Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Looks Like a Scam to Me…

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Looks Like a Scam to Me…: Yesterday I received a Priority Mail envelope from an address I didn't recognize. Inside was a cashier's check for $1930.00 and a j...

Looks Like a Scam to Me…

Yesterday I received a Priority Mail envelope from an address I didn't recognize. Inside was a cashier's check for $1930.00 and a job offer. Whoopee!

The enclosed letter told me I had been selected as a Wal-Mart secret shopper. What fun! How did they know I've always wanted to be a mystery shopper? I never applied for the job.

Pretty good money, too. Oh wait, the letter went on to say that my actual compensation would only be $300, not the entire $1930 that they'd entrusted to me. Still, $300 for a couple hours' work was not bad. I was instructed to deposit the check, then go purchase something at Wal-Mart for under $50, and then report on my interaction with the cashier.

The next part of the assignment required me to evaluate the Walmart2Walmart money transfer system by sending my new employer $1516 in two monetary transfers of $780 each. The person who wrote the instructions must not have been able to add, because $780 times two is $1560. And it sounded like there'd also be a $20 fee for making a transfer, but that would be covered by the $1930 check.

They emphasized that my task must be completed within three days of receiving the letter. (They especially want that money transfer made before their cashier's check bounces.)

I'm also supposed to send them a text or email to let them know I received the package, before I deposit the check. (That way, they'll have confirmation of live contacts for future phishing expeditions.)

My first thought—even though the letter warned me not to—was to contact Wal-Mart and make them aware of the scam. But then I just googled "Walmart Secret Shopper" and all kinds of fraud alerts appeared. Apparently, Wal-Mart does not even hire mystery shoppers, and they say so on their website. In case I'd missed all the red flags, some of the stories in the online reports sounded exactly like my scenario.

Guess I won't be taking this job after all…

Just curious, I went to the USPS website and checked the tracking number on the Priority Mail envelope. It was real; the response showed the date and time the package was delivered to my address. According to the label, the crooks had paid $9.90 postage to insure and send the bogus check via two-day service. I wonder if it was mailed by some poor soul who was duped by one of those phony "work-from-home" scams…

I dropped by my local police station with my paperwork. One of the detectives does periodic public service presentations to promote awareness about fraud. I figured he could use my letter and check as a visual aid.

"I hope you're not out any money," the receptionist said as she studied my letter. When I assured her I didn't fall for it, she added, "The chief gets these letters from time to time. Addressed to him here at the police station!"

Have you ever been the target or victim of a scam? I'd love to hear your comments.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Countdown to Financial Fitness: The Link Between Fitness and Frugality

Countdown to Financial Fitness: The Link Between Fitness and Frugality: Being healthy and physically fit is a blessing. Not everyone has the capability or stamina to walk significant distances. But, as we realiz...

The Link Between Fitness and Frugality

Being healthy and physically fit is a blessing. Not everyone has the capability or stamina to walk significant distances. But, as we realized on our recent vacation, taking the "shoe-leather express" whenever possible can save a lot of money.

We just returned from a 16-day cruise along the coast of Norway, stopping in many small to medium-sized towns with compact historical districts. The ship usually docked within a mile or two of the city center if not within easy walking distance of the major attractions. Yet in two of our ports, the ship's tour desk sold tickets for a shuttle service at $8.50 per person, each way. Tickets had to be purchased in advance from the cruise line; we were warned we couldn't decide on the spot to buy them from the bus driver once on shore. So, most passengers signed up to buy the transfers before we arrived.

After looking at maps and listening to talks from the destination port lecturer, my husband and I figured we could find better ways to spend $34. So, we walked into town. In both places, there were sidewalks and crosswalks to accommodate the locals and the more adventurous visitors traveling on foot. The areas we traversed seemed relatively interesting and perfectly safe, making the treks reasonably pleasant.

And what were most people who bought the transfers planning to do once they got off the bus in the main square? Walk around and explore the city. Some fellow passengers ended up not using their return tickets because when they'd finished sightseeing, they were closer to the ship than to the pick-up point for their bus.

In Longyearbyen, it was cold. But that's why we brought coats, hats, and gloves. In Norway, it also helps to have an umbrella handy, or at least a jacket with a hood.

It's a good idea to carry a bottle of water as well. And wear comfortable shoes.

Another instance where we saved money by using our feet was in Bergen, on the Floibanen Funicular. We were fortunate this time to enjoy a blue-sky day which made the view of the city, the harbor, and the surrounding mountains from the top of the hill spectacular. (On our first visit to Bergen, it was rainy and foggy, so we didn't even bother to go up.) A round-trip ride cost 95 NOK per adult (about $12) but we were able to buy a one-way ticket for 50 NOK, slightly more than half, and then walk down. A great way to savor the view on a beautiful day. People were walking up as well, but we're not that spartan.

Obviously, walking several miles round trip is not feasible for people with limited mobility or other medical issues. But for the able-bodied, it was a great way to work off some of the calories we'd consumed on board and help maintain the physical fitness with which we were blessed. Who needs to hit the treadmill at the gym after tramping around a foreign port for a few hours?

Do you enjoy walking when exploring a new destination? I'd love to hear your comments.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Should You Pay Off Your Mortgage?

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Should You Pay Off Your Mortgage?: Paying off my mortgage was one of the most freeing financial moves I ever made. But plenty of naysayers told me it was stupid. Should y...

Should You Pay Off Your Mortgage?

Paying off my mortgage was one of the most freeing financial moves I ever made. But plenty of naysayers told me it was stupid.

Should you pay off your mortgage? That depends.

Financial experts talk about "good debt" vs. "bad debt." Credit card bills, department store accounts, and car notes could be classified as "bad debt," i.e., financing a depreciating asset or continuing to pay for an experience or product that has already been consumed. "Good debt" normally produces a return on investment. For example, a mortgage on a home that not only provides you with a place to live but also is likely to appreciate in value. Some people consider a student loan "good debt" because you're financing an education that may enable you to land a higher-paying job.

By all means, don't pay off your "good debt" until you've paid off all your "bad debt."

Another reason to classify an obligation as "good debt" might be that the interest is tax deductible. Especially in the early years of a mortgage, homeowners can enjoy a healthy reduction in taxable income. Under the new tax law, with the standard deduction increasing so much that fewer taxpayers will benefit from itemizing, carrying a home mortgage might not be as attractive.

Mortgage interest rates tend to be lower than personal interest because the loan is secured by an asset. Credit card interest rates are high because there's very little the company can repossess if you default. (Another reason to get rid of that "bad debt" first.)

Interest rates have been low for many years, which reduces the incentive to pay off a home loan. Common advice is to buy as much house as you can afford, taking on the biggest mortgage you can qualify for. With borrowing so cheap, why not add a home equity loan to make all those needed improvements and further increase the value of your asset? Our federal government seems to subscribe to that philosophy, as the national debt continues to soar while the interest paid on Treasury bills is almost negligible.

If you have disposable income to put toward retiring your mortgage and you're otherwise debt-free, first look at other uses for that cash. For example, have you built an emergency fund with at least three to six months' living expenses? Are you contributing as much as you can to a retirement account? If not, fortify those areas first.

Assuming you have a healthy emergency fund and are already maxing out your retirement savings, should you then start paying off your mortgage? Or look for after-tax investments? That depends.

What is your tolerance for risk? What rate of return do you expect to get from your investment? When my husband and I paid off our mortgage, our interest rate was almost seven percent. We would have had to take a lot of risk to find an investment returning seven percent at that time. Paying off our own mortgage was a safe, guaranteed investment, and it took a huge chunk out of our monthly living expenses.

Lowering your monthly living expenses by getting rid of the mortgage payment might be especially important if you're planning to retire soon, or if you anticipate lower income in the near future. In our case, we both worked for the same company, which was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, and we were concerned that one or both of us could lose our jobs.

If you have a very low interest rate on your home loan and your income status is secure, you might be able to find an investment that produces higher returns. But as mortgage interest rates climb, prepaying the loan might come back in vogue. In a future post, I'll discuss how to do it.

Have you ever considered paying off your mortgage? I'd love to hear your comments.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Making the Most of Leftovers

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Making the Most of Leftovers: On this blog, I've harped about the value of incorporating leftovers into future meals and saving money by avoiding food waste. But the...

Making the Most of Leftovers

On this blog, I've harped about the value of incorporating leftovers into future meals and saving money by avoiding food waste. But there's an art to making it worthwhile.

Restaurants usually serve more than enough food, more than enough calories for the average diner to consume. Even if the portions aren't too large, it's easy to fill up on bread or chips before the meal arrives. And if you order an appetizer, it might be hard to finish the main course without stuffing yourself. Rather than be uncomfortable, why not parlay the rest into another meal?

As a long-time Weight Watchers member, I've trained myself to plan on packing up half my meal in most cases. It takes about 20 minutes after the first bite for your stomach to get the message that it's full, so to be successful at this technique, chew slowly and stop eating before you feel your waistband tightening. Sometimes I even ask for a to-go box when the server brings my food, and I set aside the parts I'll take home. If I keep eating too long, I'll reach the "point of no return" where there's not enough left on the plate to trouble with a doggy bag.

