Monday, August 19, 2013

Trading In, Or How I Got A New Camera For Free

Photo Credit

I was recently hired as a freelance sports photographer. Great, right? Well, I'm not exactly a photographer; my strength is in video. Many aspects are similar, but equipment is certainly not one of them. I'd need to my work with my own DSLR camera. The problem is, I don't own a DSLR camera. I have a rinky-dink little point-and-shoot, and it's on its last legs (the lens jammed recently and I was only able to fix it by whacking the camera on a table. It works now, but that tells you what kind of shape it's in).

Last week I had my first shoot, so I borrowed a camera from my full-time job and used it with one of my own SD cards. However, I don't know how long I'll be able to continue to do that. It became clear that if I wanted to pursue the photography gig, I was going to have to purchase my own camera.

The point of taking on more freelance work was to bring in extra money so I can replenish my emergency fund as soon as possible and then start saving for my future (family, travel, retirement, etc.), but making a large purchase like this was sure to set me back. My first plan was to ask my parents to chip in towards a camera as my birthday present, but I'd still have to come up with several hundred dollars on my own.

Last week, while cleaning out the basement to price items for my upcoming yard sale, I realized I had a large number of DVDs, video games, records, CDs, and books that I no longer wanted... but I dreaded pricing them all. And after all that work, they might not even sell! Then I remembered that Amazon has a trade-in program for select items that you can ship to them in exchange for a gift card balance. This way, I figured, I might be able to get rid of a large number of these items, then use the store credit to help pay for my new camera!

I sat down with the first pile of DVDs and entered each name on Amazon's site to see if they were eligible for trade-in. If they were, I selected the condition of the item (some prices changed based on condition) and printed off the shipping label provided by Amazon. I taped it to a box I already had in my basement, filled it with the merchandise, and dropped the item off at my local shipping center. The shipping is paid for by Amazon, and if they decide upon inspection that any of my items are not acceptable, they ship the defective item back to me free of charge. How could I go wrong?

A little bit of my time resulted in a very successful trade-in: nearly 50 DVDs and video games, over 80 CDs, and my old professional 3-chip camcorder. It took a few days for the shipment to arrive and process, but once Amazon sent me my gift card confirmation, I realized I had a gift card balance large enough to buy a brand new camera! I am the proud new owner of a Nikon D3200 DSLR, an extra battery, an additional SD card, and a camera bag... with money to spare! I didn't have to pay a dime out of my savings to get a new camera; I just sold stuff I already had in the house.

I also brought a box full of books, the remainder of the CDs, more video games and their consoles to Half-Price Books and got some money from them, too. I have dozens of records I plan to take to a local used music store later this week. I continue to post old toys and collectibles on eBay with success. And then, of course, there's my upcoming yard sale. I hope to find new homes for some of my gently used clothing and shoes, furniture, and kitchen items.

My house isn't empty, believe me! I still own plenty of records and movies, and I kept one video game system. But by simply paring down what I did have, I was able to sell the excess and obtain $800 in Amazon store credit.

 Yes, I just said eight hundred dollars.

Do you have stuff laying around that you're not using anymore? Do you have way too many CDs leftover from your teenage years? Did you get married and now your DVD collection is sprawling with duplicates? Did you beat all of those video games and now you'll never play them again? Yeah, I thought so.

(This post is not endorsed by Amazon in any way. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author based on her unsolicited experience with the trade-in program.)

Thursday, August 1, 2013

July Results and Deciding What You Value

Changed Priorities Ahead
Photo Credit

Summer is usually brimming with activities, and it doesn't have to be a drag just because I'm on a budget. I did, however, have a bit off an off-month in July.

This month, I drove a lot. I was in my car considerably more than usual, driving to freelance gigs and to my hometown and to a distant campground. As a result, I spent 65% more on gas.

I came in under on my grocery bill again. People gape when I tell them I spend $490 each summer on a 20-week CSA share, but the massive amount of produce I get for $24.50 each week is more than enough to feed both me and the beau with minimal additional shopping. Pantry staples like grains are cheap, and buying fruits in season keeps costs down. I don't eat meat-heavy meals, so one steak is enough for the two of us. Groceries used to be one of my biggest hurdles, but I've found that eating lots of produce (fresh when in-season, and frozen in the winter) minimizes both my expenses and my waistline.

I also came in way under budget on my energy bill. Not using my clothes dryer has been one of the best tools for cutting costs! My entire home's energy bill came in under $57 for the second month in a row. I also barely used my air conditioner because this summer has been so cool.

Everything else came in at the budgeted amount... And then, I bought paint. I bought lots and lots of paint.

366:130 "I will call this: Bored In A Paint Store"
Photo Credit
In the next month or so, I'll be recruiting some handy, helpful friends and family to help me repaint the exterior of my home. A local paint store was having a big sale: 40% off all paints and 30% off all paint supplies, so I decided now would be the best time to stock up on what I'll need. I calculated the amount of paint I'd need to cover my home in two coats, plus what's required to paint the window and door trim. The good news is that I'm painting my house white, so any unopened gallons of paint can be returned because they haven't been dyed.

Also, I ate at restaurants far more than usual this month. When work got so hectic that I was lucky to get ten minutes between meetings, I'd have to settle for food on-the-go. Sometimes, when I wasn't too tired to function, I'd prepare something ahead of time and take it with me. I tried to keep costs down by settling for a bagel with cream cheese or a cup of soup with crackers, but dining expenses still add up. I know I could have done better here.

The cost of dining out plus the paint supplies (even on sale) brought me $320 over my July budget.

Normally, this would be a massive "ouch" moment for me. However, I had an especially good month on eBay, and I also received my benchmark check from work. All of these things were a tremendous blessing: I eliminated extra items from my home, the items went to someone who will use them instead of being discarded, and the bonus check was higher than I expected. I decided that, because of the huge paint sale, I would use some of that extra income to tackle that home improvement task now instead of later.

The rest of the money went straight into my savings. I'm still trying to recover the amount I spent on re-financing my home post-divorce. Since February, I've managed to replenish 60% of my emergency fund.  Because of my strict budgeting, my eBay sales, my freelance jobs, my tax return, and my benchmark check, what I initially thought would take me three years to recover is nearly two-thirds complete in just six months.

I've learned that spending reflects what we value. If you go out for cocktails, have spa treatments, go to music concerts, buy clothing and accessories, or purchase restaurant meals too often... then you can't complain about finances when it's time to pay rent or fix your car!  Some people out there legitimately struggle to pay their bills and feed their families and keep a roof over their heads. Irresponsible spending is not the same thing.

Each time I said no to a drink with the ladies, or turned down a night of dancing to a live swing band, or stayed home to cook dinner with the beau instead of going out to a restaurant, I used to think I was making a sacrifice. But you know what? I still hang out with my friends; I just don't buy booze. Yes, this can sometimes draw inappropriate questions, such as "Are you pregnant?" (Seriously, cut that out.), but I am saving several dollars for every cocktail I don't drink, and I'm also not drinking all of those calories!

I've found plenty of cheap and free things to do in this city over the past month: camping in a borrowed tent with friends (we walked on trails, swam in a lake, and played hilarious card games); relaxing at the beach with a picnic lunch and a good book; taking walks in the park; going to the budget cinema; attending free music festivals (Chill on the Hill and Jazz in the Park); watching Netflix with the beau (we like New Girl); using online coupon sites for discounts on activities (like the drive-in movie double feature we saw last week)!

Now, when I see how much closer I am to having what I truly want, I realize that giving up those things wasn't a sacrifice at all. Life is always about choices. What do you really value?