Small Financial Sacrifices For Big Achievements

My monthly rent just went from $1,500 per month to $350 per month. Yes, you read that right – I just started saving $1,150 on my rent each and every month! (Do I sound like a Geico insurance ad?) This is part of the move I have referenced as of late and part of my long-term plan to hitting the road full time within the next 12 months. The place I was renting in California was a 2 bedroom, 1 bathroom stand-alone house with rather high utility bills each month, while the place I am now renting in New Mexico is a studio-sized bungalow near town with all the utilities included. Counting rent, utilities, and entertainment, my costs for the house in California added up to about $1,750, while the costs for the studio in New Mexico add up to, well, exactly $350. I no longer have cable TV, and my heat/water/internet service is included in the rent, so my monthly expenses for the place end at the full cost of my rent each month. This may be too much sacrifice for some people, but for me it’s a means to an end — one I am looking forward to.

From my new place, I can walk to Whole Foods, several different restaurants and coffee shops, and it’s a perfectly small, affordable studio for me to start assembling my plan of action for the coming year. In order to make the transition to my new space (and future plans) work though, I had to make several major changes, one of which I had wanted to do for many years — significantly downsize my personal belongings. So in the few days I had to clear out and pack up my house, I donated enough goods to fill up two mini vans.

It was all superfluous stuff that wasn’t necessary to my life but had been accumulated over the years and that had taken its spot as a regular in my home. But while going through each item in my house, I was able to see it as “extra” and not a necessity, making it easier to donate to those less fortunate than myself. After clearing out the donations, I was left with two piles; one with just a few bags of personal items and computer equipment to take with me, and another pile of pricey furniture I wasn’t ready to dispose of and may want to use later. All said, I would say I am left with only about 35% of the stuff I started this adventure with just a few short weeks ago, and it feels amazing to have cleared out so much! Some may see that as a sacrifice, but I see it as progress, as my entire life feels way lighter now. After all, not everything can fit in one of these, can it?

My new rental is tiny compared to the house I was renting but the rent is $1,150 less per month. I don’t have any utility bills at all. My only monthly bills at this point are as follows:

  • Rent $350
  • AT&T iPhone Bill $95
  • Storage $100
  • Website Hosting $40
  • Netflix $14.99
  • Car Insurance $40
  • BackBlaze Computer Backup $5

Total: $644.99

I am sacrificing my own space, my stuff, some mindless entertainment, big-city living (if that’s a sacrifice, as sometimes it isn’t), and the accompaniment of some old close friends as I start this journey of mine. And while not everyone is willing to move and/or downsize this significantly in order to save money, I wanted to write this post to show you that’s it not that difficult if you make the right choices for you (in terms of location, etc.) and you have an end goal that you are working towards. If I stay 12 months in my new place and keep all expenses the same, I could potentially put away $16,800 just from the cheaper rent alone, never mind any other money I have always saved each and every month outside of that. That is money that will enable me to pay cash (along with the trading in of my current car) for a truck and a trailer/camper I will be living in most of the year, along with putting a healthy amount of extra savings in the bank to pay for my travels and repairs on the road. I will be keeping my current “home base” because it is so cheap and I can lock it up and hit the road without worrying about taking care of it or paying the bills. I will always have a place to come back to for a rest or to regroup.

This type of life is definitely not for everyone, but with the right changes/choices, your dream life can be possible too. It just takes a little courage and some planning and you can be on your way to living life the way you want to, not the way others expect you to. In the big picture, I am not sacrificing anything of any true importance; rather I am giving up some things and exchanging them for an experience more valuable to me than “stuff” could ever be. You only get one shot at life — make it count.

(photo credit: p_x_g)


Moving Van Rental vs. Mini Van to Save on Estimated Moving Costs

As I alluded to a few weeks back, I just finished my move back to New Mexico. Seen by some in my family as a clear sign of my mental degradation, my short-lived trial run back in California didn’t last too long and I feel as though I am back where I am supposed to be. But that’s not really what I wanted to talk about here at My Two Dollars; rather, I wanted to take a look at the cost of moving a small amount of material goods in the most efficient and cost-effective way. So here’s a little backstory on my move, how I did it, and how much money it cost me.

Because I knew I wanted to move back to NM, I have been living out here for weeks at a time looking for a place to live, which I have now secured for myself. And so for a while, I had a place in NM and a place in CA. Talk about living large! But I needed to get rid of the place in CA before the end of March, so I made a decision — I would get back to CA, empty my house, bring back a few belongings for now, and then figure out anything else a little later on. So in just 3 short days, I moved out of and cleaned up the house I was renting in California.

