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Spirit Airlines: Frugal dream or frugal failure?

Spirit AirlinesI was shocked and happy when the email came through in October: I was selected to participate in a NASA Social in November, in which 40-50 participants spent the day touring NASA facilities and learning from its scientist about their various missions. The only thing — it was in Greenbelt, Md.: how would I get there?

I’d contemplated driving from Wisconsin, which wouldn’t have been impossible — but after finding a killer deal for air travel, with the flight and hotel nights included, I decided to go for it. Because 12-plus hours of driving just didn’t sound appealing.

Why was it such a good deal? The package included a trip on Spirit Airlines. I’d heard plenty of bad rep about Spirit Airlines, which gave me pause. But the price couldn’t be beat and for two hours, how bad could it be?

That might seems like a set up for saying, oh my gosh, worse than I ever could have imagined! Well, it wasn’t. It turned out to be a good way to save money on my travel. I think Spirit might be a good flight option for frugal travelers; especially if you follow one-bag travel like I do.

Continue reading “Spirit Airlines: Frugal dream or frugal failure?”

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A deep dive into Wealthfront

wave-circleAs an author that hasn’t hit it big (as in, if I had to live off of my author earnings, I would be homeless), I make my living as a journalist, a photographer, and from other side hustles. Some day I would like to write my novels and short stories as my primary occupation, but part of that planning involves saving enough money that I don’t need to earn a full-time, 40-hour-per-week living.

So, with that in mind, my plan was to buy a house so that once it’s paid off, I have cheap rent. Or, I move and it becomes a rental property and earns me income. And part II of the plan is to invest as much of my income as I can manage so one day I can live off of the interest. Then I can focus on my novels.

As most folks in the FIRE Community know (Financial Independence, Retire Early for those not in the know), index funds are typically the gold standard. They’re usually low cost, low-yield, but generally consistent over time. Unlike investing in individual stocks, which can tank, funds are managed so that, overall, they tend to increase in value over time. (There are exceptions, of course – everything tanked in 2007-08, but the market eventually comes back.) The assumption with index funds is that you’re generally playing the market overall, and if there’s one force that is going to make sure it always stays ahead. Individual stocks rise and fall, but the market always continues forward.

But, this is the modern age. Why have a human at the helm when an algorithm can manage funds, using best practices and without the human element of fear, ego or pride?

Continue reading “A deep dive into Wealthfront”

Guest Post: Frugality in Banking: How to Avoid Those Fees

UnknownHey folks! Today we have a special treat: A guest post about frugality in banking. As you know, this sci-fi author is also a frugal living and FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) advocate, so what Patty from Working Mother Life has written here is something I am grateful to share with readers! Feel free to check out more of her work here: Working Mother Life.

Everyone has to pay common banking fees at least once, but some people may end up paying these charges more often than others. These fees may be as small at times, but they often add up quickly and burn hard-earned cash for habitual infractions.

If you’re a frugal soul, then you’re probably a stark opponent of all banking fees. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to protect your wallet from those fees, and they all involve a bit of responsibility and forethought. Let’s dive into the most common personal banking fees and offer advice about how to avoid them. If you commit these to memory, you’ll have a better chance of keeping your money in savings instead of losing it to the banks.

Monthly Fees

In the modern personal banking scene, many banks charge monthly service fees on checking and savings accounts, but they can also be easy to avoid. There are plenty of banks out there that tout the lack of monthly fees on their bank accounts. Many of which can be researched online and found easily.

If you can’t switch banks or find one without any monthly fees, then you may be able to waive the monthly fee by making a certain number of transactions or maintaining a certain balance in the account. Many banks will forgive the fee if you can meet one of these stipulations. These conditions vary from bank to bank, but you can learn more by reading the terms and conditions as well as the fee breakdown provided by any bank.

