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Are You Saving Enough?

February 20th, 2010 at 05:36 pm

Next week, February 21-28, 2010, is America Saves Week.

With a persistently low personal savings rate, inadequate retirement savings and a frequent shortfall in emergency savings, Americans clearly need to "build wealth, not debt."

Although America Saves Week is intended to encourage institutions like employers, banks, credit unions and lenders to promote saving, it also seeks to encourage individuals to take charge of their finances.

When visiting the website, individuals can:

* See the humor in saving by viewing a variety of videos.

* Read or subscribe to monthly e-Wealth messages on a range of timely topics like Retirement Savings in a Bad Economy, Developing a Debt-Free Game Plan and Saving Your Tax Refund.

* Read the inspiring personal stories of ordinary individuals who have overcome a specific financial challenge. You can also submit your own story.

* Test your savings knowledge.

* Assess how you're doing.

America Saves Week is jointly sponsored by America Saves, which is managed by the Consumer Federation of America, and the American Savings Education Council (ASEC), which is managed by the Employee Benefits Research Institute (EBRI).

If you had to submit a story about your greatest savings challenge, past or present, what would it be about?

Free Advice from a Financial Advisor for 2 Days in January

January 4th, 2010 at 04:48 am

Ever wish you could sit down and chat with a personal financial advisor and receive personalized financial advice, but didn't want to pay $150 to $300 an hour? Do you think you're pretty much on track toward reaching your financial goals, but still wish a financial advisor could confirm that?

Well, now's your chance.

For two days in January, the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (NAPFA) and Kiplinger's Magazine will open their phone lines from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Eastern Standard Time, to dispense financial advice, absolutely free. NAPFA considers this a public service. For the ninth year, NAPFA is making this opportunity available to anyone, not just Kiplinger's subscribers. All you need do is make sure you have your financial paperwork at the ready, should the advisor require further details to answer your question.

So mark your calendars for Friday, January 22 and Tuesday, January 26. Just call 888-919-2345 to speak to a NAPFA advisor. If you like, you can also participate in an online discussion with a NAPFA advisor at Kiplinger's on those two dates.

If you could ask a financial advisor a single question, what would it be?

One New Englander's Heating Oil Diary

December 16th, 2009 at 09:28 am

When your income is erratic (or even if it isn't), every household expense is subject to scrutiny, most particularly those recurring expenses that are too easily left on auto-pilot but really add up over time. Energy prices have been especially volatile during the past two heating seasons and for the majority of homeowners living in the Northeast, heating oil ranks among the top five expenses.

There's a great deal you can do to minimize your heating oil bill, from bulking up on insulation, winterizing around doors and windows and adapting to a cooler indoor environment.

Still, unless you're Paul Bunyan and rely solely on a fireplace or stove for heat, you're going to have to bite the bullet at some point to schedule a home oil delivery.

But before you dial 1-800-OIL-NOWW, there are still ways to economize. You can save a few bucks simply by shopping around each time you order fuel. Over the years, I've narrowed possible suppliers down to the three I know consistently offer the lowest prices. (If you've signed onto a contract that locks you into a set price for the entire winter season, that's another way to go, but it's also speculative and can backfire like it did last year when customers who signed fixed rate contracts last summer of over $4.50 a gallon got burned when prices began to slide in the fall. I stopped purchasing fuel in advance after the oil company I paid for an entire winter's worth of oil went out of business, but that's another story.)

When you shop around, be sure to ask the supplier if they offer a discount for paying in cash. (In my area, you can shave off another .06 per gallon by doing this.) I also make a point to fill up my tank in the peak of summer, when prices tend to be lower. This doesn't always guarantee a lower price, but with the exception of the 2008-2009 heating season, it usually works. And finally, when I have no choice but to order oil in the dead of winter, I try to wait for a relatively mild day to do so. The delivery man who came to my home today confirmed that doing so made sense and that prices do indeed dip with even a modest rise in temperatures. Most suppliers will honor the price they quoted you, even if prices are higher on the day when delivery takes place

During the past five winter seasons, I've tracked oil prices and usage in my own home. I've certainly noticed the ups and downs in prices. Looking at the five-year period from 2005-2006 to 2009-2010, my cheapest price paid for oil was in 2006-2007, when I averaged $2.14 a gallon. That must've been a relatively mild winter as well, because I used less fuel that year, 315 gallons, than any other year since then.

