Category: Using Money

Keeping Birthdays Frugal

Well, it was my birthday quasi recently. Actually, it was two months ago. But that doesn’t matter. “Recently” is all in the eye of the beholder., right? The point is that I had a birthday relatively recently, and hasn’t everyone had a birthday relatively recently?

There’s always an urge to go all out and “treat yourself” for your birthday, or treat your spouse on their birthday. Treat your six kids on all of their birthdays. But in the early retirement lifestyle, all things must be kept in check, and that includes birfdays. You can splurge, but within reason. And at this point in our life of eternal optimization, it takes very little to feel like a huge splurge!

Here’s what we do on birthdays to make it fun and keep our savings in checl:

Eat Whatever You Want!

After abolishing Takeout Fridays, Marge and I hardly ever eat out or get takeout. We’re not lazypants, we like to cook food for ourselves. It definitely costs less, although I refuse to accept the notion that cooking is inherently healthier than eating out. It’s all in what you make of it (the food), but let me say this: Making our own meals definitely means less sodium intake. There’s so much salt in food out among the English. The only times we do eat out is when traveling to fantastic places… and on our birthdays! And on birthdays, all rules are out the window.

Flying ChickenUsually these birthday meals turn into birthday meal weekends. How exciting it is to pick out a favorite home-cooked meal from the past or something from one of our favorite area restaurants. For the past few years, my birthday dinner has been fried chicken and waffles from a local place.

I still managed to especially frugalize this birthday. I was all set to order the fried chicken dinner and noticed on their website that they are now on GrubHub. That’s an online ordering platform, I guess, but the point is that I could get $7 off my first order since I’ve never used the service before. Seven dollars is worth like two fried chicken thighs and a drumstick! Sign me up!

Birthday Beers 2016My other special birthday treat is a handpicked six-pack of craft beer. This is basically the only time I’ll buy a six pack during the year. Maybe one other time if I’ve really “earned” it through DIY work around the house.

Birthday BreakfastSpecial birthday meal for me usually extends to Sunday breakfast as well, which usually means fried eggs, corned beef hash, bacon, and a couple apple cider doughnuts from a local baker. It’s your birthday! Treat yourself! And the treats don’t end there!

Customized Birthday Cake!

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Leaving It To The Professionals

Last week, part of our ceiling collapsed.

Tub Drain Leak (6)

It’s not as bad as it sounds. It was a drop ceiling in the one room in the house that still has that. A leak sprung from our second floor bathtub’s drain pipe and started water soaking into the big drop ceiling tile. The tile got so saturated with water that it collapsed to the floor. Luckily, we have two bathrooms, so we can just use the other shower while we fix the drain pipe.  No buckets for water collection necessary!

I got up into the drop ceiling to see what was up, felt around pipes and found exactly where the leak was: Where a metal pipe fits into a PVC pipe. So I got out my wrench, gloves, and bottle of Blaster to try and and take apart the pipes.  (It turns out you’re not supposed to use Blaster on PVC anyway, kids!) After stinking up the place with Blaster and rubbing my fingers raw trying to get the pipes apart, I had a flashback…

Tub Drain Leak (2)

The culprit

A few years ago, one of the toilets wouldn’t stop running. The water would keep running through the tank. The seal wasn’t tight anymore. So I attempted to fix it. But this toilet was so old that the style of flushing mechanism (technical term) wasn’t manufactured anymore, so I couldn’t buy a replacement part.  Instead, I had to take the whole thing apart, take out the whole flushing thing-a-majig, and put in a new one.

Each screw was excruciating to take off. The toilet probably hadn’t been taken apart in forty years, when it was made. The screws were rusted in place. I spent weeks trying to slowly get the thing apart. I eventually did it, but was a trying experience.

With this drain pipe in the ceiling, I could suddenly see the same thing happening. I saw myself spraying Blaster up there after work, night after night, and pathetically trying to yank the pipes around in their little enclosed area, then probably having to buy tools that I might or might not ever use again.

So instead, I decided it was time to call the professionals. Marge called a guy the next day, he came over a few houes later, and by 5PM, it was fixed. And our pockets were lighter by $149. Ouch!

