How you look at your situation could make all the difference
The other day I was sitting in the courtyard of a tall hotel building. I happened to notice how small some palm trees appeared against the building. Then it occurred to me that I had similar sized palm trees in my yard. And compared to my split-level home they appeared huge. The difference? It's all a matter of perspective.
Our finances are also often a matter of perspective. Whether $500 is a lot or a little depends on what we compare it to. So let's take a look at some situations where our perceptions could have a big impact on our bank account.
We'll begin with something very familiar, our homes. According to the National Association of Homebuilders, the average home size in the U.S. in 2004 was 2,330 square feet. That was up from 1,400 square feet in 1970. So is your home large or small?
If you have a 1,900 square foot home, you might compare it to your friends and think that you're really quite cramped. In fact, it might be very important to you to find something bigger. Even if it means higher mortgage payments, insurance costs, utility bills and additional upkeep. Moving to a larger home could have a major impact on your budget and your bank account. But, if your friends' homes are the comparison, you'll probably talk yourself into moving.
On the other hand, if you compare your home to the one you grew up in, it probably seems spacious. No need to move to a bigger home. Just a matter of controlling how much stuff you try to cram under your roof. The savings could be significant. Not to mention the peace of mind. It's all just a matter of perspective.
Or let's try car payments. Suppose that you have a car payment of $400 per month. That doesn't seem like much, especially when you compare it to your neighbor's payment of nearly $650. And, it sure is nice having a nearly new car in the driveway for everyone to see. After all, you wouldn't want them to think that you couldn't afford a new car because you can handle those payments with no problem.
Of course, if you should happen to lose your job, that $400 a month payment will suddenly look like a huge mountain. Trying to live on unemployment is hard enough when there's only the mortgage and food to consider, but that car payment is going to make things very difficult. From this vantage point, it looks like a big problem.
Here's another one. Two thirds of college graduates had student loans. And students with loans had an average debt of over $19,000 at graduation (source: National Center for Education Statistics). Depending on the type of loan, the monthly payment will run $200 a month or slightly more. So is that a large debt for a college grad?
Depends on how you look at it. The U.S. Dept. of Commerce estimates that a college grad will earn about $23,000 more per year than someone with a high school diploma. So in those terms, a $19,000 debt doesn't seem so big. In fact, it might even seem cheap.
But, let's take another look. The first thing to note is that the difference in earnings for college grads is an average over their entire career. So they'll probably average less their first job out of college.
What can current grads expect to be paid? That depends a lot on the job. So we'll select something that's fairly typical. The average business administration grad can expect to earn about $38,000 a year (source: National Association of Colleges and Employers). Depending on state taxes and some other deductions, he'll take home about $2,400 per month.
That would mean that 5% of his take home pay is going to repay student loans. Now the debt seems a little bit bigger. Let's further suppose that our graduate wants to replace the beater he drove through school. Add a car payment to the mix and the budget starts getting pretty tight. Once again, we have a different perspective on the same situation.
Why is all this important? Many of us make financial decisions based on how we "feel" about a situation. Those feelings are very much affected by what we're comparing to our potential financial transaction. Unfortunately, sometimes we focus on that first perspective and don't consider any others.
It's important to our financial well-being that we get more than one comparison on any major financial decision. Let's give our feelings and our intellect a chance to see both sides of our potential choices. We'll be much more likely to make a decision that is comfortable in the future.
So how tall is that tree? It all depends on what it's standing next to.
How you look at your situation could make all the difference
Just last week my wife was going through the mail and noticed an envelope from Bank of America. We have a couple of accounts with them so she opened it up. To her surprise, inside she found a new credit card. The reason that she was surprised is that we do not have a credit card account with Bank of America.
She called to complain and was told by a condescending service agent that she must have applied for the card. No one should be treated like an idiot. But especially my wife. She's been a CPA for 25 years and I suspect that she's more knowledgeable than the service agent!
She asked for someone in a supervisory position. That person, too, insisted that she must have applied for the card even
though she explained that she would remember and did not complete any application.
