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Monday, December 20, 2010

Comfort on the go makes traveling easier

By Carey Denman

I often joke that the key to parenting four young children is to always have food. A stick of gum or a piece of candy works wonders in the grocery store. A sucker is a little bit of magic when we’re on the homestretch of a long trip. A few crackers can stall before-lunch anarchy.

In other words, small comforts, made possible with just a little bit of planning, can make life easier, and generally more pleasant, for our busy family. Our wee ones are less apt to melt down, and we do a better job of keeping our budget intact when we’re prepared for outings. This is true whether we’re heading out for a day of running errands, or taking a trip across the state, such as the one we’re planning this holiday.

No matter what your personal situation, you’ll be better prepared to deal with the stress of holiday travel when you plan ahead. You’ll also save money when you take time to make some relatively small travel preparations. After all, who hasn’t been so desperate in an airport that you resort to eating a $6 pretzel, or been so famished that convenience store beef sticks, packaged alongside unrefrigerated cheese, suddenly look appealing?

While it’s impossible to account for every possible travel glitch—lost luggage or sketchy roads, for example—you can be ready to deal with two inevitable aspects of traveling: hunger and boredom. We’re able to deal with the former by picking up special food items in the days leading up to our trip. These include treats like juice boxes and crazy-long licorice ropes.

Just the sheer anticipation of something out of the ordinary helps our children deal with the seemingly endless prairie stretched out before us. And though the idea of a foot of licorice may not be appealing to you, you can plan for your own kind of travel indulgences.

For road travel, for example, you could brew your favorite coffee at home and take it along in an insulated Thermos. Or you can buy yourself candy you love, or pack your own boxed meal for an airline flight. Make homemade granola or simply stock up on your favorite energy bars. With preparations such as these, you’ll make a small upfront investment, but you’ll save money and feel more satisfied in the long run.

As for dealing with travel boredom, we have our own specialized coping mechanisms. Namely, these include new or favorite books and CDs, stickers, and pocket-size notebooks and crayons. When the situation gets really desperate, we break out press-on tattoos and the aforementioned suckers. We’ve even been known to stop at a park and brave subzero temperatures, just as a way to get everybody out of the car and break up the trip.

Again, press-on tattoos and wintery romps in the park probably won’t suit you, but getting a free download for your digital reader or checking out books or back issues of a magazine from the library could be an appropriate (and budget-friendly) substitute. An audio version of a book is yet another way you can pass the time during your travels – especially if the plot is a thriller guaranteed to keep you alert during long hours of driving. Or you could even write a few handwritten notes or finish a knitting or embroidery project, if these kinds of pursuits interest you.

Amid the busyness of the season, take time to pack a few comforts to pamper yourself and your family. A little planning goes a long way toward making us calmer and happier during stressful holiday travels.

Monday, December 13, 2010

One simple change can make life, money management easier

By Carey Denman

In a house with four children, I can easily become besieged by laundry. It mounts quickly, but takes hours to tackle all the tiny socks and spaghetti-stained t-shirts. On any given day, there is a load of laundry sitting somewhere, waiting to be stain-treated, washed, dried, folded, or put away.

Laundry isn’t complicated (unless you end up drying a piece of wayward gum, which has been known to happen at my house), but it is a process that can be overwhelming. That’s why I decided to remove the hampers from my children’s rooms and set up a canvas cart with three separate bins.

My children now drop off their dirty clothes in a centralized location, where it immediately gets sorted by color. When one bin gets full, I can do laundry without having to walk all over the house dumping out hampers and sorting clothing.

My experience with the laundry cart reminds me how valuable one small change can be. Though I’ll never be free of laundry, I have found a way to streamline the task. In the same way, you will always have to deal with money, no matter how much or little you have. Too often, people get overwhelmed by the idea of getting their finances under control. When they don’t know what to do first, they often end up doing nothing.

You can learn to manage your money effectively by making one small change at a time. Start by asking yourself, “What isn’t working well?” For example, do you have a habit of paying bills late and ending up with late fees? Do you scramble when the holidays approach, then overspend on your gift purchases? Do you eat out more often than you would like?

Once you identify one area you would like to improve, then you can consider a simple solution. Suppose you want to stop paying your bills late. Start by putting your bills in one place and setting aside one or two specific days every month to pay them. If necessary, set up e-mail reminders or ask a trusted friend to keep you accountable.

If you want to build an emergency fund, set a relatively small goal--$500 to $1,000—and sign up for an automatic payroll deduction. You’ll never miss what you don’t see, and you’ll be encouraged when your savings balance grows each month.

If you want to spend less eating out, pack your lunch the night before. You can also stock your desk or work area with hearty, non-perishable foods such as trail mix, dehydrated soup mixes, granola bars, juice boxes, beef jerky or almonds. In a pinch, you can eat what you have on hand, and you won’t be tempted to dash out and buy something instead.

