Insulating electrical outlets

I’m a notorious tightwad, so I just did something today that’s guaranteed to save me pennies per month: I insulated my electrical outlets and light switch outlets on my outside walls with some foam inserts I found at the local closeout store.In actuality, I don’t know how much money they’ll save me. Probably more than a few pennies per month, but I doubt if it’ll save me much more than a dollar or two. But still, two packages cost me $3 apiece, so even if they only save me a buck a month on average, they’ll pay for themselves by next fall. And I’d rather spend my money on basically anything other than energy.

I suspect you can get those inserts at most hardware stores. I just happened to find them at Big Lots a day or two after someone told me about them.

The idea is pretty sound: There isn’t a lot of insulation around those outlets, which allows warm and cool air to escape through the empty space. The uninsulated outlets on your outside walls probably isn’t quite as bad as keeping a window cracked year round (I’m not an energy expert, if you haven’t figured that out yet), but the principle is the same. Stick a piece of insulated foam behind the outlet cover, and you’ve reduced the amount of space your inside air has to escape.

More energy saving ideas

I’ve done a number of other things to help me save energy over the years. Most are pretty inexpensive. I installed thermal blinds and thermal curtains. Then I insulated my hot water pipes. I added child safety plates. Of course I also use LED bulbs.

My electric usage dropped 19 percent in 2011, so these things work.

How to get rich–the Biblical way

Money is a controversial topic in Christian circles. On the one hand you’ve got people who say money is the root of all evil. The other extreme says if you do the right things, God will reward you with health and wealth and who knows what else.(This was the topic of my Bible study last night, in case you’re wondering. And I’m short of material, so I’m recycling. I’m also mixing in some insights people shared.)

For the record, 1 Timothy 6:10 says money is a root–not the root–of all kinds of evil. That’s somewhat less of a strong statement than saying it’s the root of all evil. So, money causes problems, yes, but it’s not the cause of every problem in this world.

To see some other causes and symptoms of evil, see 2 Timothy 3:2.

Isaiah 55:2 asks why we spend our money on what is not bread (when the Bible says “bread,” it’s frequently referring to the necessities of life such as basic food, clothing, and shelter) and on things that don’t satisfy. The main reason we do it is because we’re surrounded by messages that say this product or that product will change our lives. And while some products have changed lives, let’s think about it for a minute: Those kinds of things tend to come along once a generation, if that. I’m talking about things like the airplane, the automobile, and before those things, the railroad. Computers belong in that category. But the soda we drink is not going to change our lives, at least not for the better. Drink soda instead of water and it could make your life worse–regardless of what that 7up commercial with the bear says.

The American Dream is to give the next generation things the previous generation doesn’t have. Some have said that dream is dead, because we’ve become so affluent that we can’t think of what the next generation can possibly get that we didn’t have.

But it’s not working. Our kids have entertainment centers in their room that give a more life-like experience than the movie theaters of 20 years ago. They’ve got videogame machines that play better games than you could find in an arcade a couple of years ago. They have everything imaginable, and yet they’re all on ritalin and prozac. Meanwhile, their parents are both working, to pay for those two luxury SUVs and the next big home improvement project and all the toys and all the drugs that are necessary to keep themselves and their kids afloat in the miserable life they’ve built together.

My dad wasn’t always there for me. It seemed like most of the time he wasn’t. But it’s safe to say that when we ate dinner together 5 or 6 times a week, it was unusual. Most weeks we ate dinner together 7 times a week.

My American Dream is for my kids to have two full-time parents. Screw the luxury SUVs and the $300,000 house in the suburbs. My Honda Civic has more ameneties than I need. I’ll drive it for 15 years so I can have more money when things that matter crop up.

I told you how the Bible says to get rich. And maybe you’d argue I haven’t answered that question yet. I think Isaiah 55:2 can lead one to wealth that’s very enviable, but, yes, the Bible also tells how to gain material wealth. Check Proverbs 13:11. It’s especially relevant in the era of dotcom billionaires.