Average price paid: $2.19 a gallon
Total gallons used: 391

Average price paid: $2.14 a gallon
Total gallons used: 315

Average price paid: $2.74 a gallon
Total gallons used: 339

Average price paid: $2.78 a gallon
Total gallons used: 506

Average price paid so far: $2.36 a gallon
Total gallons purchased: 116 as of 12/16/09

The last two heating seasons took the biggest chunk out of my wallet. I paid an average of $2.74 and $2.78 per gallon, respectively. Last week's national average residential heating oil price was $2.76 per gallon, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

And while my total usage remained relatively constant in every other year, when I consumed in the 300-400 gallon range, I burned 506 gallons last winter. I can't remember, but it must've been a cold one. (The Residential Energy Consumption Survey reported in 1997 that households consumed an average of 730 gallons of heating oil each season. Hopefully, we have closed that gap since then, thanks to improved home energy efficiency.)

Averages, of course, don't tell the whole story. Checking back on a post I wrote last spring, I see that the lowest oil prices I paid in the past five years was $1.99 a gallon April 2008 (ah, those were the days) and the highest was $4.24 a gallon in June of 2008. Who would have guessed there'd be such a dramatic spike in just three months?

All things considered, I didn't feel too bad paying $2.36 a gallon today.

How do your heat bills compare?

What Gets People Talking? Most Popular Posts of the Last 3 Years

December 9th, 2009 at 04:57 am

It's been nearly three years since I started this blog. The approach of year's end has put me in the mood to reassess, evaluate and quantify. Today, 102 entries and 668 comments later, I can gauge which posts were most popular with readers, based on the number of comments.

Interestingly, my most popular posts included the launch of the annual No Heat Challenge and multiple updates and entreaties to throw on a sweater. All told, the 15+ posts on this topic averaged 11 comments each, while all other posts averaged just 5 comments.

Aside from the No Heat Challenge, could you guess which posts generated the most interest? No, they didn't address some aspect of personal finance, which is, after all, the predominant theme of this blog. Surprisingly, the most talked about posts, after the No Heat Challenge, had to do with my cats. My request for help in naming Luther (2/16/09) and later, Waldo (4/17/09), each elicited 20 comments each.

What can I deduce from these findings? First, that "Theo" and "Boris" are last on the list of preferred cat names in the minds of many. But more seriously, that matters of money management are perhaps more palatable, and a heck of a lot more fun to read about, when you can participate in personal challenges, quizzes or cat-naming contests to break up the stream of more weighty reading.

So that's what I'd like to strive for in 2010: the creation of more personal challenges that we can all participate in, and in the process of doing so, motivate ourselves and others to improve their financial picture in some way, big or small.

What kinds of challenges would you be up for joining? In my challenges I'd like to emphasize strategies to reduce spending, since the ongoing $20 Challenge already addresses saving money.

I'd love to track home energy efficiency, but with multiple variables (regional differences in energy prices and weather patterns, different types of energy used and varying home square footage ), it would seem a difficult thing to measure in a national challenge.

Any ideas?

Hunger in America is Growing

December 7th, 2009 at 03:30 pm

Shortly after Thanksgiving, the New York Times reported on the rapid rise of food stamp use across the country. Shockingly, there are 239 U.S. counties, from the Bronx to Appalachia, where at least a quarter of the population receives food stamps. In the cities of St. Louis, Memphis and New Orleans, the Times reported, fully half of all children receive food stamps. And it is in some of the nation's richest counties, like Forsyth County, Georgia and Orange County, California, where the use of food stamps is growing most quickly.

The spike in food stamp rolls has often followed industry busts, from the collapse of the recreational vehicle business in Elkhart County, Indiana to the slowdown in car parts manufacturing in northwest Ohio. In southwest Florida, food stamp use rose sharply along with high foreclosure rates.

