Thursday, September 25, 2014

Rate Chasing

I mentioned in a recent post that I was doing a little bit of rate chasing with our savings account, where we keep our emergency fund and short and medium term savings. Here's a rundown on why I did that and how it went.

Years ago, Peanut and I got a joint savings account at Capital One (where we also had a checking account and credit card). They offered 1% interest with a quarterly .1% bonus, and it was a pretty good rate for the time. A few months ago, when I was putting the interest earned into our spreadsheet, I noticed that it seemed lower than it should be. I checked, and sure enough the interest rate had dropped to .5%. We had either never received notice that this was going to happen, or it was buried in paperwork/email such that we didn't realize it, and it annoyed me. It's entirely possible that they weren't required to give us notice, I guess. Anyway, I couldn't figure out how long it had been like that, and it made me irritated enough that I decided to go looking for a better option.

I poked around The Simple Dollar and Get Rich Slowly, both of which frequently do savings account round-ups, and found a number of options at marginally better rates - up to .90% with a huge balance (something like $50,000). I was looking mainly for a no-fee, easy access account with either no minimum balance or one that we wouldn't trip if we had to use our emergency fund for something big. I first checked with Wells Fargo, where we have our checking account, but they didn't have a competitive option. The online-only banks with the best rates didn't meet my requirements for no-fee or minimum balance, but Capital One 360 had an option with .75% that did. And that should be easy, right? Capital One/Capital One 360, what could be the difference?

Turns out, there's a lot of difference. Like, they are basically different institutions. Capital One 360 used to be ING Direct, which wound up being okay because I was an ING customer once upon a time, and they were able to simply get my old account up and running. Linking the accounts and verifying the tiny deposits took some time, and then I had to figure out how to get the money from one account to the other.

It's frustrating but there are federal laws that govern savings accounts, including how many withdrawals you can make during a month and other things. At any rate, for some reason we couldn't just transfer money between the accounts like I could if one of them had been a checking account, but a few phone calls and I was able to find someone who handled it as a wire transfer with no fee. Perfect!

Two days later, the money was in the new account, earning .25% more interest, and the old account appears to be closed (I will be keeping an eye on that - it was no fee, no minimum balance, but I don't like leaving open accounts hanging around). It was painless, if not exactly hassle free, and I'm glad to know that our money is doing a little more work for us.

This is not something I recommend doing on a regular basis. It's not worth the time you'll spend to do it even once a year - I think we will earn about $20 more this year than we would have if I'd left it alone. But every five years or so, or when things substantially change with the economy or the terms of your account, it's worth taking a look at. Hopefully we will continue to grow our emergency fund, so over time this work will be more valuable.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Sous Chef: Butternut Squash Casserole

Click to pin the recipe!
I found this recipe at The Simple Dollar in a round up of cheap, healthy Dinner with My Family recipes, and I was intrigued. I love butternut squash and bought it every week at Aldi last summer - and this year we're growing it in our garden so I've been looking for ideas for what to do with it.

Prep: This recipe comes together quickly and pretty easily - the most difficult part was definitely peeling and cubing the squash, which is not my favorite part (I usually halve it and roast it to avoid that, actually). Even so, it didn't take long to pull together and

Taste: I'm not generally a huge fan of blue cheese, but I thought the combination might be intriguing. It was okay, though I will probably try a different cheese next time - feta or maybe mozzarella, which I always have on hand. I might also reduce the baking time, as the squash was very tender and I usually like it to have a bit more of a bite to it.

Reception: I'm the only one who ate this, so apparently I'll be eating the whole pan. Good thing I'm eating for two, har har. Pickle politely took two nibbles out of a piece of squash and Peanut looked skeptical at me at the very mention of it. I might freeze half of it and see if it keeps, because of course I used a GIANT squash so I have a ton of it left over.

Anecdata: Cheap, easy to have pretty much everything on hand, easy. Not much to dislike about this! 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Kill Those Watts!

Peanut and I have noticed our electric bill creeping up lately, not so incrementally. Both our bill cost and kilowatt per hour usage is up somewhat significantly over last year, so we decided to go on a search to figure out why.

First, we checked whether the rates had increased over last summer. This information is printed on the bill, but we don't get a paper bill so we had to go digging on the website to find it. We learned that the cost had increased by about $.005 (half a cent) for electric and $.003 for delivery per kwh (we're not totally sure what this is, but we think it is the cost to get the electricity to us, so is charged by the kwh just like the electricity itself). It explained part of the difference in our total bill, but not all of it. Plus we can see right on our bill that our kwh usage is up compared to last year.

