Washington Healthplanfinder FAIL

When automatic payments go seriously wrong.

I usually get email while traveling and generally keep up with anything important. Although I wasn’t surprised to get an email from Washington Healthplanfinder, my health insurance agent here in Washington State, to say that my monthly payment had been automatically withdrawn from my account, I was surprised at the amount:

Withdrawal Confirmation

Note the amount: $1,116.15. My monthly premium is $375.14.

I immediately called Washington Healthcarefinder. After pressing numbers to navigate through four different menus — just to ask a billing question — and waiting five minutes on hold, a typical script-reading customer service representative answered. I told her about the problem. After asking for various information to assure I was who I said I was, she read a script that told me that emails had gone out in error. She asked if my bank had processed the withdrawal.

I admitted I hadn’t checked, and whipped out my iPad to check with my bank’s app while she was still on the phone. The transaction had not been processed.

She read another script that assured me that it wouldn’t be processed. That it was just the email that was an error. I suggested that if this was a widespread problem that an email should go out to notify subscribers of the error. She didn’t have a script for that so she didn’t have anything to say. I hung up.

Two days later, on Wednesday, I got an email from my bank confirming a withdrawal from Washington Healthcare Finder:

Withdrawal Confirmation

Note the amount: $1,116.15.

I just about went ballistic. I called the bank to have the charge reversed and was told that I’d have to fill out a series of forms to get the process started.

Washington Healthcare Finder’s offices were still closed that early, but later in the day, I managed to get yet another idiotic, script-reading customer service representative on the phone. I was not kind, especially when her script informed me that the process could take several days while their accounting department researched the problem. There was lots of time wasted on hold, which further pissed me off. When she got back on the phone, I told her that their error had cost me more than an hour of my time with two calls to them and one to my bank. I asked if I would be getting compensated for my time. She said they wouldn’t compensate me for my time, but they’d “compensate me for the overcharge.”

“That’s not compensation,” I roared over the phone. “That’s a refund for your freaking error!”

Because she obviously didn’t understand the difference, she had nothing to say. I hung up.

But not before I demanded that she turn off automatic payments for my account.

Later yesterday morning — yes, two days after the initial email about the incorrect amount went out, I got this:

Notice of Error

Is there any way they could have screwed this up more?

I’m fortunate in that I had enough money in my account to cover this unexpected withdrawal. Other people who routinely carry smaller checking account balances would likely bounce checks to other payees, setting up a nighmarish experience of explaining the problem for every bounced check and getting overdraft fees reversed. Hours of a person’s time could be wasted on this.

I recently set up automatic withdrawals for a number of organizations I do business with. It should make it easy to pay on time without any additional effort. But I’m going to re-think that strategy and make my payments through my bank’s billpay feature. This puts absolute control in my hands and would certainly prevent something like this from happening again.

Pride for My Prized Possession

Why I like to keep my helicopter clean.

The other day, I did a Santa flight. When I landed and shut down, one of the many people who’d crowded around the helicopter for a closer look commented on how clean and shiny it was. Although I thanked her, I didn’t say what I was really thinking: it was filthy.

That was my opinion and it wasn’t shared by many others. I’m often complemented on how good my helicopter looks. Just the other day, a pilot friend from Oregon stopped by and he said pretty much the same thing. I pointed out the smashed bugs on the mast and leg fairings and the grime on the back panel near the tailpipe. He then saw what I saw and conceded that it could use some cleaning.

Indeed, it had not been washed with a hose in more than two years.

Keeping it Clean

Washing my Helicopter
This photo from 2006 shows my wash setup back in Arizona.

Back when I was still living in Arizona, I’d take it out a few times a year with a hose and sponges and a ladder and give it a good cleaning, from back to front and top to bottom. It was quite a chore and often took as much as two hours. I had to time it right so the sun wasn’t full on it and I could towel it dry before water droplet stains could form. Often, I’d finish it off with a coat of RV spray wax. Occasionally someone would help, but more often than not, they didn’t seem as interested as I was in getting it perfectly clean — or as close to perfection as possible.

