Coffee heat rising

Crazy Ol’ Lady Day at Costco

Home, sweet home…

Well, the Costco Cash Card Budgeting Scheme worked out exceptionally well for July. By the 31st — yesterday — I ended up with $54 and change left on the prepaid card for in-store shopping (budget: $300), and about $45 left on the gasoline card (budget: $60).

The gas card held up well because I’d filled the tank right at the end of May — the 30th or 31st — so in fact the $60 budget intended to cover two fill-ups was only needed for one, and that, not a total fill-up. And the three hundred bucks was probably about right for a month’s worth of grocery and sundry purchases, in the absence of the dreaded Impulse Buy.

So today I join my friends and companions in shopping crime for a Costco Run. We get there as the store opens, but it’s still monstrously hot outside, and warm inside the store, too. This particular day, I’ve driven us not to our favorite store on the fringe of East Richistan, but to a more middle-class outlet on the lower edge of Whiteyville, up on the I-17 freeway. This is a good enough store, but what draws me is that they sell propane. For a lot less than regular vendors do. And I’m low on propane. I lash two tanks into the back compartment of the unbeloved Venza, and we’re off.

We circumnavigate the store, but we find it a little frustrating because its layout is nothing like the other two big-box warehouses we frequent. And I’m pretty sure they’ve rearranged everything since the last time I was there…so I’m no help at all, because I have no clue where they’ve put things. NOTHING is in what feels like a normal place. We wander around, perplexed, dodging millennials and their urchins and generally having to walk three times as many steps as we would normally have to do, to find the stuff we normally buy.

In the course of this venture, Mr. Friend says he’s not feeling well and needs to sit down. Mr. F, you should know, is in his 90s, as is Mrs. F. Fortunately, Costco is selling furniture these days, so Mrs. F and I park him in a dining-room set and take off to find the last couple of items we need. But since he has remarked that he’s afraid his heart may be acting up, I’m worried.

Shortly, we head for the check-out. Mercifully, the lines are extremely short, and we get up to the cash register forthwith.

I tell the cash register guy, when he presents me with a bill for $156, that I would like to top up the depleted Costco cash card with another $250, and then pay the bill with the cash card. He says he can’t do that: he can’t add new money to an old cash card.

Huh? That’s not what they told me at the Outer East Richistan store.

But, says he while I’m puzzling over this discrepancy, he can take the $55 off the old card, put it onto a new cash card, and then I can use my credit-union debit card to add $250 to this new card.

It’s hot, I’m tired, and I’m worried about my friend, so I say okay, make it so. We get through the checkout, stumble back out into the heat, collect the propane tanks, and escape.

When I get home, I look at the receipt and realize that what this idiot has done is, yes, filled up the cash card with money extracted from my checking account via the debit card. A-N-N-D…THEN he has drained another $156 from my checking account to pay for the stuff I specifically asked to put on the cash card.


So now I have to get into my car and drive through the heat, fight for a parking space, and hike across the parking lot to my local Costco, down on Conduit of Blight Blvd.

God. DAMN. It.

When I get there and explain that with $156 extra taken out of the bank, I won’t be able to pay the utility bills, the customer service lady is flabbergasted to learn the guy told me he couldn’t refill the cash card. Of course he can refill the cash card, said she.

She called over a guy and said “Fix this!”

And he fixed it. What he did, basically, was simply withdraw $160 from the card and had me a fistful of cash.

This worked. I can either schlep it up to the credit union and re-deposit it (oh, goodie! another 40 minutes of dodging my fellow homicidal drivers through 115-degree heat!) or simply use it to buy stuff during this month. Probably the later is the path of least resistance.

While I was there, I refilled the gas tank, leaving $8.25 of the original $60 cash card for gasoline.

Tomorrow I have to drive to Tempe, so for sure I’m not going to make a whole month on one tank of gas. That’s really pretty unusual…normally I’d have to fill up twice in 30 or 31 days. But still: I’ll only have to put $51.75 on it to top it back up to sixty bucks.

