I Don't Wanna Pay…

I complain about U.S.healthcare costs a lot and for good reason. However I also have a selfish reason for my anger against the current system.

Sometimes it isn’t about my inability to pay a high medical bill; it’s that I simply don’t want to…in the same way I don’t want to spend more than X amount for a leather purse. (My personal purse price threshold is $300 but I only paid that much one time)

Of course there is an obvious difference between healthcare and consumer goods/services. You can easily walk away from a pretty purse; it is not so easy (or wise) to walk away from a specialist visit or medical testing ordered for your benefit.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of my cousins saved big bucks on a MRI when she bypassed the insurer-approved radiology lab and went to a profit-drive MRI center that advertised $250 per test.

Most people with insurance, however, will go to the doctor-recommended radiology lab. They will likely pay even more than someone without insurance who gets a “cash price”. Healthcare providers routinely set higher prices to offer discounts to insurance companies. To me, it is no better than price gouging.

“…Good people….have inherited a bad system of jacking up prices each year for the purpose of offering bigger discounts to insurers….Itemizing their true true cost to calculate a real price has never been required by the market.” Marketwatch
Image by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Sure, there are business costs for operating a medical practice. However, operating costs alone do not explain the disparity in pricing. If you want to compare apples to apples, search for a medical procedure and average pricing in your area. You will be astounded by the wide range of prices.

Healthcare providers don’t offer a consistent reason for their pricing practices. And because healthcare pricing is shroud in secrecy, they do not have incentive to offer competitive prices.

Most Americans probably feel that the radiology lab and other healthcare providers are entitled to make a profit. However the question is how much is enough….10% profit? 50%? 1000% or higher? A transparent marketplace would allow consumers to compare and give incentive ti offer fairer prices.

As I said, it is the lack if transparency and unjustifiable high prices that bothers me the most. I’d rather spend my hard-earned money on a pair of shoes…No, just kidding. I would probably spend it on home renovations.

How to save hundreds on a MRI

Hopefully you never have to get a brain or spine MRI. However if your doctor recommends one, you should know that you can save hundreds by choosing a for-profit MRI center.

I didn’t even know about low-cost MRI options until recently. Like many Americans, I would have gone to the radiology lab referred by my doctor, or at least one that is in-network with my insurance company.

That reasoning made sense in the good old days, when your insurance company co-pay would likely be the best deal. If someone has pricing amounts from 10 or so years ago, let me know!

Nowadays, many people pay through the nose even if they have employer-sponsored health insurance, especially those with high deductible plans (HDP). As the name indicates, HDP insurance plans have low premiums but high deductibles (a specified amount of money that the insured must pay before an insurance company will pay a claim). It is intended to incentivize people to compare prices for healthcare services.

One of my favorite cousins has a high deductible plan with a 30% co-insurance for most services, including MRIs. While she is young and in fairly good health, last year she experienced mysterious dizzy spells. Her doctor recommended a MRI.

My cousin called several in-network radiology labs for pricing. No one could or would give her an exact price. The cost would depend on a variety of factors: 1) Negotiated price they billed to the insurance company, which varied widely; 2) the individual’s co-insurance, co-pay and deductible; 3) medical code used; and 4) the biller’s mood that day. (#4 is kind of a joke).

When she went for a second opinion, her new doctor requested another MRI. I forget the reasoning for a 2nd scan but almost a year had passed since her first MRI.

At that point, my cousin had already paid $520 out of pocket for the first MRI and could not afford another costly scan. After some research, she found several for-profit MRI center with good online reviews that charged $200 – $250 for the same scan — basically a 50% saving!

My cousin reported that the facilities and personnel were very good. Her doctor had no issue with the MRI, which means that the quality was good.

A quick Google search for ‘low cost MRI’ pulled up a half dozen results, including Radiology Assist, Nationwide MRI and Affordable MRI. I can’t vouch for any of these so be sure to do your own research.

I wonder if other lab services, such as mammograms or biopsies, have for-profit options that cost less than insurance. As shown by my cousin’s experience, it never hurts to look for alternatives!

Down the Slippery Spending Slope…Mostly due to COVID 19

It has dawned on me that ALL my recent big purchases are resulting in additional purchases. And it’s not a good feeling for an aspiring minimalist/ frugalista / zero-waster like me.

I bought a kiddie pool, which is overpriced due to high demand. Then I had to buy an air pump to inflate the pool. Now that I have the air pump, I am experiencing inflatable infatuation (a common disease among suburban parents). I can keep my kids occupied all summer… There are inflatable slides, bouncy houses, punching bags, pool toys, water sprinkler splash pads, and giant roller wheels waiting for their forever home!

