When Paying a Pro is Cheaper Than DIY

by Kevin on May 28, 2014

Why do we take such pride in our yards?

I just have to laugh sometimes when contrasting the amount of time we spend working on our yard versus how much time we spend in it. We use our yard, sure. My dog uses it more than I do. And I’m sure as my son gets older that we’ll be running around in it more.

But Americans take a lot of pride in their yards. One neighbor’s yard looks great, so you want yours to look great, too.

The only problem is my wife and I both have brown thumbs. (Our first personal blog was called brownthumb.)

We’ve tried to do the right thing. We buy fertilizer. I spread it regularly. We buy flowers and plant them. I mow and trim regularly.

Yet our yard just looked… pitiful. The grass was full of weeds — my ultimate frustration. Every time I cut the grass I knew I was just spreading the infestation of weeds little by little.

Last fall we gave in. Thanks to the recommendation of a friend we found a fertilizer guy. And not just any fertilizer guy. A self-employed, small business, “not a megacorporation” (like Trugreen, Scotts, etc.) fertilizer guy.

It’s the best yard decision I’ve ever made.

Using a Pro is Cheaper Than Doing It Myself

Here’s the bottom line: this guy can take care of my yard better than I can for cheaper than I can.

It’s the ultimate win-win.

He was recommended by a friend who had purchased a new house with (obviously) brand new sodded grass. He came out to do the second treatment of their yard, walked around, and told my friend he didn’t need to apply a treatment because the yard looked good.

He didn’t charge them.

That means he drove all the way out to their house with his equipment, walked around, and determined that it wasn’t necessary to spray or do anything else. He wasted his time, gas, and potential to earn income by saying “it doesn’t need to be done.”

That’s the kind of guy I want to work with. An honest small business that treats you like he’d want to be treated. Definitely my kind of guy.

We called him, he came out, gave us a quote…

…and it was lower than what I had been paying to drive to the home improvement store, buying fertilizer that I was guessing as to whether or not it would help my yard, coming home, carrying the heavy bag to my sprayer, emptying it out, and walking around my yard fertilizing.

His cost was lower than my cost alone to buy the fertilizer.

Let me get this right… lower cost AND I get all of my time back?

And an expert is taking care of my yard?

Sign me up.

Since then our yard has looked a TON better. Last year we had tons of crabgrass in the backyard. He let me know last fall that it would be a longer process to fix, but by spring we should be mostly fixed. He reseeded last fall, put down a pre-emergent this spring, another round of seeding this spring with fertilizer, and just like that we’ve got a lush green yard.

It’s a little frustrating, to be honest. I put all this time, money, and effort into something that a professional can do for a lower price and give me all of my time back. I wish I knew about him earlier.

Where have you discovered it to be cheaper to pay a pro than to do it yourself?

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I am nothing if not a hopeless romantic.

You see my wife loves birthdays.

LOVES them. Her birthday is the second most important holiday on the calendar. She thinks your birthday is just as important, too.

We’re an odd contrast; I’ve always been kind of “eh” on birthdays. She thinks we should celebrate birthdays for an entire week or two. (And they say opposites attract…)

She turned 29 this month and I wanted to do something really special for her. Something big. Something to wow her. My thinking was 29 is just another birthday and she’s probably already thinking about her 30th. So let’s make 29 really huge when she might not expect something huge.

Here’s the deal: I did some small stuff leading up to it, but the big finale of her birthday celebration was a surprise trip to New York City.

Want to know what’s even better?

I didn’t pay a dime for our flights or hotels. Here’s how I pulled it off:

How to Surprise Your Wife with a “Free” Trip

Okay, so I did pay something for the trip. Instead of cold hard cash I used airlines miles and some credit card points. Those things have value, no doubt, so there was indeed payment and opportunity cost incurred. I could have elected to save those miles and points for other trips, but I think I got a pretty good deal overall so we’re both happy.


I used British Airways’ Avios program to book flights on their partner American Airlines. British Airways’ program is a distance-based program; this is significantly different from just about every other frequent flyer program out there that has a set cost for flights within certain regions.

Using Avios points I was able to snag two roundtrip tickets for 18,000 points total. We picked up a Chase British Airways card for my wife in the past that, after enough spending on the card, generated 125,000 points once you factored in points on spending and bonuses earned.


We stayed two nights at two different hotels on Friday and Saturday night.

I booked Saturday’s hotel first using Intercontinental Hotel Group’s (IHG) Best Rate Guarantee program.

It’s awesome and I hope they never, ever change it.

Here’s how the Best Rate Guarantee program works: if you book a hotel on the IHG (or IHG brand) website and find a better, lower rate at another site for the exact same room the first night of your stay is free.

Even on a one night stay.

There are some rules: it has to literally be the exact same room. Same number of beds, same breakfast included (or not), same cancelation terms, and so on.

With Saturday night taken care of I picked up a Barclay’s Arrival card that gave me (after minimum spend and bonuses) 42,000 points. Those points can be redeemed for 1 cent per point value to reimburse yourself for travel spending. I snagged a nice hotel (and used their best rate guarantee to get a room upgrade and credit to the little store downstairs in the lobby) and used some of the points to pay for the cost.

Two Credit Cards, One Free Trip

That’s it. Two cards. One trip. Everything but meals and transportation taken care of. Plus I have enough points leftover with the British Airways program to take about 9 more flights to New York or Chicago (since they fall into the flight radius I used for this trip).

I have a multitude of credit cards. Using them comes with risks, but if you can manage the risk well the programs can end up being quite lucrative.

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This is a real head scratcher.

