Educating the Wheelers

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Chronicling the Experience of Educating our Children and Managing our Family

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Our New Bloggy Home

My awesome husband, Andrew, knew that I had some irritations with Blogger, so he set up a Wordpress blog with my own domain to replace it. Even though I was not-long-ago employed professionally as a computer geek, with a toddler underfoot and being pregnant out-to-here, I never would have taken the time to do it myself.

I really like the look of it and the way he set it up, so I'll be starting to post over there starting today. Please update any bookmarks or links you might have, though we'll see if we can put up an automatic redirect fairly soon.

Thanks, Andrew! And thanks for reading!

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

HOA Blues

Mapgirl has another interesting post lately about HOAs. [She's had a lot of interesting things lately. Check her out.]

When we were planning on buying here in Austin, we knew where Andrew was going to be working, so one of our big criteria was short commute times. In the areas fairly nearby his office, it's hard to find a house that doesn't have a neighborhood HOA. Heck, not too many years ago, our area was the total boondocks, so it's hard to find a house over 10 years old, even.

I am very much a "don't tell me what to do" hands-off kind of person, so as you can imagine, I hold most HOA stuff in contempt. It took quite a bit of looking, but we managed to find a house that we loved in a older neighborhood that was a conglomeration of multiple [like, 7 or 8] pre-existing HOAs. There are so many grandfathered provisions and other assorted goofiness because of this that the HOA here is voluntary dues, and has no teeth whatsoever.

So, when we painted our house and fence and added the multilevel deck in the back, etc, we didn't have to submit plans to an HOA for approval. We don't get any "helpful tips from the committee" postcards dropped in our mailbox. I know some people really like their HOAs and "keeps the house values up" and all that jazz, but I prefer our freedom. [And our housing value is doing just fine.]

Does it mean that one of my neighbors could start raising 100 fighting roosters in their backyard? Well, possibly. But you'd be amazed how people tend to not do those sorts of things, even without the Threat of HOA hanging over their heads.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Online Bill Pay Snafu Update

This morning, I talked to both my garbage company again and my bank. My garbage company claims to have not changed any of their PO Boxes or anything that should affect receiving their payment checks, so who knows what happens to the last two checks that my bank cut for them. [My bank does report that they have not been presented for cashing.] I'm not 100% sure how I want to pay the next bill with them. I might send a regular paper check via there payment envelope and see if that gets there OK. I sure don't want to have to call in a credit card payment every time.

On a happier note, I called Chase [our brick and mortar, day to day finances bank] and not only were they friendly and super helpful, they stopped payments on the outstanding checks without a fee, and will credit our accounts within 3-5 business days. [When you online bill pay through them, they debit the amount immediately from your account.]

The last time I had to stop a check was when I was a customer of Bank of America. My landlord got my check in the mail, held onto it for a few weeks, and then misplaced it. Could I please send her another? Grrr. BoA charged 25 dollars for the privilege of stopping that check, and said it would only be in effect for one year. [Perhaps the difference is because they are online Billpay checks instead of paper checks? I do not know.]

I know every bank has screwed somebody over, but I gotta say -- the service we have received from Chase has outshone BoA on just about every front.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Do It Yourself Price Differentials, Part I

As part of my ongoing budget slash-and-burns, I'm always trying to stop purchasing more and more convenience foods. Some items make sense to purchase [too much time to duplicate for the money saved], and some do not.

What's something that makes sense to make at home?

Well, tonight I made my first batch of granola. I usually just eat leftovers for breakfast, but my husband -- and now, my two year old -- like cereal. Cereal is expensive. Granola is often even worse. I needed a small amount for a recipe a few months ago, and a small box of grocery store housebrand was over 3 dollars! I was not happy, and I have been kicking around the idea of making my own. Finally did it tonight.

I made a variation on the Hillbilly Housewife's Brown Sugar Granola. I chose her recipe to start with because her stuff generally turns out pretty tasty, it's always very simple to do, and it's always got an eye on the cost.

Here's what I ended up using:

1 stick butter [After making it, I suspect I could get away with less.]
1 cup brown sugar, mixed with a little white and Sucanat [Audrey mixed the different sugars together for me. Heh.]
1/4 cup water
Small splosh of vanilla
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 cups rolled oats
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 bag of free sample trail mix with nuts, seeds and raisins

Heat up the first four items in a big pot, let it simmer for a few minutes. Add next three ingredients, stir it up good. Spread it out on some lipped baking sheet and bake at 375 for about 10 minutes, or until golden brown. I stuck it in a hot, but turned off, oven that I had just baked some chicken in. Then you take it out, let it cool and break it into pieces in a container with whatever mix-ins you have around.