ATM Fees

Most banks have an out-of-network ATM fee that comes into play when using an ATM that isn’t owned by the bank. These can get expensive, but avoiding these fees is simple. Avoid out-of-network ATMs; most banks offer free ATM services on their branded ATMs. There are a few other ways to avoid them. Some banks offer refunds on ATM fees up to a certain limit per month, and many banks even offer unlimited reimbursement for these fees. Other banks offer an extended network of no-fee ATM machines that may not have the bank’s branding.

Overdraft Fees

An overdraft occurs when drawing money from an account without sufficient funds available. This typically results in an overdraft fee, and many account holders are on the hook for the fee as well as the negative balance in their account.

In general, the best way to avoid overdraft fees is to keep a careful eye on the money in your bank account. If the overdrawing transaction does not occur, then there is no reason to exact an overdraft fee. Additionally, there are banks that do not have any overdraft fees because they just refuse any transaction that would lead to an overdraft.

Some banks offer overdraft protection, a system that involves linking another account to the current bank account as backup. If an overdraft occurs, then funds are withdrawn from the link account to cover the transaction. In essence, the consumer is funding the transaction with their own funds. While this can help avoid fees, some banks still charge a fee for the transaction and backup. While the fee could still be assessed, it is typically lower than a standard overdraft fee.

Minimum Balance Fees

Many accounts will charge a fee if the account balance goes beneath a certain minimum balance. There are plenty of banks that offer accounts without these fees or any minimum balance requirement. Consumers who want to avoid this fee altogether may want to consider banking with companies that do not charge this fee. In some cases, setting up direct deposit can waive this fee, but this varies from bank to bank.

Inactivity Fees

Allowing money to settle without being used can sometimes incur an inactivity fee. Inactivity fees aren’t charged by many banks, so they are not hard to avoid. Each bank should address the inactivity fee in their bank account terms and conditions. If you bank with a company that implements this fee, setting up a recurring transaction, such as a monthly bill payment, to the account should be enough to avoid inactivity.

Bounced Check Fee

If you try to deposit a check that bounces, you’ll most likely be dealing with a bounced check fee. These fees are assessed to cover the processing expenses of the bank who ultimately does not receive any of the funds. These fees are hard to avoid when they are exacted, but proper check management and communication with the check writer should be enough to keep these fees to a minimum. However, it is still possible to find banks that do not charge this fee at all!

Foreign Transaction Fee

Many banks charge a foreign transaction fee. A foreign transaction fee is typically taken as a percentage of the purchase amount which is usually anywhere from 2 to 6 percent. The easiest way to avoid the foreign transaction fee is to stay in the country! That may not sound fun, so get this. In some cases, it’s possible to pre-clear foreign transactions by talking to the bank before going abroad. If it’s possible to pre-clear foreign transactions, the bank may offer a reduced fee or they could waive it completely. It doesn’t hurt to ask!

That wraps up the discussion of the most common personal banking fees and explanations about how to avoid them. Moving banks can solve a lot of fee-based problems, but even the most generous of banks have to make money somehow. In general, credit unions and online banks have fewer fees than the national or international banking giants, so they might be a good place to start looking to finish off most of the fees once and for all.


By Patty Moore, a blogger who writes about careers, family, and personal finances. Follow Patty on Twitter @WorkMomLife!

ebay, flipping, side hustle

My triumphs and pitfalls flipping on eBay

ebay, flipping, side hustleI sold on eBay for a couple of years, and still do occasionally. At my peak I was pulling in an extra $150 per month flipping items I found at thrift stores or garage sales, or even clearance racks or online sources.

In this post on The Simple Dollar, they talk about some of the benefits and pitfalls of selling on eBay or Amazon. I thought I would clarify a few points with my own experiences.

