Profits Over People

Do you remember a few months ago hearing about the bitter cold snap and all the people in Texas who got screwed by natural gas companies and received bills in the thousands of dollars?

Do you remember feeling sorry for those people and thanking your lucky stars you didn’t live in Texas?

Me, too.

Turns out, though, I’m one of them. :/

A little background:

I live in a small city and our only option for heat is to buy natural gas from the city (as well as water, sewer, and trash). They all come bundled together in my city ‘utility’ bill. Our typical monthly bill for those utilities generally ranges from $150-$215 month, depending mostly on our water usage. In January we used 83 units of natural gas, for which we were charged $58.60.

I live in the Midwest and we experienced the same cold snap back in February that most of the US did. We knew the cold was coming and we watched our consumption, choosing to throw on extra clothes rather than turn up the heat. Our area had rolling blackouts because electricity usage was higher than normal.

I expected our February gas bill to be a bit higher than usual, since we probably had used a bit more than normal for heat. And indeed, in looking at my February bill, we used 94 units, more than the 83 the previous month.

So, if you do some rudimentary math, you would expect my bill to be somewhere around $67 or so for gas.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that my bill for gas was instead $961.34.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Yes, stock photo lady, I too was enraged. Upon calling city hall to inquire why my total bill (again normally between $150-$215) was suddenly $1100.00, I was testily informed that the city had to pay outrageous prices themselves, and they of course had to pass on this cost to consumers.

When I inquired further about exactly what prices were charged and why I wasn’t notified, I was treated to a heavy sigh and the statement that the city had posted the information on their Fakebook page. When I then inquired how people like me (who don’t have Fakebook) were given this information, I was told that newsletters were mailed out.

Now, I never received a newsletter. I was then testily told that it was posted on the city webpage. (Shocker, it wasn’t.) And, as a special kicker, the reason I didn’t receive the newsletter in the mail is because I receive an e-bill from the city (you know, to save the environment and not waste trees). Customers with e-bills received nothing because ‘their e-bill system doesn’t allow for the city to add attachments to the emails.’

Interestingly, my email from the city comes WITH MY BILL AS AN ATTACHMENT.

After recovering from the shock, I did some digging and found out that we were actually lucky. There are some customers in town who received bills ranging from $3,000 to $5,000! It’s completely insane.

Now, I get that the city didn’t want to have customer’s heat shut off during a bitter cold snap and they felt they had to pay the going rate. However, I’m fairly certain if they had asked any of their customers if they wanted to pay 100x the usual rate for natural gas, the answer from everyone would have been a resounding NO.

I saw a great analogy from another resident: If you drive up to the gas pump on Tuesday and gas is $2.50 per gallon, you fill up your car and go on your way. If you pull up on Wednesday needing gas, and the price is suddenly $250.00 per gallon, you find different solutions.

It’s not that we as consumers mind companies making a profit. However, price gouging in the middle of an emergency is just disgusting. My state does have a law that prohibits companies raising prices more than 25% during a state of emergency (which we were in at the time).

The kicker? Even if they take the gas companies to court and prove the companies broke the law, the law contains NO PROVISIONS FOR PENALTIES. So what do the companies have to lose? There are towns smaller than mine that may very well go bankrupt and disappear because of this situation.

And the gas companies? Well, I’m sure they’ve now got money to burn for the next emergency.

Still Obsessed

I’ve posted before about my newfound obsession with diamond painting.

After 6-7 months, I feel like I’ve settled into the hobby and, at the same time, still feel in many ways like a complete newbie. As with every hobby, especially a crafting one, there are tons of groups to join, companies to try, and hordes of accessories that every ‘serious’ diamond painter needs. 😛

I started off slow, promising myself that I wouldn’t jump in with both feet until I was sure it was something I liked.

I’m sure. 😀

I’ve completed over 16 projects, and I’m still just as enamored with it now as I was when I started. Of course, I now have added all kinds of accessories, including this beauty:

After hogging the dining room table for months, I finally decided to break down and get a drafting table. It’s so much easier on my back and neck, with the added bonus of not having to worry about dragging projects around or putting them away every night.