Because I have plans to eventually go on the road in the coming year with a truck and a camper, I used this move to really cut down on my belongings. I gave furniture, dishes, glasses, rugs, tables, and tons of assorted stuff to Goodwill in hopes that someone less fortunate than myself could use them. Sure, I could have held a yard sale to make a little extra dough, but I didn’t want to invest the time in doing so. The rest of my big-ticket items, like my TV, couch, etc. went into a short-term storage facility in CA until I either A. get settled into a place I want to stay in here in NM or B. return from my ‘round the country’ camping trip, and have a need for such items once again. Once the Goodwill pile was gone and the big ticket items were in storage, I was left with the essentials and needed a way to get them back to my place in New Mexico. And thus led me to the biggest choice of the move, and I decided that my two best options would be to either:

  1. Drive my car to California. Rent a U-Haul truck, fill it up, tow my car behind it, drive back to NM, and put stuff in storage.
  2. Rent a van here in NM, drive to CA, use it to move my stuff, fill it up with my “keeping” pile, put stuff in storage in CA, and drive back to NM.

I knew I wouldn’t be using a professional mover or a U-Pack service like I have in the past, as I wasn’t moving all that much stuff. So I would be packing and driving everything myself. Storage in both cities is exactly the same, so while I will eventually (it could be years from now) need to get my stuff once I feel settled down a bit, I can’t really factor that in today’s dollars. Comparing the cost of these two options, it was quickly obvious which one would be an exorbitant cost and which one would be totally reasonable for a move of almost 900 miles. Let’s take a look:

Renting a moving van

This was going to be a one-way van rental, as I was driving my personal car out to CA first. I would drive there, pick up the van, load it up, attach a towing hookup, and tow my car back to NM. Using U-Haul as an estimate, I chose a 10 ft moving truck (I would have been bringing everything with me to store here in NM) and a tow dolly for my car, and the total came out to:

  • $734 truck rental
  • $109 tow dolly
  • Truck Gasoline – 870 miles / 10 MPG = 87 gallons of gas used X $3.50 = $304.50
  • Mini Gasoline – 870 miles / 31 MPG = 28.06 gallons of gas used X $3.50 = $98.21

Grand total: $1,245.71

Renting a mini van

Because the price (and hassle) of renting a truck and towing my car, I decided to check out what it would cost to just rent a mini van from Budget for a week instead. This way I could drive the van to CA, use it to move my stuff to storage there, load it up with my essentials I need right now, and return it to the rental place back in NM. For 6 days, the costs were as follows:

  • $364 van rental, unlimited miles
  • Van gasoline to CA – 870 miles / 24 MPG = 36.25 gallons of gas used X $3.50 = $126.88
  • Van gasoline to NM – 870 miles / 24 MPG = 36.25 gallons of gas used X $3.50 = $126.88

Grand total: $617.76, plus no wear and tear on my own personal car

Can you guess which choice I made? I picked the second option, saving me $600+ for the move. Sometimes you have to think a little outside the box in order to find any hidden savings, and this definitely saved me some money. Most people (myself included) usually go right for the moving van rental, but in this case a little digging found me a much less expensive, safer, and more comfortable option this time around.

So next time you are moving, make sure you take a look at all your options, even the ones you wouldn’t normally think of; you never know how much money you could save!

(photo credit: madmolecule)


Stop Paying Bank Account Fees – Best Banks with Free Checking

Is your bank charging you a ton of fees for account maintenance, withdrawing your own money, or writing more than two checks per month? If so you aren’t alone, as most “name-brand” popular banks are coming up with anything they can to charge you fees for. While complaining loudly may make some account holders feel better about the fees, it won’t make the banks stop charging them! I used to bank with Bank of America and I felt like I was being dinged every week for any little thing I wanted from my bank, so I changed to a much better bank which I will talk about a little later in this post. But before I get to that, let’s take a quick look at the kind of fees and penalties that three popular banks are charging their customers, and then we’ll see what we can do to move away from them and into a much better banking relationship.