Planning ahead can help you rely less on convenience foods, too. You could cook and freeze several meals for later. My husband’s thrifty 89-year-old grandmother does this, creating complete, individual meals for herself. Even learning how to cook one or two new dishes can help you to spend less on expensive, ready-made food.

Advance planning also can help you avoid the last-minute holiday crush. If you can’t avoid it this year, start fresh in January. Make a gift list at the beginning of the year. Then, commit to making or buying just one gift a month; come next December, you—and your budget—won’t be stressed.

Ultimately, you’re in the best position to decide what solutions will work for you. Starting small will let you build on your success, allowing you to get your finances under control one simple change at a time.

Friday, December 10, 2010

10 Expenses to Cut to Help Pay Off Credit Debt

Even small cuts make a difference, so examine your costs in these 10 areas first.

If you find yourself falling deeper into credit card trouble, it's time to take a hard look at what's coming in, what's going out and see where you can free up some cash quickly to start hacking away at your debt.

Some trims may seem small, but if you package several of them together, you can soon get started on a respectable payment plan.

Here are some ideas for places to turn first.

1. Cell Phones

"For $9.88, you can buy a TracFone (prepaid cell phone) with pretty decent coverage and pay by the minute," says Mike Sullivan, director of education at Take Charge America in Phoenix. "And if you're careful, you can end up saving $40 to $50 a month off a typical $80 cell phone bill." He also recommends canceling your land line unless you have medical issues that may require emergency calls.

2. Cable/Satellite

Most people can save money just by getting rid of the extra pay packages they have -- such as premium movie channels and extra services. "If you're really in trouble, cancel the whole package," Sullivan says. Check out the library for free movies, DVDs and CDs to bridge the entertainment gap.

3. Homeowners Insurance and Car Insurance

By increasing the deductible of your policy from $500 to $1,000, you can see big decreases on your premium, says Michael Barry, vice president of media relations for Insurance Information Institute in New York. "People pay about $880 a year, so if I can knock $88 off, it's a start." Regarding auto insurance, take a look at your collision insurance if you have an older car. If you have even a fender-bender, sometimes the cost to repair the car would be more than it's worth, so perhaps you could cancel the collision insurance altogether. First, look up the value of the car at Kelley Blue Book, Edmunds.com or the National Automobile Dealers Association, then check the collision line on your auto insurance bill and see what it's worth to you to keep that insurance. Also, if you don't drive that car much, look for a discount. "If you drive from 7,000 to 7,500 miles a year, you can often qualify for low-mileage discounts," Barry says.

4. Transportation

Americans are increasingly finding alternatives here. In fact, consumers spent 11 percent less last year in this category, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' 2009 Consumer Expenditures Survey released in October. If you have more than one car, this may be the time to look at downsizing to just one car and getting around with better planning, carpooling, bike riding, public transportation or car sharing. Car-sharing companies such as Zipcar operate in a growing number of cities and on many university campuses. You can rent a car by the hour when you have to have one without the expense of insuring and maintaining your own car.

5. Utilities

"People often overlook programmable thermostats," says Edward Tonini, director of education of Alliance Credit Counseling in Charlotte, N.C. "You can spend $20 to get a programmable thermostat and if you set it right, it can save you $100 over the course of a year easily."

6. Food

Households spent an average of just more than $300 a month on food eaten at home and about $215 per month on food outside the home in 2009, the BLS survey reported. "Maybe eating out isn't necessary for you," Tonini says. "Packing lunches and eating at home will lower your discretionary spending."

7. Gym Membership

Are you really using it multiple times a week? Divide your monthly dues by the number of times you go in a month and get a realistic picture of what you're spending on a one-hour workout. Park districts or community centers often have low-cost or free programs. Also check into exercise videos or a piece of home exercise equipment that you would use regularly. If you decide to keep the membership, check to see whether the facility offers discounts for coming at off-peak times.

8. Movies

A family of four can quickly rack up nearly $100 on one movie with popcorn, drinks and maybe even parking fees. "Instead of going to the movies, have a game night at home. It sounds kind of corny, but it will be more meaningful than sitting in the dark when you can't talk to each other," says Dave Gilbreath, a regional director with Apprisen Financial Advocates in Yakima, Wash.

9. Tax Relief

Wendy Burkholder, executive director of Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Hawaii in Honolulu, says, "Many of the families we work with are struggling with credit card debt because of loss of income. One of the first things to do is re-evaluate your tax withholding on your paycheck (if your spouse or partner has lost a job). If you don't make the change, you end up with a whopping refund. You don't need the money a year from now, you need it now." If you're overpaying taxes, you're also giving the government a free loan and are likely putting off paying for your own bills, which can lead to fees and penalties, she says.

10. Health Insurance for Dependents

"If you're struggling with loss of income, you may no longer be able to afford $600 being deducted from a paycheck to cover your dependents," Burkholder says. She suggests checking to see whether you now qualify for a state or federal coverage plan for dependents, such as the Children's Health Insurance Plan, or coverage by health care providers that may offer reduced prices for basic health care for children.

Deciding what to cut first will be different for every consumer, but whatever the choice, it should be sustainable, rather than a one-time quick fix, Tonini says. Sometimes it's cutting out the daily $4 coffee, but "they need to figure out what their 'latte factor' is."


Happy Holidays from Family Services everyone!


Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Holiday Manifesto

I’ve confessed before that I have a knack for making things far more complicated than necessary. It’s a trait that often leaves me scrambling and my husband tearing out his hair. “Why can’t anything just be simple around here?” he’s been known to ask. Though I’ve balked at his question over the years, I have to admit that my husband is right: simple is better than complicated.

Yet it’s easy to make things complicated, without fully realizing I’m doing it. Perhaps this is no more the case than when it comes to the holidays. Holiday schedules fill up too quickly, the gift budget gets stretched, the dinner menu keeps growing and the days seem to morph into one another, sometimes becoming one frenetic blur.

To help keep us focused on the simple things we enjoy, we’ve revived our manifesto idea from last summer and created a Holiday Manifesto. Together, we’ve made a list that will help us to be intentional with our time and money and to savor the best of the season.

List suggestions for our manifesto run the gamut from traditional activities, such as sledding and making snow angels to more unique ideas that include making super hero ornaments and homemade peppermint ice cream. At the urging of our stick-obsessed four-year-old son, we plan to play broomball on a local pond. We’ll also work on building a snow fort and roast marshmallows in our backyard.

Like our summer list, the suggestions our children offered tended toward the simple (except making super hero ornaments, perhaps). And almost all of the ideas we compiled will cost virtually nothing.

When my husband suggested we add “have a slumber party by the gas stove” to the list, for example, the kids got so excited that I thought they’d jump out of their skin. Their excitement had me recalling my own childhood memories of camping out on the living room floor, of waking up and seeing the twinkling lights of our Christmas tree. Dragging out sleeping bags and sprawling out on the floor couldn’t be simpler, but it’s very likely that we’ll be making memories that last a lifetime.

My own contributions to our Holiday Manifesto include sending out Christmas cards (the first time I’ve done so in more than 11 years), making candy bar hot chocolate with real whipped cream, and decorating our home with natural elements we already have or that we can forage from our property.

Some other items that made the list include decorating cookies, singing Christmas carols, and baking an apple pie. Perhaps my favorite suggestion came from my six-year-old who thought we should make sleeping in one morning a priority. For parents who almost always get woken by the sound of four pairs of stampeding fit, sleeping in would indeed be a welcome treat.

The point of our list isn’t to put pressure on us, but to give us a visual reminder of how we really want to spend our time this holiday season. To make your own list, you might try taking stock of what you did last year. What did you truly enjoy? What activities seemed to cause chaos and stress? What did you want to do but didn’t?

With answers to these questions, you can craft a list that will help you to prioritize how you want to spend your time and your money this year.

Need some free help? Let us know!

CCCS/ACCE –American Center for Credit Education

Carey Denman

acce@acce-online.com

(605) 348-4550

Thursday, November 11, 2010

FIVE THINGS NOT TO DO AT THE MALL THIS HOLIDAY SEASON

Retailers have their red mark-down pens out earlier than usual this year, meaning that many consumers will begin taking advantage of bargains in advance of the traditional Black Friday rush.

As consumers hit the malls this holiday season, some are experienced shoppers, having weathered many years of finding just the right gift at just the right price. Nonetheless, whether novice or seasoned veteran, it’s always smart to arm yourself with timely shopping tips.

Family Services, Inc. reminds consumers of five things not to do at the mall:

· Do not carry your checkbook or more credit cards than you will use during that shopping trip. If your wallet is lost or stolen, this will limit the damage. Tip: Make a copy of the front and back of all credit cards, and put the list in a safe place at home. In an emergency, you will have easy access to a list of all your cards, the account numbers, and the bank’s Customer Service number to report the incident.

· Do not carry large amounts of cash. Even if you are committed to paying for your purchases with cash, be aware that pick-pockets take advantage of crowded areas and distracted people. Tip: Instead, make frequent trips to the ATM to replenish your stash of cash. Or, consider using your debit card for transactions, being sure to hang onto receipts and record in your check register to avoid overdrafts.

· Do not shop while in a hurry or at the last minute. You’ll end up spending more than you should simply to be able to mark the item off your list. Tip: Block out a specific time for shopping. Make your first trip a leisurely one, simply getting an idea of what’s available this year and at what price. Take notes, and once back at home, get organized for the actual buying adventure.

· Do not shop without a list. Santa thinks it’s a useful tool, and so should we. Tip: Make your list specific. Don’t just include the names of those for whom you need to purchase a gift, but also include the specific item you’re looking for, and most importantly, the amount you intend to spend. Having an overall holiday budget floating around in your head isn’t good enough. Without a plan, you’ll likely get caught up in the hype and overspend in the blink of an eye.

· Do not pile new debt on top of old. Some people are still paying for 2009 holiday expenses as they enter the 2010 buying season. Don’t make your financial situation worse by being one of them. Tip: Think about it, you’re buying for friends and relatives who will be the first to understand if you need to cut back. If you are in a tenuous financial situation, it will only be made worse through irresponsible spending. Consider writing a heartfelt note to those on your list, being sincere about your feelings toward them and why they mean so much to you. Most people can’t recall what they received last Christmas, but this will be a treasured gift remembered for years to come.

“The holidays can be particularly difficult for those unemployed or facing foreclosure. However, even if your situation is not that serious, we’re living in tough economic times, and no one should be spending money they don’t have,” said Michaele Pena, Director of Consumer Credit Counseling Services division (a division of Family Services, Inc.). “Being financially responsible this holiday season is a gift to yourself and to those you care about.”

If you need help creating a holiday budget or paying off an existing debt load, don’t delay reaching out for help. To reach Family Services, Inc. dial 843-744-1348 ext. 7802, or go online to www.fsisc.org.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Budget challenge: Can organic foods be good for your wallet?

Something unexpected has happened as my husband and I have looked more closely at how we spend our food dollars. As we began paying closer attention to what we were spending on food, we gradually became more aware of exactly what we were eating.

In other words, our spending and eating consciousness were both awakened. Now, when I walk the aisles of the grocery store, I consider how the price of one item will influence what I have left to spend on other things. I’m also more apt to think about the nutritional value of everything I put into my cart.

The results of this combined awareness have prompted us to prepare more meals at home, led us to rely less on convenience foods, and taught us that eating well doesn’t necessarily cost more. We’re eating tastier, more wholesome foods than we ever have before, and we’re spending half as much as we used to. We’ve reduced our monthly food budget (including groceries and eating out) from $900 to just over $400.

Some small, yet significant, changes have made this possible. First, I’ve started making more of the foods that we once ate at restaurants or bought as convenience foods. For example, we no longer buy what my children have deemed “cardboard pizzas” (a telling descriptor). We enjoy rolling out our own dough from an old family recipe (find the recipe at stressfreefinancial.blogspot.com/). I invested in pizza stones so I could achieve that restaurant-quality crispiness. I’ve also introduced some new recipes; caramelized onion and goat cheese pizza is our new favorite.

Second, I’ve begun to prepare more vegetarian meals, enjoying dishes such as baked macaroni and cheese, vegetable fried rice, and parmesan risotto. If I use meat in a dish, it’s more as a complement to it, rather than the main focus, such as the pancetta I used in minestrone I made last week. These dishes may sound like gourmet fare, but they are surprisingly easy to make, and my children love them.

I’ve been including more whole grains and vegetables in our meals, and I’ve started looking for more simple, approachable ways to prepare wholesome foods for our family. That is what motivated me to visit a local organic market a few weeks ago, where I was greeted by Vinny Alessi-Narr, one of the store’s owners.

With a squirmy 2-year-old on my hip, I struck up a conversation with Vinny. I explained how I (and many others I know) understand the importance of eating well, but we sometimes feel that organic foods are prohibitively expensive. Vinny made a case for why it’s worth it to pay a bit more for organic foods. Most significantly, he maintains that organic foods are more nutrient dense, therefore meaning that a person will, by nature, eat less. (This resonated with me particularly well, considering that all six of us in our family have legendary appetites—just ask our friends and family.)

I asked Vinny point blank, “Is it possible to eat the way you’re suggesting and still keep my budget intact?” His unwavering answer was yes. So, I asked Vinny if he was up for a challenge: help me find practical, affordable ways to include more organic foods in our diet.

Since then, we’ve roughed out a plan for doing just that. Together, we’ll be looking for simple ways to eat well for less money and exploring which organic foods represent the best value. We’ll also be adapting and creating family-friendly recipes that are wholesome and affordable.

I’m looking forward to learning alongside Vinny and sharing this new knowledge with you in the weeks to come.

CCCS/ACCE –American Center for Credit Education

Carey Denman

acce@acce-online.com

(605) 348-4550

Monday, October 25, 2010

The best gifts are simple, caring or memorable


Why is it that gift giving, a social ritual intended to bring joy to those we care for most, often ends up causing so much discomfort? We fret about what to buy the person who has everything. We buy because we feel pressured or obligated to do so. We worry that the gifts we buy won’t be enough (or the right size). And we buy what we cannot afford.

To understand a little bit more about these issues and to offer some practical advice on how to make the best use of a gift budget, I decided to turn the tables, so to speak. I canvassed my co-workers, friends, and family and asked them a simple question: Given the opportunity, what would you like the gift givers in your life to know about you?

As I collected their responses, a few themes began to emerge. The first of those themes centered around people explaining what they don’t want: a gift the giver cannot afford, no matter how beautiful or useful it might be. Along the same lines, others said they don’t want anything extraordinary or expensive; they’d prefer practical gifts they would rather not buy for themselves. “If I ask for socks or dishcloths,” said one friend, “it’s because I really want them.” (New socks, in fact, were another prevalent theme.)

