Category Archives: finance

A kind of boring utility question

A few months ago, we got our SmartMeter from SDG&E installed and I’m still trying to figure out how to use the information to help us save money or be more energy efficient or whatever.  We pretty much straddle the fence on efficiency: we want to do it, but we’re not really motivated until we see monetary incentives.

When we re-designed the backyard, we cut the amount of grass in half and installed stubouts for irrigation drip zones.  However, because our existing sprinkler system was so lacking, I think we’re using the same amount of water to water less lawn.  We did manage to eliminate the lawn in the front yard, though.

We’ve talked about solar panels, but even with the tax rebates, I’m not sure it works out financially, considering how much electricity we use.  I also hear a lot about using power strips with on/off switches to reduce the “vampire” energy suck of plugged in appliances not in use.  I purchased a Kill-a-Watt and plugged it in around the house and I’m not convinced my appliances are using a significant amount of energy.

Our SDG&E bills range between $45 and $80 (I think that high mark was when we turned the house heat on when my parents visited one winter).  In any given month $10 to $20 of that is the gas portion; the rest is the electric bill.  When people say they save $50 a month just by shutting down extraneous appliances and installing power strips, I’m wondering how that’s possible when $5o is my average bill total.

So, here’s my question: What does your electricity usage look like compared to ours?  Are we average, or do we use an oddly low amount of electricity?  Leading to: how much could we really save installing power strips and cutting power to unused appliances??

Here’s our stats:

  • 4 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms: essentially a bedroom, an office, and 2 spare rooms that aren’t used except for two kittens who don’t require plugging in
  • Gas furnace that is never turned on unless it’s really cold and we have guests.  Having said that, we plug in a couple of space heaters depending on what room we’re in at the time.  No central AC, but we have a window unit in the living room and a portable AC in the bedroom.
  • Gas water heater, dryer, range. Everything else is electric (oven included).
  • Standard TV, DVR, CD/DVD entertainment stuff. No video consoles.
  • We generally turn lights off when we leave the room.  Anything that can use CFLs, does.
  • Now, living with a homebrewer means there is a chest freezer and an upright freezer with temperature controls (to function at a temp between fridge and freezer), plus an extra standard fridge/freezer in the garage.  So, maybe that skews our usage up?
  • If I was going to plug anything into a power strip to turn off during the day, it would be my netbook and laptop, the cell phone charger, and the tv/dvd player.  I’m not going to switch off anything that has a clock to reset because that would drive me batty (microwave, coffee pot, cable box, alarm clocks, etc).

Is it worth it?  If it isn’t, is there something I’m missing that would lower our overall use?

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Outback Steakhouse

So, apparently Outback Steakhouse is 20 years old… did you know they’ve been around that long?  I recently received a gift card to go check out their new menu items, which made T happy since he loves Outback but we never eat there.

Friends of ours had a less than pleasant last meal at Outback, so they don’t go anymore.  The last time I was there, my meal consisted of sharing a bunch of fried appetizers so my memories are just full of heavy fried foods sitting in my stomach.  But I was willing to go back and look at the food with fresh eyes.

Because it’s Outback and because it’s their birthday, we had to order the Bloomin’ Onion.  Even though it’s deep fried and terribly unhealthy.  It arrived hot and crispy, with every part well battered and cooked (I’ve gotten some that had raw batter still in the crevices) and I’d forgotten how tasty that horseradish-y dipping sauce is.  We got through 3/4 of the onion before throwing in the towel with the intention of taking the rest home, but our server took the plate away.  Incidentally, she seemed like she wasn’t paying attention very much.  She forgot to bring T a new napkin three times and every time she came over she seemed a little spacey.

We ordered from the featured menu since it’s only running through April and they actually looked really good.  T got the Sirloin, Shrimp, and Scallops Mixed Grill and I ordered the Slow Roasted Sirloin Medley.  My dish was exactly as I hoped it would be – tasty, meaty, but fresh and light.  Slices of tender sirloin were arranged over a bed of spinach (I don’t know how they do their spinach but it’s awesome) with asparagus and cherry tomatoes scattered around the edges.  The whole dish was drizzled with a garlicky, lemony, herbed sauce that was perfect.  Really, I loved that dish.  I did not like the “homemade crouton” on the bottom, which was more like a greasy fried piece of bread.  But it’s okay, since I didn’t eat it and I was completely full from the rest of the meal.  T’s steak came nicely medium rare and it was a flavorful piece of sirloin.  I was actually surprised (although, their steaks are usually pretty good).  I didn’t taste the shrimp, but the scallops were actually cooked nicely.  A tad overdone, but certainly not rubbery and no grit at all.  He got a little rice medley along with the same garlicky spinach and finished it all.  I think he thought the steak was a little on the small side, but it did match the proportions in the picture.

