Tightening the Newel Post

The newel post (the large vertical post at the bottom of the handrail on the stairs) at my house had gotten loose in recent years  Tightening a newel post is certainly an easy do-it-yourself job for anyone who has an electric drill and knows their way around a hardware store.  What I did was basically the same as what Tom Silva does in this video — except I used two screws, one in a tread and one in a riser.  Good tip, using a carpenter’s square to make sure the drill stays level.

Trusting Your Car to Turn Off the Headlights

c ar_parked_headlights_onAs far as I know, this opinion is my own, unique to me, and I think there’s a good chance that some people might find it a little wacky.  But here goes:  Every time I see a driver get out of their car and walk away, leaving the headlights on, I think, “I could never do that“.

Yes, I guess it’s a little crazy.  These days most cars have some sort of electronic mechanism that automatically turns off the headlights a few minutes after the engine is turned off or the car is in park.  Sometimes I watch, and, sure enough, I see that’s what happens.

Bur suppose the lights don’t go off by themselves?  If that happens, the car’s owner might return to a car with a dead battery.  That’s a chance I don’t want to take.  Sure, the car lights go off by themselves more than 99% of the time … but there’s going to be that one time when it wasn’t a good idea to act as if you believe that no automotive component could ever fail!  Nothing in a car ever just stops working!

Besides the risk of the lights staying on and draining the battery, there are a few other things that come to mind.

Could leaving the headlights on mean that they will burn out sooner?  It stands to reason that any sort of headlight is only going to last so long, that is, some certain number of hours of “on” time.  If you burn your headlights an extra few minutes every time you start the car, they’re going to reach the end of their useful life sooner.

Also, using the headlights needlessly wastes gasoline.  The electricity in a (gasoline-powered internal-combustion-engine kind of) car’s battery doesn’t just come out of the air.  The electricity is generated by the car’s alternator, which is turned by the engine.  When it’s actually making electricity, it’s a little harder to turn, and therefore the engine uses a little more gasoline whenever the alternator needs to make electricity to charge the batter or operate the car’s electrical components.  Not only does burning the headlights for no reason wastes gasoline, it also adds wear and tear on the alternator and battery, shortening their lives.

Cutting the Cheese

cut_the_cheese“You don’t mind if I cut the cheese?”, I asked my colleagues eating lunch with me at our workplace cafeteria.  As I said it, I held up the table knife I keep at my desk and the block of cheese I was eating that week (and probably the next week too).  It was a good cheddar I got at Costo.  As in most everything, it pays to avoid convenience and do the work yourself.  In this case, I was cutting the cheese to have with the crackers and salami I was having for lunch that day.  Just like the way I pay myself to carry a box of snacks to work (instead of paying the man that stocks the vending machine), just like I pay myself to bring my own iced tea to work, I can also pay myself to not only bring the cheese to work, but to also to cut it into slices.

Make Your Own Soap

The basic principle of avoiding convenience applies to soap.  You can make your own soap and save money in the process — and probably get better soap.  Exact soap-making instructions are a bit beyond the scope of this blog (you can find plenty on the internet and there are lots of instructional videos on youtube), but I’ll give an overview of the basics.

All you need are three ingredients:

  • Fat (such as lard, coconut oil, or olive oil)
  • Lye
  • Distilled water

You can also add some other ingredients for scents or added effects (such as lavender, peppermint, honey, oatmeal, and colors or dyes).

The preparation method for basic soap-making is

  • Heat the fat
  • C-a-r-e-f-u-l-l-y add the lye to the water (rubber gloves and eye protection are mandatory)
  • Get both the fat and lye-water to the correct temperature
  • C-a-r-e-f-u-l-l-y blend them together
  • Mix until thickened
  • Add any optional ingredients
  • Pour into molds
  • Allow to slowly cool
  • Remove from molds
  • Allow to cure in the air for several weeks

That’s all.

homemade_soapYou can get very creative with the scents, colors, molds, and packaging.  You might be inspired by the soap-makers in your family tree.  (“Your great-grandmother used to make her own lard soap in the backyard.”)  You might explore the soap-making traditions of your ancestors.  (“This is the kind of soap they made in the old country.”)  Once you’re a skilled soap-maker, you have an excellent and one-of-a-kind unique gift for all-purpose giving.

