Monday is Memorial Day, which the stores consider the official kick-off of the summer shopping season. You’ll see sales galore, but you can still be frugal if you try!

Check for Deals
If there are items you need for summer projects, check the store circulars for coupons and discounts. If the item you want is discounted, go snap it up. But first, check a price comparison site to see if it’s a good deal.

Attend a BBQ
We’ve just learned that our block hosts a Memorial Day block party. We will certainly be attending! All we have to bring is something to throw on the grill. Since it’s a block party, we don’t even have to go anywhere!

Spend a Day Outdoors
Pack a picnic and then go for a hike, a swim, or just loll about on the grass with a good book. You’ve been working hard, you deserve a day of rest.

Work on Your House
Since we have a long weekend, I’ll be catching up on projects around the house, which will keep me out of the stores. I plan to paint the bathroom ceiling and fix some peeling paint in the kitchen. If I have time, I’ll also start painting the baseboards.

Bake a Pie
Anyone who knows me knows I love pie. Cherries are in season. So is rhubarb! I’ve seen peaches at the farmer’s market, too. So, snatch up some fresh fruit and then bake your first summer pie. Serve it with vanilla ice cream and I think you’ve got yourself the start of a perfect frugal summer.

It took me nearly two weeks, but yesterday I triumphed over an airline and will be receiving a $150 refund within the next 7 days. This was a unique situation, and the facts were on my side, but I also had to be persistent in order to get my money back.

The Situation
An event I’m planning to attend was scheduled for Nashville. Well, the hotel where the event was taking place was destroyed due to the record flooding. After the hotel canceled the event, the organization planning it quickly found a new location in another city. Unfortunately, that required me to change my plane ticket. I’d used miles to book, so I immediately called to reschedule while they still had awards flights left. Then, the organization negotiated with several airlines to get change fees waived. The problem: I’d already paid one, to the tune of $150.

How I Handled My Airline Refund Request
First, I called reservations, the only phone number you can find for United. The reservations agent said he couldn’t refund the fee and did everything he could to keep me from speaking to a supervisor. He told me I had to email customer relations. You can’t call customer relations. Apparently they don’t have a phone.

Five days after I emailed, exactly as promised, I received a response: since this is for future travel, I had to call reservations.

Huge sigh. I called reservations and spent 45 minutes on the phone trying two things: 1. to get a refund, and 2. to speak to a supervisor. I was now informed that I had to email refunds, not customer relations. Again, they don’t have a phone, so I couldn’t call them.

I sent off another email, and included these things:

  • My confirmation number
  • The previous email chain
  • A summary of my attempts to get help
  • The paragraph from the organization detailing United’s agrement
  • A link to the organization’s list of airlines offering change fee waivers
  • A PDF of the organization’s location change confirmation letter.

I was polite in the letter, and laid out all the facts. I simply requested a refund per their agreement.

Yesterday, I received an email that I would receive a refund.

I do realize this is a special situation – not everyone has to change their tickets because their destination is underwater. In fact, I was rather surprised that the airlines had no policy for handling the Nashville disaster, even though they have for most other disasters. My suspicion is that Nashville’s flood occurred too close to the Iceland disaster, which cost billions, and the airline didn’t feel like losing more money.

Nevertheless, the facts were on my side and I eventually won my case. I was polite the entire time. I also accrued the award miles that I used to buy the ticket through actual flights rather than rewards programs, so I wonder if that helped bolster my case – I spent actual money with the airline to earn this reward.

But this is a lesson – you can get what you need if you’re persistent, polite, and have a good case. It may take a while, but you’ll get there.

Last week I got a letter from Chase informing me that they were canceling my former Washington Mutual card. The result? A free credit report!

The Initial Shock of Having a Card Canceled
I’ve had several credit cards canceled due to inactivity over the last year or two. I didn’t find out about the gas card or several of the store cards until I tried to update my address when I moved, so that was a lost opportunity.

However, this time Chase sent me a letter to let me know I could shred its cards. It indicated that the cancelation was due to a late payment in my credit history and numerous recent credit applications. The latter was definitely true – mortgage shopping will do that. The former I knew was untrue.

However, then there was this little nugget: the cancelation was based on information in my Experian credit report.

That one sentence meant I was entitled to a free credit report!

Getting a Free Report for Denial of Credit
If you receive a letter that informs you a credit report is the reason for a denial of credit, or credit cancelation, it should tell you which one. I visited the Experian website, but didn’t see an option for the cancelation report – the home page is all about selling reports.

So, I called the 800 number in the letter. While I waited on hold, the recording named the specific URL where I could get my free report. I logged onto the site and downloaded my report. Sure enough, it was totally clean.

Chase’s true motive for canceling my card was revealed: non-use. I have no idea why they threw in a late payment accusation, but maybe the letter template requires two data points, and they only had one so they chose another randomly.

I’ll be honest, I haven’t used the card in 16 months, so the cancelation came as no surprise. It does surprise me that they kept the account open after buying Washington Mutual, and sent me new Chase-branded cards twice. Why waste the money on an inactive account?

I didn’t call and ask them to reinstate the card. The card’s primary benefit (1% foreign transaction rate) has been eliminated, and I already have other cards. This one sat in a drawer never being used. Instead, I took advantage of the opportunity to get an extra free credit report. I doubt the cancelation will even have an effect on my credit score, so why not see this as a positive?

As I’ve mentioned before, I have several Home Depots and a Lowe’s near me. Both have garden centers, however I’ve found that I usually prefer to go to the local small chain nursery for plants, even though the prices are higher. Sometimes, the better service and quality is worth the higher prices.

Soil and Compost
If I just need a bag of garden soil, I’ll hit Costco or Home Depot. In this situation, the higher price isn’t justified – the name brands sold at the big box stores are better. However, I like to mix the soil with compost. I’ve found that the nursery’s compost is better – I get a good mix instead of a single-source compost. Ultimately, it’s cheaper to buy the mix instead of several different kinds of compost if I only need a little. Of course, home compost is the best, but mine’s not ready yet.

Planters and Garden Supports
Definitely go to the big box store for these. The nursery will have a similar selection, but the prices will be much higher. One ceramic pot is as good as another, so there’s no reason to pay more. Unless, of course, you’re buying a lot of plants and don’t want to make an extra run to the big box stores. In this case you have to decide whether an extra hour of your time is worth more than the price difference.

Plants
This is one area where I find the real difference. Although the big box stores have decent plants, the plants at the nursery are generally healthier. They may also be locally grown instead of shipped in from out of state. Interestingly, your local insects (especially our greatly suffering bee population) prefer locally grown versions of the same plant to those shipped in from elsewhere. If you plan to plant a vegetable garden, locally grown flowers and plants that attract bees will greatly improve your success with pollination. Depending on the plant, you’ll usually pay anywhere from $1-$5 more at the local nursery, but it might be worth it.

Advice
The local nursery wins, hands down. I can walk into my local Armstrong, which is about two blocks from my house, and ask any of the employees for advice. If they can’t answer, they’ll get one of the managers to help me. Twice I’ve taken in tree leaves to ask for help correcting a problem. They told me exactly what type of food I needed and how to apply it. When I said I didn’t want to use bug spray, they offered other solutions. Try that at a big box store. You might get lucky, but you might have to wander for a while to find someone with enough knowledge to help you.

As another example, I wanted to plant bee-friendly flowers or herbs near my tomato plants. I asked the first guy I saw and he immediately named two plants. As we walked to the plants, he asked me a little more about my goals, then pointed out the plants, advised me on their maintenance, and told me that they didn’t need a lot of water (important in Los Angeles).

Plant Food
The plant food at my local nursery is much more expensive, but it’s also usually organic. When the nursery recommends a food, I usually buy it there the first time, but then I buy it from the big box store when the first batch runs out.

Both types of stores have their advantages, so it’s really a matter of choice. Do you want higher quality or lower prices?

Dear Readers,

I need your help. My car, with 133,000 miles on it, grumbles when it starts and doesn’t particularly like traveling at high speed any more. It may just need a tune-up, but nevertheless, the old girl is due for replacement. She’s 13 now and I want some newer amenities.

So, when should I buy a car? I’m considering Mazdas, Hondas, Volkswagens, and a couple other options. I’ve previously bought a car in December (the previous year’s model). My husband bought the next year’s model in May (no major redesign that year).

So, when should I get serious about buying? I’m thinking September, but I want to hear your thoughts!

I’m also open to make/model ideas. I want four things:

hatchback
fuel efficiency
under $25,000
reliability over ten years.

Finally, the US consumer is close to winning one. The US Senate has just passed an amendment that would give consumers free access to their credit scores under certain circumstances, such as denial of a loan or a job due to your credit score. (This is currently the law for credit reports.) If passed by the House, it would go into law as part of the Wall Street reform package. As happy as I am about this progress, it doesn’t go far enough.

Why Should We Pay for Credit Scores?
Frankly, I don’t believe consumers should pay for access to credit reports or credit scores. Lenders already pay for the data, which they use to make business decisions. Meanwhile, consumers are also required to pay for credit scores and additional credit reports, even though they’re based on OUR DATA, and influence our financial lives. In some cases, they also affect our job prospects.

Free Credit Reports All the Time
I realize that this would put those “free credit report” sites out of business, but as far as I’m concerned, consumers should have free access to their credit reports all the time, not just once a year as the government requires. Can you imagine a bank only allowing access to your account statement once a year? Credit reports aren’t that different, given the frequency with which they can change.

Free Credit Scores All the Time
Credit scores are almost more important than credit reports this time. When we were applying for mortgages, the lenders pulled our credit reports and scores. Yes, they looked at the reports, but the most important factor in preapproval was our credit scores. The rest of the report didn’t come into play until we entered escrow and the full mortgage application process.

Credit Scores Should Be Included with Annual Credit Reports
When I log into annualcreditreport.com to download my report for a specific bureau, the FICO score for that report should also be displayed. Not the Vantage Score or whatever other fake scores the credit bureaus are trying to profit off of. The FICO score is the only score that matters, and that’s the one I want.

The free scores for denials of credit or employment are a good start. That’s where the free credit report system started. But it doesn’t go far enough. If you agree, write your Senators and your Representative and ask them to take it to the next step. They know what I’m saying is true, but until voter anger outweighs credit bureau lobbying money, it’s not going to happen. And that, folks, makes me a little bit stabby.

Today I used a quick calculator from Money magazine to determine that I have a net worth of -$60,000. But hey, that’s better than were I was a year ago, because I didn’t own a house. Back then my net worth was -$200,000. You’re probably wondering how taking on more debt reduced my net worth. And that is the trouble with net worth calculations.

What Net Worth Is
Net worth is basically your assets minus your liabilities. If you’re a corporation, this is an important number because it tells current and prospective investors where the company stands. For a family, the number doesn’t convey a whole heck of a lot.

Let’s look at a sample net worth calculation:

Assets
House value: $250,000
Car value: $10,000
Savings/checking: $2,000
Retirement: $50,000
Total: $312,000

Liabilities
Mortgage: $220,000
Car loans: $8,000
Student loans: $35,000
Credit card debt: $9,000
Total: $272,000

Net worth: $40,000

What Does Net Worth Mean?
So what does that number mean to a family? It certainly doesn’t mean that they have $40,000 available to them. They probably can’t borrow more than $5,000 against their home and selling it could take months, so it wouldn’t help in a cash crunch. The retirement savings could be tapped in a cash crunch, but it would incur high penalties and taxes. Selling the cars would only net $2,000, and then what would they drive?

Over time, the net worth number will rise because the mortgage will go down slightly each month while the home value will rise. The student loans and auto loans will also decrease over time. However, the value of the cars will also decline.

Cash on Hand Is More Important than Net Worth
So, even though they have a net worth of $40,000, they have only $2,000 cash on hand. If they had non-retirement stock investments, I’d also lump those into cash on hand. It would take a couple days to sell the stock and get the funds, but it’s fairly liquid. Other than that, this net worth calculation only tells their heirs what they might get from current assets if the parents died that day.

When I looked at our negative net worth number, my first thought was: eh. What does it matter? We have money in savings and no credit card debt. I know exactly why our net worth is low, but I also know that our large student loans aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. We’re in a pretty good position financially, and until my husband went out on disability we were able to save a decent portion of our income each month. To me, that matters more than whatever our “number” is.

