Finding money

From the first page of Google Image search results and the Syracuse New Times

While finding money to save and invest is not the focus of this site, below is something Allison and I have shared with friends and family that outlines actions we have taken the last few years to save small amounts of money, ongoing, with little effort, and keep our burn rate to a minimum. The savings add up over time and make us more resilient, financially. I will keep it up to date as things change.

Edits:
  • 5/24/2019 Removed engagement ring/wedding band from homeowner's insurance, saving $210/year
  • 6/4/2019 Sold my car. We will be a one-car family (Allison's), for now. Saving $755/year in insurance. Estimating about $2500/year saved in repairs (reliability and expensive repairs were the primary driver of getting rid of it).

Overview

The savings below can range from small to large, and some are even psychological rather than transactional (like using Mint.com to promote awareness of spending or unsubscribing from things so you don’t feel inclined to shop as much, which also makes you hyper-aware when you do have to shop). It may not seem like a lot, but 1) saving in perpetuity and 2) investing the savings compounds the results over time. And by reducing your burn rate, you can save/invest more now AND your money will go farther when you eventually have a fixed income or yearly budget.


Get ahead to stay ahead

Before investing beyond my retirement accounts, I did build up a comfortable amount of savings (this was before meeting Allison). It's true that you must have money to make money, in some respects: people with less money end up having to pay more for the same goods due to higher interest rates, having to finance purchases, forgoing discounts for paying early, carrying credit card balances, being more likely to overdraft and incur other fees, and having to borrow when you have an unexpected expense. Getting a little bit ahead helps you stay ahead and vice versa. A recent example of this is that our car insurance costs over $300 less per year if you pay the full year’s premium at once instead of splitting it into quarterly or monthly payments.

Monitoring

  • We use Mint.com for monitoring, where we set monthly budgets for some variable expenses, get weekly summaries of our spending, and get alerts if we're ever charged a fee. If you want to save money, this helps you answer questions about where it's going and thus where you have the most potential to save. It also helps us make sure we have enough in our checking account to cover our current credit card balances, which are set for full, automatic payments. The weekly emails keep spending at the fore of our minds and tell us whether it was a good week or a bad week. 
  • You can also use Mint to do research. By searching my transaction history, I can tell you exactly how much I have spent fixing issues with my car since 2011 or how much we have spent at Amazon and thus whether it's worth the trouble of getting a new Amazon credit card in exchange for 5% back compared to the 2% we would get on another card.
  • I also like to use it to track our net worth over time. We earned $x last year, but how did our net worth change during that time? Some goes to taxes, essential expenses, house projects, and other one-time expenses, but I like to see how much we can manage to keep or recover through investments. While it is dependent on the markets, I feel it's a good measure of how we are doing with our finances.
  • For projections -- not just the current state and history -- Wealthfront (a roboadvisor) is helpful. They project out your current assets, anticipated future contributions and returns, and account for events like paying off a loan or starting to collect Social Security. I find this perspective motivating because it helps make the future impact of spending vs. investing money more tangible.

Insurance

  • We used an insurance broker to find the lowest rates for the same coverage for both our home and cars. For almost 20 years, I had arbitrarily been using the same insurance company as my parents, dating back to when I learned to drive. We don't care about customer service or things like that, and this company was about $500/year less than we were paying before. Best case: we never need to talk to our insurance company ever because we have no claims. Worst case: at least we saved a lot of money. This is the smarter bet. As of writing this, every member of my family has switched away from that big-name, spends-a-fortune-on-marketing insurance company, including my parents.
  • We also reached out to our home and car insurers to find out whether we were getting every discount we were eligible for and confirmed that all the information they had was correct regarding how many miles we drive, how much the detached structures are worth for the house, how much they assume our possessions are worth, and other factors that affect our premiums.
  • We stopped insuring Allison's wedding band and engagement ring on our homeowner's insurance. (I heard this mentioned in the audio book of Your Money or Your Life.) We couldn't and therefore wouldn't replace Allison's engagement ring, if we lost it, so it didn't really make sense to insure. It's not about the ring, which is undeniably meaningful to us -- it's about whether we want to pay money every year to get a cash payout if the ring is lost. Shockingly, the premium for the rings was a full 10% ($210/year) of our annual home insurance premium. People must lose those much more often than their homes.
  • We became a one-car family (for now), saving on insurance ($755/year) and repairs on an unreliable car with expensive parts. I estimated about $2500/year in repairs, which already sounds insane, but I also sold the car when new tires and other issues would have cost more than that over just the next few months. I'm sure we'll need another car eventually, but we'll live with this constraint, for now.