You’ve seen stories of wealty people who nickeled and dimed themselves to the poorhouse. What Proverbs 13:11 says is that you can nickel and dime your way to prosperity as well.

What the Bible doesn’t say is how, so I’ll share the concept of opportunity cost, which is one of two things I remember from Macroeconomics. I don’t know how many other people in my class picked this up from the dear departed Dr. Walter Johnson at Mizzou, so I’ll do my best to make my examples clear.

Opportunity cost says a 13-inch TV does not cost $99. That’s the amount written on the sticker, but that’s not the price. The price is about 30 lunches at my company cafeteria.

The monthtly cost of driving a new car every three years is about half my mortgage payment. But my mortgage will be paid off in 28 or 29 years and my house will be worth more then than it is now. In the year 2031, I will have absolutely nothing to show for the car I’m driving today. Those people who buy a $2,000 used Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla every few years and drive it until it dies have more money than you think they do.

Assuming you work about 240 days a year, two cans of soda every workday from the soda machine at my employer will cost you $240. But not really. What happens if you invest that money in what’s called an index mutual fund, which follows one of the major indices, such as the Dow Jones Industrial Average? Historically, you’ll gain about 10% per year on your investment, which means you’ll double your money every 7 years investing that way. (That’s taking into account times of bad economy, like today, or worse.) Anyway, I just grabbed my calculator. If you take that $240 and dump it into an index fund, in 35 years you can reasonably expect it to be worth $7,680.

The real cost of a can of soda is sixteen dollars. Unless you’re not going to live 35 more years. But unless you’re going to die tomorrow, the real price is considerably more than 50 cents.

There are a total of 118 verses in the NIV translation that use the word “money,” and considerably more talk about the concept without using the word. Of those, Matthew 6:24-34 is poignant, as is Ecclesiastes 5:10-20. What I take from them is this: If you build your empire 50 cents at a time, you’ll never be as wealthy as Bill Gates. But you’ll have more than you need, and you’ll be happier than Bill Gates, and you’ll sleep a lot better.

And if your name is Jackie Harrington, I suggest you start selling autographed 8×10 glossy photos of yourself. Sign them, “Bill Gates just stiffed me for 6 bucks! Jackie Harrington.” Sell then for $10 apiece to people like me. Then put the money in an index fund. Then in 35 years, when you’re a millionaire, write a thank-you letter to Bill Gates.

Time to shop for a car again

I shredded a tire on my 2000 Dodge Neon this morning. That’s one way to keep me from getting to church on Sunday. What makes things much worse is that I won’t have the car past the end of June, so my last few miles on that car are expensive ones.Since I’d just thrown a bunch of money away, I figured I’d spend some time looking at Americans’ favorite money sink: cars. I was slightly happy to find out that it’s almost impossible to get a gas/electric hybrid in St. Louis. That probably means they’re not bringing enough of them here, but it’s good to see that the ones that are coming in are selling.

But I want an upgrade from my Neon in terms of reliability, fuel economy, and price. My Neon’s been decent, but I want something that’s an improvement in all three. With financing the way it is today, almost anything lowers my monthly payments. But now I have the opportunity to slash my second-largest monthly expense and significantly lower my sixth-largest, and I’d much rather spend money on almost anything other than gasoline and a depreciating car. Computers depreciate even faster, but I’ve more than made back the money I dumped into computers over the years.

The Volkswagen Jetta is priced well and holds value extremely well, but its fuel economy is rated at 23/29 MPG city/highway, and I consistently get between 27 and 32 in my Neon, depending on how much city driving I do.

The Nissan Sentra is priced similarly and gives upgraded fuel economy (28/36) but Nissans don’t hold value as well as a Volkswagen, Toyota or Honda. The only reason I looked, in all honesty, is because the local VW dealer also sells Nissans.

