The Expatriated Consumer

Imagining life without debt. Working to make it reality.

Archive for the ‘shopping’ Category

The housing slump on four wheels…

Posted by Max Finkle on May 28, 2008

Big news today, in the local paper, that the current housing slump is having an effect on new car purchases. Lenders have begun to clamp down on financing for vehicles, much the same way they had previously for homes. They’re taking a more strict approach in approving loans, and they are doing what they should have been doing all along and granting loans only to those who can truly afford it.

I’m wishing that was the case a year ago when I financed my minivan. The honest truth is that we can’t afford it now. We couldn’t afford it then. $400 a month in payments for transportation, not including insurance on a new vehicle. The reasoning behind the purchase seemed solid at the time, as we had a new baby, and we couldn’t fit the infant car seat in either of the cars we had at the time. The move was made simply for the safety of our family. Can’t count the dollars in that decision…

At any rate, we decided to upgrade. Presidents Day sales abounded, and there was incredible rebate offers, and price cuts. Our $30,000 van was purchased for $23,000 at 6.99% financing with no money down. The nice financing officer at the dealership crunched the numbers with me, and everything looked hunky-dory. Honestly, our budget still hasn’t recovered.

What the article really brought to mind was that I’ve always held to the idea that you drive your car into the ground. After pounding the daylights out of my first car, as a new 18 year old driver, I bought my first brand new car. I drove it for 12 years. When people asked me why I continued to drive it, I reasoned that it was cheaper to repair it than it was to have a monthly payment. There was a little inconvenience involved, but maybe three times a year I’d have to get something fixed, and since it was in the shop, I had regular maintenance done as well, such as oil changes and tire rotations, so it really wasn’t in the shop anymore than a new car would’ve been if it was being maintained properly. The bill was just a little bigger.

The time to trade a car in is when either your budget is healthy enough to absorb the additional cost, preferably as a cash transaction, or when the cost of maintaining the car exceeds the value of the car. The threshold I adhere to is if it costs me more than $100 a month to keep it on the road, it’s time to seek an alternative.

If you need to buy a car, consider a couple of things:

– Safety. Who cares what your driving if you’re taking your life in your hands when you get behind the wheel? What are the crash test ratings on the vehicle? Take a look at recall notices for the vehicle you’re considering at sites like http://www.servicebeacon.com/ . Read up on consumer ratings, and check out Kelly Blue Book to really get the low-down on any vehicle your considering.

– What are you using it for? If it’s going to be your family vehicle, and you’ve got 4 children, a Honda Civic hatchback isn’t going to cut the mustard. On the otherhand, if you’re simply using it to commute to work, there really isn’t much better out there in terms of value for the dollar, gas mileage and reliability. I don’t know anyone who REALLY needs a 4X4 SUV to commute back and forth to the office, except to make a statement to coworkers maybe.

– Consider buying used. Buying new is neat, but that’s all it is. It’s bragging rights. Search out alternatives in the used market. Late model used cars on the market can be had for a fraction of the cost of new, and while there are risks involved, such as poor maintenance history, or unreported accidents, new cars have their problems, too. When the time comes, I will be looking harder at the used car market.

– How much can you afford? Remember to calculate the cost of insurance payments in addition to the car payment if you must finance. Other costs that need to be considered are title and tax, inspection, & regular maintenance such as oil changes and tires. Tires are a biggee, because lots of cars have fancy rims and sporty (read: expensive!) tires. Can you reasonably afford to replace a flat in the event that something goes wrong? Some tires sell for upwards of $200+, and rims can sell for over $300 apiece. I know $500 just for parts, then the labor for mounting and balancing and alignment makes me take pause. God forbid, if that same pothole that tore a hole in your tire and damaged your rim, also ripped out your exhaust system, can you shell out the additional $700 for that repair? If you can’t afford to maintain it, you can’t afford the vehicle.

– Gas mileage. What’s the MPG in the type of driving you do most? Sure, the payments may be lower on one car, but if it gets 10 mpg less than a more expensive alternative, do the calculations to determine what’s best for your wallet. This alludes to another thing to consider:

– The potential resale value. In the current climate of higher gas prices, dealers are becoming more reluctant to take gas-guzzlers for trade-in because they’re expecting the market to take a dive and they don’t want to be stuck with them. Despite the fact that the plan is to drive your car into the ground, one man’s garbage is another man’s treasure, and you want to maximize the return on your investment. Take a gander at Kelly Blue Book for an idea of what vehicles are selling for. That can give you a realistic basis for the potential resale value in your vehicle.