Cable/internet

  • We haven't had cable in years and only have Netflix, although we plan to cancel once we get through our queue. (We have no shortage of things to watch on Amazon/antenna, but there are some specific things we'd like to watch on Netflix.) If we had cable I guarantee we would spend more of our lives watching TV, and I will not pay for the privilege of saying that.
  • I would make sure you're not paying to rent your router each month from your internet service provider or packages you aren't using, in general.

Cell phones

  • We combined onto a family plan and reduced our cap (and thus monthly cost) before data throttling starts, which is never an issue because there is wi-fi everywhere now, particularly where we spend the most time (home and work). You should be able to check your usage online and see how close you are to using what you are paying for, to see if you can downgrade. We pay $95/month for both phones on AT&T. I used to spend more than that on just my phone.
  • We both take good care of our phones, which are still more than adequate, despite being several years old, and we opt for repairing over getting new ones. Batteries replaced at the Apple Store extended our already old phones' lives even more.

Credit cards

  • After some consideration, we got two new credit cards in the last year to get 5% back at Lowe's and 5% at Amazon/Whole Foods.
    • We purchased several appliances and some carpeting related to water damage last year, so it was worth it to pick the lesser evil between Home Depot and Lowe's and get 5% off when we need to make those large purchases.
  • Make sure you know your rewards on your different cards. This can all sound confusing, but we pretty much just use three cards for everything, which all have no annual fees and provide cash back as opposed to travel on specific airlines or other rewards. (We hardly ever go to Lowe’s.)
    • Amazon Chase: 5% at Amazon and Whole Foods
    • Costco Citi: 4% on gas, 3% on travel and restaurants
    • Citi Double Cash: 2% on everything (else)
  • We stopped using store cards that give you cash back just at those stores. I don't know that this saves us money, but we would rather have cash back that can be spent anywhere than more cash back that can be spent only at places where we shop infrequently (and we hate shopping). These incentivize you to go to these stores when you might not have needed anything, even if the cash back will only cover part of the cost of a purchase. The features are also worse, ex. the J. Crew card does not even allow you to set up automatic payments. Bastards.

Bills

  • We pay every bill we can on credit cards instead of from our checking account. Any recurring charges, we have moved to a credit card with 2% back. Looking at my most recent Citi Double Cash statement: car insurance, Netflix, alarm system monitoring, home internet, landscape service. This is minor but yields us a few hundred dollars per year for zero effort. It also gives us more time to transfer money from the money market account to checking, which takes a few days, when we have one-off or unexpected expenses.
  • We automate everything to avoid possible fees and automatically move money from checking to a money market account monthly (monthly income minus ballpark monthly expenses). From there it is automatically invested. (I do one-off transfers in or out to cover one-time expenses or windfalls.)
  • If there is a discount of at least a few percent for buying things annually rather than over the course of the year, we do that (AAA, pest control). You're not realistically going to put it into an investment vehicle with higher post-tax returns than the discount would have been. I'll take 5% off for paying for all 2018 pest control now. As mentioned above, our car insurance charges us over $300 less per year by paying all at once compared to quarterly.