One food bank volunteer quoted in the Times story was surprised to find that people seeking aid were "knowledgeable, normal, well-spoken, well-dressed. These are people I could be having lunch with."

The USDA's 2008 report on Household Food Security in the United States stated that 14.6% of American households were "food insecure" for at least part of the year, meaning that the diet of one or more family members was reduced or disrupted due to lack of money to buy food. This represents the highest rate of food insecurity since 1995, when such data was first collected.

In my home state of Connecticut, the Connecticut Food Bank notes that soup kitchens and food pantries it serves have reported an average 30% increase in demand for their services this year.

In my hometown, an affluent suburb in Fairfield County, Connecticut (population 26,000), there are not one, but two, food pantries which permit those in need to pick up groceries once a month. One of them is run by the Connecticut Food Bank, which expects to serve more than 300,000 residents this year. There is no income verification, unlike the federal food stamp program, where eligibility hinges on both income and savings. (I approached one of the food pantries, where I had volunteered several years prior, about volunteering once again when I lost my job last fall, but I was told they had all the volunteers they could use. The need for donations, of course, remains constant.)

Has hunger in your part of the world increased, decreased or remained about the same this past year? Have you ever participated in food stamp or food pantry programs and, if so, how much of an impact did it have on your family budget?

Are You Better Off Now Than You Were This Time Last Year?

December 5th, 2009 at 06:20 am

Are you better off now, financially speaking, than you were this time last year?

I pondered that question while I was answering a survey from the investment management firm that oversees a good chunk of my investable assets. It caused me to stop and think a while, because the answer was not clear-cut.


Speaking strictly in terms of investments, the rising stock market has buoyed my portfolio by 27% in just a year's time. (But what the stock market giveth, the stock market can easily take away.)

Earning Power

It's hard to overlook, however, the obvious elephant in the room; my present state of joblessness means I am most certainly worse off than I was this time last year.


Here's one more angle to look at: the balance on my only debt (my mortgage) has shrunk by about $9,000 in a year's time, helped along by sizable prepayments of principal until my layoff in September.

How do you measure your financial progress and where do you think you stand?

Heating Oil Prices

April 1st, 2009 at 04:43 pm

I got heating oil delivered yesterday. I thought prices might go even lower now that heating season is nearly over, but actually, prices rose a little from their low of $1.76 a gallon. (This is heating oil, like diesel, not the same as gas for the car.) I got about 140 gallons at $1.99 a gallon, still a huge savings compared to last winter and even a very decent price compared to all my winters here.

Because I'm a manic keep-track-of-everything-you-never-know-when-it'll-come-in-handy kind of girl, i can tell you the lowest oil prices i paid in the past 4 years was, in fact, $1.99 a gallon yesterday (!) and the highest was $4.24 a gallon in June of 2008. I don't think prices will stay that low, so that's why I topped off the tank, though I still had a third of a tank left.

It's times like this that i keep telling myself i should have a second oil tank installed in my garage next to the other one, and I could fill them both up when prices are low and know I'm covered for all of the next season. As it stands now, this one full tank will probably get me through mid-January.

Talking About Car Tires

November 8th, 2008 at 05:49 am

Another big bill looms ahead.

There's still tread on my car tires, but just barely enough to touch the head on a Lincoln penny.

Car tires weren't really on my radar, but I've experienced some skidding this past week coming home from work. The road was wet and i skidded easily on a level surface, without even applying the brake that hard. I was on a busy interstate highway doing about 50 in heavy commuter traffic.

So my next stop will be at the library to check Consumer Reports recommendations. I'd rather not take any chances.

I have a set of four snow tires that have a little less wear, so I may just defer the new tire purchase until spring.

In past years, I put the snows on in fall and took them off in spring. I do get noticeably better traction with four snow tires. More recently, someone told me that frequently putting tires on and off the rims and can possibly weaken the tire. I haven't had any luck looking for an extra set of rims at a junkyard.

I see from my records that the last time I purchased tires, I bought Dunlop SP Sport A2 tires, which were ranked #1 among all-season tires by Consumer Reports in their Nov. 02 issue. The four tires cost just $240.