  • Yes, if you invested a ton in inventory, you could lose your shirt. But there’s nothing that says you have to. The nice thing about selling on eBay is you can dabble, as you learn what sells. Frankly, the best way to start is with unwanted items around the house. In fact, I had no plans to be a flipper on eBay — I started selling things collecting dust around my house. Eventually, it occurred to me to that I could buy inventory if I found the right sources.
  • There’s a trick to mastering the shipping. For one, I look for small items that will ship cheaply (and via first class, which oddly comes up cheaper than economy). Eventually I bought a large box of envelopes to further cut costs. When you look at inventory, you have to factor in the shipping before determining profit.
  • Thrift stores are a great source. And, if you have eBay’s app on your phone, you can punch in or even scan a barcode if the item has one, and a quick flick of the filter can show you if it has been selling and for how much. Eventually you’ll start to know on site what sells.
  • What sells? Things I know for sure: Sony Walkman/discmans, games like monopoly and scrabble (sell the pieces not the whole thing: Monopoly pieces, houses and money sell really well and you’ll make money, and crafters love scrabble pieces). I once sold an mp3 player I bought for $3 for $40 to someone who really loved that particular model in Sweden. That was my best flip. Others, if they look valuable, I look them up on the app and see if they’re selling and if so, for how much. It’s not a guarantee but it is usually a good indicator.
  • It’s actually pretty rare that an item won’t sell at all, if you’ve done your research beforehand. Sometimes it might take awhile, and once in a while I’ve sold something for a loss. Overall, though, you will make money if you don’t just buy without looking something up first. The only way you can really get left holding the bag is if you find a bulk quantity of something and buy it to sell, and it turns out to be a dud.

Challenges:

  • The number one reason I’m not selling as much: Trouble sourcing inventory (and finding the time to do it). eBay was only one of my side businesses, and lately my photography has been more in demand, so eBay went to the backburner for a bit. My strategy has been to visit thrift stores when I happen to be nearby them, so as not to expend too much extra fuel. But lately I’ve been coming up empty — I’ve found few diamonds in the rough.
  • Yes, beware of scammers, though I’ve found the vast majority of people are honest. One person tried to buy off site, and I simply told him no. I’ve had a couple of return requests, and I’ve honored all of them. One person was a bit angry over the item not working, but I told him simply to return it, and didn’t engage with the anger. As of yet, I still have not gotten a bad review.Sometimes good inventory sources dry up or the market changes. I had a pretty good thing going for awhile with buying Raspberry Pis from England and reselling them on eBay. I was netting about $5 per board, and the set up was as simple as ordering one, and re-activitating the listing when it arrived. But eventually the eBay price came down, and eventually it became a break even scenario.
  • One way I also made money: Buying things on extreme sale on Amazon and reselling them on eBay. It was usually easy enough to find $35 worth of items on Amazon to qualify for the free shipping, which made it profitable (not super profitable but usually easy to sell because you were dealing in new merchandise). Could they just have bought it on Amazon themselves? Of course. But not everyone will, and many people just impulse buy without researching prices. When Amazon changed their pricing policy to $50 that put the keebosh on that type of selling. Eventually it came back down to $35, but by then it seems the eBay market and Amazon markets started tracking pretty evenly, so I rarely came across an item that would sell for more on eBay.

Right now, with being a little too busy to shop for inventory, and the trips I have been making largely coming up empty, I’ve put eBay on hold for now while other ventures have proven more profitable. I still contend that selling on eBay can be a profitable venture, though, and I encourage others to try.

How not to launch a book; Robot Awareness launched today

51LjR3u2thL._SY346_Today I launched books I and II of Robot Awareness. Book I, which I’m with tongue in cheek calling the “special edition”, includes the first four parts of the original Robots Awareness, all in one book as I should have done in the first place. Now you can get all four parts in one book, for only one dollar.

Today I also launched Robot Awareness: The Inner Circle, the next story arc in which the crew heads into the inner sanctum of the monopolistic Company C — not a place a group of smugglers should really want to go, considering Company C is essentially the law, and they operate outside of it.

My approach to launching a book could be called “how not to launch a book.” The fact is, I screw it up every time. The thing about launching books is that it’s a nerve-wracking endeavor. This is the first time I experimented with pre-orders (I half-heartedly did with Part IV but didn’t pay it a lot of mind) and I wanted everything to be perfect. The scary part is Amazon locks you out until the last possible moment if you take the pre-order option. It means you’ll be making a mad scramble in the couple of hours before the book launches. And it takes more than a couple of hours to get approved, so you get one shot. Who knows why — seems it would better ensure quality control to allow authors to make changes in the week prior to the release, so that the manuscript is perfect when the book launches.