You’ve probably heard that lye is dangerous.  It is dangerous.  That’s why you wear gloves and safety glasses.  You should also wear long sleeves and pants.  It’s also a very good idea to work with the lye outside, as combining lye and water creates toxic fumes.  But the level of danger isn’t so inordinately high that soap-making must be left only to professionals working on an industrial scale.  I’d say it’s not too far from the danger level of making a large batch of french-fries in hot oil on a stove.  Of course, you do need to be careful and, to repeat for emphasis: wear safety glasses.

Do some research and if it interests you, procure the ingredients and make a batch.  You should find a tried-and-true recipe and follow it exactly.  Measuring quantities and temperatures precisely is essential when you’re making soap.  Depending on what fat you use and how you obtain it, I think there’s a good chance that you’ll find the money savings and the high quality of the product are worth the effort.  You might come to see, as we have in my household, that making your own soap isn’t much different than making your own breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Finally Got a Smartphone

galaxy_lunaIn an earlier post I wrote that I didn’t have a smartphone and was getting along fine using my dumbphone that did nothing but make calls and play MP3 files.  It finally stopped working.  So I bought a smartphone, mainly because the cheapest ones cost about the same as the dumbphone I bought a few years ago.  It’s cool being able to use wi-fi to look at websites and read Wikipedia (on an app that uses the text stored in the phone’s memory).  I still mostly use it as an MP3 player.  I still use a prepaid plan and my cost will still be around $10 per month over the life of the phone.

Replacing Fluorescent Tubes With LEDs

It’s well known that LED lights are much more efficient than incandescent or fluorescent lights.  They use less electricity and last much longer, making them well worth the initial cost.  For me, the long life is the real advantage because it means I’ll spend far less time buying and changing bulbs.  Swapping screw-in incandescents led_tubefor screw-in LEDs couldn’t be easier and everyone should do it.  I did that years ago.

Recently, the fluorescent tubes in my basement laundry area (which date from the time before household LED lights became available) stopped working.  Because they both stopped at the same time, I suspected the ballast might need to be replaced.  While researching ballast replacements, I became aware that LED tubes for replacing fluorescent tubes are now available.  The advantages of LEDs make swapping them for fluorescents the obvious thing to do — but doing it isn’t as easy as unscrewing one bulb and screwing in another.

It’s the ballast (which is “used in fluorescent lamps to limit the current through the tube, which would otherwise rise to a destructive level due to the negative differential resistance artifact in the tube’s voltage-current characteristic” according to Wikipedia) that’s the issue.  “What to do with the ballast?” is the question

Keeping the Ballast.  The easiest way to convert fluorescent fixtures to LED is to replace the old fluorescent tubes with LED tubes that are specially made to work in fixtures with ballast.  Just take out the fluorescent tubes and put in the new LED tubes.  However, that’s probably not the best way.  In general, LED lights don’t require ballast, so you’re buying an LED light that is made to work with ballast.  In fact, because it’s made to work with ballast, you shouldn’t use it in a fixture that doesn’t have ballast.  There are two problems with keeping the ballast: (1) it will eventually fail (which will leave you in the dark) and need to be replaced, (2) it uses electricity, so keeping the ballast partially offsets the savings you get from using LED lights.  To avoid spending money for ballast replacements in the future (the live of the LED might be 4 or 5 times the life of the ballast), and to avoid spending money for electricity consumed by a ballast that isn’t even necessary, I decided to remove the ballast from my basement fixture.

