Sunday, May 29, 2011

Week # 18: Watt's Up? ... er... Down!

As we were researching refrigerators, I looked for a little device I had heard about that can easily measure the electricity usage and estimate costs of power for individual appliances. There are a few of them out there. We found one at Lowe's called the "Kill A Watt" EZ, model number P4460. It was $19, so I'll factor that in at the end. Click here to see the unit we purchased. Keep in mind there are similar units out there by other manufacturers, but this one seems to do everything I was looking for, and it was cheaper at Lowe's than any online price I've seen so far.

First, a little bit of background on our electric bill. There are some fees that are not dependent on usage, so I'll ignore those. State tax amounted to .13 cents for the month, not enough to make a difference, so I'll ignore that too. I'll focus just on the amounts our bill could be reduced by cutting back on our killowatt-hours (kwh) used.

Our bill is split into "tiers" which increase in cost as each dividing line is reached. For our residence, the "baseline" allowance in tier 1 is 267 kwh, which is charged at an average rate of .13 cents per kwh. Tier 2 gives us another 80 kwh, which we used up at .15 cents / kwh. Our usage topped out 103 kwhs into tier 3 during April, for which the charge is .24 cents / kwh.

Our total usage in April was 450 kwh, which was divided and charged at those three different rates. Reducing kwh will eliminate our most expensive kilowatt-hours first, so until we show our total bill creeping down into tier 2, I'll use .24 cents per kwh as the savings amount.

By the way, our bill shows there are as many as five tiers, so I suppose that means we're pretty average and not among the worst electricity hogs in the neighborhood. Still, there is certainly room for improvement, which starts by educating myself about how much each appliance actually costs to run.

Using the Kill A Watt meter is very easy. First, it asked me to set the rate we're paying (.24 cents/kwh for the moment) on the rate screen. Then, simply plug whichever appliance you want to measure into the meter, and plug the meter into the wall socket. Hit the reset button and leave it there for at least a few days for an accurate reading (since appliances often turn on and off based on need, the longer the time period measured, the more accurate the long term estimate). When you're done, the unit automatically tells you how much you're spending in electricity to run that unit for an hour, day, week, month, and year.

Of course, the first targets were the new and old refrigerators. Already, the Kill A Watt meter results are worthy of a blog entry. The old refrigerator, now removed from our grid, pulled 18.07 kwh in 134 hours of being connected to the meter. The new reefer pulled just 9.13 kwh in 146 hours time, well under half the prior usage. The annual cost comparison: $281 for the old, and $130 for the new. At a power savings of about $150 per year, the new unit will probably pay for itself over the time that we plan to keep it.

Checking to make sure tier 3 rates apply to the entire calculation: The estimates from our new toy are 1,181 in annual kwh for the old reefer and 548 kwh for the new. Subtracting and dividing by 12 to get a monthly number, the reduction should be about 53 kwh per month. That will not take us down to tier 2 rates, so the calculated savings at .24 cents / kwh should be pretty close.

I should see an Edison bill reduction of about $12 - $13 per month starting in June due to the new fridge, just in time to switch the air conditioner on. And of course, there's a pending application to increase rates this fall that I just noticed. Oh well... I'll worry about adjusting for that later if it makes a big difference.

One year's electricity cost saved by switching reefers: $281 - $130 = $151, minus $19 for the meter = $132

Total saved to date: $2,841.22

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Week # 17: R & R (Rebate and Recycling incentive)

Southern California Edison offers an incentive for getting rid of an older refrigerator, and a rebate for purchasing a new energy efficient one. I debated on whether to count this separately from last week's entry, or wrap it together. I decided they should be separate entries for three reasons.

One, it was possible to purchase a refrigerator that did not qualify for the rebate, so that monetary gain was not directly tied to our price negotiations from last week. Two, the recycling incentive is connected to the old fridge, not the new one we just researched and purchased.

And three.... I still need 35 more entries to get to the end of the year.

Once the decision to purchase a new refrigerator was made, it wasn't difficult to find the rebate information.  We had references to it among the inserts in our electric bill, so it was on our radar. It's basically a $50 rebate to influence the purchase of energy-efficient appliances. Filling out a little bit of paperwork was the only little annoyance.

