Friday, July 17, 2009

*Crash* *bang* $40

One of my friends recounted yesterday the ironic tale of how trying to save $4.50 cost her $40. The gist: To save the cost of a round-trip subway ride, she borrowed her roommate's bike -- then inadvertently blew out a tire. Sometimes, the transit gods, they laugh and smite.

I had my own version of that this evening. For possibly the First Time Ever, I am aiming to stick to a weekly budget. This is not a budget in the traditional (and, from my admittedly spoiled viewpoint, impossibly restrictive) sense, with pre-assigned totals for each category of spending. This is simply a fixed weekly number I'm trying to stay in sight of.

So, in the pursuit of frugality, I decided to cook in this evening, even though David is out at a baseball game and that's usually my cue to go eat somewhere he hates. I stocked up massively at the Red Hook Fairway this weekend (aka, Supermarket Nirvana), so one quick trip through the supermarket in my office building's basement later, I had a $3.90 piece of wild sockeye salmon and all the ingredients I needed for dinner. Once home, I hacked up some cauliflower to caramelize, washed a few dishes, and set things to roasting.

And then, from the corner of my eye, saw a fast gray blur of leaping kitten and heard a gigantic crash of glass.

Ashley, who this week got big enough to leap onto the kitchen counter, had just had his first encounter with the dish rack. The blender lost.

My first thought was "!$%@$$@$! I will never keep us all from stepping on a glass shard." My second was "well, I never much liked that blender."

I'd be much crankier about this had I not been thinking idly for years about replacing my very inexpensive blender with something flashier -- or maybe even, dare to dream, with an actual food processor. I've wanted one for ages, and it wasn't the price that stopped me, it was the idea of surrendering counter space to a new gadget.

I'm off to Amazon in a bit to price food processors/blenders/combo gadgets (does the iPhone perform blender functions yet?), but I'm bemused that my adventure in frugal cooking in has likely necessitated the blowing of my brand-new weekly budget to finance a blender replacement. I know "accident" is a category we have to budget for, but is there anyone who doesn't get annoyed by the unexpected expenses they incur?

I guess I'll just go be grateful I don't own a car.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Pay your bill, lose your credit line

It's a widely told story that credit-card companies are whacking credit lines left and right. Just like so many of the customers they serve, they relied too much on leverage during the boom years, and now they're trying to dig out from under the financial rubble.

But here's a twist I hadn't realized: Paying off your bill is a good way to get your card terminated.

My friend A. has been an American Express customer for most of this decade. She carried a balance on the card, but never once paid a bill late, and generally paid more than the minimum owed. Recently, she consolidated various bits of debt, and in one fell swoop paid off all of her credit cards.

The next day, most of them started rejecting charges.

A. was sort-of prepared for this. An ongoing divorce and consequent delinquent mortgage (for the house she moved out of that her ex-spouse can't afford to maintain) has done unpleasant things to her credit score, and she figured that if she paid off outstanding balances, her credit-card lenders might carpe diem and reduce her available credit lines.

So she called them right after she zeroed out the bills, starting with Amex. "Should I expect my credit limit to be reduced?" she asked. Nope, not at all, the Amex rep assured her. No signs of a review on her account, no red flags -- she was all set.

Less than 24 hours later, we stood in a store watching her card get declined. As A. rang Amex on her cell, the Army & Navy shop owner was on the store phone with Discover, A.'s backup card, which was also bouncing charges.

Several phone calls later, the story that emerged: A. had never been late on an Amex payment, but she had a habit of paying "too little" on the account, saith the rep. (What's too little? Who can say? Something between the minimum due and the full statement balance, it seems.) Something in the system flagged A. as a bad credit risk, so the moment her card balance hit $0, Amex took the opportunity to clamp down and close her account entirely. No notice, no warning.

