We have a few projects pending on our house and we’re debating whether to DIY them or hire them out. Sometimes, it comes down to cost, and sometimes it comes down to effort. Where do you draw the line?

Curtains
As I’ve mentioned before, I have access to cheap fabric. When we moved into our house, I calculated the cost of making or buying curtains for a very large entrance/window where blinds or other coverings simply won’t work. I did some research and determined that buying curtains would cost over $1000. I could get fabric at $8-10 a yard and make them myself, which would bring the cost closer to $330, including lining and supplies. I decided to make the curtains myself. I’ll keep them simple – just cut and sew straight seams and use clip-on rings. It will take me a couple weekends to make the curtains, but it’s worth it to save $670, at least.

I also bought some gorgeous sheer fabric for another room. This fabric was about the same cost as ready-made panels, but it was gorgeous, so in the end this one is a break-even.

Backyard Steps
We have a hill in our backyard that has three steps at the bottom and one step at the top. In between, there are no steps. From the view, it’s pretty clear that there were steps at one point and they were ripped out. It’s possible the old brick steps had crumbled, but it’s not clear why they weren’t replaced. Especially since our primary storage – the shed – is at the top of that hill.

We priced out the cost of railroad ties and rebar at Home Depot and the materials themselves are fairly affordable. However, the effort would be huge. Home Depot would probably cut the ties for us, but we’d have to rent a truck to get the lumber home, and then we’d have to lug heavy railroad ties to the backyard, drill holes in them, grade the hillside, and hammer the rebar into the ties once they were in place. Since my husband recently had surgery, this job would largely fall to me and my best friend. We’re not wimps, but I think the effort far outweighs the cost of hiring landscapers to build the steps for us, even if the cost is $500.

Sod
Again, we’d have to spend money for a sod roller and spend a great deal of time prepping the lawn to make way for the new sod. Instead, we can hire our landscapers to lay the sod for us. If we buy the sod and have it delivered, that should reduce some of the cost, but it’s possible our landscapers could get a better deal. We also want to install grass plugs at the top of the hill in the back, but that’s a small enough space that we (meaning I) could tackle it.

In the end, it comes down to cost vs. effort and experience. I’ll do a high-effort task that will save me a lot of money if I have the necessary skills. If it’s a high-effort task that I don’t know how to do, and may not save me that much money, then I’d rather hire professionals to do the job. What would you do in these situations?

You’ve probably heard that hard pulls on your credit report can ding your credit score and keep it low for a few months. Since I’m now applying for my third mortgage in eight months (one purchase, two free re-fis), I’ve actually gotten free peaks at our credit scores and watched how quickly they recover.

Hard Pulls Last About a Year
We first started having our credit pulled in February of 2009 as we started shopping for homes. We got a preapproval to see how much we could really afford. We didn’t end up getting a mortgage until July of 2009, so we had at least five or six hard pulls in the span of four months. The result was a 30-point dip in our credit scores. Fortunately, that wasn’t enough to keep us from getting a great re-fi rate, because our scores were around 800 when we started.

With our December re-fi, we had all of those hard pulls on our credit still. Now we’re in June, 2010 and our credit scores have fully recovered to the place they were when we first started mortgage shopping. The hard pulls from February, March, April, and May are off our credit reports already and the June/July 2009 pulls don’t count because we received a mortgage within 30 days of them.

Closed Cards or Reduced Limits Don’t Make a Big Dent
Chase recently notified me that they were cancelling my card. That didn’t appear on my report as yet, but I don’t expect it will make a dent in our scores. We have other closed accounts (store cards), and there has been no effect from all those closures. Bank of America cut our credit limit from insane to merely ridiculous, and that also had no effect on our scores.

Big Loans Don’t Outweigh Clean Credit Histories
Despite hefty student loans on my husband’s report, and a mortgage on both our reports, we still have very high scores. I attribute that to our on-time history. Although he had late payments in the past, most of those were more than seven years ago, so they’re no longer on his report. Even if they were, we closed most of his cards when we got married because mine had higher limits and longer histories. We also make on-time payments through automated debit for all our student loans, so that improves our credit histories.

Credit Utilization Is Key
When it comes to our rotating credit, I think our low utilization ratios are very important. Even with the cancelled account, the highest we got is 17% of our available credit. Most months we use about 4% of our available credit.

If you want to keep your credit score high, pay on time and don’t use all your credit. Those seem to be the two biggest factors keeping our scores in good condition.

This is coming a little late in the season for some, but it may help those attending upcoming college and high school graduations. I still remember some of my favorite or most useful graduation gifts. If you’re trying to figure out what to get someone, here are my top five for high school and top five for college.

Top 5 High School Graduation Gifts
These five are intended for high schoolers heading off to college, but they could also work for new college graduates.

