Are Your New Year’s Resolutions SMART?

Measurable Goal

Kudos to you if you are still keeping up with your New Year’s resolutions! But most people who make New Year’s resolutions aren’t keeping them by month’s end.

Why? They weren’t SMART!

What are SMART goals?

SSpecific

M - Measurable

A - Attainable

RRealistic

TTime-Bound

Specific - Your goals should be as detailed and specific as possible.  It’s not enough to say you have a goal of saving lots of money.  You need to give it a figure like “I will save $3000 this year.”  Without specifics you are just floating out there.  If you only say your goal is to save then did you achieve your goal by putting fifty cents in a jar?  Didn’t accomplish much with that.

Measurable - To continue with the savings example, how will you get that $3000?  In one lump sum?  Or perhaps in measurable terms like “I will save $250 a month.  This will be $125 from each of my pay periods in the monthly.”  Being able to measure your progress will help you move along in your goal.

Attainable - Can you achieve this goal?  Will you be able to break it up into smaller achievements that will add up to the goal?  In our example we save $125 per paycheck in order to attain the big goal of $ 3000 in savings for the year.

Realistic - Do you believe your goal can be reached?  For our example you have to be able to save $250 a month.  If you currently only save about $50 a month then you either have to figure out a way to squeeze out more savings or you might need to make your goal more realistic.  When a goal is unrealistic you’ll become frustrated before long and give up the goal.

Time-Bound – Give yourself a pre-determined time frame for your goal.  Back to out example – It’s great to want to save $3000 but it’s very different to do that in year and to do it in ten years.

The SMART system is a great guideline for you to set goals with.  Ask yourself if your New Year’s resolutions are SMART.  If they are you have a much better chance of accomplishing them!

Sign up with ING Direct and get a $25 bonus

Creative Commons License photo credit: Laineys Repertoire

Ask And Save On Your Cable Bill

Cable

My wife was getting sick of the cable bill.

It’s gone up recently to the point where we had to question whether it was worth keeping or not.

I mean, remember when TV was free? 

Now to get reception you have to pay (at least until the digital boxes take effect in February).

So my wife said it was time to get rid of cable!

Whoa!  I gotta admit, I’m an addict.  I’ve been glued to the TV since I was a wee little pea.  I know that’s not the best thing but I wasn’t ready to go cold turkey just yet.  But I also understand that we’re spending way too much money for the privilege of watching a ton of commercials on shows we mostly don’t care too much about.

I told my wife to let me take a shot at calling the cable company to see what they can do for us.

So I grabbed our latest bill, a pen, and some paper and gave them a call.

I got a friendly woman who asked how she can help me.  I asked her what can be done to lower the bill as the rates have gotten real high and we were ready to drop cable if the rates continued as they were.

Immediately she said they had a 12 month promotion that would save us $25!

Oh yeah!

I checked with the Mrs to see if this was acceptable (we’re cool like that in that we clear money issues with each other).  I got the yes nod and told the woman we’d take it.

Just like that we saved roughly $25 a month on our cable!

I took the person’s name and company number in case any issues arise on the next bill.  I also wrote the details down so I can refer to then when the next bill comes in.

Lesson – If you want something to change you have to ask!  It won’t happen on it’s own.

Some things to keep in mind if you’re calling to change your cable bill:

  • Calmly but firmly state that you want to find out how your bill can be lowered.
  • Always remain friendly when speaking to the customer representative.  If the person you get can’t help you ask to speak to their superior or someone that can.
  • Be nice!  Customer service probably gets hundreds of calls in a day, many of which are not too friendly.  Being nice can go a long way in getting what you need.
  • If needed, state that you are prepared to drop their service or go to another service provider.  Have an example of a competitors lower prices if possible.  Many companies have a customer retention department who are equipped for these kind of calls.  Remember, only go the drop route if you are really prepared to drop their service.
  • You might not get the answer you want the first time through.  Nicely hang up and call back in a few minutes to see if you get another rep.
  • Ask about combination packages.  You might get a lower cable rate if you combine cable service with internet and/or telephone service.
  • Get the rep’s name and customer number or ID.  They should have some sort of ID to trace the call back to them.  Write down the details and repeat them back to make sure you understand correctly.  Watch for deals that require a contracted time.  That might not be an ideal situation for you.