Even before it was cooled, Andrew and Audrey were digging in and eating it with some homemade yogurt.

As you can see, it was quick trivial to make, and costs very little. And, I must say, it's very tasty.

Verdict: Definitely worth the time.

UPDATE: I didn't bother trying to do an actual price calculation on this one because it would be pretty hard for me to pinpoint my actual costs. I recall getting the oatmeal when Albertson's had a 3 for the price of 1 sale on big containers of generic oatmeal. The butter has been in my freezer since just before Thanksgiving when all the stores had butter as one of the loss leader items, but I don't recall the actual price. The trail mix happened to be free this time. Everything else was pretty trivial cost. So I don't know exactly how much I saved, but it was definitely a good amount.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

College Alumni Donation Solicitations

Andrew and I both went to college, so we have two institutions that call us for alumni donations. Andrew received a nice sized grant from his college, so we give to them on occasion. [Though I can tell I've really become a parent now. The last time I got a call I said, "If you continue to call us more than once a year, you will get nothing."]

My college? Not so much. I have given to them only twice in the almost ten years since I graduated, and the person in whose name I always gave -- my mentor when I was there -- no longer works there. I am a little ambivalent these days about the value of my education I had while I was there. I can't say it's the institution's fault, but it does make me less eager to pony up money to them. [Note: I never received any grants or financial aid of any sort, but I did work as the assistant manager in the dedicated computer lab for math and science students. The manager of that lab was the aforementioned mentor. What I learned from her during that time is the knowledge I used once I graduated.]

There weren't a lot of women doing Computer Science while I was there, so for my first few years out, I would get the occasional invitation to come back and speak on a panel to the current crop of CS students to let them know "what it's like" on the outside, and how what I learned at our fine institution helped. It was an odd experience, because I graduated in 1996 -- the reality of the situation at the time was that I could have fallen off the back of a turnip truck and been employed in the high tech industry in Seattle during those years.

I realize this is completely incoherent. Sorry. Heh.

Friday, March 10, 2006

My Absolute Worst Financial Mistake Ever, Bar None

My first townhouse purchase [and sale].

This one is a no brainer. I don't even know where to start listing all the things I did wrong.

I had just gotten my first really BIG raise, the kind of money that someone who is paying 325/month in rent to split an apartment and doesn't have a car or debt or school loans or pets or anything would even know what to do with.

Well, thank god one of my best friends was a realtor! She set me straight on that one.

"You know what you should do, you should buy a house!"

[Readers should now be wincing then shouting, "Don't go in there, that's where the monster is!" and throwing popcorn at the screen. You know what's coming.]

Where to begin? I had only recently realized that maybe I should try to do something with my money, so I did have some money in a mutual fund [the specifics of which were probably Worst Financial Mistake #3 or #4, but we'll get to that another day], but not enough for a real down payment. But I did have a father who would be proud that his young daughter was starting to get ahead in life, so he would help. And be paid back over the course of years later.

If you are imagining a printout of MLS listings with one really awesome place at the highest tippy top of my "affordability" and everything else on the list really crappy, you know where this is going.

If you are imagining that I had no idea that the number at the bottom of the good faith estimate was NOT what I'd actually cut a check for every month [Hello, taxes, insurance and association fees!], you know where this is going.

If you are imagining that I was now paying over SIX TIMES my former housing cost per month, you know where this is going.

If you are imagining that I let a now-former friend move into the downstairs bedroom for a couple hundred dollars a month to now make ends meet, and it was the one of the most horrible experience dealing with another human being in close quarters I've ever had [Helpful tip from the committee: don't rent to unemployed jazz musicians. You have been warned], you know where this is going.

If you are imagining that this is in Seattle, and the dotcom bubble is about to burst and I was going to have to sell after owning it for less than two years so I could keep my job while my company merged with one in San Francisco [one of only a small handful out of a company of about 100, I was a lucky one], you know where this is going.

If you are imagining that my good friend massively overpriced my house to sell it, perhaps as a good samaritan because she knew I was in a bad financial way by this point, and then incrementally dropped the price a little here, a little there over the weeks [or was it months?] until it sold, you know where this is going.

If you are imagining me making payments on my house while it's not selling while I'm paying an insane amount of rent in SF, you know where this is going.

If you are imagining that sitting down to sign the closing papers and seeing what was "leftover" after the sale was a surprise because of a numbers snafu, you know where this is going.

