Falling Off The Wagon

15 06 2008

Hi, my name is Daniel, and I… lost track of my finances. 

I write (what is for the most part) a personal finance blog, so you’d think that I would track every penney, but I don’t.  We budget to pay ourselves first (savings/retirement), pay all of our bills, and then everything else is give and take.  One month we might go over on eating out, but we won’t touch our clothing budget, so we call it even; but over the last month as we have moved I have learned a very valuable lesson.

Once you start spending, it’s hard to stop.  It’s like the floodgates of your bank account open, and the next thing you know, you’re asking how your credit card bill got that high!?

We realized this week that we have run our credit card bills up much more than we realized.  It’s not like we have purchased large items, it’s a great number of little things that we did not appropriately budget for.  For instance, the last two weekends we have been out of town, and we did not adequately budget for food for either weekend.  Plus being gone on the weekend messed up our schedule, so we didn’t go to the grocery store to stock up for the week as we usually do, so we ended up eating out.  Then we moved, there was no point in us buying tons of food when we would have to move it, so we ate out more.  

Our move was a beast by itself.  Thank goodness I have friends and family who were willing to come help when I offered free beer (which no one ended up drinking!).  I rented the largest Budget truck available, for 24 hours, found a coupon code online to nock off 10%, and then surprised myself when I was able to negotiate another 15% off at the truck rental place.

Somehow a great number of little things added up.  The only major things I can remember buying are drapes and blinds for the house (which we came in way under our budget for!…to bad we went over everything else!)

This will serve to be a very interesting month.  We will soon make our first mortgage payment (yikes!), and we’ll get to see how close we were in our estimates for our new utility bills!  Plus, we’ll map out a plan to pay off our credit card bills.  Which right now I’m thinking will involve pulling some funds out of savings and tightening the budget to replace the money over the next few months (and hoping for a decent raise soon!)

Also, allow me to apologize for this seeming rant.  As you know it’s been over two weeks since I’ve really posted anything of substance, so A. I’m a little rusty, and B. it helps to just start writing to get the wheels moving sometimes!

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Buying A House and Maintaining An Emergency Fund

20 05 2008

In 8 short days I will make the biggest purchase I am ever likely to make, I will be purchasing a new house.  And the closer we come to closing, the harder it is for me to practice what I preach.

Everywhere I look small “upgrades” are popping up that I know I can find cheaper elsewhere, or that I can do myself without having to pay the builders up charge for, and it pains me every time I give the go ahead for them to do something else when I know I’m being ripped off.  I can’t haggle with them, I’m not in a position to.  I already signed the contract to build the house and put down earnest money, so I’m at my builders mercy.

Why would I voluntarily get ripped off you might ask?  Because as I plan ahead for all of our upcoming expenses like drapes, blinds, rugs, random furniture (although we have most), deposits on utilities, moving costs… It’s easier to lump it all in and finance it so that I’m not out anymore cash after I seemingly drain my accounts at closing, because I will not allow us to dip into our emergency fund for these items.  Really the only thing we aren’t having them do that they can is hang our drapes and install our doggy door ($350 for something I can do myself in a hour is too much for me to bare).

At the end of the day, and especially as our country is testing the waters of economic uncertainty, emergency funds are too important to tap into for non emergencies.  And I’m proud to say that even though we may be paying an up charge on these items, our emergency fund will remain in tact and actually grow a bit due to the rolling in of some of our closing costs, so in the case of an actual financial emergency we will have money to keep us afloat.





Does The Size Of Your Image Equal The Size Of Your Debt?

31 03 2008

Our society has a perception complex. We are raised to judge and compare ourselves against others and our perceptions of other people become our own reality. We are trained from an early age in this regard. In school it didn’t matter if I got a “C” on a project as long as it was in line with the other students in class. Even on a set scale where everyone knows that an “A” is the best, we judge ourselves against our peers, not the scale. It only mattered that I was considered as smart or smarter than the other kids in the class.

By no means do I consider myself to be smart, but the fact that I am a clean cut, in shape, nerdy looking guy, who can carry a conversation on just about any topic, has really helped me out in life. My image allows other people to come up with their own realities of who I am, and I have found that for the most part, people consider me to be a mature young guy with a good head on his shoulders, though if you read young and frugal you already knew that (I kid). And for the most part I work at my image because I want people to walk away feeling that way about me.