Do you have any other tips?  Let me know what’s worked for you!

Creative Commons License photo credit: jessicafm

Obama 2009 Economic Stimulus Plan – It’s Gonna Be Big!

Economic Stimulus!

The economic stimulus plan that President-Elect Obama is working is estimated to be between $675 and $775 Billion.  The stimulus plan will be geared towards job growth and infrastructure.  Some have argued that work should be done to increase short-term spending but Obama’s economic stimulus plan looks to have long-term effects.  This sounds reasonable as short-term spending would only be a small band-aid at best.  We have to move away from this idea that we can spend our way out of trouble!

The administration will look to give money to projects that have a plan to move us away from being energy dependent on other countries as well as projects to help build up schools.  If done correctly this could be similar to what was achieved under FDR where many buildings and schools were built during the depression that are in use today.

Getting an economic stimulus package will be the top priority for Obama and his team once they are in office.

But is it enough?

Economics Nobel-Laureate Paul Krugman wonders if we don’t need closer to $1 Trillion.  He says:

“I understand that there’s difficulty in actually spending that much money, and I–they’re also afraid of the–of the T word. They’re afraid of a trillion dollar for the two-year number. But you know, the back of my envelope says it takes roughly 200 billion a year to cut the unemployment rate by 1 percent from what it would otherwise be. In the absence of this program, we could very easily be looking at a 10 percent unemployment rate. So you do the math and you say, you know, even these enormous numbers we’re hearing about are probably enough to mitigate but by no means to reverse the slump we’re heading into. So this is–you know, I–they’re thinking about it straight.”

Wow. That is a lot of money.  According to Obama, any taxes involved would amount to tax cuts for the middle class with many former tax cuts for wealthier folk repealed.

Clearly we are in the middle of a huge economic situation.  Attempts to fix the problem up to now seem to have done little stem the bleeding.  But if the money is used well to grow new industry, create long-term jobs, and develop much needed infrastructure then perhaps this can can work.

How do you feel about Obama’s new economic stimulus plan?  Is it much needed or a waste of resources?

Creative Commons License photo credit: tao_zhyn

Frugal Alternative to Microsoft Office

ffbguestcomment

So I got a new computer recently. The last one went back to the turn of the century and the screen finally died (the battery had already gone).  Anyway for all of the great programs on my new computer I didn’t have a good spreadsheet or writing program.  Of course the industry standard is Microsoft Office.  Office 2008 for the Mac on Amazon is going for a little over $100.  Pretty good but still expensive after already buying a computer!  I found out I could get a pretty good discount through work but a discount still means I’m paying for it.  That’s when I remembered an article 9 Tips to Save Money on your Next Computer which mentioned OpenOffice.org!

I was a little skeptical of OpenOffice.org at first. I mean, it’s touted as a free alternative to MS Office.  Could it really be as good if it’s free? I’ve used another alternative, Google Docs, a bunch of times.  Google Docs is also free and is nice in that you can access your docs on any computer where you can get Google.  It’s got good programs but falls behind in what MS Office offers.

OpenOffice.org , on the other hand functions almost exactly like MS Office!! So here’s our story: Last week my daughter had a science project due.  In true fashion we all waited to just about the last minute.  I hadn’t bought MS Office and didn’t use OpenOffice.org yet.  We needed to print out her project, titles, and a graph of her research.  Uh-oh!  So I went to the OpenOffice site and downloaded thier suite which includes Writer (Word), Calc (Excell), Impress, Draw, and Base.  I gotta tell you. I was surprised to see that it looked and operated just like MS Office would!  I am sold!  On top of the great programs you can also download templates and extensions to help you further.

Here’s the welcome page when you first open it:

openofficeorg-welcome-page

Here’s what a spreadsheet looks like:

openofficecalc-spreadsheet

Looks an awful lot like Excel, no?

Here’s what Writer looks like:

openofficewriter

Very similar to Word!