The other part of the equation is the incentive to get an older fridge off the grid. We called the program number, got an appointment, and within a few days two guys came and hauled off the old unit. A check for $50 is on it's way.

If you live in Southern California, are a customer of Edison, and are thinking about buying a new fridge or getting rid of the old refrigerator or freezer in your garage, click here for the information on the rebate and recycling incentive.

Rebate and recycling savings: $50 + $50 = $100

Total savings to date: $2,709.22

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Week # 16: Take the Floor Model

It's time to replace our refrigerator. It's a hand-me-down from Trish's brother's family and we've had it for 11 years, so we think it's at least 15 years old. It certainly shows. The ice dispenser is always frozen, shelves are creaky (one has cracked), and I'm guessing the unit is an electricity hog, compared to new models.

I left this mostly up to Trish to figure out how to get a good deal on a good refrigerator. The end strategy: establish a relationship with the sales dude, and don't be afraid to take the floor model.

Trish started by looking at all the current features and models, settling on a style (bottom freezer and middle drawer), and then narrowed it down to a few makers and models, including Maytag. Once the model was decided, the objective then was to see if we could make a deal $100 better than what was commonly available. Lowe's, the closest appliance store, posted the retail price as $2294, and had it marked down for clearance at $2196, so we used that as our benchmark.

That sounds like a lot for a refrigerator, but we tend to run things into the ground, as with our current fridge, so I don't have a problem paying a little more for above average quality and features for something we'll undoubtedly still have 15 years from now.

Online searches showed the model posted anywhere between $2196 and $2600 (Best Buy). A check of other local appliance stores showed tags similar to or higher than Lowe's. Nearly all were out of stock for this model. So Trish went back and chatted up the salesman, who couldn't have been nicer. That's when we learned the model appears to have been discontinued so no new ones were available, but they had the one Trish had originally seen left on the floor for show, and offered a 10% discount beyond the "clearance" price if we took it home. 

Normally, we don't go for pre-owned or used items. Always have bought new cars. Just feels more comfortable. But... cognizant of this blog, we went back to Lowe's and struck up another conversation with Jose. The 10% discount already qualified us for blog-worthy savings, but Jose was feeling generous and offered ANOTHER 10% off the already reduced floor model price. I guess he sensed we were interested, and needed the floor space. So for $1788 plus tax, we acquired a fridge that appeared to be the equivalent of a $3000 Samsung version right next to it. And the reefer we selected DOES hold magnets, while the front of the $3K fridge is NOT magnetic, despite both having a stainless steel finish. Well, THAT clinched it, of course.

We have to live with the fact that the stainless steel in front is kind of an unintentional two-tone because of some large promotional stickers... but that will be covered with pictures and magnets within a couple of days anyway.

I'll count the savings based on the $2196 amount, since that's the "before research and negotiations" price that we could have paid without establishing the relationship with Jose and checking around.

Savings for settling for something a little less than new: $2196 - $1788 = $408

Total blog savings to date: $2,609.22

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Week # 15: Poker

Sorry... Way behind. April, being Earth Month, is traditionally busy for anyone in an environmental field. But no excuses... I do intend to get to 52 weeks, so I'll post a little more frequently for a while (I hope).

Apologies to anyone following this who received incomplete messages that I had preset to certain posting dates and then failed to write up the text. I have abandoned that strategy and will just post as I write from this point.

Today's subject was not one of my choosing. As you may have heard last month, the US Dept. of Justice shut down the three largest online poker operations in the US, among them PokerStars, where I had an account with $302.42 that I was using to play in tournaments ranging from $1 to $5 buy ins.

That account was started with money from my Ridesharing earnings. It hasn't changed too much since it began a few years ago, and would have sat there for several more years. However, the federal government in all it's wisdom has decreed that I must cash out that account and henceforth play online poker only for pride and Zynga gotchkas, rather than for anything with any actual value. Not to get too soap boxy, but for a nation that bills itself as the land of the free, it seems odd that we now have one of the most restrictive poker policies of any nation on Earth. Even more odd, considering the roots of the game are firmly planted in American history.

I am not going to give up poker entirely - I'll get my fix in a local casinos here and there - but from the amount being refunded to me, I will set aside $100 that I will put back in my general bank account to pay regular everyday bills. There's my $100 savings for this posting.