This sentiment, of receiving practical, even consumable gifts, was echoed by others as well. “The gifts I appreciate the most are those I do not have to store or find some place to put,” declared one of my co-workers. Specifically, respondents mentioned receiving a quarter of beef every year, wood to build a small deck, and flower bulbs and seeds as gifts that continually remind them of the giver.

Still others explained the pleasure of receiving gifts that say, “I know you,” even if those gifts cost almost nothing. Surprisingly, my husband says the best gift I’ve ever given him was serving him biscuits and gravy, his favorite breakfast, in bed. Someone else told me that a birdhouse made from materials salvaged from her parents’ house is among the most treasured gifts she’s received. Another friend, who relishes the sheer pleasure of opening gifts, reflected on a time when someone gave her 40 small gifts to celebrate her 40th birthday. None of the gifts were expensive, but together, they made a big impression on her.

Gift recipients also cherish personal presents that illustrate how well gift-givers know them. A handmade shooting bench for the marksman, a photo album chronicling a family trip, or garden herbs for a cook’s countertop all fit the bill, according to those who shared their gift savvy with me.

Experience gifts, such as tickets to a dinner theater, a day at a water park, or a wine- tasting event, rated highly among respondents, too. These types of gifts have the advantages of being both consumable and personal. One of my own most memorable gifts was tickets to see musician Arturo Sandoval. I can still recall watching in amazement as the band’s drummer pounded the bongos so feverishly that I thought he might pass out.

Some liked surprises, when it comes to gifts, while others preferred more predictability. But above all, gift recipients said what they really want aren’t presents that are costly or complicated, but simple things that help them make lasting memories or that just say, “I care about you.”

Simple, caring, memorable. Keep these words in mind this holiday season. Thoughtfully investing your time and gift-giving budget in those you love will be a joy for you and those on your gift list.

CCCS/ACCE –American Center for Credit Education

Carey Denman

acce@acce-online.com

(605) 348-4550

Thursday, October 21, 2010

DON’T BE SPOOKED BY FINANCIAL DECISIONS

North Charleston, SC - Halloween tricks or treats come along only once a year, but the consequences of financial decisions usually last far past the next spooky holiday. Options that seem good on the surface, if not handled properly, can have long-lasting negative consequences.

To understand how a seemingly good financial move can work against you, Family Services, Inc. encourages consumers to review the following to see if their actions are resulting in a welcome financial treat or a trick to be avoided.

· Discontinuing the use of credit

o Treat: Living on a cash basis means that you never overspend or pay interest on your purchases. Typically, people who pay with cash save 20 percent over those who charge their goods and services.

o Trick: At some point in their life, most people will need access to credit. Consumers will be well-served by creating a thick and positive credit file. To do so, it is necessary to have at least three open and active lines of credit.

· Automatic bill paying

o Treat: Arranging for your payments to be sent to creditors before the due date means you’ll never have a late fee or a dinged credit report.

o Trick: If you neglect to balance your check register and the automatic payment results in an overdraft, you’ve defeated the purpose.

· Bundling of services

o Treat: Consumers can often enjoy a significant savings if they use the same provider for their land phone, cell phone, cable and Internet services.

o Trick: If you use the savings from the bundling of services for a larger, more expensive plan than you really need, it’s no savings at all.

· Co-signing on a loan

o Treat: You can help another person establish credit, rebuild credit, or purchase something beyond what they could on their own credit worthiness.

o Trick: The co-signer and primary borrower are equally responsible for payment of the loan. As well-meaning as people are, things happen. Never co-sign on a loan unless you can afford to solely take over the payments.

· Balance transfers

o Treat: With a lower interest rate, you can repay the debt sooner and save the money you would have paid with the higher APR.

o Trick: Faulty thinking leads you to believe that since the interest rate on the new card is so low, it won’t hurt to charge a few things. Before you know it, the introductory period with the low rate has expired, and not only is your original balance not paid off, but it’s higher than when you began.

· Reward Cards

o Treat: You can earn miles, airline points, or even cash back with reward cards.

o Trick: Reward categories often change each month, resulting in fewer rewards than hoped for. Further, some people tend to spend more simply to earn the rewards. If you can’t pay the balance in full each month, a reward card is probably not for you.

· Closing unused accounts

o Treat: Streamlining your finances makes them more manageable. Also, less plastic in your wallet equals fewer temptations to spend.

o Trick: Closing an account will lower your total credit line, potentially making your debt ratio worse. Further, you’ll lower the longevity factor of your credit score.

· Opting into overdraft protection

o Treat: You’ll avoid the embarrassment of having your purchase denied at checkout.

o Trick: Overdraft protection is expensive, particularly for those who routinely overdraw their checking account. This false sense of security is only putting a band-aid on the true financial problem: spending more than you make. Even if the overdrafts result from legitimate purchases such as food or medicine, it is a better option to get to the root of the continued financial distress and solve it.

