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Property Tax Proposals Bring Welcome Relief

Amanda Bar

Well, it's official - I received a notice for my proposed property taxes for next year, and my previous rate of $3,632 has shrunk down to the tentative amount of $1,955.  Unless some unforeseen event occurs to alter this decrease, I am jumping for joy at the thought that I might not have to live as budget-conscious as I have been for the past year.

A big factor in my decreased taxes is my homestead exemption - something that I did not have the foresight to take care of last year when I had the chance.  Also, my assessed property value went from $172,950 to $126,600, which is much closer to the amount for which I bought my home.  So adding on my homestead reduction, as well as the reduced market value of my house, my listed taxable property value is $76,600 (down from last year's $172,950).  I don't need to be a math major to know that this will equal a huge difference in my monthly mortgage payments, and for once I can't wait for the bills to roll in!

 I hope you all had similar good news, but if not make sure to review your options for contesting your property taxes!

Posted by Amanda Conwell at 08:14 PM on August 31, 2010 in Housing , Savings | Permalink | Comments (2)

(Even more) Spa savings and meal tickets

Name bar I've been remiss in failing to mention Miami Spice, the two-month promotion by restaurants in Miami-Dade that create three-course meals for a set price -- prices lower than usual. About 130 restaurants are offering deals, but it's worth checking the website to see which days they are available and whether they apply to lunch or dinner.

My colleague Elaine Walker offers some details in a story about the promotion, including that at participating restaurants, lunches are $22 and dinners are $35. There are still about five weeks left to spice up your next dining out experience. The deals last until Sept. 30.

Right after that, Broward gets in on the action, with Dine Out Lauderdale. Those $35 three-course meals are around until Nov. 11.

And I just learned that Sept. 20-26, there's a promotion called SpaFinder Deal Days. There are savings on spa treatments and yoga and pilates classes. For example, at Bikram Hot Yoga Miami, a week of unlimited hot yoga, usually $140, will cost $50. You may need to book your treatment or classes in advance. Search for other deals here.

And here are even more deals to watch for in October that I just learned about today. Spa Week, Oct. 11-17, will feature $50 price tags for treatments that usually go for a lot more. The list of places that will offer deals goes live Sept. 13. Some of the spas that will participate include Elizabeth Arden Red Door, Clarins Skin Spa and Sleek MedSpa.

It's hard to find money in the budget these days to pamper myself. I just got a beauty-school hair cut last week and haven't been to yoga since my inexpensive community education classes ended for the summer -- in early July. Meals out lately have been mostly by the slice and individual sushi roll, neither of which is particularly pricey. Or I've been content to cook at home and have friends over.

But since these prices are pretty all right, maybe it's time to pretty myself and my social calendar.

Posted by Nirvi Shah at 02:54 PM on August 25, 2010 in Coupons , Entertainment , Food , Nightlife , Savings | Permalink | Comments (0)

Highway robbery

Name barWhen I drive home to visit family in Central Florida, I use the Turnpike. Paying the tolls is worth it, especially considering some of the longest stretches of the journey would otherwise be on local roads with stoplights and traffic.

The tolls, presumably, cover repairs, maintenance of the roadways and provide for the 24-hour service plazas that appear every 50 miles or so

It's handy to be able to stop at a service plaza, although traditional highways do have their share of rest areas, minus the access to five fast food joints, stores that sell Florida kitsch and gas stations.

It does appear that there is some kind of monopoly on who provides gas at the stops: All eight plazas feature Shell gas stations.

And nearly every plaza hosts a Dunkin' Donuts.

On my way home last weekend, I thought getting some caffeine would be in the best interest of myself -- and other drivers.

I stood in line at a Burger King for a soda and got out of line fast when I saw the price for a small drink: $2. I walked next door to another place. Soda: $2. At a third restaurant, where I caved in, the price -- which was listed nowhere; I had to ask -- $2. (Plus 7 percent sales tax.)

I rarely buy soda. But I am certain the average fast food restaurant does not charge $2 for a small soda. In the case of the rest stops, folks might get a refill, but many people are in and out in five minutes or less. They're not chugging a two-liter-bottle's worth of cola.

I felt like the price was fixed and I was annoyed. I'd have gotten a cup of coffee (I don't know what it would have cost) had it been cheaper, but the line was about 20 people deep at Dunkin'.

If I'm paying a toll and the restaurants already have a monopoly on customers since there are so few stops (there are eight plazas over 460 miles of the Turnpike) why are they further taking advantage of us by charging an absurd amount for a soda?

On top of that, I have a SunPass, which keeps the state from having to provide a human being to take my toll. But not everyone has one of these gizmos, since they pretty much require having a credit card. Using cash means replenishing the card in person and paying $1.50 every time you do so. (Nearly everything run by the Miami-Dade Expressway appears headed in the direction of, if you don't have a SunPass, we will ticket you because we are eliminating any ability to pay cash at the toll plazas which soon won't exist at all. Nice.) People who pay cash at a toll plaza generally pay more than SunPass users.