Meanwhile, $40 was left from the rest of this month’s budget, after everything was paid. So I’m figuring if I shifted that over to the Emergency Savings Project, that would help to revive the account to its former glory We put $681 in there, the max I could spare from July’s Social Security deposit and still have enough in checking to live. If no emergencies require withdrawals from that account (har har!!!), then in a year there should be $8,172 for unexpected expenses.

Obviously that ain’t a-gunna happen. But it’s nice to dream, eh?

It would be slightly likelier to happen if at the end of each month I transferred whatever few dollars remained unspent from that month’s budget. Say, $40…multiplied by 12, that would add $480 to the pot. And if $40 is left over at the end of July, the worst month in creation for utility bills, then a lot more would be left over in January and February.

When I got home from the second Costco junket, I realized I’d failed to buy coffee while we were at the Whiteyville store. However, there’s a Costco on the way home from Tempe, on 44th street just north of the freeway. So I’ll have to stop by there tomorrow afternoon. In the heat. Probably in the rush hour, by the time I spring free from the university library.

What fun: three Costco trips in two days! 😀

Gasoline Costs Putting a Crimp on Life

{sigh} I had to turn down an invite to meet SDXB and NG in the West Valley on Friday. They want to go to some goofy event at the Ben Avery Range where enthusiasts of antique guns get dressed up in Wild West clothes. I’m sure it’ll be fun, but I just can’t afford the gasoline to drive out there.

Gas is now over $3.25 a gallon here. I paid $3.29 for an emergency purchase, shelling out $15 to get to where I needed to go before I could afford to fill up the tank. When this month’s budget cycle restarted, on Monday, Costco was charging just $3.11 at the outlet where I filled up; that racked up $40.

I’ve budgeted $100 a month for gasoline, but that would normally cover only trips to and from the college and the four trips to Scottsdale I have to make each month. But this week I’ve had an extraordinary number of schleps to the East Valley: Earlier this week to Scottsdale Fashion Square to pick up a little ottoman I’d ordered months ago from Crate & Barrel; then today to the Mayo at 140th Street and Shea, an unholy long drive that will be stretched because I have to come back by way of McDowell Road, many many miles south of Shea Boulevard; then out to Scottsdale again tomorrow to give a dog & pony show to my business group, then race to the client’s to pick up some work, then fly back up to the campus at 32nd Street and Union Hills.

Ugh. Most of today and tomorrow will be spent driving, and I’m guessing all those junkets will burn half to three-quarters of a tank of gas.

This morning’s journey to the Mayo will take place during the darkest rush hour (driving into the sun, naturally), and so hypermiling will be pretty much out of the question. In a culture where normal people charge up to signals at 45 mph and then jam on the brakes at the red light, drifting toward a light with your foot off the gas freaking drives your fellow homicidal roadhogs screaming insane.

Some of our fellow citizens around here are literally homicidal, so one has to be careful.

You’ll recall “hypermiling” from the 2008 run-up in gas prices, right? The idea is to get around using as little gas as possible by applying an array of conservation techniques to your car and driving habits:

Try to avoid applying the brakes any more than absolutely necessary. Watch the traffic flow ahead and, when red lights start to glow, coast to decelerate. Try to reach traffic stopped at the light as it’s beginning to move, so you don’t have to start up from a dead stop.

Accelerate from a stop slowly. It’s a car, not a jackrabbit.

When starting from a dead stop, allow the car to idle forward for a second before stepping on the gas.

Use the cruise control to maintain speed on the freeway and on steadily moving surface streets, and use it to accelerate and decelerate. Use the “coast” and “acc” functions to slow and speed gently. Try to keep your foot off the gas pedal as much as possible. But n.b.: don’t use cruise control on an uphill grade.

When approaching a grade, speed up a little (stay sane about this) to build momentum; then allow the car to slow as it climbs. Use the downhill grade to get back up to your cruising speed before resuming the cruise control.

Never drive faster than 60 mph on an urban freeway. Try to keep your speed at around 55 mph. Stay in the slow lane and take it easy.

