Thursday, August 30, 2012

More Cable Options Please - No Comcast!

Oh Comcast, I’m sorry to say that I am one consumer you cannot fool. Did you think I wouldn’t see the little “by Comcast” text underneath your new “Xfinity” logo? Tsk tsk...

If you didn’t get my oozing sarcasm there, here is a straightforward proclamation - I HATE COMCAST.Yes, I said hate. And I meant it. Let me tell you a little story:

Early June 2008, Chicago, IL

I’m preparing to move out of my Chicago apartment. I decide that since I’m going to be traveling a lot before I move in mid-July, I might as well cancel my cable and save some money. I call Comcast and cancel, then I drive to the local drop off place and return my cable box and remote, receiving a receipt for returning the materials. Comcast tells me I can expect a check in the mail in a  month for the part of June I already paid and payment for the cable box and remote I returned in good condition.  Excellent. All is well, right? Ha ha....if only I had known....

Late June 2008, Chicago, IL

I receive a bill in the mail from Comcast for July. I call them. They tell me that yes, my account is cancelled and that they will be issuing me a check soon, but that the system still automatically sent me a bill. Not to worry, they say. Ok.

Late July 2008, Mom & Dad’s house, Iowa

I am staying at my parents’ house for a few weeks before I move to Wisconsin. I moved in the middle of July after getting back from my best friend’s wedding in Jamaica. I get a bill in the mail from Comcast. They are AGAIN charging me for cable for the next month (August) AND they are charging me a late fee for not paying my July bill. I call Comcast again. “So sorry,” they say, “but our computer system is lagging behind, we’ll get your check to you as soon as possible.” I get angry and ask to speak to the supervisor. The supervisor reassures me that they have a record of my cancellation in June and also have a record that I returned the equipment to the Chicago drop-off center. Fine then, I’ll keep waiting for my check (which is supposed to be about $50). But could you please hurry this up!

Early August 2008, Some highway in upstate New York on the way to Lake Placid

I’m driving with a friend to Lake Placid. I get a call on my cell phone from Comcast Collections. They inform me that my account has now been put in their internal collections department and that I need to pay this month’s and last month’s cable bill immediately. I am furious. I explain to them over and over that I actually cancelled my account two months ago and that I turned in the equipment AND that I no longer lived at that residence. “Check with the post office!” I say, trying to use any common sense that will prove to them that no, I do NOT live in that apartment and that YES, I did pay my bills on time and actually YOU owe ME money! I ask to speak to a supervisor, AGAIN. I’m told that they are so sorry, they made a mistake. I am right, they owe me money. They are very sorry, and they assure me that my account will be taken out of collections immediately and that I will get my check in 6-8 weeks. What?! 6-8 weeks! Are you kidding me? I’ve already waited two months for my money back! But what can I do? I’m on a highway in upstate New York.

Early August 2008, Another highway in upstate New York, this time driving back from Lake Placid. Five days after the last phone call from Comcast.

I get another call from Comcast. It is AGAIN their internal collections department. They tell me, AGAIN, that I need to pay my bill. But this time, if I don’t pay it, they are transferring my account to a FEDERAL collections agency. I’ve worked in customer service before. I know what happens to accounts that go to federal collections agencies. They cannot be disputed. You are forced to pay them (and at this point they were charging me over $200). HELL NO this is not happening. I yell at the representative, espousing my knowledge about how this process works (the agent is shocked that I actually know a thing or two). I again ask to speak to a supervisor, and I demand to speak to the highest person they have - the director if necessary. I get transferred to some woman named Maria. I tell her the entire story and because I am at my wits end, I ask for her personal work number. She gives it to me. I tell her that I am going to call her every day until I get my check in the mail.

Early - Late August 2008, Iowa and Wisconsin

Every day, I pick up the phone and leave Maria at Comcast a message. It is the same thing, “Hi Maria, it is Katie again. This is my daily call to remind you that you need to take my account out of collections and refund my money. Thank you.”

I finally get my check a few weeks later.

And THAT is why I will never ever ever EVER use Comcast again

On a related note - does anyone have experience with a Roku? I’ve heard good things, and it would stick it to Comcast.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Apartments: Smaller = Cheaper?