Continue reading “How not to launch a book; Robot Awareness launched today”

How two weeks of riding my bike helped me lose weight and save money

Bike frugal wisconsin
The blue beast, loaded up with groceries!

I looked down at my glass and metal bathroom scale, as I do most mornings before I hit the shower, and a small grin found my face. The scale said 20.9 — the lowest point my body fat percentage has reached since I’ve been measuring it.

I eat healthy and I exercise regularly, and I appear pretty slim in clothing, but I’ve always had a body fat percentage that’s higher than I’m truly comfortable with. I’ve used other means to slim up — following a ketogenic diet worked pretty well (and the science is solid about this approach) — but overall I’ve learned not to worry about it too much.

As I’ve posted on the blog before, I’ve recently returned to frugality. Not that I was unfrugal — those who know me that I always operate in some frugal fashion or another.

But recently, after some big expenditures such as my sister’s wedding, I decided it was time for another tweak. One of the big tweaks was my car usage.

This isn’t a post about going from zero to hero. Far from it. It’s actually a post about going from half-hero to full Mustachian bike stoic. I already biked to work two-three days per week, and usually made my Saturday pilgrimage to the farmers market on my bike, but for other trips, such as the grocery store, I would use my car.

I lucked into a full week of biking, and then decided how far I could push it. As a journalist, I do occasionally need my car, because I sometimes have to travel to out of the way places that would be unfeasible on my bike. It’s not necessarily that the drive would be impossible, but that it would take up too much of my day and wouldn’t be fair to my employer to spend so much of her time riding my bike. My general rule is if it’s in the city limits or nearby, I will bike; if it’s beyond, I’d better take my car that day.

So with luck, I had a week where the stars aligned, and I was able to use my bike for all my trips in a week, including the very fun Open Streets Wausau event which, as I mentioned, was very fun. So then came the weekly grocery trip.

My weekly journey takes me to Aldi, which has some of the lowest prices on food that is also high quality. The trade off is that there generally aren’t name brands, it’s a small and cramped store, and there often is only one choice in any given food product. I can’t say I enjoy shopping at Aldi, but my wallet enjoys it quite a bit.

The other downside of Aldi is that it’s in Rib Mountain, and is quite a trip. I essentially have to go north, then back south, to get there. Unlike my sneaky, virtually car-free route to downtown, getting to Rib Mountain involves perilous, traffic heavy commuting on dangerous roads.

Or does it? I decided to put it to the test. I cleared out my Timbuktu messenger bag, put a grocery bag inside (Aldi only has carts, not those little baskets, and I refuse to push an enormous cart around for the dozen or so items I buy each week) and off on my bike I went.

I was stopped along the way by my good friend Pat Peckham, my former coworker and now my neighbor and city alderman. I stopped to tell him about my grocery store experiment, and we had a pleasant chat until I went on my merry way. It’s not a chat I would have had in my car; biking helps connect you to your neighborhood.

One caveat, and one I plan to continue — I purposely lightened my needed load by buying a few things the day before at Kwik Trip, a local gas station/convenience store that sells grocery items. The nice thing about these stores is that they carry more than just convenience junk — there are decent meats, cheeses, eggs, milk and other odds and ends to round out a grocery list. I bought bananas, an onion (I go through one every few weeks), some hamburger and one pack of cheese. All fit comfortably in my Timbuktu.

bike groceries wisconsin frugal
On my second trip, I bought even more – finding the limit of my bag. Any more and it would be wise to invest in a back rack or pannier.

The trip was much better than I expected. At this point, thanks to a push for more bike friendly facilities, I only needed to take one segment of road with no lines or lanes for cyclists (but plenty of width for safety) and was even able to navigate a busy department store sprawl via a bike/ped path that runs behind all the big box stores. The path connects with the exact street I need, so getting to Aldi was a success.

