Thursday, April 30, 2009

Financial Battle: Emergency Fund vs. Retirement Savings vs. College Accounts

Turning 50 has made me think about how I want to live the next 50 years. And that thought process has sparked a fiscal battle between the competing goals of retirement savings, emergency fund and college savings accounts.

After some thought, I ordered my priorities:

1. Emergency Fund: This account will be my No 1 priority for the next six months. The goal is to build the account until I have enough savings to cover living expenses for three months.

2. College Savings: With teenage and tweenage kids, building an education fund is another top priority.

3. Retirement Savings: I don't plan to retire. But from about age 70 and on, I would like to run a small business and that will require capital. A robust retirement account will provide start-up capital and flexibility for me to pick and choose my clients

Over the next six months, I will experiment with strategies and options for building those accounts. I am curious about your goals and strategies.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Low-Cost, No-Cost Entertainment Ideas for Guests & Children

With a full house of grandchildren and other out-of-town guests, my friend Rosalie discovered creative ways to entertain without spending a lot of money. Using time and creativity, she kept her visitors occupied and happy. I plan to use some of her tips during future school breaks.

Here's what she did:

Look for promotions: Periodically, local attractions -- museums, zoos or aquariums -- will lower the price of annual membership with attractive offers. For example, a single-day entrance ticket can be upgraded to a year-long membership for a small additional fee. Rosalie recently found similar offers at Seaquarium and Parrot Jungle. With affordable membership passes, she and her grandchildren made repeat visits to those attractions with minimal costs after the initial purchase. Promotional deals are advertised online and through traditional media sources.

Try simplicity: Rosalie took her grandchildren on long walks through the neighborhood, to the beach and to area parks. The children and the adults enjoyed the ocean waves and the sight of an iguana walking on a neighborhood sidewalk. Every neighborhood has eye candy, and an attentive resident can serve as a tour guide. Last summer, I traveled with my children to Washington, D.C. We visited museums and attractions, but a free walking tour of the city created some of the most memorable moments.

Hit the kitchen: Whipping egg whites into foam and other supervised kitchen duties provided hours of fun for Rosalie and her young visitors. Baking provides sweet desserts and a sense of accomplishment. For ideas and recipes, visit the library and sample the wide range of cookbooks for children. My daughter recently checked out Delicious Drinks to Sip, Slurp, Gulps and Guzzle by Rose Dunnington (Lark Books, 2006). Inspired by the recipes, she invented her own smoothies.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

How to Earn Extra Money: Tips From Kiplinger's

"If you’ve lost your job, taken a pay cut or are just looking for ways to boost your income, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance offers this guest post with tips for generating extra cash.

Tutor Students Some parents are willing to pay big bucks to see Junior and Janie succeed. So if you speak a second language, such as Spanish or French, or have great math, science or writing skills, you might be able to earn extra cash imparting your knowledge to kids – even college students for $20-30 an hour. Check with local schools and universities to see if you can advertise your services on their bulletin boards. Or post your services on Craigslist.

Join A Street Sales Team This is a relatively easy way for young adults who are outgoing and articulate to earn some fast cash. Street teams promote products, films, albums, events and more by handing out samples, interacting with people on the street, or dressing as mascots. To get a job at $17 to $25 an hour, sign up with a company such as Street Team or A.D.D. Marketing. Actually, if you sign up with several companies, you’re more likely to get a steady flow of jobs, says James Aquafredda, managing director of Street Team Make sure, though, that the company has a contract that specifies when you’ll get paid.

Walk Dogs Why not get a little exercise while you earn up to $15-30 an hour? Working folks will pay plenty for you to take Rover or Scruffy on a daily stroll while they’re at the office or on site. If you don’t want to brave the elements, you might consider pet sitting for people while they’re on vacation. Advertise your services in veterinarians’ offices and on Craigslist.

Write For The Web Sorry, isn’t hiring. But plenty of Web sites are looking for freelancers to write blogs, commentary, and reviews. For example, if you know a lot about a particular subject or region, you might be able to be a “guide” and write articles for ( ). In all major U.S. cities, Craigslist has ads for writing gigs. Demand Studios ( offers freelance work for writers, copy editors and filmmakers. The going rate: $15-30 an hour.

Sell Your Hobbies Amateur photographers are in demand to shoot weddings and events, especially in this recession when people can’t afford the high-priced pros. If you’re a great cook, you could hold a workshop or prepare meals for a busy family. The tech-savvy can teach a series of classes on Web design. See what your services might fetch on Craigslist (for free) or in your local paper or community Web site to get going rates, then hang out a virtual shingle.