Many personal finance gurus advocate that moving into a smaller space will save you money. That is not always the case. I’m facing this dilemma right now. I want to downsize and I want to live on my own. The likely conclusion is that I should get a studio apartment. This is also what I want right now. I have lived with roommates for the past two years while in graduate school (and then four years of undergrad) and now that I’m employed and making a decent living, I want to have my own place.

Before graduate school and after undergrad, I lived in small one-bedroom apartments. That now seems even too excessive. I get excited when I see how inventive people are with such small spaces (see this studio via Apartment Therapy). Plus, clutter stresses me out.

But what is a single girl (or guy) supposed to do when you live in an expensive city? I’ve been doing a lot of research into the cost of renting on my own in a studio or sharing an apartment with a roommate. I’ve been getting a steal of a deal the past few years, paying only $725 for my share of a two-bedroom in NW DC. The research I’ve done lately tells me that this is now impossible to find. I’ve not seen a single ad on craigslist, livelovely, or padmapper that shows a two-bedroom in the District (a safe part, mind you) that is less than $2,000. So, this means when I have to move at the end of the year, I either get a roommate and pay something around $1,000 for my share of a two-bedroom, or go a bit higher and pay for my own studio.

Side note: I’m moving because my roommate is getting married and because that “steal of a deal” I’m getting is not really a “deal” since the apartment is so run down my carpenter-dad can’t even get my closet door shut without using his power tools on the warped door frame. And that is only the beginning (mice and roaches are currently involved).

So, I’m back to where I started this entry - knowing that I’ll need to rent a studio, but ironically not saving any money by downsizing. Weird, huh? I guess I can console myself with the fact that by the time I have to rent a studio and pay around $1,200 for rent and utilities, I will only have TWO loan payments instead of THREE! And I have the crappy apartment that I have been living in the past two years to thank for not going even more in debt. Such is life in the District of Columbia, I guess. The rent is just too damn high!

P.S. For those who suggest moving to the ‘burbs, such as Alexandria, Arlington, Silver Spring: I hear you and have thought about that. While I would save about $100-200 a month on rent, I’d pay that much to commute to work every day for a month. So, I’m staying in the District if I can find a decent place.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Debunking the Whole Foods Money Myth

I can’t tell you how annoyed I get when I mention going grocery shopping at Whole Foods and the immediate response is either, “I wish I could afford to shop at Whole Foods” or “Yeah, I don’t shop there, it is WAY too expensive.” This breaks my poor little frugal heart. I want to shout it from the rooftops: WHOLE FOODS IS NOT ALWAYS EXPENSIVE! Sure, if you buy the complete organic, 100% grain, gluten-free, microbiotic whatever whatever, then YES, it will be more expensive. But let me just prove something to all those Whole Foods haters - you CAN shop there and not break the bank. I shop almost exclusively at Whole Foods and I haven’t gone over my budget for food since I started keeping a strict food budget.

How do I do this? I keep a food pricing diary. I price compare and see which place has the cheapest food while still maintaining quality. Nine times out of ten, the best option is either Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. I don’t even remember the last time I shopped at Safeway or Giant (the equivalent to Dominics, Copps, or Hy-Vee for you Midwesterners).

So here are some entries from my food pricing diary, which will prove my point:
$3 wine
$3.99 salsa
$4.65 ice cream

Frozen Vegetables (i.e. spinach, broccoli) (16 oz):
Safeway: $3.19
Whole Foods: $1.49

Butter (16 oz):
Safeway: Land-o-Lakes Brand: $3.49
Whole Foods: 365 Brand: $2.99

Milk (1/2 gallon):
Giant: Giant Brand: $2.29
Whole Foods: 365 Brand: $1.99

Even shampoo!!
CVS: Herbal Essences (23.7 fl. oz.): $6.99
Whole Foods: 365 Brand (32 oz): $5.99

Now, this is just a small sampling. But hopefully this entry has at least convinced a few readers not to jump to conclusions about someone’s wealth just because they shop at Whole Foods, because it might actually be CHEAPER to do so!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Close to Kissing Graduate Loan #1 Goodbye!