Since January 2013, my helicopter has been bouncing from Washington to California and back to Washington on various agricultural flying contracts. It lived outdoors for months at a time, spending the winter of 2013/14 in a Wenatchee Airport hangar before settling into its permanent space in my RV garage at home only two months ago. The last time I washed it was when it still lived in Arizona, back in 2012. Since then, I’ve had to satisfy myself by wiping it down with a microfiber cloth after a heavy rain. That took care of most of the dust and some of the bugs. Spot cleaning took care of the rest.

Although my building has a handy drain in the floor and a hose spigot indoors, I haven’t gotten around to washing it in there — mostly because it’s too cold this time of year for it to dry properly. I expect I’ll be washing it indoors once in a while when spring comes. Otherwise, I can wash it outdoors on its landing pad in the summer, when the late afternoon sun sinks behind my building and leaves the driveway apron in the shade. That’s the plan anyway.

My Prized Possession

Why is it so important for me to keep it clean? It’s simple: I’m proud of it. It’s my prized possession.

Please understand that it’s not really the value of the helicopter that makes me so proud. At this point, it’s 10 years old. Both the house I still (unfortunately) own with my wasband and my current home are worth more (although the helicopter was once worth more than either one). Resale value does not make it a prized possession.

Instead, it’s what the helicopter represents: the result of hard work, smart investments, and a never-ending drive to make my business grow and thrive with good-paying work.

I look at the helicopter and I see long days sitting in front of a computer, writing book after book for my publishers. I wrote or revised 85 books in 20 years. Because they were computer how-to books, they had tight deadlines. How many 12-hour days and 7-day workweeks did I spend in my office banging away on a keyboard to meet a deadline? Too many to count. And don’t even get me started about the 12 summers in a row that I spent mostly indoors, working to meet deadlines for my Quicken books. It was only because a handful of my titles became bestsellers that the money started flowing in. That money made it possible to buy my first helicopter, a much smaller two seater that I put 1000 hours of flight time on in just five years.

I look at the helicopter and I see real estate investments I bought to explore a role as a landlord. The property with a two-bedroom home and four furnished studio apartments that I bought in the early 2000s stands clear in my mind. Yes, I got a good deal on it, but I also poured a lot of time and money into it, improving each furnished unit, showing it to a countless stream of snowbirds and transients, cleaning apartments over and over, dealing with complaints and tenants who couldn’t pay their rent on time or at all. And then the suicide in one apartment followed closely by the suicide of a tenant before she even moved in. (Seriously, I can’t make this shit up.) This property taught me how much I could hate being a landlord. But when I sold it shortly before the peak of the real estate market and pocketed a 50% profit in less than five years, I wasn’t complaining. That money, and the proceeds from the sale of my first helicopter, is what made up the sizable downpayment for my prized possession, making monthly payments for the balance almost affordable.

I look at the helicopter and I see all the ways I tried to build my business and make it profitable. I think about the tours and photo flights I’d do no matter how little revenue they generated. I think about the first few regular clients I got — a Russian photographer who led photo expeditions in the Southwest and needed a pilot over Lake Powell, Monument Valley, and Shiprock; a local addiction treatment center bigwig interested in showing off to client parents and investors by flying them to the desert facility; a proving grounds manager needing an aerial photo pilot who wasn’t afraid to operate in the deadman’s curve; an environmental impact study company that needed to fly hour after hour along cliff faces looking for raptor nests; orchardists who needed protection for their valuable cherry or almond crops. I think about the epiphany I had when I realized that these clients and this work was what would make my company succeed and that I was simply wasting my time trying to attract one-time clients looking for a deal.

I look at the helicopter and I think about all the hard work involved to keep my business profitable. I think of flying through weather to get to a client on schedule, I think of long hours flying slowly along the top of winding canyons, I think of hour after hour hovering low-level over cherry trees, I think about staying in cheap hotel rooms and having to walk three miles with luggage just to get back to the helicopter, I think of living in an RV for months on end. I think about writing proposals, sending out contracts, and tactfully nagging for payment. I think about patiently explaining to a client why he should fly with me instead of a cheaper alternative in a smaller aircraft piloted by a less experienced pilot. I think about networking and getting the word out and landing cherry drying and frost control contracts that finally got me in the niche I needed to ensure long-term profitability. I think about moving my helicopter and my RV between Arizona and Washington state — four 1000+ mile trips each year — usually by myself, year after year in all kinds of weather. And moving them again between Washington State and the Central Valley of California — four 500+ mile trips each year — for the past two years. I think about taking annual check rides with the FAA and dotting all my I’s and crossing all my T’s to satisfy government requirements.

