Frugal Living 
58
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Find and Plug Your Money Leaks

Financial Leaks = Leaky FaucetsHow many times have you run into this scenario at work: you start a task that seems ridiculously inefficient or outdated, bring it up to your supervisor only to hear them say “that’s how we’ve always done it.” Sadly, it happens all too often and it’s the product of the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality that permeates almost every aspect of life. When was the last time you took a hard look at how you did things? Your commute to work every day, how you pay your bills, and how you set your thermostat? Probably not much, especially with all the other, more important, things you have to worry about right?

I totally get it because everyone does the same thing. There are a lot of things in our lives that we probably do the exact same way because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” It’s familiar. It’s comfortable. It has worked… but it could be better. And, just like at work, we’ve done it that way because while it may not be the best way, it worked and you have a million other things competing for your time and energy.

However, today I want to work with you to try to find some ways we may be leaking money. It’s hard to know where you might be losing your hard earned cash bit by bit because it’s hard to know what you don’t know, right? So, to help get our mindgrapes flowing, I listed a few common money leaks in the hopes that you could kick in a few leaks you may have found recently.

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 Credit 
12
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10 Smart Student Credit Rules

I applied for my first credit card as a freshman in college, it was an AT&T branded Citi card that gave me free long distance phone minutes and a few rewards points. I was fortunate to have started building up my credit at the age of eighteen, which would prove to be crucial later on. I was even more fortunate never to have fallen down the credit card debt hole so many college students slip into, in part because I know my mom would’ve been furious. :)

To help all the rising freshmen, or perhaps the parents of rising freshmen, I offer up these ten rules for smart credit. Some of these are credit card rules and some are simply credit rules, hopefully all of them are helpful. Here are ten tips for students looking to build credit but not credit card debt:
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 Banking 
17
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Five Money Saving Bank Hacks

Bank Hacks In Your FavorBanks offer a lot of services and features. You probably know most of the popular ones. Heck, you probably know most of the not so popular ones. However, I am pretty certain that there is at least one thing on the follow list that you didn’t know about before. And if I’m wrong, I invite you to look at these 7 Unwritten and Often Forgotten Credit Card Secrets, and hopefully between the two you’ll learn something new that will save you some money in these difficult times.

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 Banking 
3
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Online Banking: How’d We Do Without It?

Online banking is wonderful. It’s difficult to believe that even as recently as ten or fifteen years ago, online banking was a rarity. It seems ubiquitous now (especially with so many online banks offering high yield savings accounts). My first account was at our local credit union and they were ahead of the curve in offering banking online services. You could check your balance online, transfer between credit union accounts online, and do all sorts of cool online stuff! (Unfortunately, they haven’t upgraded non-security related features in fifteen years, but they are a credit union after all)

Since then, the number of features offered by banks and their online banking services has blossomed. There are banks that operate entirely online, from opening an account to depositing funds, with interest rates that beat the long-term CD rates of conventional banks. It might seem like old hat to many readers, but it wasn’t that long ago that the idea of a 100% online bank sounded like a scam.

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 Personal Finance 
12
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How Online Bill Payment Adds Months To Your Life

Back in the days of personal checks and monthly bills, “doing the bills” was an arduous task that took hours and hours. Back in the days of check registers and balancing a checkbook, “doing the bills” was like accounting-lite. With the advent of online checking and electronic bill payment systems, there isn’t any logical reason why you should be spending an hour or two each month dealing with bills. By setting up your bill payment details and conducting your transactions entirely online, you can add months to your life.

Thank about this… imagine you spend three hours a month dealing with bills. Three hours a month equates to a day and a half a year. That’s basically one weekend a year (unless you do your bills at work!) you lose because you are “doing the bills.” Now consider that you’ll be doing bills for most of your adult life. If you figure you live past 75, you’re talking about over a year’s worth of weekends lost just to “do the bills.” I think that when you put it in those terms, it’s quite easy to make the jump and trust online bill payment as a means to recapture your weekends.

Personally, I auto-pay as much as I can. My cell phone bill and my cable/internet bill are charged to a credit card while my mortgage and my water bill are all automatically debited from my checking account. I’m implicitly trust those entities because they’re established organizations (Sprint, Verizon, BB&T and my county government) that I would trust my banking information to. If I didn’t, sending them a check would be just as dangerous as giving them the electronic account details (I lose nothing privacy-wise by giving that information to them versus a personal check).