Recently, I dined out with friends, and I was one of the only people at the table to ask for a box, even though some of my companions left more food on their plates than I took home. It was painful to watch all that nourishment being thrown away.

But know yourself. If you're just going to shove the to-go box in the back of the refrigerator and then toss it out when it starts reeking and you can no longer identify its contents, why bother?

When you're on the road, taking leftovers can be challenging. It helps if you have a refrigerator in your hotel room. If you don't see one, check with the front desk. Some hotels will provide one at no charge on demand.

Even if you have a refrigerator, reheating your food can be a problem when you're away from home. But maybe you're at a hotel that provides a self-service breakfast, and there's a microwave in the dining area. Or maybe you're working at an office with access to an employee break room equipped with kitchen facilities.

When my meal arrives and I'm deciding what to consume on site and what to take away, I consider how well each item will survive recycling. Hot soup spills and leaks through the doggy bag. Salad wilts fairly quickly, although some of its ingredients can be repurposed into other dishes. (For example, one restaurant I frequent puts black olives on their salads. I don't care for black olives on my salad, but I ask for them on the side and take them home. They're great for doctoring up frozen pizzas.)

Most sandwiches have a longer lifespan, and some don't have to be heated. Get it cut in half; eat one half and the side course, take the other half to go.

Pieces of meat like steak, fish, or chicken transport well. Mine often see a new life as part of a casserole, pasta dish, or as topping for a big salad.

And of course, pizza, Chinese food, and certain Mexican foods taste fine reheated the next day. At a Mexican restaurant, I'll eat the crispy items, like tacos, on the premises and save foods like enchiladas, burritos, beans and rice for a future meal.

Fried foods don't taste as good the next day as their counterparts that are baked or broiled. But if you have access to a conventional oven, you'll be surprised how well they can come back to life. Reheating for a couple minutes in the oven can revive French fries, bread, pizza, and tortilla chips as well. (Stuff that most customers leave on the table, to be thrown away.) Just watch the time carefully so you don't burn them to a crisp.

With all the food waste in the world, why not do your part to reduce it? And at the same time, help your budget by stretching your restaurant leftovers into additional meals.

What tips do you have for repurposing leftovers? I'd love to hear your comments.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Buy What You Love

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Buy What You Love: Last week's Weight Watchers theme was "eat what you love." The theory is that no weight-loss plan can be successful long-term...

Buy What You Love

Last week's Weight Watchers theme was "eat what you love." The theory is that no weight-loss plan can be successful long-term if you permanently deprive yourself of the foods you love.

Sooner or later, most dieters will cave in and end up chucking the whole regime. Or else they'll reach their goal and then go back to the eating habits that made them overweight in the first place.

Weight Watchers teaches you to make permanent, healthy changes to your lifestyle that will allow you to lose weight gradually and keep it off. The plan involves compromise, moderation, accountability, and being kind to yourself. It may not work for everyone, but it works for me; I've been "free lifetime" since 2005.

The same principles apply to achieving financial fitness. Most of us can't buy whatever we want, whenever we want. But with a few trade-offs, some delayed gratification, we can buy what we love… and savor it.

If your expenses consistently exceed your income, you'll have to make sacrifices to turn the train around and get back on track. But once you're living on less than you earn, reducing or eliminating debt, contributing religiously to a retirement account, and building an adequate emergency fund, take a breather. Spend a little on something you love.

Think about why you're saving. Most people don't strive to accumulate money for money's sake; they want the purchasing power and freedom that money represents.

You can't take it with you when you die. And you never know how much time you, or your loved ones, have left on this earth. Start tackling that bucket list while you still have your health and energy.

One of our neighbors, athletic and vital in his early sixties, was riding his bicycle one day on the cart path. As he sped down a hill, a golf cart cut in front of him. Our friend tumbled over the handlebars and into a ravine, breaking his neck. In one chilling moment, his life changed irreversibly. Fortunately, he had already traveled the world, raised a family, and lived life to its fullest. But he'd had every reason to believe it would continue that way for many more years. Now, as a quadriplegic, he's still able to enjoy life to some extent, but it's much more difficult, if not impossible, to do many of the things he loved.

Perhaps you're socking away every penny so you can leave a good inheritance for your children. It's certainly noble to want to help them out, make life easier for them than it was for you. But an even better legacy would be to instill in them a healthy attitude toward money and the skills necessary to build their own wealth.