Boo hiss to all of this.

The Turnpike is apparently the road to expensive dining, which you've already subsidized with your toll money and by saving the state on paying for personal service. Next time I use it, I will travel with my own caffeine.

Posted by Nirvi Shah at 01:39 PM on August 23, 2010 in Food , Impulsive spending , Savings , Shopping , Vacations | Permalink | Comments (2)

Valet Etiquette

Amanda Bar

A friend mentioned to me that she's been having a financial etiquette problem ever since her boyfriend moved into a new apartment complex.  Apparently trying to find a parking spot in the area is nigh impossible, so she often utilizes the valet service; the problem with this lies in the constant tipping (or not tipping) during her frequent visits.

Her boyfriend has indicated to her that since he pays for the valet service all of his guests should get free use out of the valet, sans tips.  However, whatever dues he pays for the valet service are most likely exclusive to his vehicle only, and my poor friend is left in an awkward situation where she tips one visit but withholds on the next. 

Constant tipping for every single visit would certainly add up, but if we're looking at it from an etiquette standpoint it is the "proper" thing to do.  There also is the option to self-park, as awful as that might sound in the unrelenting Dade County traffic.  Or you could be thinking along the boyfriend's frame of mind, and just shrug it off that his association fees should also cover his guest's valet tips.  Thoughts and opinions?

Posted by Amanda Conwell at 12:15 PM on August 22, 2010 in Savings | Permalink | Comments (2)

Daily Discounts In Your Area (For a Price)

Amanda Bar

I go out to eat on a weekly basis, so occasionally I try and browse certain websites to see if any special deals are going on in my area - that's when I came across LivingSocial, a website that offers daily coupons for different venues.  Just specify your city (they provide for the Ft Lauderdale, Miami and Jacksonville areas, as well as other states) and it'll list the current deal going on.  The website advertises discounts of up to 90% off on certain area bars, restaurants and nightclubs, and you can check out some of their past deals here (which include riverboat cruises, golf packages, and laser hair removal treatments!).

...but there's a catch, as there always is.  This website's discounts come with a price tag.  The trick is that you buy your coupons (spend $20 for a $40 gift certificate, for example), and in order to get them for free you're required to enlist at least three friends to purchase the same coupon.  This will be a downside for many who don't enjoy spamming their friends inboxes, but the discounts are pretty stellar if you've already been planning a night out with friends; and even if you don't end up recruiting three friends, the deals are still excellent for the price.

Today's deal is for Domenick's Pizzeria (sadly, a coupon that I am uninterested in), but I plan on checking back on a daily basis to see if anything pops up that is more to my taste. 

Posted by Amanda Conwell at 02:58 PM on August 18, 2010 in Entertainment , Food , Nightlife , Savings , Shopping | Permalink | Comments (0)

Getting Around Pricey Rental Fees

Amanda Bar

I’m a video gamer, and in the past I’ve bounced around the idea of subscribing to GameFly – a program not unlike Netflix wherein you’re charged a monthly fee to rent games via a mail-in/out service.  I enjoy the tangible experience of heading over to my local Blockbuster and perusing the game aisles, but the rental fees for games (as well as the re-emergence of late fees) have made GameFly the more fiscally reasonable option.

While ruminating about this idea, a friend happened to mention that if I signed up with GameFly using his account as a reference I would get the first two months at half-price; needless to say, I am now a (provisional) member of GameFly.  Discount aside, the normal monthly GameFly fee ($16.99 for one game out at a time) is pretty decent compared to Blockbuster's 5-day rental prices ($10).

When I received my first game in the mail I was excited, but once I finished that game I mailed it off on Tuesday (the 10th) and here we are on Sunday (the 15th) and my next game hasn't even been shipped yet (GameFly notifies you of shipment via e-mail).  At the earliest I can expect my next game this upcoming Tuesday - a full week after I mailed off the original game!  If it turns out that I'll have to wait an entire week for games to ship I'll probably cancel my account once my discount period is up, but hopefully this was a one-time blooper in service.

Posted by Amanda Conwell at 01:37 PM on August 15, 2010 in Entertainment , Shopping | Permalink | Comments (0)

Updated: Get wh@t you deserve

Name bar My friend and former colleague Niala Boodhoo is in the midst of a cross-country move to Chicago.

But last week she went another direction, to Los Angeles, for a media conference. In the process, she somehow lost her ATM and credit cards. 

This was super inconvenient timing, considering she's still figuring out where she'll live in the Windy City, so she doesn't know what her new address will be, but won't be in Miami much longer.

Niala figured that using a national bank meant that she'd be able to replace the ATM card fast. There are Bank of America locations everywhere.

She figured wrong.

At first, Bank of America offered to send her a new ATM card -- but it would take seven to 10 days, days Niala can't wait. Then they suggested she go to the bank where she opened the account in person to get a new card, but not just ANY BofA. 

