Category Archives: Smart money tips - Page 2

Dealing with Collection Agencies

I got a letter the other day from a collection agency about a hospital bill that I had just recently gotten taken care of. I had to get in touch with the agency, and the hospital straightened the whole thing out, thankfully.  But, some people are not so lucky. What happens when it’s your mortgage, your car, or medical bills that are being demanded by the collection agency? Some of those things are thousands of dollars. Here’s some tips on what you should do.

1. Do not avoid them. Unless you are planning to file bankruptcy or you have nothing to take, it’s stupid to avoid the debt collectors. Most of the time, if you avoid them, the consequences are worse than if you just swallow your pride and return their call. Although collection agencies are there to get the money that is owed to the people they represent, they will often make a mutual agreement that is suitable for both parties involved.  Getting a lawyer involved, especially if it is a substantial amount of debt, is never a bad idea.

2. Ask for their employee ID number and for them to record the call. Even though a lot of collection agencies are reputable, there are some whose employees are not the best, and it’s okay to take measures to protect yourself from harassment.  But, as with anyone, you need to give respect to get respect, and this situation is no different. Being polite and cooperative goes a long way, especially because most of the contacts that these people have are rude and angry.

3. Know your rights. You also have other rights as someone who owes debt. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) keeps people who are in debt safe from harassment and annoyance by the collection companies. Some basics of this are the following:

-          They can’t call someone who isn’t on the loan/contract/whatever. Third parties are out.

-          They cannot call you at a certain number if you tell them they cannot.

-          They cannot use abusive, crude, or threatening language.

-          All communication must be private, no public notices.

-          They can only call between 8 AM and 9 PM.

-          They must send you written documentation within 5 days after they first contact you with all of the information necessary to clear the debt and what legal action can be taken.

One of the biggest problems people have with collection agencies is protecting their assets. You need to protect any government funds (Social security, disability, etc), because they are not required to be used toward debt payment. Professionals suggest you may even route these to a separate bank account so that you don’t have to worry about this potentially being a problem. They also suggest that you use a money order instead of a personal check.

4. Find a debt counselor. Make sure that they are accredited by a national organization like the National Federation for Credit Counseling or the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies. Many states also require that credit counselors are accredited by the state they are practicing in as well. They, and a consumer lawyer, will help you sort through your debt and make things manageable.

That’s what Customer Service is For!

Customer service, a field I’m so glad I never got into. Closest I got was food service, and people complained enough to me when I was doing that. Anyway, like I said on Tuesday, I was gone for two weeks, and right before I left, I had my friend who was going on the trip with me at my house. We decided to order pizza, because pizza is good. Not good for you, but good. Anyway, we order two pizzas and wait. And wait some more. And even more. An hour passes, and she finally calls the pizza place. It turned out that our driver was new to the area and got lost because a road was closed and her GPS wasn’t helping her at all. She shows up, and then we get a call back from the manager telling us that the next time we ordered we would get 2 free medium pizzas. Good deal, right?

Honestly, my friend and I weren’t complaining to customer service at all, we just wanted our pizzas. But, like a good manager, she offered us some free food to right the wrong. Now, this doesn’t always happen, but a lot of times it does. The problem is, too many people just “deal with it.” They feel bad bothering the managers or the company because of their “little issue.” The thing is, that’s what you’re supposed to be doing! A good company almost begs for feedback and then uses that to improve their service or keep doing what they’re doing so that their customers are satisfied!

There’s another extreme to it. Just take a look at product reviews on websites like Amazon; who are 75% of the people commenting on products? They’re people who are complaining about something being wrong with the product. Many times, we contact companies when something has gone wrong, but we should also be contacting these companies when they’re doing something right as well. Sometimes, you’ll get as much of a reward for doing that.

That’s part of the reason why a lot of companies have been putting customer satisfaction surveys on their receipts that offer free food or the possibility to win a large gift card or something like that. They really do want to know what their customers are thinking, and sadly, because people are lazy and/or don’t want to bother with it, they basically have to bribe people in order to respond to what’s gone on at a branch of their company.

Should you just do it for the freebies? No way. When you complain and/or compliment customer service to a company that actually cares about feedback, everyone wins in the long run. It keeps costs down because the company’s not dealing with lawsuits and a loss of customers, and it keeps the customer’s experiences enjoyable.