Did you get a big tax refund or bonus check? While it's not wise to squander the whole amount, set aside a portion for your own pleasure. Try that new restaurant. Buy that toy you've been dreaming about.

Do you have a travel fund for a dream vacation? Set a goal of how much you'll need, and then once you reach the goal, go! Take that trip, make the memories, and when you get back, rebuild your savings for your next adventure.

Planning for tomorrow is important. But don't forget to live today.

What are your reasons for saving money and building wealth? I'd love to hear your comments.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Saving Money Ashore

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Saving Money Ashore: Last post, I discussed saving money on a cruise, and all the shiny objects on board to raise the cost of your vacation. Another big exp...

Saving Money Ashore

Last post, I discussed saving money on a cruise, and all the shiny objects on board to raise the cost of your vacation.

Another big expense is shore excursions. Some river cruises and smaller luxury ships include free destination tours, but on the majority of mainstream cruises, you'll have to spend money if you go ashore in port. Typically, the shore excursions available from the cruise lines are over-priced. The markup is another revenue stream for the company.

But the advantage is, you won't be left behind if the tour bus breaks down or gets stuck in traffic. We heard about a couple on the voyage before ours who missed the ship in Ushuaia, Argentina. They spent almost $1000 to get themselves to the next port, much more than the priciest shore excursion would have cost them.

A ship's tour can be the best option if your time in port is short and the site you want to visit is not easily accessible. For example, if multiple modes of transportation are required to reach it.

With a little research, you can find reputable tour companies that work with cruise passengers and perhaps join with others from your ship. Check out the message boards on Cruise Critic ( as someone might have already organized a tour that covers more attractions and charges less than a comparable ship's excursion. There is still some risk, but these companies stake their reputations on getting their cruise customers back to the ship on time.

It helps if your cruise line has an onboard port lecturer who gives you more information than what shore excursions are available for purchase and what shops are "recommended" in port. I also suggest talking to people who work on the ship, especially if the ship calls in that port regularly. (With a repositioning cruise, the destinations may be new to the crew as well.)

Wait staff and cabin stewards spend most of their contracts working, so they seldom have enough time to explore ashore, and when they do get off the ship, they head for free Wi-Fi and perhaps a nearby grocery store. But they talk to a lot of passengers on every voyage, so sometimes they can pass along tips they've heard from other customers. The entertainers are probably your best prospects, as their time ashore is mainly their own. Over the years, we've learned a lot of useful secrets from dance troupes. When we run into our ship's singers and dancers using the same local transportation options we've discovered, we know we've broken the code.

Even if you research the destination in advance, there are always variables such as, where will the ship be parked? Will the arrival be delayed—or perhaps even aborted due to unforeseen circumstances?

Sometimes the docking location is convenient—close to cheap, efficient local transportation or even better, within walking distance of major attractions, but sometimes you're out in the boondocks, miles from nowhere. Sometimes a free shuttle is provided by the port or the city. Maybe the cruise line will tell you about it in advance; maybe you'll find out about it by accident when you walk off the ship. Sometimes there's a fee for a shuttle ride to downtown or a shopping mall.

In many ports, taxis abound, ready to take cruise passengers to major attractions or on customized tours. Sometimes you'll find them right at the port gates, and sometimes you'll have to take a shuttle to a central location to hire a taxi. If you have several people in your party, you can cover the same stops as the ship's excursion, often for less money per person than the ship charges. (Entry fees to museums and parks would be additional.) Before you get in a cab, negotiate the price, and try not to have to pay until the end. Also, ensure the driver speaks your language and understands where you want to go, whether or not he is to wait if you're going to get out of the cab, and what time you need to be back to the ship.

On our last cruise, our first stop was Coquimbo, a port town in northern Chile. We were told there was absolutely nothing to see or do in Coquimbo; it was merely the gateway to La Serena, a resort town with an interesting historical section. All the shore excursions offered by the ship exceeded $100 per person, except for "La Serena On Your Own" costing around $70 per person, which was essentially a bus ride there and back. We opted not to purchase an excursion.

The evening we sailed away from Coquimbo, we talked to several passengers who had found a local bus that went from the Coquimbo cruise port to the historic center of La Serena for one dollar each way per person! While they were wandering around the town, they saw the ship's tour bus drop off passengers very near the stop for the local bus.

Although we suspected there might be a local bus connecting the two cities, we weren't able to find out this information beforehand from anyone we talked to. When our ship docked in Coquimbo, we spotted a huge cross atop a hill, reminiscent of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. My husband loves hiking—and dragging me along—to high viewpoints. He decided climbing to that cross was what we would do with our time in Coquimbo.