Sell Your Unwanted Gold Jewelry. Although the price has dropped a bit since the beginning of 2009, this going rate for this precious commodity is still $860 an ounce—a pretty penny for jewelry you no longer wear or that is nothing but a faded memory of a best-forgotten suitor. Gold-buying shops are popping up at malls across America.

Operate A Call Center From Your Home You might consider a job (for up to $14 an hour) with a virtual call center, such as Willow CSN (, West Corp. ( or Alpine Access ( As an independent contractor (or an actual employee with benefits in some cases) for one of these virtual call centers, you will provide customer support for companies such as Office Depot, Sears, J.Crew and even the Internal Revenue Service. In most cases, you must provide your own computer, designated telephone line and high-speed Internet connection --and, in some cases, pay for your training to become a certified agent. But if you have the time, they need “operators standing by.” --Kiplinger's

Here's a link to the full article .

Here's how to buy my new book:

@ Barnes & Noble
@ Borders

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Going Green, Saving Money: Eco-Friendly & Frugal Ideas

Eco-friendly products, recycled materials and energy-efficient appliances are savvy investments in the future. And since Earth Day is Wednesday, I've been brainstorming for frugal and eco-friendly tips. It's possible to go green without overspending. Here are a few ideas:

Instant returns. After purchasing an organic skincare product, I returned a paper shopping bag and a small box to the sales clerk. Without the bag or the excess packaging, the small bottle of skin tonic fit neatly into my purse. I asked the sales clerk to reuse or return the packaging to the manufacturer. This technique is called pre-cycling. It involves selecting food, personal care and household products with recyclable containers or less packaging, according to Trey Granger, a staff member at

Cut the water bill. In addition to taking shorter showers and turning off the water while we brush our teeth, there are other creative ways to save water. Consider tossing used cooking water into the garden or plant containers. This multitasking water may also have nutrients that will help your plants, according to

Apply vinegar. From skin-care treatments to kitchen countertops, I've found frugal, effective and safe uses for vinegar. For instance, diluted with water, organic apple cider vinegar makes a great hair conditioner. I've used a mix of 30 percent vinegar and 70 percent water with great results. Likewise, white vinegar doubles as an inexpensive, nontoxic cleaner that works well on windows, tiles and kitchen surfaces.

Shopping detour: As a recreational sport, mindless shopping can fill our carts with future landfill cast-offs. To save money and resources, I've been getting shoes repaired and shopping for new ideas in my existing wardrobe. And when I do shop, I'm making smarter decisions. ''If you don't buy waste, you can't make waste,'' says Raquel Fagan, executive editor of

Friday, April 17, 2009

Coupon Secrets from Founder of

There's a method to finding grocery and drugstore bargains online. That's the subject of a profile about Stephanie Nelson, founder of in the latest issue of ALL YOU magazine.

Here are her secrets for finding grocery and drugstore bargains online:

* "Use paperless coupons. Check out to see if your grocery store offers e-coupons, which are downloadable to the store’s discount card. Once your card is registered card, you can electronically transfer coupons to it.

* Follow a coupon schedule. Get the best deals on Website coupons when advertisers release them at the beginning of the month.

* Avoid rejection. Call ahead to find out if the store you’re headed to accepts coupons printed from the Web."

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Why Money Goes to Money: A Child's Explanation

Why does money often attract more money? My 11-year-old daughter -- an old soul -- offered some insightful comments about money and saving.

Here's the scenario: From allowances and odd chores, my daughter saved about $100 in pocket money. She's saving to buy her own laptop. But as her stash has grown, she has become increasingly reluctant to part with her money. She now likes the idea of sharing my laptop or the family PC.

"You work so hard to get the money and once you have the money, it's hard to let it go," my daughter told me about a few weeks ago.

For awhile, she continued to save and hold onto her funds. Basically, my daughter learned the power of momentum. Once saving becomes a habit, she has learned, momentum provides financial assistance.

Unfortunately, a recent trip to a local mall taught my daughter another lesson about money and spending.

"Once you buy one thing, it's hard to stop. That's what I found," my daughter said. "When I bought one key chain, I ended the day with $30 less."

The lesson: Shopping can become an addicitve behavior that can drain your savings account. My daughter is still trying to figure out how she spent 30 percent of her money in one afternoon.

Her final word: "Don't bring all of your money shopping."

