Saturday, September 22, 2007

Holiday Season Challenge - Keep An Eye Out For Sales

The advantage of planning early for the holiday season is that you can take advantage of sales during the year. End of the Season sales, Going Out of Business sales, and Loss Leader sales are a great start to finding the bargains that will bring you in under budget.

For more on this subject, check out The Simple Dollar.

Getting Less Than You Asked For And Letting Them Know About It

Yesterday, I drove 2 hours to pick up my car and pay the nice woman who sold it to me. It was a bit touch and go because I had to make up the difference between the amount in the account and the amount the insurance check was for, but with a little creativity I did it. Monday I will have to do a bit of running around to fix this mess, but at least I have transportation to do it.

This morning I took it for its VIN inspection and to pass DEQ. I had to do this because the car came from out of state and its required to get it registered in my state. After it passed with flying colors, I decided to treat myself and have it cleaned with a mini-detail. I'd gone to the company before and I thought they did a great job, but this time I was incredibly disappointed. They didn't vacuum the back, they left trash in the car, and missed cleaning a large section of the lower panel. That's just the start of the list.

I should have inspected it before I left, but I was in a hurry. As the day continued and I completed all of my errands, I began to look at it closer. I started beating myself up for wasting the money and not doing it myself. Then I decided to get smart.

I sat down to write a letter to the company. After all, I have been an excellent marketing tool for them because I've recommended their services to a lot of people. If those people received the same service that I did today, then the company has not only created a bad reputation for themselves, but they have also affected my reputation to those I referred to them.

Writing a good complaint letter takes some patience and diplomacy. You want to give the company an opportunity to correct their mistakes. The letter should be well written, avoiding all of those snappy, sarcastic insults you've been practicing in your head before you sat down to write it. You want to explain to the company the services you paid for and the agreed cost of the service. Describe the problems and items that were not completed to satisfaction, including pictures if possible. Let them know how long you've been a customer and if you've had any past experiences with them. You may choose to let them know what you would like to see happen to rectify the situation, but you may also give them the opportunity to offer a solution. Just remember to be realistic. Finally, make sure you give them contact information including address and phone number. They will need to respond to your letter.

Remember that companies are interested in keeping customers happy and a good company will be eager to fix any problems.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Holiday Season Challenge - Figure Out Your Budget

I challenge you to survive the holiday season without using a single credit card. The best preparation to this challenge is to budget now. If you've been following this post, you have already written your list of people you need to buy for and you've checked the list and re-evaluated it to decide what is truly important vs. guilt purchases. Now is the time to figure out how much you can spend and allot a certain amount to each person. This will be a slightly flexible number depending on your sales opportunities and your shopping skills. Be realistic, but be frugal.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

I Ask For Your Patience While I Have A Minor Meltdown

I was really excited earlier today, because I am supposed to go and pick up my car tomorrow. I went into the bank to get my cashier's check for the purchase and found out that there were a number of fees for having a negative balance for almost a month. Excuse me?!? I don't think so!

It appears that the check from the insurance company (American Family) was returned (bounced). This is the insurance company that was paying me because their client totalled my car. I wasn't in it and it was parked. I was trying to be proactive in my finances and used some of the money to pay a high interested rate loan. I also paid another bill that was due. After that, apparently the fees just started rolling in. I don't have any answers at this point, because I found out about it at 5:05 this evening and have not been able to get a hold of anyone.

More to come later...

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Holiday Season Challenge - Evaluate Your List

Okay, so you've figured out everyone you need to buy for this holiday season, but did you really need to include your dog groomer and third cousin you only met once? Take a good look at your list. How many people listed on it are there because you feel like you have to? How many people are you going to spend more than you'd like because you feel like you have to? Take the challenge and simplify. You'd be amazed how many people on your list will be happy to just spend time with you catching up.

Taking Advantage of Opportunities

Are you taking advantage of every opportunity that is available to you? I ask this because as someone that works very closely with the benefits department of the company I work for, I'm amazed at how many employees are not taking full advantage of benefits. Most people think of benefits as paid time off, health insurance (medical/dental/vision), and 401k which they are, but don't undervalue other benefits as well.

Tomorrow I have the opportunity to attend a industry trade show were they bring in speakers from all over. Kendra Todd from HGTV's My House Is Worth What? and author of "Risk and Grow Rich: How to Make Millions in Real Estate," will be the keynote speaker. I'll have the opportunity to network with other professionals and make connections with vendors that I can do business with. Another perk worth mentioning is the free breakfast and lunch, year supply of free pens, and other goodies. If I'm really lucky I may even win one of the free prizes they will be giving out tomorrow. Many of our employees choose not to go because they think its boring. Personally, I don't think they are looking at the big picture.

My challenge to you is to make the effort to take advantage of every benefit your employer has to offer. If you don't understand what it is, ask questions. 99% of the new employees at my company do not take advantage of the Flexible Spending Account because it sounds too difficult and they may loose money if they don't budget carefully. That a 14-34% savings depending on the tax bracket that they are missing out on.

