15 Things To Do With Your Economic Stimulus Check

The government Stimulus checks started going out on April 28th. If you are expecting one you should start looking for it in May (here’s a post listing the dates).

So what are you going to do with the extra money? Here are a list of ideas for using your stimulus check:

  • Pay off credit cards – If you have any credit card debt the stimulus check will be a great way knock some of that out! Paying off the debt gives you an instant return in savings of whatever you would have paid in interest fees. Psychologically, you will help in getting the debt monkey off your back.
  • Contribute to a Roth IRA – You can take your money and put it into your Roth IRA. For 2008 the contribution limit is $5000.
  • Start an emergency fund – If you don’t already have some sort of emergency fund (three to six months expenses seems to be the conventional wisdom) then your stimulus check is a good way to start one. Even if you have one you can use the money to increase your fund. A great place to start one is with ING Direct (you can even get a $25 bonus by opening your account with $250).
  • Contribute to a 529 college savings plan – You can use the money to help save for your kid’s education by putting the money in a 529 plan. Not only do you help save for college but you might get a tax break as well depending on your home state’s plan.
  • Pre-pay your mortgage – Take the money and make additional payments to your mortgage. By making additional payments you will own your home faster and pay less in interest. Just make sure the payments go towards the loan principle and not next month’s payment (also check that your lender will accept pre-payments without fees or penalties).
  • Go on vacation – You may have been planning to do this anyway so here is a good way to fund the vacation. Go and do something that will be a great experience for the family that you will all remember.
  • Improve the house – If there’s something you’ve needed to improve on your home, such as a furnace, you can use your stimulus check to pay for it (or at least help). Other options could be new paint job, carpet, furniture, appliances, etc…
  • Car maintenance – Have you been putting off a car repair? Need new brakes? New tires? Your stimulus money can fund it. If your car is about to go kaput your stimulus check could help pay for a new car (or a good new used car).
  • Learn to invest – Do some research and take the money and start investing. Companies such as Sharebuilder and Zecco offer low-fee investing. You have to do your homework with this option but it might be just enough money to start investing but not so much that you will be crazy worrying if you lose it. If you invest through Sharebuilder you can buy partial shares of Berkshire Hathaway B class shares. I hear that Warren Buffett is pretty good at investing.
  • Pay off student loans – If you have high interest student loans then your stimulus check can be a great way to help pay your student loans off. Just like with credit cards paying off your high interest student loans give you the instant return in savings of what you would have paid in interest.
  • Have a nice evening out – Take your spouse out to a really great meal. Get babysitting and go to that great restaurant you wanted to try. Go see that new show that everyone’s talking about. Make an experience you will always remember.
  • Get physically fit – The stimulus check should be enough to pay for a year’s gym membership (or more than a year). Use the stimulus check as a catalyst to get in shape and make your life healthier. Not sure about a gym? Find a class such as yoga or martial arts to join. Not into that? Buy a new bike and go riding. Or get yourself some good running sneakers and running attire. Join your local running club and enter a few small races. You never know, you may one day run a marathon.
  • Go to school – Use your stimulus check to enroll in a college course or two. This can be toward a degree or just continuing education. Hey, you can take a personal finance course. Maybe learn a second language?
  • Do nothing – This is the easiest of them all. Put the money in your savings account and forget about it. You don’t have to spend it or find any particular purpose for it. It doesn’t have to burn a hole in your pocket. One day you might find a good use for it but for now it adds to your savings.

Personally, we’re closer to the Do Nothing suggestion. Our stimulus check will come via direct deposit right into our ING account. We have no specific plans for the money so it will be added into our savings. Our check may pay parts of many of the suggestions or for none of them. Either way it will earn interest until it finds a home somewhere else.

