Personal Finance 
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Simplify Your Personal Finances

One of the benefits of creating my Personal Finance Users Guide was that I learned that we an overabundance of unused bank accounts and credit cards. In years past, each one had their purpose but have since been made obsolete. For example, one is a credit union near my home town that linked my finances with my parents and was important while I was in college. Having graduated many years ago, this link has become less and less important.

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 Personal Finance 
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USPS Mail Shipping Classes Explained

USPS Mail TrucksOver the course of the last few weeks, I’ve been mailing a bunch of documents and packages back and forth between my parents and myself. Some of these packages have been important from a sentimental perspective, some have been important from a financial perspective, and some were just some routine things that weren’t important at all. While my faith in the United States Postal Service is a little shaky, they’ve had a good enough track record that I’d trust them as long as I didn’t test them by mailing too much! In all those instances, we had to decide on how we were going to mail it – certified, registered, express, priority or regular? What’s the difference? The differences are actually pretty substantial and it’s important to understand what each is trying to accomplish so you don’t overpay.

Certified Mail

The package is trackable and a signature is required on delivery. The point of certified is if you can’t completely trust your recipient or you need a timestamp of when a package is accepted. This makes it perfectly suited for official letters because the post office will track when the letter was delivered along with a signature by the person who accepted it. If you don’t need either of these things, certified mail is a completely waste of money.

Registered Mail

Registered mail is the only one that guarantees delivery and they claim to put it under “tight security from the point of mailing to the point of delivery,” plus insurance of up to $25k against loss and damage. If what you’re shipping is over $5,000 (that’s the normal insurance limit) and you want USPS shipping insurance, registered mail is the one for you. If the thought of having to mail your item or letter scares you, you’ll probably want this insurance.

Express Mail

The package is trackable (if you print the label online) though no signature is required on delivery. Guaranteed to get there as promised or your money back. If you want speed, this is your best bet. The guarantee is a money-back guarantee, it’s possible that the package will never get there.

Priority Mail

The package is trackable (if you print the label online) though no signature is required on delivery. An interesting tidbit, any package over a pound is automatically considered priority mail even if you want to do it first class. Both are transported together and it is not treated any differently than regular mail. The 2-3 day delivery timeline is an estimate and not a guarantee, you’ll need Express Mail for a money-back guarantee.

First Class Mail

This is essentially everything else and is what I call regular mail. It’s called First Class because it’s the “best” of the shipment options that aren’t Express or Priority. Some examples of other classes are Media Mail and Parcel Post… both are slooooowwwww.

Confusion…

I think two things confuse people the most about shipping with the USPS:

  • People think Priority Mail means it’s guaranteed to get there in 2-3 days, it really gets there as quickly as it would’ve if you shipped it First Class. If you have something that is less than 16 oz. and you ask for Priority Mail, you’re paying more for the sticker.
  • People mistake Certified Mail for Registered Mail. If you’re filing some document, certified mail is what you want. If you’re mailing a $25,000 necklace, then registered mail is what you want.

(Photo by icanchangethisright)


 The Home 
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How To Fight Your Property Tax Assessment

One of the less often discussed effects of the subprime lending crisis and falling home values is the effect lower home values will have on property taxes. While a drop in home values is bad for a homeowner, a lower property value assessment is sort of like the silver lining. Unfortunately for homeowners, counties and states aren’t so good at lowering assessments. So, if you suspect your home has recently fallen in value, consider fighting your next assessment.

As an aside for any Maryland homeowners, you will have to apply for the Homestead credit this year if you want to stop your property taxes from shooting through the roof. The state discovered that lots of investors were getting tax breaks through the Homestead Tax Credit and have instituted a one-time application process. If you own your home and are living in it as your primary residence, they’ll approve you. With property taxes going down, they’re looking to squeeze out tax revenue from wherever they can find it. For more information, read this FAQ on the Maryland Homestead Tax Credit.

The follow seven tips come straight from Money but I can boil it down into something a little simpler.

How does your county assesses the value of homes? Two common ways are with comparables (or “comps”) and with replacement/rebuilding value (very similar to how banks appraise homes). With comparables they just look at similar houses and what they recently sold for. With replacement/rebuilding value, they “guess” based on how much they think it would cost to replace it. After you figure that out, request your assessors evidence so you can examine it for any errors. Chances are the assessor didn’t walk through every room in your house (or even enter your house) and is basing it on public records. Did he or she put the correct number of bedrooms and bathrooms? Is the square footage correct? Any discrepancies can be used to adjust the value of your home.

