Picking up Nickels

Monday, January 26, 2009

Snow blower clearance: wait till next year

We've had snow on the ground for all of 2009 YTD in the Northeast, and as a result I've been making good use of my Ariens snow blower that I bought two years ago at a 30% off clearance sale.

I've read that the stormy winter weather has driven snow blower sales up high double digits over the past year, which certainly makes sense when I consider how many times I have used my snow blower this winter. With that in mind, I recently went to Lowes and Home Depot to see what they had in stock and what they were offering in terms of discounts this year.

First up was Home Depot, where they only had one "electric snow shovel" in stock for sale with no discount. That is certainly a sharp contrast to the full lineup of 30% off discounted models that Home Depot had on display both outside and in the indoor seasonal section when I bought my snow blower there two years ago.

My next stop was Lowe's, where there were also no models on display outside as there were two years ago, but Lowe's did have a decent selection of John Deere and Husqvarna models for sale at 10% off.

Unimpressed, I chalked it up to a classic case of the supply and demand economic model, where price balances the demand by buyers and the supply provided by the seller. In this case, I say wait till next year and hope for a mild 2009-2010 winter if you're looking to buy a snow blower on the cheap.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

2008 Grocery spending up 5.6%

The 5.6% increase in grocery spending I experienced in 2008 was a fitting bookend to the 6% increase I experienced in 2007.

As I mentioned in my Fall update, I had pulled out all of the stops last year trying to reduce grocery spending. Ironically, I ended up building on the 4.1% YTD increase that I observed at that time as my Shaws gift cards were used up and I was buying more produce at the supermarket once my CSA share at a local farm had expired.

However, I am starting to think that things are turning around a bit with regard to grocery prices. It appears that the bursting of the commodity price bubble is finally beginning to filter down to consumer grocery prices. For example, ConAgra Foods (maker of Hunt's, Swiss Miss, Orville Redenbacher, et al.) and Unilever (maker of Ragu, Skippy, Hellmann's, et al.) had some very aggressive Q4 2008 promotions at Shaw's Supermarket where savvy shoppers could get a bunch of their products for free (or better!) after sale prices and coupons. I have to admit that in the 5+ years that I have followed my current grocery shopping strategy, I can't recall seeing multiple grocery promotions like this in such a short time frame.

In fact, Shaw's is currently running another nice Unilever promotion through 1/22/09 and last night I was able to buy the following items with a pre-sale price of $41.68 for $2.91 out of pocket (after sale prices and coupons):

Now, while the current economic environment does stink, I'm thinking that the negative inflation trend we're seeing for now will lead to more marketing promotions like these from grocery stores and manufacturers. Who knows, with a little luck maybe I'll actually see my 2009 grocery spending decrease from 2008 levels. :)


Friday, January 16, 2009

I guess I'm bullish on oil

The recent correction in oil prices convinced me to buy The United States Oil Fund ETF (USO) yesterday. To put it simply: although the world is experiencing some severe economic issues at the moment, I think that the long term worldwide demand for oil is strong, and that the eventual increase in demand will outstrip the available supply (thereby leading to much higher prices).

(chart courtesy of CNNMoney.com)

I was watching closely when decreasing demand and growing reserves drove oil prices below $35 per barrel yesterday, which was a sizable fallback from the near $50 price apparently fueled by the most recent Gaza conflict late last month. While I did buy USO with the intention of holding onto it for a while, I could be tempted to sell if we see another 40% price spike between the $27.73 low on 12/26/08 and the $38.75 high on 1/6/09. I guess that makes me technically "kinda long" on oil. :)


Wednesday, January 14, 2009

HBO Free Preview this weekend on DirecTV

HBO and DirecTV are offering a Free Preview Weekend starting tomorrow, January 15th and ending on Sunday, January 18th.

If you are a DirecTV customer like me, all programming on channels 501 - 508 will be free for the entire weekend, so fire up your DVR and get the most out of this promotion. Enjoy!

Monday, January 12, 2009

January 2009 Financial Asset Roundup

Happy New Year! (I think).