If I could auto-pay the balance of my credit cards, I would. I can’t do that because the credit card company doesn’t offer it because that would mean I’d never miss a payment. I’d never miss a payment and I’d always pay off in full, something I do anyway but at least this way there’s a probability I’ll miss it (and I have in the past, I’ve missed one payment but had the fee waived).


 Personal Finance 
5
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How To Put Your Personal Finances On Autopilot

Personal finance is boring, but with a little work and preparation in the beginning and some time spent checking in, it can be put on autopilot. That’s right, just spend a little time setting up your personal finance strategy and then spend a little more time each year just to check in on it, and you can ensure that you’re ahead of the average for your age and live comfortably. While leaving anything on autopilot can be tricky, it’s better to participate and be on autopilot than to not participate because it’s too “hard.” Below is a discussion on the different parts of personal finance and how to put them on autopilot.

Retirement planning: 401(k), Roth IRA

401(k): If you’re starting a new job, it’s been mandated that your employer automatically enroll you into the 401(k) plan if it’s available and allocate your funds into some very basic and safe fund. All you need to do is log in, double check your contribution amount (make sure it’s over the level at which your employer will match your contributions), double check the funds you’re contributing to, and then log out. If you have been on the job for a while and aren’t participating, call up HR for the enrollment form immediately. After you submit it and they set it up, just follow the easy instructions above. Then, just once a year, check to make sure everything is okay and that your allocations are what you think they should be. Do this for 40 years and you’ll be way ahead of the game in terms of retirement funds.
Roth IRA: If you don’t have one, opening a Roth IRA takes literally ten minutes. Some brokerages will let you do auto-deposits every month so divide the annual limit (this year the limit is $4,000, in 2008 it’ll be $5,000) by twelve and set your contribution allocations as you would the Roth and don’t worry about it. You have until tax day to contribute to your Roth IRA for the previous year (you have until April 15th, 2008 to contribute for 2007) but make sure your payments indicate which year they apply to.

Budgeting

The envelope budgeting method is by far the easiest and requires the least amount of tracking and thinking. The premise is that you have different envelopes based on category of spending and that you put how much you can spend in each envelope for that month. As you spend, you pull the money out and when you run out, you no longer spend. It forces you to budget and establishes a simple framework to help remind you. First, open up an ING Direct checking account (email if you want a $25 bonus). I recommend ING because you can open up new accounts within the interface of your first account in minutes, it’ll take much longer at a regular bank. Open up as many accounts as you have “envelopes,” or categories of spending. Link up your local checking account to your ING accounts and have your paycheck direct deposited into your ING. Then, setup recurring transfers from your main account, where funds are direct deposited, to your envelope accounts, which govern spending in a particular category. As you spend money, withdraw the funds from your account and the balances will reflect how much you still have left in your envelope.

Investing

Investing is truly no different than 401(k) or Roth IRA autopilot, the difference is in which brokerage you choose. I have no recommendations other than to say that if you prefer a particular mutual fund (I prefer index funds), then go with one of the larger mutual fund companies like Fidelity or Vanguard. On index funds they simply cannot be beat on fees and that’s all you should care about with index funds. If you want to invest in stocks, you’re on your own because I don’t think you can really put that on autopilot. While I don’t believe in checking your stocks daily, unless its for entertainment value, you have to check in periodically to read news and keep up to date, so it doesn’t lend itself well to putting it on autopilot.

Saving

Finally, saving is again no different than investing or retirement planning because fundamentally all you’re doing is putting money into an account for an expressed purpose. In fact, you should have a goal, a reason to save, because it will help you remain diligent. Mechanically, automatic savings are easy. Many banks have automatic withdrawal features that will let you withdraw a set amount each month from a linked bank account. Simply establish a goal, figure out how long you have, and setup regular and automatic transfers into a high yield savings account to reach your goal. It’s that easy!

Bills

Many companies will let you link up a bank account or credit card so that your bills are automatically paid on time each month. There is one downside to setting this up, a company can then charge you on that method of payment for things you never realized you authorized (here’s an example of an unauthorized billing from a reputable company). The upside is that you’ll pay at the last minute and you won’t pay late, two pretty good reasons to set up auto-billpay. I have all my bills automatically paid this way from my cell phone to my mortgage to my electricity and water bills. The sheer convenience, and I save on stamps, can’t be beaten.

See how easy it is to set up your personal finances on autopilot? One thing to note is that while it may be easy to setup and convenient to simply let it run, you should check in periodically to ensure that everything is running properly.