First up, let’s look at Chase Bank. Chase’s standard checking account is called Chase Total Checking and offers the following perks and requirements upon signing up:

  • Free Debit Card
  • Free Online Banking and Bill Pay
  • Free Access to more than 16,100 Chase ATMs
  • $25 minimum deposit to open an account
  • No monthly service fee with a monthly direct deposit of $500 or more or with a $1,500 minimum daily balance, otherwise there is a $10 monthly service fee
  • The fee for non-Chase ATM for inquiries, transfers, or withdrawals is $2.00, plus whatever the ATM owner charges for services

There are assorted other fees listed on their website, but most banking customers will be dinged with these above any others. While free online bill pay and free access to so many ATM’s is nice, having an account with Chase could still cost you some of your hard-earned money every single month.

Next, let’s look at America’s biggest bank, Bank of America. I was a customer of theirs for many, many years, and I never had trouble finding a branch to walk in to, even in some of the most remote places I visited. Their regular checking account is called Standard Checking and includes the following items and requirements:

  • Free online bill pay/banking
  • Free debit card
  • Keep the Change savings program, helping account owners save a little extra money
  • Access to 18,000 Bank of America ATMs
  • Non-Bank of America ATM withdrawals are $2.00, plus whatever the ATM owner charges for services
  • There is a $100 minimum deposit to open an account
  • The minimum daily balance in checking must be $1,500 or more or the monthly service charge is $14.00

Bank of America is huge and they are everywhere. But when you check out all the fees you could be charged for different transactions or needs, you start to understand just how much you could be paying for the privilege of accessing your own money.

And lastly, let’s check out Wells Fargo bank. Their basic checking is called Value Checking and has the following:

  • Free online banking and mobile banking
  • Free debit card
  • Minimum opening deposit of $100
  • Free access to 12,000 Wells Fargo and Wachovia ATMs
  • Monthly service fee of $5 per month unless account has direct deposit or an average daily balance of $1,500
  • Non-Wells Fargo ATM withdrawals are $2.50 each, plus whatever the ATM owner charges for services

Wells Fargo is popular with some of my friends who don’t seem to have any issues with them, but I don’t like how many fees they have come up with to charge for different services.

After looking at the above three banks, you can see that having an account with any of them could cost you some money each and every month, depending on your personal banking habits. So what’s the alternative to the Big Three? Well, you have two – one I don’t have too much familiarity with and one that I do. Let’s look at both.

Credit Unions

Credit Unions (find one near you) exist in almost every major town or city and can cater to both the public and/or particular employees of county governments or private businesses. Credit Unions are owned and controlled by its members, and usually offer financial services at better rates and less fees than typical for-profit banks. Account holders are “members” of the bank and thus participate in board elections. These kinds of banks benefit local communities much more than the big chain banks, and usually offer a better “bang for the buck” to account holders. If you have a local credit union that is open to the public, I highly recommend you check out what they offer and compare it to your current bank. I believe you will find the CU is much better.

Charles Schwab Bank

Most well-known as an investment house, Charles Schwab also has a bank that you can join. I joined a while ago and won’t ever go back to my Bank of America days. While I have a checking account which pays interest, Schwab has the following on their Basic Checking accounts:

  • $0 minimum to open an account
  • Free unlimited check writing
  • Free debit/check card
  • Free use/rebates of fees of any ATM in the US
  • Free checks
  • Free online banking/bill pay

So even if they seem like a big bank and their name can be seen everywhere, you don’t get charged account maintenance fees or minimum account balance penalties like other banks. Plus, checks and the use of any ATM at any bank is free, which is a big bonus for someone like me who is constantly moving around.

If you are paying ridiculous bank fees, it’s definitely time to shop around and move your money to a bank that won’t nickel and dime you to death. There are plenty of options out there to choose from, so start looking for a better relationship with your bank today!

(photo credit: Omar Omar)


Home Inspection Tips & Checklist – What’s Included?

So, are you selling your own home or in the market to buy a new home for yourself? Guess what — you’re going to need a home inspection done by a qualified professional prior to completing the sale or purchase. Because purchasing a home is (probably) the largest single purchase you will make in your life, it’s important to get your potential new asset inspected for any problems before you sign on the dotted line. After all, there is nothing worse than finding any huge problems after you have taken ownership that are then your responsibility to take care of! While home inspections do vary in quality and requirements, there are some aspects that will usually be the same no matter where you live or whom you decide to work with, and this is because there are guidelines put forth by the National Association of Home Inspectors which good home inspectors take care to follow when doing their job. Let’s take a look at some of the items and standards included in a house inspection so you’ll know what to expect when it’s your turn to get one!