Car Maintenance Kit
Get a sturdy zippable bag and load it with a bottle of motor oil (ask the graduate’s parents what type the car needs), a gas gift card, jumper cables, an emergency blanket, an orange reflector triangle, and an emergency cell phone charger. I was given a pair of jumper cables and a screwdriver for my graduation and I still have them. I’ve used the jumper cables for myself and for friends who didn’t have them.

Where’s Mom Now that I Need Her?
I actually bought myself this book when I left for college. It’s a great guide for common tasks like laundry tips, stain removal, cleaning advice, and recipes. Although the recipes are outdated, I still use the stain removal guide all the time. Buy the binder version so it will last.

Suitcase
My aunt gave me a suitcase for graduation that I used for at least ten years until the wheels were about to fall off. I used it for a graduation trip as well as trips home at Christmas and spring break. Choose a good quality one that isn’t black, but don’t spend a fortune. It will take a beating!

Oh the Places You’ll Go
It’s more inspirational than useful, but who doesn’t love a sweet story by Dr. Seuss?

Laundry Kit and Quarters
Mom won’t be around to do laundry anymore, so a laundry kit will come in very handy. Start the new graduate off with a laundry bag for toting the stuff down to the laundry room, two rolls of quarters, a big box of detergent, a stain stick or spray, and fabric softener.

Top 5 College Graduation Gifts
It seems that many students are returning home after graduation, but some will move into their first apartments, so there are gift options for both types of student.

Basic Cookbook
Something like “How to Cook Everything” or a basic Betty Crocker or Better Homes and Gardens cookbook. I still have my Betty Crocker cookbook (two, in fact). Both Betty and Better Homes are fantastic for basic recipes, cook times, and basic techniques. I like the ring-bound editions with glossy paper that hold up well in the kitchen. They also have lots of pictures, which is great for a beginning cook. How to Cook Everything is more comprehensive, but heavier and a little harder to use.

Basic Cookware
My college pots and pans were wrecked by my roommates, so I needed to start over when I graduated. Your graduate may not have cookware at all, so start them off with one or all of these affordable essentials: aluminum saucepan with lid, 9 or 10-inch non-stick skillet or sauté pan, 4-quart aluminum pot with lid (for pastas, etc.), wooden or nylon spatula, wooden spoon, 8-inch chef’s knife, cutting board, mixing bowl, cookie sheet, liquid measuring cup, can opener.

Leather Folio and Pen
When I graduated, I received an engraved pen and leather folio that I used for job interviews. I still do, in fact. The folio looks professional and keeps my resume copies from getting crumpled.

Target or Bed Bath & Beyond Gift Card
You never know what else they need to set up the new apartment, so a Target or Bed Bath and Beyond gift card is a great idea. They’ll be able to stock up on towels, sheets, furniture, a lava lamp, or whatever else they might need.

Cash
Who doesn’t love cash? It’s easy to give, and always appreciated.

This weekend, my husband and I mapped out our cash flow for the rest of the year. I noticed that he wasn’t scheduling our usual monthly transfers to savings, but was instead letting the money pile up in the checking account. That started a debate about whether it was better to leave the money in the checking account for convenience, or better to transfer it to savings to earn a few bucks of interest. I’m sure you can guess which side of the argument I came down on!

Anticipated Expenses
He reasoned that we have quite a few big expenses coming up. For example, we’re buying a new coffee table, TV, and TV console later this year, we have our homeowners insurance, earthquake insurance, flood insurance, and auto insurance due between July and November, and then I’m buying a new car around the end of the year.

That brings our total planned spending to around $9000. However, we’re not spending it all in one month, it’s spread out into three large chunks.

Low Interest Rate
Our current interest rate is 1.29%, which is pretty darn low. Each $1000 earns $12.90 a year, or $1.07 a month. So, leaving $3000 in the account for three months earns us a whopping $9.56.

Convenience
It’s true that leaving the money in checking (which earns no interest) is more convenient. We don’t have to schedule transfers to make sure the money is back in our account in time. It also doesn’t make sense to transfer money from checking to savings and then transfer it back two weeks later.

Convenience vs. Interest
If the interest rate were higher, the convenience factor would be less compelling. However, it’s not exactly inconvenient to make a few clicks and transfer money around. While I won’t transfer funds out of the checking account during the months we have to make big payments (because I’ll be transferring money in), I will transfer the funds out in the interim months. Even if we only earn $3 in interest, that’s $3 more than we had before and it’s certainly worth 60 seconds of my time.

When interest is this low, it doesn’t always make sense to transfer funds out of checking, but if you can map out your expenses, I think it’s worthwhile to move the money into savings if it can stay there more than a month. Most online accounts allow six transactions a month, so there’s really no reason not to use at least one of them!

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