I have an addiction problem. I’m addicted to paying off my debt.

So this really isn’t a problem now is it? In the last few weeks I’ve become even more intense about paying off my debt. It is because I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, at least where one loan is concerned. Since the beginning of this year, I’ve managed to put almost $7,000 towards Graduate Loan #1. Looking at that number, I can’t believe it, really. But here’s how I did it:

1) Tax Return: I received approximately $1,000 back from the government in March and instead of going out and spending it on a trip or a massage (two things I would love to spend a grand on), I sent another payment to Graduate Loan #1.

2) Second Job: After taking a full-time job in early June, I didn’t need to work a second job as a restaurant hostess anymore. But I continued to do so. I did cut down to three shifts a week instead of five, but three shifts still brings in about $400 a month. Now, instead of using that money to pay rent, I put every paycheck towards this loan. I’ve recently been promoted to a server at the restaurant, so I’ll be making even more money that I can throw at my debt.

3) Birthday Money: I have received a few gifts for my birthday, which has included some money from family members. I put it all towards the loan. People have asked me what I did on my birthday or if I treated myself to anything special. My answer is that yes, I treated myself to the peace of mind in knowing that I’m almost done paying off Graduate Loan #1.

4) Selling Crap: I’m not a clothes or shoes person, but I do have more clothes and shoes than I think I need. I think it is an issue of being a working woman who needs a professional wardrobe. But it also has something to do with having a mother whose favorite hobby is shopping (and not for herself, she loves giving gifts - it is why we call her Mrs. Santa Clause). Because of these two things, I’ve accumulated more crap than I really need. So I’m selling some of it. I’ve had great success with a local consignment shop. I’ve made about $70 in the last six months and will be taking a few bags of fall and winter clothes in over the next few weeks as well.

I’ve also sold some DVDs on and donated books to a local charity. In addition to selling other items on eBay and Craigslist, I’ve made over $200 since the beginning of this year. What did I do with it? That’s right, I made an extra payment towards Graduate Loan #1.

As of today, I have a balance of approximately $2,500 on Graduate Loan #1. My goal is to get this balance down to ZERO by the end of the year. That will mean that I managed to pay off a $9,000 loan in one year! This will definitely be my crowning achievement and a testament to how hard I have worked this past year. I can’t see myself burning out until this is paid off, but I do fear a bit of fatigue after this is done. After all, I still have two loans left (and large balances on them at that). But what I can tell myself is that two payments are better than three. My roommate has promised to take me out for a beer once I’ve paid the remaining $2,500 off - so there is a reward at the end of all of this, even if it is just a beer.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Achieving Financial Freedom: Things I Won’t Cut Back On

1) Healthy Food: Yes, I shop at Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and farmers markets. You can find me in this regard with the rest of the educated middle class in Stuff White People Like. I shop at these places because of the fresh produce, natural products, and especially for the atmosphere (in the case of the farmers market). I’m planning on writing a blog entry about how Whole Foods can actually be cheaper than a “regular” grocery store, so I’ll leave my rant for a future time. I have a budget for food, but I don’t spend it on packaged foods like Cheetos or pop tarts at Safeway. Instead, I buy fresh, natural foods at the three places I mentioned above. I’ve managed to stay in my budget of $140 every month for groceries.

2) The Doctor: I still see all of the normal medical professionals that I saw before becoming more frugal. The only place I have let this slide is in my chiropractic care. Now that I have a new job and better insurance, I’m going to find a chiropractor and see if my neck has gotten any worse over the past two years.

3) Seeing My Family: Plane tickets to Des Moines aren’t cheap. But not seeing my family isn’t an option. I’ve started budgeting these flights into my “Yearly Savings,” which I’ll describe in more detail some other time. The short story is that I have a budget for travel to Iowa, but I still look for deals. Recently on I found a direct, roundtrip ticket from Reagan National to Des Moines for under $300! That NEVER happens! I pounced on it. I’m well within my budget for the year and now I’ll have more leeway when I purchase my ticket home for Christmas.