If it looks like you will have to stand for more than 30 seconds (for example, at a long stoplight, in a gas station line, at a railroad crossing), turn off the engine.

Using these techniques, I’ve managed to extract about 25 mpg from my aged Toyota Sienna. That’s not bad, since it normally makes about 16 mpg in the city, and maybe 20 on the open road. But it’s still expensive to drive to Hell and back every day.

The real trick to hypermiling? Stay out of your car!


How higher gas prices save money

Here I am thinking that four-&-a-half-dollar gasoline is driving me to the poorhouse…but WAIT!

Wai-wai-wai-wait! Not so! Whereas ’tis all too true that more of the Budget is going to support my driving addiction, something odd has happened: because of the changes in driving and buying strategies forced by the run-up in gas prices, I’m buying a lot smarter in other ways. Groceries, normally my biggest indulgence, have dropped by 50%; spending on yard items is an eighth of what it has been.

In fact, over the past month I’ve saved way more on these items than the extra amount I’ve had to spend on gas.

What is going on?

When the cost of gas headed for the stratosphere, I decided to shop for necessities only at stores that are on my way to and from the Great Desert University. No extra trips would be allowed: whatever I needed would have to come from someplace along the commute.

This cut out Home Depot, the scene of many an impulse-buy frenzy.

All my other regular stops in fact are along the route from here to GDU. However, the “no extra trip” rule eliminated an amazing number of junkets. Using Quicken’s transaction detail shortcut report feature (right-click on the category!), I compared June 2007 spending with June 2008’s in several areas. Here’s what happened.


Here’s the biggy for me, since I don’t eat out and I very much relish food. I don’t hold the horses in the grocery store: this is my only indulgence, and I do indulge. I’m given to shopping in gourmet specialty stores, and I do not worry myself with such details as how much food costs.

But within the constraints of the “commute-route” rule, AJ’s, a local retailer, is the only fancy grocer on my way. It suffices: you can bankrupt yourself there just as easily as at Whole Paycheck.

In June of 2007, my grocery bill was (hang on to your hats, frugalists!) $721.99.

Done hyperventilating? O.K. In June 2008, it was $334.96.

Wow! In 2007, I made 17 trips to purveyors of groceries, three of them to the dangerous AJ’s. This year, I made 12 grocery runs, five of them to AJ’s. Even though I made more hits on the fancy store, I spent less than half as much on groceries this year as I did a year ago.

Why? In June 2007, the Great Chinese Dog Food Scare was peaking. That was when I decided to make real food for Walt the Greyhound and Anna the Ger-shep, both 90-pound dogs. This would be about the equivalent of inviting a couple of 12-year-olds (or petite adults) to your dinner table. In May, shortly before the Scare, I spent $417.25, a more normal figure. But still: way more than I paid out last month.

In any event, restricting grocery-store runs to stops on the way home from work cut out five trips to the store, which evidently limited grocery spending

Yard Items

In this category, Home Depot is a real menace. I love plants. It’s almost impossible for me to walk through Home Depot’s nursery without buying a plant, a pot, or both. And the swimming pool chemicals are located in the garden department, so you have to walk past the plants to get to the chlorine, acid, and diatomaceous earth. Cleaning goods and some electrical gear are right next to the plants. Meanwhile, the whole store is laid out like a medieval street bazaar: impulse buys as far as the eye can see.

On the other hand, Ace Hardware, which unlike HD is on my way home from campus, has no garden department. I started buying at Ace to avoid the 8-mile round trip to HD. Ace carries almost everything one needs from Home Depot, but the store layout is pragmatic, boring, and untempting. The place encourages you to get in, pick up only what you need, and get out.
June ’07: $61.62 (3 trips)
June ’08: $7.58 (1 trip)

Why? No Home Depot!