And yet, there's an upside to this whole big mess. When I got married and it came time for Andrew and I to buy a house, things went very, very differently. I hadn't yet discovered Searchlight Crusade [and if you're going to buy a house, you need to spend some time there], but this transaction was a 180 degree turnaround from the first one, that's for sure.

UPDATE: I want to add that I don't really blame my friend for much of this debacle, save for treating it like a trip to Macy's to buy jewelry rather than The Most Important Financial Transaction Of My Life. I didn't know what I was doing, and I got the expensive lesson that I deserved. But in case you haven't already learned: do not ever, EVER do business with a friend. The stakes are too high on both fronts. In this case, our friendship survived, but only sort of.

Watch That Online Bill Pay ...

Got a call bright and early this morning from our garbage collection company saying that haven't received a payment ... since November. *boggle*

OK, they only bill once every three months, so that's only two missing payments. But, yow! What's going on? I've paid the bills online [via Chase], and they're debiting the money from my account. [And I've been paying them without a problem this way for 3 years.] The payment history makes it look as if everything is fine. The only difference I can see, and I'm not even sure what it means yet, is that on all other payments that have gone out, they have links next to them that say "See" and "Send Inquiry" -- and on the garbage bills, they just say "See."

Hmm. Well, I've got a call out. Let's see what happens.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Slashing Electricity Costs

Mapgirl had a post recently about surging electricity costs, and why they are likely to get even worse in the near future.

I mentioned in a comment that I have been on a slash and burn mission to reduce our electricity bill here, so even while the rates are going up, our bill has been going down. Only slightly compared to all of the cuts I've made, though, as I mentioned, it's still better than a poke in the eye.

What have I done?

First: we don't use the dryer anymore. Maybe once a month, but I can't even remember the last time I've used it, so it's now even less than that. Andrew put up three retractable clotheslines for me on the deck, under the awning, so I don't have to worry about rain. If it's too humid outside, I use those folding accordion-style drying racks in the house. In fact, during the winter when the heat is on, I use those up in the bedroom at night to help raise the humidity while we're sleeping without having to power a humidifier.

Second: Minimizing heat and AC usage. I'm making judicious use of shades, windows, fans, turning the lights off, not using the oven as often [or using it first thing in the morning while it's still cool], and dressing appropriately. And shaving the dogs when it gets hot.

Third: I've become a light and appliance nazi. I used to keep lights on all over the house because I am skittish and paranoid and don't like walking into dark areas. And I like brightly lit rooms. But I've been slowly acclimating myself away from that. I've also been getting better at unplugging things that are not being used rather than keeping them in standby mode, but I could be better at this.

That's all the low hanging fruit, but so far it's really paid off for us. If the rates keep rising, I'll have to start doing the slightly more difficult stuff.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

What Am I Going to Do With All These Bananas?

I hate to waste food and have been working on more interesting ways to use things up. Take bananas. My husband is the big banana eater in the house, but won't touch them after they start to get a little spotty.

If I don't have much time, I just toss them as-is into the freezer, and later when I take them out, I peel them slightly defrosted with a paring knife and use them in whatever recipe. Pancakes, waffles, mashed into french toast bath, smoothies, the usual. But I get pretty sick of banana bread and muffins pretty quickly.

This is my new favorite way to use them:

Banana cookies.

2-3 ripe bananas, mashed in a bowl
1.5-2c uncooked oatmeal
1/3 cup oil
Splosh of vanilla
Handful of dried fruit, whatever you got. I like chopped dates.

Mix it all together, let it sit for awhile and soak into the oatmeal. Then drop spoonfuls onto a greased pan [mush it down, they're better a bit thinner] and bake at 350 until done. Usually about 10 minutes or so. Can be up to 20, depending on your stove, and how thick you made them.

Love them, love them, love them. And if you can get your dried fruit cheap, fairly frugal, too!

What Do I Need to Buy For the New Baby?

I'm about 32 and a half weeks pregant now, so I need to get moving on getting things ready for the little guy.

I've been on the lookout for good deals on diapers [I decided not to switch to cloth for this guy, though I kicked it around for awhile], so I've got a bit of a stash already. All other diaper changing gear [wipes, cream, rags, etc], we already have plenty of since Audrey is still in pull-ups.

I haven't ordered a Medela parts kit for my old pump yet, and I need to do that. That's about 25 bucks. I know you can reuse the parts with yourself, but I gave my pump a thorough thrashing before Audrey could finally attach at three months, and looking at the old thing ... it just doesn't feel like even a thorough boiling and sterilization procedure is going to make it feel clean again. Oh, and I'm going to need new milk freezer bags, too. That'll be about 17 bucks. Again, I'm paying more than I have to here, there are cheaper varieties, but these will hold up for 6 months in our deep freezer. So if we don't need them in that time, I can donate them to the Mother's Milk Bank, like last time.