As I scanned the three rows of Honda Civics at the Honda dealer across the street from the VW dealer, I spotted something I really liked. In a jungle of cars rated 29/38, I spotted a lone car rated 35/40. It’s a Honda Civic HX. It’s a mid-range Civic, and it offers the same transmission they use in the Civic Hybrid, which gives it a slight edge over the other Civics for fuel economy. (The Hybrid is rated at 48/47.) I did the math, and a Civic Hybrid getting 10 MPG more will save me about $600 over the course of the next five years, but it’ll cost me $7,000 more. The $2,000-a-year tax deduction on hybrid vehicles is going away, so it’ll only save me $560 in taxes once. If I kept the car for 10 years and got a $2,000 tax deduction every year, the Hybrid would be more economical than the HX. Barely.

A little research at www.fueleconomy.gov shows that particular Civic is the most fuel-efficient conventional gasoline-powered car with an automatic transmission on the market in the United States. The only cars that beat it are hybrids or diesels.

I know where to get a Toyota Prius (52/45 MPG), but it’s not priced much better than the Civic Hybrid. It still won’t pay for itself over a Civic HX without help from the government. I also don’t like its styling all that much. I can live with it, but I actually like the way most of the other cars on my short list look. (The Nissan Sentra I can take or leave, but I like it better than the Prius.) The Toyota Echo has the second-highest fuel economy among conventional gasoline cars, but I really don’t like the Echo’s looks.

A few test drives will undoubtedly change my order of preference, but for now I’m definitely leaning towards the Civic HX.

It doesn’t hurt that the Civic HX’s tires are a lot cheaper and easier to find than tires for my Neon, either.

This is a so-you-know-I’m-alive post

I don’t expect my daily doings to be interesting to anyone. I mean, c’mon. Who wants to read ordinary? But since I haven’t posted in forever, I’ll post what I’ve got, which is this.I’m getting a lawnmower today. That’s good because I can’t get anyone to mow my itsy-bitsy yard for less than $25. For that kind of money, I’ll do it myself.

A friend is coming over this afternoon to help me install a programmable thermostat. That’s good because my utility bills are out of control. If I’d done it in December, I’d be about $400 richer right now. I’m also looking at some other creative ways to knock utility costs down, like compact fluorescent light bulbs, which use about 1/5 the wattage of a standard bulb and have about 10 times the life expectancy. They claim to save you about $30 in energy costs over their life expectancy. Multiply that by the 20 or so bulbs around the house that they’d be suitable replacements for, and you’re talking some real money.

My DSL connection has been sporadic the last couple of days. It seems to finally be stable. I’d get better reliability by upgrading to a static IP, but that won’t happen before summer. I’m still dealing with those unexpected expenses that creep up on new homeowners, and, well, I’m young. I don’t have the kind of resources someone 10 years older than me would have.

If I can find a steady writing gig, that’ll help.

I’ve got a couple of tape backup issues to look at for work. And that’s pretty much my day.

I wrote what I thought was a decent piece on bleeding-edge hardware. But somehow I managed not to save it. I may get time to rewrite it tomorrow, depending on how productive I am today.

Oh, and, tee hee hee, my Royals are 8-0. The last team that started the season 8-0 won the World Series. It was the 1990 Cincinnati Reds, who beat an awfully good Oakland Athletics team. And there’s reason for hope: The Royals have been doing it without Carlos Beltran (leg injury), and yesterday they won in spite of half the team battling the flu. Beltran and Mike Sweeney are the Royals’ only star players.

But the 1990 Reds only had two bona fide stars too, in Eric Davis and Barry Larkin.

Do I really think my Royals will win the World Series? Not yet. But I think this is going to be a fun year.

Fun with gasoline… Wait, that sounds bad. How to save gasoline.

Gas prices are driving me up the wall. I’m glad I opted for a Dodge Neon and not a Dodge Avenger last year when I bought a car, since the Neon gets better gas mileage, but right now the VW Jetta is tempting me and is 45 MPG sounds really sweet (my Neon gets 25-30 driving locally and about 35 on trips). My lease is up in two years, so I’ll get it right then. Until then, I’ve gotta do what I can. Yes, small cars are more dangerous than big cars, but if most people drove smaller cars and didn’t drive like they have a death wish, that wouldn’t be such a big deal now, would it?