The tires were warrantied for 50,000 miles, but mileage was one thing I didn't make note of when I purchased the tires. By checking the mileage noted on a few receipts I saved for oil changes and rough annual estimates, I calculate these Dunlops had 40,000 miles at most. It doesn't appear I could have benefited from that warranty because I didn't have a Dunlop authorized dealer do my tire rotations all these years.

I may wind up at Town Fair Tire when I'm ready to purchase. They'll do those rotations, and fix any flats, for free.

When I bought my Dunlops last year, I wound up purchasing them from Tire Rack online. When I priced tires at Town Fair Tire, their prices were significantly higher.

But using four snow tires meant that twice a year, I shelled out $40 a pop to have the snows put on, then taken off in spring, adding $80 annually to my car expenses. So that extra traction the snows afforded me actually cost me an extra $480 over the six years I used them.

Cable's Best Kept Secret?

October 25th, 2008 at 10:31 am

I was browsing personal finance blogs yesterday and came upon a post that really got me excited. The author was talking about the upcoming February 2009 conversion of analog TV to digital TV.

I heard before that if you already have cable TV, you won't lose your reception, but if you don't, and you have an older TV, you won't be able to get a picture without getting a digital converter box.

But what got me excited is that the author was saying you could get a picture with the digital converter box and WITHOUT cable. In other words, by getting one of those $40 coupons they're offering online for free and then spending $10 out-of-pocket for the converter box, that could give you a picture if you're willing to settle for the basic network channels. Hey, that's what I'm getting now, but I'm spending $15 a month for the privilege.

It would be great to do away with that monthly expense if I could, since I don't watch much TV.

The author of the post also noted that they got a better set of rabbit ear antennas for their TV and said they didn't have an outdoor antenna on their roof.

Still no heat:
Boomeyer - Missouri
monkeymama - Northern California
debtfreeme - Northern California
Ima Saver - Georgia
scfr - Texas
snoopycool - Florida
sevenofseven - Northern California
princessperky - Charlotte, North Carolina
toyguy1963 - Ohio
Analise - northern California
Little gopher - Minnesota
canoineag - Denver
Buckeye - Ohio
Koppur - Massachusetts

Those who already turned on the heat:
Househopeful - Delaware Oct. 23
dmontngrey - Massachusetts Oct. 22
Fern - Oct. 19 Connecticut
mbkonef - SE Pennyslvania - Oct 17
Creditcardfree - Oct. 15
Nancy - Oct. ??
MilehighGirl - Oct. 11
wyozozo - Wyoming - Oct. 10
Mech - Oct. 3 Massachusetts
ME2 - Oct. 3
myenglishcastle - October 1 - Wisconsin
homebody - October 1

Fuel Efficiency Has Stalled in the Past 10 Years

October 12th, 2008 at 02:26 pm

I've been tracking my fuel economy for the last 10 tank fill-ups. I'm getting an average, since this past mid-July when I started taking note, of 38.4 miles per gallon with a high of 42.6 miles per gallon and a low of 34.9 miles per gallon.

I really can't complain, but what will I replace my 10-year-old car with when the time comes some day? Only a hybrid will beat my Honda Civic's gas mileage.

How important is fuel efficiency to you when you're considering a new car purchase?

Do You Have a Bucket List?

October 11th, 2008 at 01:22 pm

You probably know what a "bucket list" is, even if you didn't see the movie by that name. I didn't see it, but after a friend started talking about it, I began musing about what would be on my list.

I thought it would be fun to come up with a Bucket List made up of learning experiences.

1. Travel to every national park in the country. I love visiting national parks. Aside from unique and fantastic scenery, our national parks are an incredibly affordable vacation destination. And with park ranger-led talks and walks, it's a learning experience as well.

I get my Parks Passport book stamped each time I visit a national park. It's a nice memento of your travels. It would be fun to plan a week's vacation around a string of parks in close proximity to each other that you could hit all in one trip.

2. Read a biography of every American president, starting with George Washington and ending with President Obama. (Just making sure you're reading this.) I'm more interested in recent history that i've lived through, but I'm sure there are interesting things to learn about our earliest presidents. I'm getting more and more interested in history, and this would be a good way to go about it.