So, call up customer service, fill out those surveys, write emails, do whatever you need to in order to get in touch with the companies that you utilize most. You’ll be rewarded for your persistence in one way or another. Have a great weekend!

4 Tips for Saving on Gas Costs

With a recession in sight, one thing that has finally been going down is the price of gas. I was away for two weeks, and in the time I was gone, gas went down almost 30 cents. Wow! I’m all about that, let me tell you. Anyway, gas is still expensive. Gone are the days of gas being under a dollar (I remember that happening shortly before I started driving, it was quite cool to see), heck, gone are the days of gas being below two dollars. I even have friends who think it’ll never go below 3 again; I disagree, but hey, who knows.

With gas still being a huge money guzzler, what can you do in order to reduce that big chunk of your budget? Today, we’re going to look at four big ways that we can cut the cost of getting around.

  1. Why drive? Do you live in a town like I do? Then walk or ride your bike! I understand that you may not always be able to do this (I’m currently on crutches, so obviously I can’t), but if you’re able to, why not? It’s healthy, and that’s less times that you have to fill your tank. It costs more to get in your car and drive two miles 15 times then it takes for you to drive 30 miles once, because town mileage on vehicles is so bad. So get a new pair of sneakers with the money you’ll be saving and take a hike!
  2. Perform regular maintenance. You’ve heard it before, it’s true, if you regularly get your oil changed, your car tuned up, and your air filter replaced when it needs to be, your gas mileage will be significantly higher and you will be significantly happier with the number of times you have to fill up your tank a month.
  3. Consider downsizing. Do you drive a gas guzzling SUV?  Consider trading that baby in for a nice car that may double, or in some cases, triple your gas mileage. Maybe most of your driving local and alone, like mine is? Then maybe it’s time to get a motorcycle or scooter, like I did. Best $350 I ever spent; in the 6 months I’ve had it, I’ve probably saved that much in gas, and I’ll have the thing for several more years.  If you can downsize, do it!
  4. Carpool. The most obvious of all of these. I have friends who live near DC, and their reward for carpooling is an awesome thing known as the High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane. You can drive in this lane if you have more than 1 person in the car. I’d say that’s a pretty awesome reward, considering traffic during rush hour is crazy! Not only that, but if you have people to split gas with or take turns driving with, that’s less that you’re spending to fill up your tank on your own.

So, there you have it. Some simple, common sense ways that your gas tank won’t end up killing your bank account. Have a great week!

Couponing isn’t Just for Crazies

The other day, the mother of a family that I babysit for was excited to tell me that they had gotten these bags of tortilla chips for $1.50 each. What a deal, considering I’m quite the fan of tortilla chips and salsa if I can find them for a good price. I asked her how she did it, and she explained that her latest thing has been couponing and finding good deals.

Now before you think “oh, she’s one of those crazy couponers that you see on TV.” She’s totally not, she holds her PhD and is a Professor at the university I graduated from. And you too, can be an entirely normal person and benefit from the wonderful discounts that a little extra time can help you find. Here’s a couple tips for couponing effectively.

  1. Utilize your store’s flyers and bonus cards. I love my local food store. It’s less than 2 miles from my house, they send me their flyers and I have a bonus card. Not only do I get great discounts, I accumulate points to get discounts on my gas too! And with how much gas costs nowadays, I need that.
  2. Shop around. You shop around for a car, you shop around for a computer… why don’t you shop around for groceries. Now, I understand if you live in a small town with only one grocery store, there’s no point in driving a half an hour to a different one to save 10 cents. But if you live in an area with several stores, like I do, find where your staples are cheapest, and take a grocery tour instead of just a grocery trip.
  3. Buy before the sell-by date. I got a half pound steak the other day for 2 bucks… it was originally 6. How did I get such a steal? Well, first, I had a coupon for 5% off my next purchase of $20 or more, but I also got it the day before the sell-by date. Bread and meat go for cheap at this point; if you’re worried about it going back, just freeze it! The sell-by date is also usually a freeze-by date.
  4. Use the web. The internet has tons of websites for coupons and to compare deals. Why run between stores if you can get all the information that you need online. Always check with an anti-virus before downloading any programs that you may need to get in order to print your coupons, but most are reliable and safe. You can also get some pretty good deals for groceries on Amazon and other sites that offer online grocery shopping. Yes, it may feel like the lazy way to do things, but with Amazon’s free shipping for most orders over $25, you may be saving yourself both money and time.

