I said some very unkind things when I heard that US Air is now charging for water in coach class. Water! On top of the baggage fees, fuel surcharges, booking fees, change fees, and breathing fees they’ve come up with recently, this one really burns me. I’m trapped in their airplane. They least they can do is spend three cents to give me a cup of water.

The new fees made me so angry that I set out to find ways to avoid them, especially the baggage fee, which was instituted AFTER I booked two plane tickets for this summer. If you want to avoid spending all your vacation money on the plane, here’s my list of ways to avoid the new airline fees. You can also check my other tips for more ways to save money on travel. To check the latest fees before you book or before you leave, review the Domestic Airline Fee Chart.

Fuel Surcharge
Unfortunately, you can’t skip this one, and you can only expect them to go up. They can’t charge you an additional surcharge after you’ve booked the ticket, though. When booking tickets, use a site like Kayak that includes this fee in the ticket price.

Baggage Fees
The baggage fees were not in force when I booked my tickets. The FAA recently announced that airlines CAN’T charge you the baggage fee if you booked your ticket before the date it was implemented. To make sure you don’t get charged, visit the airline’s baggage rules page. It should state the exemption dates. Now take a screen cap of that. If you don’t have screen cap software, tap the Print Screen button on the keyboard. Open your Paint program (free with Windows), and hit CTRL and V on the keyboard to paste it into the Paint window. Now print it and put it with your other travel documents so you can show it to the clerk if they try to charge you a fee when you check in.

If you booked after the fee was announced, then they can charge you. The only way to avoid the fee is to pack lightly so you only need to take a carry-on. But be warned – most people will adopt this same strategy, so you might not be able to find room in the overhead bin. I don’t yet know if there’s a fee to gate-check bags that don’t fit on the plane.

Food Fees
Most of the airlines have abolished free food, and many are even getting rid of free snacks. Instead they’ll charge you $5-$10 for a “snack box.” This one’s easy to avoid, though. You can make a sandwich or package up other food at home and carry it through security (check the TSA prohibited items list first). A small lunch sack also doesn’t typically count as a carry-on item. Be careful with chilled foods, though. Ice packs can’t go through security.

If you don’t want to bring food from home, you can buy it in the airport for a slightly lower fee than you’ll pay in the airplane. It will probably be a larger portion and it may also be fresher than the food on board.

Beverage Fees
I started bringing my own water on the plane with me a long time ago. Once they instituted the ban on carrying liquids through security, I switched to sport bottles. I have a metal one, but you can also use a hard plastic one. Once you get through security, fill it at the water fountain and you’re good to go. No, it’s not a soda, but at least you’re not at the mercy of the flight attendant.

If you don’t want to bring your own water bottle through, you can also buy water and soda in the airport. It will no doubt be cheaper than what you could get on the airline (assuming they charge for water/soda/juice.)

Most travel experts advise drinking only water on a plane in order to stay hydrated. Both soda and coffee dehydrate you. There’s no reason to pay $5-6 for crappy wine or hard liquor. Just wait and get a drink at a bar when you arrive.

I’ve no doubt that the airlines will probably start charging us for the foam in our seats soon enough. No matter how many airline fees they throw at me, I’m going to try to dodge as many as I can. My hard-earned cash is meant to spend at my destination, not on the airplane I took there. I paid for my ticket. As far as I’m concerned, that’s payment enough.

This weekend, I heard a CNN expert say that switching to a hybrid won’t really save many people much money, once you factor in the cost of the new vehicle and the lower trade-in for the older vehicle. So how much money do hybrids really save?

Factors in Favor of Hybrids
There are three main factors in favor of buying a hybrid:

  1. Lower cost for fuel
  2. Less pollution
  3. Ability to gloat over friends with gas guzzlers.

If you buy a hybrid, you should see an immediate savings at the fuel pump. I used the fuel savings calculator to compare my current Toyota with the 2007 Prius, and it would save me $674 a year, after factoring a $720 cost for the car and $4.49 a gallon for gas. It doesn’t say, but I assume that’s the cost without car payments. Given that Priuses are going for around $24,000 in my area, buying one wouldn’t really save me much money because I’d have to finance $21,000 of that.

