Holy $hit, there’s 2

Since I began my financial turnaround in 2009 and began focusing on paying off my debt, I found that it was really easy at first. I had no time and no money, and I was in a ton of debt so there was nothing else on my mind, every. single. day.

Since I’ve now paid off 3 credit cards, 2 student loans and taken out (and paid off) a vehicle loan, I dont feel like my back is up against the wall anymore. I’ve gotten married since then, and now H and I make a comfortable income compared to our expenses, and have been able to save quite a bit of money over the last couple years. We bought a house, spent a boatload fixing it up, and are now just trying to take care of the last little things (and build a new room, which is also almost finished). That being said, I’ve been feeling for quite a while that we probably should be saving more money. It’s not like we are going on a bunch of trips to far-flung locales, we arent buying a whole slug of new appliances, and we arent really buying anything big – just kind of wasting money because of our occasionally lack of preparation (mainly around mealtimes).

Though we would like to save more, it’s always difficult without a concrete reason. We arent going to alaska again this summer (which I think my wife is still broken hearted about – as am I), we dont have a wedding or a honeymoon to save for, and we arent making major upgrades on the house any longer.  The compulsive urge to save has dwindled, so we are looking for ways to get it back on track.

Well, we didnt have to look for long. We found out that we are pregnant toward the end of august, which was very exciting. We had been trying for a few months, and both H and I were happy that it finally took (though I wouldnt mind still being in the trying phase). We went to the doctor to get everything confirmed at week 8, and we were not prepared for what happened there.

As we were getting the ultrasound done, the tech moved the little wand around and I thought I saw 2 black spots on the screen. All I thought to myself was Holy shit, there’s 2! and a few seconds later, the tech said “well, it looks like there’s 2 in there” and my wife looked pretty shocked. We both left the doctor pretty excited and a bit nervous.

(For those that were at fincon, this is why you didnt see much of my wife – she still was not feeling all that hot in october). For those that heard me talking about her, and were convinced that she didnt exist (Joel, Kevin) she’s very real.

Right now, mom and babies are feeling much better than they have, and are starting to enjoy life again. Officially, our due date is may 1, but that is for 40 weeks and twins almost never make it that long – we are expected to go 37 weeks, which will put us sometime around early to mid april. She’s starting to tell people at work, but a lot of them have not figured out quite yet – she’s showing, but not all that much, considering it’s twins.

Needless to say, there’s now a fire lit under us again (though we did buy a roomba, but that’s a subject for another post) and we’ve been doing pretty well at increasing our savings drastically. I’ll let you know more about exactly where we are at the end of the month, but I think we are doing pretty good so far.

Right now, I’m also searching for ways to lower our impact (cost, and waste) while raising twins – those things go through diapers and baby wipes like it’s going out of style! So soon, be on the look out for some of the things that my wife and I are learning in the process.

Readers: Do you have any kids? Got any helpful tips for us? Leave them in the comments (please!)

Cheap Summer Vacation Series: Glacier Bay National Park

This year, H and I took a trip to alaska to visit a few national parks that I was unable to get to when I went up there in 2011. We went to two parks, Denali and Glacier Bay National Parks. We had an awesome time, and I wanted to share some financial details of our trip and some pictures.

Both of these parks are in alaska, and are not the easiest or cheapest places to get to, but once you get there there are plenty of activities for low or no cost. Getting to glacier bay is difficult – you need to fly from wherever you are to anchorage, then down to juneau, then take a (literally) 13 minutes flight to gustavus. Once you get to the gustavus airport you need to make your way to the national park, which is about 10 miles. H and I took a cab that we split with a group of people and it cost us $10 bucks each. Since we couldnt fly with any fuel, we had to stop by the store and pick up some fuel for our camp stove. From there, it was on to glacicer bay to our campground.

