Did you know that the U.S. General Services Administration’s Federal Citizen Information Center offers hundreds of publications that you, as a consumer, could benefit from? Each year, they send out a catalog of their pamphlets and booklets and I received mine last week. I now receive it because I once ordered a copy of their Consumer Action Handbook, yet another entirely free publication. I never order anything because all the documents are available online (and if it’s available online, why waste the paper printing it out and the fuel on shipping it to me?).
A few years ago, I was driving from one office building to another when a Dodge Durango ran a red light and totaled my car. I was fine, as the Durango hit me at a forty-five degree angle, but my car was destroyed. The passenger door was dented in, the front quarter-panel was crushed, the frame was bent, and the wheel was crooked on the axle. If that wasn’t enough, both airbags deployed – my Acura Integra was kaput. I was fortunate in that accident because I wasn’t at fault, the other driver was calm, a witness stopped, and the police handled the situation expeditiously. The end result was that I got a check and needed a new car, but the process as quick as could be expected.
There was one good thing about that experience, it taught me how to properly respond in the event of an accident. Accidents are very scary and it’s very easy to lose your calm. They are exactly like those “controversial” Volkswagon “Safe Happens” commercials (I embedded two at the end of this article, they are very shocking). One minute you’re minding your own business, the next you’re being violently interrupted.
Here’s what I do immediately following an accident, I’ve written little notes down to myself on a piece of paper in my wallet to remind me. (In fact, I got the idea from Geico, which writes a sub-set of these instructions on what you should do immediately following an accident)
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Everyone knows about the cheap Costco gas and the wonderful Costco return policy (though on electronics it has certainly lost some of its teeth), but there are a lot of lesser known perks that members should try to take advantage of. Here are just five of them.
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A classic tip for those looking to lower their cable television bills or their credit card interest rates may work in the world of auto insurance. I was reading a Consumerist post about USAA’s website technical issues and their response to, for a few hours, “losing” a woman’s IRA when I saw this little gem in the comments:
xspook: I had their auto insurance for many years. I decided to shop around and found a much cheaper (over $600 a year savings) policy elsewhere. When I called to cancel, they offered to lower my policy, but couldn’t match the price I got elsewhere. That actually pissed me off, because, as a 10 year loyal customer I should’ve been getting the best price. Now that I tell them I’m leaving, they reward my loyalty with a lower price. Adios USAA. (emphasis mine)
Insurance is a tricky business that I know only a little about. In reading the Berkshire Hathaway Letters to Shareholders, the traditional payout on insurance premiums always seems to be in the 90′s (they make money by investing the float between when premiums are collected and claims are paid). That confirmed something I’ve always believed, that a large component of my car insurance premiums were dictated by risk. Riskier car? Higher premiums. Some accidents or speeding tickets? Higher premiums. Fair enough, that’s why I get insurance, to protect me.
But this little anecdote showed that threatening to leave your car insurance (or any insurance provider) can lower your premiums. I imagine the game that gets played is that all the organizational discounts, good driver discounts and such are up for grabs if a CSR can get you to stay. Who knows?
Either way, shop around for insurance and try twisting some arms to see if you can get a better rate.
If you’ve bought yourself a new car and are looking to get rid of your old one, or simply want to get rid of a car, consider donating it to an organization that accepts car donations. Selling the car will almost always be better than donating from a financial standpoint, but donating offers benefits that may trump the money depending on your situation. After detailing five reasons why you should donate your car, I’ll give a few scenarios where donating is better than selling.
Here are five solid reasons why you should donate your car:
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This week, my wife and I went to Costco and picked up two bikes that we’d been looking at for quite some time. Some cycling purists would say that you should always get a bike from a local bike shop. While I agree that the personal service at a local bike shop is far better than at Costco (no explanation necessary), the reality is that there are two reasons we are getting these bikes and neither involve hardcore mountain biking or racing.
First, our little suburban area of Columbia is designed for biking. All the little shopping centers and parks and lakes are separated by an intricate network of walking and bicycle paths. On Wednesday, I rode around a nearby lake, through some paths, and popped out beside a little shopping center with a Subway to eat lunch with my wife and her co-worker. On the way back, I did some exploring and easily found the right path to take if we ever want to bike to our favorite Chinese restaurant, Hunan Manor, as well as our gym. Forget walkability scores, bikability is where it’s at.
The second reason is that I work from home and find myself doing a lot of intra-city driving to places where I am taking small roads. Why not replace the use of my car with a bike? Lower my already relatively small carbon footprint, get some exercise, and enjoy the fresh air! I’m not ready to sell my car but I’m certainly going to be using it less and less now that I have a bike.
The bikes were a good $200 a piece. While in the pantheon of bicycles, $200 is considered cheap, in the pantheon of bicycles I’d be willing to buy, $200 was about the limit. I understand that you get what you pay for and a “good bike” costs in the thousands, but I don’t know and cannot appreciate the difference. My wife doesn’t know and cannot appreciate the difference. For now, we can enjoy the heck out of our $200 bikes and then upgrade if necessary. We are acting our age financially.