Our cabin steward had been to the cross before. He said visitors could go inside a church there, and that, while it's easier to take a taxi, it's also possible to walk. That was all my husband wanted to hear. The cabin steward suggested we walk several blocks down the wharf to the grocery store, then turn onto the main street that ascends the hill, approaching the monument from the back side—much less steep than climbing the steps up the hill facing the port.

I asked about buses going there, but everyone we talked to said, "No, you must take a taxi. It's too hard to walk, and there's no bus." However, as we trudged up the incline of the main street toward the monument, I saw several local buses pass us by and stop at various points ahead of us.

Troopers that we are, we finally made it to the top and were facing Cruz Del Tercer Milenio (Cross of the Third Millennium). It cost three dollars each to get inside the gates, but the price of admission was well worth it. Besides many detailed outdoor sculptures, there's a chapel and a museum with artifacts from various popes, particularly John Paul II, and the illustrated story of how the entire structure was built in less than a year to usher in the 21st century. Elevators took us to two different observation platforms, where we had magnificent views of the port city below, our ship, and the surrounding countryside.

The walk down the hill was easier and we took a slightly different route, meandering through neighborhoods, enjoying the beautiful day and local color, proud of ourselves for finding an inexpensive and satisfying way to spend our time ashore.

That night we dined with an Australian couple, older than we are, who had taken the one-dollar bus ride into La Serena that morning, had a look around, then came back to Coquimbo and hiked up to the Cross of the Third Millennium—the steep way.

What tips do you have for saving money ashore? I'd love to hear your comments.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Saving Money When Cruising

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Saving Money When Cruising: We just returned from a 16-day cruise, and I'm always amazed at how many fellow passengers face bills from their onboard accounts that ...

Saving Money When Cruising

We just returned from a 16-day cruise, and I'm always amazed at how many fellow passengers face bills from their onboard accounts that exceed the amount paid for their cruise fare. A cruise can be a bargain vacation, but beware, the low fare is a loss leader.

These days, unless you take a high-end cruise that includes the tips, you'll owe a big bill for the automatic gratuities. For example, the service charge on our last cruise was $13.50 per person a day. We used to present an envelope filled with cash to our cabin steward and servers on the last night of the cruise—and that option still exists on many cruise lines—but now with "anytime dining," i.e., "freestyle" or "open seating" it's fairer to go ahead and allow the pooled gratuities. (Hopefully, the money makes it to the people who served you; you'll hear conflicting stories from staff about how equitably the tips are allocated.)

When we first started cruising, many amenities were complimentary: assorted flavors of premium ice cream at a stand by the pool, soft drinks at the buffet, cappuccino after dinner, room service. The gym used to be free; now there are many classes or exercise machines you have to pay to use and secluded relaxation areas only accessible for an extra fee. Just like at home, you have to decide if the pampering is worth the cost.

More and more items offered on cruise ships incur a charge: bottled water, soft drinks, specialty coffees, specialty ice cream, specialty restaurants. If you indulge, it adds up. We avoid the bottled water expense by bringing water bottles from the airplane and refilling them so we can take water with us when we go ashore. We chill it in the cabin's refrigerator and request a daily bucket of ice to chill our glasses of tap water when we drink in the room. I can do without soft drinks, but my husband likes an occasional cola. We'll buy soda in a grocery store in port and bring it on board (spending around one dollar as opposed to five).

Not being gamblers, we're not tempted by the casino or the growing bingo jackpot. But plenty of passengers are. It can be good fun in moderation. Someone has to win that jackpot. I haven't heard about many people winning big in the casino, though. And those who do usually go back and "reinvest" their winnings. If you play in the casino, set aside an amount you're willing to lose each day (an "entertainment budget") and then stop when it's gone.

As soon as the ship leaves port, the shops in the atrium open up, always advertising some sort of "sale." The T-shirts you didn't get around to buying in the last port. Alcohol and perfume because it's "duty-free." And of course, jewelry. Spend your sea day shopping when you get tired of lying out by the pool. My solution: resist. There's nothing in those shops I need. Keep walking. Go find a nice corner to curl up with a good book.

And then there's the spa/beauty salon. As soon as you board, spa employees coax you to take a complimentary tour, bribe you with free demos and giveaways. You can even have your teeth whitened or get acupuncture. At the end of your free tour, the sweet sales person with the charming accent tries to make you feel guilty if you don't book an appointment. On a previous cruise, one of our tablemates bought $800 worth of stones—he wasn't sure what they did—because he didn't want to hurt the salesgirl's feelings. He suffered from buyer's remorse almost the same day.

