Extension Educator, Consumer Economics
Extension Specialist, Consumer Economics
Extension Educator, Consumer Economics
May 29, 2008
Summertime – the perfect time to plan a trip and enjoy a vacation! Before you take your trip, take time to plan it. Plans can help you manage your money happily and increase the chance that everyone has a good time. Before you go, ask yourself some questions:
My summer family vacation started out as a vague idea that I 1) wanted to get out town, and 2) wanted to do something fun with my son and husband, and 3) I didn't want to take an expensive vacation. In the process of planning, my son mentioned that it would be lots more fun if another kid went along. Good idea – and now my nephew is joining us too.
To keep our trip costs down, we decided to drive no further than six hours. Looking at a map we realized that Ozark National Scenic Riverways was within driving range, and met our goals of out-of-town and fun. By thinking ahead, we have a fun, low-cost family vacation planned.
Establishing a spending plan – before you leave – also has a positive impact. When you plan for your getaway, list all the costs you expect to have. Some expense categories might include:
Once you have your categories listed, decide how much you're comfortable spending. Talk to your traveling partners about these expected expenditures to avoid conflicts during the trip. I like to give my children money for souvenirs and extras at the beginning of the trip. This is a great way for children to have practice managing their money – and avoids a lot of begging for treats along the way!
Traveling in one of the things I enjoy spending money on, and with a little planning I can get lots of pleasure from my dollars. Good luck planning your next trip too.
May 22, 2008
Gas prices over $4 a gallon, food prices soaring, and just about everyone raising their prices! How can anyone manage? It's easy to get depressed about this and just throw up your hands and declare, "That's it! We can't do X anymore or anyway!" Well, before you give up on everything that makes your life fun, consider "stepping down" your expenses.
Stepping down expenses means changing the way you do something rather than giving it up. For example, rather than skipping a cappucicno with a friend instead "step down" the cappuccino to a cup of coffee with a friend -- you'll save on calories too :)
While skipping cappuccinos and lattes may be the clichÃ© of how to save money these days, the "step down" idea can be applied to lots of other areas. Perhaps some of these ideas might be helpful to you.
To see quickly how small changes can add up, visit the Plan Well, Retire Well website and read the section on Start Saving. The calculators on this website can help you find ways to step down your expenses while still enjoying life.
Share your ideas for stepping down expenses. Click on my name below and send me your ideas. I'll add them to this blog so that our list of ideas can grow!
A reader from California sends this response:
Go for a walk with a friend instead of going to lunch. Like you said, stop for coffee afterward if you want--its still cheaper (and you get those fewer calories, too) than the whole lunch.
I try to add up my groceries as I go, and when I hit the total I've sort of thought would be the right amount to spend, I stop. Somehow, this makes me buy the things I really need first and I often don't buy those things that will either get binged on or left to rot in the vegetable drawer.
I've always loved the way you approach this kind of budgeting/saving. Most of the time, when you THINK about what you're spending, you spend less.
More ideas are welcome :)
May 15, 2008
There are times when managing my finances doesn't get in the way of the rest of my life. And then there are times when there's just too much going on, and I want everything in my life to be simpler!!!
I can set up many of my bills to be automatically deducted from my checking account, or even billed to a credit card. I'll never be late paying, but I have to be absolutely certain that there will always be enough money in the account to cover the bill. Also, these agreements have to be cancelled and re-established if you change checking accounts.
If they are billed to a credit card, I'd better be paying that card off in full every month. If I don't, I've just added a lot of interest charges to my monthly bills even though I "paid" them on time. And every couple of years, I have to provide new credit card information for each of these bills, because the old card expired.
I am partly responsible for handling my father's finances. Having most of his bills automatically debited from his checking account means my sister and I will never slip up and forget to pay. That would be embarassing to explain to my dad.
My investments are pretty much on auto-pilot. I have money taken out of each paycheck for my 403(b) retirement account. Once a year, I look at my investments to see whether the balances still match the asset allocation I've chosen (XX% in large US stocks, XX% in bonds, XX% in foreign stocks, etc.) If not, I either shift money from one investment to the other (that's known as rebalancing) or adjust how my new contributions will be invested. Some retirement plans now offer automatic rebalancing. That would work best if all your money was in one account, but my husband's and mine are spread across his 401(k), my 403(b), and two IRAs. So for now, there's no automatic rebalancing for me.