Then, we rented a wattage meter from our local public library. You plug this in to various electrical devices in your home and it tells you the energy draw in kilowatt hours, the same increment charged by the electric company. We found it really interesting which of our appliances were the biggest energy hogs.

Our #1 energy hog: the toaster oven. Really! If we ran the toaster oven continuously, it would cost us $107 per month (and it would burn our house down). The culprit of the biggest actual cost, though, was the dehumidifier - about $33 per month. Next up is our upstairs computer which runs a server ($20 per month), then our downstairs computer ($9 per month). Our deep freeze is a bargain at just $4 per month. We only checked appliances for which we might actually change our usage depending on their cost, so we didn't check the regular fridge/freezer or things like lamps or the baby monitor. And we couldn't check the air conditioner since it doesn't just plug into the wall. We did discover that a phone charger plugged in to an outlet with no phone on it costs nothing per month, and when you add an uncharged phone, it costs $.40 (that's if it charged the phone for the whole month, not each time you charge it). If you leave a fully charged phone plugged in, it would cost you $.09 per month. Interesting stuff. 

Third, we tried to figure out where we had increased our energy usage over the last year. We came up with a couple of theories - first, I'm pregnant during this summer and I wasn't last summer, and I have been feeling a lot hotter than usual. We keep our thermostat at 78 degrees, but I have had to turn it down to 76 on occasion when I just couldn't get comfortable, and each degree is about a 1% difference in energy use (I haven't run the math on that, but I'm sure it adds up to a dollar or two a day if I leave it cooler for eight to ten hours at a time). Second, after our basement flooded last summer, we've been trying to keep it drier down there to prevent mold, and have been running a dehumidifier quite a bit - like, 2 out of 3 days in a month. We got an older dehumidifier at an estate sale for $20; it's worked great but we are now considering whether it would be worth it for us to invest in a more energy efficient model that might have lower energy costs. Probably we'll shelve the idea until next summer because we're about to run into the time of year where our house is way too dry instead of too damp.

At any rate, it was a really interesting experiment to figure out why our energy bill was so much higher than we're used to - I get really peeved when I can't figure out why I'm paying more for something. In this case, it's pretty clear that I'm getting more of that something - electricity - even though it's hard to directly see the increase in our consumption. I now find myself turning off lights, or not turning them on to begin with, thanks to our little exercise, and I'm not so grumpy about paying the bills.



Thursday, September 11, 2014

Also better late than never - September goals!

1. Move savings account, close old one. More on this in a different post, but I'm doing a little bit of rate chasing and just need to clean up some odds and ends to get it all done.

2. Lower grocery spending. Our food spending has been a leeeetle bit out of control lately. Our increased grocery store prices and loss of double coupon days is making an impact, but most of it is just buying whatever I want when I'm in the store, I think. Time to do a little better with planning and listmaking (and tamping down on the nesting urge to stock up - the grocery store will still be there after the baby is born, and I know now what a treat it is to get out and go somewhere alone in the early days!).

3. Get some nesting done without spending $$$. My honey-do list is long, long, long, and most of the things on there could be accomplished if we spent out on it. But I'm trying to find cheaper ways to cross things off. Example: I want a johnny-wall cabinet for our bathroom. I've wanted one for years, pretty much since we moved into this house. I found one at Home Depot for $90 and told Peanut that I'm going to buy it in one month, unless he makes me one before then. He likes doing wood-working stuff and this is a project I will be happy to lose him to for an afternoon, so we both win.

Better Late Than Never: August Spending Recap




business ($3.89)
car jeep ($56.16)
car mazda ($162.70)
Cell phones ($100.00)
charity ($10.00)
clothing ($227.78)
electric ($136.24)
Entertainment ($192.36)
food - groceries ($521.90)
food - other ($353.43)
gas ($24.54)
Helicopter/Robot ($39.18)
house ($1,401.71)
household ($421.71)
Hygiene ($20.00)
internet ($75.57)
medical ($18.59)
transportation ($50.00)
Water & Trash ($76.46)
Things of Note: 
The clothing category was quite a bit higher than usual, for a couple reasons. I had to start wearing maternity clothes, which I never had to do with Pickle, and so I had to go buy some. I've been getting them from thrift stores and clearance racks and hand me downs, and I think I've got all I need now. I also hit up the kids' consignment sale for things for Pickle and baby boy, and picked up some new cloth diapers to try out. 

Our entertainment category was higher than usual as well - the state fair and Renaissance Festival both fall during this month, and we did both (this is also why our food - other category is kind of high too, ahem). 

A massive Costco trip covers the bump in household and food - groceries categories. 

Overall, not a bad month. 


How was your August spending?