– Save yourself the $20 bucks and skip the CarFax report. I know a couple of autobody repairmen and know that accident damage is often fixed without the insurance company’s knowledge, and there is no official record of the damage to the vehicle. CarFax merely datamines public access databases, and if the data ain’t in there, you don’t find out about it.

The bottom line is that you need to cover your bases when you buy a vehicle. Know your budget restrictions, consider your needs, and take the time to evaluate your situation to make the most of it. And avoid trying to keep up with the Joneses.

Posted in shopping | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

The grocery games…

Posted by Max Finkle on May 7, 2008

Pssst. I have a secret. It’s embarrassing, it’s shameful.

We spent $1000 on groceries last month. Yep. $1000. According to Quicken, all the stops we made throughout the month to stock up, to replenish and to repast added up to a cool Grand. How about the fact that this is the sixth month in a row that’s happened. For a family of four. Isn’t that just grand?

My budget doesn’t seem to think so. Nor my conscience, because when I read the report the top of my head split open and the furious stream of steam that issued forth scalded me and my wife. “We can’t keep spending like this!” I declared. “We’re gonna be in the poor house. Do you realize this is gonna break us?” My tirade continued to the point where my wife finally snipped back, and quite rudely closed my nose in the bedroom door as I attempted to continue the conversation into the next room. It upsets me that every time I try to discuss finances with her she promptly leaves the room.

So imagine my surprise when I came home from work the other night to my wife standing in the door with a handful of papers and a declaration. “I’m starting work on a weekly menu plan. I found some info on the Internet about it. It’ll save us money, and if we dedicate a weekend a month to cooking we can stock up on real food for us to eat during the week when we’re rushing around with soccer practice and stuff.”

I admit, I was quite impressed. I’m usually the one with the cockamamie ideas about how we’re going to spend money more wisely and improve our diets and that sort of thing. Trouble is, after a twelve hour work day, my brain was able only able to produce a meager, “That’s nice dear. What’s for supper?”

To which my wife fumed, “Why is it that whenever I want to talk about money with you ignore me?”

In truth, we’ve been rolling the idea of a meal plan around for some time now, but continually share the excuse that we’re too tired or we don’t have enough time. But like everything else regarding our finances, we’re starting with baby steps. Breaking things down into steps seems to be the best way for us to handle these things, so this is my game plan, subject to change depending on the wife’s input:

1. Inventory. We need to know what we have for food already, and where it is, so we can avoid buying more of it until we use it up. It’s a good excuse to organize as well, as we used to keep the door of our pantry shut to keep the baby out, now it enables us to keep things out of site/out of mind.

2. Actively look for recipes and meals that utilize the ingredients we have in the house. Despite years of waiting, no meal plan has just fallen in my lap. We’ve decided to start actually perusing some of the cookbooks we have, and some of the great Websites on the ‘Net for ideas. There’s a lot great stuff out there. Here’s hoping it’s as great after we’re done cooking it!

3. Take a gander at the weekly sales fliers for the local supermarkets and make a shopping list. Uncannily, that seems to be where many of the best deals of the week can be found, and in the past I’ve saved some pretty significant cash from those things. We’re kinda making out double here, because not only are we saving money by making our food at home, but we can save money on the stuff we decide to buy. My wife and I are at extremes here, as I have a hard time buying anything that is not on sale, and she tends to be oblivious to the fact that groceries actually do go on sale. Truthfully though, I think she’s aware that it happens, but she always comes home with bags full of great stuff that she paid full price for. I can’t help it, it makes my skin crawl. We’ll find some middle ground somehow.

4. Go shopping with a grocery list. And stick to it. That’s always the hard part for me. I go to the store for one or two items, and walk out with two bags full. It’s going to take some time, and lots of effort to get the hang of producing a list that covers what we need each week, oftentimes I find myself remembering that we needed something that didn’t make it to our list, and eventually the cart starts to fill up. The real challenge though, is not to allow those marketers to undermine our resolve to stick to just what we need, and fill the cart with those goodies we’re convince we can’t live without.

4. Pick a day to do the prep work. Cut up all the meats. Dice up the veggies. Precook the rice, start soaking the beans. Having everything cut, portioned and ready to go should save us a lot of hassle on the next step.

5. Schedule the next day to cook. Take all those ingredients we worked so hard on the previous day and take a whack at producing home-made gourmet.

It’s not going to be easy. We both know that, but we’re game. In truth, I’m betting the hardest part is going to be agreeing on meals that we both will enjoy. It was really neat to know that my wife has put so much effort into this idea already, and that she’s willing to work together to make this all happen. For our health and our wallets.

Posted in shopping | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »