Friday, March 27, 2009

Free is my favorite four letter word

Sometimes, we get caught up in advertising and peer pressure and pay out of pocket when there are perfectly good free options. Here are some you may not be aware of:

Free Online Tax Filing through the IRS Must have adjusted gross income of less than $56,000. Can get your tax refund direct deposited in as little as 10 days.

Free Credit Report This website will connect you to the three major credit bureaus: Experian, Transunion and Equifax. You have to create a username and password for each bureau's report. This will allow you to pull all 3 reports or pull one report every 4 months. You are limited to one free report from each bureau a year.

Free Credit Score CreditKarma is a website still in beta (testing) phase. They will provide a free score. Now this information is somewhat debatable in how accurate in comparison to your actual score. However, this is an option for someone who has no clue what their score might be.

Free Paycheck Calculator Need to figure out what you should be paid in next weeks paycheck? This is also handy for those who are independent contractors who want to figure out how much to set aside for payroll taxes. Handy for estimating purposes for anything more detailed seek the help of a professional accountant.

Free Snowball Debt Calculator I have used this one many times. Many people think they can not create their own debt management plan. Using this calculator and your most recent statements you can figure out exactly what to pay each month. Personally, I have found it to be extremely useful for motivation in paying off debt.

Let me know of any financial freebies you have found to be helpful. I will post them here for others to enjoy!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Coupon Crazy!

A couple of months back, I started to see them. Hunched over in the aisles, eyes scanning shelves, hands tightly gripping their coveted slips of paper, these newly initiated couponers peaked my interest. I was not used to these new recruits. Having been a couponer for years, I was used to seeing moms with toddlers in tow or grandmas with needlepoint covered coupon holders. Not young guys with ipods and smartly dressed corporate types. Typically, these were the ones who heaved an exasperated sigh when I handed over my coupons to the cashier. Not anymore. In 2009, these newbies are interested in the downward direction of my register total. How do you do it? Where do you get the coupons? How do you keep them all straight? Hence, I have decided to share my simple coupon system for all the newbies out there. I must forewarn you, "saving money" is seriously addictive.

Welcome to the new world of retail therapy.

Keep in mind, this is my personal system. This works for me. This is simply a system to get started. Feel free to add what works for you. First step, is to focus. Sales are everywhere and coupons can seem to take on a life of their own. Start with the stores you like to shop at currently. Mainly I stick to Walgreen's, CVS, Target and Kmart for household purchases. (Walmart will be covered in another post) These chain stores publish store circulars every Sunday. By purchasing the Sunday paper for the largest city closest to your home, you will obtain two vital components of the coupon system: Store circulars and manufacturer coupons.

I review all the inserts for the stores that are closest to me (not saving $ if you drive far). I take one sheet of plain paper and fold in in half lengthwise and er, the other way. One section per store. One section is for Walgreen's, one for Target, another for Kmart etc. Then I use each section (front and back) to list the products I would like to purchase and their prices. Example: Colgate $1.50. This is my "roadmap" for the week.

A lot of times stores have the same items on sale. One look at my "roadmap" and I know which store has the cheapest prices. I save my weekly "roadmaps" and I have a history to reflect pricing trends of items I commonly buy. Now I know if 4 cans of Progresso soup for $5 is a good deal or if I can wait for a better one. (Note: you may prefer to do this all on Excel and avoid the paper avalanche).

As mentioned earlier, the Sunday paper has store circulars and manufacturer coupons. Save these coupons, they are money. Most people sort these coupons into product types, like frozen foods, pantry, drinks etc. I prefer to sort by the month. My priority is to time the coupon usage with the store's markdown to maximize my discount. I have a folder for each month and can quickly match the coupon to the sale item on my roadmap. While I always try to take advantage of the markdown and the coupon (double discount) if I see a coupon for an item I need I can quickly add it to my roadmap.

The clipped coupons and my roadmap are all I need to take with me when I go shopping. I recycle the return envelopes that come with my bills and put the coupons in separate envelopes labeled with the name of the store. When I go shopping I just take my roadmap and the store's envelope into the store with me. For advanced coupon clipping, you may want to bring the store's circular with you. For example, Walmart will pricematch items and it helps to have the competitor's ad handy.

That's it. I spend an hour or so on Sunday, sorting and a few minutes before my shopping trip getting organized. At the end of the month, I do a final sort to make sure I don't miss anything and toss the expired coupons. I like the process of sorting and matching the coupons up. It is actually kinda fun for me. My very own retail therapy. I think any system you create should be enjoyable, some people like to create spreadsheets, some like doing the math, other people like getting pretty colored folders (in purple!). Whatever works for you. The end result is I have slashed my household purchases by about 50%. Pretty darn good. Now if only I could increase my income by 50%, lol.