If I were really ambitious, I might add this goal: Read three books of my choice from the New York Times best-seller list each year.

In other news...
I filled up my oil tank last June, which is usually a time when prices are depressed. But when I scheduled my furnace cleaning, I asked what the going rate was now, and they told me $3.09 a gallon. That's cheap(!) compared to the $4.24 i paid in June x 192 gallons = an overpayment of $220 with just that one fill-up, but who knew?

However, the Energy Information Administration has forecast an average per gallon oil price of $3.90 this winter, so my advice to you would be, if you haven't filled up, do so now! Especially since OPEC is concerned that the dip in oil prices to around $87 per barrel is getting a little too low; they like to maintain oil prices at between $80 and $100. So they're meeting in November and will likely cut production.

Today's high was about 69 or 70 here, so I threw open all the windows at about 1:30 pm when I saw it had reached 68 outside and my indoor temp was still 60! Despite doing that, and then closing all those windows around 3:45 pm, I managed to increase the indoor temp to only 61.

This house seems to retain the cooler temps, a nice thing in summer but not so nice now. Still, with mild temps forecast through at least Wednesday of next week, I'm thrilled to continue deferring use of my heating oil. Each day I avoid turning it on now means an extra day's worth of heat I'll get in the dead of winter, when I really can't avoid using it.

Dismal News on Rising Homeowner Costs

October 9th, 2008 at 02:05 pm

In case you were in any kind of denial, here's an excerpt from a story on Market Watch.

"All major categories of homeowner expenses increased faster than incomes between 1996 and 2006, the center reported in "Stretched Thin: The Impact of Rising Housing Expenses on America's Owners and Renters."

"While mortgage payments increased 46% during those 10 years, utilities increased 43%, property taxes increased 66% and property insurance increased 83%, according to the study. But homeowner incomes increased just about 36%.

Here's the full story.

Kudos to all those who remain in the no-heat contest. No one else has written to tell me they turned on the heat, so we're all still in this together.

Fortunately for us in the Northeast, we're expecting mild temps in the low 70s for the rest of the week. And with all the terrible economic news (the Dow dropped again today like a lead weight), I'm looking at this no-heat challenge as more and more a necessity, not just entertainment.

On top of that, Accuweatheris forecasting the coldest winter in the Northeast in five years. So hang onto your mittens!

Will Fake Chocolate Flood Store Shelves?

September 19th, 2008 at 05:10 am

You may have caught on this morning's news how Hershey, trying to control costs and retain profits, has replaced the cocoa butter in many of its chocolate candy products with vegetable oil. The FDA says it's not real milk chocolate without the cocoa butter, which gives it its rich, creamy taste. So Hershey's has changed its labeling and wrappers. Will most consumers take the time to read the new labels that say "chocolately taste"?

Yesterday, I saw another interesting way that retailers are trying to save costs, and this idea, at least, wouldn't seem to hurt consumers or give them less product for their money.

I had a free-after-rebate offer (courtesy of this website) to try Arm & Hammer's Essentials Multi-Surface Cleaner. When I found it on the shelf, I was surprised because the plastic spray bottle was completely empty. Attached to it was a much smaller vial which contained a powder that is designed to be mixed with water in the container. You can then buy the small vial refills as needed, and continue to reuse that same plastic spray bottle.

Now this was a good idea. Just think how much Arm & Hammer is saving on shipping costs if their bottles are, well, filled with air rather than liquid. And consumers are actually helping the environment by avoiding the need to buy additional full-sized, plastic spray bottles. (Of course, one could help the environment even more by using a home-made vinegar mixture in your own reusable spray bottle.)

Have you come across other ways you've seen retailers trying to save some money?

The Real Cost of Owning a Car

September 6th, 2008 at 10:04 am

Ever wonder what your car really costs you? Not just the purchase price, but the gas, repairs and maintenance, insurance, license, registration and, if you're lucky like me, car taxes?

I figured it out this morning, just for fun. I had finished reading an article in Kiplinger's about whether hybrids are worth the price, and they mentioned that the Prius and the Honda Civic Hybrid are tied for lowest total ownership costs over five years, at $39,780.

