Going solar

The husband is pretty good at calculating energy costs and will be the first to tell you that installing solar panels is not cost effective. However, because the solar industry is so heavily subsidized by taxpayers, it’s worth it. In addition, since we are taxpayers, we’re actually getting some of our money back!

We chose a package with 14 panels (235 watt modules, microinverters). The contractor received a rebate which reduced the cost of the overall project. Over the next four years we will receive tax credits on our income tax return, which will cover all the cost except about $2000. With the tax credits and energy savings, the husband figures we will recoup our investment in less than three years. After that, any power the system generates reduces our monthly energy bill and increases our savings.

In just one week we’ve produced 116 kWh! However, now that the clouds and rain have settled in for the fall and winter, we probably won’t do as well. You may wonder why we didn’t install the system earlier in the year to take advantage of the summer sunshine, and that may have made sense in terms of “banking” the energy. However, we wanted to wait as close to the end of the year as possible so that we wouldn’t have to wait as long to see our tax credit. We have a good incentive to file our income taxes as soon as possible!

It is a fairly large investment up front, but with all the rebates and tax credits over the next few years, it is worth it in our opinion. I’ll update you on our energy generating progress in a few months.

Universal fun

I enjoy theme parks as much as the next person, but as empty-nesters, they’re not high on our vacation destination list. However, when the husband’s business trip took him to Orlando, it just made sense for me to tag along and add a few days for pleasure.

We were in Orlando 20 years ago when our kids were five and nine and had a lot of fun at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney MGM (now Disney’s Hollywood Studios), and Universal Studios. We visited Disneyland seven years ago with our son and did the whole SoCal theme park tour, including Six Flags, Universal, and Knott’s Berry Farm.

Without kids, we didn’t see a reason to do the full-blown theme park experience, and since this was a business trip we only had three free days. In addition, this was an extra vacation for which we had not budgeted, so we wanted to keep our entertainment dollars to a minimum.

The husband really enjoyed Universal Studios in Orlando and Hollywood, so that was his top choice. We chose not to get the “park-to-park” ticket because we really didn’t think we’d have the stamina for two parks in one day and settled on Universal’s newer theme park, Islands of Adventure. That decision saved us $70. We also chose to forego the Universal Express Pass, which allows you to skip lines at $30 per person. The pass may be a timesaver during peak season or a good investment if you have small, impatient children, but it really wasn’t necessary for us. We breezed through most of the lines – even those with a posted 30 minute wait time.

We got in line for The Incredible Hulk Coaster, but it was temporarily shut down due to inclement weather, so we moved over to Dr. Doom’s Fearfall. I cannot express how unprepared I was for this ride. They should really consider selling Depends at the entrance! We got wet on Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls and Jurassic Park River Adventure, but dried out on the Dragon Challenge roller coaster. We were pretty disappointed in the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride. Lots of jerking.

We took a break to get away from the crowds and rehydrate as it was pretty humid and we were doing quite a bit of sweating. Both were easy to do in The Lost Continent area.

Hairstyle courtesy of Orlando’s humidity.

We walked through Seuss Landing and I couldn’t resist having my picture taken in front of If I Ran the Zoo. I think most people who have worked in zoos contemplate the thought of how operations would change if they were in charge. I know I certainly have!

We circled back to The Incredible Hulk Coaster, which was up and running, but we had had enough roller coaster rides for the day. We decided The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man would be our last ride. It was better than Harry Potter’s Forbidden Journey and had some good effects.

If I were grading Universal’s Islands of Adventure park, I’d have to give it a C. If we had small children they might have enjoyed Seuss Landing, but overall I wasn’t that impressed. When we’d visited the Studio parks in Orlando 20 years ago and in Hollywood seven years ago, we enjoyed them much more. Those rides seemed to be well-masked in a theme, and we were caught up in the story. These seemed rides seemed, well, like rides. It was kind of like visiting a State Fair, only much more expensive.

