Thursday, June 18, 2015

Savings Challenge, Weeks 11-16

Since I started working for Money Crashers, I haven't had much time during the week to update this blog, and as a result, I've fallen seriously behind with the Bankrate Savings Challenges. The last one I posted was over a month ago, and since then, six new weekly challenges have popped up on the challenge's main page. I don't really have time to post six separate entries to get caught up, and anyway, I doubt I could get a full blog post out of each challenge, since most of them (as usual) aren't really relevant for us. So instead, here's a catchup post, in which I'll run through the six new challenges and what I have to say about them—whether that's taking the challenge in full or just explaining why it doesn't work for us.

Week 11: Bid on hotel rooms to save big

This challenge is all about using Priceline, along with a few other travel sites, to name your own price for a hotel room. Doug Whiteman, the reporter covering this challenge, leads off with the remark, "The idea that some people would spend hundreds of dollars per night on a hotel room has always seemed crazy to me." I'm certainly in agreement with him there, but I'd take it even further: for me, in most cases, it's crazy to stay in hotels at all.

That's because Brian and I don't really like to travel for its own sake. As a rule, we travel for only two reasons: to visit family and friends (in which case we stay with them), or for the occasional work-related trip (in which case it goes on the expense account). The last time we stayed in a hotel, as far as I can recall, was when we went with my parents to visit my sister for Hanukkah in 2012—and on that occasion, they picked up the tab in exchange for having us do the driving. The last time we actually paid to stay at a hotel, as far as I can recall, was on our honeymoon nearly eleven years ago.

Obviously, if you're a person who does like to travel, this strategy won't work for you, and you're better off with Mr. Whiteman's. (My favorite financial writer, Andrew Tobias, also loves it, saying "Many is the time I've stayed in a $300 hotel room for $89.") But skipping hotels completely works fine for us.

Week 12: Conserve gas by carpooling to work

This tip is obviously useless for me, since I work entirely from home (you know, cranking out those articles for Money Crashers) and I don't use a drop of gas walking from my bedroom to the office. Brian doesn't really do it either, because his workplace is only four miles away, and most of his coworkers live farther away than that. Instead, he saves gas in the warmer months (and very occasionally in the wintertime) by riding his bike to work. He finds this method of commuting much more enjoyable than driving, and it helps him maintain his boyish figure (or rather, acquire one, since he's in much better shape now than he was as a boy).

Occasionally, Brian will get a ride home with a coworker (for instance, if he rode his bike to work and then it started raining), or give a ride to one whose car has broken down. But since he doesn't regularly drive to work, forming a regular carpool isn't really an option.

Week 13: Find the best diaper deals

This obviously isn't a useful tip for a couple with no kids, in diapers or out of them. The only time I've bought diapers in the past couple of years was as a Hanukkah present for my sister, and those were not the disposable kind, but eco-friendly cloth diapers from Charlie Banana. These ain't cheap: a pack of 6 costs at least $114, which means enough diapers to get your kid through to potty training will run you upwards of $450. But that's still significantly less than the $1,912 that frugal-living blogger Squawkfox estimates you'd pay for disposable diapers over the same period. Even if you tack on another $375, as Squawkfox does, for the extra laundry costs, you still save more than a grand by using cloth. And that's just with the first kid; those cloth diapers won't wear out in 30 months, so you can go on to use them again with any future kids. And after that, you can sell the cloth diapers on eBay and recover about half of what you spent on them initially. So unless you can get the price of disposable diapers down to about 8 cents apiece, cloth is bound to be cheaper.

Week 14: Eat local, seasonal produce

Ah, now here at last is a challenge that's right up my alley. Indeed, my whole series of Gardeners' Holidays theme is basically a celebration of local, seasonal produce. However, one thing I learned recently makes me hesitate to take on this challenge: food that's locally grown—say, within a 100-mile radius of your home—doesn't always have the lowest carbon footprint. According to this article from the Worldwatch Institute, the transportation of food from farm to table accounts for only 4 percent of its total carbon emissions. So veggies grown in the fertile soil of California, where they need less fertilizer to flourish, may actually have a lower carbon footprint than veggies grown right here in New Jersey.