Below are some of my favorite pictures from the trip

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This was the beach that we did all of our cooking on. You had to cook in the intertidal area so that if you dropped any food or left anything that a bear might smell, it would get washed away by the tide. This is a sunset from the first night – after 4 days in fairbanks, it was nice to see the sun set at a normal time (around 1030pm, If I remember correctly)100_4530

This is a picture that we took on a hike the first full day we were there. It was a nice hike – I’ve never been in forests that were that dense before. There was moss and trees and other things growing everywhere! I’m just used to tall trees and bare forest floors.100_4557

The next day, we went on a guided kayak trip. This picture was taken from the kayak of a sea otter who was just hanging around eating. I had fun in the kayak, but I think that I positioned the steering pedals wrong because my leg kept falling asleep.100_4606

This was a picture from our last day in glacier bay – We decided to take what they called the “long boat” which is a day cruise to the upper reaches of glacier bay that are fairly unaccessible without this boat. What we found out while we got on the boat though was that you could bring your own kayak, and this boat would drop you off somewhere along the route, and you could kayak around the portion of the park where basically no one goes and camp on the island beaches!  I wish that I had known that before we left, but unfortunately I didnt. It’s just something we can save for next time.100_4672

This is from the boat ride – a little island full of sea lions. I saw these last time I went to alaska and went fishing, but it was cool to see them again, and H had never seen them outside of a zoo setting.100_4774

This picture is from the glacier that we got to see (if I remember correctly, it’s the mendenhal glacier). I love glaciers and think they are so fucking cool, so I was really excited about this. This glacier was huge, and like all of them, very cold once you got close. It was really fund to see the glacier calving, and it really made me envious of the people with the super fancy new cameras with the giant lenses. We were very close so I still got some good pictures, but they could have been much better. This is one of the few glaciers in the park that is advancing (growing every year).100_4752

This is a picture of the same glacier, and you can see how far it extends up into the mountains behind it! It’s a huge glacier and awesome to look at.

H and I had a blast in glacier bay, and we are hopeful that we get the opportunity to travel there in the future. It was a nice time, and a great way to spend our 1 year anniversary. I’ll include a sappy anniversary picture that we took on the final day in glacier bay. We were able to get the boat on our anniversary, then head to anchorage and have a pretty good dinner at glacier brewhouse. So even though there was about 2 hours of flying in there, it was a great time.

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There are our cold hands near the glacier.

Readers: Have you ever been to glacier bay national park? If not, are you interested in going now? If you are, drop me an email and I can tell you how I did it for super cheap for H and myself.

 

Our Home Energy Audit

Recently when I was talking about our one year utility analysis, I mentioned that we had signed up for a home energy audit from the utility company.  This service is provided by our utility free of charge (which was awesome) and is done so that the homeowner can figure out what sort of energy saving measures get the most ‘bang for their buck’. It’s also done to help the utility company tamp down demand (mainly during peak times).  If you are conserving what the utility gives you, then they are reducing the demand over what your home took before, allowing them to allocate that demand elsewhere in the system (or keep it in reserve for the hot summer days when everyone turns on the AC). The unfortunate thing about utilities is the have to be able to meet peak demand at a moments notice, even if that peak demand is 15% higher than the normal demand for that day. On the one hand, they can just build more power generation facilities, or on the other, they can simply reduce demand.

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What is a Home Energy Audit?

A home energy audit is when someone (typically certified by someone like BPI) comes to your house and examines it. They are looking for things like insulation in your walls, attic, around your ducts and on the floor joists, the efficiency of your windows and doors.  They look for air leaks around the doors and windows that can be easily sealed that are letting cold air in (during the winter) or letting warm air in (during the summer).  They also look at your hot water heater and your furnace, to see how efficient they are. They also look at lighting to see where you can make any improvements. After they do all this, they sit down with you and tell you what they were looking for and explain the audit.

What does a Home Energy Audit Say?

This obviously will vary from house to house, but I’ll let you know what they told me. We have no insulation in our house, save for a small amount in one of the rooms.  We were told that insulation would be the problem most easy to correct, and would also be the most cost effective (meaning we would derive the greatest energy savings from the smallest cost).  They recommended an r value for insulation in our ceiling of r60, and one for the walls of r13. I knew they were going to recommend that, so I wasnt surprised at all. They also mentioned that our water heater was “nearing the end of its useful life”, and suggested we went with a more energy efficient model when the time came.  (There is a consumer behavior aspect of this that I wont get into, but it makes selecting an energy efficient model difficult in most situations). The auditor also went over what assistance was available from our utility to make the upgrades recommended.