So I decided to see how much my '99 Honda Civic HX has cost me since I purchased it. I track all my expenses anyway, so it was easy to do.

Here's the breakdown.

Purchase Price: January 1999: $14,500

Year Tax/Reg Gas Repairs Ins
1999 1175 639 200 813
2000 365 409 235 718
2001 507 516 507 874
2002 325 370 739 894
2003 302 520 466 719
2004 149 393 945 796
2005 214 377 614 655
2006 130 496 1020 393
2007 206 514 1029 388
2008 YTD 89 888 980 378

Totals 3462 5122 6735 6628
10% 15% 20% 20%

Total costs: $36,447
Minus sale of old car: 2,850
Balance: $33,597 divided by 10 years of ownership = $3,360 per year to operate.

Just think how much you'd save if you used your legs, bicycle or public transit to get to work.

A few interesting items to note:

1. Total costs for state taxes and registration, etc. fees was a substantial (10%) part of overall ownership costs.

2. Gas and repairs each accounted for 15% of total costs while insurance counted for 20%.

3. The cost of the car purchase itself represented 35% of overall costs over the 10-year period.

4. Gas, interestingly, didn't show a unilateral upward projectory leading to 2008. In the year I bought it, I spent $639 for gas, which is more than I spent in 2007. 2008 is already the year showing the most spent on gas for the whole time I've owned the car.

5. The cost of repairs has steadily risen each year. Guess that's to be expected.

6. Insurance, happily, has fallen, especially from 2006 on, which is when I dropped the collision/comprehensive on the car, in year 8.

So I spent less money to operate my car for 10 years than the new Prius and Honda hybrids will cost over 5 years. While gas costs for these hybrids will be lower than my costs, I don't think that alone makes up for equally high expenses for registration, insurance and repairs, not to mention the purchase price. Unless, of course, you really need a new car. But otherwise it's clear that coaxing an old car along is a great deal cheaper than buying a new one.

So while I grumbled a bit last week to pay over $650 for repairs to my car's emissions system, it's still a small price to pay compared to new car ownership costs. But you knew that already, didn't you?

Bartering Mysteries on Craig's List

August 21st, 2008 at 03:27 pm

Quite some time ago, I bought a case of Fancy Feast cat food at Costco. But the little kitty didn't like it; she really prefers her dry food.

I thought I'd go to Craig's List and try to trade my 19 cans of Fancy Feast for a bag of dry food.

First, one woman expressed interest but eventually dropped out. Then I reposted. Another woman responded and said she didn't have a bag of dry food at home, but she could go to the store to get me one and asked me what brand I wanted. I told her my cat's not too fussy and I gave her my number to schedule the trade. She never called, and I figured it was because at some point it dawned on her that she wasn't really saving much money when you factor in the time and gas needed to run to the store for a single bag of cat food.

Then a third person responded, and we did in fact, finally accomplish the trade-off, although he, too, said he'd have to go buy the bag of dry food. I had priced the little tins of Fancy Feast and saw they could be purchased for as little as .55 a can, so that's about $10.45 worth of canned food. So when he asked me what kind of dry food I wanted, I asked for a bag of Iams, Hairball Remedy.

I was surprised that he showed up. He left the receipt in the bottom of the bag and I saw that he paid $7.99 for it. So you could say he made a $2 profit, but of course, he had to drive to my house and to the store. (There were no other items listed on the store receipt.) So WHY DID HE DO THIS?

I just don't get it. I guess some people just like the idea of barter, but it only makes sense to me if you already have an item to trade.

I'm happy I managed to convert something that had become worthless to me into something that will feed my cat for about a month.

Tracking Long Distance Gas Mileage

July 20th, 2008 at 11:29 am

I visited with family for an enjoyable three days on the Jersey shore.

We fit in some blueberry picking and a trip to Island Beach State Park.

In my last post, i talked about how I got 39.4 miles to the gallon with my 99 Honda Civic HX. I clocked the mileage driving down to the Jersey shore. It's a three-hour trip one way. It was all highway driving but I took pains to maintain an average 60 mph and was curious to see how I'd do on this trip compared to the 39.4 miles per gallon I got driving my daily commute.