In these parts the weather heats up the first part of May. Warm weather consumes chlorine tablets and, unless you stay on top of things, grows algae. Until the gas run-up, I’d been buying chlorine tabs, shock treatment, and acid at Home Depot. Lately, though, I’ve been stopping for those things at Leslie’s, in the same strip mall as the Safeway that’s directly on the way home from GDU.
June ’07: $92.78
June ’08: $55.98
Why? Lest you think that specialty-store pool chemicals are cheaper than HD’s, the truth is that in 2007 I spent $42.50 for a service call, and so the real cost for chemicals was $50.28. Still, that’s only five bucks less than I paid this year.
HD’s shock treatment contains a chemical that causes the filter to clog up, and so every time I use it, I have to backwash and then add 8 pounds of new diatomaceous earth (DE), which HD does not give away for free. A DE filter in theory is not supposed to need backwashing more than about every three months, and so having to do that noxious chore once a week got old real fast. Not only that, but the HD shock treatment turned the pool into a puddle of Clorox that was unswimmable, even in the hottest weather, for at least three days. Since I’m in the water two or three times a day, I found myself putting off shock treatments until the walls were coated with green stuff, not a good habit.
Leslie’s has a non-chlorine shock treatment that does not contaminate the water and does not clog the filter. You can dive in the water right after you dump the stuff in. And thanks to this stuff, I managed to delay the quarterly filter clean-out ($100) for about six months.

So, even though I paid $5 more in June 2008 than in the same month of 2007, over the long run I’ve been paying less on pool maintenance because I haven’t had to buy giant boxes of DE every time I turn around and I haven’t had the pool guy over here every three months. And now I can use my pool every single day, with no hiatuses to wait for scary levels of carcinogens to drop from ungodly toxic to only mildly poisonous.

June ’07: $ 83.45
June ’08: $138.20

That’s a $54.75 increase.
Grocery savings: $ 387.00
Yard item savings: 54.00
Pool savings: 36.80
Less gas rip: -54.70
Result: $423.10

Approximately: when I copied and pasted these posts out of iWeb into Word, the last character before each hard return disappeared, so I have no idea what appeared in the ones columns. At any rate, when I wrote this I appeared to be $423 to the good, thanks to the inflated cost of gasoline.

If This Is So Great, How Come I’m Busted, Disgusted, and Can’t Be Trusted?

Those of you who’ve followed my whining know I’m up to my eyeballs in red ink. Last month’s budget cycle ended $111 in the hole. So far this month, I was $126 in the red at the end of the first week and, with three days to go am $17 in the red against this week’s budget.

I’ve blamed this on the run-up in gas and food prices. But a closer look reveals the actual cause: a long series of extraordinary expenses biting into cash flow over the past two months.

Between April 21 and June 20, I racked up $1,012 in veterinary bills for the dying German shepherd. In May I pledged $100 to a charity, Andrea’s closet, thinking the amount would come out that month; instead it was charged against American Express in June, when I had to cover $332 of those vet bills. While I might have been able to handle around $300 of unplanned charges, $432 broke the bank. And so far in the first week and a half of this month, I’ve had to pay $55 for car service and $87 for pool service.

So, while I may have saved some $430 in a few categories these past couple of months, it’s as nothing compared to the $1,254 in unplanned expenses ($1,012.33 vet bills + 54.72 car repair + $87 pool service + $100 donation) that I’ve been trying to cover with cash flow and emergency fund savings.

Without those extra expenses, I would be doing just fine…thanks to the gas prices.

Report: Does hypermiling work for a Toyota Sienna?

In a word: Yes.

Last night on the way home from work, I heard on the news that the price of oil had jumped another $10 a barrel, and that gas prices are expected to reach $5 a gallon by July 4. Even though I was down only a quarter-tank of gas, I figured I’d better stop by Costco to top off at a price we’ll likely never see again.

At $3.939 a gallon, Costco’s gas had jumped since SDXB filled up five hours earlier. The lines stretched to the street; 25 other drivers had conceived the fill-up idea before I did.

My car took 4.6 gallons. That amount had carried it 118.8 miles, for an average 25.8 miles per gallon.