That said, I need to replace my car soon anyway. It’s already 11 years old, so I’m in the market. If I were to buy the same model I have now, it would cost me around $18,000. In that case I might as well spend the extra $6,000 to buy a car that gets better mileage and makes me feel like I’m doing my part to reduce pollution.

Factors Against Hybrids
There are also two main factors against hybrid cars and trucks:

  1. Higher purchase cost
  2. Potential need to replace the battery before you’re done with the car
  3. Waiting period.

Hybrids usually cost $2-3,000 more than their gas counterpart. The Prius and Insight don’t really have a comparison point, so I’ll compare the Camrys. According to Edmunds, the Camry Hybrid costs $4,000 more than a comparable gas model. Increased demand is pushing the prices on the hybrids even higher than that. In my area, a new Camry Hybrid costs $27,000.

Hybrid cars are also relatively new. While most experts say that the batteries should last 150,000 miles at least, there is the possibility that you’ll need to replace them and the cost for replacement isn’t yet known. However, I think you’d probably spend as much replacing the transmission or other drive train parts of a non-hybrid if you put that many miles on it.

Finally, some hybrid cars are in such demand that you may have to wait up to six months to get one. If you’re in the market for a new car, you probably don’t want to wait that long.

How to Choose a Hybrid
If you’re considering a hybrid, like I am, compare the costs and comparables of similar vehicles. Some hybrid cars don’t get much better mileage than their gas-only counterparts, in which case the higher cost of the hybrid would obliterate your savings. If I were to replace my Toyota with a Mercury Mariner Hybrid, I’d save a whopping $92 a year.

Look for a hybrid that is small and gets excellent gas mileage. I don’t like SUVs anyway, so I would opt for a Prius, Camry, or Civic, all of which have top-notch mileage and have comfortable seating room. When it comes to American cars, I’ve seen several hybrid sedans that get worse mileage than comparable gas-only Japanese cars.

When Not to Switch
If your car gets decent mileage and is only five years old, then switching probably wouldn’t save you much money. Due to gas-price panic, resale values for gas-only cars have fallen significantly. The higher cost of purchasing a new car when your old car is in good condition would probably cancel any savings in fuel cost. The CNN expert also pointed out that SUV owners are getting very little trade-in value. His advice was to wait a few months until the gas price panic levels off.

I’m still deciding whether or not to get a hybrid. Since my car is already 11 years old, most sedans will do better on gas mileage. I’ll have to run the numbers once it’s time to make the purchase, and consider the fact that I will own this car for the next ten years. Which car do I want to be driving in 2018? That’s the question of the month.

I recently discovered this cool new tool – the Financial IQ test at Bills.com. I love quizzes, so this was perfect for me. It also reminded me that I need to move certain financial moves up my to do list.

About the Financial IQ Test
The test asks questions in five categories: Credit, Debt, Budget, Wealth, and Life Plan. Each section has five to seven questions.

Financial IQ

As you can see, I scored 91%, this time. Two days ago I scored 88%, with a 70% score in the life plan section.

Where I Lost Points
When I took it this time, I changed my outlook on retirement from “scared” to “uneasy,” which boosted my score 20 points. I am truly uneasy. Given the financial bills the government faces and the likelihood that my daily expenses will continue to rise due to circumstances outside my control, I’m very concerned about the future. Taxes have nowhere to go but up over the long term, which will also make it harder for people my age to balance all our expenses and put away money for retirement. I’m certainly not counting on the nickel I’ll get from Social Security.

I also got low points in the budget section. I suspect it’s because I put my savings goal as 10% (rather than more than 10%) and haven’t shopped for lower insurance rates recently. I do use the lowest rate insurer in Los Angeles, though, so I’m not sure I agree with losing points for not checking regularly.