Now What?

Well, now that we’ve gotten a home energy audit, we have decided to take some action on what the auditor said.  Keep in mind we were planning to increase the efficiency of our house through these measures anyway, mainly because even without the rebates, the payback period is pretty good and H and I don’t want to be wasteful if we dont have to.  In addition, it will save us a lot of money, as I estimate the payback period on the insulation to be just under 2 years, which is pretty good.  Hopefully, it will also knock our gas bills under $100/mo during the winter months (last years high mark was ~$120-$130.

Now that the audit has come through, we’re having (more) work done on the house. This isnt like last summer where we have to live in the basement again, but it’s still something. We are having insulation blown into the attic and the walls, which the utility is paying for about half of. Our cost is ~3100 and they are rebating us 1600+, which put our total cost somewhere in the 1400 range, which is really, really good.

In addition to the insulation being put around the house, we also have decided to get new windows. If you recall from last summer the time we had a window person out and they quoted us north of 10k for 1 window, and our subsequent balking at that, we decided to keep an open mind when someone else came by and asked to talk to us about our windows. As I mentioned, we have something like 23 windows in the upstairs of our house, so we knew it would be a large pill to swallow when we did it.

We decided that we should forgo the 8 windows in the front room, and focus on the windows in the rest of the house for now.  After looking at everything we decided to go for it and replace 14 of the 23 windows that we have in the upstairs of our house.  We also found out the point at which we would take out a loan for new windows. Even though we have the money in savings, we took the offer of 0% for the windows for a full year, and plan to pay it off (with credit cards for the points) before the interest rate changes.  I couldnt believe they were offering such a low rate for that, and feel great about taking it.  I know this is new debt, but we plan to pay it off as soon as the windows are actually installed (sometime in august/september) and enjoy the miles from the cards sometime next summer.

All in all, once the insulation is blown in and the windows have been installed, we should have a visible improvement in energy efficiency in the house, lowering our monthly bills quite a bit, as well as reducing our use of fuel.  This will go a long way in completing our plan of lowering our monthly bills as much as possible before we consider renewable energy.

Readers: What energy efficiency improvements have you made recently? Were they big projects or something that you could quickly do yourself, such as change a light bulb? Would you have taken the 0% interest for 12 months on the windows, or would you have just paid cash for the whole thing on the spot?

One Year Utility Analysis

Now that H and I have lived in this house for a year, I’m curious to see where our carrying costs for utilities ended up.  I’m not going to concern myself with things that can be cancelled at our discretion (like internet) but more with things that we can not get rid of unless we move out of this house – mainly electricity and gas (paid as 1 bill) and sewer, water and trash (also paid as 1 bill).  Right now, we dont have a fire place or anything like that, so we need to keep paying these bills to make sure that our house is in a livable condition.  Since we need to keep paying these, we have started looking into how to keep them as low as possible, mainly through conservation and good habits (like turning off the lights when we leave a room).  I didnt want to start looking too early, because I wanted to get baseline data from where we started at so we could easily track improvements.

Right now, our improvements have been pretty small.  We’ve replaced 7 lights with LEDs, and about 10 or so with CFLs, but we do still have some incandescent bulbs in lights that are infrequently used (or in situations where the light was replaced and came with new bulbs).  We also replaced the bathroom window with a newer, more efficient window but other than that, we have not made many improvements to lower the bill we pay to our electric utility.  Once we get most of the higher priority stuff finished (like a door for the bathroom) we will start to move on to some of the low hanging fruit here.

Even though it’s only been a year, we have been lowering our electricity use month over month for the year.  We used less kWh in june 2013 than we did in june 2012, by a fair amount, and that should continue to go lower as we make more replacements with LEDs. (As a note, our electricity is provided by our gas provider and we pay them with the same check, but use is broken out separately.) Now that we have a years worth of data on our side though, we are using that to help us focus our efforts even more.

