Cashier Scam at Convention Center

Everyone knows you should always count your change whenever you handle a cash transaction, right?  I know that.  But once, I forget.

Some years ago my wife wanted to attend a large hobby show at the downtown convention center of a nearby city.  We decided to go, taking our children and my wife’s mother.  We left early in the morning and arrived after a couple hour’s drive.  It was a huge affair with big crowds and a long line to buy tickets.  I knew that the tickets would be a bit over over $100, so I had come prepared with some $100 bills.

cash_registerAfter standing in line for at least a half hour, I told the cashier how many tickets I wanted.  She told me how much I owed.  I gave her two 100-dollar bills and took my change when she handed it to me.  I stepped away and put the change into my wallet.  Why didn’t I count it in front of her?  Maybe I wanted to get in to see the show ASAP.  Maybe I didn’t want to keep my wife and family waiting.  Maybe I didn’t want to slow down the line and make the next customer wait for me.  I don’t recall exactly, but maybe the cashier was already starting to ask the next customer what he needed.  As I put my change into my wallet, I had an unnerving feeling that something wasn’t right.  I counted the change and immediately discovered it was exactly $20 short.  It was very clear that I had been shortchanged.  The only cash that had been in my wallet before I bought the tickets was all in $100 bills.  The only bills that weren’t $100’s didn’t add up to the amount of change that I should have gotten.

I turned around and walked back to the ticket window, having to cut in line in front of several dozen people to do so.  As soon as I did, I saw that the cashier whom I had dealt with wasn’t there.  She had been replaced by another cashier.  I explained what happened, asked what had happened to the cashier who had been there less than a minute earlier, said I wanted my $20 … and soon saw that I wasn’t going to get anywhere.  The cashier who shortchanged me $20 was gone.  Maybe it was all an honest mistake, an accident, and just a coincidence that the cashier went off duty just after I was out $20, but what are the chances of that?  Seems more likely that the cashier saw her opportunity to rob me and did exactly that.

I could have sought out the manager, but what good would that have done?  Even if I had been able to confront the cashier, it would be a he-said-she-said situation.  I could demand that they count all the money in the cash drawer and see if that amount was  $20 over what should have been there, but what if the cashier had already pocketed the money?  I don’t think I could have her searched.  And what if she did have $20; she could always say it was hers.  In the meantime, my wife and family were waiting to get in to see the show.  Did I want to give up a half hour or more of our one day to see the show just to have a chance, no guarantee, of getting back my $20?  It’s easy to imagine that the cashier had all of this figured out as soon as she saw me and my money.  Basically, in the sense that I could have prevented the whole thing from happening if I had just counted the money right in front of the clerk as soon as she had given it to me, it was my fault.  Live and learn.

That dishonest cashier could easily get more by shortchanging a few customers than she would earn from working the whole day.  If she shortchanged many customers, she might have left work when the day was done with a nice handful of cash.  I doubt she would declare it on her tax return.

Be wise and learn from my mistake instead of making your own.  Always focus on your finances, concentrate on your cash, and count your change in front of the cashier before taking it out of the cashier’s sight.

It might also be a good idea to clearly state how much money you’re giving the cashier as you hand it over.  After the cashier says how much you owe, you say something like “out of twenty” or “here’s one hundred”, which makes it clear that you know how much money you’re giving the cashier and does a little something to force the cashier to acknowledge the fact.  This shows that you know how much change you should be getting, in case the cashier, if confronted, might try to insist that you paid with a $10 bill and not a $20, or whatever.  If you want to be really careful, you can take a look at the serial number of the bill(s) you’re paying with and quickly memorize the last 3 or 4 digits.  Then, if the cashier says you paid with some other denomination, you have something that proves the bill in the cashier’s drawer is the one you paid with.

Amazingly, my scam story has a happy ending.  At the end of the day, as the convention center was closing, the workers in a concession stand that sold frozen lemonade and huge pretzels were throwing everything that hadn’t sold into the garbage.  This caught my eye and as I looked for a moment, the worker said, “You want this? Go ahead, take all you want!”  Frozen lemonade and pretzels were just the thing we needed for the ride home, and servings of each for six people were worth more than the money I lost earlier that morning.

