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!