Our patterns from last summer when we were living in the basement will be/are much different this summer, as we are rarely in the basement and spend most of our time upstairs.  Most of our lights downstairs were changed out to CFLs and we didnt have that many lights down there to begin with – we spent all our time in one room.  We do get daylight in the summer, but there are a lot more bulbs on now than there were when we were living in the basement, so I’m happy that we are using less energy.

In addition to us doing things to try and lower our energy bill, we’ve contacted our utility for a residential energy audit, which they preform free of charge.  I have a feeling I know what they are going to say, but it will be nice to chat with the person and get some direction on where to go first.  I’ll let you know the results.

Readers: Do you monitor your energy bill every year to see if you’re using more or less than you were the last year? If not how come?

Sustainable DIY Series: How to Install a Low Flow Shower Head

Hey all my awesome RSS Readers.  If you’re using google reader, they are going to shut it down in mid june.  If you’re still interested in subscribing by RSS, Check out feedly, which is what I’ve switched too.  I’ve also got an email list, or you can like me on facebook or follow me on twitter.

A while ago, I did a poll on the site, trying to figure out how I could write content that was more relevant for you all – my awesome readers.  One of the thing you all were curious about was more DIY projects that could make you more sustainable around the house.  Since most of my projects recently have had nothing to do with sustainability (making a beer bottle crate, putting knobs on cabinets), I’ve been waiting to write something.

After a few weeks, an opportunity fell into my lap.  I got contacted by the people at Niagra Conservation, who asked if I would like a shower head to review.  I was slightly skeptical at first, because, who gives away a shower head? (and also because we just finished our upstairs bathroom, complete with a new shower head.  After a little inner reflection, some extra prodding from the company and talking with my dad, I decided that I had very little to lose so I told them yes.  I had initially offered it to my dad, but when I got it in the mail, I called him right away and told him that he’d have to get his own, because this thing looked awesome and I wanted to keep it.

Since the shower head in the upstairs bathroom is pretty new, I put it in our basement bathroom.  This was the better choice because the downstairs shower was pretty old, and used about 3.5 gallons per minute and wasn’t all that great.  It wasnt bad enough for us to replace it on our own, because as of now that shower is used pretty infrequently as it is.  However, it was free so I decided what the hey.  They estimate that you can save approximately 5,500 gallons of water per year, which is a lot of water and a big deal out here.  It could potentially save you even more if you have tiered water pricing like I do (where you pay more per gallon once you cross a threshold of water used for the month – ours is 6,000).  If you can stay in the first block of water usage, it could save you quite a bit of money.  Even if you’re already pretty good with you water bill wise, this will help you save even more water – always a good thing.

Sustainable projects like this are my favorite.  I can work for a bit once, and just keep reaping the benefits of saving water throughout the lifespan of the item with little fuss going forward.  It doesnt take constant maintenance or really any work in the future on our part, except cleaning at times.  This one was even better because the total time from start to finish was about 10 minutes.

One thing about this project – While this is low hanging fruit in that it’s relatively cheap to do and easy to do, it’s not going to save you a ton of water.  Things like a dishwasher and washing machine will save you more water, but cost a lot more money.  The frequency of use here is also something to consider, as in some households, a more efficient toilet will get you further.

Installing the Low Flow Shower Head

 

 

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This is what our downstairs bathroom looked like before I started.  This is the old shower head, which was pretty inefficient.  That’s not something that we want in the house, because it wastes so much water compared to what we put in there.  The first step in the process is to take off the old shower head.  Some are hand tightened so you can just used your hand, but mine was a little tighter so I used a pair of pliers to get the old one off.  Once the old one was off, it was time to prep the pipe for a new shower head.

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Once the old shower head was off, I got a wet rag and wiped off the remnants of the plumbers tape that was on there, as well as a little bit of junk that had gotten in the threads over the years.  Once that was all done, I took some nylon plumbers tape and wrapped it over the threads.  The new shower head said that you didnt have to do this, but because we had so many very small leaks during our upstairs plumbing I just went the safe route.  Once the tape is on if you choose to use it, you’re ready to put the new shower head on.

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Now it’s time to install the new shower head.  Take the shower head and screw it on to the pipe with your hands.  Make sure not to over tighten the shower head as you’re putting it on.  There’s no need for pliers for step, so just go easy on it and test it to make sure it doesnt leak.  Below is a picture of the shower head in action.