I'm happy to report I got 42.6 miles to the gallon. I chalk it up to hardly any any braking.

39.4 Miles Per Gallon

July 13th, 2008 at 04:34 am

Have you ever checked your car's fuel efficiency? Up until recently, I hadn't checked mine, but the EPA rates my 1999 Honda Civic as getting 29 City/35 Highway. (You can check your car's efficiency on www.edmunds.com.)

I suspected it might get quite a bit less than the EPA estimates because when I bought my kayak a few years back, I had a kayak rack mounted on the roof of the car, causing considerable wind drag. And are my car tires properly inflated? I don't really know; it's not something I check regularly.

My Honda isn't an EX, DX or LX. It's an HX. What makes it unique is the CVT, or "Continuously Variable Transmission." As explained in the sales literature, this transmission works a little differently and is supposed to eke out a little more fuel efficiency. That's the extent of my knowledge on CVTs!

The car has an automatic transmission.

So I made note of the odometer reading when I filled up 13 days prior, and then again this weekend. I drove a total of 390 miles during this interval. Most of that is my RT 47.5 mile commute. I divided 390 by the number of gallons on the second refill.

I was astonished to see that I'm getting 39.4 miles to the gallon! To what do I attribute beating the EPA estimate by 4 miles to the gallon?

I am a master of fuel-efficient driving techniques. I've driven this way for years. Here's what I do:

First, my entire commute is on back roads. The county I live in is largely residential and there just aren't any major north/south highways; the only alternative to the back roads, if you're traveling north/south, is a single two-lane highway that is heavily commercial and greatly congested. Most commuters I know avoid this highway like the plague because it's a notoriously stressful and slow route to take, and in fact mile-wise, it adds eight miles to my drive. In any case, the back roads are very scenic and you pass by some lovely reservoirs.

On these back roads, the fastest you can drive is 50 or 55 mph.

I'm guessing my average commute speed is 45 mph, which is close to the "sweet spot" of maximum fuel economy.

I try to drive at a consistent speed and, importantly, leave enough room between me and the car ahead of me so that if the other driver brakes for any reason, it may be possible for me to simply take my foot off the gas; if I do brake, it's gentle and gradual. So no tailgating and no hard braking!

When starting off from a stop sign or traffic light, I accelerate gradually.

Basically, I treat my car as if it were a slow-moving senior who needs extra time to get where they're going, and I don't push it to do spectacular feats. (Actually, its 4 cylinders never really made it a speed demon, so that's just as well.)

The Grocery Game

July 6th, 2008 at 04:45 am

Like many food shoppers, I'm not loyal to a single grocery store. Depending on what's on sale, I may frequent Stop & Shop, Trader Joe's, Costco, Shop Rite and Expect Discounts, a discount supermarket with a large Latino customer base.

But with grocery prices ever rising, I'm forced to reexamine the price of everything. About a month ago, I started another price book, which is really just a list, organized by both store and food category (dairy, canned veggies, fresh produce, frozen, grains, beverages, etc.) recording the prices of those items I most regularly purchase.

Recently, I shifted my allegiance to Expect Discounts and spent less time at Stop & Shop. Fresh produce, for instance, was always cheaper at Xpect as long as you didn't mind picking through over-ripe fruit in their unrefrigerated bins.

I pored through the Shop Rite circular. I was quite surprised to see that in some cases, Shop Rite prices beat Expect's. Take ketchup. I happened to have just bought ketchup at Xpect, a 1 lb, 8 oz. bottle for $1.18. I thought it was higher than before but assumed that since everything was going up, it wasn't out of keeping with anything else. Shop Rite's price was .99 for a larger 2 lb, 4 oz bottle. Imagine that!

I thought i was getting a "deal" at Xpect when I found two pound boxes of pasta at .80 a pound, but Shop Rite had one pound boxes on sale at .74 a pound.

Not everything at Shop Rite was cheaper. I bought a two pound bag of pre-cooked frozen shrimp at Stop & Shop for $6.99, while the same item cost $9.99 at Shop Rite.