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Spring Cleaning Uncovers Fall School Supplies

The annual ritual of spring cleaning has paid an unexpected bonus. I now have a money-saving head start on another annual ritual: back-to-school shopping. My closets, drawers and filing cabinets have yielded enough writing and craft supplies to stock a small stationery store. As a result, I will spend far less on binders, pens, markers, notebooks and poster boards in the fall.

Here's how I plan to save time and money with this surprise stash of materials:

Create a master list: Every year, I ''find'' new or barely used school supplies around the home. But in a rush to get the kids ready for the fall, I sometimes earn poor grades for recycling. This year, I plan to get the most out of my home store by maintaining an inventory list. On a yellow pad of ruled paper, I've started tracking our school and office supplies. Next fall, I plan to compare the home inventory list with the supply lists provided by my children's teachers. This comparison should reduce the time and money consumed by back-to-school shopping.

• Enlist the kids: I found spiral and composition notebooks that range from new-but-dusty to barely touched. To encourage my children to use existing supplies, I will give the kids a percentage of what we save by not buying new supplies.

• Repackage: Our crayon stash looks rather colorless in a plastic bag that has become clouded with age. It's a faded turnoff. My daughter prefers crayons tucked into a neat box. I plan, however, to repackage the older crayons in an attractive, but reusable container. Additionally, other supplies can benefit from quick upgrades, including the vinyl covers of notebook binders. A quick wipe or a few stickers offer easy makeovers for older supplies.

To be honest, I tackled spring cleaning with more passion this year. I looked into bins and corners that have been untouched for years. As result, I cleared out more clutter and found more treasure, including a stash of poster boards that were tucked behind a bedroom dresser. We now have a two-year supply of poster boards for science fair projects.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Insights from a Sweater Mom: Lessons From Michelle Obama's Wardrobe

I'm a sweater mom, but Michelle Obama's blue argyle sweater left me cold. Otherwise, I cheered her recent G-20 wardrobe selections, and I picked up some valuable tips about fashion, finance and life from Michelle Obama's wardrobe.

Here's what I learned:

*Know your market: At least one major designer has complained about Michelle O's decision to favor minor designers and J. Crew. There are those who lobby for a head-to-toe haute couture fashion statement. First of all, I think most of her fashion choices were stunning. Second, given the state of the global economy, a trunk full of big-ticket designer garments would have been a poor choice. On the world stage and in our personal dressing rooms, conspicuous spending is out.

Conversely, what's most striking about each of Mrs. Obama's appearances is not the grandiose message, diverse labels or designers' origins. Rather, it is their unmistakable, uniform accessibility and appropriateness. -- on CNN

*Know your audience: I appreciate Michelle Obama's effort to look approachable at a girl's school in London. It's important for clothing, attitudes and finances to match the occasion. One of my worst fashion disasters occurred when I was impeccably dressed in a very trendy brown suit with matching shoes. Unfortunately, the chic outfit looked out of place at a children's carnival, where I was hanging out with my children who were in pre-school and in elementary school at the time. As a working mother running from the office, I had run straight from work to the carnival. It was great to be there, but I had wished that I had worn an outfit that would have met my multi-tasking lifestyle. My personal rule: Flexibility and diversity are important in fashion and finance.

Sweaters are frugal: Confession: In the years since my carnival disaster, I've become a sweater mom. Here's why: Sweaters can be worn with gowns, jean skirts, a-line power skirts and with sweat pants. Sweaters can look hip, trendy, edgy, practical or homey. Basically, sweaters are good investments and are a staple in my wardrobe.

Mistakes happen: Yes, I love sweaters, especially the sparkling sweater the First Lady wore with a pencil skirt. However, I think the blue argyle sweater was a fashion misstep. I also disliked the white shirt with the huge bow. But you know what: mistakes happen when we're active and taking risks. What's more, something that looks like a mistake to one person, could appear as a savvy move to someone else.

It's just seams: Fashion is just thread, button and seams. There are more important issues and patterns to target. One of Michelle Obama's most memorable moments in Europe occurred during a blue-sweater moment when she urged an audience of school girl's to use their brains and study hard. Who cares who made the sweater or how much it cost? Her words --not her wardrobe -- provided the biggest fashion statement.

"I'm an example of what is possible when girls from the very beginning of their lives are loved and nurtured by people around them," she told them, adding "you too can control your own destiny." --Michelle Obama

Friday, April 03, 2009

Consumer Reports Gives High Grades to Low-Cost Brokers

This report is from Consumer Reports:

"Discount brokers did a better job shepherding clients through the stock market upheaval of the past year than traditional investment banks, according to Consumer Reports survey of the most satisfying brokerage firm services.