Whether we like it or not, image is important in our society, and our society sees the things we appear to possess as extensions of who we are. Our friend who drives the BMW must be rich, and the guy down the street who drives a ’95 Civic with 225k miles on it must be poor (eww!).

Notice how I used the phrase “appear to possess,” I say this because if I’m leasing or I have financed a 3 series is it really mine? If it’s paid off like the ’95 Civic then of course it is, otherwise…? I don’t know, can you claim half a BMW?

All of this perception is human nature. As kids, we know that rich people drive nice cars, live in nice houses, and watch huge HDTV’s. As we grow up, and learn about money and responsibility we learn that just because we appear to possess these items doesn’t mean we are rich.

Mary and I listened to NPR on the way home from work today and we heard an interview with Moby. Moby grew up very poor, and he and his mother were on welfare and food stamps until he was 18. He knows and understands the merits of frugality, and that perception isn’t everything. He said on the radio today that earning a great deal of money hasn’t changed him and that he still shops at the same grocery store and does his laundry at the same laundromat. He says he still even has a little 13 inch TV.

When talking about his spending habits and his TV, Moby said “will watching Family Guy on a 42 or 50 inch TV make it funnier?” This practically stopped me dead in my tracks. For months I’ve been salivating over flat panel TV’s that I can’t really rationalize purchasing, but I always end up salivating and coming back around to wanting one. Mary and I even went shopping with her mother for one yesterday. I have had my dream home theater in my head for months (with a mac mini at the helm), and this one prompt by Moby made me question my motivations. Yes, Family Guy is hilarious, but A TV won’t make it funnier because it’s bigger, nor would Davidson have beaten Kansas had I watched in HD.

Why do I feel compelled to make such a big purchase? I could definitely put $1500 to better use somewhere else like an IRA/401(k) or paying down our car loan even faster.

I really can’t come up with a good reason as to why I want a new TV. We have two 20″ TV’s and they both work perfectly. Plus, I don’t really watch TV anymore! Yet, for some reason I want one that is newer/better.

Maybe I feel that our new and incredibly nice house is an extension of us and the TV is an an extension of the house that makes it that much nicer. Maybe I want people to perceive that we have made it, when we drive in our nice and practical new car to our nice new house and watch Nightly Business Report our big new LCD. But at the end of the day image is only as deep as the debt you (can) get yourself into.

Here is the anomaly on all of this, I don’t want my friends looking at our house and our car and being jealous. Sure it makes everyone feel good when other people are jealous of them, but Mary and I are in a unique situation where we are starting out in our lives and careers together. We are a dual income family with no kids (ok we practically treat our dogs like kids…but I digress). It is easier for us to afford this lifestyle. I don’t want any of my friends jumping into our lifestyle too quickly and getting in over their heads, I want them to understand that yes, we have nice things, nicer than we deserve, but we also have car payments, mortgage payments, insurance payments, property tax payments, Homeowners Association Dues, and various other things factored in.

Hey, at least we have no credit card debt! 





How Scouting Taught Me To Be A Smart Shopper

26 03 2008

While I was at my parent’s house over Easter, I was looking through some of my old stuff when I found a stack of Merit Badge books from Scouts.  Sitting perfectly on the top of the stack was the book for Personal Management, a merit badge designed to teach teens about managing time and money.

The book is filled with very good information on everything from budgeting, to living on your own and debt management, but I’d like to focus in on the section titled: Being a Smart Shopper.  (Keep in mind that as I go through and quote this that it was written in 1996 for teenage boys, but the lessons transcend age and date.)

 Suppose you have your eye on a really special skateboard.  How much does it cost? (Don’t forget to include the cost of protective gear if you don’t already own such items.)  You count your money and discover that you don’t have enough.  What do you do?  You Might:  

  • Shop around.  Maybe another store or a catalog has the identical skateboard at a cheaper price.  A telephone can make comparison shopping easy.  Call at least three stores.
  • Earn or save more money until you have enough to buy the skateboard.
  • Wait for a sale.  A store clerk might tell you if the skateboard will go on sale soon.
  • Look for discount coupons.  These can be found in newspapers, coupon books, or the mail.

What if you still don’t have enough money to buy the skateboard, or you decide you don’t want to spend that much money, even if it is on sale?  You have other choices.  Shoppers can’t always buy exactly what they want.  Sometimes they must compromise.  Thats part of being a good money manager – knowing when to say no to yourself. 