As a promotion, if you order one of their featured meals AND a Coke Zero, you get a commemorative glass to keep and take home.  I considered it but I guess we certainly don’t need a commemorative glass taking up room in the cupboards when I still have 4 POM Tea glasses in there and I only use 1 at a time.

As a funny side note, we were seated next to this couple who must have figured out the best way to save money at Outback.  I told T that my goal* is to have enough money when we’re old that we don’t have to worry about such scrimping and frugality.  They ordered the 13 oz. Outback Special (sirloin) to split, but they wanted the steak actually cut into 2 pieces so each could be cooked to a different degree of doneness.  Then they added a House Salad with extra croutons to the meal.  Okay, I guess when you look at it, that’s not really too frugal.  I guess I just thought it was funny because they were sharing a steak but wanted it cooked 2 ways.

My faith in Outback has been restored.  I don’t know if I need to order the Bloomin’ Onion every time I go there, but I would certainly order that Slow Roasted Sirloin again.  I wonder what else they put that garlicky lemon sauce on?  If you do go for dinner, definitely check out the new menu items.  Outback certainly isn’t fine dining, but it is a good place to go for a good meal and it’s nicer than TGI Friday’s.

* T and I have been meeting with a financial planner over the last couple of months.  To go over our individual accounts and financial goals.  It’s not like we’re combining finanaces or anything.  But he always asks what our goals are and what results we want from the money we invest and I always tell him that my end goal is to have enough money when we retire that I don’t have to clip coupons and only shop when there are double coupons.  My goal is that when we retire we can afford a motorhome and have money to be able to feed the dog premium food.  Enough to be comfortable and not worry.  Incidentally, if you are looking for a financial advisor (he works for AIG, doesn’t charge a consultation fee but does receive a commission on certain investments), I highly recommend ours.  He drives down from Irvine to meet with us after work at home, which makes things very convenient, but he’s also good at answering questions and running scenarios for different investments.  If T asks him a skeptical question, he answers AND comes back with print outs of internet chatter so he can explain why the internet is wrong and he’s right.  And sometimes he admits that the internet is kind of right.  Anyway, we really like him so if you’d like to set something up with him, let me know.

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Lots of hate for Hotels.com

So, I’m back from Hawaii on what was a whirlwind trip with too little time and too much food.  Also, do you know how exhausting it is to spend all day being alert and conversational with people?  And how sad it is to realize that typical trips to Hawaii often include zero beach visits?  Another tidbit of information – it costs $150 to ship a painting from Hawaii to San Diego via UPS “Ground”.  Does anyone have a better way to ship large and/or heavy items?  I mean specifically, with company names or something.  Because there is a large, hand-carved, wooden trunk in my grandparents’ house that I would love to bring home. 

I was also going to do a full review of the Trader Joe’s frozen brownie-in-a-box, which I may do with a wrap up of other tasty foods I’ve discovered, but we’ll just sum it up and say I wasn’t impressed.  I’ll stick to their chocolate chip cookie dough.

But!  The main point of this post is to grumble heartily about the incompetence of Hotels.com so-called Customer Care.  Hotels.com is a subsidiary of Expedia, but they have totally separate websites and customer service.  To date, I have no grudge with Expedia except that they are partnered with the lame Hotels.com. 

I actually do pay attention to my bills and my credit card statements.  About 5 years ago, I noticed that my phone bill had almost doubled.  When I looked into it, I discovered someone had, somehow, set up a voice mailbox on my account so all calls would be forward there.  Apparently, that’s why I wasn’t getting any sales calls or telemarketers on my standalone answering machine.  Now, that’s pretty tricky stuff.  So, that account got cancelled and I had to change my phone number.  It’s also part of the reason I keep a land line.  Can you imagine if you had to change your cell phone number?  Way more people have that number (personal friends, not companies) than my land line.  Someone also got hold of my Discover account and charged a lot of gas on it.  I noticed that because it was on an account that I seldom used.  So I went through the motions of closing the account, opening a new one, checking credit reports, and monitoring everything.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had to really think about fraud.  Well, no, that’s not true.  T had his account information taken and someone tried to charge $500 at Wal-Mart in Seattle (or somewhere) twice.  It’s scary to think that you can have your credit card in your posession and someone can take the information and transfer it to another piece of plastic.  Because you need a physical card to buy gas and items at stores.