Removing the Ballast.  It’s fairly easy to remove or at least bypass the electrical ballast in a fluorescent fixture, thus converting it to use LED.  You just need to open the light fixture, cut a few wires, and make a few connections with wire nuts.  There are lots of directions online.  However, there are two ways of doing the re-wiring.  (See, I told you this wasn’t as easy as replacing screw-in incandescents …).  You have the choice of either (1) running the live wire to one end of the fixture and the neutral wire to the other end, which is the standard way fluorescent fixtures are wired, … or … (2) running both the live and neutral wires to the same end of the fixture.  Method (1) requires LED tubes that are called “double ended” or “dual end powered”  Method (2) requires LED tubes that are “single end powered”.  It’s probably best to buy the LED tubes and do the re-wiring accordingly, because “single end” tubes require a different kind of lamp holder (a.k.a. “tombstone”).  However, note well: The wiring job has to match the tube type or your light won’t work.

To review, the choices are:

  1. Use an LED tube designed to work with a ballast (easy, but you have the cost of ballast replacement and electricity consumption).
  2.  Use an LED tube designed for use without a ballast (requires re-wiring the fixture, but eliminates cost of ballast), either
    • doubled-end LED tube, or
    • single-end LED tube

Also, LED tubes are available with either clear or frosted plastic covers.  The clear tubes are a bit brighter, but are harsh if you happen to look directly at them because you can see the actual LEDs.  I wouldn’t use them in any location where the tube itself is visible.  They might be good for recessed lighting or maybe in a fixture that has its own light diffuser.  The frosted tubes are more like traditional fluorescent tubes, bright but not harsh on the eyes.

Buttons and Bolts

Eventually, you’re going to need a button.  Or a bolt.  It’s a pain to have to make a special trip to a store to buy the one button you need to fix the shirt you need today.  Likewise, when you find you need a bolt or a screw for some minor repair.  It’s especially frustrating to have return to the same hardware store that you had been to just 2 hours earlier because you need one more bolt to finish your project.

buttons_jarIf you have a jar full of buttons, there’s a good chance you can find one that’s close enough to do the job.  A jar full of bolts and nuts, screws, and similar hardware is also very useful.

This is more a matter of saving time than money, but your time is worth a lot of money (isn’t it?).  When you’re throwing away old clothes or old furniture or anything that has buttons, bolts, screws or any other kind of fasteners (and when you see these things that other people have thrown away), take a look and see if you can salvage some of those useful fasteners and add them to your home store.

Whenever I throw away an old shirt, I remove all the buttons and put them in the button jar.  If I have several matching buttons I sometimes keep them together on bit of string or thread.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve added to my nut and bolt collection by just taking a few that are easy to remove from furniture that my neighbors have thrown away.  I’ve also taken knobs from drawers and cabinets that I’ve found on the curb.  And some hinges.  And many of those cool IKEA fasteners and the little dowel rods.  (It’s good to have carry a Swiss Army knife or multi-tool for this sort of thing.)

Keep stocking your home store with buttons and bolts that would otherwise end up in a landfill and it will serve you well.

Almost-Free Iced Coffee

iced_coffeeAt a church meeting I recently attended, someone made a pot of coffee.  When the pot was empty, another pot was made.  After the meeting was over, the coffee pot was still about 1/3 full.  No one wanted another cup.  I don’t normally drink the stuff.  (What kind of person, I wonder, would take beans from some plant, roast them until they’re nearly burnt, grind them into powder, pour boiling water onto that powder, then drink that water?)   I had my own water-bottle, filled with iced tea, which I had finished.  Before someone could dump the unwanted coffee down the drain, which was about to happen, I quickly rinsed my water-bottle and poured the coffee into it.  As soon as I got the coffee home, I put it in another container and refrigerated it.  I wanted to minimize the risk of the water-bottle I use for iced tea being ruined by the coffee taste, so I washed it as soon as it was empty.  The next day I had all the iced coffee I wanted, for nothing more than the cost of some ice and milk.