Call it a Frugal Failure, but sometimes I think it’s worth it to go to the professionals. We paid up to get the bats permanently out of our house last year. Whenever a job takes specialty knowledge, expensive tools, or is obviously going to take us forever to get done, I consider them.

Other times I look to professionals instead of DIYing it

Certain types of food. I’ve never tried making my own beer or wine. I know people do it. And I imagine it tastes somewhere on the scale from “okay” to “something died in this.” But there are people who spend their lives dedicated to the alchemy of alcoholic drinks. I could try to learn some things and waste my time buying equipment and making my own barely palatable swill. Or, for the few times a year I buy beer or wine, I could just go to the experts who live and breath this stuff and buy something that has been tested and judged to be nummy by all.

Birthday Beers 2016

Birthday Beers 2016

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Is A New York State Lifetime Parks Pass Worth It?

Back in December, we made our annual 6 hour Christmastime sojourn to spend time with family in far western New York. We ended up stopping only once at a rest area to stretch our legs. You just never know what you’re going to find in these places.

Did you know that New York State Thruway rest areas sometimes have a Zoltar fortune telling machine, as seen in the movie Big? I didn’t. I didn’t find out my fortune, but I did see a couple of fully grown adults playing the claw game around midnight. Pity, they didn’t win anything.

I looked through the display of tourist brochures advertising whitewater rafting, roadside attractions and historic homes. And one in particular caught my eye:

A brochure for lifetime New York State hunting and fishing licenses, and parks passes.

Lifetime Parks Pass (1)

A New York Adventure license? Literally a License to Have Adventures?? Sign me up!

I’m aware of the annual New York State parks passes. In fact, we’ve gotten them as Christmas presents in the past. So, the alarm bells go off in my head. A lifetime pass?? Meaning, you pay it once and it’s done? That’s pretty incredible. Rarely do you see a lifetime pass for anything.

Like other personal finance bloggers, Marge and I strategically buy things in the largest size possible to save money, and sometimes bring this strategy to its logical conclusion. I make an annual trip to BJ’s using a free membership offer in the mail so I can buy a year’s worth of toothpaste, toilet paper, etc. And Marge has been told that she’s the only person who buys an 18-month membership at her gym. It’s worth it because the price per month is so low, much cheaper than if you were paying month-to-month. A month-to-month plan would work if you plan on giving up like a punk. But Marge has been going a few times a week for a few years now.If it’s something you’re going to use, it’s usually worth signing up for the longest possible timeframe.

So what about our state parks? Well, hiking and exploring has been a part of our relationship since the beginning. In 2004, thanks to a massively delayed flight, I got a free ticket to anywhere Spirit Airline flew. The most interesting place to fly seemed like Denver, so we bought Marge a ticket and right after we graduated college, we hopped on a plane to Colorado. Mainly we went to see the Rocky Mountains.


Cub Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park

Even as far back as spring 2001 we visited Thacher Park (one of the New York state parks covered by the pass) on what might’ve been my first trip to the Albany area.


Thacher Park overlook, spring 2001

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How To Play The Lottery and Lose Every Time

Can you feel the excitement in the air? If you live in one of the 44 states that plays Powerball (or the District of Columbia or U.S. Virgin Islands) you know that the reason everyone feels abuzz is because we’re once again about to set a new lottery jackpot record! Right now, the Powerball jackpot is expected to be $700 million on Saturday!

Let me say this: Gambling is a terrible idea. Controversial, I know. There is no worse investment you can make then putting money into scratch-off tickets, slot machines, or the lottery. I really do hate it on a base level.

I would be happy to see every casino get run out of business. I’d ban the whole lot of them. You can call it legislating morality, but as an economic factor, casinos do nothing but damage, despite what their marketing says, and I wish we could just protect people from themselves and their worse instincts. I’ve been watching with glee as the casinos in Atlantic City shutter. And I’ve been watching with horror as casinos, counter-intuitively, get approved and built in upstate NY.

Christmas Dinner 2015 (3)

Cookies and scratch-off tickets. A mainstay of any Christmas.

That said, about once a year, I go to Saratoga Racetrack and bet on horses. And also once or twice a year, I play the lottery.

What am I, a hypocrite? Yes I am! But let me explain my two reasons for playing the lottery.