The remaining $202.42 will be my poker bankroll for playing local tourneys, and the occasional trip to Vegas. If that bankroll goes away by the end of the year, I'll quit playing until 2012 and at least I'll have the $100 in savings locked in. (I actually made a trip to the Commerce Casino a couple of weeks ago and came out ahead, so the bankroll has started out in a positive direction.)

Savings from US Government Mandates: $100

Total savings to date: $2,201.22

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Week # 14: Don't Forget the Medical Reimbursement Account

Total credit to Trish for this one. Though it's probably too late for others to put reimbursement requests in against last year's expenses, this is still a good reminder for anyone with an active reimbursement account for THIS year to put any pending claims in now. Don't wait until they are forgotten.

Every year our companies ask if we want to set money aside for the purpose of paying medical expenses with pretax dollars. I'm not very good at keeping track... just never seems to come to the top of the important stuff list.

Last year I did not contribute any money from MY check to a medical reimbursement account, but my employer seeded my reimbursement account with $250 for choosing a particular medical coverage for myself. I did file one claim early on when it was fresh in my mind, but I hadn't thought about that account in several months. And I wouldn't have thought about it to this day, except that Trish mentioned as we were sitting on the couch a couple of weeks ago that her deadline for filing pretax reimbursements was coming up at the end of March. She asked if I had any dollars in an account and any expenses to claim against it. I didn't think so, but the next day I took a look...

Sure enough, there was $169.89 of the original $250 still sitting there. Trish found a receipt for a new pair of glasses that I purchased last year. Without Trish's prompting I would have ignored the account altogether. I think it's a subconscious thing - I'm not a fan of the hassle in paperwork and justification that have sometimes been required in the past. However, this time it was relatively easy to make a quick copy of the receipt, print the reimbursement form located online, and fax the two together on March 30, the day before the deadline for claims. Just a few days later, I had an additional $170 in the bank.

Mark your calendars... In researching this a little bit, most medical reimbursement programs have a grace period for expenses that allow a couple of months of leeway for spending your pretax dollars. And most have a hard deadline for putting the paperwork in before the funds are forfeited... March 31 in the case of both of our companies, and it seems that's a fairly common date. Next year we'll be reviewing our elections and expenses from this year in January to make sure we spend and claim in plenty of time.

Savings from beating the pretax reimbursement deadline: $169.89

Total savings to date: $2,101.22

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Week # 13: Netflix

Probably should have thought of this one sooner. A couple of years ago, I increased our Netflix account to have up to 4 DVDs in home at one time, one for each of the residents in the house. I didn't realize how expensive that has become until looking through all of my credit card payments.

Just by reducing the number to 3 DVDs the difference is $9 per month. To be consistent with other entries for permanent reductions, I'm calculating savings for 12 months so that my end total reflects results for one year's time.

$9 x 12 months = $108.

Total savings to date: $1,931.33

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Week # 12: Take YOU Out To The Ball Game....?

While I'm on the sports ticket theme, I may as well wrap up that general topic, and this is the perfect time of year to deal with Angels tickets. We have been season seat-holders since 2002, the year of the first and only World Series championship in Anaheim.

I thought about giving them up altogether this year, but at $10 per ticket... unchanged in several years... they are still a good price, and the best seats in the stadium for the money.

Our four seats are upstairs, but literally right behind home plate, so we have a great panorama of the stadium and the surrounding hills. It's tough to give up the long summer nights at the ballpark, and even Trish puts up with games because they are great meeting points to touch base with family and friends, and there is plenty of entertainment IN the stands to watch if the game happens to be slow. (Trish would argue there are few moments that aren't slow... it's all a matter of perspective.)

Each year my aunt and uncle purchase two tickets to 20 games from our stash, so I'll take those out of the equation. From those remaining, last year we sold $442.50 in tickets online at StubHub, the "official" sales location for MLB. So my target for this season is to sell at least $543 in tickets to realize $100 in savings above last year. This could be tough, because overall, interest in Angels tickets has waned a little bit. We may have to put up the most popular tickets (vs. Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, and bobblehead nights) to get there, as opposed to keeping them for ourselves. In the grand scheme of life, that's a relatively minor sacrifice, of course.