For security, we bought two OnGuard Bulldog STD 5010LM Bicycle U-Locks as they were the highest rated sub-$30 lock by Scott Elder of Slate.com. He wrote about his experience trying to break into a whole bunch of bike locks and this one was the best of the bunch under $30. Again, you can spend much more for a beast of a lock (and those with $5000 bikes should buy a beast of a lock), but these should fit our needs just nicely.
Do you own a bike? Any tips or suggestions?
The price of gas has dropped by a significant amount the last month or so (though a barrel of oil popped up $6 yesterday!), we might be looking at the beginning of oil slipping out of the stratosphere (could be lowered demand, could be speculators running for the exits, who knows!?). This begs the question, will all of our energy consumption habit changes stick?
Whenever people think of high fuel prices, they think back to the energy crisis of the 70s. One big difference between this last energy crisis and the 70s was that in the 70s, there was rationing. If you wanted fuel, you couldn’t necessarily get any. In the energy crisis today, and I loathe to even call it a crisis, you can buy gasoline anytime you wanted to. It might have been close to four dollars a gallon but you didn’t have to wait in lines or wait for the right day to buy. I think that’s a huge difference.
Here’s the scary part. The last energy crisis should’ve been a wake up call … but we hit the snooze button. Here we are, dealing with our reliance on oil, and there’s nothing that says our changes and the presidential campaign rhetoric this will result in action. I never lived through the last energy crisis but the stories I’ve read show a time when that crisis had a greater impact on one’s life.
As a naturally frugal person, I didn’t make many changes to my life to conserve energy. I’ve always had an eye on the recurring costs of things like my car, so I’ve never had a gas guzzler. I own a Toyota Celica and my first car was an Acura Integra, both are efficient with fuel. I try to use as little energy as possible, even before electricity prices spiked dramatically in Maryland, simply because I didn’t want to pay for something I didn’t need to. Let’s be honest, I need the money more than the power company!
So I’m fairly confident that any changes I have made will stick because they’ve been so tightly integrated, I feel as though I never changed in the first place! How about you?
We’ve made it through four of the seven deadly sins of personal finance and touched on many good topics so far. The first few were easy – have an emergency fund, don’t raid your retirement, budget, and plan and project for the future. We’re starting to get into a bit of the hazier areas of personal finance, where the answers are quite so clear cut and where much of it depends on you and your specific situation. You could argue that failing to budget isn’t so bad a sin, the reality is that math will do the budgeting for you if you decide you don’t want to. When you run out of money, you’ve hit your budget.
I doubt anyone can argue against today’s deadly sin…
Being Improperly Insured
The reality is that insurance is a very difficult subject to tackle because it provides you protection against the unknown. Since you’re protecting against the unknown, it’s difficult to know how much protection you’ll actually need. Insurance is also very temporal. When you pay the premium for the month or the year, that protection is gone once the insured period passes. I’ve been driving for nearly five years and never once made a claim. That’s five years of auto insurance premiums gone. (I’m not complaining, I consider myself very lucky!)
But you can’t look at insurance that way and many people do. Insurance is a hedge against unknown events that could potentially bankrupt you and it’s a way for you to purchase peace of mind. So, how do you ensure you have the right amount of insurance? How do you avoid getting too much coverage or too little? Sadly, it’s mostly a judgment call but here’s how I approach it.
My approach towards insurance is that it should protect against catastrophic events. Not everyone is like that and that’s certainly not the “right” or “best” way to approach it, I don’t know what the “right” or “best” way is (or if there even is one). My tolerance of risk is such that I’m comfortable with assuming some self-insurance (high deductibles) in order to pay lower premiums.
How should you approach it? I can’t answer that other than to say that you have several factors that will affect how you adjust your coverages and deductibles:
- Assess your financial situation. If you have a fully funded emergency fund, consider increasing it and self-insuring through higher deductibles. If your current automobile insurance has a deductible of $500, increase it to $1000 and put the premium savings into your emergency fund. If you work in a volatile industry or have irregular income, consider adjusting your insurance so that any negative events don’t cause extreme financial distress.
- Known your own “riskiness.” If you’re a bad driver who is prone to accidents or mishaps, lower your deductible. There’s no sense in being prideful and making the wrong financial decision by increasing deductibles or removing certain coverages. If you live in a dangerous neighborhood, lower your homeowners deductible so that you’re better covered in the event of a break-in or fire.
- Know the statistics. Some cars are burglarized more than others, some neighborhoods are rougher than others, and some ethnicities are more prone to some medical problems. Be aware of these statistics, many of which can be found online, and use them to adjust your coverages.
- Your tolerance towards risk. If peace of mind is priceless to you, adjust your insurances so that you obtain that. You can’t quantify stress and all we know about its effects are that it’s bad on the body. Paying a few extra dollars so you can sleep better at night and prevent a few gray hairs is money well spent. Frugality is important but your health is more important.
I’m sure there are actuaries who know insurance backwards and forwards who would disagree with me, if you are such an actuary I invite you to let us know what you think.