Finally, she remembered that she had used the drive-through at the bank a few weeks earlier to make a deposit. The teller mentioned that she qualified for a special card, but my wife responded that she did not want the card. Although there's no way to know for sure, it would appear that the teller hit the "yes" instead of the "no" button on her screen. Instant credit card application!
Why is this worth your time? (outside of the fact that I feel better for telling it?) Opening a new credit account would
probably reduce our credit score. Not by much, but we shouldn't be penalized for something that we didn't request or want.
Second, it's a good thing that she didn't toss the mail unopened as junk. I'd hate to think of what could have happened if the wrong person got their hands on the unsigned card. Also, I don't like the thought that we'll probably need to be more careful sorting the junk mail in the future. Like we don't waste enough time doing that already.
Third, I guess we'll all have to be very careful with our conversations with banks. An off-handed reply and you could be signing up for a credit card without even knowing it.
Once again, I guess the bottom line is that you really have to watch out for yourself financially. To do otherwise is to take unnecessary chances.
We have kitchen doors from the 70s or earlier. We would like to change the color but don't know whether we should stop there or go as far as changing cabinets. - John
John's got a lot of company. Kitchen & Bath Business Magazine forecasts that there will be 6 million kitchens remodeled this year at a total cost of $79 billion!
It isn't surprising. Kitchen remodeling projects generally recover nearly all of their costs when you sell your home. MSN House & Home released a report showing that projects costing up to $25,000 returned 90% or so when the home was sold.
So that's a good reason for redoing your kitchen. Another is that it's one of the most used rooms of your home. And, if you listen to the people who study such things, the more time your family spends in the kitchen the healthier and happier your family will be.
OK, so you're thinking about doing something. But, like John, you wonder how much to do. The best place to start is to figure out what you can afford. Kitchen projects can quickly get out of hand. Once started, it's easy to upgrade to a more expensive drawer pull or cabinet door. There's a lot of pressure to go just one step further. And then one more after that. But those decisions can be very expensive. Have a dollar limit in your mind based on what you can afford. Hold on to that boundary. Just about everyone, including your own ego, will want you go spend more.
And, expect some unanticipated expenses. It's prudent to only plan to spend 90% of the money you'll have available. Save the 10% for mid-project surprises.
Next you'll need to decide how extensive your remodel will be. It may be as simple as repainting wood cabinet doors and walls. Perhaps you'll want new countertops and faucets. Or it might be a matter of gutting the entire kitchen and starting from scratch.
Naturally, more extensive means more expensive. This is the stage to get some rough pricing for different aspects of the job. Bounce the costs against your budget. You should have enough information to decide how much you want to take on.
Some people will argue that it's ok to borrow for a kitchen remodel. After all, you're making your home more valuable. That's true. But you'll still end up repaying the loan when you sell. And that means less money in your pocket. If you do borrow, consider repaying the loan while you still live in your home.
If you're going to be making major changes, be sure to consider the three major functions of a kitchen: storage, preparation and clean-up. Think about how your family uses the current kitchen.
Make major decisions before you start construction. Remember making adjustments once work has started will be expensive.
New cabinets are generally the most-pricey part of a fully new kitchen. Choose them carefully. Their style and color will have a major impact on the room and your budget.
In fact, choose all your materials carefully. You'll find that quality varies considerably. The fact that there are a lot of choices means more work for you, but does provide a greater opportunity for savings.
Don't assume that the big home center store is the cheapest or best. Check with specialty kitchen and cabinet shops. Ask if they have any cabinets that they were unable to deliver. You may be able to benefit from another's mistake.
If the job is beyond do-it-yourselfing, ask around for a handyman or contractor. Unless the job is fairly simple (read inexpensive), you'll want to get three bids.
Check out contractors thoroughly. Ask for references and contact them. Ask the contractor about licenses, insurance and bonding. You don't want to make a mistake here. Under normal circumstances a full kitchen remodel will take about two months after planning and materials have been ordered. The wrong contractor could drag that out indefinitely.
Talk with the contractor before starting. Ask a lot of questions. The way they answer will tell you a lot about how they'll perform. For instance, some will encourage you to skip getting required permits. Better you should skip that contractor. Yes, the permits will cost you, but they'll also guarantee that the job is planned and done correctly. The building inspector can be your best insurance against shoddy work.