I could also consider donating certain tickets that are not likely to sell to charitable causes. If you know of a 501(c)3 that is looking for silent auction prizes and such, let me know and I'll certainly consider a donation (and then count the value of the tax write off toward the savings).

As with other ongoing trackable items, I will post monthly updates. If you are interested in purchasing Angels tickets for any games this season, leave a comment and I'll be in touch!  :-)

Angel tickets sold so far: $0

Savings over last year: $0

Total savings to date: $1,823.33

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Week # 11: Ducks Bucks

If you are reading this far, hopefully you enjoy the blog. Please consider adding yourself to the "follower" list, and share a link to the blog on your facebook page. The motivation level will be much higher to get through all 52 weeks if there are more than a handful of interested observers.

This week I'm documenting savings on sports tickets. True... it would be cheaper not to go to them at all, but when you're fans, that's not really an option. But we can do something about the cost.

The Anaheim Ducks are fighting to get into the NHL playoffs again, and we usually go to a handful of games each year. We haven't been to any games yet this year and the kids have been reminding me that the season is growing late, so we had planned to visit the Honda Center box office anyway.

At work, vendors are frequently on campus to show off various products and services. As I was walking back to my office a couple of weeks ago, I happened by a table where a bunch of promotional deals were laid out. I was just going to quickly browse past it, but one caught my eye... an offer from the Ducks. For $40, you could buy a card that had several ticket deals attached... two free tickets (up to $65 value), and four 2 for 1 deals (same max value). The potential savings: $390 per card for a $40 investment.

After reading through all the fine print and finding no catches, I bought two cards, figuring that we would go to a couple of games. The first free ticket would pay for the card all by itself, knowing that Ducks tickets don't come any cheaper than $40 as a rule.

After consulting with the family, we settled on two game dates: one for six and one for eight tickets, to include some extended family and friends. Trish and I went to the box office last week. We upgraded a little bit to seats in the lower level and paid the difference (between the $65 value of the voucher and the $81 cost of tickets). Between the freebies and two for one deals, we saved $65 on 9 of the 14 tickets purchased, or a total of $585. Subtracting the $80 I paid for the two discount cards, the net savings for the transaction was $505. My mother in law reimbursed us for two tickets so I'll subtract one $65 discount and claim credit for $440 in savings to MY wallet.

Overall, I'm sure we've spent less on the Ducks this year than most in the past, but I'll just highlight the savings from this transaction. I just wish I could also recall the name of the company to share it with you. From their display, it appeared they had available savings on just about any major entertainment option in Southern California.

Savings in hockey tickets: $440

Total savings to date: $1,823.33

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Monthly Update - February Wrap

Transportation: Posted in March, so no update. ($2.58 for the year to date.)

Bottles and cans: Nothing new since post. (Still $1 for the year... working on it.)

Coupons: Nothing new since post. (Sitting on $24.78 for the year.)

Lunch Adjustments: $16.57 in February, since the last update. (Lunch savings, year to date: $44.17... getting there!)

Angels Tickets: Value of new tickets sold: $0. Total value for year: $0. Savings above the $442.50 sold last year: $0.

New savings: $16.57, bringing the overall cumulative total savings to $1,383.33.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Week # 10: Transportation

Part of my role is to convince employees at my company to avoid driving during their commute by carpooling, vanpooling, taking a bus or train, cycling, or walking. I have not followed my own advice as much as I should, despite the fact that my employer offers some excellent incentives. This week I'm figuring out my cost of driving and pledging to leave my car in the driveway occasionally.

First, I'm going to separate the cost of DRIVING from the cost of OWNING. If I leave my car in the driveway for a day, I am obviously saving on gas and a little bit of wear and tear. However, I am NOT saving money on things like car payments and insurance. Those expenses are going to be there every day until I eventually sell the car, whether it sits in the driveway or takes me to work. For today, let's just look at the gas, since it's the easiest thing to quantify, and a hot topic in the media again. (For a detailed breakdown of all costs of owning a vehicle, AAA puts out a very good annual Cost of Driving analysis, although the gas price they used is now a little outdated at $2-something).