Regardless, it was fun to be away from the day-to-day routine and our DIY projects and just spend some time together. I’ll review our visit to Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Kennedy Space Center in future posts.

Recycle for savings

I’m pretty good with recycling stuff. I know what can be recycled at our local landfill and sort it accordingly. I recycle because I believe we should be good stewards of what’s been entrusted to our care, including the environment and finances.

It’s difficult not to see the connection between being good stewards of the environment and good stewards of your finances. Disposing of many recyclable items is free, but if I toss them into the garbage I’m charged for their disposal. Why would I pay to do something when I have another option?

However, not everything can be recycled easily or without charge. Block Styrofoam is a real pain! Our local landfill won’t take it unless we include it in our garbage. That would not only be bad for the environment, but it takes up an enormous amount of space and would cost more than I’m willing to pay, so I began researching options.

The husband actually found a location that takes block Styrofoam, and the charge is very reasonable at $5 for a carload. Yesterday I loaded up my Acura MDX with the Styrofoam we’d accumulated and called my mom to see if she had any to add (doesn’t everybody?!). I filled the back cargo space and half of the backseat and headed off to Total Reclaim. I had an appointment in the same area, so I was saving time and fuel, as well!

It feels great to be rid of the space-hogging Styrofoam, and even greater to know I disposed of it in a manner that preserved the environment AND my money. Now that’s what I call *finesse!

My recycling finesse level:  Novice     Advanced beginner     Competent        Proficient        Expert

What’s your recycling finesse level?

*finesse (skill, flair, grace elegance, poise, assurance)

Creative meals

How do you plan meals for the last few days before you move a great distance? The last thing you want to do is grocery shop and add more to move, but is there really anything in your pantry, fridge or freezer to make balanced meals for several days? The answer may be a surprising YES!

I recently went to Arizona to help my son and his family move. His wife and baby daughter flew out a few days ahead of us, while we packed the last minute items (beds, bedding, toiletries – stuff you need until you hit the road). I looked at what food remained and tried to plan meals around the perishable items and supplement, if necessary with the non-perishable items.

We had great meals of grilled ahi and salad, pot stickers and stir-fry, barbecued hamburgers and fries, and Eggs Benedict, as well as other assorted items. We ate very well while using as much of the food as we could reasonably consume.

Even though I’m not moving, I’ve decided I need to do this at home. What great meals are lurking in my freezer and pantry? I organized them both about 10 months ago, so I’m thinking it’s about time to do it again. Besides, organizing the freezer sound pretty good on a day that the temperature is predicted to reach 102 degrees!

Inexpensive cod makes great summer dish

I’ve had quite a learning curve when it comes to choosing and preparing seafood for dinner. My parents were from the Mid-West, so we ate a lot of beef. During my entire childhood I can’t recall having any seafood except that which was breaded and formed into the shape of a stick.

In more than three decades of marriage, I’ve had some great success and horrendous failures fixing seafood, but in the last few years I think I’ve finally hit my stride. We eat salmon almost weekly and recently I’ve been buying cod.

I like the low price (about $5 per pound) and ease of preparation. I ask for pieces that are thicker, as the “skinny” end seems a little tough. I just throw it in a baking dish, spoon some fruit salsa over the top, cover with foil and bake at 325 degrees for about 20-25 minutes (it’s done when it flakes easily with a fork). I would think you could fix it in a crock pot or in foil pouches on the grill if you didn’t want to heat up the kitchen. I pair the cod with brown and wild rice and a green salad and call it dinner!

Delicious, nutritious, easy and inexpensive!

My seafood *finesse level: 
Novice     Advanced beginner     Competent        Proficient        Expert              

What’s your seafood finesse level?

*finesse (skill, flair, grace elegance, poise, assurance)

Don’t skimp when you primp

I’m fully on board with the old adage, “Waste not, want not.” I have a great deal of *finesse when it comes to using a product until there’s nothing left. I squeeze every last bit of toothpaste out of the tube. I get the very last drop of shampoo and conditioner from the bottle. If there’s a way to extract the last drip, pinch or smidge of any product, I think I’ve found it. The big exception is mascara.

