Monday, January 31, 2011

Ways to Save Money - Even on Phone Calls

With the recent credit crush putting further pressure on household budgets, more and more people are finding that they need to tighten their belts and look out for ways to save money. Luckily there are plenty of ways you can help trim expenditure and help balance the books at the end of each month.

Once you have made a list of what is coming in and going out of the household each month and you have got a good idea of how much you need to save, have a really close look at what you are spending and identify areas for action.

If the weekly shop is one of your biggest outlays, try shopping a little bit smarter this week. Are there any coupons you can take advantage of to cut the weekly bill? Or how about taking advantage of those famous 'buy one get one free promotions'? They might require a little upfront investment but as long as you are only buying what you would need anyway, you should save money in the long run.

Try to cut back on money you spend going out. Consider staying at home to watch a film, rather than paying for the cinema. Of course, one risk of all this time spent at home is that you will start running up a bigger phone bill in an attempt to keep in touch with your friends. Luckily, there are many ways of reducing calls costs if you are prepared to do a little work, even if you need cheap calls to India.

Home override providers can help provide cheap calls to Australia by re-routing your call via a low cost number. If you have family in Delhi, cheap calls to India (or indeed cheap calls to Pakistan or wherever else you are calling regularly) can really make a difference to the monthly bill and these services are actually very straightforward to use. For example, if it is cheap calls to Australia you need, then the override provider will simply give you a special number to dial that will connect you to their network. Once you are through to that, you simply dial the number of whichever friend or relative you are trying to contact and from then on it works just like a normal call.

Just putting into practice the tips above should produce a decent monthly saving, getting cheap calls to Pakistan alone would make a significant dent in many household's budgets, but you can step up your efforts even further by doing some or all of the following suggestions; walk or take public transport and leave the car at home to save on pricey fuel costs; take a packed lunch and drink to work rather than buy expensive pre-packed sandwiches; or perhaps spend some time on E-bay making some money from those unwanted Christmas presents.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

America is in Debt

America is in Debt. It's no secret. Between this terrible recession, the crazy number of foreclosures, and home prices dropping significantly, people have been forced to rely on debt even more than usual

The national problem with unsecured debt, typically in the form of high-interest credit cards, is partly to blame why payday loans became a necessity for some. Unsecured debt threatens to become an issue of comparable significance as consumers scramble to find an appropriate solution. The good news is that there are solutions available, and that there is one that is likely to suit your circumstances better than the others. Each has its own set of benefits and shortcomings, and it is imperative for the consumer to collect enough information to make the proper choice of a solution.

Sadly, many consumers have compounded their financial predicaments by choosing a solution that was a poor fit for their particular situation. An online cash advance helps the problem in the short-term, but it's far from a good solution. Often times, this 'solution' causes more stress than the original problem, and compound interest can be killer.

There are 5 main categories of debt relief solutions to choose from. They are listed here in the order of the severity of the debt problem, from the least severe to the most:
  1. Frugality - Reduce expenses and increase income if possible. This can solve a small problem, but when you're really feeling the pinch, keep reading.
  2. Debt Consolidation - Take out a HELOC to pay off the high-interest debt. Unfortunately this solution is very difficult to implement due to the loss of equity most homeowners have experienced. Tight lending guidelines now dominate the lending industry.
  3. Credit Counseling - Consumers can enroll in a debt management plan (DMP) to reduce interest rates, stop over-limit and late fees, have a consolidated monthly payment, get relief from collection phone calls, and become debt-free in 5 years or less. It's a drastic step, but has worked for some.
  4. Debt Settlement - Sounds good, but there can (and will) be a major hit on your credit report. Maybe the costs are outweighed by not having that burden hanging over your head?
  5. Bankruptcy - Chapter 7 or a Chapter 13 repayment plans are available, but a new 2-part "means test" for Chapter 7 that was instituted in 2005 effectively disqualifies many filers and forces them into Chapter 13 instead. The consequences for the consumer's credit are severe, lasting from 7 to 10 years. This is definitely a last resort and this decision should NOT be taken lightly.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Is there a more Beautiful City than Seattle?

Seattle is the most beautiful city. I just had to share...

Friday, January 21, 2011

Deals at Local Grocery Store

Unfortunately I do not live close to a warehouse store like Costco or Sams. I stumbled upon a chain of stores called Grocery Outlet. They are only located in western-U.S. states. I visited one a couple of weeks ago and wasn't very impressed.

It was kind of grimy, and when it comes to food I like to shop at a really clean store. I visited a different location a couple of days ago, and this one was very clean. You can get good deals on food, although much (but not all) of what they carry are never-heard-of brands.

