash Preferred Card that would earn me $200 sign up bonus and 6% cashback on any grocery purchases. At this point I figured that I would buy gift cards from Kroger and use the extra $200 bonus to pay for these. This card also has a 0% intro rate for 12 months so it was nice. This card is very nice, but is only part of my overall spending strategy. It seemed that the more I looked into credit card offers the more benefits I found.

 

 

After that card I found the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card which has a 40,000 point signing bonus which can be used as a statement credit and be worth $400! I signed up for this card as well, met the spending and got the bonus points.

 

 

My biggest score of the year I will be writing in more detail about in a few days, but I was able to sign up for 2 Southwest credit cards. This netted me 106,000 points which are good toward about $1,908 worth of flights, but it actually gets better. When you earn 110,000 points in one year you earn a “Companion Pass”, this allows me the opportunity to bring a companion (my wife) along with me for free on any trip I book. Even if that flight is booked and paid with points. This effectively doubles the value of my points.

 

 

So far this year, as of 7/30/2013, my wife and I have racked up many miles, points and cashback. These have been earned through cashback portals and credit cards. In cashback alone we earned more than $775 in cashback. Even after paying the $75 annual fee on my AMEX we have earned over $700 cashback this year on our AMEX, Discover, Gas Reward Card and TopCashBack. We earned nearly 6 cents back on every dollar spent. We used this money to purchase a computer, which I built.

 

 

Even more amazing is our return on points and miles! We have earned over 400,000 miles! Even if you value these at only 1 penny each this means we have $4,000 worth of travel in our future. However, 235,000 of these miles can be used toward Southwest, which means they are worth about 1.8 cents per mile (doubled to 3.6 cents per mile with Companion Pass)! If we used all of these for flying Southwest we could get as much as $8,460 worth of travel on those 235,000 miles. Most of these points and miles came from bonuses and they all came from spending money normally. We earned nearly 20 points per dollar spent. That is like getting a 20% (or more) discount on everything we bought, even after finding the lowest prices.

 

 

In order to maximize our points per dollar spent we focus our credit card spending on those cards that provide the biggest payoff. I have a 6% Grocery Card, 5% Gas Card, 2 points per dollar on restaurant and travel. Even with these bigger returns my focus is on meeting spending limits on individual cards that offer big bonuses. If I need to spend $5,000 in 3 months to earn 60,000 points this is far more lucrative than the 5% or 6%. So if I am at the grocery and have not hit my $5,000 amount I will use the card with a spending goal rather than a 6% grocery card.

 

 

Using credit cards has been very lucrative for us this year and we look forward to taking many enjoyable trips at a deep discount. The use of credit cards inappropriately can be very dangerous. If you do not have the money to spend in cash, then using a credit card for spending is out of the question as well. We pay off our bills every month and have not paid any credit card fees over this amount of time. Also be sure to not bite off more than you can chew. For instance if you spend $1,000 a month normally do not sign up for cards that will require you to spend $4,000 each month in order to get the bonus.

 

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Never Pay Full Price When Better Deals Exist

How often have you seen a great deal offered, but you are ineligible because it’s for new customers only?  Many companies offer special deals to new customers while existing customers are left high and dry.  Obviously companies have an incentive to offer new customers better deals to get them in the door.  You are a paying customer already and they have already won your business.  If they can make hundreds or thousands of dollars on your business what could possibly make them consider cutting their income in half?  As a customer your biggest asset in a negotiation is your loyalty and ability to go elsewhere.  You should evaluate the money you spend and value each service based on its individual value to you.

Anyone who has read this blog before knows that my philosophy revolves around maximizing value.  I believe you do this by buying quality products and services at prices which are in line with your individual valuation.  This is an even better proposition when you can attain these things at below their value. Suze Orman will chastise her callers for making small expenses that they “can’t afford”.  I prefer to think about how this item fits into your lifestyle.  If it is something you will use often it is a better investment than something you use rarely.  The personal aspect of the valuation is important because no matter how inexpensive an item is it’s not worth it to you if you do not have a use for it.  If you do not own a TV, computer or smartphone then a subscription to Netflix would be a terrible investment, even thought I find $8 a month to be a great value. Other times services are nice to have, but only when the price is right.  A service that fits this criteria to me is Sirius XM satellite radio.  I am a subscriber, but would never pay full price because it’s not worth much more that $10 a month to me.