Build a case for a lower property assessment and do it quickly. Most places have a time limit for an appeal, Money says 60 days it the norm but I’ve seen places with 45 days and 90 days. Your case will be based on how your county assesses home value. If they use comparables, get some comparables and use them as ammunition (get 5-10, more is better).

Meet with the assessor first, then file an appeal. If you can convince the assessor that he or she assessed your home higher than he or she should have, it’ll help your case when it comes time to appear before the review board because they’ll be there. If you convince them, they’ll put up less of a fight. At the appeal board, prepare an 8-10 minute presentation with pictures of the comparables and a spreadsheet of the data. Think about what you would want to see if you were on the board. If you’ve done your homework, act professionally, then you have a good shot.

What if you lose? They recommend you move up to the state board and then to court if that fails. Money says that going to court will require a lawyer but that counties and states will often want to settle just because it’s just as expensive for them as it would be for you. They might not give up all of it, but they could give up a big piece.

Good luck!


 The Home 
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I Had A Leak In My Roof!

Two nights ago my fiancée and I discovered that the carpet in the upstairs office was a little damp. After a little investigating, we discovered that the wall was soft! We tore down the drywall, removed the soaking wet insulation, and realized that our roof was leaking. After a restless night, I woke up the next day, called up three contractors, and eventually had some repairs done. The culprit appeared to be the flashing around the chimney and the tin covering on the chimney. The final bill was $675 (though I worked out something with the contractor where I’d get that rebated back on a full blown roof replacement, which I know I’ll need) and a weight off our shoulders. I still need to replace the insulation, drywall, and paint that office… maybe the painting will happen after the honeymoon. (I’m also a little hesitant to put everything back up in case our repairs didn’t solve the problem…)

Ugh…

On a happier note, I discovered a cool site called FreeRice.com through BzzAgent. I’m a BzzAgent, which means I occasionally get free products, give them away to my friends, and write about their reactions to them (if you want to join, email me). I’ve given away gum, yogurt, etc. etc. Anyway, one part of the site involves talking about cool websites that have tried to improve their online exposure through BzzAgent. Until today I hadn’t written anything about any of them because they didn’t really appeal to me, until FreeRice.com. You answer multiple choice vocabulary questions and they donate 20 grains of rice for each correct answer. You don’t sign up for anything, they don’t send you anything, and they donated 149,541,380 grains of rice donated yesterday (Valentine’s Day). Give it a whirl, maybe you’ll learn a few words and someone gets a bowl of rice.


 Shopping 
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De Beers Diamond Settlement Explained

Diamonds Are ForeverDiamonds are a girl’s best friend! And if you bought into the marketing slogan and got your sweetie a diamond (or anything with a diamond in it), you may be able to recoup some of the cost in a settlement. De Beers was charged with cornering the diamond market between Jan 1, 1994 and March 31, 2006 and recently settled for $295 million. Of the $295 million, $135 million was earmarked for consumers with the balance going to wholesalers. Check out their press release statement on the issue.

How Much Do I Get

Unfortunately, because it’s unclear how many people will make a claim and because the lawyer fees haven’t been published, the table (published on MSN Money) is just a maximum value and not what you’ll likely see. $135M spread across all the diamond purchases over the course of eight years is not going to amount to much. In fact, if your prorated share of the settlement is under $10, they won’t even send it to you because of “prohibitive administrative costs.”

The minimum payout is $10 and the maximum is $640 (the Recognized Claim Amount). If you bought a lot of diamonds, the maximum you can receive is the Recognized Claim Amount of $640.

Should I File?

Considering the $10 rule, you may want to reconsider whether to spend the time to file. This is what they recommend: “As a general guideline, if your total purchases consist of Mixed Stones Jewelry with combined purchase prices of $165 or less, or Diamonds Only Jewelry with combined purchase prices of $95 or less, your claim will not reach the payment minimum amount of $10.00.” Now, is that just the lawyers wanting a bigger piece of the pie? Is it just there so people don’t dilute the pool? Who knows, that’s up to you to decide.