Not sure what to look for? Here's a list of benefits to start with:
  • 401k - Many companies offer a company match, make sure you are contributing the maximum match amount
  • Flexible Spending Account - A medical savings account that takes money out of your paycheck pre-tax dollars and saves it in a separate account. As you incur medical expenses, you submit receipts for reimbursement.
  • Company Match on Charitable Donations - Maximize your donations to your favorite charity by finding out if your company matches it.
  • Education Reimbursement - Many companies don't even require you to take courses in your field of work. Keep your computer skills up to date. Learn new marketing skills. Take a class that will help with your personal life as well as your professional life.
  • Public Transportation Reimbursement - Does your company pay you to take the bus/train? Save money by not paying for parking, gas, tolls, etc.
  • Mileage / Expense Reimbursement - Don't put off turning in expense and mileage reports. Make that money work for you by snow flaking it towards your debt or emergency fund.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Holiday Season Challenge - Write A Gift List

Does the idea of the holiday season creeping up make you nervous? Do you prefer to ignore it until December 1st? Don't let opportunities to save money slip through your pocketbook. Start planning now if you haven't already. Write a gift list of names you need to buy for no matter how small. Don't worry about figuring out what you're going to buy, that's something we will work on together later.

$39 For A Late Charge Is a Missed Snowflake Opportunity

Since I've been following No Credit Needed's 33 Days and 33 Ways to Save Money and Reduce Debt, I've really had the opportunity to examine all of those demons in my financial house. Today's topic is Remembering Due Dates. Here is an area that undermines not only the ability to make the most money work towards paying back debt, but also works against us because banks use this as an opportunity to raise interest rates.

NCN recommends a number of ways to ensure bills are paid by the due date including old school pen and calendar and techno geek Internet reminders. I would add a few more recommendations.
  • Snowflake your bills so that you are a month ahead.
  • Pay the bill as soon as you get it.
  • Keep a post-it on your monitor listing due dates.

Personally, I've been using a combination of styles. (I also have back ups for waking up in the morning.) I have been working on using a calendar at my desk to write down due dates including setting a date to pay bills. My cell phone has a calendar feature that I'm considering programming with these important dates.

The most important goal in this is to stop lining credit card companies pockets with profits they did not earn.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Start Planning Now!

There are 99 days left until Christmas and Hanukkah falls early in December. What are you doing to prepare for the Holiday Season?

Breaking the Habit of Eating Out Through Menu Planning

Now that the sticker shock of taking on a new debt by buying a car has taken hold, I have been looking at my debt reduction plan, expenses, and potential avenues for additional income to help keep me on my path to debt repayment.

I don't have to spend hours crunching numbers in order to figure out that I can easily spend less on my food budget with a little planning. I was easily spending $400+ per month on dining out. That's about $250 per month added to my credit card since I typically would only budget $200 for all food. I can say that this lifestyle ended about 6 months ago, but there is still room for improvement.

Taking the time to plan a menu will help to not only stick with my budget, but also cut back on the amount of food that goes bad before I have a chance to eat it. For instance, I know that tomorrow I will need to cook some chicken breasts for dinner so that I can use the leftover to make a sandwich for lunch on Wednesday. I took two out of the freezer and put them in the fridge last night so they will thaw in time. When I sat down to make out a menu this last weekend I looked for ideas that would incorporate the chicken and came up with a few ideas including:
  • Chicken Quesadillas - sliced chicken and cheese grilled in a tortilla with salsa and sour cream.
  • Chicken and Couscous - sliced chicken cooked with couscous, broth, broccoli, and mushrooms. It also makes for great leftovers for lunch
  • Chicken Bento - cooked rice with sliced chicken, broccoli, mushrooms, carrots, and teriyaki sauce.
  • Chicken and Sun dried Tomato Pasta - sliced chicken with mushrooms, sun dried and fresh tomatoes, peas, Parmesan, and a touch of white sauce (butter, wine, cream or sour cream)

None of these ideas take a lot of time or energy to make. Having precooked chicken breast is a great staple to use for throwing together simple and healthy menus. Make sure that you make extra to freeze for later meals or take for lunch.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

How Not To Buy A Car

I have a big confession to make. Just when you think that you've got this personal finance thing down and are on the right path there comes a set back. I bought a car today. If you haven't read my past postings, let me fill you in. My car was totalled while she was parked in front of my apartment. She really needed to retire since she was really beginning to cost money at the mechanic and she likes to visit the gas station too. She's an '84 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, but she was my grandfather's car. Anyway, I digress...

I have wanted a Honda CRV for some time and bought a used one today. I've researched them, test drove them, and ran away from used car salesmen in the pursuit of the right one. (The car not the salesman.) I took my mother with me to test drive this one two hours away from home. I didn't negotiate at all and I haven't had a mechanic look at it. These last two are big no nos. Why you ask would I fail when I should know better? Honestly, because I found what I wanted and I knew that I got it for a fair price. It has lower mileage, is a few grand below blue book, has never been in an accident (yes, I checked Carfax), and is exactly what I decided I would pay for a car. The best part is that it was from a private party... no salesmen to fight with.