For at least the last 20 years, I’ve rotated my mascara every 3 months. Avon first made me aware of the health reasons to do this. They introduced mascara that had a nifty way to remind you when you began using the tube and when you should throw it out. At first I thought it was a way to get you to buy more mascara, but soon saw news reports regarding the danger of using a tube of mascara after three months.

Reports showed a tube of mascara cut open after three months and it was pretty hideous. Apparently bacteria grow on our eyelashes, hitch a ride on the eyelash brush and then grow very well in the dark, moist environment of the mascara tube. Pretty icky! Do a quick internet search and you’ll find lots of articles regarding the subject. (Here’s a pretty good one.)

While I resist throwing anything out before it’s completely used, this is one product that hits the trash after three months.

My saving finesse level:
Novice     Advanced beginner     Competent        Proficient        Expert

What’s your saving finesse level?

*finesse (skill, flair, grace elegance, poise, assurance)

Pulling the plug on cable

A little more than a year ago we decided to cancel our subscription to cable television. The price kept increasing and we just couldn’t see the value in the service. We were spending $60 a month, and mainly watching the local news and reruns on WGN, TBS or TNT, so we decided to pull the plug.

Before we cancelled we needed to invest in some antennas. The husband did some research and chose two that would work in our attic. The price was equivalent to our cable bill for one year, so we decided we needed to commit to being cable-free for at least that long to break even. We figured after that time we could always go back to cable, or look into satellite service if we missed having a wider selection of channels.

We’re six months past the one year mark and we aren’t even close to considering going back to cable. Every once in a while we think about satellite service when we see an advertisement, but the more we consider it, the less appealing it becomes. I miss HGTV and the husband misses his favorite news channel, but we can always catch up online if we’re having withdrawals.

An extra $60 a month may not sound like a lot of savings, but when you think of it as $720 a year it sounds more impressive. What are we doing with that extra cash, you ask? We’re livin’ life with a little more *finesse!

My saving finesse level: 
Novice     Advanced beginner     Competent        Proficient        Expert      

What’s your saving finesse level?

*finesse (skill, flair, grace elegance, poise, assurance)

Eating out on the cheap

We enjoy eating in restaurants, but don’t like the prices. Therefore, we have a few methods that take the sting out of the bill.

  1. We take advantage of restaurant specials and coupons. I know we’re not the only ones who do this, since most of the diners around us at Red Lobster the other night were ordering the Four Course Seafood Feast (for $14.99) and reminding the waiter about their coupon as they were paying the bill.
  2. We often take half of our entrée home. Restaurant meals usually come with HUGE portions. At Red Lobster we asked for boxes as our entrées arrived. Before taking our first bites, we placed half in the boxes for a second meal the next day.
  3. We split meals. At one local restaurant, their bacon cheeseburger and fries combo with salad is more than enough for the two of us. If we’re extra hungry, we’ll split a chocolate milkshake, as well.
  4. We order off the appetizer menu. Our local Mexican restaurant has an appetizer platter for about $11. It contains all of our favorites, but no rice or beans. Perfect! There’s more than enough food for both of us, and we usually take some home.
  5. We order one entrée and one appetizer, salad, or soup. I’m not a big eater so many times just a little something off the side menu is fine for me. The husband usually doesn’t mind if I steal a few bites off his plate.

For special occasions, we throw caution to the wind and go someplace crazy expensive like Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse and we deserve it. However, for the times we dine out for convenience our money saving methods keep the bill reasonable and our digestive systems happy.

Making the most of your miles

I love vacations! We get away to our favorite vacation spot, which is conveniently located about a two and half hour drive from home, three times a year. It’s nice to pack everything we might need for a week in the back of our Acura MDX and head to a place so familiar; it feels like a second home. However, once in a while we just want to mix things up a bit and fly away.