100_4278Bottom line: This shower head is pretty awesome.  It’s great that we are saving about a gallon per minute while showering with this shower head, and the pressure is great too.  I’ve heard the low flow shower heads described pretty poorly before, but that’s not the case for this one.  The rainfall is awesome, and it makes you feel like you are in a luxury hotel hotel when you’re showering with it.  I cant seem to find the exact one they gave me online, but I dont think that it will cost more than $40 at the store.  With the potential to save about 5,500 gallons per year, the paypack period will be pretty quick with this unit.  If you’re in the market for a new shower head (or just tired of your inefficient old one) give this a try.

Note: While they did give me this unit for free, it didnt influence my decision.  I wanted one of these style shower heads for the upstairs bathroom, but we couldnt find one that matched the fixtures for the sink and tub that we had already purchased.  

Readers:  How are your shower heads?  Do you have any that could be replaced, or are there other projects around the house that will save more water that you’re interested in tackling first?

 

Through the Looking Glass: At What Price Point Would You Get a Loan for Windows

The other morning as I was finishing up my run, I noticed someone a few blocks away from our house had gotten new windows.  Though I didn’t check the windows on the back of the house, I was able to see all 3 sides and would guess that they replaced every window on the upper level of the house.  It was at least 6 windows, with 2 of them being rather large.  The windows still had the brand sticker on them, and I recognized the brand as a pretty energy efficient window.  I immediately thought back to the time that H and I had someone come out and give us an estimate on new windows in our house.

If you dont recall, we got a quote for a window in the bathroom, and it was about 10x more than the window that we ended up installing.  The product, however, was impressive.  Far more energy efficient than our current windows and still better than the new one.  At the time though, we were just tired of tossing money into the bathroom and opted for the not as good (but still far better) cheaper window.

The next thing I wondered was what it would take me to take out a loan to replace the windows in our house.  I’d guess it’d cost somewhere around $8,000 to replace all 21 windows upstairs.  Clearly, that’s no small number.  However, our most recent heating bill came for december (we were gone for 9 days) and it was almost $200 dollars!  We knew that we had a terribly inefficient house, but were not sure how much it would cost us on a monthly basis to heat and keep sorta warm (H and my parents say that the 65 degrees we keep the house at is ‘freezing’).  Using the december numbers as a barometer, we are on track to spend around $1,000 on energy costs this winter.  That is a lot of money – clearly more than we’d like to pay.  Even more so because we know the house has 0 insulation (except in the bathroom, which we put in) and most of what we pay to heat is flowing right out the door and window gaps.

Even though I’m against debt in the majority of situations, interest rates are low right now.  I’d guess that we can get a loan for this sort of thing for around 5%, if not less.  We would obviously be on the hook for the interest and be chained to the debt, but once we got the windows installed, we’d start seeing immediate savings in the form of lower energy bills.  If the rate and the terms were right, this could turn out to be a cash flow positive deal (at least in the winter time).

Not only could we save money on our energy bill immediately as opposed to waiting until we saved up the cash to replace the windows, we’d also make this house a lot more sustainable.  Right now, we are wasting an obscene amount energy because our house is so inefficient – a loan for new windows would curtail that amount heavily.  Of course, it wouldnt get rid of the waste all together, but it would go a long way.  The one question is, what sort of price are we willing to put on the amount of good that we are doing for the earth?  This is something that we talked about with the washing machines, and our bill has gone down by about $10/month since we put the new ones in.  This though, isn’t an almost $8,000 purchase, those cost just over $1,100 for both.

Of course, I’d need to run some actual numbers and see how much we’d save over the year and what sort of interest rate we’d get (I think there’s a federal program that gives loans for energy efficient home upgrades, but I dont remember).  Once I knew the exact numbers, it would be a lot easier to make a decision.  Until then though, there’s always speculation.