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Let’s be Honest

starbucks_receiptYou need to be careful when you calculate how much you will save by changing some small habit.  I’ve heard or read statements like, “Coffee at the Starbucks costs $2.70.  So make your own and you’ll save $1,000 per year”.

How did that $1,000 get calculated?  It looks like they took $2.70 per day and multiplied by the number of days in a year, $2.70 × 365 is $985, and then rounded to $1,000.

What’s wrong with that savings of “$1,000”?

  1. Can you produce coffee at home for free?  If not, then your daily savings aren’t going to be equal to the cost of the coffee you buy away from home.  Coffee made at home costs something.  Your savings will be the cost of the away-from-home coffee minus the cost of made-at-home coffee.  Let’s say $1.00 is the cost of the made-at-home coffee.  If so, then your savings are $2.70 – $1.00 = $1.70.  You savings will equal the cost of away-from-home coffee only if you give up coffee completely.
  2. Do you really buy away-from-home coffee every day of the year?  If you only buy one cup of coffee on days you work, and you don’t work every day of the year, then you probably don’t buy coffee more than 250 times per year.  (That’s 5 days a week × 50 weeks per year.)  Of course, if you buy coffee twice a day, …
  3. Does the coffee at Starbucks really cost $2.70?  If you order something less expensive, you’re annual savings aren’t going to be less.  (On the other hand, yes, if your coffee costs more than $2.70 per day, then you can save more.)

Don’t get me wrong!  I still think that you can save a significant amount of money by avoiding convenience and doing as much DIY as possible, but it’s also important to do our calculations honestly and make sure our expectations are in line with reality.

There are some who say that they give up the away-from-home coffee, but they don’t see the savings.  Problem is, there are so many other expenses.  Some come irregularly or change from one month to the next.  It’s personal finance chaos!  The made-at-home coffee savings signal gets drowned out among all the financial noise from all the other expenditures.  This, however, doesn’t mean that there are no savings.  There are.  It’s the accounting that is the problem here.  If you’re actually spending $1.00 per day instead of $2.70, then you need to take control of that money and ensure you don’t spend it on something else.  Take that daily savings of $1.70 and literally put a dollar and a few quarters in a jar every day.  Or move $8.50 from out of checking and into your savings account each week.  Whenever you’re developing new habits to save money, you need to really save that money.  Be careful not to let it just sit around telling you to spend it on something else!

Now that we’ve taken care of that …

Replacing Saddle Valve With Compression Tee

saddle_valveIf you’ve connected your refrigerator’s ice maker to one of your house’s water pipes, you probably know what a saddle valve is.  A valve that pierces a pipe with a needle held in place with a clamp bolted onto the pipe.  Saddle valves are cheap and easy, but they are not reliable.  They are prone to fail, either due to leaking or getting clogged with sediment.

I had one in my house, which I installed years ago when I was young and foolish.  It worked for several years, but eventually the refrigerator stopped making ice and dispensing water.  Evidently, the saddle valve was partially blocked and the refrigerator’s valves, which open electrically to fill the ice maker and dispense cold water, couldn’t function with the lower pressure.

It was tempting to just replace the old saddle valve with a new one, but I wanted something better.  A copper tee soldered in place is the best way to hook up an ice maker to a water line.  But … I’ve never soldered anything and I felt that the needed equipment would be too expensive for one job.

sioux_chief_add_a_line

Researching the problem led me to learn about compression connections.  Compression connections have a threaded ends with nuts that compress ferrules (wide copper rings) as the nuts are screwed tight.  They may not be as good as soldered connections, but they are far better than saddle valves.