And here’s the templates and extensions screen:

openoffice-templates-docs

There are a ton of great templates to chose from!

I mean, whats more frugal than free?!?  And with the functionality of MS Office products it’s really a no-brainer!  Although I haven’t gotten to use it too much yet I’m really liking it so far!

If you are looking for a spreadsheet, document, or presentation program I really think you should give OpenOffice.org a shot before you go out and buy anything!

Have you used it?  What do you think?

A Mother’s Struggle Between Work And Kids

Embrace

The following was written by Mrs FFB.  As you may remember, before the school year started we made the decision that my wife wouldn’t return to work (in education) and instead stay home to raise the kids.  Below is her rationale.  Enjoy!

I remember when I was in college and I had this end term goal of having a career, making my own money, buying my own things and being a “professional” woman.  The thing is, ever since I was a little girl, I also always had a dream of being a mom. I never knew or could ever even imagine how these two, opposing aspirations would collide with each other in my future life.

When I was in college I had this assistant teacher position in a nursery/daycare. I remember working the “extended” day which ran until 6pm and feeling so awful for these young children who were still in the daycare center.  I was so judgmental of these mothers: “This is wrong!”, “How could they leave their babies here until 6pm!” “A young child should be in their home during this time of the day!” I was real heated about this topic. ….Little did I know at the young age of 19 years old, that this would be my life one day.

So I graduated college and nabbed myself a teaching position for September. I was so excited about this upcoming career and making “good” money (up until that point, I had made minimum wage working the daycare).  It turns out that I was pregnant and expecting in January but I didn’t care and wasn’t going to let the pregnancy get in the way of working. I didn’t tell the principal during my interview that I was pregnant and just showed up the day after labor day all prego.  Luckily, I wasn’t really showing, but by October there was a buzz going around the school and I finally told the principal but assured him that I would return to work in 6 weeks.

I had no idea what I was in for. When my daughter was born, I fell in love times 1000 and I couldn’t bare the idea of leaving my little baby.  So I took off the rest of the school year and returned to work that following September.

That September became the beginning of a long, hard phase in my life: working mom (and for a few years -single, working mom).  My daughter was 8 months old and I had a stay at home friend of mine babysit my daughter.  The problem with this friend was that she lived really far and out of the way.  So I had this awful drive to her home each morning.  Not to mention that I barely had any sleep.  I remember nights when my daughter would just wake up and stay up- we’d watch Elmopalooza! in the dark wee hours of the morning.  Then I was expected to be a completely functional teacher for a very challenging class.

When my daughter turned two I enrolled her in daycare. So this was my life for a number of years: late to work every morning, trying to get a difficult toddler ready to leave the house, driving haphazardly to the daycare, rushing her into the daycare and then running out to my car and racing to get to the school.  On top of all this stress, I was going to graduate school and because I was a poor single mom, I worked afterschool too.  There were some nights when we didn’t get home until 10 pm.  Then we’d have to get up early and do it all over again.

It was very hard and depressing, so not what I thought motherhood would be like.  So when I was engaged to be married (with the wonderful FFB, edit) and knew that I wanted to have more children, I vowed and proclaimed that I would stay home at least 2 years with my child due to the trauma I experienced with being a working mom with my daughter.

Four months after we were married, I was pregnant.  It was one of the happiest, most pleasant phases of my life.  I actually was ok with going to work at this point.  My daughter was a bit older, in first grade now and I new that I was taking a long leave of absence.  I literally worked up until the day I delivered the baby.

Somewhere during the childcare leave, I started to feel pressured to return to work in September and against my original plans to stay home for at least 2 years, I decided to go back to work… again.  It was the year of hell.  My son was 8 months old and I put him in daycare.  I remember bringing him to the “wobbler” room and thinking about how surreal it all was.  8 babies sitting in little high chairs and wondering about how well a daycare worker, who is paid minimum wage, was going to care for my son.  I felt so bad and guilty.  Not even 2 weeks into daycare, my son got sick.  Then he was sick every single week with some kind of cold virus.  Either he was just getting a cold or getting over a cold.  I was constantly at the pediatrician’s and at one point he was even on a nebulizer for respiratory distress.  It was so horrible to know that I needed to stay home with my sick son but also face the repercussions of being absent from the job.  I felt that my son was more important so I would always stay home with him when he was sick but i still found the whole scenario agonizing and extremely distressing.  I hated having to call into to work, over and over again as it turns out – 17 times! After a while, i just accepted the fact that maybe I would get fired or get written up or something.  I didn’t even care at that point.