I have simplified our investments by choosing mostly index mutual funds. Unlike actively managed mutual funds, I don't have to worry if the fund manager changes or watch to see that the fund doesn't gradually change it's spots (i.e., small US company stocks) to stripes (mid-sized or larger US company stocks). An added benefit is the lower costs of index funds compared to others.
Some of the things that make our financial life more complicated are a result of my stinginess and desire to maximize the benefits I get. We have one credit card that pays a higher rebate for groceries, gas, and prescriptions. We have another credit card that pays a higher rebate for travel expenses and dining out. We pay both off each month, so we don't have to worry about whether we're incurring interest charges to get these benefits. But then one of the cards will change its rebate structure. Or we're driving into Canada and I'm trying to remember which one charges less (or maybe nothing) extra for foreign purchases. You can drive yourself crazy with this stuff!
Shopping online can be a time saver as well as a money saver. But sometimes, I can spend 45 minutes comparing shipping, sales tax, and price - when it only makes $3 difference in what I pay. Did that simplify my life any?
I still balance my checkbook, and check my credit card statements against my receipts each month. I even download those statements into a software program that lets me see where our money is going. That will go smoothly until next time I have to upgrade the software or open a new financial account that I have to set up to access via the software. I thought about giving this up. But when you start worrying about being laid off, or think about retiring, having real numbers about how you spend your money is valuable information.
Do you have tips about how you're simplified your financial life? Please share! Click on my name below and drop me an email. I'd appreciate hearing from you.
May 9, 2008
My youngest son (a pre-schooler) suffered a serious brain injury in January due to an underlying medical condition. This was a very difficult episode for our family, and it included a six-week hospital stay in St. Louis, and now we find ourselves getting used to having a very different little boy in our family. Thanks to a wonderful team of doctors and therapists, as well as the support of our family and friends from our church, the university, and our neighborhood, we are pulling through and have welcomed our son home. My wife and I (and our other children) work with him daily, along with his doctors and a team of therapists, to promote a recovery of functions. Nonetheless, at the present time the reality is that my son has suffered a loss of capacity to understand his environment and to process information, his vision has been affected, and his ability to eat and drink independently (of a feeding pump) have been reduced. Like a lot of families, we find ourselves with a child in our family that has the distinct possibility of never achieving financial independence. Families with children with special needs face unique issues from the perspective of saving and investing and planning for the future financial security of the entire family.
First off, families with children with special needs find themselves very busy with care-giving activities in the present. They often focus so much on getting through the day to day activities that they do not spend much time planning for the future, especially its financial dimensions. Secondly, they often face high out-of-pocket expenses to care for their children. These expenses might be drugs to help treat a chronic condition, co-pays on medical visits and equipment, and the cost of traveling to out-of-town specialists and health care providers. Third, many of these families have foregone work opportunities (say for the spouse that is the primary care-giver) that would bring additional income into the family. These factors all make it more difficult for these families to save and invest for their future, despite the fact that they likely will have higher financial needs in the future compared to families without a special-needs child.
What steps can families like ours take to improve their chances at providing a secure financial future for all their members, including their special-needs child? A number of things come to mind, starting with making sure that the current care-giving situation is viable and sustainable. Parents in this situation need to be aware of options (through their circle of friends and family, as well as community) for respite care and additional care-giving resources. Support groups organized by a local hospital for families with special needs children are a good place to start. Likewise, parents need to speak with their social worker contacts to ensure the family is aware of all applicable private and public programs that might help them. Additionally, parents need to update their wills and make clear their intentions for care-giving and the future of their special-needs child (a letter of intent), should something happen to them. Parents also should begin an education and financial planning process that explicitly takes into account the possibility that their special-needs child may not be able to live independently as an adult. This process includes learning about special needs trusts and talking with lawyers and financial planners familiar with these issues. The parents also should take time to re-evaluate both their savings and investment strategy (and amounts they save monthly) as well as their insurance coverage levels.Having a special needs child brings different responsibilities and experiences (including the joy of seeing your child grow and progress on their own terms, sometimes in spite of great challenges) from the parenting experience of most families. Taking the time to consider the long-term financial dimensions of this challenge can help families stay on track to a more secure financial future for all of their members.