This system works for me, because I only buy what I need when it is on sale. The discounts I get are more than worth the time spent organizing/filing. Plus, even if for some reason I don't have a coupon I can still take advantage of a good deal.

Recently, I have upgraded my system by creating nice hanging files and labeled tabs for each month. I haven't gone totally coupon crazy yet, I guess you could say I am still in discount denial,lol.

Have you started to use coupons recently? What works for you? Share your knowledge in the comments. I am always looking to learn more about how to save dollars!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Truth About Working from Home

It is wonderful yet at times ... not so wonderful. Since 2007, I have successfully worked for several companies that routinely hire people to work from home. I haven't made tons of moola, but I have made enough to pay my bills. The work I do is not at the same level as my education. Yet, I persist in this type of work, because I need to work from home.

There are many people who have limited employment options. Often its their circumstances, they have small children, a medical disability, take care of aging parents, need a second job, or live in a rural area with no jobs.

Personally, I found working from home gives me flexibility. This is necessary due to a medical condition which does not allow me to predict my energy levels. As hard as I try, I still have days when I am unable to make it out the door. Working from home helps me to make money and cope with this condition.

Since there are so many people that need this type of work the demand is extremely high. Employers are swamped with applications. However, if you are determined, persistent and patient it's possible you may work in your pjs too.

For those who choose to do the carpet commute, here are some helpful resources:

ratracerebellion Started by two professionals who have a mission to help everyone return to a less stressed, family first life.

workathomedesk Lists jobs and companies who routinely hire telecommute workers

craigslist Look under your city using the telecommute feature and you will find many local jobs which offer the opportunity to work from home ***Note: since the ads are free you have to be extremely careful not to respond to an ad that is a scam. Do not ever pay money to anyone for a job.

flexjobs This site now requires a paid subscription to see all their positions. However, signing up as a member allows you to get emails listing jobs every so often. It might be worth it to join only until you find a position that works for you.

workaholics4hire This site also lists jobs. Lots of helpful content to determine if working from home is right for you. Started by a woman who understands the need to work from home.

Working from home is a great benefit, however, many employers are not offering much else in terms of pay, working conditions or medical benefits. This is why many people will work multiple jobs in order to increase their total pay. It is worth doing a lot of research before applying for a job to make sure it will be a good fit. Trust me on this, there are people who have been surprised by the differences of how employees are treated in the work at home world.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Mortgage Guidelines & How They Might Help You

Yesterday, most of us heard on the news that President Obama released the guidelines for a $75 billion foreclosure prevention/mortgage modification plan. NPR has an easy to understand synopsis of these new guidelines. Essentially it has two parts: one, to help those who are about to go into foreclosure to modify their current loans, second, to help those who have Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac loans refinance to more reasonable terms. You will not have to be delinquent or behind on your payments to take advantage of these loans. However, many experts are saying due to recent job losses many homeowners are not showing enough income to qualify for a mortgage modification.

The housing crisis is a complicated mess. The execution of the President's plan requires the same loan servicers, mortgage lenders who wrote the bad loans to modify the same loans. Does anyone else see a problem with this? It will be interesting to see if these same entities will now rewrite bad loans into good ones. Working in mortgage origination in 2004, I was astounded at the loans written. My former employer, a major commercial bank, was taking a highly conservative view of every loan. This made it nearly impossible for their originators to be competitive in the market (and make money!) but it has proved to make them a stronger bank today. Or at least not as financially weak as their competitors. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out.

If you have a job, last years tax return and two paystubs it may be worth your while to see if you can refinance your underwater mortgage. The banks are finally being held accountable for the mess they helped to create. The potential payoff could be quite significant, in five years time, if the market recovers and you have a low balance, low fixed rate mortgage.

Money Sickness Syndrome

Too many people are lying awake at night wondering how they are going to pay their bills. Now researchers have come up with a name for this ailment. Money Sickness Syndrome is a term used to designate the physical and psychological symptoms experienced by people who are stressed with money worries. Symptoms include shortness of breath, headaches, nausea, skin rashes, lack of appetite, unjustified anger, nervousness, and negative thinking. Sound like anyone you know? The March 2009 issue of Awake magazine published by Jehovah's Witnesses has an excellent article featuring a checklist for determining the extent of your MSS (Money Sickness Syndrome) and also includes ways to better cope with this illness. Unfortunately, the content is not available online so you will have to seek out a JW for your own copy.