I picked up a handful of "new" outfits for Little Guy at the thrift store in MN, practically brand new stuff for about a dollar a piece. Didn't feel bad about that, though I'm sure I could have made do with Audrey's unisex hand-me-downs.

The freezer is already full, but mostly with meal "parts" rather than completed meals. I'll want to change that ratio a bit before he arrives, because I won't want to be doing any cooking for awhile.

I think that's really all that's left to purchase. [I'm not counting the actual cost of the birth, etc.] Lots to do, but not lots to buy. That's a plus.

Getting Things Back in Order

Paragraph breaks appear to be back [Yay!], and I've re-added a link bar on the side. But I know I've missed a bunch, so if you don't see your blog up there, please drop me a line or leave a comment. I'm going to be adding more as I get time today. [I just did a gmail search on "blog link" to see who I've exchanged emails with, and added whoever I happened to read this morning before Audrey wakes up. I hope that catches most of them, because my pregnancy brain is pretty mushy today!]

Uh Oh

I thought Austin was going to breeze right past the big housing run-up/bubble/"correction" situation that a lot of areas seem to be dealing with right now ... but yesterday I called the guy who does all of our remodelling, etc, and asked him about doing a job for us before the new baby comes.

He said that things were dead during the winter -- almost 4 months of zero work at all -- but now he's backed up for weeks, almost all of it work for California investors who are snapping up properties here and fixing them up to flip.

This makes me nervous.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Blog Housekeeping

Andrew has been fiddling with Other Blog Solutions lately, and it turns out that one of the tools for slurping up the previous posts out of blogspot to transfer to another system can kind of mess things up. Oops. I'm not sure if anyone even reads this blog on a regular basis, but if so, you may have noticed that it was completely borked without a template for a day or two, and we've also lost our links on the side and paragraph breaks in previous posts. I'll be working on getting those back.

Or maybe I'll just move to one of the other test sites he's been fiddling with.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Little Hazards of Frugality

When I got out of the shower this morning, I got quite the whiff of surprise when I was toweling my hair dry. What was that weird smell?


The laundry was hanging on the line yesterday when we started up the grill for dinner yesterday. The towel and everything I'm wearing today smells like bbq.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Treasury Direct

I finally set up a Treasury Direct account for purchasing I Bonds and the like for a little more diversity in our savings. As an apocalyptically pessimistic person, this doesn't quite qualify as "SHTF" stash, but it's closer to that end of the spectrum than our stocks and mutual funds. Heh. [And I'm always a little nervous when I start wondering under what circumstances I wouldn't be able to access, or would have delay accessing our Emigrant Direct funds. Or our regular neighborhood brick and mortar bank, for that matter. Or these I Bonds.] I do feel strongly that I need to have some sort of plan in place for an economy-in-the-tank, extended-unemployment situation.

I'm not going to be investing much to start with, 50 dollars a month moved automagically over. But it's a start while I get used to it.

Home Again, Home Again

Audrey and I are back home from our nearly month long vacation visiting my folks up in Minnesota. She got to play in snow and make her first snowman! [Also, her first igloo.] Very exciting for her since we almost never have snow in Texas.

I spent more money up there than I usually do at home -- but, these days, I spend very little money at home, so that's not too big of a surprise. I'm enjoying getting back in the swing of things here.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Why I Like Personal Finance Blogs, Reason #34

There is an almost complete lack of partisan politics in personal finance blogs, which is a welcome breath of fresh air. And sort of interesting, too, since politics and money -- even at the personal level -- tend to intertwine so much. My eyes glaze over when the "Tastes Great!/Less Filling!" bickering starts up. *Click*, move on. I am one of the apparently rare folks online who really doesn't care what someone thinks about Iraq, Bush, abortion, whatever other new hot button issues happen to be out there, unless I happened to be married to the person. And that slot is already filled.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Thinking about Changing Credit Card

Andrew and I pay off our credit card balance in full every month. We use it often just for convenience and instead of our debit card for various buyer's protections in case of fraud.

But we just have a plain old vanilla card with our bank, so we're not getting any perks off of it. And I think we're about ready to change that situation.