I once won a $100 gift certificate to the spa. I was excited until I looked at the price list. My gift certificate wasn't valid for anything I might want, like a haircut, manicure, or massage. The cheapest treatment it could be used for cost $229. I offered my coupon to my table mates and trivia partners, but I couldn't even give it away!

Probably the biggest expense for most travelers (and revenue generator for the cruise line) is alcohol. The markup is so high on board that many passengers try to smuggle their own stash. But the cruise lines are fighting back, confiscating onshore alcohol purchases and keeping the liquor in storage until the last night of the cruise. If they catch you at embarkation, you might not get it back at all.

Our cruise line allowed us each to bring on board one bottle of wine or champagne. However, if you want it served to you in the dining room (and most wine drinkers like wine with their meals), they assess a corkage fee. Some wine connoisseurs feel that, even with the corkage fee, they can still enjoy a better bottle of wine for less than if they bought from the ship's wine list. So far, we haven't been chastised or charged for bringing a glass of wine (poured elsewhere) into the dining room.

Some passengers opt for beverage packages, but the last one I saw was $60 per day per person. And it doesn't even entitle you to premium drinks or bottles of wine in the dining room—you can only order the house wine by the glass. On a cruise last year, one of our tablemates bought a beverage package. Whenever we saw him, he was red-faced, bent over one of the ship's bars, determined to drink his money's worth. He probably doesn't remember where the cruise went.

Because it's so hard to get a free or reasonably priced alcoholic beverage on board, some passengers are sucked into attending the art auctions, with the promise of free champagne. It seems that almost every ship I've sailed on in the past decade holds art auctions on sea days, so the cruise lines must be making money from them.

I have yet to receive a bill for an onboard account that exceeded my cruise fare. But I'm glad there are others who do; the extra revenue the cruise lines are making from onboard sales keeps the fares low!

What tips do you have for saving money on a cruise? I'd love to hear your comments.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Countdown to Financial Fitness: It's ON SALE!

Countdown to Financial Fitness: It's ON SALE!: Marked down 40%! ON SALE! TODAY ONLY! Prices slashed in half! Save 60%! Is it something you need? Something you want and were planning ...


Marked down 40%! ON SALE! TODAY ONLY! Prices slashed in half! Save 60%!

Is it something you need? Something you want and were planning to buy anyway? If not, save 100% and don't buy it! Use the money you would have spent for something you do need or want, whether or not it's "on sale."

How many times have you bought an item just because it was on sale? And then found you have no use for it? My mother used to buy shoes in the wrong size and clothes that didn't match anything in her wardrobe, just because they were too inexpensive to pass up. Money down the drain.

Some items are perpetually marked down. Some stores always have a CLEARANCE. Eye-catching end-of-aisle displays beckon you to BUY NOW! Get it at a steal! But sometimes the item is being sold at its regular price; it's just being marketed more prominently. Maybe the store got an extra-large shipment of that product this week and has to find a way to move it out.

Some companies have created a reputation for bargain prices. I have friends who only fly Southwest Airlines because "it's the cheapest." But not always. Sometimes they could have bought a ticket on a major carrier for the same price, with a better schedule and more amenities. But they didn't shop around. They just assumed whatever fare Southwest offered was the best they could do.

What about a "dollar store"? Everything is only a dollar! And you can get some great deals. But I've found canned goods there for a dollar that I could buy in a regular grocery store for 79 cents. Just because it's sold in the "dollar store" doesn't make it automatically a bargain.

My husband and I usually visit an outlet mall during the holiday season, aiming to fill holes in our wardrobe and whittle down our gift list at the same time. But I've noticed outlet malls don't always offer the lowest prices.

Warehouse stores such as Costco, Sam's, BJ's, etc., boast lower prices on many items—both big-ticket purchases and everyday necessities. But don't assume because a product is sold in a warehouse—or outlet mall, or other "discount" store—that it's the best deal. Sometimes an item can be purchased at your local grocery or department store for less, especially on sale and/or with a coupon. It's important to compare prices. Also, warehouse stores charge annual membership fees, so if you join, make sure you'll shop there enough to offset the cost. Before joining, visit with a member or ask a store employee if you can come in and have a look around, to determine whether a membership will benefit you.

Plan your purchases. Do some research about what things should cost. That way, when you see something you want "on sale" you'll know if it's truly a good buy.

What tips do you have for bargain shopping? I'd love to hear your comments.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Reducing Paper Waste

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Reducing Paper Waste: Last week we planted trees to celebrate Georgia's Arbor Day. The goal of planting these flowering species was to attract pollinators, w...

