Tuesday, January 25, 2011

When Buying Used, Compare to Other Used Prices

Tip #283 - When buying Used, Compare to Used Prices. I am a big proponent of buying things used. Most of the time, buying things used will cut the cost of an item by at least 25% and sometimes as much as 95%. As long as the item is in acceptable condition and has enough life left in it, it is preferable to buy this way in order to save money. You have to find what is acceptable to you for buying used. It may include household items, furniture, clothes, toys, cars, or other things.

As with any item you buy, make sure you do the research first to find out exactly what it is you want to buy and secondly find out if you are paying the best used price for it. Most of the time, the used price will be better than the new price, but you really want to find out if the price you are paying is better than buying the item used elsewhere if it available elsewhere used.

For example, suppose you want to buy a small clock. You do your research and decide you want to buy a brand called LaPort (made up name for example). The best price you can find in the store is $79 and that is when it is on sale. However, you decide you really want to pay less than that and you scour the Craigslist ads. To your delight you find one listed on there for $40 and are thrilled. You check it out, find out that it is 3 years old and in pretty good shape. You buy it and are happy that you paid half price for this clock. So did you get a good deal or not? Well, it's really hard to say. Sure you paid 50% of retail but the item has some wear and has three years' of use on it. It would be expected that it would cost less than retail. The truth is, it's hard to tell if you got a good deal because you are comparing a used item to a new item. The best way to see if you got a good deal is to compare it to prices of the preowned items.

A good place to check out used prices for things is eBay. If you can beat eBay's price, then you are doing pretty well. Because eBay is such a large marketplace you can get a good idea of the value of the item. However, sometimes there is a bit of auction fever on there, and prices go unrealistically high. So the best policy is to look at several of your item and take the typical price your item sells for. If you are buying locally, the price should generally be a bit less than eBay's price not including shipping. So suppose after you buy the clock, you look on eBay and see that most of the used clocks are selling in the $50-$55 range plus $5 shipping, then you can feel confident that you got a good deal on your used one. But supposed the clocks are mostly selling for $25 then it appears you have overpaid a bit.

It may not have seemed that you overpaid at first because the price was better than if you had bought it new. But if you can get it elsewhere used for an even lower price, then it isn't a good deal. The reality is, used items should cost less than new ones, so the best way to tell if you have gotten a good deal is to compare it to prices on used items, not new ones. If the item is somewhat uncommon or hard to find used, then you have no choice but to compare it to new items and see if it is worth buying it at a lesser price for an item that has some wear or use on it.

Also, when buying used, there are other things to consider, how quickly you need the item, whether you can touch the item and test it out, how convenient it is to pick up the item, and the item's condition. Take all of those things into consideration, too when deciding if a used price of an item is fair. But just make sure you don't fall into the trap of only comparing the item to new prices, if it is available used elsewhere, as that is a better gauge of the true value of the item.

In Real Life (IRL) - As most of my posts come from circumstances and experiences I have had in real life, this one is no different. I am an experienced thrift store, Craigslist, and eBay buyer. I an generally a smart shopper and can gauge whether I am getting a good deal on things I buy. So I don't know what happened to me last week when I got caught up in the buying fever and overpaid for something used. Here is the story...

My son is a HUGE Thomas the train fan. All along he has been collecting the die-cast metal trains with plastic tracks. But at friends' houses and other places he has become enamoured with the wooden sets. And I was starting to see the value in the durability of these sets. So for the first night of Hanukkah I bought him a small wooden starter set (new and on 1/2 price sale) as his big present to open. I wasn't yet convinced I wanted to switch over to the wooden tracks completely but I had no other "big" gift for him, and I knew he'd enjoy it. Then one day a couple of weeks ago, my husband took my son to the thrift store. And while they were there a staff member put out a big tub of wooden Thomas tracks, bridges, and building. The price was $16 and absolutely was a steal. Needless to say, my husband bought it, and when they came home we set up all of the track on our train table.

And it was clear at this point, that we were not going to get away from collecting the wooden Thomas trains and tracks. On the next free day, I went over to AC Moore, a craft store that carries wooden Thomas trains to check out their prices. Like Michael's, they have 40% off coupons (and sometimes 50%) in the paper and on their website. I was shocked at how expensive the wooden trains were - $12.99 to $16.99 for a single train and $19.99 to $22.99 for a train with a coach. Ouch, even at half-price the cost would be a minimum of almost $7 per train with tax. The next day, I looked on Craigslist to see what people were selling. Unfortunately, most people were selling tracks or a train table which we didn't need. But one woman was selling a set that included 25 trains among other things for $100. "$4 per train?" I thought. I figured it was less than half price of the ones I saw at the store, so I went over her house and purchased them.