If we’d save money overall for the year (though we may not save money every month) I’d be for it.  Obviously, this would require a rather large energy savings and a small interest rate, but it could be done.  At the break even point or even if it cost us $100 or less for the year overall, I’d probably still consider it.  However, I think if we ended up paying more than $250 per year (over and above energy savings) for our impatience, I wouldnt do it.  Obviously, savings rates are impossibly low and aren’t going to help us at all.

Readers: Have you ever thought about this?  At what price point would you upgrade whatever it is, and at what point would you just wait and save your money?  This will only work for huge wins like new windows, and wouldnt even matter for many smaller energy efficiency upgrades.  

 

Is Getting Your Own Food Cheaper, Part 5

As I’ve tried to expand my sustainability horizons over the past 4 years, I discovered hunting.  I’d always been interested in hunting and curious (as well as unsure) about wether or not I could ever participate.  Hunters often get a bad rap, but it’s not wholly undeserved.  I hunt so that I can get a sustainable, organic source of meat  for the winter and summer months in the fall.  The places where I typically hunt I get tags that are designed to control the local population of the animal I’m out hunting, so not only am I getting some stuff for the freezer, but I’m also doing the land a favor by slowing down the heavy grazing going on.

I’ve written about this multiple times before, talking about the total cost of my Halibut fishing, my Elk Hunt, my duck hunt, and my blue grouse hunt.  Oddly enough, the first hunt that I ever went on for antelope has not gotten a cost analysis yet.  I didnt get to go this year, and I didnt buy a tag in time last year.  I always like to see the cost breakdown and figure out how much meat I got per pound.  For just about every hunt, I seem to be landing all over the map as far as cost goes, coming in near $5 per pound on the elk side, and upwards of $28 dollars per pound for duck.  Of course, this is slightly skewed, because it’s not all lower quality meats like ground elk or elk sausage, there’s also steak cuts and tenderloin cuts.

Next on the list for this time is deer.  I’ve been wanting to go hunt deer for a while, and there is a huge deer population in northern wyoming (both white tail deer and mule deer).  So much so that the landowners in the area where we hunt (Ucross, WY) call the game warden to send hunters to their place so they can thin the herd a bit.  The deer eat all the hay that the landowners have stored for the winter for their sheep or cattle, which annoys the landowners.

For this deer hunting trip, it was me, my father in law, the friend that took me duck hunting a while back.

Here are the costs of my deer hunting trip:

  • Deer tags $60.  This year, I got two deer tags.  I had initially only planned on buying one, but after talking to the landowners when we got there, I decided that if I harvested one early enough I’d go into town and buy another one.  My other buddy decided the same thing, and that’s what we ended up doing
  • Gas/Lodging $68.  This trip basically required a 1 night stay, and 2 tanks of gas.  My father in law paid for the room, and I bought one of the tanks of gas and my buddy bought the other.  The cost of all three was roughly equal
  • Food/drinks $30.  Though I brought snacks with me for in the car on the way up and back, I still paid for a fair amount of meals (3).  The food situation was a bit thin at the house before I left, so I couldnt really pack as much of my own food as I wanted.

Unlike all of my other hunts, I was able to offset the costs of this hunt.  After talking to the rancher about the number of deer and a friend, I offered to “sell” my second deer to my friend for $25 (basically the cost of the tag).  He agreed (I’m not sure if he thought I was joking or not), and this was the main reason I got the second tag.  Since I knew I could most likely get one and I had something to do with the meat, it didnt seem like that much of a risk.  I texted my friend when we left and told him to find a processor for the animal and that he could come pick it up the next day and he was shocked.  He ended up giving me $30, which I wasnt going to complain about.

The total cost for the trip was $128, and I ended up with 1 white tail deer. I process the meat myself, and though I’m not finished with it yet, I’ll end up with about 25 lbs of meat when everything is said and done.  This puts the cost per pound of meat at about $5.12, which is slightly less than what I paid for elk (though it would have been higher had I not had to go out for elk like 9 times).  Of course, this is not all steak quality meat, but I would say about 33% of it is.  This will be a nice addition to the winter rotation, and I’ll probably end up giving some away as well.

Readers: Do you think the price for game meat is reasonable?  Do you know someone that hunts, or are you involved in a roadkill program in your state (where they take animals that got hit and give away the meat)?