Reducing Paper Waste

Last week we planted trees to celebrate Georgia's Arbor Day. The goal of planting these flowering species was to attract pollinators, which have been on the decline in recent decades, threatening the world's food supply.

When I think of trees, I also think of products we derive from them. Like paper. And how much paper is wasted every day. And how many trees could be saved if we didn't waste so much paper.

So here are some tips to minimize the amount of paper we waste:

·        Resist the urge to print out every email you receive. I once had a boss who did that. Detailed directions, prep for an upcoming meeting, a completed progress report, I could see. A phone number? Confirmation of a lunch date? Why waste a clean sheet of paper, as well as printer ink? Jot it down on a piece of scratch paper. A simple joke or daily platitude? Read and delete. In the mountains of paper you're keeping, you'll never find it again anyway.

·        Capacity for electronic storage is increasing, especially with The Cloud. Handle electronically as much bill paying, record keeping, and correspondence as possible. (But do pay attention to cybersecurity, and make it a habit to back up your data regularly.).  At the Fayette Humane Society where I volunteer, we used to spend close to $2000 every quarter to produce and distribute our 8-page newsletter, complete with color photos. Converting to electronic distribution was met with a lot of resistance, but we finally did it. The money we save is better spent on caring for the animals we rescue.

·        Print on both sides of a sheet of paper whenever possible. Some writers find it impossible to edit on the computer. If you must print out your drafts to find errors, why not use both sides of the page? If your printer doesn't do "double-sided," print on the back of old draft copies.

·        Don't waste a clean sheet of printer paper to jot down a reminder or make a grocery list. Why not recycle a junk-mail envelope, or use one of those free notepads sent by charities?

·        Print out directions, hotel confirmations, and boarding passes on recycled paper. The TSA agent won't care that the back of your e-ticket contains a marked-up excerpt from your novel-in-progress.

·        Shred no-longer-needed documents and use them for packaging or to line a birdcage. Or donate to an animal shelter as a puppy-pad substitute.

Reducing paper waste not only helps the environment, it can save you money. And there's nothing like financial motivation to do the right thing.

What tips do you have for saving money on paper? I'd love to hear your comments.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Don't Let Valentine's Day Break the Bank

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Don't Let Valentine's Day Break the Bank: Valentine's Day is a romantic occasion; a time to splurge, to prove your love for your partner. If you're dating someone, it's ...

Don't Let Valentine's Day Break the Bank

Valentine's Day is a romantic occasion; a time to splurge, to prove your love for your partner. If you're dating someone, it's an opportunity to show your intentions.

Who doesn't like to be pampered?

Just don't let the pressure of impressing others drive you to spend more than you can afford. Like any other expense, Valentine's Day gifts should be planned for and budgeted. After all, the holiday comes around every year.

Don't have two dozen roses delivered to your spouse's office by a singing Cupid because you're afraid her colleagues will scoff at a simple spring bouquet and a homemade card. Or that someone else's spouse will outdo you.

She may love being surprised by a pair of diamond earrings, but they'll lose their sparkle once you're saddled with the extra credit card debt. And not many people need the calories in a two-pound box of imported chocolates, despite the initial joy of receiving it. A small sample of her favorites to savor might generate the same appreciation.

The old adage, "It's the thought that counts" may sound like an excuse for being a cheapskate. But there are plenty of ways you can recognize the special day and demonstrate your love without spending a lot of money.

Time is one of our most valuable commodities. Why not take that long walk in the park with her you've been promising? Why not sit down and watch that game with him, even though you hate sports? Accompany it with a home-cooked meal and a bottle of your beloved's favorite bubbly.

If you're in a new relationship, the way the other person handles the holiday will supply clues about what is to come. The person who showers you with expensive gifts might be generous. But she might also be a poor manager of money. The person who writes you a poem in lieu of buying a present might be a romantic, or maybe he's just a tightwad.

Do you really want to spend your days with someone who was insulted that you bought her flowers from the grocery store or the kid on the street corner instead of from the town's best florist? Or maybe you are that person, and you can't abide such party-pooping frugality from your partner on a romantic holiday.

If your relationship is getting serious, Valentine's Day can prompt you to have that all-important talk about money. Is one person a saver, and the other a spender? Before you commit to a life together, find out if your attitudes are compatible because chances are, they probably won't change.

Disagreement over money is one of the leading causes of divorce. The more you know about each other, especially about each other's approach to handling money, the better the chances that the relationship will last.

How do you plan to spend Valentine's Day? Will you think about money, or go all out with a splurge? I'd love to hear your comments.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Staying on Track with Goals

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Staying on Track with Goals: We're a month into the new year, and many resolutions, although made with the best intentions, have already fallen by the wayside. But ...