Mailings/emails/shopping

  • We go out of our way to UNSUBSCRIBE FROM EVERY POSSIBLE MAILING AND EMAIL LIST. We might “miss out” on the occasional sale but are very confident we spend much less overall and only on things we need than if we were constantly getting pinged with what's new this season or on sale at different places. As a result, the only time it occurs to us to shop is when we specifically need something, not because we saw something that looked cool in a catalog or email. It's hard to say how much money this saves, but probably a lot, on top of saving us the time of processing junk mail and email, once you opt out, and shopping. We don’t like spending time doing any of those.
  • Because our natural state is not shopping for things, it comes naturally to us to heavily scrutinize something when we do have to buy it. Because we don't shop often, we take adequate time to research to ensure we are getting something that will last, that we are willing to maintain, and that we know where it will go in our house.
  • We deliberately buy things that are not too fashionable (clothes, furniture, etc.) because we plan to keep everything for a long time. We don't like buying clothes that require building an outfit around them. Staples are the most important. As I (now we) like to say: “I've never regretted buying something because it was too plain."
  • Shopping leads to more shopping. Once you read about the Diderot Effect, it is very obvious when it's happening. The worst is when moving or doing any work on your house.
  • Shopping is a terrible experience and a total waste of time if you don't truly need and won't get much joy out of what you're buying. There's no buyers' remorse if you're not buying things all the time. You're also not accumulating crap in your house and creating the work of giving it away in the future, exchanging for different sizes, returning when you think better of it, etc.
  • We are against the idea of subscription services Blue Apron, Stitch Fix, etc. where you passively buy things you don’t need. Blue Apron and the like really make no sense because you still have to go to the grocery store to shop for your other upwards of 15 meals that week. We also don’t like the idea of the waste created by packaging and shipping scant ingredients or that most of the cost goes to shipping rather than food. It feels intuitively like a rip-off.
  • It’s less tempting to buy impulsively when shopping online than in person. We built our whole baby registry without ever setting foot in a store.

Food

  • We love food. We don't want to buy showy things. We want weigh-and-pay fro-yo. The main limitation for our guiltiest pleasure on God's green earth is not money but our willingness to shorten our lives with marshmallow creme.
  • Buy from Costco if at all possible. We hate going to Costco, but the things we get there cost upwards of several times less than elsewhere. A big sale at a regular grocery store is still probably more expensive than the regular price at Costco. It's crazy.
  • We largely shop at Whole Foods. We always check the weekly sales before coming up with a meal plan and grocery list, and we stock up when a staple is on sale. We always get 5% back using our Amazon credit card and have additional benefits for being a Prime member, like an extra 10% off sale items.
  • It's significantly less expensive to cook things yourself compared to buying processed things that come in boxes and bags. The majority of what we buy is produce and protein, i.e. the raw ingredients for meals we prepare.
  • I keep track of what is in the freezer, what is open that we need to finish, and what is on sale this week at Whole Foods, then plan meals around that. Other than celery, we throw away virtually no food. (You can't use a whole package of celery. You just can't.)
  • We eat out maybe twice a week, I buy some beer at the store, and we get the occasional dessert, but that is the totality of our splurges. We tend to go to less expensive places around us, but even just those two meals a week cost about as much as half of our weekly grocery bill, which feeds us every other meal. My point is that it's way more expensive to eat out than to cook, even at the cheap places in Mills 50.
  • We rarely buy drinks or coffee out and we rarely buy drinks for our home. Water, coffee, milk, and beer are it.
  • We buy quality coffee beans, have a good coffee grinder and coffee maker, and even make cold brew at home, so we rarely buy coffee out. It doesn't feel like a sacrifice because we make good coffee at home. We also don't have to buy creamer to cover up the taste of gross coffee.

Energy stuff

  • We hang most of our clothes to dry to save electricity, not generate heat in the house from the dryer, and to make the clothes and dryer last longer.
  • We minimize our usage of the oven and don't simmer things at length in the summer to avoid creating heat in the kitchen. We use the Instant Pot and toaster oven when we can.
  • Our AC is on 78 during the day, but we do turn it down at night. We use a cheap space heater in the winter.
  • We have a Rachio smart irrigation controller, which can even skip watering in anticipation of rain.
  • We invested in insulation when we moved in, and the windows had already been replaced. This may yet be an area of opportunity for us to continue to invest in the house.

Small change

  • Chrome add-in: Honey This automatically suggests/tries coupon codes on many sites and automatically checks that you are getting the best price for comparable items on sites like Amazon.
  • Mobile app: Libby If you have a library card and a Kindle, the Libby app can be used to easily find and check out Kindle-compatible eBooks, which can then be downloaded to your Kindle, and audio books. I was surprised at how good the selection was, on my first few searches.
  • Amazon Prime Reading If you have a Kindle (or Kindle app) and Amazon Prime, you can read some magazines, comics, a few hundred thousand books for free with Prime Reading.

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