Now, whatever I’m working on can live on the drafting table until it’s done. Some of my projects are still going to be too large for the surface, but that’s okay. I now have a dedicated space for them. 🙂

I’ve even done several projects for others, including this wacky giraffe:

One of the most fun things I’ve discovered while doing this hobby is mystery diamond paintings. You get a kit with the canvas and diamonds, but there is no picture or colors printed on it, just the symbols in black and white. So you don’t know what the picture is of until you complete it. I’ve done two already and have a third waiting to be completed. The most recent mystery one I did was claimed by my oldest after she saw it finished:

I love how it turned out and it is now framed and waiting for her to decide where to hang it. 😀

Someday I’ll get around to finally painting some of those D&D minis I’ve got laying around, but right now I’d rather be diamond painting – just like these awesome stickers my husband made me say:

Have you picked up any new hobbies due to the pandemic?

Budgeting and Financial Independence

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

My husband and I are well on our way to financial independence. In the last year, we’ve paid off 3 credit cards, a bank loan, and a car loan. We’ve been very lucky that my husband maintained his regular income even during the COVID lockdown and with a bit of discipline (and some unexpected windfalls) we made real progress on our goals.

One of the first things I did was to set up a budget planner for myself. In it, I track all of our expenses and income. It’s really helpful just to see where all your money goes during the month. Before the pandemic hit, we ate out quite a bit – so cutting down that expense (especially since lots of places weren’t open) was helpful. We also made a concerted effort to cut down on our Amazon spending. It’s so easy to just go to Amazon, pick out what we want, and then two days later it’s on our doorstep.

However, we were buying things we didn’t really need, so we cut that spending down. I also tackled our smallest debt first, which at the time was the balance of a car loan. It felt amazing to walk into the bank and plonk down the cash to pay it off! After that, we had some store credit cards we’d used to purchase some appliances, so I focused on those next. We continued to pay on our other bills as well, of course. Once the store credit cards were paid off, we focused on the bank loan.

At the beginning of this year, we were down to just one credit card, a car loan, and our mortgage. We refinanced our mortgage two years ago in preparation for my youngest entering college. We were able to get some equity out of our house and into our bank account as well as lowering our mortgage payment due to the super low interest rates at the time.

Our remaining credit card has been a source of frustration for me, because we have had it paid off before, but whenever we travel to Canada to visit my husband’s family, the balance creeps right back up. This year, since we haven’t been able to travel, we’ve had more time to get it paid off, as well as getting some help in the form of our tax refund and our stimulus money.

But – a win is a win, and I’ll take it! The last credit card is paid off – though I do have some small monthly subs that will get charged and then paid off immediately. Because of course, if you don’t use your credit cards, your credit score goes down. How and why everything is tied to your credit score is a source of constant frustration and irritation to me, but that’s a whole ‘nother post! 😛

So, we have one car loan and our mortgage left. And we will be using a chunk of our stimulus money to pay down the balance on the car loan significantly. All this means that we can (finally!) start putting money that was used to pay debts to work for us – in savings, in investments, in retirement accounts. We’ve been able to purchase additional large ticket items – like a new smartphone and a new dishwasher – in cash, rather than putting them on a credit card. Yes, it means a little delayed gratification sometimes while we wait to have the cash in hand, but the feeling of paying for each item in full at purchase has been more than worth the wait.

I’m still using my budget planner every month (with my cute stickers that I made!) to track all our purchases. Our Amazon spending has crept back up, so we need to be more careful with that, but otherwise we’ve pretty much stuck to the plan and are saving and investing as much as we can each month. Now we’re able to talk about what we want our lives to look like when we do finally move. We’d both like to work less and have more time to spend with each other and our family. More time to do those things that we want – like traveling, or just spending leisure time at home and with each other. My husband works long hours and it sometimes feels like we barely see each other – like we spend all of our time working to afford this house that we’re barely in except to sleep.

Looking back on all we’ve accomplished in the last year or so feels really good. We’ve got decent savings in the event of an emergency, we’re saving up to pay tuition, we pay our regular bills, and we still have money to set aside for investments for the future. I can’t wait to see what else we can achieve this year!