Finally, expect disruption. Eating all your meals out for two months can get expensive. So some families load up the freezer with meals that can be reheated in the microwave. It's easy to prepare extra portions of the meals that you're already making during the weeks before your kitchen is off limits.
Updating a kitchen can make a big difference in your home. Whether it's just painting cabinet doors or a full blown new kitchen, it takes time, consideration and money. Hopefully, whatever John decides will bring his family together and make many fine memories.
Recently, my husband and I had the displeasure of being ripped off for $400 after eating out at a restaurant. The debit card has now been closed and the bank is supposedly working on the problem of getting our money back to us.
How can one eat out without being concerned that this can happen again. Is there anyway to prevent it? We are very upset and frustrated that someone ripped us off for this money and also cannot afford this big of a loss. My husband is on Social Security and is working part-time. What can we do, if anything, to protect ourselves from this happening? We have discussed buying gift cards to these restaurants, which is a pain but would prevent what happened from happening again. Do you have any other suggestions? -- Cheryl
Cheryl and her husband are not alone. In a recent poll (epaynews.com), three quarters of consumers said that credit card fraud was a major or moderate concern. And, they have good reason to be concerned. The Federal Trade Commission estimates there are $3 billion in fraudulent charges each year.
Guess that shouldn't be surprising. We use our plastic a lot. Visa and MasterCard estimate that we spend near $2 trillion dollars using their cards each year. And, that doesn't include the money we spend using Discover, American Express, store cards, gas cards, etc.
So what happened to Cheryl and her husband? The most likely scenario is that they gave their card to the server to pay for the meal. While out of sight from Cheryl, either the server or the cashier wrote down their card number and the verification code on the back. Later, they used the numbers to make online purchases where a physical credit card isn't required.
How can Cheryl and her husband prevent a reoccurrence? There are things they can do to protect themselves. But, we'll find that security comes with a price. The most effective tools are also the ones that are most inconvenient. So Cheryl will need to decide how much security she wants.
Cheryl is already using a debit card. The advantage is that the crook can only spend what's in the account unlike a credit card that can be used up to its credit limit.
Cheryl probably had the cost of the meal and another $400 in the account that day. One way to limit the loss is to keep less in the account. For instance, if there's only $100 in the account no one can charge more than that using the debit card. Of course, keeping a low balance means adding money to the account every time you intend to use it. If she wants to try this, Cheryl should talk to her bank about using online banking to transfer money. She'll also need to know whether the transferred money is available immediately or if she has to wait overnight.
There are a couple of other ways to make using credit or debit cards safer. One of the most effective is to not let the card out of your sight. That way if someone is going to try to steal your credit card number, they'll have to do it while you're watching them. Chances are, they'll choose someone else who is an easier target to rob.
Use a PIN number. She's probably already aware, but keep your PIN number separate from your card.
Using gift cards probably wouldn't have made Cheryl any safer than taking her debit card up to the cashier herself. You still have someone you don't know handling your card.
One way to make sure no one steals your card number is to use cash. You do run the risk of losing it or being mugged. However, the good news is that you can't lose more than you have in your pocket or purse.
There is, however, one additional risk for cash. Getting cash from an ATM is not completely safe. Some smart criminals put recording devices onto ATMs. They record your account and PIN number for later use. So the safest way to get cash is to visit the bank during normal business hours and deal with an old fashioned, real live teller.
While losing $400 is nasty, it could have been much worse. Cheryl should only be liable for the first $50 in fraudulent charges. So the monetary damage is limited. It becomes a much bigger problem if someone parlays her credit card number into identity theft.
Undoing an identity theft can take hundreds of hours. It's estimated that the time spent by the average ID theft victim to get things straightened out is worth $16,000.
Cheryl is right to worry about safeguarding her credit accounts. Not only are there more ways for crooks to use a stolen credit card number, but also in the age of ID theft, the damage inflicted can be substantial.