What impressed me the most was the great prices on beer and wine. I bought a bottle of red wine that was originally $18, marked down to $3.99 and it was delicious. I also bought a two-pack of Progresso spaghetti sauce for $2.99. They also carry many national brands of dog and cat food. If you have one close by, it is worth checking out.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Simplifying Christmas - a Ban on Catalogs

Have you noticed during the holidays that catalog companies send multiple copies of the same catalog, each with unique cover art? It is amazingly wasteful, not to mention annoying. I live in Seattle where the local government recently made recycling mandatory.

If the garbage man finds recyclable materials in your trash he can slap a fine on you. I think it is a fantastic program because I have been a compulsive recycler for a long time. I have been known to fish bottles and cans out of my coworkers wastebaskets and take them to the centralized recycling bins on our office floor. Luckily, they find this to be an endearing trait.

So it won't surprise you to know it pains me to haul a heavy load of catalogs to my recycling bin each month.  Dawn at Frugal for Life recently wrote an article about how she helped her aging mother who was bombarded with junk mail.

Earlier this year, I embarked on a similar mission with unwanted catalogs. I called the 800 number in the catalog and requested that my name be removed from their mailing list. They all agreed to do so, but informed me that I might receive one or two more catalogs before they stopped arriving. So I would tear off the cover and place it in a drawer so I knew I had already called them when a subsequent catalog arrived. You wouldn't believe how thick that stack became. Just in time for the holidays, all the unwanted catalogs quit arriving.

My load to the recycling bin is much lighter, I helped to reduce unnecessary waste, and I no longer have to deal with stacks and stacks of catalogs during the Christmas season.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Starting Net Worth December 2010

I should have been an accountant. I love to track numbers. I have a spreadsheet that dates back to 1998 when I started to track my net worth. It is gratifying to look back on the progress I've made and to see how things like consistent saving for retirement, or buying and selling a house affects the numbers. My December Net worth tally is $395,602. Here is how that breaks out.

Assets December 2010
Condo $285,000
IRA $141,000
401(k) 82,000
Money Market $28,700
Car $12,000
Pension $14,450
Checking account $3,000
Total Assets $566,150
Personal Liabilities
Mortgage $185,000
Net Worth $381,150

Monday, January 17, 2011

Mystery Shopping Can Be a Pain In the Patootie

Early last year I stumbled across an article in the Wall Street Journal with the enticing title How One Entrepreneur Lives Large -- for Free. It's an article about how one woman replaced her Wall Street salary with mystery shopping assignments. I was enthralled. It sounded so easy, so flexible, so desirable! What if I could ditch my corporate job and mystery shop full time?

I took the time to get my silver MSPA certification and then embarked on signing up with as many mystery shopping companies as I could. I did all kinds of assignments from evaluating retail stores and gas stations to dining in five-star restaurants. I was on my way to a new career! But then I realized that the payoff just wasn't there. There is a lot of time involved with completing an evaluation. Then the really time consuming part starts when you complete the write-up on the assignment. It just wasn't worth the effort to me. Some evaluations took three hours to complete the typed report. And all I got in exchange for that was a reimbursed dinner meal.

But during my little mystery shopping experiment, I stumbled across one company that offers restaurant evaluations in exchange for a reimbursed meal and a ten-minute survey on the service I received. I just returned from lunch there today, and I truly enjoy dining at the restaurant. I have shunned mystery shopping from all other sources, and only work for this company. I am treated to a few free meals a year and I always look forward to the experience. (For confidentiality reasons, I can't share either the mystery shopping company or restaurant with you.)

But all the initial pain and suffering of sifting through the mystery shopping world paid off. I am required to take a dining guest with me to complete the assignment, so I have become very popular with my coworkers for the periodic free lunch they receive!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Could You Live on Half Your Salary?

At a dinner party last night (where I served my Italian grandma's famous lasagna...mmm) the topic of part time work came up. A friend of ours who has a new baby has shifted to working only two days a week. She is part of a two-income household, which makes it easier to accomplish such a thing, but it got me to fantasizing about a world in which I only had to work two days a week.

I started wondering if there were a position with my company that would allow me to work two days a week, for 10 hours a day. I could start my day at 7:00 am, take a brief 15 or 30 minute lunch, and be outta here by 5:30. By working a 20 hour work week, I would still be eligible for benefits.

But could I swing it financially? Right now my biggest expense is the mortgage on my condo. I'm not emotionally attached to the place, so I wouldn't mind renting it out. If I rented it out as a furnished unit, I could easily cover the mortgage, and make a little extra cash as well. Plus I would get all the nice tax deductions that rental property affords. But then where would I live? Craig's List in Seattle is crammed full of rooms-for-rent ads. I found this ad for a $600 room for rent in a beautiful house in a great neighborhood. Not too shabby. I could manage that. So that takes care of housing.

