Wise Spending on Landscaping – What to Hire, What to Do Ourselves

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Our home is on nearly 2 acres of land, so there’s a lot of grass. And a lot of hedges.  And lots of flower beds.

Grass that needs to be cut.  And hedges that need to be kept trimmed.  Flower beds and other decorative landscaping that need to be planted and maintained.  We had to decide what we were going to do ourselves, and what – if anything – we would hire someone else to take care of.

Most of the decorative landscaping was already here and just needed a little TLC.   I’ve already written about how I used what I had to reduce my costs on planting the flower beds and a bit of the other decorative stuff, so we’ve obviously decided to do that ourselves.   Hiring a landscaper to do that planting and maintenance would cost us a fortune!  Even though I’ll probably do more planting as the  seasons change, we’ll still save all of the labor costs by doing it ourselves.

It’s not always a good idea, though, to do it yourself.

My father had always paid a service $145 a month to cut the grass, no matter how many times they cut it.  Standard here is twice monthly in winter, three times per month in summer.  Whenever needed, he paid them another $200 to trim the hedges and other landscaping.

When we were talking about the possibility of moving into this house, Husband said he really wanted to cut the grass.  It was one of the the things he enjoyed about his prior home ownership, and he’d missed it since moving to the townhouse (with it’s landscaping taken care of).  He planned to buy a riding mower and an edger, thinking that within 6 months they would have paid for themselves.  Great!

But he hadn’t considered taking care of the other landscaping chores, especially trimming the hedges.  And after much thought and discussion, Husband decided he didn’t want to spend every weekend taking care of the yard.  And I really couldn’t blame him.

So, we decided to keep the landscaper, at least for the time being.  The hedges were trimmed just prior to moving in, so we wouldn’t have to worry about them for a couple of months.

After we moved in I started talking to people about how much they paid to get their grass cut.  Most of the people I spoke to paid about half of what I did – but their yards were much smaller.  Still, it couldn’t hurt to get some quotes.  The first quote I got was less than we were being charged.  A few others were in that same ballpark.  The best deal, though, was from my brother’s well-recommended landscaper, who only wanted $50 per cut.  And since he’ll only cut when we ask for it, we can sometimes wait an extra few days or a week to stretch our landscaping dollar.

So, I spoke to our landscaper about the quotes I’d gotten, and he really didn’t want to come down in price.  That was fine with me – I wasn’t too happy with him anyway.  First, he’d told me that the $145 only covered two cuts per month – NOT what he’d been telling my father (I honestly think he’d been skipping cuts since my Dad moved out, still charging him full price).  On top of a myriad of other issues with him, he’s only cut our yard 4 times since we moved in on May 23rd (and didn’t cut it  at all until I called to ask where he was – more than 3 weeks since the prior cut).   I’d decided to take it up with him when I got the bill…only I’ve never gotten one.  I finally had to call him for the bill, which will be reduced by half, since he should have cut our grass at least 8 times by now.

So, he’s history.  The new landscaper begins this week.   We are still hiring out the grass cutting, but we’re saving money by getting a better deal for the same service.  Issue settled.  We hope.

Since the hedges and other landscaping need to be trimmed every two-three months, it has now become time to make a decision about who is going to trim them.  We decided to forgo a landscaper to do the hedges and buy our own hedge trimmer.  We spent $80 for the trimmer,  which is far less than the $200 per month the old landscaper wanted to charge, and the $150 the new guy quoted.

Husband is out there now, trimming hedges, and enjoying the exercise.  And doing a heck of a job, if I do say so myself.  It’s a great win for us because we are saving a great deal of money, and he gets to do yard work he enjoys without spending every weekend doing it.

That, to me, is what frugality is all about. It’s not about NOT spending money. It’s about spending money wisely.

Using What You Have – Landscaping the Yard

This may or may not  become a series, so just in case we’ll call it “Using What You Have”.

As Son’s birthday pool party approached, I really wanted to do something about the landscaping of the house, particularly the back patio area.  The house had been vacant for a year, and my stepmother (queen of the garden) had died the year before, so things were dead, overgrown or in various other states besides vibrant and beautiful.

I gave myself a budget of $100 for the project (which included the front patio and entry area, too, but this article focuses on the back patio area). I knew I needed new things, but I used what I already had wherever I could.   I knew I wanted to do a lot of potted projects, mostly because there were several beautiful pots left with the house.  They would look great at intervals around both patios.  There was also a patch of garden right by the pool that needed attention, so not everything would be in pots.