Compression fittings aren’t easy to find.  The big box home improvement stores stock a lot of push-to-connect fittings (e.g., Sharkbite), which I was about to use, until I read the fine print on the label: “WARNING: This product contains a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm.”  Given that this line is for water that’s going to my ice maker, and then into me, I figured that I didn’t want to take the risk.  Internet research showed me that what I needed was a compression tee made by Sioux Chief.  As the big box stores didn’t have them, I ordered one from a big website retailer.

Installing the tee was fairly easy, just a bit awkward due to the location up in the basement’s ceiling joists.  (Which is another reason I didn’t want to solder; the pipe is just inches away from wood beams and electrical wiring.)  After turning off the water, opening the faucet in the basement sink to drain the pipes, removing the old saddle valve, and cleaning the pipe with some steel wool, … I cut out a properly-sized section of pipe right where the saddle value used to be.  Because the saddle valve left a hole in the pipe, there wasn’t much of a choice as to the location of the new tee: either put the tee where the saddle valve had been or if I wanted to put the tee somewhere else, I would have to repair the hole.  Using a plumber’s tube cutter would have made the job easier and would have yielded a straighter cut, but I couldn’t find the tube cutter that I think I have.  I’ve never used it before.  (I got it along with a lot of tools I bought at the Goodwill.)  So I used a hacksaw, being especially careful to make a nice straight cut, i.e., a straight cup perpendicular to the pipe.  The first cut was easiest.  The second cut was a bit more difficult because the remaining pipe was apt to wiggle after it had been cut free.  I wanted to have both my hands on the hacksaw, so I used the old saddle valve clamp (after removing the valve and needle parts) to help hold the pipe steady and guide the saw.  I added the clamp, bolts, and nuts to my ever-growing store of parts.

Once the cut was made, I sanded the pipe ends with some extra-fine sandpaper to get everything clean and smooth, then I cleaned everything with a paper towel.  I slid the nuts and ferrules over the pipe ends and then slipped the tee in place.  Many sources warn against over-tightening compression fittings.  But none of them say exactly what that means.  I got the nuts on the compression tee good and tight and attached the line to the ice maker.  Then I turned on the water.  Everything worked fine, but over the next hour a small droplet of water appeared on the bottom of the pipe.  It was never enough to actually drop to the floor.  I tightened the nuts a bit more and after that the pipes stayed completely dry.  That’s a funny thing about compression fittings: you look on the internet for advice and everyone says compression fittings have to be tight, so they don’t leak … but not too tight, because that will ruin them.  Of course, there’s no way to measure “tight” that’s right as opposed to “too tight”.  It seems that tightening it as much as you can without overly straining, getting a small leak, and then tightening just a bit more and making sure the leak has stopped is as good a method as any.

The best thing is that the refrigerator’s ice maker and water dispenser started working again.  In fact, they work better than before.  There’s more water pressure, so the dispenser fills a glass more quickly than it ever did before.

I’m quite glad to have a better connection for the refrigerator line, with a real valve that will actually turn the water off if need be.  (Like, for example, hooking up a new refrigerator.)

Naturally, the money spent for the compression tee was a fraction of what a plumber would have charged.  It’s true that a compression tee isn’t as good as a soldered tee, but time will tell if it’s a good value.  [Update: 60 days later: still working fine, no sign of any leak.]

Telephone Handsets from Goodwill

telephone_handset

I visited the local Goodwill to buy a short-sleeved shirt, something summery and tropical looking.  I found the perfect shirt, and it cost just $5.  Easy.  So with some time to kill I decided to look around the store.

Among the various computers and televisions, I saw two cordless telephone handsets with their plug-in chargers that were exactly the same as the kind we use at home.  Yes, we still have a landline.  I plugged them in, turned them on, and they seemed to work fine.  Of course, I couldn’t make a call because they were still “paired” to a base unit that was nowhere to be found.  I didn’t need a new base unit anyway.  But a couple new handsets would be useful.  For one thing, we’ve never had a phone in the basement; more than once I’ve been doing laundry or working on my computer in the basement (the only one for which the kids don’t know the logon password) and heard the phone ring upstairs but wasn’t able or willing to go upstairs to answer it.  Well, that’s why we have an answering machine.