I was so spent. I too become sick often and was severely sleep deprived. I sucked at the job cause I was so distraught over my decision to return to work, taking care of a sick baby and lack of sleep.  It was just terrible. One morning I was so tired and in such a rush that I crashed our car in the garage!  I knew that things were really bad at this point.

So I persevered and made it until the end of the school year and had this long summer vacation to look forward to.  I pulled my son out of daycare and enjoyed every second with my children but then we got to the end of August and the anxiety of returning back to work started to over take me.

After a friend of mine made an enlightening comment to me about why wouldn’t I just return to work when my son was older (since my leave permits that), then why wouldn’t I just do that?  So I started to really sit on this idea.  Why was I so afraid to follow my dream of being a  stay at home mom?  There is my whole life to work but only like 4-5 years of a child’s life when they really, really need their mothers.  So why was i doing this to us?  Maybe I wouldn’t have any more kids and I would’ve missed my only chance to do the “right” thing (for us).  I missed out on all those years with my daughter and was doing the same damn thing, 7 years later to my son.  Now when my daughter was little, I was a single mom and didn’t have a choice.  But now I had a husband and our financial situation was solid, so why not just try it?  “I could always go back to work the following year,” I pleaded with my husband.

I have to tell you, I am so happy now.  I can wake up in the morning.  I don’t curse the sun for rising like I used to. I no longer have grim thoughts of despair about the day ahead of me, ” how am I going to make it through the day,” “why can’t it be Saturday,” “I am sooo tired, I can’t do this,” or my favorite –  “what if I just quit and not even call or show up?!?”  Now I wake up get my daughter ready for school and I don’t have to drag my 23 month old son out in the wee hours of the morning.  He gets to bumble around HIS home, eating breakfast at his leisure.  We got to the park, we do errands, we make meals, visit other stay at home moms… Life is truly wonderful now!  I am so happy and so is my son and daughter!  I realize now that when they would give me a hard time in the morning, they were just reacting to being rushed and all the stress I would put on them.  Now things are so pleasant.

We had to make a lot of changes to accommodate to one income and we certainly aren’t living the lifestyle I imagined we would’ve been at this point in my life, but we are happy now!

photo credit: maessive

9 Year End Tax Savings Tips

It’s December and the year will be ending before you know it. Don’t fret, there’s still time to take advantage of some tax saving tips to make your tax burden next April a little less.

Here are 9 year end tax savings tips:

Max Your 401(k)

If you can afford to take the paycheck hit now you can up the percentage of your 401(k) contribution.  Your contributions are tax-free and will lower your taxable salary.

Open or Contribute to a Traditional IRA

For some a traditional IRA may be a better option than a Roth IRA.  With a traditional IRA you get to deduct your contributions from your taxable income.  Have have until April 15th to contribute.

Sell Losing Investments

The sold investment losses can be deducted to offset gains or to reduce your taxable income.  The limit is $3000 though.

Donate to Charity

Donations before Dec. 31st can be deducted on next year’s return.  You have to itemize your deductions to claim this.  Bonus benefit: You might be helping some people out!

Prepay Bills

If you prepay some bills such as mortgage payments or medical bills you can write them off on next year’s return.

Second Chance Economic Stimulus Payments

Some who didn’t qualify for economic stimulus checks earlier in the year may qualify this time due to a life change (marriage, birth, change of income…).

Job Search Expenses

If you searched for a new job (in the same industry you’re in now) you can deduct expenses you incurred such as resume preparation, career counseling, travel, and phone calls.