I think about the money I spent on the helicopter since buying it in 2005: $268,000 for maintenance, $123,000 for fuel, $144,000 for insurance, and $47,000 on interest for the helicopter’s loan. I think about those numbers along with the other expenses I’ve had for simply owning the helicopter and operating a business — well over $1,300,000 total in the past 10 years — and how I feel when I explain to a passenger that it costs more to fly a helicopter than just the cost of fuel.

Cascades
My most memorable flight of all was from Wenatchee, WA to Hillsboro, OR in the summer of 2012; check out the video.

And then I think about the amazing flights I’ve had at the controls over the past ten years. Flying through desert canyons and up or down the California coast. Floating over the clouds at San Francisco, seeing one end of the Golden Gate Bridge poking up through the fog layer. Cruising over Lake Powell at sunrise or sunset as the sun’s first or last light touched the red rock cliffs. Flying along snow-covered hoodoos at Bryce Canyon. Crossing Cascade Mountain ridges above valleys full of clouds. Zipping past weird rock formations in Utah, Arizona, and Nevada. Speeding low across the empty Sonoran desert, over ridges and around tall cacti. Crossing the Navajo Reservation with wild horses and the remains of abandoned hogans below me. Skimming 50 feet above the surface of the Columbia River, waving to boats and water skiers I pass. Chasing race trucks on desert trails and go-fast boats on desert lakes. These are just examples off the top of my mind; a look through my log books would yield dozens of others.

And I remember that none of this would be possible without my prized possession.

And my prize possession wouldn’t be mine without all the hard work and long hours I put into earning the money to buy and keep it.

It’s more than just a costly possession that makes people (erroneously) think I’m rich. It’s a symbol of my achievements in life, the result of working hard and smart for a long, long time. It’s my reward for staying focused and doing what needed to be done, to the best of my ability, to move ahead, even when certain people tried so hard to hold me back.

Catching Up on Cleaning

So yesterday, I took advantage of the big, heated space inside Pybus Public Market, where my prized possession is currently parked. I brought in some Meguiar’s Detailing Spray, Turtle Wax Bug and Tar remover, and clean microfiber cloths. And then I finally cleaned the bugs off the mast and the leading edges of the horizontal and vertical stabilizers, leg fairings, and cockpit. I covered all the painted surfaces with the detailing spray, wiping it with a succession of clean rags that soon got dirty from the thin film of grime that had been on the helicopter’s skin. I worked slowly and carefully while a handful of people wandered by to check out the shiny red thing unexpectedly parked by the south door.

My Prized Possession
I took a picture when I was finished. (Missed a rag.)

When I was done, it was even shinier.

But I can still see a few bugs I missed on the mast…

Get What You Pay For

Why bargain hunting isn’t such a bad thing.

There’s an old saying everyone seems to know: “You get what you pay for.” It’s normally applied to situations where you buy something at a low cost and it breaks. “You get what you pay for” is supposed to explain why it broke — you apparently didn’t pay enough money for it.

Lots of people use this logic when they shop. If something is cheap, it must be crap because “you get what you pay for.” If someone else is selling the same thing or something similar for more money, it must be better, right?

Not always.

My Hair

Yes, I’m going to use my hair as an example.

I dye my hair. It’s no secret. I’ve been doing it since I was in my 20s when those first few grays started making their appearance. I did it myself for at least 20 years, using a reddish shade of brown that got even redder when exposed to Arizona sunlight. The color looked at least somewhat natural — at least no one ever commented on it looking fake. I’ve since switched to a browner color that’s more in line with what I remember my hair looking like. It’s been so long, I’m not sure. And those few strands of gray now account for about 75% of my hair.

Last year, I began living in an RV full time after leaving my Arizona home and waiting for my new home in Washington to be built. If you know anything about hair dye, you know that good water pressure is a must-have for rinsing that crap off your hair. So is a good supply of hot water. My RV is weak on both counts, so I began getting my hair dyed “professionally.”

I put “professionally” in quotes, because I started going to the local Beauty Academy. These are highly supervised girls (mostly) who are training to become beauticians. They do everything, from hair trims to dye jobs to perms. They don’t mix a color without consulting with a supervisor. The “classic color” service I needed cost $28.