I most likely lost a few points in the Life Plan section because my husband and I don’t yet have a will. I know we should have one, but right now all our accounts are joint or we’re designated as each other’s beneficiaries. We don’t own a home, so we don’t have many assets to pass on. We do have Health Care Power of Attorney forms filled out, though. Even if you don’t expect to leave much, you should have of these. Get them free at Compassion & Choices.

Points That Made Me Think
The wealth section asks about life insurance. I selected “No, but I’m reviewing my options” because the question reminded me to research a few plans to compare to the offer sitting on my desk, and then complete it and send it in. I keep meaning to do that, but it just never happens. My husband has some coverage through his professional association, but probably not enough. I don’t have any coverage on myself. Even though we don’t have kids or a house, we would both struggle financially if we lost the other one suddenly. Having a cushion is important.

The other question that made me think was my expected retirement age. I marked 60-65, but I don’t really know for sure when I want to retire. I’m not even sure what retirement really means to me. I need to sit down and figure that out one of these days.

Compare Yourself to Others
The quiz had a section to compare myself to others. It doesn’t store any personal data, just asks a few demographic questions for comparison purposes. I was above average or on par for nearly all demographic factors and quiz categories except budget, where I was usually just slightly under the average. I need to work on that one!

Overall, the quiz was a wake-up call for some areas and a nice pat on the back for others. It’s also a fun way to impress your friends and co-workers. I told a couple co-workers about the quiz and soon several people in the office were comparing their scores.

What’s your financial IQ? Tell me in the comments!

It was a busy week at the blog carnivals. This week I have four round-ups to share, so here they are.

First up, the Carnival of Debt Reduction #143, hosted by Moolanomy (Pinyo’s been busy). He chose my May debt reduction progress as an editor’s pick. If you liked that post, you might also enjoy Nate David Scott’s debt progress.

Next up, the Carnival of Personal Finance #156 at PTMoney. In addition to my post about saving money on student loans, you might also enjoy My Money Plan’s 10 tips for new grads.

Our third carnival is more of a festival: the Festival of Frugality #129 hosted by Bored Finance. In addition to my post on frugal cultural events, you might also like My Money and My Life’s 20 more frugal or free activities.

Last up, the Money Hacks Carnival #16, hosted by Daily Money Hack. In addition to my post about paying bills while on vacation, you might also enjoy PT Money’s suggestions for optimizing your international banking while traveling.

Recently I stayed at a Sheraton hotel for business. Upon checking in, I discovered I’m a Starwood Gold member. I don’t know how that happened, but I was more than happy to take advantage of the perks offered. That got me thinking – how many ways can travel rewards help you save money on a trip?

Free Flights
You can still get free flights with airline miles. The key is to book early or to have a lot of flexibility in your dates/route. I’ve used miles for travel to Ireland, New York, and Central America. When I booked the Ireland trip, the helpful customer service rep spent half an hour hunting down route options around our available dates.

Free Checked Bags
Some of the airlines offer free checked bags for premium frequent flyer members. You have to fly a lot of earn that, but if you do fly often, then free bags can be a significant savings.

Free Hotel Rooms
If you’re a frequent business traveler, be sure to sign up for the hotel rewards card. If you stay often, you can earn free nights or upgrades. I belong to Hilton and Starwood. Although I haven’t yet earned a free night, I have received other perks.

Free Food/Drinks
Last time I stayed at a Hilton, I received two free bottles of water just for being a member. That saved me from having to buy bottled water while out and about the next day. On the recent trip, Starwood was offering free continental breakfast and happy hour. I used both as opportunities to score free snacks and bottles of water. I would have enjoyed the free breakfast, but I can’t eat muffins and breads. I did enjoy the free fruit and juice, however.