Over a few days, whenever I found myself nearby,  I went to Home Depot, Lowe’s and my favorite nursery.  I looked in the past-prime section of Home Depot and Lowe’s, and was able to purchase several perennial and year-round plants for 50 – 75% off.  They just needed a little TLC.  I also purchased a few other items that were on special.  I bought potting soil and and mulch at Walmart, where they were cheaper (and again, I was going there anyway).  Remember that I live in a suburb dense with retail establishments, so none of these were more than a 5 minute trip away.  If I had to travel out of my way the additional costs for gas and my time would have made it less frugal.

My favorite deal was at the nursery, where they had beautiful flowering shrubs on sale, 3 for $10.  My thumb is closer to black than green, so I made sure that all of my selections would grow where I planned to put them.  And all three places I shopped will take back a plant that fails – a benefit I’ve had to use on occasion.

Back at the house I cleaned out the dead plants and removed about 2/3 of the soil from the pots.  I  did this because the pots are large, and though new plants deserved fresh soil full of nutrients, I used what I had and saved the bottom third of soil, which was still usable. The new plant would have fresh new soil around its roots, and with my continued care should be fine.

There were a few pots that had no usable soil, so in those cases I used what I have to lessen the amount of potting soil I’d have to use.  I’d been collecting broken pool noodles, perfect for placing at the bottom of a large pot.  They won’t rot, they hold water for a little while, and thrown haphazardly into a pot before adding soil they take up room and are terrific for drainage, too!

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I have to admit, I was pretty proud of this idea.  It’s not one I picked up on the internet, TV or from a friend.

I made sure to sprinkle some plant food (I already had it on hand)  in the planter before placing the plant.  That stuff really works!  After finishing all of the potting I placed the pots at intervals around the patio.  Here’s one looking all purty:

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Now I was ready to get to work on the garden patch.  There were a few salvageable plants already there,  and I didn’t want to move them because I’m not really a gardener at all, and was completely sure  that I’d A) kill them and/or B) make a big mess of things and have no earthly idea how to salvage it.  So I left them as is, and added some of the past-prime plants I’d picked up in my travels.  A little mulch, and it looks decent, if I do say so myself.

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There were a few areas where I thought lariope would look good, and take little maintenance.  I didn’t want to spend money on lariope plants, so I used what I have, culling the lariope from the huge swath we have in the front yard.


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Culling – or thinning lariope is really easy.  I’m going to do a how-to post tomorrow, so please check it out.

I used the pieces I pulled in two places in the back yard.  The first is in front of a fence, which had nothing but dirt.

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The second was  at the edge of the garden bed, under the butterfly bushes.  Before there was just dirt.

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The plantings are thin now, but they should grow in nicely.

Several bags of mulch later and the project is done.  And the best part is that I came in $20 under budget, and in time for Son’s birthday party.

Someday, when I’m a grown-up gardener, I’ll learn how to grow plants from cuttings.  There are many people who get free plants by sharing cuttings with one another.   There are even clubs devoted to the practice.  In the meantime, I’m pretty happy with what this closer-to-black-than-green gardener has accomplished.

Holiday Spending Role Reversal

Son has asked for only one thing for Hanukkah/Christmas this year.  A Tri-Rail train.

He adores trains, just like his Dad.  Husband and Son regularly go to the local train museum, and I’ve been known to just pop by the train station on a random afternoon just to let Son watch them go by.  And not just any generic trains; he particularly loves all of the trains that serve our local station – Amtrak, FEC, CSX, but most of all he adores the oddly shaped Tri-Rail trains that serves South Florida commuters.

Son is not a “gimme” kid.  He doesn’t ask for much – in fact this is the first toy he’s ever asked for.   Of course I want to get it for him.  I hoped to find something like the trucks Hess comes out with every year – sturdy for kids and about $15-$20.

Nope.  I’ve scoured the internet and come up empty.  I even had Husband try – and if there’s a train he’ll find it.  Nope.  I’ve even tried calling Tri-Rail directly.

There is no regular toy Tri-Rail.

You’d think a large-ish regional system would have toy likenesses, wouldn’t you?  Well, so did I.  Unfortunately no one makes a Tri-Rail train fit for a preschooler.  The only Tri-Rail trains available are expensive and fragile model trains, the type that people (like Husband) build entire train layouts around so they can run trains to their hearts content.   The thought of Son mistreating playing with a model train – the way a preschooler would play with a model train – makes Husband cringe (he hates to see any train not treated with the reverence they deserve), but doesn’t bother me at all.  A toy is a toy.