Not bad, for a lumbering minivan whose year 2000 EPA estimate was 18 mpg in town-a figure we know to have erred on the high side. The gummint’s revised estimate is now 16 in the city and 22 on the highway, for a combined 19 mpg. Since about half the 118.8 driving miles took place on the surface streets, we might take the EPA’s combined mpg as what we could expect. So, using a very basic seven frugal driving techniques gleaned from the hypermiling set, I managed to squeeze an extra 6.8 miles per gallon out of the old tank without much practice or expertise.

Next steps:

  • Check tire pressure; inflate to maximum
  • Use lowest recommended weight oil for next oil change
  • Change air filter

Frugal driving = stress relief

It ought to drive you bats to dork around with your driving habits, which have served you just fine over lo! these past 45 years, in penny-pinching resolve to save a gallon of gas here and a gallon of gas there. Focusing on every mile per hour and wondering whether the tattooed fright behind you will brandish his Uzi if you slow his blast-off from the red light should leave you grinding your teeth. It’s only common sense, right?

No. Paradoxically, the truth is quite the contrary. For the past week or ten days, I’ve been trying out hypermiling techniques, just to see if $4.00 can be stretched to cover a little more of my 38-mile round-trip commute. One issue the hypermiling advice has brought to my attention is that what I call “assertive” driving is actually…well, it’s true: aggressive driving. Also, it’s possible that flying down the freeway in the pod that habitually moves 10 or 15 mph over the limit could, maybe, be called “speeding.”

Since I’ve taken to following just a few steps to save gas, the hated drive has mysteriously become a lot less hateful. The stress of wending my way across the surface streets and then competing (yes, competing) with other wired-up drivers across 18 miles of freeways has gone away. If it doesn’t matter whether you get there first and it doesn’t matter whether you get across the city at 65 or 75 miles an hour, then suddenly it doesn’t matter whether someone cuts you off! It doesn’t matter whether slower traffic wanders right in front of you. And it doesn’t matter that you can’t see around the truck ahead of you, because seeing around it wouldn’t make you go any faster.

Removing all these frustrations that used to matter, at one psychological level or another, causes driving to morph from mildly annoying to fairly relaxing.

Now, here’s the weird part: Not only does frugal driving relieve stress, it gets you there just as fast as jerking around and racing down the road will! In fact, it may get you there faster.

First time I tried a couple of hypermiling techniques, I noticed I got all the way out to campus in about 20 minutes. Fluke. Gotta be a fluke: it was coming up on Memorial Day weekend. All the moron drivers must have knocked off a day early and gone on vacation. Next trip: 20 minutes flat. Next day: think I actually got there in under 20 minutes. But, uhm…this is a 30- to 40-minute drive under the best of circumstances; two hours on a bus.

Why? For one thing, it’s in the interest of hypermiling to stay on the freeway even if traffic is moving slowly, as long as it’s not stop-and-go, because you don’t want to have to accelerate from a standing stop (i.e., you don’t want to stop at intersections). So, instead of dropping onto the surface streets at the earliest sign of a back-up, I’m hanging in there to see what develops. Often freeway traffic will slow to 30 or 40 miles an hour but then after a few minutes go right back up to speed. So I’m making more of my trip at 55 mph, nonstop, than I would if I traveled half the way on the surface streets at 50 mph but stopped at red lights, slowed for a school zone, or got stuck behind a school bus.

It may also be that second-guessing the speed of various lanes somehow slows you down. Some mathematically inclined bloggers look at traffic in terms of fluid dynamics and argue that driving slower and keeping a wide space between you and the car in front of you actually forces traffic around you to flow more efficiently. True? Not knowing, I’d hesitate to state, for fear of being erroneous.