If you’re traveling with children or not being reimbursed by your company, a free breakfast will save you at least $5 a person, and probably closer to $10. Granted, it’s not a full breakfast in some places, but muffins and fruit can really fill you up. You can also snag whole fruit to eat later.

Late Check-Out
Starwood also provided a free late checkout. Rather than having to check my bags with the bell captain (and pay for that privilege), I just left my bags in the room until 4 PM, which is when I had to head to the airport.

Transfer to Miles
If you need a few extra miles to get your free trip, see if you can transfer any hotel rewards points to the airline to put you over the edge. Buying miles can be costly, but transferring them from a partner service may be free, or at least cost significantly less.

Obviously, some of these will save you more than others. Whether you’re a frequent traveler or not, see if any hotels are connected to your credit card or airline rewards. Since I’ve never stayed at a Sheraton before, I assume the membership was connected to either my credit card or my airline points. I did sign up for Hilton Honors, but only because it automatically transfers points to my mileage program.

Even if all you save is the cost of breakfast, that could be a savings of $200 for a family of four on a five-day trip. That’s not nothing!

If you received other good rewards from your travel clubs, let me know in the comments.

For more travel tips, see my past post on frugal travel tips.

I bank with Bank of America, and have another account with Washington Mutual. There have been occasions where both banks have nearly driven me to quit them and find some new way to manage my money. In the end, they’ve both offered features that convinced me to stay. Nevertheless, I keep my list of deciding factors around in case one of them finally pushes me over the edge.

Free Online Banking

Whichever bank I choose must have completely free online banking. That means no fees for online bill paying. Why would I pay my bank a monthly fee in order to make their job easier? If the service isn’t free, I’m not using it.

Paperless Statements and Bills
Bank of America allows for completely paperless account statements and credit card bills, while Washington Mutual insists on mailing me paper statements. Since I don’t use my WaMu accounts often, I live with it, but if I was switching all my banking over to one institution, then the paperless option would be a major deciding factor.

Free Savings Account
If a bank charges me a fee for a savings account, then it’s not getting my savings. It’s as simple as that. There are too many free banks to make it worth paying someone to hold my money. With interest rates as low as they are, some fees actually cost more than anything you’d make off the account anyway.

Convenient ATMs
Numerous convenient ATMs are the primary reason I stick with WaMu and BofA. They’ve pretty much cornered the market in LA. Although there are cheaper banks, I like always being within a quarter mile of an ATM. However, BofA recently instituted a change to their ATMs that would drive me away if I frequently deposited checks or cash. The new ATMs duplicate the inconvenience of visiting a human teller without the perk of actually speaking to a human. In case you haven’t heard, the deposit envelopes are gone. Instead you stick your wad of cash into the machine for counting, and feed checks in one at a time. Not only is that hugely inconvenient, but it isn’t very safe.

Free Checking Account
I use the WaMu account for my infrequent business checking because it’s 100% free (except for the checks, which I almost never write.) My BofA account is most definitely not free, but they waive the monthly fee with direct deposit. Since most employers now provide direct deposit, the fee isn’t an issue for me. If neither my husband nor I had direct deposit, then I would be looking for a free checking account.

Helpful Customer Service
Stop laughing! It is possible to find good customer service from a bank. I’ve actually had good service from both WaMu and BofA. My best story happened about a year ago when my auto insurance company failed to process our electronic payment on time. I called the insurance company to ask why our payment had been received, but not applied to my policy. They told me they didn’t know and to send another payment. When, I refused to pay them again, they suggested that I stop payment on the original payment – a payment they’d already received!

Finally, I got the woman’s name and then called the bank. While I waited on the phone, the bank rep called the insurance rep, faxed them proof of payment and proof that they had confirmed receipt, had them reinstate the insurance, and had the late fee removed. We also discovered the problem: the insurance co. can’t accept electronic payments, so the bank has to mail a check. We pay that bill by personal check now, but the experience has left me with a warm spot for my bank and a cold spot for my insurance company.