 Banking 
5
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Ten Minute Tip: Setup Online Bill Payment

Get your checkbook, find ten minutes, and setup online bill payment for your credit cards, mortgage, and any monthly recurring bills you may have. Even if you don’t like the idea of paying online because you don’t “trust” that the payment will make it on time, set up the online bill payment just in case. Murphy’s law states that if you forget to make a payment to an important bill, you’ll make that mistake after the post office has closed… so beat Murphy at his game by setting up online payment so you can log on late at night and push the payment you forgot.

If you need an additional incentive, think of all the trees you’ll save by not using envelopes and all the money you’ll save by not having to use stamps (which will only get more and more expensive). Plus, if you setup online bill pay with a credit card, you can even earn points for paying with your card!


 Personal Finance 
18
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5 Ways Paperless Personal Finance Saves You Money

I don’t know how JD comes up with the topics he does but practically every single one resonates with me and this one about pursuing paperless personal finance hit spot on. I only started truly dealing with personal finance issues such as bills, credit cards, and banking within the last four years and I’m pretty much as minimalist in terms of paper as you can probably. I’m so trusting of going paperless because many of the all-electronic processes had proven themselves in the last four years (in terms of earning user trust on their safety and reliability) so I just rolled into it. I think going paperless as much as possible is the way to go.

There are two reasons why you should go paperless: it’s good for the environment and it will save you money. Since most people are interested primarily with saving money and I like it when people try to save the environment, I’ll try to trick you into going paperless for your reasons even though I want you to do it for my reasons (shhh! this tactic is a scecret, don’t tell anyone!). If you want ideas on how to go as paperless as possible, read JD’s post for ideas.

Reason 1: Save On Envelopes & Stamps

Each bill you don’t have to send is one in which you don’t have to stick into an envelope, which usually is provided, and stick a 41 cent stamp on. If you mail off two credit card payments, a mortgage payment, a car payment, a cable payment, and a utility bill each month, that’s $29.52 saved each year in stamps alone. Don’t scoff at the thought that going paperless only saves you thirty bucks in stamps, would you pick up a thirty dollar bill if it were sitting on the ground? I would.

Reason 2: Avoid Fees Because Payment Systems Remember

One of the benefits of getting email notification of a statement is that when you get the email you’re generally at your computer, which means you can log on and schedule a payment. If you get a paper bill, you have to go get your checkbook, write out a check, put it in the envelope with the stub, put a stamp on it, and walk out to your mailbox. There are plenty of opportunities in that process chain to just put the bill down and take care of it later. If you’re online, just log into your account, schedule a payment, and have a nice day until the next notification.

Reason 3: Schedule To Pay At The Last Minute

Keep those hard earned dollars in your bank account until the last moment and have the bank remember when to pay for you. When you log on and schedule the payment, most places will let you pick the day you want to send it. Simply wait until the last day (I generally schedule it three or four days before the last day, just in case… though the just in case has never happened and I’m not really sure what could happen) so your dollars keep earning interest. While I can’t quantify how much money you’ll earn each year, it won’t be much but it’s better you than some company.

Reason 4: Electronic Payments Are Rarely Lost

The USPS processes gazillions of pieces of mail each year and a percentage of those are lost or mangled in processing and O’Doyle’s Law states that all bad stuff happens to you when it will hurt you the most (it doesn’t because I just made up that law but if there is a law for that I don’t know it), so put two and two together and realize that a physical payment is far inferior to an electronic one. With electronic payments, you get confirmation of a successful scheduling or payment almost immediately. If it’s “lost,” you generally know because the next page doesn’t load. When regular mail is lost, you generally know because you get a missed payment fee.

Reason 5: Electronic Theft Is Harder

It takes very little effort to steal your information when you mail a check payment. If you have a traditional mailbox, it just takes someone with enough stones to open up a stranger’s mailbox and snatch the envelope. Once they open it up, they have your name, address, bank name and your checking account number – all off your check. If someone wants to steal your information when you make an electronic payment, it’s impossible because you aren’t sending your bank information with your request every single time. You only register the bank once, it’s never displayed back to you for security reasons (in case you unwittingly give out your credentials to a thief), so they’ll have to somehow catch you when you enter that in and spend eons of time to crack the SSL 128-bit encryption (good luck, read this for more on SSL 128-bit encryption). The Law of Least Resistance says that a thief, given the skills to two both, would rather open your mailbox.

There are probably plenty of other ways that going paperless will save you money either right this moment or in the long run but those are probably the biggest. So even if saving the environment isn’t on the forefront of your mind (though it should be!), save yourself some of the other kind of green by going paperless and everyone wins.


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