The article argues that "production practices"—that is, how food is grown—matters a whole lot more than where it's grown. Organic produce, for instance, has a lower carbon footprint because you can cut out all the emissions associated with producing, transporting, and applying chemicals to fields—and it has other environmental benefits too, like reducing water use and preserving biodiversity. But on the other hand, local produce also has some benefits that can't be measured in terms of carbon equivalents. Buying local makes it possible to know the farmers personally, so you actually know a lot more about how their food is produced than you do when you buy at the supermarket. However, this only works if you're actually shopping at the farmers' market and interacting with the growers directly; if you just pick the apples marked "Jersey Fresh" off the supermarket shelf, it doesn't tell you anything except where they come from.

So if I take on this challenge, I think I'll want to take it one step further. Instead of just choosing food that's local and seasonal, I'll want to make sure it's as sustainable as possible. That means all the food I buy during the weeklong challenge should be either
  1. from our own garden,
  2. Certified Organic, and/or
  3. from a farm I know to be sustainable.
This makes the challenge quite a bit tougher, but fortunately, I have an ace up my sleeve. Brian just notified me this morning that one of his coworkers is going to be away this weekend and has offered us her CSA share. So, between the contents of that box, a trip to the all-organic since we'll be picking that box up on Sunday—which, coincidentally, is also my next Gardeners' Holiday—I'll make that the kicking-off point for a week of local, seasonal, sustainable eating. Once I know what's in the box, as well as what's ready for picking in the garden, I can fill in the gaps with seasonal organic produce from the supermarket. So watch for more news about this challenge on Sunday.

Week 15: Shop around for the best insurance rate

Here's another challenge that I've already done. I posted on the results of my insurance checkup two years ago, when I tried to find better rates on my auto and home insurance but ended up deciding it wasn't worth switching both policies to save $140 a year. This past February, however, I tried it again, and this time I found that we could save $227 a year by switching to a new auto insurer. The higher savings, and the fact that we'd only have to transfer one policy, sold Brian on the deal, and we made the switch—with a promise to our old insurer that we'd check back with them next year and see whether they could convince us to switch back. So it'll be at least another 6 months before I'm ready to check insurance rates again.

Week 16: Set up credit card alerts

This week's story really isn't a challenge at all. Instead, it's a little educational article about four ways to use credit card alerts to save money:
  1. Set up payment alerts to let you know when a payment is due, so you never miss a payment and end up owing a late fee. I already receive my bill electronically, so I don't need any additional alerts to remind me to pay it.
  2. Use balance alerts and spending alerts to keep track of how much you're charging, so you don't let your bill get out of hand. I keep track of my spending using a much simpler system: a pencil and a sheet of paper tacked to my bulletin board. So when my monthly credit card bill comes, I already know exactly what's going to be on it—and if there's any transaction I don't remember, I can always double-check it against the sheet.
  3. Use transaction alerts to warn you about any transaction that looks suspicious, so you'll know if someone else is using your card fraudulently. This, I admit, would be a lot more convenient than the system Citibank uses with one of my cards, which is to cut it off with no warning at all if it's used outside of our home territory—as they did once while we were visiting my in-laws in Indianapolis. Apparently the fact that we'd used that same card to buy gas several times on the way to Indianapolis didn't tip them off that we might actually be there. So after that, we had to call up the company and tell them whenever we were going to be traveling. (Now, we just use a different card.) But if had simply alerted us to the fact that someone was using our card in another state, that wouldn't have been so bad. (Unfortunately, I checked and this isn't actually an available alert with any card we use.)
  4. Use alerts to keep track of your rewards, so you know when to cash them in or when to sign up for a new set of spending categories. I already get the alerts to tell me about new spending categories, and I just check the rewards balance whenever I pay the bill, so I don't need to be alerted about it.
And there we are: all up to date. I'll try not to fall this far behind in future, but it may mean making my Bankrate challenge posts little quickies that I can do during the week.
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