I know many people who have had bad experiences with both of my banks, but so far I’m not one of them. If your bank routinely angers you or doesn’t provide the services that matter most to you, it’s time to get a new bank. With all the options out there, there’s no reason to stick with a bad bank.

For years, I’ve listened to reporters say that gas prices go up in the summer due to the switch to summer gas. That made me wonder why we switch to this more expensive gas and whether not switching would reduce gas prices. It turns out that summer gas is actually a very useful thing. Please excuse any errors – I’m not a scientist.

What Is Summer Gas?
All gas is a blend of oil and various additives. There are actually numerous blends, so my summer gas may not be the same as your gas. Whatever the individual components, summer gas is primarily intended to reduce smog. Summer gas contains less butane, which results in a higher evaporation point. The gas itself only costs slightly more, but refineries must buy a large supply of gas in order to make the switch, which causes a spike in prices.

Why Can’t We Use Summer Gas Year-Round?
We don’t use it year-round because engines using summer gas are difficult to start in cold weather. We don’t use winter gas in the summer because it’s less efficient in hot weather and produces more pollution at high temperatures.

What Happens If We Use Winter Gas in the Summer?
Aside from the fact that the stored gas could set your house on fire, you’ll also waste more gas if you use it out of season. Because winter gas evaporates faster in hot weather, you’ll get less of it from the same quantity of summer gas. In addition to wasting money, you’ll also pollute more. I think we can all agree that cleaner air is a good thing.

In summary, summer gas costs marginally more, but it saves money in the long-run because it burns more efficiently when it’s warm outside. Instead of trying to find, or hoard, winter gas, employ other gas-saving measures to reduce your fuel costs. Now that I know the reason for the two different kinds of gas, I will stop whining about the higher cost of summer gas (but not about the cost of gas in general.)

Sources: Slate Magazine and The Oil Drum

My water footprint is 1,092 gallons, which is about 100 less than the national average. That’s not great, considering that I don’t own a home and therefore don’t use much water. It doesn’t seem obvious, but your water footprint does have an impact on your finances, now and in the future. It also has an impact on the future of the planet.

What Is a Water Footprint?
Your water footprint is the amount of water that you use per year. H20Conserve.org measures it in gallons while WaterFootprint.org uses cubic meters.

Your water footprint isn’t restricted to the amount of water you consume, personally use, or use in your home, though. It also includes the amount of water required to produce the food you eat and the products you use. It seems counter-intuitive, but vegetables actually use less water than meat. Gasoline actually requires a lot of water.

Why Does It Matter?
As with all things footprint-related, Americans use way more resources than people in most other countries. Since North America only has 15% of the world’s freshwater, we’re using far more than our fair share.

To ensure that there is enough water to go around, we should be more aware of our water usage and try to cut back where we can. Europeans already use less water than we do, so perhaps we should follow their example.

As an added bonus, wiser water usage will actually save you money. If you buy fewer new clothes or products to save water, you also avoid spending money on them. If you use less water at home, you’ll cut your water bill.

How to Reduce Your Water Usage
There are a number of ways to reduce your water usage, some of which you might already be doing, some of which you might not.

Install low-flow showerheads and faucets. These showerheads and faucets are so well made that you won’t notice much of a change in water pressure, but you will notice the difference on your water bill.

Install low-flow toilets. Some people use a brick in the tank to displace water instead, but a low-flow toilet is better in the long-run. If you already have a low-flow toilet, don’t add a brick to the tank to save more water. These toilets are designed to use a specific amount of water and won’t work properly if the water is too low.

Don’t run the water. Turn off the faucet while brushing your teeth, washing your face, or doing the dishes. When doing the dishes, fill one side of the sink with soapy water, then put the sudsy dishes in the other half so you can rinse them all at once.