So how can I use the fact that I enjoy the Sirius XM service, but do not find value at full price?  First off, I know that there is no way that I would pay more than $20 per month for Sirius XM.  I purchased a radio last Christmas for $30 (currently $70 at Best Buy).  In January I called to connect the radio and told them that I had gotten the radio for Christmas (didn’t mention I had purchased it for myself).  I told them that I had seen good sign up deals online, but did not have any code.  I have found that they are really good at offering a deal to a new subscriber.  They signed me up for 6 months and told me that on the July 24th my contract would automatically renew at the going rate.  After activating my radio I got off the phone and put a reminder to “Call and Cancel Sirius XM” in my calendar for July 24th.  Today, my new bill posted for $127 for 6 months of XM Premier (the package including Howard Stern).  This works out to over $21 a month for satellite radio which is far beyond my personal value.

I picked up the phone intending to cancel my service because there is absolutely no way that I would even consider paying 21 bucks per month.  I gave the operator my account number and told him “I’d like to cancel my service please”.  He said, “OK sir, I can help you with this, but can I first ask you why you want to cancel?”  I told him the truth, that I enjoyed the service, especially Howard Stern, but the price was more than I would be willing to pay so I would like to cancel.  I was sure to mention that the price was an issue and that I loved Howard Stern because I did not want to be offered a lower price on a lower plan.  He then looked at my account and said, “You’re paying $127 for 6 months which is $21 a month.  I am authorized to offer you two options:  I can change the term from 6 months to one year for the same price which reduces your price to under $11 a month or I can offer you 5 months for $30 which is $6 per month.”  I told him I would take the $30 for 5 months.  He let me know that on December 24th my account would be auto-renewed at regular price.  By accepting a 5 month contract I take the risk that when I call back in December that they will cancel me, but since I am willing to cancel then they can either make a few dollars from me or zero dollars, it’s their choice.

This is not a method that only works for XM.  I successfully called and got Time Warner to reduce my mother’s bill by $20 a month while throwing in an extra box and adding HBO and Cinemax.  Just be aware that the more competition that exists makes a better environment for the consumer.  Personally, I had to beg Time Warner to add me as a customer because the options in my area are very limited.  However, the customer service people you talk to will likely know nothing about your area.  When I called for my mom I just told them that I “would like to switch to AT&T Uverse, because their service is a better value”.  This was true that I would like to do that, but the reality is that AT&T Uverse are not available in our area.  He put me on hold for a few minutes and came back with multiple offers all were significantly cheaper and provided more services.

Just remember that it’s your money and you should not be ashamed to ask to spend less of it.  Also remember that the people on the phone are people and that they like to be treated politely.  I have found you get far more by playing to a person’s ego.  Tell them that they are doing a great job and that you appreciate someone so knowledgeable about their services.    Ask for what you want and if you are not treated fairly then go to a business that will value you as a customer.

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Lower Grocery Budget without Extreme Couponing

 

junk-foodphoto

Food expenditures are probably the easiest places to make budget cuts for younger Americans, but the grocery budget is also the easiest to justify keeping.  After all, statistics show that most Americans eat food on a regular basis (citation needed).  In fact, many scientists would probably agree that food is nearly a necessity for human survival.  With all of these facts buried in your brain, spending money on food is viewed as a necessity and unconsciously we reason that “our bodies need the nourishment and our bodies are worth the expense”.  There is nothing wrong with this assertion on the surface we do need to feed our bodies quality foods in order to keep them working in optimal condition.  Unfortunately, drawing a line between expense, nutrition and necessity is based on flawed logic.