The moral of the story is that if you look around you can always find things that people are getting rid of that can be of benefit to you if you do the work of obtaining them and re-purposing them.  Get in the habit and you can get lots of things for free.

Using $-Off Promo Codes

amazon_862A couple weeks ago, Amazon announced a special deal: $8 and some change off any order of $50 or more.  Pretty good — over 16% off.  But be careful.  If you’re trying to use money efficiently, then you need to remember that when you use a coupon you only save money if you buy something you were going to buy anyway (and of course, the Amazon price has to be as good as or better than price you normally pay).

I used the promo deal to buy the same kind of snacks I usually buy by the box to keep at work, thus avoiding buying anything from a vending machine.  Because the Amazon price was comparable to the usual price, I’ll save 16% over the time it takes me to consume the snacks.  Given that “a penny saved is a penny earned”, I’ve earned over $8.  Is there any other way to earn $8 on a $50 investment in just a few weeks, with 100% certainty?  No, there isn’t.

But what if I had used the promo code to buy something I just wanted, but didn’t really need.  Say, a fancy new shirt … when I have already have plenty of shirts, probably all I need for the next few years.  (And, I often get new ones for birthday or Christmas.)  If I had bought a new shirt for $50 and used the promo code coupon to reduce the price to $42, wouldn’t I have saved $8?  No.  Using the promo to buy a new shirt I didn’t need would not have been a savings of $8 — it would have been an expenditure of $42.

Spending is Like a Faucet

An old song says “Love is like a faucet … it turns off and on”.  Spending is like a faucet too.  It can be turned off and on.  Or it can be set to any spending level between the off and on extremes.

We can extend the imagery a bit.  Let’s say the spending faucet it attached to a storage tank.  Income is like water flowing thru a pipe into the tank.  Spending (in other words, buying things that decrease in value) is water flowing out of the tank through the spending faucet.  The amount of water in the tank is accumulated wealth.

Spending = Income

spending_equals_income

Is your situation like the first image?  Money is flowing into the tank (as income), but it’s flowing out (as spending) just as quickly. The tank will never be filled.  There will never be any accumulation of wealth.  This will be true as long as spending = income.

Note that as long as spending = income is true, the tank will never be filled — no matter the amount of income.  This first image could represent a person with an income of $20,000 per year and spending of $20,000 per year.  Or it could just as well represent someone with an income of $20,000 per day and spending of $20,000 per day.  No matter how high the income, people who spend all they earn — people who are unable to live below their means — will never have wealth.

Sadly, this is how many people live their whole lives.  They wonder, like Senator Hoar, why they can never get ahead.  In some cases, I believe, the people are doomed to financial failure because they can’t even imagine, or they’ve never been taught, that there is any other way to handle their money.

Spending < Income

saving_and_spending

The second picture is clearly different.  The tank is filled, representing an accumulation of wealth.  Look at the picture for a moment and you’ll see why the tank is filled, and will stay filled:  The spending faucet has been adjusted so that spending has been reduced.  Spending is now less than income (spending < income).

Also notice that the tank has another pipe.  The new pipe leads to saving and investing.  We can think of the tank as a checking and savings account at a bank.  The saving and investing pipe leads to retirement savings accounts, stocks, bonds, IRAs, 401-Ks, and other investments.

If your personal financial situation is like the second picture, then you have learned the lesson of living below your means and allocating part of your earnings for savings and investment.  If your situation isn’t like the second picture, then there’s an important lesson you need to learn.  Start today.

saving_and_spending

Here’s another image, which is the best way to think about the financial plumbing.  It’s basically the same as the second picture.  You can see that spending < income because the tank is full.  But, by using the pipe at the bottom to represent saving and investment, and the pipe at the top to represent spending, the third picture represents the application of another important principle, which is, “Do not save what is left after spending, but spend what is left after saving” (Warren Buffet).