In deciding to buy the two handsets, I was making the bet that I’d be able to “register” them to the base unit in my house.  That’s the problem with a used cordless phone: cordless phones need to be registered to the proper base unit, meaning that they communicate with that base unit and forsake all others.  (If we didn’t use this system of cordless phones being registered to their base, then they would simply connect to whatever base is nearest or has the strongest signal, which might mean your neighbors’ phones connecting to your base or vice-versa.)  In order to use a cordless phone that has been registered to another base, the existing registration has to be erased and the phone needs to be put into “ready to register” mode.  That doesn’t happen automatically.  It requires some button pushing!  Would I be able to accomplish this phone-tech feat?

O Wonderful Internet!  In about 5 minutes online I found instructions on how to “deregister” the handsets from their original base unit and register them to mine.  They both work perfectly and will probably provide many years of service.  Pretty good deal, for about $9 for both.

Look Carefully at Every Bill

recieptOver the weekend my wife and I rented a wheelchair-accessible van so we could take her mother on a day trip to the big city.  My wife did a lot of shopping around (online) and found a place that had a weekend special.  Basically, the total rental cost for Friday afternoon to Monday morning was about $130 less than the normal rate for the same length of time.  When we returned the van on Monday morning, my wife paid the bill with her credit card and we were ready to go … until I looked at the bill.  The rental charge (before tax and mileage charges) should have been $250, but I saw $380.  I said, “whoa” and pointed it out to my wife.  She went right back to the company agent and asked what happened to the special weekend rate.  Oh, it was a mistake.  They had run the charge through at the normal rate.  Whooops!  They apologized and fixed it immediately.

There are two lessons here:

  1. Always look at the bill.  If you see something that doesn’t look right or that you don’t understand, then …
  2. Ask why the bill is higher than you expected and get an explanation.

In many discussions over the years, people have told me that they’ve lost money by not doing these two simple things.  It’s happened to me too.  Sometimes we’re too busy.  Sometimes we’re inattentive.  (Sometimes the sales clerk is a pretty young thing that distracts us.)  Sometimes we don’t want to cause a scene.  Sometimes we’re shy.  — Enough excuses!  We need to pay more attention to our money!

Buying a New(ish) Car, Saving $500,000

Some months ago, the driver’s side window of our minivan stopped working and wouldn’t go down.  Next, as it got warmer, we noticed that the air conditioning wasn’t able to do much to cool the air if was warmer than 75° outside.  And there was that self-inflicted damage to the car’s front grill panel, which occurred years ago, that I had fixed (literally) with duct tape and coat-hanger wire.

Then, a few days ago, came the straw that broke the minivan’s back, so to speak: the annual safety inspection.  The news wasn’t good.  The car wouldn’t pass inspection with a non-functioning window.  The inspection also showed that the headlight lenses were fogged up with road-wear scratches and needed restoration and one headlight had water inside the housing assembly.  All in all, it looked as if the car needed at least several hundred dollars worth of work to make it pass inspection (the window, the headlights) and more hundreds of dollars to make it comfortable (the air conditioning) and hundreds more to make it less of an embarrassment to drive (the front end grill).  It was a 2004 model, so it seemed reasonable to use it for a trade-in and buy another car.

Given that our time with this particular 2004 Honda Odyssey (“Redrock Pearl” a.k.a. “Burgundy” with “Ivory” interior, evidently) has come to an end, it seems a good time to get an idea what it cost.

car_invoiceWe bought our 2004 Honda Odyssey for $16,551 on March 9, 2010.  That price included a 2-year warranty (which was probably not worth what we paid for it).  It was a remarkably dependable car.  We had only two completely unexpected repair expenses, which totaled about $1,700.  (Of course, we did have the usual driving and maintenance expenses for gasoline, oil, coolant, transmission fluid, brake jobs, a couple batteries, and a serpentine belt.  But those would have been more-or-less the same regardless of which minivan we purchased.)  Let’s say that the cost of the car itself was about $18,250.