Topping the list in overall satisfaction was USAA, available only to current and former military personnel and their families. USAA earned high marks for account service, Web site ease of use, transactions and phone services. Vanguard followed closely in the Ratings and Edward Jones had high marks for phone services.

Consumer Reports National Research Center surveyed almost 9,000 online subscribers asking them about their experiences with their brokerage firms regarding several services including transactions and general customer service, Web site ease of use, online transactions and their instances of problems with phone and personal service between January 2008 and 2009.

Rounding out the list of brokerage firms that respondents found to provide high scores for services were Schwab, Scottrade, Fidelity, TD Ameritrade, and T. Rowe Price. Though half of survey respondents said their investment portfolios plummeted, most respondents were relatively happy with the level of service and advice they received.

However, bigger brokerages, such as Merrill Lynch and Ameriprise, placed lower in the Ratings earning below average scores for their Web sites. Ameriprise also received relatively low marks for phone service. The survey revealed some additional complaints, even among discount brokers. E-Trade clients reported a higher number of phone-service problems and said they were unable to find information on the company’s Web site 35 percent of the time.

E-Trade, Scottrade, and TD Ameritrade were among the lower-rated companies for financial advice, which is not surprising because they are bare-bones discounters. Unexpected fees continue to irk clients, about 4 percent said they were hit with unexpected fees. Banc of America clients reported the most, with 11 percent saying they were charged unexpected fees. For more information on the survey and complete broker service ratings check out Consumer Reports May issue or visit starting May 6, 2009. "

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Weekly Roundup: Links I Liked & Frugal Blog Network

Here are a few posts that caught my eye this week.

From The Money Muse: The Big Picture: What is My Purpose in Life?

From Sick of Being Poor: Hoping for the best, preparing for the worst

From The Digerati Life: Money Matters Site: Financial Resource For Credit Card Management and More

From The Simple Dollar: Synergy in Life and Money

From the FrugalBlogNetwork:

Frugal Zeitgeist: Horrible financial dream
Last night I woke up at 4:00 am, thanks to a nightmare. I dreamed that my role at work had been phased out (which is nice-speak for firing someone and dressing it up like a layoff) and that I had no severance and no savings.

Almost Frugal: Back to the Frugal Basics: Building a Budget
So you have a dream, and you have a goal. But just having goals doesn’t get you any closer to meeting them. The first step towards becoming more frugal, meeting your goals, achieving financial responsibility (and all sorts of other good stuff) is building a budget.

Not Made of Money: Paying Off Credit Card Debt
Paying off credit card debt has been in the news a lot with the current economy. Credit card debt is a plague that has stricken countless families in the United States.

Frugal Babe: When A $45 Hair Cut Is A Bargain
I got my hair cut yesterday. This would not normally be a newsworthy event, but in my case it had been 14 months since I had a hair cut.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

H&R Block Offers Free Second Opinions of Tax Returns

I'm curious if anyone plans or has used this free second-opinion tax review offer from H&R Block. Here's the item:

"Common errors translate into millions of dollars that are due to taxpayers. In fact, H&R Block found $1.8 million nationally on Friday (March 27th) alone. The hunt continues this weekend as H&R Block offers free professional, second opinions on completed tax returns. This community service event is free and open to the public at participating H&R Block locations on April 3, 4, and 5.

For a limited time, H&R Block tax professionals will provide free reviews for missed tax deductions on returns that were self-prepared or completed by other tax professionals.

Taxpayers can bring in their 2008 and their previous three years’ returns and a tax professional will evaluate the accuracy of the returns, ensuring all eligible credits and deductions have been claimed. If an error is found on a return, the client will be eligible to re-file. If no errors are found, H&R Block will certify the return with the H&R Block Guarantee.*

“With the economy in a downturn, unemployment rates in an upturn and audits at a 10-year high, we want to help people in our community,” said Patti Griswold, H&R Block district manager. “People are surprised to learn that we find errors in 4 out of 5 tax returns we review. We want to make sure our clients’ returns are accurate and that they’ve claimed all eligible credits and deductions because we understand that every dollar counts.”

* The H&R Block Guarantee is included with every tax return. If you owe penalties or interest charges due to an H&R Block error, H&R Block will pay those penalties and interest on federal, state and local returns. If the IRS audits you, an H&R Block representative will assist you in answering questions regarding the preparation of your return (H&R Block provides tax advice only and not legal services)."