 Wow.  I’d say those last few sentences are something everyone needs to remember!  Mary and I are in this situation with our house right now.  We really want hardwood floors in our living room, but we know that we just don’t have the money for it.  We are forcing ourselves to say no, and it’s hard because we need want them.  It is very hard to say no to yourself, and it takes a great deal of self control, especially when (once you get older) it’s so easy to put a purchase on the credit card.  Luckily for Mary and I, we are able to hold each other accountable and it really helps.  

The Scouts are essentially saying, if you can’t afford something you have a few options: shop around, save more, wait for a sale, and look for coupons.  Very smart advice for anyone.  It also reminds us all to consider all of the costs we will encounter for this item, like having extra money for protective gear for the skateboard.

The passage goes on to recommend that you buy a less expensive skateboard with a different paint job, buy a used skateboard, check classified ads, and it even brings up building your own skateboard (which sounds fun and easy to me!)

The book then offers a checklist for smart shopping some of which are (my commentary in parentheses):

  • Be wary of advertising…(Always!)
  • Before buying a product, talk to…others who may already use [it]…  (Also seek reviews from consumer reports or on the internet)
  • Try before you buy/demo
  • Consider quality.  Price isn’t everything… Why buy something, even at a low price, if it falls apart quickly or doesn’t work properly.  (I am obsessed with quality products, if there is a difference in quality and price, I will buy the one that has better quality)
  • Consider Service. (I’m usually willing to pay more for something if I know that the service behind it will be worth it.  For instance, I’ll pay a bit more for something at Costco in order to get their service and extended warranty)
  • Don’t Impulse buy.
  • If there’s a problem, take a product back right away (be sure to keep your receipt).  Don’t toss the item aside and feel sorry for yourself….Most stores…[will]…probably fix the item or give you a new one.  (I am terrible at actually returning items to stores.  It always seems like too much of a hassle.  But I’m going to make a point to return a broken glass bowl we got as a wedding present (in June) this week.  We have the receipt.  I hope they take it back!)

It’s not always easy to be a smart shopper.  Most people, myself included, aren’t good at the waiting part.  We impulse buy, it’s what advertisers and marketers try to train us to do, but we need to always remember to stop and ask ourselves if we need the item, or if we just want it.  We also need to ask more important questions… Can I afford this?  How long with this take me to pay off?  How long will it take me to save for this?  Those are the types of questions that should be going through everyone’s head when they see something they want to impulse buy.

Writing this has been very beneficial for me today, because Mary and I did our Tax return yesterday and when I saw the amount we will be getting back I got very excited.  I even caught myself drooling over Mac mini’s online today.  But I slowly moved my mouse up to the corner of the screen and closed the window, because even though a Mac mini is on my list of things I want and need (yes I do need a new computer), I want to achieve other Goals first.  Most of our Tax return will hopefully be going directly into savings to help us achieve higher goals.





Life Tips From My Finance Professor: Part 1 – Purchases

18 03 2008

I took an investments class the during the Fall semester of my Senior year in college, and when I say “took” I mean that I dutifully attended every class, sat in the front row, and tried with all my heart to understand what the hell he was talking about.  It wasn’t that I didn’t understand the material, I just didn’t understand how our professor could brush over things so fast.  Most of the rest of the students never attended because the professor was one of the few that “recycled” his tests every year and didn’t change anything except for the numbers (ie: you did not need to attend class, you just needed to know someone who took him last semester).  

Dr. Chucky (as he preferred to be called) is one of the most peculiar people I have ever met.  And this is what you need to know about him… He probably smoked 2 packs a day, he sweated like a pig, and he spoke 6 languages.  He was a professor because it allowed him to play with his portfolio all day and use his summers to travel.  He is an incredibly smart person, but the type of smart person who didn’t relate very well to less smart people.  He has been on over 10 game shows and won a great deal of money from them.

I have previously written about things that should be mandatory for every college senior to learn (My Mandatory Class Proposal) and this series is about what Dr. Chucky rushed through on the last day of class when he handed out a sheet with many jumbled and incomplete sentences.  The thoughts were broken into 5 different categories.  We then talked about a 6th.  I will try and decode his thoughts in this series. 