And because the account had been closed, there was no possible way to resurrect it. If A. wanted a credit line with Amex (not bloody likely, at that point), she'd have to open a new account -- thereby hitting her credit score yet further, by closing out one of her oldest credit lines and simultaneously putting in a request for a new line.

This happened on two of her four credit lines. To Discover's credit, it didn't terminate the card. It just bounced attempted charges for a few days as a fraud protection measure, because the massive payment to zero out the card struck its anti-fraud algorithms as strange. (Are there fraudsters who pay down your credit cards? If so, hit me please!)

So, be warned: If you're considering paying off a card you would like to keep using, it might work in your favor to not let the card go to a zero balance. Keep a bit of a balance on it -- less than your statement balance, so you don't owe finance charges, but something north of $0 -- so that the account still has activity.

Otherwise, your credit-card lender may decide that any risk at all is one it doesn't currently want to run.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Travels with Frugal Ferret

It's amazing how one week of vacation can bottleneck a whole month of my life.

I took the last week of June off. This meant frantic, 12-hour-day scrambling for the week before at work, to set things up for my absence, followed by frantic, 12-hour-day scrambling upon my return, to catch by up. Hence, no posting. Broken up by a week of no posting because I was doing some massive lounging about.

My vacation was a bit of a personal-finance odyssey. When we dropped down to a one-job family in March, the first thing to go was our travel budget. I refer to Australians as People Who Do Not Stay Put. Within nine years of moving here, David managed trips to all 50 states. (I'm still one short: Hawaii.) Usually, we squeeze in a summer road trip and several extended weekend trips. This year, we're not weekending anywhere we can't reach by BoltBus.

But I had a wedding I couldn't miss in Denver, and as long as I was schlepping most of the way across the country, it seemed a waste not to try to tack on a trip to Seattle. Crash space was on offer in both cities, so I could make the trip for only the cost of airfare.

I still didn't want to spend several hundred dollars out of pocket if I could avoid it, so I cast about for other options. Like credit-card reward points.

The points that mysteriously disappeared from my Amex card when it rolled from an In NYC card to a Blue card in January happily reappeared about six weeks later. Amex's Membership Rewards system lets you use points to "pay" for travel purchases -- like airline tickets.

The bad: The redemption rate is a bit worse than the '10,000 points = $100 rate' that seems to be the going rate for what credit-card rewards points optimally buy.

The good: Because you're using points to pay off Amex Travel, instead of using the airlines' frequent-flier programs, this kind of redemption doesn't seem to run into the rampant blackout dates and other restrictions that airlines slap on their programs. The flights I wanted were easy to book. In the end, I shelled out just under 43,000 points to pay for about $380 in air tickets.

Of course, then I managed to blow all my frugality cred by spending all the money I saved on airfare on various glutinous foodie fits, but I think that's a fair trade.

The other reason my vacation was personal-finance themed was that I stayed in Seattle with Karawynn of Pocket Mint, whose zeal for the frugality mission astounds and inspires me. My idea of cost-cutting is remembering to order a case of inexpensive wine in bulk every month or two so I won't be tempted to make one-off runs to the shop for pricier bottles to drink with dinner. Karawynn calculates the savings involved in making her own bread. ($1.20 per loaf. Now you know.)

While discussing the cost of Starbucks-vs-homebrewed coffee, we somehow established that $3 coffee is a favored extravagance of Wasteful Weasels. "Karawynn doesn't like Wasteful Weasels," her partner Jak said sadly, mouring a tad for the days when he would make a run out for fast, full-cream coffees instead of brewing his own (which taste better!) with rationed half-and-half.

And thus did Pocket Mint's proprietress acquire a nickname referenced frequently through the rest of my trip: Frugal Ferret.

(Frugal Ferret was particularly horrified when Jak and I emerged from Voodoo Doughnut with a box of five, though I'm not sure if that was more about the indulgence of dropping $15 on sugar or for the sheer calorific destruction we wreaked. Either way, the Triple Chocolate Penetration was worth it.)