Sunday, August 2, 2015

Savings Challenge, Weeks 21-22: Basic Needs

There seems to be something wrong with the main webpage for the Bankrate Savings Challenge. When I view it in either Chrome or Firefox, I can't click on the links for the individual weekly challenges. I finally got it to work in Safari, so now I can view the last two challenges and post my responses. If you're also having difficulty viewing the page, try clicking on the links below to go directly to each week's challenge.

Week 21: Try Meal Replacements

This isn't so much a challenge as a hypothetical question: could you save money by replacing some or all of your meals with a liquid meal replacement called Soylent? Unlike liquid "supplements" like Ensure or Slim-Fast, this fairly new produce is classified as a food by the FDA and is guaranteed to provide all the nutrients your body needs.

Claes Bell, the Bankrate reporter who was brave enough to try this stuff for an entire week, reacted to it pretty much like Paul Hogan's character in the movie Crocodile Dundee: "You can live on it, but it tastes like sh--." He says the flavor and texture are "reminiscent of Ovaltine, but flavored with Splenda and sidewalk chalk instead of chocolate," and when he consumes it, "my stomach realizes it's been filled with some kind of nutrients, but it also knows the substance it's been asked to accept isn't food, per se." After a day or two on it, he says, he began to feel a sense of dread every time he started to feel hungry and realized that the only way to get rid of that hunger was to force down more of this vile stuff. He concludes that eating this stuff for the rest of his life would probably be better than an immediate, painless death, but "I'd have to think about it."

The worst part of all, however, was that when he did the math, he found that a diet of Soylent actually costs more than real food. A month's supply of Soylent for one person costs $255 a month; his family of four, by contrast, spends $600 a month on meals, including "the bill for our organic produce buying club, trips to Publix and an occasional meal out." Even if you assume he personally consumes 1/3 of this food rather than just 1/4, his share is still only $200—about 20 percent less than the stuff he found barely preferable to starvation. And since Brian and I spend only $300 a month on food (at home and at restaurants) for the two of us, it clearly wouldn't save us anything, either.

Bell points out that compared to other convenience foods, such as fast-food meals and frozen dinners, Soylent actually is somewhat cheaper. So for people who are always in a rush, keeping a stock of this stuff on hand for those times when there's no time to cook might be a money-saver. However, some of the items on his list—such as frozen meals from Lean Cuisine and Marie Callender's—cost only slightly more than the Soylent, and presumably they taste a lot better. And since you can usually get these frozen dinners for less than their full price by combining sales and coupons, it's unlikely the Soylent would really save you anything at all. Moreover, there are other convenience foods, like canned soup or macaroni and cheese, that cost significantly less per serving than Soylent does, and while you wouldn't want to eat these at every meal, at least eating them occasionally isn't an ordeal.

So frankly, I don't think it's even worth trying this challenge. Even if I succeeded in choking this stuff down, it wouldn't save me any money, so what's the point?

Week 22: Get Rid of Your Security System

Since I don't have a home security system and never have had one, this looks like another one of those challenges that couldn't possibly be a money-saver for me. But as it turns out, the Bankrate reporter who did the investigation, Laura Dunn, is in the same boat. So she opted instead to find out "what alternatives exist for keeping my home safe without adding a new category to my monthly budget."

A real home security system, Dunn found, would cost about $350 a year. That price includes a home alarm system, a security camera, and batteries for the camera. Getting a dog for protection—say, a nice Labrador retriever—would add another $750 a year, and the dog would also require a lot more "maintenance" than the alarm system. Of course, a dog also provides more intangible benefits, like companionship, but if security is your concern, this is an expensive way to get it.

Dunn also talked to a police captain about what she could do to keep her home safer without investing in this kind of pricey system. He recommended a few low-cost strategies to make her house look less "inviting" to thieves, including:
  • trimming shrubbery to get rid of hiding spots;
  • getting better lighting;
  • being on good terms with neighbors, so they'll keep an eye on your place; and
  • investing in a fake security camera (provided it looks convincing enough to fool a thief during a quick drive-by) and a fake "Beware of Dog" sign (without the dog to back it up).
Dunn found she could get herself a fake camera, with batteries, and a plastic "Beware of Dog" sign for about $40 total on, saving about $300 over the cost of a real alarm system in the first year alone. In theory, I could do the same, but to be honest, I've never seen the need. Our street is pretty busy and pretty well lit, even at night; I don't see any way a burglar could approach our house from the street without being spotted. And even if they did break in, we really don't have much of anything that's worth stealing: no jewelry, no fancy electronics, and a couple of computers that most people would consider obsolete. The biggest risk is that a burglar would leave a door open and let the cats out.

So, once again, I don't think it's worth investing any money at all in improved security. However, if getting rid of those huge overgrown shrubs in front of our house will make us safer, I'm happy to do that, since (a) it's free and (b) I've been wanting to get rid of them for years as it is.
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