Before you sign the sales agreement for that new home, you want a home inspector to check out every aspect of the home. This includes any safety issues, health issues, and structural issues that could potentially be problematic down the road. Upon beginning the inspection, your inspector may be looking for or at any of the following:

  • Signs of mold or mildew
  • Presence of lead paint
  • Asbestos
  • Rodents/animals
  • Radon
  • CO2 leaks
  • Heating/AC units
  • Water drainage/landscape grading around the house
  • Cracks in the foundation
  • Wood rot
  • Smoke/CO2 detectors
  • Rain gutters
  • Skylights
  • Quality of wood framing
  • Fireplaces and chimney problems
  • Attic/roof ventilation
  • Sump pump inspection
  • Seals on windows and doors
  • The condition of plumbing and electrical systems
  • Walkways, decks, stairs, balconies, and patios
  • Subfloor crawl spaces

Older homes will exhibit their age in different ways, and potential owners of such homes should know that they won’t be buying a brand new house without any issues at all. But small repairs should not be a deal-breaker on such a big purchase as a home, so it’s important to keep that in mind when you get an inspection report back prior to sale. Upon completion of the inspection, you will receive a full report on the condition of the home and it will be up to you to decide if any items listed are enough to scare you away from wrapping up the sale. If there are major issues on the report and you still wish to proceed with the sale, you can use the report to either have things fixed prior to sale or have money taken off the selling price to make them yourself.

When it comes time to get your own home inspection, the American Society of Home Inspectors website can help you find a qualified home inspector near you, and the National Association of Home Inspectors has a handy PDF download of their Standards of Practice, which “provide the minimum standards of performance for a written report on a residential home inspection performed by and for the exclusive use of members of the National Association of Home Inspectors, Inc..”

Whatever you do, remember that buying a home is a huge step and expense — so be sure to get an inspection before signing any contracts!

(photo credit: erix!)


Best Places to Retire in the USA – Where to Retire Cheap

Is your retirement date coming up in the next couple of years? Is your target-date investment account about to mature? If so, and if you haven’t begun planning your retirement party already, it may be time for you to start looking for that perfect place to call home in your golden years. Where do you want to spend your time? What do you want to do on a daily basis? What kind of money do you have saved and/or are prepared to spend for a new place to live the rest of your life in? While all sorts of questions and configurations can figure into finding your perfect place to retire, thankfully there are many websites that do a lot of the research for you so that you don’t have to spend hours poring over maps and demographics of various towns across America. Two of the preeminent financial sites out there, CNNMoney and Smart Money have recently come out with their latest lists of best places to retire in the U.S., and I figured I would highlight some of their choices and reasons for picking them for those of you approaching retirement age. Let’s take a look…

CNNMoney chose Durham, North Carolina as their number one place to retire for 2010. With a population of 223,284, a median home price of $163,000, a state income tax rate of 7.75%, relatively mild year-round weather, along with a rather famous university medical center, Durham is a great southern city full of opportunities for retirees. I myself have been to Durham several times and have always found it a pretty cool town to hang out in, and obviously CNNMoney thinks so too. Towns finishing off the top five on their best places list include Hanover, New Hampshire, Lexington, Kentucky, Prescott, Arizona, and Bellingham, Washington.

Smart Money has a list which looks a little different than CNN’s, but still focuses on the single biggest concern of retirees — affordability. First on their list is Prescott, Arizona (4th on CNN’s list), with a median home price of $242,800, state income tax rates between 2.59% – 4.54%, and a property tax rate of 0.56%, Prescott beats out many other small towns offering beautiful scenery and temperate year-round weather. St. Augustine, Florida is second on their list, and I can certainly vouch for that town — I have spent a considerable amount of time there as I have an Aunt and Uncle who retired there and they absolutely love the area. With an average home price of $115,400 and absolutely no state income tax, it’s a popular haven for the retired population. Rounding off the top five on the list are Chattanooga, Tennessee, Bloomington, Indiana and Carson City, Nevada.

With baby boomers heading into their retirement years, layoffs in every job segment, social security benefits staying stagnant, and interest rates practically near 0%, affordability is the number one concern of retirees doing their research before moving from town to town to find their perfect location (like I do. kidding. kinda.) While those of us in the early stages of our career are still looking for the best companies to work for, retirees (or those soon to join the ranks) are looking for the best places to retire to, so lists like these can come in very handy.

Have you recently retired or planning on doing so soon? Where did you end up settling down? Where do you plan on going? Please share with us in the comments!

(photo credit: on1stsite)

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