Purchases:

1.  “1 hour search/study for each $1000 purchase”       

 What I believe he is saying here is don’t sweat the small stuff.  I write a great deal about frugality, and how I’m a bargain hunter, but usually what happens to me is that I over-research items and I don’t value my time enough.  If you spend 8 hours trying to figure out how to save 10% on a $1000 purchase is it really worth the time?   On the other hand, if you spend 20 hours researching a car and how to buy one it is probably a better use of time.  Or if you are looking to buy a house, spend as much time as you can, I don’t know if it’s possible to over-research a $200+ thousand purchase.

2.  “Think of all purchases in annual terms”       

 We live in a society that looks at things as “how much per month” without looking at the entire picture.  Sometimes it’s easier to finance things (not recommended) but we need to look at a bigger picture than just monthly, so look at how much you’ll be paying every year.  That should open your eyes, especially if you start to think about how much of that is interest and how much is principal.  Then look at how much you’ll be paying over the life of the loan…is it worth it?

 3. “Autos: go to fleet manager or internet managers”       

 Car salesmen are the pawns of the dealerships, the more they get you to pay, the more money they get.  Fleet/Internet Managers run the show.  They don’t get paid based on how much you pay, they get paid based on inventory turnover.  They don’t like to deal with haggling, they just want to get you in a car and out the door.  Mary and I did this when we bought our Volvo, it was a great experience, we got it for a great price, and we didn’t even need to haggle.  The internet manager agreed on our price, though the sales manager was royally pissed off (we heard him yelling at the internet manager).

 4. “Insurance, higher deductibles will lower premium rates”       

This pretty much speaks for itself.  Some people may say “but then I have to pay more if something happens,” true, but if you took the difference between the more expensive monthly payment, and the less expensive monthly payment you could be adding that difference to your emergency fund and earning interest on it in the meantime.  Pretty soon you’ll have saved enough to pay a higher deductible if something were to happen, and the rest is just more money saved.

 5. “Live below your means, save on : yard, car wash, cable TV, tipping”       

In other words, live below your means and don’t mindlessly spend.  There are plenty of luxuries that most people consider staples, Cable TV being at the forefront.  If you look for places to make cuts, you will find them.  You can wash your own car, you can take care of your own yard, and you don’t have to be known as a “big tipper.”

 6. “House purchase: Multiple Listing Service add-ons”      

  While I normally probably wouldn’t be able to decode this, I did jot down what he was talking about.  Multiple Listing Service (MLS) is the service that real estate agents use to search for houses.  What he meant by add-ons is to go to your real estate agents office early in the morning and map out which of the houses added to the list that morning you will go look at.  He was a big advocate of buy the cheapest/worst house on the best block, and he recommended that this was the only way to get it before someone trying to turn a profit by flipping it would.  Mary and I discovered that this really is the best way to do it.  When we were looking at houses we went by one that we really liked, on the day it was listed.  It was listed for what our agent believed was below market value, and the next day a contract was in on it for full asking price.  Two months later, it had been flipped and was back on the market for $100k more.

7.  “$1,000/month rent, buys a ~ $360,000 home after tax @ 5%”      

 This is one that I really can’t fully decode.  I believe he is essentially saying don’t throw away money on rent when you could be buying a house, but his math seems to be off.  By my math $1000/month buys a $225,000 house at 5% interest, if you put 20% down.  If you paid $1500 a month on mortgage you could do a $360,000 home after 20% down.  As someone in the process of buying/building a house, I’m still torn on the whole rent vs. buy thing.  There are tons of pros and cons to each, but I’m happy with our decision.  

As you can see, in Dr. Chucky’s list of incomplete sentences and thoughts on personal finances there is some great wealth of advice just waiting to be decoded and understood.  Stay tuned for more!





My Mandatory Class Proposal

11 03 2008

In college I thought I had learned everything.  I learned finance in and out, I learned economics, marketing, advertising, managing, forecasting, social drinking, networking, and every other aspect of business that I could think of.  I was a badass. 

Nope.  As soon as I started work, I ate my piece of humble pie. 

Why is it that I spent four years in college, graduating with honors and a dual degree, to enter the workforce and immediately be slammed by something that I had never been taught? 

Literally, the first thing I encountered when starting my new job was benefits, and I have never been taught benefits.  What kind of medical coverage do I need?  Should I get the basic plan, or the premium plan? HMO? PPO? Extra life insurance?  Flexible Spending Account?  Use it or lose it? How much will all this cost me? It was a very overwhelming experience.  