Staying on Track with Goals

We're a month into the new year, and many resolutions, although made with the best intentions, have already fallen by the wayside. But instead of giving up, why not try to figure out what's not working and recommit? You still have eleven months to get something accomplished this year.

Maybe the goal is not specific enough. "Save more for retirement" is vague. How much are you saving now? Whatever it is, vow to increase your contribution by a realistic percentage. Go online today or call your employer's human resource department and adjust your payroll deductions. If you don't have a workplace retirement plan, set up or increase automatic contributions from your bank account to an IRA.

Maybe the goal is not measurable. "Manage my money better" doesn't have any criteria attached. What does managing your money better look like? How can you tell when you've reached your goal?

Maybe the goal is not really achievable. "Become debt-free" might be a pipe dream if you're mired in credit card bills or skating on the brink of bankruptcy. Sort of like, "look good in a bikini this summer" or "run a marathon" when you're 100 pounds overweight and have never exercised in your life. Start smaller. Identify one bill to tackle, preferably the account with the highest interest rate, and focus on retiring that debt. Or choose a card with a relatively low balance, pay it off completely, and vow to keep it clean (paid in full, on time, every month) so you can use it for new purchases without incurring additional interest while you pay down other debt.

Maybe the goal isn't realistic. "Save enough for a down payment on a house" could be out of reach if your income isn't covering your daily living expenses. Look for ways you can reduce those expenses so you have enough income left over to start saving. Setting a goal that is too lofty just leads to frustration.

Maybe the goal doesn't have a timeline. "Start an emergency fund" is a good goal, but when are you planning to start? How often will you contribute to the fund to build it, and by what date will you strive to accumulate what amount? For example, maybe you'll set aside ten dollars per paycheck, beginning with the next one. Maybe you're expecting a bonus or a tax refund soon, and you'll use that windfall to jumpstart your emergency fund.

If your resolutions are off-track, take another look at what you set out to accomplish and why. Then tune up your goals to make them specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-limited.

What New Year's Resolutions did you make this year? How are you doing with them? I'd love to hear your comments.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Get Organized for Financial Fitness

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Get Organized for Financial Fitness: Lots of people include "getting organized" on their list of New Year's Resolutions. Getting organized—and staying organized—c...

Get Organized for Financial Fitness

Lots of people include "getting organized" on their list of New Year's Resolutions. Getting organized—and staying organized—can help you on the road to financial fitness.

Here are some examples:

1. Avoid unnecessary late fees and excess interest charges by devising a system for paying your bills on time. Sign up for autopay or manage due dates with an accordion file or spreadsheet. Designate a place for the mail and handle as it arrives so you don't lose a payment notice.

2. Keep a folder for credit card receipts. Open your statement promptly, reconcile it against these receipts, and look for irregularities. Most months everything checks out, but in the past, I've found augmented tips on restaurant bills and duplicate charges (the pre-tip amount, and then the entire bill rung up again to include the tip). Research charges for which you have no receipt, and report discrepancies as soon as you discover them. Dispute incorrect charges. Watch for transactions reported as cash advances instead of purchases; they begin accruing interest immediately, which then subjects you to interest on all subsequent charges until the account is zeroed out.

3. Review your bank and investment statements regularly. Watch for unauthorized activity, new fees for services that were once free, discontinued or reduced dividends, and any drastic changes in the performance of an investment.

4. Keep a folder for tax deductions, such as charitable donations (including purchases on behalf of a charity) and unreimbursed workplace expenses. If you drive your vehicle for business or to do charity work, maintain a log of the mileage. If you have a home business, keep a separate folder for expenses related to the business. Have trouble keeping track of paper? Scan your receipts and file them electronically.

5. Speaking of taxes, it's time to create a folder for forms you'll need to prepare your return. Companies will begin mailing W2s and 1099s by the end of January. If you have a mortgage, look for a 1098. Some mutual funds and brokerages include a 1099 with the year-end statement in December. Round up other deductible receipts such as property tax statements, vehicle excise tax receipts, charitable donations, etc. Review last year's tax return to determine if anything might be missing from this year's folder.
Organize your financial life so you avoid missing payment deadlines or overpaying accounts, and that you benefit from all legitimate tax deductions. With a little effort and attention to detail, you'll suffer less stress and unleash more money for the things and experiences that add value to your life.

What tips do you have for getting organized? I'd love to hear your comments.

Sharon Marchisello is the author of Live Cheaply, Be Happy, Grow Wealthy.