Frugal Living 

Brewing Single-Serve Coffee Pods Beats Buying Anytime

Mmmmm CoffeeHardly a week goes by when a personal finance writer doesn’t take a swing at Starbucks and buying coffee, so why not put it all to rest and do some math to settle it once and for all? I know it’s almost a no-brainer but let’s do the math and see how far ahead you can be if you were to brew your own coffee, whether from grounds or with a single serving coffee pod machine, rather than buying it in the coffeehouse.

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Our Disney Dining Plan Experience

Winnie the Pooh joins Family for LunchLast week my wife and I went to Disney World in Orlando Florida to celebrate our one year anniversary and, for the first time, opted for the Disney Dining Plan. You can only include the Disney Dining Plan if you are booking a vacation package with Disney, in our case I booked a five-day Magic Your Way Package, with lodging at the Port Orleans Riverside resort, and included the standard Dining package.

Overall, we were pleased with the Dining Plan and felt that it was a great deal. There was only one downside, it was too much food!

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Cost Benefit Analysis of GPS Units

Before talk of $4 gasoline (and airlines going bankrupt and charging you to check luggage) dominated the nation’s transportation attention, global positioning system units were all the rage. Now it sounds like GPS units have become more of a luxury good, something you only get it if you are hard pressed to spend your stimulus check (perhaps there’s a second stimulus check coming?). However, I argue that GPS units might be a good investment because it makes your driving more efficient (hopefully). Let’s see, shall we?

Fuel Cost Per Mile

If you drive a 30 mile per gallon car, $4 a gallon for gas means that each mile costs you approximately 13.3 cents. If your car only gets 20 miles per gallon, $4 gas equates to 20 cents a mile. This gives you a baseline for comparison, how many miles do you need to save in order to make one of those units “worth it?” We don’t consider other costs per mile, such as car depreciation and maintenance, because that would introduce far too many factors for our simplistic calculation. If you went through the exercise of calculating the cost per mile of your car, use that figure instead of 13.3/20 cents/mile as calculated above.

Breakeven Analysis

If you get the Magellan Maestro 3200 3.5-Inch Portable GPS Navigator for $131 at Amazon, the unit pays for itself if you can save 985 miles (at 30 MPG, 750 miles at 20 MPG) over the lifetime of the unit. If you assume that the lifespan of the unit is a conservative five years, that’s 197 miles a year, or, 1.31% if you drive 15,000 miles year.

Is it really possible to save 197 miles a year? I think that if you do a lot of driving in areas you don’t know very well, it’s very possible. The class of users that I believe benefit the most from GPS units are real estate agents. What about someone who drives the same commute every day five days a week? Chances are you won’t benefit greatly from a GPS on weekdays but you might benefit on the weekend. If your GPS has integrated traffic, which the 3200 doesn’t (I just picked the cheapest unit on Amazon at the time), you could save more by avoiding traffic trouble spots.

Or, for those who are fans of The Office, strict adherence to the units could leave your car in a lake (after the jump). 🙂

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 Personal Finance, The Home 

Managing Your Own Mortgage Escrow

That One Caveman recently took on the task of managing his home mortgage’s tax and insurance payments, essentially replicated the services of his lender’s escrow account, because of a very favorable appraisal. The appraisal raised the listed value of his home by $15,000, lowered his debt to value ratio to 80.4%, and thus enabled him to manage the funds himself (80% appears to be the sweet spot for this).

I thought about doing this myself but scrapped the idea for two big reasons. The first, the profits are small. I do the math for Caveman’s situation, a max $5500 escrow, but my escrow is lower at around $3500; so I would’ve earned even less than the analysis below. Secondly, while I trust my diligence, stuff happens and the risks are too great.

Profits Are Small

Caveman said his escrow maxes out at around $5500. If we assume monthly payments of $458.33 and a single $5500 payout at the end of the twelve months, 3% interest (or 0.25% each month, if compounded monthly) earns you $76.26 total. That $76.26 will appear on your 1099-INT and taxed at your marginal tax rate. If you are in the 25% tax bracket, that’s $57.19 in your pocket. If your escrow pays out twice a year, your earnings are even less ($57.61 pre-tax, 43.20 after taxes in the 25% bracket).

In return for $57.19, you have to send out payments to the county or state for property taxes and make payments to your homeowner’s insurance provider. That’s a lot of headache for a relatively small payoff.