Who do you turn to in a situation like this?  It seemed like the benefits lady who talked to me on my first day was in the same boat I was in.  She had no idea what she was doing!  Other people asked questions and she stated the coverage that she elected.  Great.  How is a 40 year old, single mother’s elected coverage supposed to relate to a guy directly out of college?  Thank God I had a week to submit my elected coverage, because that gave me time to research and talk to my Dad.  Now am I confident in my selections?…Absolutely not. 

Having had this experience, I propose a mandatory class for all college seniors, regardless of their major.  This class would be taught jointly between a few different departments and would touch on topics that everyone will face after college:

  1. Résumés and cover letters: writing and critiquing
  2. Interviews: How to sound like a better you
  3. Benefits: The pros and cons of certain coverage
  4. Insurance: Life, Car, Home
  5. Personal Finance: How to Budget, and Don’t let your ego use your wallet
  6. Retirement Planning: Yes, you’re 21, but you won’t be forever

I propose that this class be mandatory for all college seniors because regardless of major, everyone will face these issues after college, and not everyone will have someone close to them bail them out (Thanks Dad!). 

I realize that all of these topics vary by person, but having someone lay out some basic guidelines that you will be tested on is something that I think everyone can agree on.  For instance: If you start out saving/investing 10% in a 401k/IRA/Roth IRA when you are in your early 20’s, you will be set for 80% income replacement when you retire (USAA Magazine), and your housing expense should be a maximum of 30% of your take home pay (many financial professionals).  Basic guidelines like these can educate people and make them more aware of their situations. 

I had great professors in college, but unfortunately only two of them did any sort of rundown on personal finance, and both of them were hurried on the last day of class.  In a few of my classes we worked on our résumés, but everyone thinks their way is the best, and I ended up with a few different versions to appease a few different people.  Interview sessions were offered by Career Development Services.  The key word “offered.”  Few people took them up on it. And I know quite a few people who graduated college with a great deal of debt.  Why?  Because they could pay off all their cards when they got jobs. 

I think a mandatory class along these lines would have a great impact on the future leaders of our country.  And maybe, just maybe, it may help make frugality a virtue again.





What Credit Crunch?

28 02 2008

I got my first credit card when I was 19. It was a Citi American AAdvantage card. As I got older I slowly accumulated more credit cards, and by the time I graduated college I had 5, all with Citi, all with rates between 15 and 20%.

Shortly after graduation, I financed our cross-country move, and had over $10,000 in credit card debt. I was paying more than the minimum monthly payment on all of my cards. It finally got to a point where I was sick of having this debt hanging over my head, so I took what I consider to be a drastic measure. I cashed out of AAPL and paid off all my and all of Mary’s credit card debt.

Now that our only debt is a car (that we overpay on, and put a huge down payment on), we no longer have high interest debt hanging over our heads. We have diligently been using only two credit cards that we pay off every month and it is amazing!

With the “credit crunch” going on, I have heard stories of people’s interest rate on their credit cards going up, and people not qualifying for loans. I’ve heard that it’s much harder to get financing and even harder to get credit cards. But I have to say that I have felt the opposite of this. It’s not because I’m searching for loans (we locked in a mortgage before the mortgage crisis), or because I’m borrowing tons of money; it’s because credit card companies are sharks!

I completely understand why it is so hard for some people to stay out of debt once they get out. Not a month has gone by since we got out of credit card debt that I have not received at least two credit card incentives in the mail. (I understand that this is partially my fault for not closing the accounts, but by leaving them open it can help my credit score for when we close on the house.) The wording of the incentives I receive is along the lines of “use these low interest rate checks to pay bills, pay off debt, or just to deposit in your account!”

I know that these incentives are usual for credit card companies to send out, I got them when I was in debt, and I expected to continue receiving them. However, now that I don’t have the debt, the volume of these incentives has increased. When I was in debt I would receive one per month for one account in particular. Now that I’m out of debt with them I am receiving them for all of my accounts.

I have to admit, I’ve been tempted by these checks. “0% for 6 months! I can pay it all back by then,” I say to myself, but then I think about it, tear it up and feel much better.

I encourage all of you to do the same. If you have or have had problems with credit card debt, there are many ways to approach it, but remember, never use any of these incentives that are solicited to you. If you absolutely need it, you should call and get it on your own. The most effective way, however, is to cut up your credit cards, and close the accounts once they are paid off.