Anyway, when I got back from Hawaii, I went through my accounts, updating MS Money and my checkbook.  I noticed the balance on my credit card was abnormally high.  At first I thought the program was wacky and maybe it had duplicated charges in the register.  Then I saw a recent charge for $4,180.26.  Now, I had also just paid the balance of our Alaska cruise, but that was well under $4,000!  I considered that maybe Holland America had made an error, perhaps charged me twice, but the “Payee” was different.  So, I tracked down the phone number associated with the charge and called.  The company was IAN Travel Services, but they answer the phone “Hotels.com” and then the headache began.

They must use the lowest-educated people to handle their phone calls, because no one could help.  I don’t even think they know how to help.  The first guy I talked to was the worst – I had to spell my name 4 times and repeat numbers too many times to count.  But, I did get the most information out of him.  He told me the charge was for a reservation for 9 nights at the Alex Hotel in NY and that it was under my name and that it had been made over the internet.  I told him I never made that reservation.  He also said he would forward the file to some other department so they could follow up (this never happened) and that I would have to call my credit card company and file a police report.  I did both and my credit card company (Chase) was extremely helpful and informative and the police were, too, actually.

Then I called them back to make sure someone was following up on the matter and would be cancelling the reservation.  The girl I talked to was of absolutely no help.  She kept trying to tell me that the only person who could have made the reservation was me, as only I had access to my online account (it turns out even I don’t have access to it because I can’t sign in), and the reservation was under my name.  She said, why would someone make a reservation under my name when they wouldn’t be able to check in without ID?  True, it doesn’t make sense, but I know I didn’t make plans to stay in NY as the check in date was 3/5/08.  Also, if I was staying at a $500/night hotel, why would I go through Hotels.com?  If I had that much money, wouldn’t I also have people to take care of that for me?

So, after I tried signing in and couldn’t (my “profile” isn’t under any e-mail or username I use) I called “Customer Care” back.  I told the girl that I couldn’t sign in and the website said to call them.  She then proceeded to tell me to open Internet Explorer and type in hotels.com to get to their website.  Then she said in the upper right corner is a link that says “Sign in”.  Like I didn’t know how to navigate a website.  I told her I know how to get there, but their system wouldn’t let me in and there was a message that said to call them.  I then asked to be transferred to their tech support or someone who could help.  I was actually put on hold before she told me they don’t have that kind of department and all I could do was open a new account.  After I requested to talk to her supervisor, she told me he had “just stepped into a meeting” and that I could call back later.

In between all this, I had called the hotel to let them know what was going on and that I hadn’t made the reservation.  The hotel called back to let me know they still hadn’t received any notice of cancellation from Hotels.com.  No one ever checked in under the reservation, either.

The next morning, I called the stupid Customer Care number again and someone who spoke English-as-a-first-language (whatever, it sounds harsh, but it’s true) and sounded like he had the ability to think and reason answered so I explained the fraudulent reservation and the fact that no one I had talked to earlier had been of any help.  His immediate response was to give me the number of their Corporate office (214-361-7311), where I talked to someone in “Transactions”.  At first, this sounded promising, but I’ve since been passed around through departments and no one has, of yet, contacted the hotel to cancel the reservation. 

Update:  I was finally contacted by someone in the Corporate office and my dealings with that company was completed.  However, when I asked if they were going to notify the hotel, I was told that they don’t have to notify hotels on fraudulent charges because the hotel doesn’t receive money until the reservation is complete.  Which kind of makes sense except that 1) what happens to the charge on my credit card to IAN Travel Services after I “pay” at the hotel and 2) don’t you think they should notify the hotel so they can release the reservation?  I mean, the hotel is kind of counting on getting paid for that reservation ($4,000!!), so isn’t it just courteous to let them know that money isn’t ever showing up?

So, don’t use Hotels.com for anything.  Because if you ever have a problem, you will get no help whatsoever.  And if you have a profile, who knows what kind of reservations might get erroneously charge to you?  I can’t recall ever having made a reservation through them, although I’ve gone through Expedia and Travelocity before, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the error originated in their system.  Because, really, it doesn’t make sense for someone else to make a reservation under my name.  Hotels check ID when you check in.  And if they had added any other name to the reservation, that’s who would get investigated.  So, I blame Hotels.com.  I don’t honestly believe my identity and credit is in jeopardy, but I’ve still taken the necessary steps.