I went every 6 weeks for quite a while. There was a different girl doing my hair each time. Based on observations, conversations, and chatter among the dozen or so girls working there, most of them were under 25 and apparently had at least one kid but no husband. Young women learning a good trade to support themselves and their families. We had nothing in common so conversation was minimal. Each girl took a long time to get the color in — a typical dye job would take over 3 hours. But it came out good each time and the color lasted. I was satisfied.

Then I succumbed to peer pressure. (Can you believe it?) When I complained to one of my girlfriends that it took so long to get my hair dyed, she ridiculed me for getting my hair done there. She recommended her woman at JC Penney’s salon. So I figured, why not?

I went to Sally (not her real name) and she did my hair. Although she was closer to my age than the Beauty Academy kids, she didn’t seem interested in striking up a conversation with me. While the dye “processed” in my hair, she disappeared into a back room. I learned to read a book or play a game on my phone.

The first time I went, she insisted on cutting my hair and waxing my eyebrows. I was trying to grow my hair long, but when I came every six weeks, she’d cut off 5 weeks of growth. And I don’t usually mess with my eyebrows. I let them do their own thing. But after waxing, they needed maintenance, so I had to have them waxed every time. The bill? $90. When I cut out the hair cuts and waxing, it went down to $70.

And I didn’t feel as if I were getting any better service than those young girls practicing on my hair.

So yesterday I went back to the Beauty Academy. The girl who did my hair was young but she had a professional attitude and would be graduating in just two weeks. She already had a job lined up. She did a great job on my hair, matching my existing color so she only had to do the roots. Because it was Customer Appreciation Day, the dye job only cost $18.

That’s more than $50 saved. And I got a pumpkin muffin to snack on.

I don’t think Sally will be seeing me again.

As for my peer pressure friend — well, I don’t talk to her these days anyway.

Harbor Freight

I was out with some friends last night, all sitting around a big table in a restaurant. I got into a conversation with a friend who was telling me about a crane he’d bought at Harbor Freight and had attached to his cargo trailer. He’s been collecting and selling scrap metal lately and needed something to lift engine blocks.

Harbor Freight, if you aren’t familiar with it, is a company that sells “quality tools at ridiculously low prices.” That’s what it says on their website. I can confirm the low prices, but I can’t agree about the quality. Most of what they sell is pretty crappy stuff.

But not all of it. My friend and I chatted about this. The “you get what you pay for” phrase was thrown around a bit. We both agreed that you had to think about how you planned to use what you were buying when making that purchase decision. If it was something you’d use occasionally and rather lightly, Harbor Freight was probably a good source. But if it was something that you needed to use hard and frequently — something you wanted to last a good, long time — Harbor Freight probably wasn’t the place to go.

Walmart

Most of my friends hate Walmart. It’s a policy thing — low pay and questionable promotional practices for employees, an abundance of cheap, low quality merchandise, and an atmosphere that appeals to the kind of shopper that most of us simply don’t want to get too close to.

I hate Walmart, too. But I have to admit here that I do occasionally shop there. Why? Because it sells two things I use every day at a price too low to pass up:

  • Eight O'ClockThe first is coffee. I like Eight O’Clock coffee. It’s a medium or perhaps light roast Arabica bean. I grind it myself and brew it strong, by the cup. I’ve been doing this for at least 15 years, if not longer. I’ve tried other coffees over the years but always come back to this one. And if there’s one thing that’s important for me to get right, it’s that first cup of coffee in the morning. Trouble is, Eight O’Clock coffee isn’t easy to find. And when I do find it, it’s expensive. Walmart has it for $4.99/package. That’s $2/package less than I can buy it directly from Eight O’Clock’s website.
  • Penny eats Cesar dog food. Yes, it’s the foo-foo dog food that comes in tiny plastic containers. She eats one every morning. They come in many flavors and are easy to store and serve. And travel with. It just makes sense. Unfortunately, Safeway and Fred Meyer sell it for $1.29/container. Cesar Dog FoodSometimes, if it’s on sale, I can get it for 10 for $10 ($1/container). But Walmart sells it for 70¢/container. So let’s do the math here. Suppose I’d always buy it on sale at Fred Meyer for $1/container. Walmart saves me 30¢/container. 365 days in a year is $109 saved. And since I’m going to Walmart for my coffee anyway…

Yes, there is a point here. By buying these two things in Walmart, I’m getting exactly what I want for less money than it would cost elsewhere. Quality isn’t an issue — it’s the same exact thing I could get somewhere else. In this case, I’m getting what I pay for but I’m paying a lot less.