May 1, 2008
Between my husband and I, we have received three "terminal contracts" or "pink slips" over the last several years, giving us notice that we would be losing our jobs. We were both fortunate that we were able to transfer to different positions with our employers and remain employed. But nonetheless, we went through the gut wrenching process of reviewing every expense to figure out where we could cut.
University of Illinois Extension learned last month that our state funding would not be released and County Directors were to prepare a plan of what staff would be let go. I know exactly what those individuals will be thinking and feeling. My goal with this post is to share some ideas that people can use to prepare for a layoff.
As I'm writing this, we are just hearing news that Extension's funding may be restored. I sincerely hope that these reports are accurate. But layoffs happen on a regular basis, and you are likely reading this because you are at risk. Perhaps one of these ideas will help you put yourself prepare financially for that possibility.
All financial education programs and financial experts recommend having an emergency fund. There's nothing like the threat of a layoff to make you stop and think, How long would my cash-on-hand last? Do a quick, back-of-the-envelope calculation: How much do you spend in a month? And how much do you have in your checking and savings accounts? Perhaps you also have savings bonds, CDs at the bank, or a money market account. How many months would these funds support you?
The average job search lasts about six months. Could you make it that long without income? No? Your main focus should be to build up your emergency fund while you do have income. Make a plan for how to reduce expenses, and to increase income. It might keep you from losing your apartment or house.
Look at every expense and ask yourself, honestly, if it's a necessity. And even if it is a necessity, how could you reduce it? I really like watching Animal Planet and National Geographic on television, but that might be one of the first things to go if I get laid off. (Note: I have had the service more than a year and don't have any contractual obligations to keep it.) It may help to list each expense on a separate card or piece of paper and then prioritize them.
Be creative in looking for expenses you can cut. Are there purchases that you can "unwind"? For example, if you've ordered items that have not arrived or that you haven't used, think about returning them or cancelling the order. You may be able to cancel magazine subscriptions and get a refund.
Look for ways to increase your income to build up that emergency fund. Could you generate some cash by having a yard sale or selling clothing at a resale shop? Have you loaned money to others who have not yet paid you back?
Another source of spending money during a long layoff could be credit. Is your credit card at the limit, or do you have available credit that you could use as a last resort? While you're still earning an income, make paying down your credit card balance a top priority. You could need that credit line for groceries and kids' shoes in a few months.
This is probably the only time you'll ever hear me say, Stop contributing to a retirement plan. But until you get laid off, you could stop contributing to your retirement plan in order to increase your take-home pay and use the money to build up your emergency fund. If you're married or have a significant other, the same goes for them. (Note that your income taxes will also go up, unless you were contributing to a Roth.) Just make sure that the extra take-home pay goes straight into a savings account - no splurging on a special dinner or frittering it away on a depressed buying spree.
Stopping contributions to a retirement plan is usually a better idea than taking out money that you've already contributed. That should truly be a last resort. If you use money from a 401(k) plan, IRA, or other retirement plan, you will have to pay income tax on all of the money. You will also probably owe a 10% penalty. If you had $5000 in the account, you might only end up with $2950. That is a very expensive way to get money.
If you do lose your job, make sure to file for unemployement compensation right away. Your working spouse could fill out a new W-4 form to have less tax taken out of their paycheck based on your lower income. But be aware that you generally must have paid at least 90% of what you end up owing in taxes (through payroll withholding or estimated tax payments), or 100% of the amount you owed in the previous year, to avoid IRS penalties.
Worrying that you may lose your job is a terribly traumatic thing. Actually getting the notice is a horrible experience. But knowing that your financial house is in order and that you have a plan to deal with the lost income can take some of the panic out of the situation. I hope you never have to use the ideas in this post. But if you're at risk, please take action NOW. From time to time, my husband looks at me and says, What will happen if I lose my job? I think it takes some of the pressure off when I can honestly say to him, We'll be OK.