Your food budget doesn’t have to break the bank. Follow these tips and know that couponing isn’t just for crazies… it’s a great way to find awesome deals! Have a great Labor Day weekend!

9 Vacation ideas that won’t break the bank

I grew up in a home where we started planning for vacation about a year or so before we planned to go. Although it would often drive me a little crazy (because I would have no idea what I’d even asked to do when we finally went), I understood the logic: Plan ahead to get the best deals.  So, here are 9 vacation ideas that won’t break your bank.

  1. Roughing it. Go on a camping trip. I don’t care that you’re from the city and afraid of bugs. Try it. It’s a good bonding experience, both the equipment and the campsite are inexpensive, and depending on where you camp, there’s the possibility of sight-seeing opportunities nearby.
  2. Go on a cruise. Lots of people think “Oh, cruises are expensive!” But, if you buy early, some of them are less than $100/person per day, which, if you think about it, is less than a hotel and food in a lot of places. There’s ton to do, it’s all you can eat, and it’s cozy and comfortable.
  3. Vegas, baby! Or NYC, or some other big city. Many people assume that going to the city is expensive, but if you are smart, you can get some great package deals.
  4. Visit people you love. My best friend and her husband live in Washington DC. Do you have anyone in your life that lives somewhere with a lot of cool stuff nearby? Then why not kill two birds with one stone- visit and stay with them, and check out some awesome sights.
  5. Go on a “stay-cation” Most people don’t realize the neat activities and historical events that are in their own area. For example, I live in the southern part of Pennsylvania and Gettysburg is about 45 minutes from me. There are also countless harvest festivals and such in this area of the United States. Although a lot of people think these kinds of events are corny, they’re a fun and different way to “vacation” without busting your wallet.
  6. Revolve your vacation around a certain activity or historical event. Ever want to go water rafting? Is your family really into a particular sport? Plan a vacation around that. If you like baseball, go to Cooperstown, NY and go to the Baseball Hall of Fame, then catch a minor league game or, if you want to travel a  little further, a major league game. There are also a lot of ways to get special packages for a good price for these kinds of vacations.
  7. Get a timeshare. Timeshares are usually in a network, where you have “rented” one week out of the year. You can usually pick where you decide to use that week at. They cost an annual fee, but then it’s always there whenever you decide to use it.
  8. Roadtrip! These are always fun. Pick somewhere random to go, drive there, and check out stuff along the way. I did a lot of these during college, and some of the best memories have come from them.
  9. Go in the off-season. Last but not least, why does your vacation have to be in the summer? I totally understand if you have children that that is most convenient, but if it’s an educational trip, your student may be able to get out of school for a few days for it, depending on your school district. If you don’t have kids, then you can go whenever you want depending on your job. Going to places during the off-season (usually October to March) will save you a good chunk of money in the long run.

Hope these tips helped you think about some new and inexpensive ways to go and relax on vacation instead of feeling like you have to spend a ton of money in order to have a good time with your family and loved ones.

Financially feasible fitness

Obesity is an epidemic in the United States; it’s estimated that over 60% of Americans are overweight. Being overweight has always been an issue for a lot of people I know. Take Ali for example: She’s 26 years old, 5 foot 3, and 250 pounds. She’s built tough and still has a lot of strength amidst her large girth. She knows that obesity is bad for both her financial and physical health. But, she’s paying off college loans, is underemployed, and just can’t afford a gym membership or something similar.

Ally is determined to lose the weight though. She’s made a lot of lifestyle changes in order to reach this goal, which is great considering she was almost 300 lbs at one point. The fitness is still a struggle though. She’s told me about a lot of the resolutions that she’s had to increase her activity while not decreasing her savings account, and I’m sharing those with you today.

Ally realized that one of the most important things was that she needed to walk more. She has bad knees, so she has to be careful with the impact that hard surfaces can have on them, but there’s a few things she’s done in order to get more steps in a day.