Is my monthly shopping expeditions to Walmart to buy two things is supporting Walmart policies? Maybe. But hell, I need my coffee!

More Examples?

I can probably spend weeks blogging about other examples, but I think you get the idea. You can probably even come up with a few of your own examples.

I think the point I’m trying to make is this: when shopping for what’s best for you, it’s important to not only consider price, but to also consider the quality of what you’re getting. Don’t assume that low price means low quality — often, it doesn’t. Often, you can get the same quality for a lower price.

But not always. A smart shopper — especially someone who wants (or needs) to save money — has to look at the big picture with every purchase decision.

IRS Tax Payment Rejection Scam

Are people really this stupid?

I got an email message from “TAX@irs.gov” today claiming that:

Your federal Tax payment (ID: HF2IRS598523201), recently sent from your checking account was returned by the your financial institution.

For more information, please download notification below. (Security PDF Adobe file)

http://www.feftechnicalsupport.co.uk/google/[REDACTED].php

Seriously?

Are people really stupid enough to click a link on a site based in the UK for an IRS tax issue? Are people really stupid enough to click a link to a PHP file that’s supposed to be a PDF file?

Here’s a copy of the message. If you got one of these, “raise your hand” by posting a comment below. I’m curious.

And spread the word; you have no idea how much it irks me that scammers are preying upon people dumb enough to believe crap like this.

Tax Scam Email

Ten Years Stalled

Belated realization.

I recently blogged about the feeling I got walking through my new home under construction. It was a feeling of happiness at moving forward again, a feeling of achievement, a feeling of a good future ahead of me. In that post, I mentioned that my life had been stalled not for the 2 years of my ongoing divorce battle but for at least 10 years.

It was back in the mid 2000s that I began hitting hurdles erected by the man who called himself my “partner” in life, the man I was foolish enough to marry after 23 years together.

At the CabinI bought a truck to leave at the cabin so we could come and go by helicopter. Back in those days, I had plenty of money to burn. My wasband never stopped me from spending my money on things he could enjoy.

It all started when I couldn’t get him to work with me on putting a vacation home on our Howard Mesa property. We had two separate sets of drawings made, spending well over $1,000 in the process, before he admitted that he “couldn’t live up there” because it was “too remote.” This was after dumping thousands of dollars into a fence, septic system, and water storage tanks. The compromise was a “camping cabin” that we bought and had brought to the site; I spent much of the summer of 2005 insulating it and framing out the wall between the kitchen and bathroom, joined by him on weekends for other construction work. The resulting structure was used infrequently over the following six or so years — but I still cherish great memories of weekends and holidays there with him and our dog and our horses.

Jack at Howard Mesa
Our dog, Jack, at Howard Mesa. I was always a sucker for a good view; it was the views, the privacy, and the silence that sold me on the 40 acres we bought north of Williams, AZ.

In the years that followed, he continued to hold me back from moving in one direction or another. I wanted to move out of Wickenburg, which had become a sad retirement town that almost all of our friends had already abandoned, but I couldn’t get him to work with me to find a new place. I wanted to expand my business so we could work together, but although he occasionally went through the motions of helping me out, his contributions were so minimal as to be non-existent — and I usually couldn’t rely on him when I needed him most. I spent a lot of time waiting for him to do what he said he’d do. Lots of promises, no deliveries. I was patient — too patient! — but by the winter of 2011/2012, my patience was wearing very thin.

I also wanted to help him achieve his goals — opening a bike shop or developing solar energy products or becoming a flight instructor — but he kept dropping the ball. How many business cards and web sites did I create for him? How many letters did I edit? How many brainstorming sessions did I share with him? I wouldn’t mind if they led to something, but they only led to dead ends. I became tired of putting time and energy into projects that he never took to completion. He wasn’t just holding me back, he was holding himself back.

He was stuck in a rut and he apparently expected me to stick there with him.