We've kicked around a couple of ideas -- first, staying with our bank's card, but switching to a cashback version. [It is nice to see our purchase history and statements on the same online banking page as our checking account.] Second, Citibank [I believe] has a card with "disposable" one-time numbers for online use, but I've been waiting to see if some other PF blogger would get one and report back first. Heh. And third, maybe an Amazon card because I love free stuff from Amazon. [Speaking of, in case anyone has any money burning a hole in their pocket, there's always my Amazon wish list!]

Does anyone have any experience with any of these cards? Or any other ideas?

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Things That Have Slowly Changed

I haven't always been frugal. It's been percolating for awhile, but the actual implementation has been gradual. Because of the slow pace, I haven't realized really how far I'd come, and somewhat unfortunately, how that might impact some other things in my life.

Case in point, a relative of mine wants to go out to eat or go shopping with me while I'm here visiting. Multiple times a week. She has suggested a few other activities, all involving going out and spending money. Instead, I've suggested she come over here, let's make some lunch, talk, whathaveyou. She has apparently had about enough of that. Heh.

For the first year after Audrey was born, one of my pre-mother friends [ironically, a woman from my birthing class, so she had a kid that was only a month older than mine] who only wanted to get together at a restaurant for lunch, as well. No great shock, we drifted and I haven't even talked to her in almost a year. She rarely wanted to take up any of my non-restaurant suggestions.

I mean, I don't believe in having an austere life, or never having fun or never getting out. But both of these folks were as insistent about going to a restaurant as I was resistant to it.

There are three issues for me. First, I've always been somewhat of a homebody, though those feelings have intensified since I became a mother, and they've really exploded since I've been pregnant again. I am wholly uninterested in being around large groups of other people, especially folks I don't know. Second, I realize this may be a passe notion these days, but I don't like bringing babies/toddlers/etc into adult spaces. Audrey is astonishingly well-behaved for a 2 year old, but that doesn't mean she isn't unpredictable and doesn't ever fuss. Folks pay good money at most restaurants, in movie theaters and the like and I don't understand why parents -- particularly of my generation -- think it's okay to bring their kids into adult spaces where there is a reasonable expectation of not being disturbed. Finally, of course, is the cost issue. What used to seem to me a totally reasonable sum of money to spend on lunch now seems like a big waste and opportunity cost.

I've gradually shifted my social life to spend time with folks who are on the same page as me in this arena. On the upside, most stay at home moms with toddlers that I meet tend to not want to blow money, and tend to not want to deal with the "will they or won't they?" stress of bringing a toddler into a restaurant. So we'll meet at one or another's house, and if someone gets fussy or melts down ... who cares? We're all going through the same thing.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

I Want a Garden

I want a garden.

Most of our grocery bill goes to produce -- fresh, frozen, or dried. Our kids will be homeschooled, so it's an obvious project for them to help with. Our backyard is about a half acre, fenced, and there's not a whole lot going on back there once you get past the decks and the playscape.

So why don't I have a garden?

Odocoileus virginianus, the dreaded white-tailed deer.

Our house is on the deer superhighway right between two wooded, wild areas. There are some mornings when I'll look out and see two dozen of them in our front or back yard. Unfortunately, our 8-10 [?] foot tall privacy fence only extends about halfway back into our backyard, it's a 3 footer for the remaining, and they jump over that with ease.

So I can't just slap together a nice little Square Foot Gardening square and call it a day with a little quickie experiment. Unless, of course, I want fatter and happier deer.

I don't relish the idea of building a tall fence to enclose a garden, like all my neighbors have had to do. And I'm not sure how big I'd want to make it -- I certainly don't want to ever have to expand it once it's up. I have too many memories of spending summers at my grandparent's house, expanding the deer fence every year. Heh.

And then there's the whole new-child-being-born-in-two-months thingy. I think I'll be waiting until next year. Heh.


The only thing I hate more than clothes shopping is having to spend money on clothes.

These days, when I have to buy clothes -- like, say, now, when I'm third trimester superchunk pregnant and it's winter, while last time I was superchunk pregnant, it was nasty Texas summer -- I hold off until I can head up to Minnesota to visit my parents. Not too far from their house is the very best thrift store I have ever been in, bar none. I am absolutely spoiled rotten by it now. Even Walmart feels extravagant, and other thrift stores feel really ratty and dirty in comparison.

[If you happen to live around the Twin City area, I'm referring to the "Valu Thrift Store" in Sun Ray Mall. Mondays, everything is 25% off, and holidays are 50% off.]

I picked up maternity pants and 6 long sleeve maternity shirts and sweaters for about 20 bucks. And they're pretty nice looking.

I don't know how they do it, why that particular thrift store is so clean and well managed and such a screaming deal on nice stuff, but I love it, and I won't shop anywhere else.