  • Park further away. When Ally was in college, she didn’t buy a parking permit so that she would force herself to park off campus and walk. The extra activity lost her that first 50 lbs and cost her nothing. Instead of darting into that incredibly close spot, Ally parks further away from the doors of the store she’s going to. Even that extra 100 feet gives her some sort of activity to add onto her day.
  • If it’s nearby, walk instead of driving. Right now she doesn’t, but when it gets warmer, Ally plans on walking to her church on Sunday mornings- it’s less than 2 miles from her house. Not only is she getting exercise, but she’s saving gas money too.
  • Go with a buddy. Ally loves to walk with the students that she volunteers with. It gives them time to talk and hang out, and neither one of them have to spend a penny to do it. Saving money and spending quality time together while getting healthy? I think that’s a win-win all around.

Ally admitted that one of her issues is being at home a lot. Being underemployed can do that to you. So, she’s figured out some ways to add to her activity while at home.

  • Invest in a game system. Ally received a Wii for Christmas a couple of years ago. The great thing about the Wii is that it’s fairly inexpensive and has a variety of motion-based games for you to use. Ally says the boxing games wear her out!
  • Use household items as barbells. Ally has a lot of spare time on her hands when she’s just bumming around the house. She just grabs a can of whatever and lifts it up and down like a barbell. It weighs almost the same. The only issue may be the grip, but just make sure you get a can that fits in your hand.
  • Do leg exercises at the computer. Ally looked up office exercises online and discovered that there are endless leg exercises that you can do while sitting at the computer. Look them up! Ally jokes that she uses them while she’s putting her resume in at different jobs.

Who says you have to get a pricey machine or pay a monthly fee in order to get fit? Ally’s figured out lots of ways to get fit while paying little to no extra money, and it’s working for her. It’ll work for you too; like Ally, you can truly work out your body without wearing out your wallet!

10 Ways to Fight your Fleeting Food Finances

Inflation is a pain for a lot of reasons. Gas prices are going up, basic utilities are a bit pricier and our trips to the grocery store fill our carts but empty our wallets. Whether you’re a person in a family setting or a bachelor that lives on your own, the rising food prices are a dilemma for pretty much everyone. Unlike other things, food is something that we absolutely need to survive. How can we reduce the amount of money we spend on food and not deprive ourselves of what we need? Here are some tips and tricks so your grocery bill doesn’t eat away at your wallet.

  1. Always have a list. This is a huge must! If you are going to the store, make a list and do not deviate from that list. The accessibility that the internet provides is a huge help with this. You can go to the internet, look up coupons, and check out what’s on sale. The list will help you keep on track and buy
  2. Try to use cash. If you can get close to your cost, you can even try to have the amount of cash that you’ll need plus only a little extra in order to restrict yourself even further than the list will.
  3. Always try to buy in bulk. Why? Because, especially if it’s on sale, you end up spending a lot less money if you just freeze the extra meats you buy and shelve the extra canned goods.
  4. Make homemade meals. Eating at home is almost always cheaper than eating out (unless you have a really good coupon or deal). Yes, I know you think it always tastes better when someone else makes it. But when you’re pinching pennies, it’s a bad idea.
  5. Don’t buy boxed food. Just because you’re making it at home doesn’t make it cheaper. I realized this while in college: I was paying $2 for premade bagel pizzas. You know what ones I’m talking about. Then, I compared, and realized that if I bought a package of larger bagels, spaghetti sauce, mozzarella cheese, and pepperoni, I was spending a little bit more ($7 compared to $2), but it was covering me for 4 meals instead of 1! Homemade meals, on average, are about 25-50 percent less cost than their frozen counterparts.
  6. Use coupons. Coupons are usually free or, if you buy the Sunday paper, it’s like $2. To save as much money as you’ll save clipping coupons, the $2 is worth it. There are also countless websites that offer coupons that you can print and bring to the store.
  7. Sign up for Bonus Cards. Many stores also have bonus or rewards cards that are also free. Even if you only go to that store once or twice a year, the time it takes to sign up is worth it.
  8. Compare prices between stores. It may take more time, but with the internet, it’s easier to figure how which stores sell what for how much. Sit down and plan out where to buy what things. You may spend a little more on gas, but sometimes the differences are so significant that won’t matter.
  9. Buy before they go bad. Check sell-by dates and freeze-by dates. A lot of times, stores will drastically reduce prices of items so they can sell them instead of throwing them away.  I do this with meat a lot.
  10. Don’t go all the time. Keeping your kitchen stocked and only going grocery shopping a couple of times a month will help keep your costs down. Knowing what’s in your pantry will help so that you don’t have to buy basic supplies unless they’re on sale.