But after I came home I got buyer's remorse. I don't know why, as I am an experienced buyer, that I did not look around at prices of used trains elsewhere. I just compared the prices of the new trains at the store. And I only was interested in the trains. The seller included tracks and some other things that I didn't need, so while $100 was an okay price for the whole set, it really wasn't a smoking deal for just the trains. And I realized that when I started searching eBay for lots of used wooden Thomas trains. Many were going for $3 or less per train including shipping. I got a sinking feeling in my stomach that I overpaid because even though they were less than half price of the new trains, they were also significantly used. Some were missing pieces; paint was peeling on others. They should have been significantly less than new.

I was beating myself up over this purchase. How could I have been so dumb to jump on the first deal I saw? Why didn't I research the prices of used wooden Thomas trains first? I know it's because I went to the retail store first and was comparing the used prices to those prices, and it wasn't a fair comparison. If I had looked at eBay first, I would have realized that I could easily do better than $4 per used train. I feel a bit better about my purchase now because over the weekend I was able to sell off the tracks and buildings that came with that lot for $35 which brings my cost of the trains to less than $3 per train which is more in line with the going rate of used wooden trains. And I've learned my lesson when buying used.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Entertain Your Family Cheaply With Parks

Tip #282 - Entertain Your Family Cheaply With Parks. Every summer and winter break I hear about my friends' visits to Disney World, Great Wolf Lodge (an indoor waterpark resort), local amusement parks, arcades, make-your own pottery places, professional theatre, and similar costly activities. All of these places are entertaining for children, are impressive to adults, and cost a fair amount of money. And if you have the money to do these types of activities every day of winter break or every week during the summer, then you don't have to worry about how your money is being spent. But if the idea of spending $60 per child per day for an amusement park or blowing $30 for an afternoon at an arcade doesn't appeal to you, look to parks for cheap entertainment.

No matter where you live, there are parks nearby, I am sure. They may be local playgrounds, county parks, state parks, wildlife areas, nature trails, or national parks. What they all share is that they all can provide low-cost entertainment and educational activities for you and your family. If you have young children, you probably know every local playground within a 5-mile radius of your house. And after a while, it might not seem like a big treat to go to the same playground over and over again. But what if you go outside your community and plan an outing to a playground in the next town? Look online for a town or city's website, and they will often describe the parks that are contained within their limits. A new place with different equipment can have a huge impact for entertainment purposes. Try to find reviews of playgrounds or talk to people who live nearby about which are the best parks around. I have found that most towns and cities have many average-type playgrounds, but there is often one playground that is a showcase of their town. It might include the latest play equipment, zip lines, water sprays, and other fancy features. Here is a town near my parents that has an amazing playground with a kids' castle in it. No admission required. My children would LOVE to spend the day here.

If you want to go somewhere for the afternoon beyond a playground, check out state or county parks in your area. Features at these types of parks may include hiking trails, water activities, and beaches. Even if you are not the outdoorsy type or if it is winter, some of them may have indoor educational buildings to explore. Just doing a quick search of state parks in my area (Northern Virginia), I came up with a wide variety of parks within an hour or two of my home: State Parks of Virginia.

Talk to people at the state or town/city parks to find out if there are any other consortium of parks in your area such as by the region. Around here there is a Northern Virginia Park Authority which is a group of parks in multiple nearby counties. These also happen to be the parks our family use the most. These parks are so varied that you don't feel like you are doing a typical hiking trail in the woods. The parks included swimming pools and waterparks for low-cost, historic homes, miniature golf, gardens, in addition to the typical playgrounds and hiking trails. Going to just one park a week from this group of parks would take us half a year!

Of course, we all know about National Parks and how great some of them are - such as the Grand Canyon or the Smoky Mountains. But even if you don't live near a well-known national treasure, there may be some smaller parks, beaches, battlefields, historic buildings, or wilderness areas near where you live that are run by the National Park Service. The best thing to do is go to the National Park Service website and choose your location to find out what is offered. When I choose my state, I see such varied locations as the Shenandoah Mountains (probably the most well-known around here) to civil war battlefields to historic homes to beaches to colonial farms to waterfalls. Even if I am not an outdoor wilderness, hiking-type person, there is so much to see through the National Park Service. What I like most about these options is two-fold:
1. most of them have indoor interpretive centers which are wonderful and educational on colder days, and
2. admission is usually by the carload - either $5 or $10. For a day's worth of entertainment, it's hard to beat that!