I blame Covid 19 for the inflatable pool. My spouse and I have always been content with swim lessons at the local YMCA. Now we have an obnoxious giant kiddie pool in the middle of our lawn.

Unfortunately, the pool was only the beginning. I’ve since purchased new bikes for the kids. Then I found out that air pumps for bikes are different than those for large inflatable pools. Oh and I need to buy new helmets…

We also bought new patio chairs, which required new cushions. To protect our pretty chairs and cushions, I bought teak oil, chair covers and a patio umbrella.

I’m totally blaming Covid-19 for my indiscriminate shopping spree. The kids are destructive when bored. My husband and I have more time to stare at our neglected backyard. I just hope our spending returns back to normal once schools and camps and YMCAs are allowed to open again, whenever that might be.

Has COVID 19 changed your spending habits for the worse?

Backyard Landscaping Cost and other updates

A few weeks ago I estimated it would cost $1,000 for backyard landscaping, including grading, gravel, trees and simple construction. We ended up spending $900 for grading alone.

I also discovered that three fairly mature trees could easily cost another $1000+. And it doesn’t seem like an opportune time to do home improvements. Despite news about declining home sales and upcoming recession, a nearby nursery told us that they were swamped with customer inquiries.

This is not the first time that I’ve been hundreds off at estimating home improvement costs. I do actually research project costs for my area, but I seem to only recall the lowest price and not factor in variables that would increase the cost.

On the plus side financially, we agreed to get a simple patio umbrella instead of expensive $3,000 retractable awnings. It seems like a no-brainer now that we’ve made the decision (or rather, listened to a reader’s advice!) Did you know that fancy, cantilever patio umbrellas can cost $500+?

As for other projects on our list (sidings, porch, frontyard, fencing, electrical etc), we plan to stretch out the timeline and do more by ourselves or with a good handyman instead of a company if possible.

COVID 19 has really hit home two things 1) Although we love doing home improvements, we’d love to be done with our mortgage even more; and 2) While early retirement is not in the cards, I want enough financial freedom/security to quit and find a better job! You can look forward to an upcoming rant about my boss.

Running To Stand Still

I started this post back in 2016! Obviously it was never published. I updated it and added the “missing” years until 2020.

2016…What a year. I was laid off. Our rent increased. I cancelled hospital insurance thereby allocating that money toward increased rent. The same old middle-class story. Costs kept going up. Salary did not. I was glad that I had improved my skillset during the last several years. This helped me land a job rather quickly. However I began to realize that my continuous self-improvement efforts was just enough to stay at the same career level; it wasn’t enough to guarantee that my salary kept up with inflation.

2017 Rent increased again. Got loan pre-approval and started serious house hunting.

2018 Bought a house. Began endless cycle of home improvements. Adapted to new school and neighborhood. Spouse’s income improved just in time to help us pay property taxes!

2019 Changed companies, same field. Better benefits but not much higher pay. Spouse’s income increased. Completed a few bigger home improvements.

March 2020 Found this blog. It was interesting to read old posts from 3 – 4 years ago. Decided to start writing and commenting on blogs again.

Grocery pick up and delivery services: Ranked from best to worst

Like most people during this pandemic, I’ve started using online grocery shopping with delivery and/ or pickup. Although these services have been around for ages, I never felt the need for it pre-pandemic.

Under normal circumstances, I like to browse, adding items as I see them on shelves. I also like to use coupons and stock up on sale items even if it isn’t on my shopping list.

Of course all of the above are secondary to safety. Getting groceries delivered or picking it up means you don’t step into a crowded market full of possible coronavirus carriers.

Below are my definitive rankings based on my own experiences and that of friends and family. My list doesn’t take consider a company’s treatment of its front-line employees as I’m assuming they are all equally bad. I will likely update as the quarantine drags on.

Current Rankings
From best to worst

#1 Walmart
#2 Sprouts (instacart)
#3 Amazon Fresh
#4 Whole Foods
#5 Smart and Final
#6 Vons

#1 – Walmart: I never thought I would recommend Walmart but we had a great experience with their grocery pick up service. Here is my referral link that gets you $10 off (minimum $50 purchase, must be new to this Walmart service) and gives me $10 for referring. Note: Friends have gotten $10 off using my link; however I have yet to see my reward..😞

Walmart’s website was easy to use, although they seemed to have fewer choices online than in-store. I also recommend downloading their app to make edits on the go (well, on the go between different rooms in the house).