That's great. Except she opened the account more than five years ago -- in Washington, D.C.

Niala doesn't take no for an answer very easily, however. She went public with her gripe, broadcasting the inconvenience on Twitter. (She said it took a little work to target her message at the right BofA Twitter account.) Twitter bird

Her first post: Dear @BofA_Help, can you explain why a natl bank can't issue you a temporary ATM card in a state different than where you opened yr account?

They replied a few hours later: BofA_Help @NialaBoodhoo We are making every effort to integrate our systems so all services are available to our customers despite region.

Remember how I said Niala doesn't take no for answer easily? Here's her reply: @BofA_Help Tks, but that really doesn't help when your ATM card was stolen in CA, and you live in another state. 

Then another hour passed and she was told, @NialaBoodhoo We would be happy to expedite the delivery of a new card. Please DM name/zip/phone and we’ll see how we can help.

Considering Twitter is free, it takes seconds to set up an account and not long to figure out how it works, this was a nice change of pace for the sometimes impersonal Internet.

Every Twitter complaint doesn't have a happy ending. (I've complained about airlines, my phone company and Niala once tweeted about our horrid experience at a local restaurant, all of which have Twitter accounts, and we heard not a peep. Or should I say, cheep.)

But at least Niala can leave Miami on a happy note -- and easy access to her cash.

UPDATE: So things didn't go as smoothly as Niala though they would. BofA sent Niala's new ATM card via FedEx. FedEx managed not only to not get Niala the card before she left town, but they couldn't even locate it. She tweeted about that, too. @FedexAl asked if she wanted her to try to find it, but by then BofA had already canceled the card.

BofA said she could go to any branch and get a temporary ATM card -- and she wonders why they didn't just say so in the first place.

Posted by Nirvi Shah at 03:05 PM on August 12, 2010 in Banking , Savings | Permalink | Comments (2)

Contemplating Vehicle Self-Repair

Amanda Bar

Car ouch Two or so years ago my drivers-side side view mirror snapped off while I was taking my car through a car wash.  Subsequently I headed over to the Chevrolet dealership, and they replaced the entire mirror for a little over $300.  Now I'm faced with the same problem, only this time with my passenger-side mirror; I don't know what happened, but a couple days ago I noticed that it was wobbling as I drove, and upon further inspection it looks as if something has whacked it off it's hinge...or whatever technical car jargon/term that means it's probably a few wobbles away from completely snapping off.

My car is a 2001 Chevy, and over the last several years I have pumped a fortune into this beast to replace the gas tank, the fuel pump (twice!), the regulator, etc..  I would like, borderline need, a new car, but financially I am not willing (and probably not able) to spend the extra cash on monthly car payments.  What does this mean?  I'm seriously considering duct-taping my side view mirror.

Of yeah, you read me. DUCT TAPE.  At this point I could care less about the aesthetics of my car, and I hardly want to spend anymore money on a vehicle that is already in it's death throes.  Will I actually tape my mirror, though?  I'm going to consult with my dad and see if he can work some of his fatherly repair magic on it before I totally throw in the towel, but I'm completely serious when I say that duct tape is a pretty likely option at this juncture.  Classy!

Posted by Amanda Conwell at 09:24 PM on August 6, 2010 in Savings | Permalink | Comments (1)

A (pretty) good deal

Name bar I've lived in South Florida for 10 years, but somehow never made time for a trip to Fairchild Tropical Botanical Gardens.

I was missing out.

While Sunday was a scorcher, it was worth braving the sun for a free trip to the 83 acres of palms, cycads, lakes, and dozens of reasons to be in more awe of Mother Nature than I already was. (One of the lilies our tram guide pointed out puts out a flower that draws in beetles, then changes its sex overnight and sends the beetles on their way.) Plus, plenty of the pathways lead to shade, and a ride on the tram brings out the breeze.

The visit was particularly appealing because every Sunday this month, admission is free. Adult tickets are usually $20, so this made the gardens seem a little greener. On these Sundays, membership is half-price. Couroupita guianensis

The significant other and I strolled under yards and yards of vine-covered pergola, got tips on how to tell a palm from a cycad, and now feel compelled to visit a tree in Fort Myers that covers an acre, thanks to our superinformative tram guide. (The beautiful banyans at Fairchild are much smaller, though still beautiful. And the largest one of these trees apparently covers several acres.)

We learned about another type of tree that hollows itself out over time, counting on its bark to hold it up. In some places, whole pubs have been built inside baobabs.

Let me stop before I give away all the fascinating stuff I learned.

We did shell out for a kiwi soda, veggie wrap and dropped $10 in the donation box, but still, the day was a bargain. Trust me, it's worth a visit. Especially at this price.

This is the flower of the cannonball tree, which is in bloom this month. Photo from www.fairchildgarden.org.

Posted by Nirvi Shah at 09:30 AM on August 5, 2010 in Entertainment | Permalink | Comments (2)

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