There’s a feeling of accomplishment that comes with accomplishing things on one’s own power. As Mr. Money Mustache would say, Muscle over Motor. I love that phrase. I shovel snow, rake leaves, cut the grass with a mechanical mower. You don’t have to be in a gym to get exercise.

In fact, it’s that justification that helps address the complainy-pants argument “but I don’t have time!” It’s actually saved me time — I got my long bike ride and my grocery shopping accomplished all in one fell swoop! Doing both would have taken me 2 1/2 hours or more — the whole endeavor was about 1 1/2 hours and now my cardio and groceries are done.

So with that said, the accomplishment and feeling of self-reliance is more important to me than the nearly 8 pounds I lost, or the several percentage points of body fat. But those don’t hurt either.

A renewed push toward frugality

As many of you know, B.C. is a pretty frugal guy, or at least tries to be. But this is modern life, and so it’s not always easy.

Case in point: My sister’s wedding. While I tend not to go to weddings when invited (and my absence is rarely noted — I’m hardly the focus of most couple’s big day, afterall) my sister’s wedding is definitely one of those can’t miss, not getting out of it scenarios. I personally think traditional weddings are an enormous waste of money that can be better spent elsewhere (or better yet, saved!).

But, it was my sister and new brother in law’s wedding, so they call the shots, and I go along for the ride. After all, they’re bearing far more of the expense than I.

I didn’t mind buying wedding presents — my sister’s list included a number of practical items, and I ended up buying a cheese board and grill tray from Bed, Bath and Beyond from their registry.

The one that’s been sticking in my craw? The tuxedo rental. All told, it ended up costing me $250. For one outfit, to wear one day. As a frugal thrift shopper, that $250 is probably more than I’ve spent on clothing for the past 3 years, and at the end of the wedding, I have to give it back.

I had no involvement in the planning process of what the wedding party would wear, and wasn’t told anything about the cost until I got to the checkout. The pain in my gut, born of years of frugal living, burned in my loins as I pulled out my credit card.

What bothers me is that it seems like such a waste. I would have rather spent that money, or even a little more money, on a nice suit I could wear for presumably the rest of my adult life. It would have been an expense, but at least it would have gone toward something useful. As it stands, I now only have a picture of me in a nice tux (which is nice for my dating profiles, though still not worth $250!).

Seeing my sister get married was a great experience, far more meaningful for me than I expected. Her and my brother in law have been together for 13 years, lived together for much of that time, so going in I thought of it more as a formality. It turned out to be far more emotional for me than I expected.

But with her wedding over, it’s time to renew my passion for frugal living. Why do I do this? I’ll probably make a whole new post about this at some point, but I’m one of those FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) nutjobs you might have heard about. The basic idea is to spend the minimum amount of money to obtain happiness, allowing yourself to save the money that will eventually allow you to be free from work. That doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t work. What it does mean is that you have enough money that work is optional, and you can pursue only the work you want to do.

It’s also important to note that this doesn’t mean self-deprivation. It’s really more about learning to appreciate the simple things in life; not needing every new gizmo and gadget as it comes out; not buying into the constant upgrade consumerism cycle (something common in one of my favorite pursuits, cycling); and being content to enjoy things once in a while instead of all the time. In other words, a treat should be just that: a treat. A good example: One of my favorite summer time activities is pizza on the farm at Stoney Acres Farm in Athens, WI. It’s a lovely Friday night activity with a nice craft beer or two (or three or four) and pizza made in wood-fired ovens with ingredients right from the farm. It’s a great treat, and one I indulge in — once or twice per summer, not every Friday. That way, the times I do go are special.

Of course, that $250 I spent on a tux would have paid for a summer’s worth of pizza on the farm nights. Just sayin…


I’m B.C. Kowalski, writer and photographer, among other things, in Wausau, WI. I also write books, including the Robot Awareness series, and I run Define Photography. Follow me on Twitter too!