We ended up with $100+ worth of food in the shopping cart. However it took me several days to find an open day/time for delivery or pick up.

Hint: It is worthwhile to check more than one Walmart location near you for availability; in-stock items vary by store.

On the day of pick-up, I received an email confirming the final item and any substitutions. They substituted five things and we were getting a carton of dozen eggs and organic milk.

When I arrived at Walmart, the pick up area was empty.  I parked in a numbered space and called a phone number posted on a sign up in front. Two Walmart employees quickly arrived and loaded everything in my car’s trunk. No need to step out of the car!

Safety protocols may vary by store. At my pick-up location, employees wore gloves and kept their “social distance”. However I was told that this is not the case at every store.

#2 Sprouts: I had one good experience, followed by a so-so one. On the good side, I liked chatting in real time with the shopper through the Instacart app.

Unfortunately on my second order, they forgot one item (and billed me), substituted one item with something cheaper yet charged the higher price, and delivered damaged produce. If they refund my money, I may give them another chance. UPDATE: Even though I asked for a credit card refund, they credited my Instacart account. They did issue a refund of $20 due to missing items.

Remember, all grocery and delivery workers are overwhelmed so I think we should understand that mistakes get made.

#3 Amazon Fresh: They offer free delivery for Prime members. It took a long time to find an open slot for delivery.

#4 Whole Foods: They are just too expensive for my budget, even if I stick to their in-house brand.

#5 Smart and Final: Their website online ordering system did not work well on my phone. I probably won’t use them again just because of this.

#6 Vons: The earliest opened delivery date was two weeks out. However, we had a full fridge and didn’t need the items right away. On the day of delivery, we were informed that they only had three items (out of 30+) from our order!

Our order now totaled $21, out of which $9 was their service and delivery fee. We were aware and willing to pay these fees when our total order was over $100. But now that half of our bill were fees, it seemed ridiculously expensive.

It was too late to cancel the order online so we decided to call Vons headquarters. After a 40 minute wait, we talked to an understanding customer rep who cancelled our order for us.

Since we had waited two weeks for our order, we expected Vons to have most of the items, especially if we allowed substitutions for our first choice items. A huge disappointment!

If you have had any experiences with grocery delivery or pick up, please share!

2008 Crash: I was one of the idiots who took out a “liar’s loan” to buy a house I couldn’t afford.

Now that the coronavirus pandemic is pushing the world into recession, many people are comparing this to the 2008 crash, caused by big banks, subprime loans, and the spectacular rise and fall of real estate.

To tell you the truth, I don’t remember that much about 2008 crash. I had investments but did not make any changes based on the stock market dive. I don’t even remember how much I lost on paper. I kept my job although I remember a year (or two) of salary freezes. Even after the economy recovered, I never got a big raise again and certainly not enough to make up for the “lost” years.

However reading this post about the 2008 recession by Bitches Get Riches brought back some memories. It also made me realize that the young Millennials and younger generations probably think Gen X and Boomers are idiots.

Consumers were desperately trying to get ahead. They trusted the mortgage lenders, trusted S&P, trusted real estate agents not to steer them down a destructive path…But if the system had worked as it should, most of those people would never have been eligible for such self-destructive banking in the first place.

Looking back, my spouse and I should have known better. I knew that our incomes had not kept up with home prices. We were pre-approved for a loan even though we had less than 20% down payment and did not provide adequate documentation, hence the term “liar loans”.

Liar loans (also known as stated income or no documentation loans) is a type of mortgage loan where a lender does not verify an applicant’s income. Because the rules were lax, many people lied about their income and/or assets. It sounds crazy now but these types of loans were common in 2008. I don’t think these types of loan exist today.

While we didn’t lie about income, we mentioned possible family help (not realizing that the family member’s assets were also tied to the stock market boom). I clearly remember our lender playing around with numbers so that we could increase our offer for a home.

We were frustrated from being outbid; getting a bigger loan seemed to be the only path to home ownership.

Note: it was a definitely a Seller’s market as well. Even rundown homes attracted multiple buyers (and flippers/ investor). Many home buyers, us included, wrote tearful letters in hopes of swaying sellers to accept our bid over others.

None of that excuses our actions of course. We were just lucky that we never won a bidding war. If we had purchased a house, we would have struggled to pay and then defaulted on our loan.

Years later, when we finally purchased a house, the process was very different. We had 20% down and no debts. The lenders we talked to all required extensive documentation. No liar’s loan for sure!

I guess the point of this post is to say that you never know how you’ll behave until it happens.