A few weeks ago I got an envelope in the mail from Wells Fargo. They happen to hold our home mortgage, so I always open up whatever they send me despite the fact a majority of the time they are trying to sign me up for a credit card or some other product.

This time was a little different…

The Odd Refinance Offer From My Mortgage Company

I opened up the envelope and on nice Wells Fargo letterhead was a refinance offer.

I’m thinking, “I know, I know, you want to offer me a lower rate, extend the length of my loan, get a new origination fee paid, yadda yadda yadda…”

Except that wasn’t the case at all.

In the middle of the page were two columns: one for my current mortgage and the second for the refinancing offer.

They provided a step by step comparison of the offer.

Here’s what it looked like:

  • Term: 15 years / 15 years
  • Loan Amount: current mortgage balance / current mortgage balance
  • Interest rate: our current interest rate / a higher interest rate
  • Amount saved per month: $0 / $182
  • Interest savings: None

What the?

They sent me a refinance offer for a higher interest rate that would somehow save me money on my monthly payment but not save me any interest over the life of the loan. (In fact if I crunched the numbers I would guess the refinance would be more expensive, but I haven’t confirmed that yet.)

How does this work? How could they possible be saving me money each month while increasing my interest rate?

The Oldest Mortgage Trick in the Book

This stuff happens all the time. You heard it on radio and television commercials, and it is in web advertisements all the time. “Lower your monthly payment when you refinance!”

Yes, they can lower my monthly payment. Why? Because my mortgage balance is lower than when I first got the loan three years ago. We’ve made payments that have knocked down the principal amount plus included extra money each month in order to pay the loan down faster.

These aren’t the actual numbers, but let’s just say my original loan was for $200,000 and we have paid it down to $160,000. The refinance amount isn’t for $200,000… it’s for $160,000. So of course the loan amount is going to “save me money” on my monthly payment. There’s $40,000 that isn’t being refinanced at the higher rate.

Many people fall for this trick with home and car loans. They’ll refinance and extend the term leaving them trapped in debt that much longer. They’ll buy the “we can refinance your home, save you money, and get you some cash to buy a new TV!”

What I’m Most Shocked About

I’m not shocked they sent me a refi offer even at a higher interest rate.

What I am most shocked about is they admitted it wouldn’t save me any interest in the long run.

Cutting the monthly payment down is great, but if the overall interest costs are higher I would be losing out.

Who knew banks could be so honest?

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The Brookings Institute has an interesting study about living paycheck to paycheck.

The study shows that 38 million American households (about 33% of all American households) live paycheck to paycheck. That’s 38 million families with no savings, little to no assets, and no financial cushion to catch them when things go wrong.

Authors of the study were a bit perplexed to learn that of those 38 million households, 66% of them aren’t poor by definition. They are middle class families with a median income of $41,000 per year.

Yet they still live check to check. One financial catastrophe is all it would take to ruin them financially.

Of course the study doesn’t dive into why these families are living hand-to-mouth, check by check.

3 Reasons Families Live Paycheck to Paycheck

Here are three core reasons that families live on the brink of financial ruin:

Spending Problem

Spending money like it grows on trees will land you in paycheck to paycheck land every single time. Americans are enamored with paying for stuff with monthly payments. Add up enough monthly payments to eat your paycheck and you quickly have a problem.

We’ve got the house we stretched financially to buy. The garage of that house holds two cars we are still paying off. We even bought our furniture on 18 months of 0% interest payments. The list goes on and on, payment by payment, eating away at our income like a virus.

What’s sad is many times our paycheck to paycheck lifestyle is a self-inflicted wound.

Unexpected Bill Problem

Of course not every situation is the result of poor spending discretionary spending decisions. There are times when an unexpected bill pops up that is so big that the payment to pay it off immediately puts us into paycheck to paycheck land.

It might be a medical bill, a roof that needed replacing, or an HVAC unit that died in the middle of the summer. All are serious problems that need to be addressed quickly and the fixes are costly.

Income Problem

Our spending — discretionary or unexpected — isn’t always the issue, either. Sometimes we truly do have an income problem. The other 33% of our paycheck to paycheck population (about 12.5 million households) are poor. Their median income is $21,000 per year and they have no assets to fall back on. Making a median of $10.09 an hour definitely makes it difficult to do anything financially.

3 Opportunities to Overcome Paycheck to Paycheck Living

Let’s consider these three opportunities in contrast to the issues above:

Stop Spending

Seems pretty simple, right? Stop spending your discretionary money and you will automatically be better off.

It isn’t always this simple. Often we have locked ourselves into long-term contracts that will take a while to resolve. For example, you could try to sell the car you are making payments on but the odds of your generating enough profit to buy a vehicle without payments is slim-to-none.

Nonetheless you have to push forward in cutting spending. Cut everywhere you can to give yourself a little breathing room each month.

Build an Emergency Fund

After cutting back on spending it is time to deploy the money you were wasting into something productive like an emergency fund. Having money set aside in a savings account for the sole purpose of dealing with financial emergencies will smooth out your financial journey.

You can’t build up an emergency fund without having money leftover at the end of the month to dedicate to this purpose. Start small. No matter the amount just stick it away for a rainy day, untouched until needed.

Grow Your Income

The last critical piece of getting out of paycheck to paycheck living is to grow your income. Getting a better job, starting a side business, or selling stuff you own on eBay are all options to help inch you away from living on the brink of financial ruin.

None of these tasks are easy, but an uptick in your income automatically pulls you away from the brink. The more you earn without increasing your spending levels the better off you become.

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