But.

An engine is $90 and each car is $30.  That’s at least $150. For a toy that Son will likely break.

Sigh.

I even asked Tri-Rail if they had any special promotional trains, perhaps a model sitting in some executive’s desk.  Nope.  The marketing representative was very nice, and she even sent some train erasers, but even those aren’t Tri-Rail.

Have these people no sense of merchandising????

Spending $150 on these trains is nuts.  Completely insane.  Totally irrational.

And  I soooo want to do it.    Because I soooo want my kid to get what he wants.   I’m willing to forgo any gift for myself, and cut spending on others.  I’m willing to take it out of savings.  I’m willing to do just about anything.

I find myself in an unusual circumstance – wanting to spend money on something frivolous while Husband is being more circumspect.

He’s right.  I know he’s right.

But I sooooooo wanna get it for him.

So, this is the dilemma we face.  Do we spend $150 on the only thing Son has ever asked us for?   Or do we have him face the harsh reality and disappointment of not getting the only thing he’s asked of Hanukkah Harry and Santa Claus?

What do you think?

Keeping Your Appliances Maintained Will Save You Money

I’ve written before about how much energy your appliances use. Consumer Reports has written a great article with tips for saving energy (and money!) in the kitchen. Definitely check out the article. For a taste, here are their tips about keeping your refrigerator purring:

  1. Clean the compressor coils every few months or so. (The coils typically are at the bottom of the appliance, though on some older models they are behind the box and on some built-ins they are behind a grille at the top of the unit.)
  2. Keep gaskets on the refrigerator and freezer doors clean with mild detergent and water, not bleach. This will ensure a good seal and prevent wasted energy.
  3. Check the gasket seal by closing the doors on a dollar bill; replace the gasket if the bill falls out or can be easily removed without opening the door.
  4. Be sure the refrigerator is level; if not, the door might not close properly. Most refrigerators have adjustable feet or casters.
  5. Before you open the door to retrieve items, decide what you want. Every time you open the door, up to 30 percent of the cooled air can escape.
  6. To maximize the storage life of your food and use the least energy, keep the refrigerator temperature at 36º to 38º F and the freezer at no colder than 0º to 5º F.
  7. Try to keep the refrigerator compartments full to limit temperature fluctuations.
  8. If you have a choice of location when remodeling your kitchen, keep the refrigerator away from direct sunlight and heat sources.

Consumer Reports is a great resource for info for anyone who consumes pretty much anything. If you’re not a subscriber, or if a family member isn’t (thanks Dad!), perhaps put a subscription on your holiday wish list…

And if you’re too frugal to subscribe, definitely check out their blog. I added it to my reader. Definitely worth the free click!

The Most Financially Irresponsible Question Ever?

I was doing a search for a clarification on a homeowners insurance policy coverage issue and came across this question posted at Yahoo Answers:

Is there a homeowners insurance policy that covers every conceivable method of loss to everything?

Im looking for a homeowners insurance policy that will cover everything and with no deductable. We just bought a house, and im looking for a better policy. I live paycheck to paycheck and dont save a dime of money, it all goes to bills or payments. I would never be able to afford a deductable. Im looking for a policy that will cover every method of loss from flood to alien invasion to tornadoes to fire to war. If a storm hits and frys my $50 toaster, i want it completely covered with no out of pocket loss. If a tree hits our roof I want it completely covered with no deductable and no questions about how it happened. I am very tightly stretched with money and my entire lifestyle and state of life is riding on no unexpected emergency events that leave us with a loss. So now that you know what im looking for does anyone have any reccomendations?
Seriously?

Seriously?

I’m thinking someone posted this as a joke. I hope it’s a joke. I hope there isn’t someone out there who has literally no money for emergency expenses, who is stretched so thin yet still thought it a great idea to buy a house, and that couldn’t even replace their $50 toaster if broken.

Then again, with all of the stories going around lately I’m sure there are many people in the same circumstances as this person. A sinking ship indeed.

They want recommendations. I have plenty, but none of the important ones are about insurance.

I recommend you take a good, hard look at your lifestyle and cut it back.

I recommend you take the highest deductible possible on your insurance so you can have some money to build an emergency fund. No policy covers everything, and even if one were available buying it would be another bad financial decision.