So I went hunting for gas-saving tips. I found a bunch. Nineteen, I think.

First things first: Bookmark gaspricewatch.com. Punch in a zip code, and it’ll give you the lowest fuel prices within a radius you define. More importantly, it lets you watch trends. More on that in a second. Also bookmark www.stretcher.com. They’ve got some gas saving tips (not as many as I’m about to give you) along with every other thing imaginable.

1. Buy the same brand and type of gas whenever possible. Your car’s computer adjusts to the fuel you use. Using a different brand of gas every tankful doesn’t give the computer a chance to adjust, so buying at a different station to save a penny a gallon can end up costing you money.

2. Inflate your tires properly, and check them once a month. You can assume you’re going to lose 1 PSI per month. There’s a sticker on your door that gives the manufacturer’s recommendations. Go with the higher number if one’s given. A tire’s maximum PSI is listed on the rim of the tire itself. Don’t inflate to the maximum, because you gain 1 PSI for every 10 degrees’ temperature increase, but if there’s a discrepancy between the tire maker and the car maker, meeting them halfway will improve gas mileage. And make sure your wheels are properly aligned.

3. If your car’s going to idle for a minute or longer, such as at a drive-thru, shut off the engine. It takes less fuel to start the engine up again than it does to idle for just 10 seconds. Better yet, park and go inside.

4. Use the thinnest-viscosity oil your car manufacturer recommends, usually 5W-30. A low-viscosity synthetic can improve your gas mileage by 3 percent.

5. Replace your air and gas filters periodically–usually once a year.

6. Drive slower. Every one mile per hour over 55 MPH decreases your gas mileage by 1-2 percent.

7. Avoid sudden acceleration and braking, and use your cruise control whenever possible. Aggressive driving–tailgating, weaving, speeding–decreases drive times by about four percent on average, but can increase fuel consumption by 39 percent.

8. Clean out your car. Excessive weight harms gas mileage. Each 100 pounds in your car decreases gas mileage by about one-half mile per gallon.

9. Replace your spark plugs on time, and replace them with high-performance spark plugs, such as Bosch Platinums, and gap them properly. Platinum plugs don’t wear out as quickly, and while the jury is out whether platinum plugs inherently give better gas mileage, a set of old platinums will have an edge over a set of old cheap plugs. Two bad plugs can decrease your gas mileage by 20 percent.

10. Use your air conditioner on the highway, since open windows increase drag. Turn off the air conditioner and roll down your windows in stop-and-go traffic. And in the winter, using the defroster decreases your gas mileage, although using the heater won’t.

11. It only takes 10 seconds in warm weather and 30 seconds in cold weather for most engines to warm up. Warming up longer than that burns fuel without giving much other benefit.

12. Use overdrive if your car has it.

13. Avoid gimmicks that claim to increase gas mileage. Simple maintenance makes a bigger difference than anything else you can do.

14. This should go without saying, but don’t drive out of your way looking for the lowest gas price. Remember the size of your tank–that’s how much a fill-up at a penny a gallon less will save you. Driving across town in stop-and-go traffic to save a penny a gallon won’t help you. Check gas prices when you’re running an errand anyway, and if there’s a good price on your brand near where you’re going anyway, fill up then.

15. Dirt and gravel roads can decrease gas mileage by 30 percent.

16. Drive at steady speeds in the city. Stoplights are usually timed very close to the speed limit, so you can catch most of the green lights by driving legally.

17. Use snow tires in the winter; the increased traction improves gas mileage. But in the off months, the deeper tread hurts gas mileage.

18. When you buy tires, radials can improve gas mileage by about 3 percent.

19. Don’t use 4-wheel-drive unless necessary.

And that’s all I’ve got.