Coincidentally, I read this post on Get Rich Slowly today, too, on steps to take to prevent and deal with identity theft.  And remember, you can get a free credit report at AnnualCreditReport.com once a year (1 report from all 3 reporting agencies) or you can request 1 report from 1 agency at a time (thereby spreading it out to 3 reports over the year).  You can also place temporary and permanent fraud alerts on your credit report, which means that extra steps must be taken before someone (even you) can open a new account in your name. 

What’s worth it to you?

Get Rich Slowly is holding a contest this week (still time to enter!) for a Nintendo Wii.  GRS is one of the few “financial” blogs I read, mainly because I don’t find myself living paycheck to paycheck anymore so I’m not always searching for tips on how to save more money.  I do like JD’s site because while he occasionally shares other posts on dramatic saving (drink powdered milk, hand wash clothes, give up dinners out with friends, etc) his personal tips are more useful to me (HD cable isn’t necessary, save up for expensive dinners, grow and can your own vegetables).

My greatest success story would be my parents.  They provided me with a college education and my car, eliminating both student loans and a car payment which are well-known income drainers.  We also “rent” our house from them.  Renting may be “throwing money down the drain”, but it’s a good rent for a house and it’s not like I don’t benefit.  I just don’t get the tax breaks.

When I first started working, I had an okay salary.  I also had a condo with a mortgage that took up more than half my monthly income.  That’s when I really budgeted and tried to keep costs down.  Basic cable, eating in, walking the dogs in lieu of a gym membership.  New furniture came from Ikea… at one point my dining table was made up of taped together empty cardboard boxes!  The nice thing was that my friends weren’t making a lot, either, so we spent a lot of time at someone’s house instead of going out to bars or fancy restaurants. 

The best raise I ever got was from switching jobs.  Everyone says it, but it really is true: new job offers will give you more than an awesome raise ever will.  That’s not to say you should be changing companies every year chasing money; that actually looks bad to future employers that you have no job loyalty.  But now, with more financial cushion, I have a pretty cushy lifestyle and I’ve stopped cutting corners and learned to enjoy what’s worth it.

HD Cable + HBO: such a splurge and we don’t even get the Travel Channel in HD, but the difference in cost (split between me and T) is so minimal that it’s worth the convenience of a good looking program and lots of movies.  When does Big Love start again?

Shoes: I love shoes.  Good shoes make an outfit and quality shoes will last (unless encountered by a dog).  I try to buy them on sale and I try not to buy multiple shoes that look the same.  As long as I’m not going into debt for my shopping habits, what’s the harm?

Premium dog food: good dog food means healthier dogs, which means lower vet bills and a happier me.  I’m willing to pay to eat really good food, so why shouldn’t I do the same for my pups?

Our food: I’m lucky that T treats me to a lot of dinners out, but we also eat very well at home.  We also belong to a CSA that, while not cheap, is convenient and kind of forces us to eat more veggies before they go to waste.  Good food makes me happy, so it’s worth it to me to spend more on quality meats, seafood, and treats. 

Vacations: We do not go on budget vacations but we do look for good deals.  We’re going on a cruise next year to use our discount from the last one, but we also splurged for a balcony room instead of a cheaper cabin.  We like having the balcony, so it’s worth the extra money.  Our last vacation to Scotland was by no means low-cost, but we tried to stay in less expensive B&Bs and find affordable means (very hard).  The rental car was the bulk of our expenses, but without it we couldn’t have gone to the areas of Scotland that were on our list.  It was, to date, our most expensive trip but we don’t regret any of it and we had so much fun.

The one thing we haven’t found worth it are gaming systems.  We’re both so busy, I can’t imagine either us having the time to play video games.  We barely have enough time to watch the DVR shows!  Or the rental movies!  All our friends have multiple systems with multiple games, but when they start discussing new ones and new systems, we (thankfully) don’t feel like we’re missing out.  However, if we were to bring a system home from winning a contest, that’s a whole different story!

I approach personal finance as sensibly as I can.  As long as I have savings and am putting money towards retirement, why not have some fun with the rest of my money?  It helps that our friends aren’t flashy and we don’t have to “keep up” with them.  So, if something costs a little more but we deem it worth it, we spend the money.  In the long run, I think it helps keep us from feeling deprived and we stay happy at our current status.  We put more money into savings and our 401(k) and hope that gets us one day closer to retiring early!