In Real Life (IRL) - My family and I just spent about 10 days in Florida visiting our parents. While we would have loved to have been handed a vacation package to spend a week at Disney's parks free of charge, we were not. And we wanted to keep costs down on the entertainment portion of our trip. What we did instead was look at the parks surrounding the area where our folks live. We spent under $50 to entertain all 5 us for 10 days! And we had so much fun! Most of the activities we did were the types that I mentioned above - parks of various types. We were in the Palm Beach County area of Florida. And as a quick example to show how cheap you can entertain a family using natural resources, here is what we did for 10 days and their cost:

Day 1: Visited Jupiter Lighthouse and beach - we did not climb the lighthouse because we did not have time as this was part of our drive down. This would have cost money. Cost: Free
Day 2: Went to City of Boca Raton's Patch Reef park. This park had brand new playground equipment and a splash pad with cannons and spraying palm trees. Cost: Free
Day 3: Went to City of Deerfield Beach's beach. Spent all day in the sand and ocean. Cost: Free
Day 4: Went to City Of Boca Raton's Sugar Sand Park. Spent time in the indoor science explorium and outside in their oversized, amazing maze playground. Cost: $10 for the science explorium (donation).
Day 5: Spent the day at an indoor flea market. Cost: $5 in fresh fruit purchase
Day 6: Went to Boca Children's Museum and a farmer's market. Cost: $9 for museum (with coupons - would have been $15) and $9 for fruit and jam purchase.
Day 7: Swimming in my parent's condominium pool and playing at a City of Delray Beach's playground. Cost: Free
Day 8: Went to the beach and playground on Miami Beach. Spent the day walking around South Beach and playing on the beachside playground and the sand. Cost: $1.25 to park (person leaving parking spot still had time on meter so this would have been $4).
Day 9: Went to Arthur Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge taking a hike and spending time in the interpretive center. We saw alligators and turtles in their natural habitat! Cost: $5 per carload.
Day 10: Went to Palm Beach County's Wakodahatchee Wetlands. We saw lots of wildlife! Cost: Free

The total cost of our activities including purchases was: $34.25 for 5 people for 10 days! My husband and I, along with our 3 children saw alligators, turtles, and birds, picked fruit, shopped, swam, built sand castles, climbed playground equipment, sprayed water at each other, played pretend in a children's size boat, supermarket, and bank, took a hike, ran around, learned about Florida wildlife and flora, and enjoyed fresh air, exercise, and sunshine for less than $5 per day. Take that, Disney!

Now that we are home, we plan to look into more of the local, state, and national parks in our area to find some more inexpensive, educational, close-to-home fun. What parks are near you that you can enjoy for low cost? For other low-cost ideas, check out Frugal Fridays.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Review your 2010 Year-End Financials

Tip #281 - Review your 2010 Year-End Financials. As I always recommend every quarter or at least semi-annually, review your financial status. If you keep track of your savings, loans on financial software such as Quicken or Mint.com, it could be as easy as running some final numbers. Or if you keep things on paper, it might mean calling up your bank and other investment companies and getting your balance on each of your accounts and tallying them up. However you keep track of your finances, it is a good idea to write down a data point of your balances twice or four times per year. Year-end is an especially good time to check out your status.

By reviewing your finances at year-end, you can check on whether or not you reached the goals you set at the beginning of the year. If you had hoped to have $8000 in your 401(k) account by year-end, then it's easy enough to check your balance to see if you met that goal. If you set a goal of paying down your car loan to $6000 then you can compare it to the amount you owe on December 31.

Your goals should hopefully pretty much match up with your final balances. If they did not, you need to analyze why they did not. Did you hope to have $20000 in a home downpayment account but instead only had $16000? Figure out what went wrong. Was it the stock market that tanked rather than you not saving enough? Well, then analyze whether your down payment money should really be in the stock market. Did you simply not put enough money away? Why not? Did the money instead go to frivolous things such as cute but unneeded shoes or quick, fast-food lunches for the kids?

After analyzing where you may have fallen short you will then have the information you need to set a realistic budget for next year or to adjust your goals. For example, you may decide you will slow down the rate at which you are saving for a downpayment on a house or you may resolve to cut out impulse buys.

Whether you find out you are meeting your goals perfectly or that there is more work to be done, it is important to get an accurate gauge of your financial picture. It will be the first step to completing your budget and goals for next year.

In Real Life (IRL) - At year end, I actually get excited to see if we made the progress that we had hoped to make. Sometimes when the market is doing very poorly, the news doesn't look so great. Or when we have large emergency replace-the-furnace-type bills. But other times, I am happy to see the progress we are making.

We actually just returned from our annual visit with my parents and my husband's mother in Florida. So we still haven't reviewed our year-end financial picture. It will come as soon as the five suitcases are unpacked and the house is in order. But I have glanced at the numbers and we seem to be on track with what our goals were from the beginning of the year. One big goal was paying off our mortgage on the condo in Florida (where my mother-in-law lives). We achieved that one even earlier than we anticipated. And this freed up money to put toward our other goals. We met our children's college fund goals and our retirement goals as well.

One big goal that we didn't achieve was having me get a part-time job or increase significantly the amount I was making selling on eBay. I have a bunch of financial goals floating around in my head for 2011 as well as many upcoming expenses that I discussed in my last post. With these in mind, we will be writing out our formal budget and 2011 goals later this week. And I will come up with our exact financial figures from 2010 once I attack our mounds of laundry.