Mistakes Are Costly

If you miss your tax payments, you start accruing penalties that eat into that small gain you would otherwise pocketing. In the worst possible case, the county puts a tax lien on your home, someone purchases it, and you fail to respond to the mailings for the entire tax lien holding period. Then you lose the house. The odds of losing your home are pretty slim, but they are greater than zero. Perhaps you move out in 5 years, start renting out your home, and forget to change addresses on record. Perhaps you go on vacation and forget to schedule a payment.

I’m always a fan of optimizing your personal finances. This is a case of where you can definitely squeeze a little more out of your money if you are diligent and put safeguards in place, but it simply wasn’t one I was willing to try given the small upside (recall, our escrow is max at around $3500, so we would’ve earned far less).

Do you manage your own escrow?

 The Home 

The 15- vs. 30-Year Mortgage Savings Myth

If you’ve ever lamented the fact that you signed a 30 year fixed mortgage instead of a 15 year fixed mortgage (it was one of 8 regrets of 2007 for Trent of The Simple Dollar) because of how much money you could’ve saved, don’t. I’m going to do some simple (using this fixed mortgage loan calculator, but you can also use Bankrate’s mortgage calculator) math to show that the difference between prepaying a 30 year fixed mortgage and a 15 year fixed mortgage is not big. The current rates on Bankrate (as of early morning on April 16th, 2008) for a 30 year fixed mortgage is 5.62% and for a 15 year fixed mortgage is 5.20%, so we’ll be using those. Rates have since changed but the analysis still holds.

If you had a $300,000 mortgage and made additional payments (~$677) onto the 5.62% 30-year mortgage such that the payments matched the 5.20% 15-year mortgage (~$2403), the difference in total cost (principal and interest) is ~$19,153 pre-tax across fifteen years. After you discount it by your marginal tax rate (say 25%), divide it across the 180 months, it’s only $79.80 a month. $80 difference on a $2403 mortgage payment is 3.3%.

You might say: “Jim, you’re just conveniently ignoring the $19,153 and focusing on the smaller monthly number of $80 – that’s just mathematical hocus-pocus. I’m upset about the $19,153! Also, $80 might not be a lot to you Mr. Money-bags, but I’d rather have that money than give it to a mortgage company.”

To which I would respond: “Ah, good point, but let us calculate the present value of that $80 a month and see how much it’s really ‘worth’ to us today. As for the $80, I too would rather have it in my pocket, but I’m not going to cry over spilled milk.”

If you assume that inflation will be at 4% a year, 180 payments of $79.80 is worth approximately $10,788 today (if I did it right in my TI BA-II Plus calculator). It’s a $10,788 difference on a $300,000 mortgage. Ten thousands dollars isn’t a trivial amount of money, but that’s the cost of having the flexibility to make the 30 year payment into a 15 year payment if you want to. If you have a 15 year mortgage, you are required to make that payment.

Lastly, if you still are bothered about the difference, you can always refinance. 🙂


When Does Married Filing Separately Make Sense?

Married Filing SeparatelyAfter the wedding, I started taking a closer look at the tax numbers and incorrectly concluded that the only time someone would ever file as “married filing separately” would be if one partner earned a whole lot and one partner earned not as much. The logic was that the lower earner wouldn’t be subject to the same tax rates as the higher earner and thus the difference would overcome the different tax brackets. The only correct assumption I made was that the lower earner wouldn’t lose access to any tax advantaged accounts, like Roth IRAs, because they’d still be over the limits for those types of accounts. I already gave out my hypothesis and my result (I was wrong and am now clueless as to why anyone would file separately if both options were available) but here’s what I did.

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Calculate Your Car’s Cost Per Mile

A few years ago, with my last car, I did a little calculation to help determine the “cost per mile.” I was doing quite a bit of driving back and forth from Baltimore to Pittsburgh, then Baltimore to New Jersey, to visit my girlfriend (now by wife, so I suppose it was worth it :)) and so this number was important for me to know. I also found that it helped make other decisions in my life easier because it gave me a very tangible cost associated with driving somewhere, such as to the gas station across town instead of the gas station on my route home.

The Calculation

The cost per mile can be broken up into three major categories and one catch-all:

  • Gas: Clearly the dominant value in the calculation, gasoline is something that has to be based on actual costs rather than estimated costs. You can’t take the cost of gasoline, the EPA value for your car’s mileage, and figure out based on that. Ignoring the inaccuracy of EPA values, though they’ve made a push to make them more accurate, your car is probably not the standard car. You have crap in your trunk, your tires are probably not inflated perfectly every single drive, and your maintenance isn’t going to be perfect (get that 30,000 mile checkup exactly at 30,000 miles?). So, keep a log for five fill-ups, reset your B trip odometer, and calculate your gas cost per mile that way.
  • Insurance: This value is easy, simply take your premium and divide by the number of miles you drive in a given year. The “rule of thumb” is around 15,000 miles a year, but if you have an especially long commute then you can increase that. You can always just throw in a guesstimate because what you use as your miles driven per year isn’t going to drastically affect this number. For example, if you pay $2,000 a year and you drive 15,000 miles, that’s 13.3 cents a mile. At 20,000 miles a year, it’s 10 cents a mile. Sure the difference is 33% but you’ll ultimately use this value for trips in the tens or hundreds of miles… meaning a difference of only 30 cents – $3.
  • Tires: Depending on how expensive your tires are, you might want to go through with this calculation or just consider it part of the noise. I know tires say they can last 30,000 miles, but I believe most of my tires run only maybe 20,000 miles. Either way, this math should be pretty simple. Divide the cost of the tires by the mileage and add it to the running total you’ve been using.
  • Everything Else: I always throw in an extra 3-5 cents to cover everything else, from windshield wiper blades to routine maintenance to oil changes. I figure that a $20 oil change put across 3,000 miles (I actually changed my own oil with synthetic but do it once every 10,000 miles) is small enough to be considered noise in the equation so I use the 3-5 cents catch-all value.

So, what’s the final number? The IRS business mileage deduction is 50.5 cents a mile, how close was your value to this one? When I did this calculation a few years ago, I found my value was close to the mileage deduction back then (it was 40-something cents) but that was before the spike in fuel prices. For comparison’s sake, my value for gasoline back then was 7 cents a mile based on a car that was running around ~32 miles to the gallon (Acura Integra and I was doing a significant amount of highway driving).

How do you use this number? Let’s say it’s 280 miles between my home in Maryland and my parent’s in New York. The tolls between Maryland and New York, I believe, are around $60 a round trip. Given the cost of fuel alone (7 cents a mile), the cost of the trip is over $100 compared to the cost of a Southwest flight that can be bought for $39 a round trip. So, driving alone would cost over a hundred dollars and nearly 5 hours – flying would cost ~$100 and 3 hours… it’s a no brainer and the math is facilitated by knowing the cost per mile.

Finally, your car’s cost per mile is only part of the story. In my drives to Pittsburgh or to New Jersey, tolls played an important role and often threw the entire equation out of whack. Back then, the toll for the Pennsylvania Turnpike was around $8 a round trip and nearly $50 a round trip to New Jersey. Another factor was time. I could take a $15 Chinatown bus from Baltimore to Grand Central in NYC, then jump on an Amtrak train out to New Jersey… but it would take me like 15 hours to make the trip and time is money! (and back then, that was time I could spend with my beautiful soon-to-be wife, and yes she reads this blog)

 The Home 

Saving For A House: 401(k) vs. Brokerage Account

This morning I did a bit of an apples to oranges comparison of a 401(k) and a high yield savings account, showing that the two would meet two years and two months out given a set of probably unreasonable assumptions. It was apples to oranges because the risk involved in investing in the stock market simply isn’t anywhere near the risk involved in saving money in a high yield savings account. So, I took Anne’s suggestion and compared a pre-tax account, in this case the 401(k) again, and a post-tax account.

Results? 401(k) never catches up. Despite starting with more money, $133 vs $100, 401(k) can never get over 25% the marginal tax rate + 10% penalty hit that it takes when you extract funds from it (not a loan, a straight up withdrawal). If you plan on pulling out your 401(k) funds to buy a house, don’t put them in there in the first place. Make the minimum contribution to get your match, then put the rest somewhere else.


  • Better is defined as the approach that ends up with the most amount of gain.
  • You are in the 25% marginal tax bracket.
  • Both accounts return 11% a year, or 0.8735% each month, compounded monthly.
  • There is no 401(k) contribution match by your employer. An employer match will bring in the breakeven point and raise the value of the 401(k).

Pretty Charts!

The chart below plots the growth of the brokerage account versus the 401(k) account. The value shown is the final extracted value, but growth is based on the non-extracted value. For example, with the 401(k), it’s the pre-tax dollar amount that is being compounded but the graph is showing that value reduced by 35% (25% tax, 10% penalty). The brokerage account line is growing based on its unrealized gains but the value shown is the realized gain, minus long term or short term capital gains. If you’ll notice the little hitch in the purple line at around month 12, that’s because the brokerage account tax rate fell from 25% (short term capital gains) to 15% (long term capital gains).

brokerage account vs 401k growth chart

If you’re interested in the Excel spreadsheet I played with to reach these simplistic conclusions, I’ve made them available here. Please check it out and let me know if you see any mistakes I may have made.

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