Let me be clear, I am not advocating only consuming a dense diet void of any taste, but I would reason that spending more on your groceries does not make you healthier or love yourself any more than the rest of us.  I have drilled down into my spending data for the past few years and have noticed some amazing trends.  The statistics show (in my household), that those times when our food bill is lower correlate with better eating habits.  So, I can back into the reasoning that spending less on food makes my family healthier (not even considering less stress that accompanies bettering your financial situation).

I know that there are those among you that will argue, “it’s cheaper to eat unhealthy foods than it is to eat healthy.”  In many ways this assertion is correct, but there are moves we can make that swing the scale in our favor.  We must learn to value our food differently.  Rather than looking at food’s value on a calorie per dollar basis, we need to evaluate foods on a nutrients per dollar basis.  It’s much easier to get full on high quality foods.  Try this experiment, eat as much chicken and broccoli as possible, then eat a similar meal from McDonald’s.  You will consume more nutrition, get full on far fewer calories and spend less.

Eat at Home

Without question eating at home saves money.  If you are spending more by eating at home, you’re doing it wrong.

 

Go to the Grocery for Big Trips After Dinner

The times when we eat most unhealthy and spend the most money happen to coincide with those times when we have less food available at home.  Too often my wife and I will look in the refrigerator or pantry and say, “You want to go get some dinner?”.  This plays out poorly and expensively in two ways.  First, if we go out to dinner we will spend between $10 and $30 for that meal.  Option 2 is that we go to the grocery with our hungry eyes.  We purchase those items that would not be part of a normal shopping list.  From a psychological perspective it’s much easier to handle these smaller expenditures.  You don’t feel like you’re spending much money if you just spend $25 on most of your grocery trips.  It’s easy to splurge when your total is relatively low, plus you’re hungry and you’re worth it.

Going to the grocery for one big trip each week is easier to handle because you are less likely to make off the wall purchases.  Going to the grocery on a full stomach keeps your brain in control of food purchases.

Make a List

Knowing the items that your family consumes is important for shopping successfully.  Some items that we always try to keep in our house are Bread, Chicken Breasts, Ground Turkey, Ground Beef, Frozen Vegetables, Cottage Cheese, Peanut Butter and the list goes on.  The point is that we have taken a mental inventory of those items we eat on a regular basis and we buy them when they are on sale.  These tips also can be applied to other non-food items as well.  We are not super rigid with our lists, but we know that keeping these key items on hand around our house give us many of the ingredients needed for dishes we eat regularly.

Shop the Sales or go to a Salvage Grocery Store

This likely goes without saying, but making purchases when items are on sale is pivotal to saving money.  Knowing the list of ingredients your family enjoys is key, but so is purchasing these items when they are at their lowest prices.  At our local grocery store the regular price on a loaf of “Nature’s Own” bread is about $3 per loaf, but at the local Salvage Grocery Store they sell the same exact bread for $1 per loaf.  It’s the same delivery guy and everything.  Very often, going to a salvage grocery store is a better deal than even regular couponing and sale shopping.  Most recently, I found a 10 pound  “Black Forest Ham” that is normally found behind the deli counter.  At the local deli they charge more than $5 per pound on this item, but I bought this for $2 a pound.  Always keep stocked up, it might cost more up front, but you spend much less over time.

Buy a Freezer

Frigidaire Freezer

Around the holiday season 2012 my wife and I really started to embrace the stocking up on sales mentality.  We found turkeys were deeply discounted for Thanksgiving.  We ended up buying 6 of them in total and each one was a great deal.  I think the two cheapest were less than 20 cents per pound.  We also found glazed hams for at GFS for $1.30 per pound and ground turkey for $1.45 per pound.  We bought 100 pounds of the ground turkey and 5 hams.  We spent a ton of money, but we used my parent’s spare freezer to store these items, but it was running out of room.  It was then that my wife and I decided that we needed our own freezer.  We ended up purchasing a stainless steel upright freezer that was on sale at Lowe’s.  We ended up spending about $600 for the freezer, but by having the freezer we were able to capitalize on sale prices.  One of our first purchases after buying the freezer was buying boneless skinless chicken breasts by the case at Sam’s Club.  Normal price for chicken breasts seem to hover around $4 per pound or more.  We ended up buying 100 pounds for $1.77 per pound.  Our freezer has already saved us more than it cost in the ability to always eat sale priced food.