Do you have any other ideas for using the economic stimulus check?

photo by Argenberg

Best And Worst College 529 Plans From Morningstar

Morningstar has released their picks for the top five and worst five 529 college-savings plans. To make their choices, Morningstar “focused on diversification, fees, flexibility, and the underlying funds.”Here are the top five:

- Illinois Bright Start College Savings Program
- Maryland College Investment Plan
- Virginia Education Savings Trust
-Virginia CollegeAmerica 529 Savings Plan (broker sold)
- Colorado Scholars Choice Savings Program (broker sold)

The worst five:

- Ohio Putnam CollegeAdvantage (broker sold)
- Mississippi Affordable College Savings Program
- Mississippi Affordable College Savings Advisor Program (broker sold)
- New York 529 College Savings Program
- Nebraska AIM College Savings Plan (broker sold)

I’m a little concerned that New York’s plan is considered one of the worst. Not only do I have two funds under the plan (one for each child) I also said recently that it’s a good plan. The main criticism from Morningstar is that the plan doesn’t have any exposure to international funds so it’s been missing out on international gains and it’s not hedged against US economy downturns. Other wise Morningstar says it’s moderately priced and they like that it’s made up of Vanguard index funds.

Many people, like myself, contribute to their own state’s plans since it’s likely they get a tax break. But depending on the plan and state you may be better off contributing to another state’s plan.

The Wall Street Journal suggests the following when considering a 529 plan:

“• When shopping for a 529 plan, you should consider costs, investment options and asset-allocation strategies.

Weigh any tax advantages of investing in an in-state plan against the plan’s total costs.

Look for annual asset-based fees of less than 1% for direct-sold plans and less than about 1.3% for broker-sold plans.

Compare state plans at www.savingforcollege.com, www.collegesavings.org or www.morningstar.com.”Hopefully Morningstar’s review will prompt the New York 529 plan to consider some international exposure otherwise I may have to look into some of the better plans.

Do you contribute to a 529 college-savings plan?

Emotions Got The Best Of Us At The Picture People – Review

Baby pictures at The Picture People

So this past weekend my wife and I took the kids to get their pictures taken at The Picture People at the mall. We had a coupon for a free 8×10 portrait and since we hadn’t had pictures taken of our children together we thought we’d go (the little one is an infant).  We figured we’d go in, get our picture and get out.  Far from it!

Baby pictures at The Picture PeopleThey have some marketing plan set up there! We got there and checked in.  When it was our turn we were brought to a curtained off area to take pictures.  The photographer is a young guy with a digital camera.  He took all sorts of pics with each child separately as well as together.  When the picture taking was over we told to wait a bit and we would be helped.

Here is where they get us:

  • They show you about 20 pictures, all which make you say “awwwww.”  Now we want all of the pictures.
  • The sales person says “wouldn’t this be nice” and takes out a large, vertical, black and white portrait already framed.   It looks amazing until we’re told it costs about $150. He also produces a large horizontal frame with three photos.
  • When we seem like we’re not so sure he tells us there’s a way he can get us the three pic frame as well as some others in a great package that will save money. Sounds interesting. Oh, the package costs $249!!
  • When we’ve finally decided what we want (much more than what we planned) and we’re ready to pay we’re told about a membership club we can join that will make one of our pics cheaper and entitle us to some free pics throughout the year.
  • They also ask for your email address so you can view your photos online. They encourage you to send the site to friends and family so they can see if there’s pictures they want to buy (you can put a picture on anything from a mug to a mouse pad or just order copies).

Suffice it to say we spent way more than we intended to. The pictures do look great (including the three picture frame we got) and they have everything done for you within an hour.

Pros and Cons About The Picture People

Pros

  • Convenience – We made an appointment and went to the mall. We didn’t have to schedule a photographer to come to the house.
  • Ease of Service - The people were friendly and you walk out with your photos within an hour.
  • Price – Although we spent more than we wanted to it would have cost more to hire a photographer.
  • Quality – The pictures really do look great!

Cons

  • Atmosphere – It’s a bit of a mad house there with all of the families coming and going, many with small children.
  • Price – Yes it’s relatively inexpensive but the photos and packages still come out to a hefty amount (at least to our liking).
  • Emotional Factor – It’s really tough to say no to all these great pictures of your children. You see them and want them all.   I jokingly told the sales person that it would be on his conscience if we couldn’t afford to put our kids through college.

Overall we’re happy with the product and we will be going back to get our free pictures (yeah we signed up for the membership). Since we now have some nice photos we won’t be needed large packages and we intend to only go for our promotional photo.

The big lesson here is that spending is emotional and we have to be careful not to let our emotions get the better of our budget!

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