It’s been almost two months since I transplanted my tomato seedlings into the garden. This is the waiting period where it’s growing, growing, growing, but I don’t have much to show for it.

Tomato plants month 2

Staking Tomato Plants
I chose indeterminate tomato plants. Indeterminate plants can be made to grow on a vine, whereas determinate plants will form flowers at the top of the stalk then stop growing. The plant will grow into a bush, which must be contained.

The first step after planting was to wait. And wait. And wait.

Once I saw the first flowers, it was time to go to work. I started by erecting my tomato supports behind it. I’m not sure I did this right, and now it seems I’ll need to buy some poles, but I started with two folding tomato cages. Rather than place one around each plant, I flattened them out and dug them into the ground behind the three plants.

Cost for two tomato cages: $9.86.

I already had plastic floral ties on hand, but heavy-duty twine works, too.

Pruning Tomato Plants
Once you see flowers, it’s time to prune. I cut off everything below the first flowers, but left any leaves above it. I also cut each plant down to two stalks to force the sugar production and growth upwards rather than outwards. I probably should have done this when I transplanted them, but I wasn’t sure which stalks would survive. I think I wasted a lot of growth energy on those unnecessary stalks. There were so many leaves on one plant that finding the stalks to prune was really difficult!

Nevertheless, I pruned them back and then tossed the leaves in my compost bin. The bin desperately needed green matter, so it wasn’t a total waste.

After the initial pruning, you have to be vigilant. If you spot suckers growing out the spots where branches meet the stalk, pluck them out. If you spot dead blossoms, pop them off.

Securing the Plants
I attached the stems to the cages by looping the tie around the stem, twisting it into a figure eight, and then tying the other end to the cage. This weekend I’ll repeat the process for new growth.

My First Tomato!
So far I have precisely one tomato growing. It’s on the earliest producing plant, but the plant isn’t supposed to reach maturity until the end of May, and could be later depending on temperatures. I have what appear to be the beginnings of tomatoes on another plant. I don’t expect to see a real crop until mid-June.

I don’t think I’ve spent as much time visiting hardware stores as I have in the last eight months. Our local hardware store is an Ace, which we use for small parts and screws. It’s a bit pricier than the big box stores, but it’s also only a half mile from our house. We also do some garden shopping at OSH. However, our main hardware stores are Home Depot and Lowe’s. The nearest Home Depot is five miles away and the nearest Lowe’s is ten miles away. We’ve found that both have their advantages and disadvantages.

Home Depot vs. Lowe’s Prices
It really depends on what you’re looking for. Some items are cheaper at Lowe’s, others are cheaper at Home Depot. Overall, I’d say that Home Depot is probably cheaper for most of the items we’ve purchased, but not so much cheaper that we’d automatically choose one store over the other.

Customer Service Comparison
Lowe’s customer service is light years ahead of Home Depot’s. While I can sometimes find good help at Home Depot, often I find myself wandering to even find someone who can help. Our local Home Depots seem to have a lot of clueless teens working there. For example, when we moved into our house, neither of our fireplaces had screens. It was August, but we thought we might be able to find something. The kid at Home Depot said, and I’m not making this up, “What’s a fireplace screen?”

When I shop at Lowe’s, there are always knowledgeable people on hand to help me find what I need. If the person I ask doesn’t know the answer, he’ll find someone who does. (Yes, it’s always a man. I’ve never seen a woman anywhere except the register.)

Selection Comparison
In general, Home Depot has more products, but Lowe’s sometimes has a better selection in specific categories. I prefer Lowe’s garden and lighting departments, but Home Depot’s tool and lumber sections are better. Doors and windows are about the same, but Home Depot has more appliances.

Organization
Lowe’s seems better organized. It’s much easier to find items and prices for them. I usually end up wandering around for a while in Home Depot until I find what I need.

Home Depot Coupons vs. Lowe’s Coupons
This isn’t even a contest. Lowe’s wins. When we moved into our house, our real estate agent signed us up for Lowe’s mailing list. In addition to a 20% coupon that was good for three months, we received numerous “project” coupons, usually for 10-20% off. I signed up for the Home Depot coupon new homeowner 20% coupon, which was only good for about two weeks after I received. The store still accepted it, but it was a bit more of a hassle. I signed up for additional newsletters to get more coupons, but they tend to be discounts on particular products I don’t need.