Choose native grass and other plants. Most people in this country have gorgeous green lawns, but those lawns aren’t native in most regions. If you live in a region where those loans aren’t native, you’re wasting a lot of water to keep them alive. Instead, choose grasses and other plants that are native to your region and can stand up to your natural weather cycle. That will also reduce your water bill because you’ll need less of it to keep your garden pretty.

Eat less meat. Meat is very water-intensive to produce, so the less of it you eat, the more water you save. You’ll probably also save money on groceries.

Reuse and recycle. It takes more water to make new clothing, paper, plastic, and home goods, than it does to reuse or recycle it. So instead of throwing something out, make the extra effort. When you find a new use for something or buy something used, you’ll also save money.

When you think about it, reducing your water issue really is a personal finance issue, but it’s also an environmental issue. To make it personal, consider how much money you waste when you also waste natural resources. Hopefully, that will get you to save water, which will help you and the planet.

What’s your water footprint?

Source: June issue of Discover Magazine.

I always think that I’ll spend less in the summer, but somehow, it’s always more expensive than I expect it to be. You’d think I’d learn from that. So, in my attempt to do just that, I’ve come up with some theories about why summer spending patterns are higher than expected.

Fresh Summer Food
Grocery budgets for foodies and regular eaters alike go up in the summer. It’s hard not to buy all those new fruits and veggies. Of course, some foods are available year-round due to global food imports, but foods that are in season in your region taste better because they’re not shipped as far. I recently switched to the farmer’s market to get even fresher food. Even though it’s usually a bit cheaper, too, I buy a lot more of it. I can’t resist the cherries, strawberries, nectarines, and peaches after months of living on citrus and apples. And so, my summer food budget goes up.

Summer Home Improvement Projects
In many regions, some DIY home improvement projects can only be done during the summer. Even if you can do them at other times of the year, summer seems to be the season of projects. Although these projects will improve the home and last a long time, they aren’t free. Paint, drapery, plants, etc., all cost money.

I don’t own a home, so my summer projects are limited, but I did get it into my head to make produce bags and slipcovers. Certainly, both are cheaper to make than to buy, but these aren’t expenses I factored into my original summer budget.

Summer Entertainment/Dining
Yesterday I listed several free or nearly free summer cultural events, and I listed nine ways to entertain a couple weeks ago. Even if you do both, you’ll probably spend a little more than planned on party or picnic food. Dining out with friends is also more enticing during the summer. It’s hot inside: who wants to turn on the over or stand over a stove when outdoor cafes beckon?

Summer Travel
Many people with children travel during the summer to avoid missing school. Hopefully you budgeted for your vacation, but you’ll probably need to buy a few unbudgeted things before you leave. Most people also spend a little more than anticipated while traveling.

To compound the problem, summer is the season of weddings, which means traveling to them (unless they’re local). This summer I have a wedding, bridal shower, and bachelorette party to attend. I’m not upset about that, but it is something that I had to work into the budget.

This summer we’re not taking a full vacation, but I do attend a conference every July, and that also adds to my spending.

The only way to curb your spending is to become more aware of what makes you go over budget and curb those habits, or budget for them by reducing spending in other areas.

Do you spend more in the summer, and if so, what makes you go over budget? Tell me in the comments.

How’s that for a headline? It’s certainly not a phrase you expect to hear. And that brings us to this week’s blog carnival round-up. Once again, we have three. Monty Python would be proud.

So first, the Carnival of Personal Finance #155, hosted by Moolanomy. In addition to my post on debunking the latte factor, you might also enjoy Destroy Debt’s 10 non-cliched ways to free up money.

Next, the Festival of Frugality #128 at No Debt Plan. In addition to my post on leftover recipes, you might also like Monroe on a Budget’s story about making strawberry jam.

Finally, the Money Hacks Carnival #15 at Broke Grad Student. In addition to my post about rescuing old fruit, you might also like Blueprint for Financial Prosperity’s discovery that some grocery store unit prices are now inaccurate.

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