I recommend that if your toaster breaks you replace it with a $10 K-Mart special.

I recommend that you declutter your life and make some money selling that clutter.

I recommend that you get a financial advisor that isn’t reading Yahoo Answers.

I recommend that you get a second job.

I recommend that you wake up and start acting fiscally responsible before you wind up either homeless or dead from the stress.

And I didn’t even mention the spelling and grammar. No use piling on…

Oy. Someone please tell me it was a joke.

Five Midsummer Goals

Funny about Money challenged me and other bloggers to come up with five new goals or ideas to improve our financial life, here in midsummer 2008. Then we’ll see, come the end of the year, whether any of these bear fruit.

Five new goals, huh?

Hmmm.

Okay, here’s we go…

1. Increase deposits to savings account by $250 per month. On the surface this should be easy since I’ll be saving the $200-$250 per month I was paying for Son’s preschool. Then again I am about to quit my job, so it’s a good goal.

2. Monetize a blog. I’m not sure if this one should be monetized, but I’ve been wanting to start a profit-making blog for awhile.  Stay tuned.

3. Sell all of my saleable stock. I have a bunch of baby clothes, toys and other miscellanea that needs to go on Craigslist or be sold in some other way. Gee, wonder why no one’s buying it. Oh, that’s right. It has to be listed so they know it’s for sale…

4. Get Quicken, or another money management software (suggestions welcome!). It’s embarrassing that I have not done so yet. I have my own method of random organization bolstered by masses of receipts. It’s quite effective, as you can imagine. I’d like to be able to get my taxes ready for filing by February 1 next year, instead of this year’s April 13th chaos (hey, I was two full days early!).

5. Cut restaurant spending. This is the largest area of waste in our budget. Between Husband ordering lunches and me having pleading that I’m too tired/busy/pre-menstrual too cook, we could save considerable moolah by cutting down this unnecessary spending. My new goal will be two dinners and two lunches per month. Think I should run that by Husband first? Nah.

Those are my five midsummer goals. I’m going to tag five more people, and they’ll tell five friends, and they’ll tell five friends, and so on and so on and so on…

If you aren’t tagged and would like to participate just link back to this post and I’ll post your link here. Ifyou don’t have a blog go ahead and tell us your goals in the comments!

Five bloggers who will have terrific goals and ideas:

We’re Hemmorhaging Money and We Just Can’t Stop!

At least it seems that way…

We’re having a bad month.

We’ve had the following unexpected expenses this month:

  • $300 car repair (and another $300-$500 is looming)
  • $50 nebulizer (Son decided to break his while on vacation)
  • $200 speeding ticket (Husband’s – and not on our trip. On the way to work this morning…)
  • $100 dental bill (and a $500 root canal bill is looming, and probably a few hundred more for miscellaneous cavities soon…)
  • $700 vacation (I’m not going to complain about that – it’s great for a 10 day vacation!)

These are in addition to our regular expenses, and monies I’ve set aside for Son’s birthday party later this month and Husband’s birthday dinner on Saturday.

Some months are just like this. That’s why it’s good that I keep a healthy savings account. These unexpected expenses are a fact of life, and no matter how much we plan and manage and save there are times when we just have to pay. A lot.

The good news is that our Economic Stimulus check will cover all of the month’s unexpected expenses. It was going to go directly to savings, but that’s life. I’m also saving $200 per month now that Son isn’t in school, so that will make up for some of the coming extra expenses.

I had hoped to buy a new screen/storm door, but that’s going to have to wait. Let’s just hope my root canal decides to wait, too.

And today is Husband’s birthday. Guess what I got him?

Yup. A radar detector.

How Much Energy Does That Appliance Use?

Remind me never to get a hot tub. And if I do get a hot tub remind me to make sure it’s insulated and has a cover on it.  Otherwise I’d spend $162.36 per month to heat it, at least according to Duke Energy.

And I have to stop getting on Husband’s back about entering the house through the garage by using the automatic garage door opener.  I’ve heard coins dropping in my head (ka-ching!) every time he does it, but apparently we can use it for up to two minutes per day for only 2 cents a month, at least accorrding to Duke Energy.  Heck, I can be magnanimous.  Go ahead and use it for 4 minutes a day, honey!

Thanks to Duke Energy for compiling a pretty comprehensive list of electrical appliance operating costs.  It makes assumptions about appliance wattage, size and usage and cost per kWh, but what a terrific tool to use to get a pretty clear picture of where you’re spending your electrical dollars.

