Friday, July 07, 2006

$127 Flexible Spending Account Check Received

I submitted my documentation for health care reimbursement ten days ago and last night the check for $127 was in the mailbox. I turned around and paid the two bills this morning---so it's a wash. Only it's not: by contributing to my employer's flexible spending account savings plan, I'm able to pay non-covered costs and deductible with pre-tax dollars.

During this year's enrollment I elected to contribute the amount of our family deductible and save 25% off the costs of health care. (This account even covers the cost of cough drops!) My contributions are taken directly out of each paycheck, so it's a very painless way to save for covering health care costs that are uninsured or prior to meeting the deductible. Only warning: these accounts are use-it-or-lose-it annually. Usually there is a 90-day grace period stretching into the next year. If your employer offers this option, look into it.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Blog Debris Howling at the Moon

Where do old abandoned blogs go?

Take a look at any blog directory like Blogwise, do a search of "personal finance" as a keyword. You'll find blogs like lost wallets on the sidewalk. Photos and postings and comments, left out on the blog-street. Some blogs have been suspended, some have moved, and some are out waiting in the park after we drove off and left them.

I have an orphaned blog or two, one that I started with a group of friends who never got the hang of posting or commenting. It never did stand up and breathe. The other one is still waiting for me to return, and I'll be back soon. Or that's what I keep telling myself.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Extra $7200 to Equity Today

Today, as our mortgage payment processes, we've made an additional $7200 payment to our principal balance this year. Our fixed rate is 5.125%. Because interest earning rates have been below that, we've made extra 1/2 payments each month for a year, as a guaranteed return that's extremely safe (thousands of dollars in interest spared).

Now that savings and Money Market rates are paying nearly 5% (Vanguard's Money Market fund is currently paying 4.95%) it's time to reassess whether the extra principal payments or stashing the cash makes sense. Because we're already maxing out 401(k)s and IRAs, only taxable options remain. Thoughts?

20% Savings: Save $10 on a $50 Grocery Purchase

What Makes a Coupon Worthwhile:  Grocery Shopping Image
Every few months these coupons show up in the newspaper that offer $10 off a $50 grocery purchase. They never have a very long shelf life (like four days) so I always clip them and run. The trick is to use them for staples, other items already offered on sale, to target spending at exactly $50 to maximize the savings percentage, and purchase only food items. This coupon comes from Safeway and is valid if you also have a club card.

We used the coupon to stock up on dog and cat kibble (we like to keep at least one extra bag of each as part of our emergency supplies.) Threw in 2-for-1 18 count eggs on sale (hey, when teen-agers are running through at all hours of the day or night, lots of eggs are required), bread, pasta, milk, OJ, some fresh produce and such. We did exceed our $50 by about $6, paying $46 for the whole load.

These types of coupons make it worthwhile to clip and use them. While I see lots of postings about others clipping coupons and finding lots of deals in their Sunday newspapers, I honestly am usually disappointed with the offerings. All I ever seem to see are coupons for hair coloring products, expensive disposable razors, or Captain Crunch cereal. When I do see a coupon for a product we actually use, it's dismal: .30 cents off two jars of salsa or something. Not many coupons for avocados, cantaloupe or milk in our hometown Sunday paper.

Monday, July 03, 2006

July 4th Special: Add on a Room to Your House for Free

Given that work-a-day Monday, between the weekend and the Tuesday 4th of July holiday is something of a disconnected island, this post seems a perfect secret to share : add on a room to your house for free and enjoy it all summer, or longer.

Outdoor rooms provide private sanctuaries that let you enjoy the wonderful sights, sounds and scents of summer; an outdoor room will remove you from the chore reminders of the main house. To create an outdoor room, and actually expand the size of your living quarters, plan a room that can be functional both day and night. If you live in a warm climate, design your room to span several seasons. Don't buy a new patio set, lounge chairs or plastic rattan. Go down to the basement or up to the attic and you'll find the treasures to haul out and set up the space. You'll have more fun and love your outdoor room even more---More ideas about this later.

We have two outdoor rooms. One is the second floor deck that runs the western length of the house. A collapsible awning runs half the width of the deck. We haul out chairs, tables, bookcases and fill it with pots of flowers, vegetables and herbs. Candle lanterns hang from the rafters and iron lanterns dot the flooring. The view of the butte to the south is breath-taking. The trees provide shade, wonderful patterns of filtered light and the various birds that flitter down to the feeder or the bird bath.

Take a look at your space. Do you have a balcony, a front stoop, a private side yard? Any small space can be privatized. Fabrics are key: drape fabric (a clean sheet will do) over a bamboo or closet rod and create vertical space. Drag out an old rug and let it define the floor space. Bring out a few chairs, a table and some candles. Do you have a tabletop fountain? Add it to the room.

Several years ago, in another home, I bought two outdoor umbrella bases on sale. I looped colorful sari fabric over the horizontal rod, and placed two rods upright in each base. I then secured the horizontal rod by tying if off with twine. I used this outdoor "screen" and a tall pot of bamboo to block the neighbors view into my outdoor room. The wind rippling in the fabric was lush and satisfying. Bamboo is an excellent screening device as well.

Enjoy summer while it's here, and celebrate the 4th in your own outdoor room.