How To File

To file a claim, visit the online claim form or fill out the PDF form and mail it back by may 19th.

If you claim less than $10,000, you don’t need to provide proof right now but you might need it later. If you claim more than $10,000, you have to include a copy of a document that shows the specs of the diamond (what’s essentially in an appraisal). Good luck!

(Photo: tambako)


 Personal Finance, Your Take 
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Your Take on Convenience vs. Cost: How Do You Choose?

A few weeks ago we booked our tickets to Hawaii, where we will be spending our honeymoon, and we had a quick little $60 decision to make. On the way back, we have the option of two flights:

  • $390: Departure at 11:50pm, arrive at 6:30pm, or,
  • $330: Departure at 10:50pm, arrive at 7:30pm.

The two flights were similar otherwise (the first had one extra stop, but you never deplaned and second flight had a longer layover) so the difference was in just the flight time and departure times. The first flight was $60 more expensive but we were able to stay in Hawaii an additional hour and we arrived at home an hour earlier. So, which flight did we choose?

We chose the more expensive flight. This was probably one of the first times in which I’ve chosen convenience over cost when the two choices were so similar. In this particular case, there were reasons to pick the more expensive flight outside of the characteristics:

  • Landing at 6:30pm: We will be tired from our trip and having an extra hour of “home” time before going back to work the next day will probably help tremendously.
  • Fewer hours total: This was the only real trade off, paying $30 an hour to save that travel time really cuts down on fatigue.
  • Later departure: By leaving at around midnight Hawaii time, it lets us enjoy the full final day in Hawaii. It also let us have a nice leisurely dinner prior to our departure. If we were to leave at 10:50pm, we’d feel compelled to arrive at the airport by at lets 9:30pm, which means we’d have to leave our dinner by 9 (depending on how far away it was). If we plan on having a nice dinner, that means we have to eat by 7… so for a little extra we can take our time and have more breathing room.

How do you go about deciding whether to take the cheaper option or the more convenient option?


 Free 
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Free Copy of Suze Orman’s Women & Money from Oprah

This offer has ended.

Oprah is giving away free digital copies of Suze Orman’s Women & Money until 8pm (7pm Central) tonight (February 14th). (Direct download link) A Spanish translation of the book is available as well.

This book is copyrighted. You may view and download the file, but you may not copy the file or share or forward it to any other person.


 Frugal Living 
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Try Reducing Instead of Eliminating A Trimmable

A trimmable expense is an expense that fulfills a want rather than a need. Buying fruits and vegetables is not a trimmable, buying chocolate covered fruits is a trimmable. While you could try to go through all of you expenses and try to eliminate everything that is discretionary, you may find yourself enjoying life less and less. Trimmables, while fulfilling wants and not “required,” are there to help you live life and enjoy the fruits of your labor.

So, rather than cutting out some of your trimmables, consider reducing your trimmables in terms of quantity or frequency. Spa treatments are sometimes seen as frivolous but if they are valuable in reducing stress, then cutting them out entirely may not be a smart move in the long run. If you go every week, consider visiting every other week. If you go every other week, consider going every three weeks. Don’t cut it out entirely, reduce it so that you can save a little but not lose the recuperative effects.

Some trimmables you might want to reduce with the intent of eliminating them all together. Don’t make that decision now. Just reduce it a little and see if you lose any of its benefits. You may find that the less frequent visits help you look forward to them. You may find that you still get all the recuperative effects and that those bi-monthly visits were unnecessary. You may find that your sweet spot is really at once a month, rather than twice a month. So, you could be enhancing the experience while saving your money.

Also, you could discover that you need to go every two weeks – that’s fine. Rather than thinking you need it twice a week, you now know you need to go because you’ve tried once every three weeks or once a month and it didn’t work. Simply give yourself the opportunity to reduce it a little so you know for sure.

Finally, reducing something is far easier than eliminating it. Quitting cold turkey is practically impossible and impractical as a means of quitting something, reduce it until you hardly miss it. If you love that Starbucks and need it every morning, try cutting it out of your day once a week and replace with it regular coffee or with some tea. You may find that Starbucks’ hold isn’t as firm as you once thought! Or you may find that you like tea more than coffee, you never know until you try.

Reduce something today!


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