Picking up Nickels

Friday, September 25, 2009

Bizarre coupon of the day

I search through quite a few coupons when I'm trying to save a few bucks on my purchases. Some are for products I might buy, some are for products I will never buy, and some are simply so strange that I'm not sure what to make of them:

From what I can gather, Purina's Healthful Life and Naturals lines of Cat Chow seem to bestow the power of yoga on your faithful kitty. It never occurred to me that a cat could achieve the "standing tree" posture, but now I know better.


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Starz Free Preview this weekend on DirecTV

Starz and DirecTV are offering a Free Preview Weekend starting tomorrow, September 16th and ending on Sunday, September 20th.

If you are a DirecTV customer like me, all programming on channels 520 - 533 will be free for the entire weekend, so fire up your DVR and get the most out of this promotion. Enjoy!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

My experience getting my driveway repaved: Part 3

This is Part 3 of my series on getting my driveway repaved, where I discuss the contractor that I decided to go with and summarize the work done so far.

After getting quotes from all the paving contractors I discussed in Part 2, I immediately eliminated Companies B and E. Neither company seemed concerned about simply paving over the portion of my binder coat that moved when I walked on it, a serious structural problem that Companies C and D convinced me of. Further, paying Company B $4200 to replace a small portion of my binder and pave over the rest seemed very expensive considering that Companies C and D would do much more extensive work for less than $1000 more. As for Company E, they just gave me the used car salesman vibe and I did not feel comfortable working with them at all. That left me with Company C and Company D, either of which I was comfortable doing business with.

Ultimately, the cash price of $5000 to remove, regrade, and replace the entire driveway combined with the professional proposal and references put Company D at the top of the heap. Their proposal was valid for 30 days, outlined the work to be done (and paid for) in three stages:
Commencement of work (30% payment), Completion of binder (40% payment), and Completion of top coat (30% payment), and required my signature to get the project started. After having a follow-up phone call with the owner of Company D to answer my few remaining questions, I sent them a signed copy of the proposal and periodically checked in with the owner for my start date since I would need to make a trip to the bank for the cash to pay for all of this.

After a few weeks of delay due to episodes of heavy rain and employee vacations, it was clear that my initial request that this work be completed before the end of August was not going to happen. However, the lack of work ended abruptly in early September when a dump truck and backhoe showed up and made quick work of removing and carting away my old driveway:

The following day, a small army of men and equipment came by and regraded my driveway with processed gravel (to direct water runoff away from the house) and compacted it with a roller:

Once that was complete, a paving machine put down two dump trucks full of asphalt that now make up my new base coat of binder:

As of today, the job is not complete since I still do not have the top coat on my driveway. From our first conversation, the owner of the company recommended that the binder sit for a couple of weeks before he put the top coat on. I admit that I know next to nothing about asphalt, but it was a big contrast to every other company I spoke with who said that they would do the entire job in one day. Oh well... I am an impatient person by nature, but I have to admit waiting an extra couple of weeks isn't really a big deal.

Next up is Part 4 where I will hopefully discuss how thrilled I am with my brand spanking new $5000 driveway. :D Company D is supposed to come by and finish the job this week, so hopefully the weather and their schedule will make that happen.

Friday, September 11, 2009

September 2009 Financial Asset Roundup

It's hard to believe it has been eight years since the 9/11 attacks on our country. And even though the shock of 9/11 has diminished somewhat over time, those memories will live with me until the day I die.