Until food prices stabilize (and that won't happen until oil prices do), keeping an accurate price book will continue to be a challenge.

Until then, I won't buy many food items until they go on sale. Pepperidge Farm Dark German Wheat Bread is just great, but once I learned it goes on sale at regular intervals, I'll wait until it's offered at one-third off. Then I'll stock up and buy four loaves, freezing those I'm not using.

I do the same thing with Lean Cuisine entrees. They're handy and easy to bring to the office for lunches, but their regular price of $3.50-plus is too high, so I'll wait until they go on sale at $2.50 each. If they don't go on sale, I don't buy 'em.

Maxed Out on Credit Cards

June 8th, 2008 at 07:30 am

As I was researching a story on aggressive credit card marketing tactics for a story I was writing at work, I came across mention of a James Scurlock film called Maxed Out. The independent documentary was filmed in 2007 as a result of a lawsuit the Ohio state attorney general brought against Citibank and a sandwich shop which got students on college campuses to sign up for credit cards by enticing them with free food. The suit was dropped against the sandwich chain in exchange for their cooperation in making the film.

I'll be watching the Netflix movie tonight.

Credit card marketing on college campuses was never something that was done when I attended school, but it apparently became a nearly universal practice not long after I graduated. Nearly every major university developed "affinity" relationships with credit issuers, a partnership in which the credit card companies paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to budget-strapped schools in exchange for exclusive rights to market to college students.

The schools provided credit issuers with students' contact information, disregarding students' privacy rights. I wonder what most parents would think of this. It's not something that comes up when you're getting the campus tour.

Coping With High Fuel Prices

June 7th, 2008 at 04:45 am

Rising oil prices have me thinking more and more about rising fuel prices and my 48-mile daily commute.

I've looked into our local Metro Pool, which matches up commuters who want to drive together, www.nuride.com, the trains and even buying a scooter. Working from home is not an option. Since my town lacks a train station, taking a train is a less attractive option for me, while a scooter would only be usable for half the year and also presents safety issues.

Then, in speaking to my neighbors, I discovered that the husband not only works in the same town I do but his office is located just three miles north of my office, on the same highway.

His hours are a little different than mine; he gets out 30 minutes later than I do. (When my summer hours end, his start time will also be 30 minutes earlier than mine.)

I spoke to his wife, who will speak to hubby and let me know if he's interested in car-pooling.

My proposal is that we share rides 4 days a week; he drives 2, i drive 2.

By car-pooling four days a week, we'd both eliminate two days of driving, or reduce our gas usage by 40% a week.

Nickel & Dimed

November 29th, 2007 at 09:45 am

I'm about halfway through reading "Nickel & Dimed, On (Not) Getting by in America" by Barbara Ehrenreich.

I think many here in this forum would enjoy reading this book. The author is a journalist and decided to see for herself whether it really was possible to live on minimum wage, so she went undercover and took jobs as a waitress, nursing home aide, Wal-Mart employee and cleaning lady to experience life on the edge.

From the back cover: "She soon discovered that even the 'lowliest' occupations require exhausting mental and physical efforts. And one job is not enough; you need at least two if you intend to live indoors. Nickel and Dimed reveals low-wage America in all its tenacity, anxiety and surprising generosity - a land of Big Boxes, fast food and a thousand desperate strategies for survival."

Her story is quite an eye-opener. The book was written in 2001 and made the New York Times best-seller list.

As Carolina Bound mentioned in an earlier comment on this book, it's definitely going to make me tip more generously the next time I eat out.

How Many Gallons of Heating Oil Do You Use Over the Winter?

November 19th, 2007 at 09:43 am

I read somewhere recently about a family living in a very old house that used 800 gallons of heating oil each winter. This seems like an awful lot of heating oil. Curious to see how my energy consumption habits compared, I dug out my old oil bills.

For the last two years, I only used about 380 gallons of oil to heat my 78-year-old house; last year, I used about 70 gallons less than the year before. Last winter was mild, so that undoubtedly helped.

I aim to be on track this winter with the same kind of low usage, perhaps even lower.