Although I didn’t realize it at first, my summers in Washington doing cherry drying work not only made my business prosper but they were a welcome relief from a boring life in a dying town with a man who seemed satisfied to live out his existence in his own daily grind. I made new friends, I did new things. I learned about agriculture and wine-making. I experimented with video production. And I fell in love with the area — with the mix of happy people of all ages, the wholesome farmland attitudes, the river and mountains, the recreation possibilities. There was life in Central Washington — a lot more life than there was among the angry old people in Arizona.

One of the last times I spoke to him, in July 2012, I brought him by helicopter to see the place I wanted to buy and make our summer home. I envisioned him opening that bike shop he claimed he wanted to open along the bike trail in Wenatchee and working there with him on sunny days to rent bikes and maybe even do Segway tours. (I even had $25K saved up and was willing to spend it to buy 5 or 6 Segways.) I envisioned me flying on rainy days, drying cherries, and perhaps doing the occasional wine-tasting flight. I envisioned afternoons spent on the deck together with a glass of wine overlooking the Wenatchee Valley. I envisioned returning to Arizona in the winter, hosting couples with horses in the guest rooms of our house via Air BandB, making a little money while he continued his flight training and realized his dream of becoming a flight instructor.

It was all possible. It was all doable. With our financial situation at the time — a paid for house and very little personal debt — it would have been easy. I saw a great life for both of us — a sort of semi-retirement in our 50s, moving with the seasons between two beautiful homes and realizing our dreams instead of grinding away at unfulfilling jobs and dealing with company bullshit.

Jake
Jake, the horse I bought for my wasband before we married. Does he need to see the cancelled check for $1,100 to remember who paid for him?

On that day in July 2012, I didn’t realize that he’d already made his bed with another woman and was planning to cash in on our marriage to finance his life with her. I was a fool to think that he loved me and he wanted a good, honest life. In reality, I was nothing more than a meal ticket, the provider of horses and helicopter trips and fun toys to play with. And because I didn’t play by his restrictive rules, he was finished playing and ready to cash in his chips.

And that’s my big realization.

I realize now that he married me for my money — I was earning a lot of money right before we married in 2006 and had accumulated quite a portfolio of assets. His attempts over the past two years to claim ownership of my personal and business possessions, investments, and retirement funds prove this without a doubt. There was no love, at least not when we married. He was locking himself in, banking on community property law to half of everything I owned, earned, or acquired. Everything he’s done since he asked for a divorce on my birthday in June 2012 proves it.

Phoenix Sunset Flight
Flying over Phoenix at sunset. Who’s he flying with now? He sold his plane so he’s not even flying himself around.

Those of you who have read my other divorce posts or have spoken to me about this know the personal pain my husband’s dishonesty and betrayal has caused — and continues to cause — for me on an almost daily basis. My biggest problem is that I simply can’t believe that a man I spent 29 years of my life with could turn on me as he has. I know he’s mentally ill — the things he’s done to me and said to others and in court are a pretty clear indication of that.

Every day, I face an unbelievable amount of sadness and pity for the man I love. And pretty regularly, that pity is rewarded with yet another personal attack through the court system — appeals, false claims, accusations, stalling tactics. It never ends.

Well, that may never end, but his ability to keep my life in a perpetual stall has ended. I’m moving forward with my new home and my new life. Since 2012, I’ve lost weight and regained my health and self-esteem. My flying business is going better than ever — mostly because I don’t have to say no to out-of-town jobs to keep my wasband happy — and I’ve refreshed my writing career with a series of new videos for Lynda.com. (Meanwhile, my divorce book is on hold, waiting for the end to be written.) I’ve made lots of new friends to keep me company and share my joy and adventures.

Legal fees for the divorce dealt a severe financial blow to me, but because I’m not dependent on someone else for my living — I never have been — and I live within my means, I’m recovering nicely. Although I don’t like living in my RV (the “mobile mansion”) — as my wasband absurdly suggested in a court document — it has enabled me to live cheaply so I can save money for my new home.

Getting ahead means working hard and making sacrifices. I understand that and am willing to do what it takes.

It’s sad that the man I married and still (unfortunately) love has never understood that. All his talk about “making things happen” was just that — talk. I took it to heart and made things happen for myself — and him, for a while.

I only wish that my love for him over all those years hadn’t clouded my view of the kind of man he really is. I could have prevented that 10-year stall by making my exit a lot sooner.