The most important thing is realizing you are not alone and there is help available.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

A Patchwork Quilt of Part Time Jobs

For once in my life, I seem to be right in the midst of a trend. More and more people are putting together an employment amalgamation. Multiple part time jobs = Replacement full time income. With the state of the current economy more and more people will be forced into gigonomics.

The sad thing about this trend is that many individuals are not able to replace the benefits they received from their former full time employer. Many are forced to go without health insurance or purchase an expensive individual policy. The only other alternative for some is to add a part time job with benefits into the mix. (Starbucks anyone? er or maybe not?)

This blog is no longer resting

I feel the need to explain why I haven't been posting but I think will leave it at this. I have been focusing (or not focusing) on other things. I feel it is time to now resurrect this blog and bring meaningful financial tidbits to the masses or to the one person who is still reading this post -- hey Nicole.

As for not posting in months, you can see I have finished my assigned work.

I will be a faithful blogger.
I will be a faithful blogger.
I will be a faithful blogger.
I will be a faithful blogger.
I will be a faithful blogger.
I will be a faithful blogger.
I will be a faithful blogger.
I will be a faithful blogger.
I will be a faithful blogger.
I will be a faithful blogger.
I will be a faithful blogger.
I will be a faithful blogger.
I will be a faithful blogger.
ok, i think that's enough copying and pasting for now....

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

You gotta have a plan!

Sometimes, I can hear my father's voice in my head. No, I do not normally hear voices, unless you count the latest pop tune on my internal ipod, but I digress. I hear my father saying stuff all the time, because he is my finance guru. No Ramsey or Suze for me, I have Daddy. He schooled me in the ways of making good financial decisions from the time I was able to start counting quarters. He was my teacher and I was an eager student who hung unto his every word....well, you get the picture. He taught me a lot. I'm truly grateful for everything he took the time to explain over and over in minute detail until my eyes glazed over. Just kidding, if you know my Daddy you know he can talk...a lot.

Anyhoo, one of the things that I remember him saying, is how important it is to have a plan for your life. He would lean over, look me in the eye and almost whisper "Baby, you have got to have a plan. It doesn't make a difference if nothing goes according to the plan, you have got to be clear about what you want to do. Write it down. Think about the end first. What do you want to accomplish? Work out how to get there step by step. If you don't do it, then life will do it for you."

I did what he said, I planned, I set goals. I pretty much became a planning fool. I had short term plans, long term plans. Nothing could compare to my crowning achievement, "my master plan". At age 25, I created a detailed 15 year plan. Looking back, this was nothing but pure foolishness. At the time, however, it seemed smart (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time oriented... yup, I'm a nerd).

What happened to my "master plan"? Life dropped a series of bombs on me, laid off from my banking job, cross country move, change in career fields, and chronic illness. I was barely on year 2 and my plan completely morphed into a figment of it's former self.

5 years later, while cleaning out old boxes, I find a copy of the "master plan", and laugh at my silly ol' self. Then it occurs to me, my end goal hasn't changed. What has changed is my method of getting there. So what if the plan has changed, I still know where I want to go. Now I see the wisdom of the plan and ultimately, of my father. Plans are not set in stone. In this world, circumstances can change in a heartbeat. However, life is about forward movement. When we consciously chart our life's direction, we have an opportunity to choose our own adventure. (I loved those books, btw). Whatever happens we have no one else to blame except ourselves.

I encourage everyone to write down what they want out of life. Think about how are you going to get from point A to point B. Make it as detailed as you want. Realize the plan is a working draft. The point is to put your vision in writing. Life is so much easier with written instructions.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Debt To Income Ratio: Yet another number you must know

Everyone knows how important it is to have a decent credit score. Many actually know what their score is. Others not so much. How many people do you know who can calculate their debt to income ratio? As a former mortgage lender, I remember explaining over and over, it is not just your credit score that affects your loan approval and rate. Many factors are considered and one of the more important is how much debt you have as a percentage of your income.

DTI is based on your total monthly obligations. (Credit card payments, mortgage payments , auto loan payments, student loan payments, etc. Yes, the word of the day is payment. Be sure to use the monthly payment amounts and not the total balance of the loan.) The totals are divided by your gross monthly income. It will tell you who you work for every month. The higher the percentage the more of your money goes to creditors every month. For most perople, calculating their DTI is an eye opening experience.

Once again, the brains at Bankrate have created an easy to use calculator. Check it out and let me know if your DTI percentage was news to you.