The Home 

The ultimate tips for holiday tipping on a budget

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, they say, unless you’re talking about your finances.

From a money perspective, the holidays put a huge strain on family bank accounts, especially when all of those extras – like year-end tips – push your budget past its breaking point.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the holiday spirit of giving, or feel pressured into having to financially reward everyone with whom you’ve come in contact.

But while you want to find a way to thank everyone at holiday time, you shouldn’t have to deplete your limited cash reserves to do so.

January (and its fearsome pile of bills) is right around the corner.

That’s why I’ve learned to set aside extra funds to cover all of the holiday tips I want to give and to be a little stingy about who I reward.

Well, put in a more positive way, I’ve become more selective about who gets end-of-year tips or thank-you gifts, and to place reasonable limits on the presents I bestow.

Here’s how I suggest you do that.
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We’ll spend more celebrating the holidays this year … And our money goes to much more than gifts

If you plan on spending more during the holiday season this year, you’re in good company. But don’t blame it all on gift giving.

According to a new survey by Deloitte, Americans plan to spend $487 on gifts for others this year (up 6% from last year), but that only accounts for about one-third (33%) of what we plan to spend total.

Overall, the corporate consults say Americans plan to shell out $1,462 during the 2015 holidays – up 13% from last year.

So where’s the rest of that cash going?

The biggest ticket item, next to gifts for others, is attending holiday events away from home, which accounts for 24% of that budget, or $348.

Entertaining at home is the next biggest expense — $212 at 15% of the budget.

Purchasing clothing that is not a gift accounts for 12% of the budget at $182, while holiday home furnishings account for 9% at $124. And 8% of the budget goes into the “other” category ($110), which is any other holiday-related spending.
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Conquer gift clutter with practical presents

Every holiday season means that you get – and often give — lots of pointless stuff.

You treat your aunt to yet another sweater while adding to the mountain of Legos and action figures in your family room. Your spouse buys more jewelry or tech gadgets to add to the collection you hardly ever wear or use.

This year, vow to break the cycle of gift clutter by giving (and asking for) something more practical.

Don’t worry, this isn’t where we start explaining that everyone needs socks and underwear.

The trick to choosing a winning practical gift that doesn’t come across as cold or even insulting (seriously, no one wants a bathroom scale with a bow on it), is to really think about the person’s interests or what might make their life a little easier or more enjoyable.

On the flipside, if you want to be on the receiving end of gifts you can actually use, start dropping hints or create wish lists that provide your loved ones with some ideas.

Yes, it’s the thought that counts and all that, but if you can shape those thoughts just a little, it’s a better gift for you, and an easier shopping experience for your gift giver — win-win!

Here are some practical ideas to help with your holiday shopping.
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I take it back … Car dealers aren’t totally worthless

“I refuse to go to a car dealership for any reason. I don’t shop for cars there and I don’t get maintenance or repairs done there. They have a reputation for charging much more than smaller auto shops.”

Or at least that’s what I thought last June when I wrote a Bargaineering post called Skip the pricey car dealership … I fixed a keyless remote myself and so can you.

I’ve changed my tune since then.

It started when I had to take my Honda to the dealership for an airbag recall.

While the car was there, they fixed the stuck sliding panel in my car’s front-seat storage compartment.

I’d tried everything to fix it myself, from coat hangers to screwdrivers to DIY videos.

The dealership fixed it at no charge.

Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised.

I wasn’t even paying them for other work.

Maybe they wanted to do something nice since it was an inconvenience to bring my car in for the recall service. Maybe they hoped to earn my future business.
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 The Home 

Right now is the best time of the year to buy a home … No really, real estate data says it’s today

If you’re in the market to purchase a home, mark October on your calendar as the best month to buy.

That’s when you’ll get the biggest discount, according to a new study from RealtyTrac, a company that tracks real estate data and trends.

RealtyTrac analyzed more than 32 million single-family home and condo sales across the nation dating back to 2000. The average sales price in October over that 15-year period was 2.6% below the average estimated full market value at the time of sale – better than any other month.

On a $200,000 home, that’s more than a $5,000 discount — more money toward your down payment and more equity in your home.

When you buy, as this report demonstrates, can play a major role in how much home you can afford.

“The start of the school year and the holidays influence our buyer decisions and serve as a strategic indicator of the most advantageous times for buyers to land their lowest-priced deal,” Mark Hughes, chief operating officer with First Team Real Estate, told RealtyTrac.
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 Culture Cents 

Should you tip your Uber driver?

Should you tip your Uber driver? It’s a big debate lately. And if you’re confused about it, you’re not alone.

But here’s the fact. With Uber, tipping isn’t required. Uber says so.

“There is no need to tip. Once you arrive at your destination, your fare is automatically charged to your credit card on file, making for a cashless and seamless experience,” Uber recently told MarketWatch.

What does everyone else think?

To find out I also asked family, friends, co-workers — even a few Uber drivers — and the general consensus is, no, you don’t need to tip your Uber driver, but you probably should in a few fairly rare circumstances (more on that later).

For those who aren’t familiar with Uber, or don’t have it in their city, Uber is a ridesharing app that’s taking over urban transportation.

You download the Uber app on your smart phone, request a car at your pickup location, and within minutes you’re on your way to your destination. Approved Uber drivers use their own cars to drive passengers around town – it’s peer-to-peer ridesharing at its best.
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 The Home 

I’m into serial refinancing … You should be, too

My husband and I bought our house in 2008, and we’ve refinanced the mortgage three times since then.

Sounds crazy, right? Who would want to go through the cost and hassle of taking out four home loans in just seven years?

We would, and you should consider it, too.

Refinancing doesn’t take much of your time and it can save you a couple of years’ worth of income. You could take that huge savings and retire earlier or put the money toward other major goals.

There’s no reason not to refinance repeatedly as long as you calculate the break-even period and it shows that you’ll likely come out ahead each time.

I say “likely” because it’s never a sure thing.

Your job could get transferred the day after you refinance, and you could end up selling your home unexpectedly.

That’s life, as my dad would say. The best you can do is make an educated guess about how long you’ll keep the new loan.

We were able to go from a 30-year, fixed-rate FHA loan at 6% to a 30-year, fixed-rate FHA loan at 4.5%, then to a 15-year, fixed-rate conventional loan at 3.375% and finally to a 15-year, fixed-rate conventional loan at 2.875%.
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No car … No problem

Life without wheels is good and I’ve saved a fortune

A little over a year ago, I ditched my car.

It’s a decision I’ve never regretted, and that’s saved us thousands of dollars.


Mitch Strohm biking across the Cumberland River from downtown Nashville

You’ll probably be surprised to find that my wife and I don’t live in a pedestrian friendly big city crisscrossed by bus and train lines, such as New York or Chicago.

Our home is a medium sized southern city where the nearest subway station is 400 miles away — Nashville, Tennessee.

Yet I’ve found that it’s not a difficult place to live without a car or truck.

While only 7.7% of households are carless, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data by, Nashville averages 1.6 vehicles per household, below the national average of 1.8.

Indeed, my wife and I aren’t getting by without any vehicle. She still has her car.

But its main purpose is transportation to her workplace, which is outside of the city limits. It’s old, has over 210,000 miles on it, gives us very few problems and it’s paid off. In other words, it’s very cheap to own at this point.

We had no choice but to say goodbye to my 2004 Saturn Vue when it was totaled in an accident. (Fortunately, no one was hurt.)

Our options were either to buy a used car or to pocket the cash we received from the insurance settlement and do without.
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