Credit Card Cashback

Of course anyone who has read the blog knows that I advocate getting money back by using credit cards for purchases you are making anyway.  So while you’re buying food on sale you might as well get a bonus discount after all your sale prices, coupons and smart shopping are considered.  With the exception of Sam’s Club, I can get cashback for grocery purchases.  One card give 5% at grocery stores, another gives 6% cashback at grocery stores which can really save quite a bit of money over the course of a year.  If I spend $6,000 a year at grocery stores then I will get $360 cashback on my American Express card which is pretty great for expenses I would incur under any scenario.

Start a Garden

Vegetables can be quite expensive when purchased at the grocery store.  My dear wifey bought bell peppers last week at Kroger for 50 cents each because she needed them for a recipe she had been eying.  We have grown accustomed to having a garden, but with the move and home renovation we did not get one planted soon enough.  Today we went to the local farmer’s market and actually purchased pepper plants for 50 cents each.  Even if each plant only produces one pepper we will be ahead.  We planted a late summer garden today and all of the seeds were a bit over $10.  Hopefully this small investment and minimal sweat equity will end up paying for itself many times over as we enjoy our fresh organic vegetables this fall for minimal cost.

 

 

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Selling a Home and Protecting Equity

When my wife and I decided to sell our home earlier this year it was not a long, drawn out process (Selling a home by owner).  We had a rare opportunity to avoid the trap of buying and selling a home at the same time.  My grandparent’s 100 year old home had been rented for the past 10 years, but when the tenant moved out in December it sat vacant.  A 100 year old house, without proper maintenance and a little TLC will not make it too long.  We decided we could move into this house, show it some love and free ourselves from the chains of a mortgage so we could make the right decision on our next home purchase.  Although I have never undergone the buying and selling process simultaneously, I can imagine it is harrowing.  Therefore if you have the opportunity to sell, move into another place and then deliberate your next move I would absolutely recommend doing such.

Now that we had lined up a place to stay upon selling our home we were ready to do the dirty work.  We entertained the notion of hiring a realtor, but the economics of it simply didn’t work out for me.  Over the course of 5 years we had built up about $5,000 in equity.  If we sold the house for $100,000 (less than we gave) after the 6% commission we would owe the realtor $6,000 then after paying our portion of taxes and closing costs we would need to bring $1,500 to the closing.  Even if it meant spending a bit of money upfront it was worth it to me.  The way we looked at it was “we’re paying ourselves 6% to sell our house”. Given the stakes involved it seems a little bit strange how few people sell a house on their own.  I know people that drive 5 miles to save a dime on a gallon of gasoline, but they list their house with a realtor, immediately forgoing 6% of their most valuable asset.    We had never sold a house before, but how hard could it be?

 

Staging the House

The first thing we did was repaint the vibrant colored rooms a neutral tan.  This is not exactly a trade secret, but it is astonishing to see the number of sellers that neglect this important detail.  We then began to move out any unnecessary clutter in the house.  We had the option to go ahead and move it to our new home, which was convenient.  Even if this is not an option for you then rent a storage unit.  We moved quite a bit of furniture including our loveseat (leaving only a couch, but making the room look much bigger).  We moved out the computer desk, printer and other items that looked out of place.