We all need to eat. But eating doesn’t have to be a chore. Be smart, and follow the tips and tricks that we just talked about and it will help your bills be less and your savings account will have a little more at the end of the month.

Medical Expenses and Insurance

I have a friend (let’s call her Sally) who talked to me recently about how much her medical expenses have increased over the past year. Before she started seeing a psychiatrist for some of the issues she was having emotionally, she was on one medicine, and that was for a stomach issue that she’s had for several years.

About a year ago, Sally was diagnosed with several emotional disorders. This made her medical bills in a year six times more than what she’d originally had to pay in a year. Check out the difference:

Before the medication:

  • $48/year on stomach medication
  • $100/year for 1 doctor visit. Sometimes.

After the medication

  • $156/year on stomach medication (they switched her meds for this too)
  • $360/year on ADHD medication
  • $216/year on anti-depression/anti-anxiety medication
  • $200+ on doctor’s visits

Now, Sally still isn’t covered by health insurance. For it to be worth it, Sally would have to find insurance for $77/month or less… and then her visits and meds would have to be free for that to be worth it. We all know that’s not the case, so she’d have to pay less than $50 a month for it truly to be worth it. She doesn’t make a lot (about $12k a year), lives on her own, and doesn’t have any family around to help her out.

What’s she supposed to do? Luckily, she can afford all of her stuff out of pocket until the government requires her to get insurance. At that point, she hopes the government or some other entity will be able to help her get cheap insurance or that she’ll be able to get it through her job.

I bet you’re thinking, “What are her options?”  or “what are mine, if I’m in a similar situation?” Let’s explore that a little bit.

  • Go to a state or federal government site. Both have ways for you to figure if you are eligible for state or federal health insurance. Sadly, when Sally did this, she found out her premium was going to be more than what she pays in a year… and almost as much as she makes.
  • Go through a faith-based organization. There are several faith-based “insurances” that are basically assistance programs that, if you participate in them, will make you exempt from the mandate to have health insurance.
  • Just wait it out. Some specifics haven’t been outlined in the law as of yet. No one really knows how long it will be until it’s mandatory to have health insurance and how much the fines and fees will be if you don’t get it. Sad to say, in some cases it may still be cheaper to get fined. We won’t know that for awhile though, especially if ObamaCare gets repealed.
  • Just deal with it and get a plan. Sally doesn’t like this option at all. She simply can’t afford to get insurance. She has the only kind she can afford (accident insurance) and it doesn’t count!  Some people will just take it as it comes and buy a plan. Sally simply cannot.

It’s not a lot of options, but they work.  Hopefully, as time goes on, it will become clearer how it will be affordable for every American to have health insurance without breaking the bank. Until then, Sally’s going to just keep shopping around and paying her health bills as they come.

Surprising Summer Savings – Act now!

As I look out my window, it’s really odd for me to even think about summer. 7 inches of snow earlier in the week, an extra inch or so today… will summer ever come? But, there are a lot of professional money-savers that want you to know that right now is the best time to buy a lot of things that you’ll use in the summer time. You’re probably thinking “Good. Because that rock salt was a lot more than I needed it to be.” Want to save before the warm weather hits? Then check out these categories of items now so that you save lots later.