· Freezing your credit file

o Treat: A frozen credit file is a layer of protection against identity theft since no one can open a new account in your name without you first lifting the security freeze.

o Trick: There may be fees associated with this service, and you may have to wait days for the account to be “unfrozen,” which can be inconvenient if you want your credit file to be immediately accessible for instant credit. Others who may be denied access to your credit file include insurance companies, landlords, employers who need to obtain a background check, cell phone companies, and utilities.

· Purchasing extended warranties

o Treat: An extended warranty can provide you with peace of mind.

o Trick: Some items are inexpensive or have a very good track record, thus you don’t need to pay for a warranty on them. If the item under warranty does break, you may be asked to jump through some difficult hoops to activate the warranty, or the warranty may not cover what you thought it did.

“Consumers should thoroughly research and fully understand the risks and benefits to any financial decision they make,” said Michaele Pena, Consumer Credit Counseling Program Director (a division of Family Services, Inc.). “Simply because an offer sounds appealing, doesn’t mean it is.”

Don’t get spooked by your financial decisions. Reach out for help from a trained and certified NFCC Member Agency counselor. To find the Agency closest to you, dial toll-free to 800-232-6489, Ext. 7802, or go online to www.fsisc.org. For assistance in Spanish, call (800) 682-9832.

Contact: Michaele Pena, CCCS Director

The National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC), founded in 1951, is the nation’s largest and longest serving national nonprofit credit counseling organization. The NFCC’s mission is to promote the national agenda for financially responsible behavior and build capacity for its members to deliver the highest quality financial education and counseling services. NFCC members annually help close to three million consumers through 850 community-based offices nationwide. For free and affordable confidential advice through a reputable NFCC member, call1-800-388-2227, (en EspaƱol 1-800-682-9832) or visit www.nfcc.org.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The best gifts come from paying attention

When I look around my home, I catch glimpses of the gifts my family and I have received from my nieces and nephews—the star-shaped jewelry box made in an art class and given to celebrate my 30th birthday, a decoupaged egg, and brightly colored hand-knit scarves. Virtually everything is handmade. The small clay sculptures one of my nephews crafted, for example, are each in a shape befitting the recipient. Mine is in the shape of a carrot as a nod to my love of gardening; my husband’s is a football to represent his affinity for the game.

Each gift bears the stamp of the giver. One of my favorite gifts is a laminated bookmark with a picture on it of a cow jumping over the moon. On the backside, the giver signed his name. Below that is a wayward bug that got caught up in the craft project, smooshed flat in plastic laminate and forever serving as a reminder of the boy who gave the gift.

These treasures, simple as they are, embody the true spirit of gift giving. These are gifts given without compulsion or guilt. And they reflect the givers’ careful thought, the power of their keen observation, and their ability to work within the resources available to them. If only we were all so adept at that kind of gift giving.

Instead, we tend to give gifts out of compulsion, worrying that they won’t seem like enough. Or we choose the most expedient or more expensive option, for the sake of time or appearances. And too often, we fail to work within our resources and end up overspending on gifts.

Before the Christmas shopping frenzy begins, I want to pause and view gift giving through the eyes of a child. I never once had a conversation with my young nephew about loving my garden, yet he was in tune enough with my interests to make me a handmade gift that literally said, “I know you.” I want to do the same for the people in my life.

If you haven’t already, start paying close attention to what the people on your gift list want and like. What are their goals and hopes? What excites them? It’s a simple exercise that sometimes gets overlooked. When you have this information, you can start thinking about the type of gift that makes your gift recipients feel most alive, and will be most satisfying for them to receive.

By intentionally looking at your friends’ and family’s hopes, dreams, talents and hobbies, you could come up with a wealth of gift ideas that will truly please those on your Christmas list this year. If finding gifts that fit your loved ones’ goals and hopes seems too overwhelming, start smaller. Take your cues for gift ideas from favorite colors, foods or music, for instance.

Gifts given with thought and intention don’t necessarily have to be expensive. In fact, they can run the gamut from store-bought to thrift-store finds to handmade goods. For the people “who have everything” and seem impossible to shop for, consider a gift of time or service. Give the gift of tickets to a concert you’ll attend together, or a gift certificate to wash your grandparents’ car, or the gift of babysitting for a busy mother.

Now, before the full crush of the holiday season is on us, start thinking about your loved ones and begin formulating gift ideas. Next week, I will talk more about how to plan your budget and shopping carefully to give gifts from the heart without overspending.

CCCS/ACCE –American Center for Credit Education

Carey Denman

acce@acce-online.com

(605) 348-4550

Friday, October 1, 2010

Bargains are good but memories are priceless

The Latest ACCE Money Tip:

"Last weekend, I stopped at an auction, edging my way into a garage packed full of boxes and piled high with almost anything you can imagine—a vintage cherry pitter, crumbling hat boxes, dusty books, lamps, tools, picture frames, and linens. Auction novice that I am, I could feel my pulse quicken and heat rising in my face as I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with other buyers, clutching my bidder number in my clammy hands.