Like most people, we have limited discretionary income, so a vacation that involves an airline flight is not a yearly experience. However, with a little planning and a pinch of *finesse, we’ve managed to fly a family of four to Arizona for spring break, fly to family milestone events, and fly to visit family and friends without ever paying full fare. How exactly do we do that you ask? Frequent flier miles!

We’ve been members of the Alaska Airlines mileage plan since 1999. We don’t fly often, but our credit card and debit card purchases add miles at a pretty good rate. At first glance, we didn’t understand the program fully, but with a little research we learned how to make it work for us. Because our credit and debit cards are tied to the program, we rarely use cash or write a check for anything. If we’re going to spend money anyway, we might as well get a bonus!

We also learned the best way to redeem miles for a flight was not to purchase the full price of the ticket with miles. If you do that, you don’t get credit for the miles flown on that trip. We use a combination of miles and cash to receive a reduced fare. With Alaska Airlines, that doesn’t always mean you’re flying at half price, but it’s still a good value.

Occasionally it makes sense to use miles for the full fare, so I figure my flights based on two different scenarios. I check the price and miles needed for a round trip flight and compare it against two one way flights using all miles for the departure flight and a combination of cash and miles for the return flight. The one way flight scenario made more sense on my last flight. While I didn’t receive credit for the miles flown using the free ticket (well, almost free – I had to pay a $5 tax), it made more sense from a scheduling and financial standpoint. The round trip ticket was pretty expensive to depart and arrive at decent times without long layovers. Both scenarios required 20,000 miles so it made more sense to forgo the mileage credit on one leg of the trip in favor of a cheaper overall price.

I’ve flown three times this year already (a real rarity!) and have two more flights scheduled, so I’m beginning to feel like an expert. I’m also beginning to feel like that young man in local television commercials who declares, “We don’t pay full price for anything!” By the way, neither should you.

*finesse (skill, flair, grace elegance, poise, assurance)

Finessing the freebies

You can’t watch, listen or read the news without being aware of the many scams out there just waiting to help you part with your hard earned cash. Phrases like, If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is; there’s no such thing as a free lunch; and you get what you pay for ring in our ears when we get a “too good to pass up” offer in the mail or email.

I received two postcards last week offering what appeared to be freebies. One proclaimed that “VACATION CHOICES is offering you a fly away ESCAPE!” and offering “2 Round Trip Airfares to Hawaii or anywhere that US Airways or Allegiant flies in the continental US.” The first red flag was my eye-roll response. Without giving this postcard more than a glance, my internal warning system had already triggered a negative response. The second red flag is the word “FREE” seems implied, but is not included anywhere. The third red flag is the small print which reads, “Taxes and reservation fees are the responsibility of the recipient.” I understand the taxes portion, but what are the reservation fees? I’d already decided to recycle the postcard, but decided to do a little internet search just for fun. Surprisingly, a search doesn’t reveal anything negative about Vacation Choices on the first page of the search engine. Digging a little deeper, however, there’s plenty of negativity. Lesson? Trust your gut!

The second postcard offered a “FREE DINNER. “ In fact, the word “FREE” is used two additional times on the front of the postcard. The back of the postcard reveals that Fire Safety Etc. is sponsoring the dinner and that “NO PURCHASES OF ANY KIND ARE PERMITTED AT DINNER.” Additionally it states “The entire program is informational only. Leave your Checkbooks at home.” It’s pretty clear that the dinner includes a program explaining fire safety tips and fire prevention. Since the free dinner was at Olive Garden, we decided this offer was worth our time.

We weren’t disappointed! Our host was fun, entertaining and just as concerned about making sure everyone enjoyed their dinner as he was about presenting the program. He was extremely courteous to the waitress who was serving the crowd of 30, and tried to make her job easier. The meal began in typical Olive Garden-style with breadsticks and salad and we were offered an entrée choice of eggplant parmesan, fettuccini Alfredo, lasagna or spaghetti. The entrée portions were substantial (too much for me). Start to finish was two hours, and in our opinion, well worth it.

My advice is to grab those opportunities that are truly free and worth your time, but just toss those that aren’t.