That being said, on to the business at hand. Here are my current financial assets as of the market close on September 10th, 2009:

Asset August 2009 September 2009 Change
Checking 457 474 17
Money Market 34,603 30,857 -3,746
Savings Bonds 20,528 20,612 84
Treasury Bills 0 0 0
CDs 120,198 120,680 482
Brokerage 81,501 86,601 5,100
401k 75,752 80,130 4,378
Roth IRA 30,961 32,405 1,444
SEP IRA 177,180 184,252 7,072
529 Savings 37,022 38,799 1,777
Total Assets $578,202 $594,810 $16,608

The S&P 500 index has hit an 11-month high as it has risen 3.68% since the last update:

(chart courtesy of msn.com)

The hope of the recession ending continues with the Federal Reserve reporting that the economy is stabilizing. Unemployment hit a new 26 year high of 9.7%, although fewer jobs were lost in August than in July. Hopefully the unemployment numbers will soon start trending down on a regular basis. People having steady work would certainly help us wind our way through the housing mess we're currently in (except for fools like this, of course).

Crude oil has continued to hover above $70 per barrel and I wonder how high it will rise if this economic recovery is for real. And not to sound like a broken record, but I'm still sick of the partisan whining about health care reform. Would the voters of South Carolina please let Rep. Joe Wilson (You lie!) know that his unprofessional and disrespectful behavior does nothing but embarrass you and himself? Also, could Sarah Palin do us all a favor and finally give up the tired death panel nonsense and stop trying to create panic over a non-issue? Ugh, I hate politics.

As for money moves, I dropped some serious coin on getting my driveway repaved and will be relieved when it is finished next week. The first of my Penfed 6% APY CDs is maturing later this month, and even the paltry 2% APY Penfed CD that I was considering putting the cash in has fallen to 1.25%. With deposit rates so pathetically low, I will probably just leave the cash in my HSBC online savings account and stay liquid if and when a better opportunity comes along.

Friday, September 04, 2009

My experience getting my driveway repaved: Part 2

This is Part 2 of my series on getting my driveway repaved, where I detail the experience I had with the five paving contractors that I called for quotes. For my initial call the candidates, I conveyed a simple message:

I'm looking to get an estimate for a top course of asphalt for my existing driveway. I currently have a binder course only and am looking to get this job completed before the end of August.

Now, on to the candidates:

  1. Company A: These guys were great on paper. They've been in business since 1933, are a BBB Accredited Business with an A+ rating, and have a professional looking web site. I left a message with a receptionist and was called back by the owner himself less than an hour later politely telling me that they would not pave over binder put down by someone else. I asked him who he would call if he were in my situation and he gracefully sidestepped my question. (One interesting addendum: when I was speaking with one of the employees of the contractor I eventually went with, he mentioned Company A by name as one who has a good reputation in the paving business.)

  2. Company B: This company was also great on paper: BBB Accreditation with an A+ rating, a professional looking web site, and the Craigslist ad boasting of "recession prices". I was called back a couple of hours after leaving my message and a polite and professional representative came by to check out my driveway and give me a quote that same afternoon. He recommended replacing a small portion of my existing binder and paving over the rest for about $4200 (Holy Shnikes!). He's made several follow up phone calls since then, which eventually became quite annoying even though they I initially thought he was being professional.

  3. Company C: These guys are based in the town that I grew up in and I remember seeing their trucks around town when I was a kid. They did a nice job paving my in-laws driveway many years ago, had a B- rating with the BBB (with no complaints in three years), and they advertised on Craigslist. I called them on Tuesday afternoon and the owner stopped by a few hours later. His diagnosis of my driveway was more dire than Company B. He told me that quite a bit of my binder had failed and would need to be replaced and that he would get back to me in a day or two with a quote. I didn't hear back from them for a week, so I left another message and the owner called back the same night. This guy spent a lot of time on the phone with me and quoted me $4800 for replacing the failed portion of my binder and adding a topcoat or $6500 to remove everything and rebuild the entire driveway. He recommended that no matter what I decide to do I should not put a top coat over what I have now because the binder was in such terrible shape. He suggested that doing nothing and letting the existing driveway last as long as it can would be a better choice.