My main commute (to the primary job) is 14 miles one way, so I put 28 miles on my car in a typical day with no side trips. Most cars would burn at least a gallon each day. I drive a Prius, so my challenge will be tougher. It's an older one so I average 42 miles per gallon. Doing some quick math, I use about 2/3 of a gallon each day, so I'll use a constant of 0.67 gallons saved for each day I can leave my car in the driveway.

The price of a gallon of gas has been fluctuating. These days a price change can happen while you're putting gas in the car, if a recent news report is to be believed. I want to use actual numbers, so I will hang onto the receipt from my last gas purchase and use the price of the gas that is currently in my tank to calculate savings. The last price I paid was $3.85 (yikes!) so if I can eliminate one commute, my savings are: 0.67 gallons x $3.85/gallon = $2.58. There are a couple other commutes I occasionally make which are much longer. Using similar math, I could save $8.98 or $7.52 per day, depending on my destination for the day.

Okay, then... what are my alternative commute options?

TRAIN: I love riding the train when opportunities present. Metrolink trains are smooth, clean, go where I need to go, and run on time more than 95%. Unfortunately, they are a little bit pricey for this challenge. A ten trip pass is $59.50. Taking my employer's 50% subsidy into account, my cost is $29.75. I could choose to deduct that amount from my pay as pretax dollars. Many employers do offer participation in pretax transit programs - similar to medical reimbursement programs - because employers also save on payroll taxes for the amounts employees choose to set aside. So I might save another 30% on the $29.75, bringing my estimated cost to $20.83. Dividing this cost by 5 days (a ten trip ticket is really five round trips) my daily train cost would be approximately $4.16. That's more than my daily cost of gas. I am actually surprised by this... for me to save money by riding the train, gas prices would have to rise to at least $6.21 per gallon, and that would just be a penny better than break-even. I would like to think that's beyond the realm of possibility, at least for a few years. So for my primary commute, the train doesn't help me with this challenge.

When I travel to one of the alternative locations, my employer will expense mileage. I don't expense my driving because then I'm not practicing what I preach, but I would expense train tickets. My employer likes that because the train is far less expensive than the per mile rate they would pay me for that distance (if I bothered to file the paperwork), so it's a win for both. I can save about $8.98 by taking the train on the days I'm making the secondary commute, so the train will work occasionally.

WALK: Too far. If I left now, I might make it to work on Thursday.

VANPOOL: The fares at my company are subsidized and VPSI provides great vehicles and maintenance services. Unfortunately, vanpools are on a fairly set schedule. My employer does offer a certain number of taxi rides at their expense if I get stuck having to stay late after riding a vanpool. That would help, but I'm a little too close to work for a vanpool fare to be really efficient for me.

BUS: My employer is in Orange County. The local bus provider is OCTA. They have gotten together on something called an EPass (Employer Pass). Employers can choose to provide a free annual pass to employees. OCTA bills the employer only for rides actually taken, at a reduced rate from the regular daily fare, and capped at a monthly rate that is a discount from the regular monthly pass. It's free, so I have an annual bus pass in my wallet. Have I used it? A couple of times in a pinch. It does take a while to get to work... the shortest commute time listed on OCTA's website is about 75 minutes compared to my 20-30 minute drive. But the price is right, and I can at least be productive using my iPad during the commute, so I'm not going to count it as much of a time loss. For my primary commute, this is a good option to save the $2.58 per day.

BIKE: Hmm. I probably should give this a try this summer. That will require some advance planning... changes of clothes in the office when I get there, shower supplies (there are showers available at work but they're generally BYOS (sundries)), and I'll need to review a safe route. 14 miles is not a small ride and will still take well over an hour to complete. I'll have to work up to that. I'll start by putting some air back in the tires and getting my bike tuned up. By the way, Bike to Work Week is May 16-20.

On Friday, I took the bus to work to kick off my effort. I found that there's also a lot of additional walking that takes place getting to and from stops, which is a fringe benefit of this challenge. I'm carrying an iPod Nano with a pedometer and passed 10,000 steps in one day for the first time. It would be great if I lost a couple of pounds along the way, and with the car in the driveway, even though I drive a Prius, I still saved about 15 pounds of CO2 from the atmosphere just by leaving it in the driveway one day. As with other cumulative efforts, I'll update transportation savings as the year goes along.

Commute savings so far: $2.58.

Total savings to date: $1,366.76.

Next week: Ducks Bucks.