Living Room

After minimizing the clutter we moved around our furniture for pictures.  The home should look picturesque, not lived-in.  If moving furniture from your house permanently is too much of a burden at least move the excess out of the room for pictures.  If you have wall to wall furniture in a room it will look even more cluttered in pictures.  After arranging the room the way you like and cleaning it thoroughly, take your photos.  DO NOT use an old Nokia camera phone or a polaroid.  We used our Canon t2i digital SLR, but there are plenty of point and shoots that offer quality photos.  Memory is cheap, so take hundreds of photos from every angle the photos are what will sell your house.  Hopefully you have taken photos over the course of living in the house and stored them somewhere you can find them.  For instance, when we were starting to list the house there were only dreary days and the grass had not greened up.  I had photos of the exterior of the house from the previous year after all the flowers had bloomed and the grass had pretty stripes.

Selling The House

Although I would contend that pictures sell the house, they are absolutely useless if nobody sees them.  So now is the easy part, we will just list them online and wait for the calls.  Unfortunately this is where we hit a bump in the road as “For Sale By Owners”.  With the exception of Zillow, the majority of the big home sites did not allow FSBOs to list their own homes.  We put our home up on craigslist, Zillow and got people to share it on Facebook (don’t laugh).  I even made a website that included all of our pictures, descriptions, maps to the house and everything.

After a few days of these marketing tactics my dear wifey was ready to give up her career as a realtor.  She recommended that we hire a realtor to sell the home for us.  I could not stomache the thought of parting with a minimum of $6,000 to do work that we could do.  We had already taken better photos than most realtors, we had already done their job for them.  I told her to give it a few more days while I walked the information superhighway in an attempt to circumvent the listing services.  Finally after much searching and deliberation I solved our problem.

We Hired a Realtor?

Yes, it turns out the best way to gain maximum exposure in marketing your home is to use a realtor.  Then the realtor loads your home on the MLS and then that data feeds all of the other pertinent websites.  It seems really unfair that I can do most of the work and I have to pay the guy 6%, so I found another way.

I Googled “MLS Flat Fee Listing Kentucky” and found http://www.getonmlscheap.com .  Chuck is a realtor in Kentucky that charges $199 and he will load your pictures, descriptions and important data onto the MLS.  If a buyer’s agent sells the house then you pay them an agreed upon commission (in our case we offered 3%), but the most the listing agent makes is the Flat Fee.  So even if the house sold through an agent we would only pay $3,200 in fees (per $100,000 sales price).

The regulations are much more strict when working with an agent even in this capacity.  By law we were no longer to say “For Sale By Owner”, even though we were doing all the work.  To make matters worse, we did not know that there are multiple MLS for each area.  All of the agents in my city use a local MLS, but my home was placed on the regional MLS, making it less useful.  However, we were listed on all major websites and even with hindsight I would probably do the same thing again.

Marketing

My wife spent the next day emailing and calling every realtor in our town to let them know that our home was on the market.  In fact, we got a showing the very first day, within minutes of posting on the MLS.  The realtors told us our home was beautiful and it “showed very well”, but we did not get an offer that day.  A few days passed and nobody called.  My wife continued to notify realtors in the area, update Craigslist and Facebook.  Then we randomly got two calls in one day.  A realtor called and scheduled a showing for Sunday and an unrepresented buyer saw our pictures on Facebook and asked to see our home that day (Friday).

Cleaning and Showing

My wife cleaned the house all day and had it looking flawless for our second showing.  The woman and her family looked through the house and she seemed to light up.  She was definitely an interested buyer!  We showed her around the place, left her alone and she continued asking questions.

Offer

She asked if she could come back later that same night at around 10 and we told her that would be fine.  It was at this point that she made us an offer that came in a little low, but we countered with an offer that met in the middle, but allowed us to keep our kitchen appliances.  She said she already had kitchen appliances anyway, so it was a fair deal for all.

Recap

The best part about selling without paying commissions is that you actually get the vast majority of the selling price.  If I had sold my house for $100,000 without a realtor, I would need to sell it for $106,000 with an agent and at 6% commission on 106k I would actually only make $99,640.  Including the Flat Fee MLS listing of $200, the $50 lawyer fee and the $400 tax bill we only paid $650 to sell our house.

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