I bid on, and won, a number of items, at prices that made me inwardly congratulate myself. It wasn’t until hours after I got home and unloaded my things that my buying high started to dissipate.

I didn’t overspend, and I scored some interesting and useful finds, but now I had four full boxes of stuff that I had to sort through, clean, and find a place to put. More than that, it was strange to think about how it might feel someday to have all of my belongings laid out on a table for strangers to scoop up at the highest bid. And the initial novelty of buying something new can fade so quickly that it’s almost shocking.

The auction helped to remind me (again) that ultimately, it’s not possessions, but experiences I add to my life that give me the most pleasure. The contrast—between the short-lived buzz of spending money and the lasting satisfaction of rich experiences—seems that much more poignant when I reflect on how I spent the rest of that weekend with my family.

I watched as my children darted around a free kids’ carnival, with a face-painting booth and enough jumpy-type toys to leave them laughing and breathless. Later, my 4-year-old son got to indulge one of his truest loves: balloons. He stared in awe as he watched ballooners set up for an early-morning launch, literally squirming with excitement. I have a dozen photographs that capture the pure joy he felt in being so close to something that lives large in his world.

Amazingly, he still had enough energy to join the rest of the family on an afternoon hike on a trail near our house. He and his siblings rambled along uneven paths and collected sticks, shiny rocks, and brilliant, red rose hips. The baby bumped along happily in her stroller. We all collapsed into our beds, enjoying the kind of rest that only comes from this kind of tired.

We hit yet another nature trail the next day, where we navigated a bridge so high it made my stomach lurch and where we followed the path to the sounds of rushing water. The image of my ever-determined 2-year-old negotiating the slippery side hill by himself is still fresh in my mind. So is the feeling I had when we rounded the last bend of the path to see a cascading waterfall. We were close enough to feel the misty spray, offering cool relief on a warm fall day.

I reflect on these moments with such detail because they are etched into my mind, because they are already powerful memories, and because I want to remind myself that what I truly want is to invest my time and money in relationships and experiences.

As poet Carl Sandburg once quipped, “Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent . . .” How do you want to spend yours?"

CCCS/ACCE –American Center for Credit Education

Carey Denman

acce@acce-online.com

(605) 348-4550

Friday, September 24, 2010

Secondhand finds can be great problem solvers

Another ACCE Money Tip!

Shopping secondhand is more than just a quest for inexpensive objects. If you focus on price alone, you could end up with a mishmash of goods that clutters your life and even strains your budget. But careful, thrift-focused shopping can help you organize and beautify your life while stretching your money.

Control your home’s clutter: If you want to make the most of thrifted finds, evaluate your home to identify ways you want to improve the livability of your space. Then, when you shop, look at everyday items with fresh eyes, and you may find unusual ways to enhance your home.

For example, if your entryway is constantly awash in a sea of junk mail, hats and gloves, coats, book bags, and serves as a repository for all those things that don’t have a permanent home, the clutter becomes a source of stress and makes it difficult for you to find the items you need. You could conquer the clutter by buying bins, racks, and hooks at a home improvement store. Better yet, you can look for thrifted solutions to creatively resolve your entryway problems. Sturdy fruit crates outfitted with casters can hold recyclables, winter gear, or pet supplies. Old doorknobs mounted on a piece of reclaimed lumber can become coat hooks. Rimmed cookie sheets lined with smooth stones can serve as boot trays. A piece of vintage pottery or small basket can hold keys or loose change.

When you look for secondhand items to repurpose, choose objects you will truly enjoy having in your home. Such carefully chosen, reused pieces can add flair to all your living spaces. A silver tray can hold your remotes on your coffee table, serve as a place for outgoing mail, or become a place to set your houseplants. A bongo drum or a stack of vintage suitcases can become a side table. A hobnail cake stand on your countertop can keep readily-used spices close at hand.

You can employ similar strategies to hold craft supplies, sports gear, small toys, or anything else that tends to float around your house. In my home, I use retro canisters I scored for $1 at a thrift store to hold tiny pieces for our wooden train set. Secondhand wooden bowls corral all the found treasures—feathers, shiny rocks, pinecones—my children insist should come indoors. An old wooden toolbox organizes first aid supplies and medicine.

Dress up your wardrobe: Secondhand finds can punch up a tired or uninspiring wardrobe, too. A thrifted brooch or silk scarf can infuse new life into an old jacket. A splashy tie can update a classic wool suit. With a little creativity and some DIY skill, you can shorten a secondhand skirt, transform a formal dress into a sassy cocktail dress, or embellish a plain t-shirt with embroidered flowers.

Prepare for the holidays: Save yourself the hassle of last-minute shopping and big credit card bills by scouring secondhand stores for items that can become distinctive gifts. A dozen chocolate chip cookies or cupcakes are instantly elevated to gift status when they’re presented on a piece of thrifted china. Pretty teapots (that no longer have their lids), gravy boats, and small silver cups make lovely vessels for flower arrangements. A thrifted flower pot scrubbed clean can hold new gloves and seeds for a gardener. Or you may find a piece of art or unusual collectible that suits someone on your holiday gift list.