What about my day-to-day expenses? I currently save about 20% of my take-home pay. I did a little math and found that if I save the same percentage of my new (lower) salary, and reduced my monthly discretional spending from $1,500 (my current average) to $1,000 each month, then I would be still be cash flow positive each month. The biggest chunk of that $1,500 is spent on food, which with a little effort, could easily be reduced.

Of course my annual savings dollar amount would drop in half, but I have been a compulsive saver every since I started my career at age 21. And now, at age 37, my retirement savings are in good shape and I have a healthy emergency fund. I think I could swing this.

It's a fun exercise to consider. It is similar to the game you play, "what if you won the lottery." But the game of "could you live on half your salary" is actually an attainable objective. I think of all the wonderful things I could do with a 5-day weekend. How nice it would be...

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Dumpster Diving for Chairs

Yesterday my sister excitedly told me about a set of chairs she saved from being thrown out by a neighbor. This is extremely out of character for my sister who is a bit of a shopaholic and a stickler for quality. But these chairs spoke to her - they are groovy, authentically retro-style swivel chairs that just need to be recovered in a modern fabric to replace the grungy aqua blue vinyl they currently sport. She thought they'd be great in the kids play room.

I was thrilled (and shocked) to hear that she had acquired the chairs. She asked the owners permission, and they were happy to have her take them. The sad part is that my sister's husband is appalled that she salvaged these chairs. I am proud of my sister for standing up for going through with it, despite her husbands disapproval. I mean, the price is right (free!) and once they are recovered, I'm sure her husband won't be embarrassed of them.

Friday, January 07, 2011

How Did I Make $60 in 45 Minutes?

Get your mind out of the gutter. This is legit. I participated in a focus group today at lunchtime. This is the third focus group that I have attended in the past year. I did a Google search with the terms: focus group seattle, and found about ten companies in this area that conduct focus groups. If they had a web site, I signed up online, but some didn't, so I just gave them a call and asked if I could be added to their database for study group participants. I now regularly receive calls from four companies. They ask screening questions to see if I am eligible for their current studies.

I hit the jackpot with my first focus group last year. It lasted two hours and paid $200! The group met at 6:00 P.M. and they even served us dinner. The second focus group also lasted two hours, and paid $100. They wanted use to give them home broadband advice about how to improve the service. I gave answers about bad customer service, and if you've ever had Comcast, you know what I'm talking about!

I've enjoyed each of the groups I've participated in. It's fun to have somebody asking your opinion and actually listen to your response. And the money doesn't hurt either!

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Guest Post: How Good Planning Can Save Your Bankruptcy

Bankruptcy planning isn’t always the first thing a debtor thinks of—getting rid of debt and starting off anew is often more urgent. But few people realize the importance not just of planning, but planning smartly. Good planning can mean a successful Bankruptcy filing and a more secure financial future. Bad planning, on the other hand, can lead to anything from simple processing delays to fraud accusations that can land you in jail. If you’re not sure how to start planning your bankruptcy, read on for a simple guide.

Explore Your Options.
First, is bankruptcy really your only way out? Surprisingly, for many people, it’s not. Go over your debts and income, preferably with an accountant or bankruptcy lawyer, and see if there are other solutions available. Bankruptcy can have far-reaching consequences and should only be taken as a last resort. Some of the most common bankruptcy alternatives are debt settlement, debt consolidation, and simple self-reorganization of your finances.

Know What’s At Risk.
How much do you stand to lose in a bankruptcy? If you’re filing under Chapter 7, you may lose some of your assets if they’re not listed as exempt under bankruptcy rules. Chapter 13 bankruptcy won’t have the same effects, but may have other drawbacks. Take a look at your current assets and properties, and decide whether you can afford to give them up to clear
up your debt. You can also consider selling them off yourself and paying your creditors outside of bankruptcy.

Consult A Lawyer.
You will need a bankruptcy lawyer to help you along, but nothing’s stopping you from consulting one even before deciding to file. A lawyer can better explain where you stand, what your options are, and what the consequences will be. They can also help you decide whether or not to file
bankruptcy in the first place. Most bankruptcy lawyers offer a free initial consultation, so just look around for recommendations and set a few appointments.

Plan Your Recovery
Bankruptcy planning doesn’t end at your discharge. As previously mentioned, bankruptcy affects you longer than you may think and it’s important to know the implications. For example, how do you plan on rebuilding and maintaining your credit afterwards? If you’re planning to
get a home mortgage afterwards, how long will you have to wait? These are all things you can discuss with your bankruptcy lawyer and plan for before taking that first step.

About the Author
The writer of this article has made his mark by writing on legal issues especially on Filing Bankruptcy procedures in different states. The author regularly writes on bankruptcy related issues like Ohio bankruptcy, Filing Bankruptcy In Ohio, chapter 13 bankruptcy and chapter 7 bankruptcy etc.