Paint
I found the paint color options at Lowe’s to be much better than Home Depot’s. Home Depot’s colors always seem just a little bit off, and they don’t have a wide selection. Lowe’s has several paint collections and I found several great colors there. They also have small sample pints that are very cheap. I didn’t end up actually buying my paint from Lowe’s, but I had two of their colors paint-matched at our local Benjamin Moore store so I could use Aura paint. Lowe’s green paint colors were the best I found anywhere.

Overall, Lowe’s is better for the new homeowners and small-time DIYers. If you need home décor hardware, Lowe’s is a good choice. If you know exactly what you need or have a big project, opt for Home Depot.

Last week our new fridge was finally delivered, and this weekend we spent quite a bit of time reversing the door so it swung the right away. So, first, a few tips on determining when it’s time to replace a fridge, and then a few tips on reversing a refrigerator door.

When It’s Time to Replace a Refrigerator
Our apartment refrigerator had been making some rather distressing sounds for several years. A couple times we thought it was on the verge of death, but it chugged on. We held off on buying a new fridge because we were planning to buy a house. We ended up holding off for over three years! Then, because we had to get a cabinet rebuilt before buying a full-sized fridge, we waited another eight months after moving into the house.

When we finally removed the fridge, we learned two things:

  • It was twenty-two years old.
  • The thing cost more in energy than it probably would have cost to replace it four years ago when we started to become concerned.

So, if you’re on the bubble about replacing your refrigerator, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Does it need repair and how much does that cost? A friend of mine paid $300 to have her fridge repaired, while a new one was just $500. Worse, the repair didn’t work, and she still had to buy a new fridge. (She got her repair money back.)
  2. Is it more than ten years old? After that time, the likelihood of repeated breakdowns rises and the energy-saving technology is outdated, if it even has energy-saving technology.
  3. Are you planning to move or remodel the kitchen in the next few years?
  4. Can you get a rebate for buying a new fridge? Our utility offers $35 for recycling our old fridge, and may get $65 for buying a new Energy Star fridge.

Do the Energy Cost Comparison
Our new fridge is 21.9 cubic feet while our old one was about 14.4 cubic feet. Even with the size difference, the new one is significantly cheaper to operate. Use the Energy Star calculator to compare the energy costs of the old fridge to a new fridge. If you could save more than the cost of the new refrigerator in energy savings during the time you plan to own it, it’s probably worthwhile to replace the old one.

For example, our old fridge costs $173 per year to run, while a new one of the same size would cost $43 to run. It would pay for itself in four and a half years (assuming a $450 fridge plus sales tax and $75 delivery fee.)

Our new, larger fridge costs $60 a year to run. We didn’t opt for the ice maker, so I’m not factoring that into our costs. A fridge with an ice maker won’t deliver as great an energy savings over an older model. The energy savings from the new fridge will cover its cost in seven and a half years. Since we plan to stay in the house ten years (or we’ll remodel the kitchen at that point), we’ll sell the fridge with the house and start over with a new fridge.

And Now a Word on Reversing Refrigerator Doors
Ug. This took two hours! The instruction manual and the delivery people made it sound easy, but it was actually rather difficult because the instructions were unclear, and in some cases completely wrong. The instructions told us to simply move the hinge screws over to the other side. After twenty minutes of trying to figure out how that would actually work, we realized we should follow the instructions for removing the door instead.

If you’re planning to reverse a refrigerator door, I also recommend having an electric screwdriver, a thin manual screwdriver, a socket wrench, and a friend to help you on hand. Follow these steps:

  1. Empty the refrigerator door.
  2. Remove any hole covers or screws from the side of the fridge that opens.
  3. Remove the handle.
  4. Remove the hinge bolts on the top of the fridge. Put them in a safe place. You don’t want to lose 15 minutes trying to fish a screw out from under the fridge.
  5. Lift the door off the base hinge. Set it down gently.
  6. Remove the bottom hinge screws.
  7. Move the hinge to the other side and screw it back in.
  8. Put the door back on.
  9. Attach the top hinge.
  10. Attach the handle.
  11. Place the hole covers into the empty holes where the fridge now opens.

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