  4. Company D: This company had paved a few of the driveways in my neighborhood and has a B rating with the BBB. I left a voicemail and the owner stopped by a few days later after a missed appointment and some phone tag. His assessment of my driveway was very similar to Company C: the majority of my binder coat was not salvageable. To accentuate his point, he took out a pocket knife and removed a chunk of my binder coat. He told me that this coat of asphalt should be 1.5" thick, where mine is less than 1" thick in some places:

    He called back a few days later and quoted me a price of $5400 to replace my entire driveway, which I was able to get down to an even $5000 by offering to pay cash for the job. The owner followed up a couple of days later by mailing me a written proposal and a list of references for work done in the town I live in.

  5. Company E: These guys also paved a couple of driveways in my neighborhood. In fact, the owner stopped by my house a couple of years ago when working on my neighbor's driveway and did the "I'm doing a job in the area and have an extra truck of asphalt" routine. I passed on his generous offer that day, but my neighbor told me that the guy did a good job for a great price. I was also shocked to see that they were a BBB Accredited Business with an A+ rating and a good complaint history, so I ignored that little voice inside my head and left them a voicemail. The owner called back a few days later and said that he was eager to get a deal done today (not a good sign) and I said I was still in the process of getting quotes and was not ready to commit to a deal. He stopped by a few hours later and after quickly looking at my driveway he said he would put a top coat on my existing binder for $3000 and had come and gone in less than five minutes.

Next up is Part 3 where I discuss who I decided to go with and why.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

My experience getting my driveway repaved: Part 1

I must admit that our driveway was a minor consideration when our house was built 10+ years ago. It had became one of many small line items to be completed during the flurry of activity as we watched our new house take shape. At the time, the builder would only agree to put in a binder course (the bottom "foundation" layer of an asphalt driveway) but not a top coat apparently because our street and sidewalks had not yet been paved.

Over time, many of our neighbors put in new driveways with a 1.5" binder course and a 1.5" top coat. Being "frugal", I never seriously considered putting the top coat on our driveway until this past winter when the heavy snow left our driveway a squishy mess during the many freeze/thaw cycles we went through. I remember being a bit surprised when parts of the driveway were moving as I walked on it to get the mail out of the mailbox. At that point, I decided it was time to look into getting this mess taken care of when the weather warmed up a bit:

A couple of months ago, I finally sat down and tried to come up with a way to get some quotes from a few reliable paving companies. I figured that I should be well positioned to get a quality job done at great price since the price of oil (a major component of asphalt) is down about 50% over the past year and I have cash to spend in a recession following the collapse the housing bubble. Looking back, it's hard to believe I was ever that naive. :)

With that in mind, I put together my strategy for finding a few vendors to contact for a quote:

  • The stodgy old phone book: I went through local phone books and yellow pages and added every paving contractor that I could find to a spreadsheet.
  • The Better Business Bureau: I looked up the reliability report for every paving contractor in my spreadsheet. Some were an BBB Accredited Business, some had a great rating, one had a F rating and numerous unresolved complaints, and two were apparently no longer in business.
  • Craigslist: I checked out Craigslist to see if any of the companies on my spreadsheet were hungry for work and embraced the web as a way to find new business. As luck would have it, two of the companies on my list had posted on Craigslist. One had paved my in-laws driveway many years ago and the other was a BBB Accredited Business with an A+ rating and a Craigslist ad mentioning "recession prices".
  • The company web site: As an information technology (IT) professional, I wondered how many of these companies actually spent the time and expense building and maintaining a professional looking web site. It turned out that five out of twenty five companies in my spreadsheet had a decent-looking web site (including the company with the F rating from the BBB).
  • Ask friends and neighbors for referrals: Not too much detail from these folks, but I found four people with a positive paving experience to share. Unfortunately, one of these companies was no longer in business.
  • Check them out with the Massachusetts Department of Public Safety: This turned out to be a disappointing once I figured out that paving contractors in Massachusetts are not required to be licensed.

Using the above criteria, I ended up calling five paving companies and asked them to come by and give me a quote for an asphalt top coat on my driveway. My quest for the perfect (and affordable) driveway continues with Part 2 of this saga where I lay out the details of how things played out with those contractors. Stay tuned!