We drove the car regularly from March 2010 to May 2017, over 86 months total.

Considering the cost of the car and the time we used it, we spent about $210 per month or about $7 per day.  (Again: this is only the cost of the car itself plus major repairs, and not the total cost of driving, which would have to include operating expenses.)  Incidentally, the odometer was showing about 60,000 miles when we bought it and had reached 180,000 when we traded it in, so the cost of the car for 120,000 miles of driving was about 15¢ per mile.

Looking back, I am pleased that we purchased a used — ahem, “pre-owned” — car.  Had we purchased a new car in 2010, it would have cost about twice as much, meaning we would have spent about $400 each month on just the cost of the car itself.  In other words, over the past 7 years, we’ve been able to save and invest roughly $15,000 (which is, coincidentally, approximately the cost of the car itself.)

This method of saving money — buying used cars, paying for them as fast as possible, keeping them for a long time — allows us to save and invest over $2,000 each and every year.  This can easily amount to perhaps $100,000 ($2,000 per year for 50 years) worth of investments over a lifetime.  An extra $2,000 per year, with compounded earnings, for 50 years might grow to $500,000 or more.  A half-million dollars for driving used cars?  Sounds good to me!  Remember: In order to have at least $1,000,000 in your retirement account by the time you need it, you need to save several hundred dollars each month (more or less, depending on when you start investing and the returns you get on your retirement investments).  The savings you get from buying used cars can go a long way towards the amount you need to save each month.

We were so happy with our old car — the Honda Odyssey — that we decided to get another one.  And guess what?  It’s the new car that we could have bought 7 years ago!  Yep, we now own a 2010 Honda Odyssey that will probably be saving us money for the next 7 years.

Removal Salt, Avoid Rust

In much of North America the last snow of the winter usually occurs sometime in February or March, which is also the time of the last road salting.  Once the salt is gone — and it’s good to wait until there’s been a heavy rain that gives the roads a good rinsing — you will want to get the road salt off your car.  You could go to the local car wash and spend money … or you could avoid convenience and save money by doing it yourself.  I’ve always gotten good results with a bucket of warm water mixed with a little dish-washing detergent.  Apply with a large sponge, scrub, dump the remaining detergent-water mix over the car, and rinse well.

auto_rustHowever, removing the road salt from your car’s unpainted undercarriage is even more critical than washing the car’s body.  It’s the metal parts under the car that can be damaged by salt’s corrosive powers.  The painted body can usually withstand contact with road salt pretty well.  Also, the top of the car gets rinsed by the rain.  The underside of the car isn’t exposed to rain.  Most people know this, which is why commercial car washes offer an “undercarriage wash” and why they do such a good business after the end of the snowy season.

But you don’t need to pay $$$ (not to mention, wait in a long line) to give your car’s undercarriage a good washing.  You can just use a garden hose and a lawn sprinkler.  When I wash the car for the first time after the last of the winter snow, I attach a lawn sprinkler to the garden hose, turn on the water, and use the hose to slowly push the sprinkler back and forth under the car.  It’s a good idea to avoid spraying too much water into the engine compartment.  You might need to get down on your hands and knees to make sure the water is directed at the wheels and suspension.  There are actually special tools that attach to a hose to perform the undercarriage washing.  Some clever people have made their own.  In my honest opinion, it seems that a lawn sprinkler works just as well. The whole point is to get the salt off your car, and because salt is water-soluble, all you really need to do is get water into contact with the underside of the car.

It takes a little time, but … as usual, avoiding convenience means you’re paying yourself instead of paying someone else.

(However, if you search the internet you can find lots of people saying that you need to use some kind of special salt-removing product to really do a good job.  All I can say is that the sprinkler method has worked for me, but as the saying goes, your mileage may vary.  What’s happened to me is anecdotal.  I haven’t owned enough cars to do a scientific study.  It might be that my car is less susceptible to rust or maybe I reduce my driving when roads are icy and salty.  (The second part is true.  I really do try to avoid driving when there’s ice and snow … and salt … on the roads.)