Here are my current financial assets as of the market close on January 9th, 2009:

Asset Dec 2008 Jan 2009 Change
Checking 622 713 91
Money Market 20,679 37,252 16,573
Savings Bonds 15,024 15,071 47
Treasury Bills 0 0 0
CDs 118,639 103,328 -15,311
Brokerage 86,704 76,554 -10,150
401k 61,309 62,272 963
Roth IRA 20,784 26,193 5,409
SEP IRA 129,481 131,376 1,895
529 Savings 30,846 31,534 688
Total Assets $484,088 $484,293 $205

With volatility continuing to rule, the S&P 500 index has pretty been pretty flat with "only" a 0.99% drop since the last update:

(chart courtesy of msn.com)

We've thankfully turned the page on 2008. Economic turmoil has continued (like the unemployment rate rising to 7.2%) and our new President will be sworn in next week and his first priority will be pushing through his economic stimulus plan. Oil prices are falling back below $40 per barrel despite further unrest in the Gaza Strip.

Moneywise, I used $10k from my brokerage account to fund 2008 Roth IRA contributions for myself and Mrs. Frugalson and am about to start working on making my 2008 SEP IRA contributions. I decided not to renew my E-Loan 3.61% APY 6 month CD last month due to continuing rate drops and will leave my cash in my E*Trade Complete Savings account earning 3.01% APY until a better opportunity presents itself. At this point, I'm starting work on my 2008 personal and business tax returns and (with my largest contract up in the Spring) I am planning on being extra conservative with my S Corp cash for at least the first quarter of 2009.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Update: Requesting a check from Upromise

I was planning on following the procedure that I wrote about a couple of years ago regarding sending a letter to Upromise to request a withdrawal of the balance of my account, and I noticed that they now have a downloadable withdrawal request form on their web site that simplifies the process (link).

The details for downloading, filling out, and mailing the form to Upromise is detailed in the Upromise Account FAQ:

You can withdraw your Upromise contributions at any time during your membership. To withdraw company contributions from your Upromise account, submit a letter in writing to Upromise requesting a withdrawal from your Upromise account. The letter must state your full name and exact amount that you would like to withdraw, up to total amount available in your account, pending contributions are not eligible for withdrawal.

For the protection of our members, we require that your letter either be notarized or contain a Signature Guarantee if the withdrawal request is in excess of $200. A Signature Guarantee is a guarantee you can obtain from a financial institution, such as your bank, that your signature is yours and that it is genuine.

Withdrawal letters should be sent to:

Upromise ATTN: Customer Care P.O. Box 55555 Boston, MA 02205-5555

Download Withdrawal Request Form

Checks are sent once per calendar quarter, so you should typically receive your check within 12 weeks of your request being received.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

My experience buying new car tires: Take Two

As a follow-up to my SUV tire purchase experience a few months ago, I recently bought new tires for my trusty old Nissan and ended up going about things a little differently this time.

My Nissan is a lightly used 10+ year old second car and the Dunlop tires that were on it had a tire age circa 2002 as well as one tire with a leaky patch near the sidewall that a local shop could not repair after three attempts. I eventually grew tired of having to add air to my tire every time I wanted to go somewhere, so I decided to break down and just get some new tires.

With my last tire purchase, I decided on the specific tire I wanted to buy (Goodyear Fortera TripleTread) before trying to hunt down the best possible price. This time, I tried focusing on finding a price-based deal instead of a tire-based deal.

I started by going to tirerack.com and using their "VIEW BEST SELLERS" option for my Nissan. I ended up gravitating toward the Kumho Ecsta ASX, an all season tire with an inexpensive price ($63 shipped per tire), a middle of the pack rating from Consumer Reports in November 2007, and a personal stamp of approval from an acquaintance of mine. So, with this Tire Rack price and a cost of $58 for mount/balance/disposal at a local garage, I was looking at a total of about $310 to get these Kumho tires installed in my Nissan.

As a sanity check, I once again requested an internet quote from sullivantire.com, and once again I promptly received a detailed quote via email (about $463 installed plus tax). Since that quote wasn't even in the ballpark of the $310 cost from the online order/local install from tirerack.com, I didn't bother calling a bunch of local places to try to look for a better price.

So, a week before Christmas I pulled the trigger on the Kumho tires from tirerack.com (plus the 4% ebates.com bonus) and they were promptly shipped from the tirerack.com warehouse in Indiana, delivered by UPS on Christmas Eve, and installed by a local garage after the New Year. Now I happily no longer have an old leaky tire to deal with, and I ended up paying about $100 less than the set of Dunlop tires that I bought for this car six years ago.