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Real Christmas Trees Rule

When I was growing up, my family always had a fake Christmas tree. Taking the Christmas tree’s metal center pole, opening the box full of branches, hooking the branches into the pole and fluffing them up was just as much a part of Christmas decorating as putting on all of the ornaments and hanging the Mistle “Toad” from a doorway.

The fake tree seemed so commonplace to me that when I visited a friend’s house around Christmas one year and they had a REAL tree in their living room, I was shocked. I tried to play it off cool. “Oh yeah, oh course you have a living tree inside the house. That makes perfect sense.” When inside my head I was thinking, “What is wrong with these people? You can’t put a real tree inside a house! Where did they even get it from? The side of the highway??”


Christmas Tree 2010 in field

Christmas tree crop of 2010

Fast forward to 2005, Marge ‘sand my first Christmas together in our new apartment. We had to get a tree, and we had to choose between a fake and a real tree. We didn’t have much space, so we could get a fake tree fit for our small apartment, which we might have to upgrade when we eventually moved into a house. Or we could get a real tree and just throw it out after Christmas. At this point, I was already starting to develop my DIY and frugal tendencies, and so…

Christmas Tree 2006 (1)

Christmas Tree 2006

A real tree it was!

Christmas Tree 2014 (2)

2014 Christmas Tree in the field

And not just a real tree, but we were going to cut it down ourselves. Cheaper that way, isn’t it? You could buy a freshly cut tree for $60 or more from a nursery. Or maybe $30-50 for a tree in some parking lot. But you don’t know those trees! You don’t know how long they’ve been cut! They could drop half their needles even before Santa goes to town on those cookies.

Going to our local tree farm, a cut it yourself tree was $35.  And if you cut off just the top four feet or less, you got it for $20! Guess which one we usually went with.

Bare Christmas Tree 2007

Tabletop Pine Tree, 2007

Christmas Tree 2015 (1)I heartily recommend cutting down your own tree and immediately setting it in water at home. That tree is thirsty, and will immediately suck up a gallon or more of water on the first day. Now imagine if you had bought one of those parking lot trees. That thing is dying of thirst!

Christmas Tree 2006 (8)We cut a tabletop tree every year for our apartment. After buying our house, we started cutting down full size trees. We’ve been returning to the same tree farm every year since 2005. It’s one of the Christmas experiences I most look forward to. Sometimes we get a fir, sometimes a spruce, sometmes a pine. We haul this beast of a tree into the house, put it into a stand, and it fills the living room with the sweet smell of sap.

Compare that to assembling pieces of PVC and metal. Where’s the romance?? Even unadorned, I like having the tree in the house.

These days we buy a full size tree from the same farm as in 2005, but now it’s for $41, tax included. Here was the field this year:Majestic Tree Farm (2)

Christmas Tree 2011

Christmas Tree 2011

The second, and final, part of our Christmas decorating ritual takes place during whatever Christmas music special is on the networks. We put on all of the ornaments we’ve collected over the years. These past few years it’s been during the Michael Buble Christmas special.

So considering that it’s the Christmas season, here are the reasons why YOU should cut down a real Christmas tree instead of buying a fake one.

  • The experience of cutting it down. NUMBER ONE REASON. You get to go out into a field with a hacksaw, claim your tree, and cut that tree down just like your cavemen ancestors did when they celebrated Christmas.
  • The smell. A real tree is full of sap and smells up your house pine-y scents. A fake tree smells inert.
  • Christmas Tree 2009 (4)

    Christmas Tree 2009

    You support a local business. Buying a real Christmas tree is inherently local. You can probably guess where they make the fake trees. Here’s a hint: It’s not at a factory near your house. Support The Things You Like!

  • They’re more environmentally friendly. At least, I’m almost sure they are. They have to be right? It takes some resources to grow trees, but they’re giving back to the enviroment. Factories making trees are just fabricating metals and plastics and putting stuff into the air, then going through great lengths to deliver it to you.
  • Christmas Tree 2012

    Christmas Tree 2012

    It’s the real thing, not imitation. A fake tree is just that, a fake version of something that already exists. I know I’ve said it before here. Don’t deal with imitations! If you like the look of a thing, use that thing. Be honest with yourself and your materials.