Whenever you shop secondhand, look for items that have the potential to make your life better. Look past their obvious uses and consider their possibilities. You never know what useful treasures you’ll discover.

CCCS/ACCE –American Center for Credit Education

Carey Denman

acce@acce-online.com

(605) 348-4550

Friday, September 10, 2010

Secondhand shopping yields practical, beautiful finds at bargain prices

From ACCE Money Tips by Carey Denman:

"A few weeks ago, I admitted that thrift and secondhand stores can be a serious point of budget vulnerability for me—my Achilles heel. Still, in making such a declaration, I didn’t explain why my family shops at these stores in the first place. When I shop carefully, I can use the money we save to fund our family’s goals, such as buying a new vacuum cleaner that can handle pet hair and the volume of dirt brought indoors by our four children.

Whenever possible, we scour secondhand stores for things we need. We dress our children (and ourselves) almost entirely in secondhand finds. We buy nearly all our winter gear, such as coats, snow pants, and boots at thrift stores. And we buy virtually all of our household goods as seconds too, including kitchen supplies, bedding, furniture, even paint, all at a fraction of what it costs to buy these items new.

In the process, we don’t have to sacrifice beauty, utility or quality. In fact, buying secondhand often allows us to purchase things we wouldn’t be able to afford in traditional outlets. Some of our recent great finds include the $2.50 black cocktail dress I wore for our anniversary dinner this year, the Italian leather boots I bought for $8, the classic pinstripe suit my husband found for $4, and a handmade quilt I recently bought for $20. Even our large collection of original artwork came from secondhand sources, each costing less than $20 apiece.

Friends who visit our home often remark on our finds. “How can you afford to buy so many pieces of original artwork?” a friend recently asked. “All the gallery pieces I’ve seen cost hundreds of dollars.” She didn’t believe me at first when I told her that I found every piece of art we have through secondhand sources.

Another visitor, who has interior design training and who is well acquainted with my thrift-focused shopping habits, registered the same kind of surprise when she came to our home for the first time. “Your home is warm and comfortable . . . and doesn’t look like a thrift store.”

These comments reflect a common misconception about thrift stores: buying secondhand means forgoing good looks. On the contrary, some of our most remarkable pieces—mohair chairs with an intricate nail head trim, a giant painting of the Moulin Rouge, a nearly-complete set of vintage china, and an Art Deco lamp—came from thrift stores or other secondhand sources. Sure, you’ll find flotsam and jetsam, garish lamps and brown plaid sofas, but there are plenty of unique and practical goods if you’re willing to look for them. A found thrift store treasure is also satisfying because it isn’t just something you can go out and buy anywhere – often, it’s an unexpected, one-of-a-kind find.

Buying through secondhand sources allows us to support small, local businesses and organizations that use the proceeds of their sales for worthy causes in our area. What’s more, buying the things we need secondhand qualifies as a “green” choice, as well.

Outfitting ourselves and our home this way does take time and patience. It helps to use a few tried-and-true bargain-hunting strategies. And if you overdo thrift-store shopping, you’ll defeat the purpose of trying to stretch your budget. But when you know what you want to buy – perhaps a painting, a grater for your kitchen, a dress for your daughter, or a chair for your desk – and you shop with purpose, you can reap some wonderful, affordable rewards. Next week, I’ll share some of my best strategies for shopping effectively in thrift stores and secondhand shops."

CCCS/ACCE –American Center for Credit Education

Carey Denman

acce@acce-online.com

Friday, September 3, 2010

Let's Do a Little Math!

Since the launch of Counselor Direct on August 9th, over 328 homeowners have used the service provided by Family Services, Inc. to take the initiative to save their homes.

If we assume even 50% of them complete their application and we have an average success rate of 85% that means 139 of those homeowners will be able to stay in their homes! The positive effect that this has on the South Carolina Community is even greater! Here’s how:

Studies show that the cost of a foreclosure on a community ranges anywhere from $30,000/house to upwards of $70,000/house. When foreclosure happens it immediately affects everyone in the community- surrounding property values decrease while city costs increase. When property values go down tax revenues decrease so in order to make up for that loss in tax dollars the town has to increase taxes. Increased city costs include, but are not limited to, the increased need for police surveillance and burden on fire departments, demolition costs and higher demand for city social service programs.

What this means is that at the low end, Counselor Direct and the services provided by Family Services, Inc have already likely resulted in at least $4,170,000 in cost savings to be passed on to all South Carolina residents!

Of course we must take into account the average cost to save a foreclosed home which studies show is between $300 and $3,800. We will assume the high end of $3,800, giving us $528,200 in costs. This means that we will likely see a net savings of $3,641,800 just from the first month of our implementation of Counselor Direct.

Here’s to South Carolina homeowners, the community, and a little math!