Just by quickly perusing this list I see where I can immediately cut about $20 per month from my electric bill.  I can’t wait to sit down with Husband and go over the entire list!

And I’ll tell you one thing.  We’ll be buying new LED Christmas Hanukkah lights this year.  Our old lights cost approximately $7.38 per month.  The new LED lights?  Ten cents!  Poor Husband.  He hates hanging lights…

Time To Increase the Grocery Budget. Or Eat A Lot Less.

Alison made a very interesting comment on her blog This Wasn’t In The Plan. She mentioned that other bloggers were talking about higher food prices, but she hadn’t noticed much of an increase anywhere but at Costco.

Amen.

I buy all of my meat and most of my dairy at Costco, and boy, do I notice a difference!

I used to pay $3.29 for 36 eggs at Costco. The other day I paid $5.39. Milk was $2.39. Now $3.99. Cheese was $7.79. Now $10.29.

And it’s not just dairy. Hamburger meat is up from $2.99 a pound to $3.29. Eight pound bags of frozen chicken breasts were $10.69 and are now $14.69. a 2-pack of bread went from $3.29 to $4.69. I could go on and on…

Egads! Stop the madness!!!!

I have also noticed large price increases in produce, but I’ve switched to buying most of that at the local farmer’s market, which charges significantly less than my grocery store.

Curiously, non-fresh foods are not seeing these whopping increases. I’m thinking that’s because fresh foods are mostly provided locally. There’s little product backlog and they have an easier time implementing price changes due to increased costs.

Well, it sounds good, anyway.

I have also noticed smaller, less outrageous price increases at the regular grocery store, especially in canned and packaged goods.

I’m afraid these price increases are just beginning. That’s scary.

Indeed.

Called on the Carpet: January 30th Financial Goals Checkup

Uh oh. It’s January 30th and I am waaaaaaaaay behind schedule for the year.

PaidTwice over at I’ve Paid For This Twice Already wrote a post checking in on her 2008 financial goals, then asked me and two others how we were doing with ours. I’d entered a really great carnival with my post It’s About the Money, Honey where I outlined my financial goals for 2008. PaidTwice wants to know how I’m doing.

The answer is not great. I got waylaid for much of December with my son getting very sick, and then I had to deal with my own version of InfectionsRUs. Then vacation, and, and…

All of which is really irrelevant, because the real reason I’m behind is that I’ve got a serious case of the “I just don’t wanna!”s. I’ve always just had a loose budget in my head, and since we have no debt and considerable savings on a single, modest income, I’ve been doing okay so far.

But I could do better. Much better.

So, here it is. The good, the bad, and the ugly.

1. Draw up an actual budget by January 5, 2008. I’ve finally done one. Late. Very late. Okay, today. After I saw PaidTwice’s post. I’m sure it will need tweaking, but at least it’s done. Honestly, I’m abhorring the whole process, and the thought of entering my receipts has me, on January 30th, looking for just about any distraction. Still, I will persevere. Tomorrow. Hey, American Idol is on! Grade: C-

2. Install the Peachtree Accounting program (bought for $120 and then got a $140 rebate, thank you very much) by January 5, 2008. Um, yeah. Not done. It’s sitting here right by my computer. I’ve decided to wait on this and just start small, with simple software, so as not to overwhelm me even more than I already am. My new target date for this is July 1, 2008, but I may put it off longer, depending on how things go. Grade: Incomplete

3. Review all of our IRAs and other retirement and savings accounts by March 31, 2008. Well, finally one I’m not late on. As I get my tax info together I’ll get this stuff together, and make an appointment with…someone…to go over all this stuff. Grade: Incomplete

4. Pay ourselves first. Find at least $100 per month to put into our non-401k savings, and $20 per month to put into our son’s savings account per month. I have enough left in checking this month to do both things. Yahoo! Grade: A- (saving a full A for saving more than the goal amount)

5. Learn about the stock market. Read at least one book per quarter, and at least one online article per week. I haven’t read a book yet (suggestions, anyone?), but I have been reading lots of financial articles, and even a few on the market. Blech. Grade: B

6. Enter the stock market by the end of the year. Not a thing done yet. Grade: Incomplete

So, that’s one A-, a B, a C- and three incompletes.

Not a stellar start, but a start it is.

Sometimes one needs to get called on the carpet to get back on track. So, thanks PaidTwice. I take back all the things I said to my computer screen when I read your post. 😉

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