  • They don’t take up space throughout the year like a fake tree. That pole and the boxes full of branches have to be stored somewhere for the other 11 months of the year. Do you really want to waste the space on that?
  • It looks nicer. This should be self-evident. The idealized Christmas in America is the Victorian-era Dickensian Christmas, and that includes an oddly-shaped real tree.
Christmas Tree 2015 (3)

Christmas Tree 2015, unadorned

According to our Quicken records, over the last 11 Christmases, we’ve spent about $370 on Christmas trees. Could we have bought a fake tree for less? Probably. But I doubt I would enjoy it as much.

Try and convince me that a fake tree is better than a real tree.


I’m here today to tell you the tale of how we blew $1,200 on ourselves.

And it will be totally worth it.

Upstairs BathWe moved into our house basically on New Years Day 2009, a year before our house’s 150th birthday. Though about half of the house had been totally remodeled and beautiful, there were rooms that needed a lot of work. Mostly it was the upstairs bathroom. The sink wasn’t hooked up, the floor tile was in pieces, there was a wall missing, ceiling bowed out.

It was a bare room without lights. Fine to use during the day, but creepy to use at night. Most disturbingly was the one night when Marge went to the bathroom and heard a chirping in the top corner of the room. It was dark, only lit by moonlight, but she could tell that there was an animal in there that wasn’t happy with her presence. She was pretty sure it was a bat.

Bathroom Radiator

Well, we fixed up the bathroom and put in a new wall and fixtures. All nice and new!  And all goes quiet for a while. A year, in fact. Then in the middle of the night, we are woken up by Maeby pacing around the bedroom.  Luckily, she woke us up. In the dark we could make out…

there was a bat flying around the bedroom!

We covered ourselves with blankets and scrambled out of the room! But Maeby was still in there! I opened the door and yelled for Maeby to “Get out! Get out of there!” as the bat continued to fly around.

Did you hear something?

Did you hear something?

We slammed the door, but now the bat was stuck in our bedroom. Eventually, I worked up the courage to cover myself with a blanket, crawl on the floor as if under enemy fire and open the window screen so the bat could fly out.  I think I even felt the bat’s wing flick against the blanket at one point. EWW!

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Vaccinationman (Or The Unexpected Expense Of Travel)

See what I did with the title there? Who here saw Birdman? It was good, right? I haven’t felt that dizzy in an Emmanuel Lubezki movie since… oh wait, Gravity, which was a year ago! Ha ha! I wish Edward Norton won a best Supporting Oscar, though. I mean, JK Simmons was amazing in Whiplash, but he should’ve won in the Best Actor category. There’s nothing “supporting” about the role of Flecther, am I right!

Anyway, today I wanted to talk a little about an Unexpected Expense of Travel. By using our frequent flyer strategy we are able to travel a whole lot for very cheap. I’m talking free flights, free hotels, even free food and reduced transportation costs. Traveling is what we love to do. I love planning it and I love doing it. So I’m lucky that we can travel during all of our possible vacation time and still keep it on the frugal side.

Up until now, we’ve done a lot of touristing around the US, Canada and Europe, but this year we are starting to venture outside of those comfort zones, and with that brings a totally new set of rules. At the end of March, we are going to Peru for a week and a half. When I was booking it, I had no idea that Peru is still considered a “third world” county*. They’ve got diseases in Peru that you just can’t catch very easily in the U.S. And that means you need vaccinations!

Gimmelwald (16)

They might look mean, but these goats won’t bite. No vaccines required in Switzerland!

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Starbucks Gift Card Win

Sorry, that’s not a typo. This is not a “Win a Gift Card” post. But I thought I’d share a rare gift card “win.”

It goes without saying that I never go to Starbucks. When it comes to personal finance advice, “skip the Starbucks” is some of the most cliched, basic, duhhhhh advice around. It’s only slightly less obvious than “giant SUVs are more expensive to operate than small cars” and “bottled water is a scam.” I should hope that anyone who needs the “skip Starbucks” advice doesn’t read this blog, because that is purely Amateur Night. But as much as I avoid certain stores, sometimes I end up with a gift card for one of them.