  • Getting married? Over the past few years, I had several friends get married over the summer. Statistics say that it’s the most popular time to get married. Because of this, the cost of items such as champagne, party supplies, and gifts are lower than usual. Since the major holidays are over (the only other one that lends itself toward any of these items is Valentine’s Day in February), stores need to offload a bunch of this stuff to make room for summer stock.
  • Gardener or Yard Tender? Many items that you may use during the summer (lawn tools, seeds, and decorations) are usually thrown in the clearance section during the winter. They’re taking up valuable seasonal space, most people aren’t thinking ahead that far, and those same items may not be the “big hit” that next summer.
  • Vacations. In a way, this goes with getting married too. Booking your honeymoon or family vacation during the winter time is a great idea! Because travel isn’t as extensive this time of year, airlines will discount flights, even those that are scheduled for the summer, so they can get some sort of cash flow. Cruises will also drop prices to get the same thing. Family resorts and hotels also get booked up early, so the earlier you get these the better.
  • Clothes. I’m not someone who follows styles, so if I see something that I like on the clearance rack, I get it. It’s probably last year’s style, but who cares? Like everything I mentioned above, stores want to move old stock to make room for new stock. A lot of stores have their semi-annual sales during the winter as well. I have gotten jeans as cheap as 3-5 dollars each because of these sales!
  • Summer camp and classes. What? Yeah, I don’t have kids, but I know a lot that go to summer camps. A lot of them offer discounts for early enrollment. If you’re considering taking a summer class at a community college, a lot of schools will waiver or reduce your application fee and possibly give you a discount per credit.
  • Houses. You think I’m kidding! One of my best friends is moving today in the weather I described above. Not exactly the most pleasant experience. A lot of times, the cost of homes is cheaper because people really don’t want to move during the winter months. Also, if you are looking for a beach home or condo, it’s definitely a great idea to look during the winter when no one else is. You may find that diamond in the rough you want!

Spend a little more this winter to save a lot during the summer. Hot deals during the cold months are easy to find; if you’re snowed in, there are countless resources to help you look for any of these items on the internet.

Rental Run Around

I was in a tough spot. I’d had to move out of a place I was living for various reasons, and was bunking with a friend and her family until I could find somewhere else to live. Thankfully, as long as I was looking, they didn’t care how long I took, but I wanted to inconvenience them as little as possible.

I wasn’t employed yet, but I knew what I wanted to do and what I needed to do. So, before I even started to do anything, I made two lists: A list of things that had to happen and a list of things that I’d like to happen, but wouldn’t be deal breakers. You should always do this! Your expectations will help you make a good decision. Here’s what my lists looked like:

The apartment must:

  • Be within 5 miles of my church. I volunteer frequently at my church, so I wanted to cut down on gas costs.
  • Be in a safe part of town.
  • Cost $500 or less a month
  • Have a washer/dryer hookup or be really close to a laundromat
  • Be flexible with rental dates (I’d lived in a college town previously, where most places have set dates you can move in and out with little to no flexibility).

The apartment could, but doesn’t have to:

  • Be on the first floor (I have bad knees)
  • Allow pets
  • Include heat, water, sewer, and trash in the rent

I spent 4 days researching, writing emails, and calling people about potential rentals. Most people don’t know exactly where to look for rentals, so if you’re stuck, here’s some things you can do:

  • If there’s a college or university in your town, check out their website. A lot of times, they have rental guides that the students can use.
  • Drive around town and see if there are signs about apartments for rent.
  • Do research on Google to see if there are any apartment complexes or townhouses for rent.
  • Craigslist. Be careful with this, especially because some people who use this just want to get a couple bucks out of you.
  • Call local real estate agencies; many of them have rentals available or work with people who do.
  • Talk to your friends and family; some of them may know people who have rentals.

After I did all of these things, I looked at dozens of apartments. I have never driven so much in 2 days. Ironically, the place I ended up picking was an accidental find; I’d been driving by a house, saw a sign about an apartment for rent, and called the number. It hit everything on both of my lists except allowing pets, including trash in the rent, and being under $500 a month. Why did I compromise? Because I’m from PA and heat was included. The extra $25 a month I now pay is worth the fact that I don’t have to pay for my heat. When you talk to someone about your potential rental, make sure that you ask questions to find out these things! For example:

  • How much is rent? What is included?
  • When can I move in?
  • How much parking is there? Is it off street?
  • How long is my lease for? (some do monthly, some do every 6 months, some do yearly)
  • Do you allow animals?
  • What are my expectations?
  • How much is the security deposit?
  • Who takes care of turning on water and electric? What companies are there?
  • How much do my utilities average?

I was blessed with finding almost exactly what I wanted so quickly. Needless to say, that may not be the case for everyone. But, if you hold to your expectations and you’re patient, you should be able to find something at least close to what you want. I did!