Here are the frugal driving techniques I’ve been using:

  • Try to avoid applying the brakes any more than absolutely necessary. Watch the traffic flow ahead and, when red lights start to glow, coast to decelerate. Try to reach traffic stopped at the light as it’s beginning to move, so you don’t have to start up from a dead stop.
  • Accelerate from a stop slowly. It’s a car, not a jackrabbit.
  • When starting from a dead stop, allow the car to idle forward for a second before stepping on the gas.
  • Use the cruise control to maintain speed on the freeway and on steadily moving surface streets, and use it to accelerate and decelerate. Use the “coast” and “acc” functions to slow and speed gently. Try to keep your foot off the gas pedal as much as possible. But n.b.: don’t use cruise control on an uphill grade.
  • When approaching a grade, speed up a little (stay sane about this) to build momentum; then allow the car to slow as it climbs. Use the downhill grade to get back up to your cruising speed before resuming the cruise control.
  • Never drive faster than 60 mph on an urban freeway. Try to keep your speed at around 55 mph. Stay in the slow lane and take it easy.
  • If it looks like you will have to stand for more than 30 seconds (for example, at a long stoplight, in a gas station line, at a railroad crossing), turn off the engine.

Hypermiling includes several other strategies, some of which apparently aren’t very safe. We’ll see soon enough whether the seven techniques above work to improve my Sienna’s 18 mpg performance. I’ll let you know the next time I fill up!

1 Comment left at iWeb site

Value For Your LIfe

Great post!These are some gas saving tips I haven’t seen repeated over and over again elsewhere.I always go easy on the brakes (as a result it also makes my brakes last almost twice as long as average), and we have just gotten into the habit of driving more slowly and have noticed a significant difference.I will defintiely try some of the other hypermiling techniques you mention here!

Tuesday, June 17, 200809:56 AM

SUV-mania persists

Gas was $3.57 a gallon at Costco yesterday afternoon, when I stopped by on the way home from work to pay our annual dues. Having heard during the morning commute that the average price is now $3.95, that sounded like a bargain, so I decided to top off the tank.

Lines were out to the street at every pump. Fifteen people were stacked up ahead of me, and I may have been the only person there who turned off the ignition while standing. Admittedly, it was a warm day and sitting in the car with no air conditioning was a little uncomfortable-far from unbearable, but not exactly brisk and cool. Most people let their engines idle, burning gas for the ten minutes or so it took to crawl up to a pump.

Directly in front of me was a brand-spanking-new, shiny Toyota Sequoia, dealer’s paper license still in the plate-holder. The thing is the size of a Sherman tank! Its 273-horsepower 4.7-liter V-8 must get all of ten gallons to the mile. Toyota must be giving the things away-surely the only reason anyone would buy such a behemoth would be a price tag somewhere near gratis. When it finally lumbered up to the pump, what should climb out of the passenger’s seat but a vast woman with Mma Ramotswe‘s “traditional build.” She must have weighed over 200 pounds…and her gentleman friend was proportionately well fed. Big car for big folks: the springs on a beast like that should hold up under their weight, anyway.

As I stood in line breathing exhaust fumes, I counted 10 SUVs and pickups and 5 regular passenger cars. Most of the SUVs were late models. None of the sedans were low-mileage vehicles.

Pickup trucks make some sense: they’re designed to carry cargo and most people who own them use them for exactly that. Being trucks, they ride like a truck, and so it’s unlikely that many folks choose to buy them for the around-town family ride. And I can understand how you would hang on to a gas guzzler despite high fuel prices-I sure can’t afford to trade in my 2000 Sienna yet. But to go out and buy a brand-new gigantic SUV that gets 13 to 19 miles a gallon, at a time when gas is headed north of $4.00 a gallon? Clearly, market forces are not discouraging Some People’s Kids from consuming large amounts of gas and pushing the prices up for the rest of us.

Less than a third of a tank cost me what a whole fill-up used to cost, just a few months ago.

IMHO, it’s time for some legislation, and not just in leading-edge California but nationwide. We need to do more than just “encourage” people to buy fuel-efficient vehicles by offering a few lagniappes such as small tax breaks and license plates that let you drive in the HOV lane. We need to make it against the law to sell a passenger vehicle that gets less than 30 miles per gallon. Period. Force manufacturers to take that junk off the market, and force used-car dealers to quit peddling the trade-ins.

And if you can’t fit into a Matrix or a Camry hybrid, folks, maybe it’s time to go on a diet.