So yesterday morning, I was reading my favorite news source The Onion and one of the stories hit especially close to home: Man Basks In Triumphant Glory After Purchases Line Up To Exact Value of Gift Card. Little did I know I was about to enact that exact scenario!

On my way back from the Asian Supermarket, I remembered I had a Starbucks gift card from Christmas burning a hole in my pocket. I hadn’t found a use for it yet. I don’t even know what people buy at Starbucks, besides coffee. And despite this being fake money in the form of a gift card, I still didn’t want to spend it on something I could make cheaply at home. So I decided to get some food instead.

Well, I had $10 on that gift card, and to my delight, this Starbucks’ pastries all seemed to cost $2.45. That means I could get 4 items, which would add up to $9.80. But I wasn’t sure if the food was taxed. There is a gray area where prepared food* is taxed, but food ready to eat but not really “prepared” is not taxed. Generally, bakery items are not taxed…

I threw caution to the wind and went for it!

Starbucks Gift Card (3)

Starbucks bakery nummers

And, lo and behold, there was no tax on my Starbucks pastries! The total was $9.80, leaving 20 cents on my Starbucks gift card (which I promptly threw in the garbage) and leaving all of my cash in my wallet. I love life imitating art.

FYI, the scones were okay, but that chocolate croissant was kind of a joke.

Do you have any gift card “wins?” Do you have a pile of gift cards with pocket change on them?


* Hey, for a fun read, do you want to know what the IRS’ definition of a sandwich is? It includes hot dogs, wraps, and open-faced sandwiches. Discuss!

How A Website Got Me To Read Books For Fun Again

I used to read a lot. Okay, maybe it wasn’t a lot, but in my memory I read a bunch of books in middle and high school just for my own enjoyment. I read most of the Michael Crichton bookography in middle school. Can you blame me? Jurassic Park got turned into the greatest movie of all time, so I became a Crichton convert at age 11. I read a bunch of dystopic future novels like 1984 and A Clockwork Orange.  I tried on three separate occasions to read James Joyce’s Ulysses in high school, without ever getting more than a third of the way through it (I would say, “Yeah, I was that kid,” but I don’t know if unfinished Ulysses kid is really a type)

Then at some point, it dropped off. I would read one or two books a year, sometimes zero. Usually it would be a Jonathan Lethem book.  I tried to read more, though. Trying to save money, I would go to the frugal bookworm’s greatest friend, the library. The problem is that I’m not a fast reader.  Unless I really get into a book, it’s tough for me to finish a book in 2 or 3 weeks, whatever the due date is. And then I would either renew it and then fail to finish the book again, or just return it and admit defeat.

So I started thinking, there had to be a better way.  We live in the new “sharing economy,” right? Shouldn’t there be a way for people online to share their books with each other? Finish a book, find someone else who has a book you want and who wants the book you have, and trade with them?

Even better than that, I found a website called PaperbackSwap.

PaperbackSwap (3)

Books in my “queue”

Ever since I started using this website, I’ve been hitting my goal of reading 24 books a year. That’s two books a month! Continue reading

The Most Brilliant System of Tipping Yet Invented: The Plate Count

In my quest to use my money more awesomely, it doesn’t always mean saving money every which way.  Sometimes that means spending more money to fix a system out there that is broken. This is one of those instances. Introducing the most brilliant system of tipping ever invented!

Restaurant workers are underpaid, can we all agree on that? The NRA (National Restaurant Association, not the other one) has somehow convinced us over the years that tipped workers don’t deserve much money. The federal minimum wage for tipped workers is $2.13 an hour. Two bucks! States can institute their own minimums over the $2.13, but many don’t. I’m looking at you, deep south!

But the federal government also requires the “normal” minimum wage to be paid to workers who don’t receive over $30 in tips in a month. Oh, how generous! $30 is not a high threshold. That’s $7.50 a week. That means if you work five days a week, and make $1.50 in tips each day (which would be an insanely slow day, by the way) you’re just getting the $2.13 hourly, plus the tips. Per hour, that $1.50 in tips is 19 extra cents per hour.


Doesn't the person who brought you 8 whole fried fish deserve a good tip?

Doesn’t the person who brought you 8 whole fried fish deserve a living wage?

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