Tax Relief for Foreclosures

Normally if your home was foreclosed or the mortgage was reduced or restructured you would have to pay taxes on the amount reduced.  Recent legislation has made it so you may not have to pay taxes on the forgiven amount.

Use Up Flexible Spending Plans

You contribute to a flexible spending plan to save on taxes.  But if you don’t use up the contribution amount then you lose the ability to claim it back.  Make sure you claim the full amount before the deadline passes (check with your HR department to see when your company’s deadline to claim is).

Most people don’t like to pay taxes.  You still have some time to take advantage to lower your tax burden.

Bonus Tip (because I thought of it after I first published):

Max out a 529 plan for your kids. Many state plans offer tax advantages for contributing! (check the specific plan for details).

These tips are in part courtesy of our friends at Intuit and TurboTax who were kind enough to provide them.

8 Ways The Economic Crisis Can Be Good For You

tiny frog

Times are tough out there.  The economy is at the forefront of the news every day.  Companies that were believed to be stalwarts are turning out to be broke.  Many are saying this is the worst the economy as been since the Great Depression.  Is there a silver lining to this economy?!? Yes.

8 Ways The Economic Crisis Can Be Good For You:

  • Lower House Prices and Lower Mortgage Rates – If you don’t already own a home now may be a great time to buy one!  Housing prices have been dropping.  The bloated home prices of the past few years are finally reversing.  If your finances are sound and you can make the payments you might find yourself with a house bargain.  Add to that dropping mortgage rates and this might be the time to buy if you’ve been waiting but couldn’t afford it before.  If you have a variable rate mortgage it could be the right time to lock in your rate.  Mortgages are already low so you figure they have to go up eventually!
  • Buying A New Car – If you have been in the market for a new car then now is a great time to buy!  The big three American car makers are hurting and are basically giving their cars away at cost just to keep their inventory moving.  To compete, foreign car makers are offering deals as well.  Most companies are offering 0% interest for qualified buyers.  That’s a free loan o buy their car.
  • Sales – Just like the car manufacturers many other companies and stores are hurting and are doing whatever they can to sell their products.  Forecast are already low on consumer spending for the holidays.  This means we’re going to see some great sales coming up.  Don’t go out spending just because prices are low but if there was something you were going to get anyway this coming season may be the time to buy it.
  • Low Credit Card RatesLower credit card rates doesn’t mean you should go on a spending spree!  But if you are carrying debt ad making your payments you may be able to negotiate a lower rate with your credit card company.  If your rate is already low you still might be able to find a card offering 0% to transfer your balance to.  Remember, the point is to shrink your debt not increase it!
  • Change Bad Spending Habits – What does it take to break out of the cycle of spending and debt?!?  If this bad economy doesn’t convince you that carrying a lot of debt is bad then what will?  Cash is king in any economy but wen you have a cushion for yourself then bad economies are less stressful.  Let what you see in the news be an eye opener for you if your spending habits aren’t so great.  Make a commitment to put yourself in charge of your finances!
  • Cut the Corporate Fat – Only the strong will survive in this economy (well, except for those that get bailed out).  The companies that come through this will end up with a stronger presence in their industries.  Also, as inefficient companies close up shop they leave open room for newer, smaller companies to take up the market void left over.
  • Cheap Gas – I just filled up the tank on our mini van and it cost us $35.  That would have given us a half tank earlier in the Summer.  Man does it feel good to not pay so much for gas!  One way to take advantage of this is take what the gas would have cost you in the summer and put the difference in what you pay now into a savings account every time you fill up.  Home fuel costs will also be lower this Winter than last Winter.
  • Stocks Are Cheaper – Prices have dropped to where if you invested at the turn of the century you might just have the same amount now; basically a zero return.  Not so good if you’ve lost a lot in stocks but if your starting out investing you could be getting stocks and funds near the bottom when prices are low.  You still need to do your research to find good funds and companies.  If you’re dollar cost averaging your investments you’re getting more stock for your dollar these days.

It’s scary to hear economic news these days.  But if your finances are in good shape then now can be a good time for you!  If your finances aren’t then get working on it now!

What do you think?  What other ways could this bad economy be good for you?

photo credit: kekremsi