We have almost decided to lay "peel and stick" vinyl tiles in our kitchen and dining room. We would like to hear pros/cons on vinyl tiles.
Are they durable? Do they really stick? Do they come loose easily? Should we add more adhesive when applying them? Any help and direction will be greatly appreciated.
We hate to make an investment of money, time, and labor on something that is not going to hold up for the long term.
My sister is a single mom and can't fully provide for her kids. She is receiving housing benefits where the government pays for most of her rent. She purchased a car with no money down. The payment with insurance is about $500 per month. When housing found out, she was told to get rid of that car or she would lose her housing benefits. She asked me to put the car in my name, which means that I would have to put the financing in my name as well so it does not show on her credit. She would still drive the car. I'm afraid to make that kind of commitment. She refuses to give the car back to the dealer because it's going to ruin her credit. My other sister gave her $4,000 to buy a used car when she returns her new car, but she does not want an old car. What should I do? My heart tells me help her, but my head tells me not to help her! I love her dearly, but she's always broke and I am afraid she'd get into an accident and I would be totally liable. -- Confused Sister
Confused Sister must come from a very close and loving family. It's obvious that these three sisters care for each other. But, sometimes you need to do what's best for a person. Even if it's different than what they ask you to do. This is one of those situations.
If your three-year-old takes a sharp knife from the dinner table, you're going to take the knife away from him even if he cries and doesn't want to give it up. You know the danger even if he doesn't.
Broke Sister is going to hurt herself (and her children) with the car loan. That's one reason why the housing authority doesn't want her to keep the car while she's receiving rental assistance. They know that she won't be able to keep up with a car payment and continue to feed her children.
So the best thing that you can do for your sister is to help her get out of the new car and replace it with something she can afford.
Broke Sister has a couple of different possibilities for the new car. If she can find someone to take over payments, she could come out with no bad marks on her credit. The key here is that the lender gets their money on time.
It's also possible that the housing authority could help. Most have laws against "predatory lending" practices. There's a possibility that the lender was taking advantage of Broke Sister. The housing authority might be able to point her to a state agency that could help her get out of the car loan.
A third option would be to contact the dealer and explain the situation. They might be able to put her into an affordable car. The original dealer should be Broke's first stop since they'll get the best price for her now used new car. She will need to finance the loss on the new car, but the money from Third Sister should help keep the payment affordable.
The final method for returning the car is a "voluntary repossession." That's where Broke Sister drives the car to the lender and turns over the keys. They will sell the car. It will bring less than Broke Sister owes on the loan. The lender will expect her to pay the difference. She might have to use the $4,000 that the Third Sister is offering to cover the loss. If she doesn't repay the loss, it will affect her credit rating.
Ok, now that Broke Sister has a few options to put her into an acceptable ride, let's convince Confused Sister why she should avoid Broke's scheme.
First, it's probably illegal. If Broke hides the car from the government, she's lying to get financial aid. That's illegal. Helping Broke to lie is participating in the frau, which is not something that you want to be involved in.
Next, you would be responsible for the financing. If your sister were one day late with a payment, it could trigger penalty rates as high as 30% on any credit card balances you have. Plus, it would affect your ability to get your own car loan or a mortgage.
You would also be responsible for the car. Broke can't insure a car that she doesn't own. So you would need to add it to your insurance policy. You'd also need to let them know that your sister is a regular driver on the car. If Broke Sister had an accident, you would be involved. It's your car and your insurance company. You can guess what will happen to your rates.
This is a case where you need to listen to your head. It would appear that your sister is not grasping financial reality. She can't afford to care for herself and her kids, so the government is helping her. It's time for Broke to realize that paying for food and shelter is more important than driving a new car. You can help lead her to do what's right for her kids.
Confused wants to help her sister. The best way to do that is to tell her the truth. Broke needs to give up the new car and start being a financially responsible parent for her children.
There's an old saying that 'the apple doesn't fall far from the tree'. For those of you too young to have heard that phrase before, it means that children will be a lot like their parents. I was reminded of that the other day when I found my twelve year old reading "The Millionaire Next Door".
Lest you think that I'm some kind of fanatic, I don't give my children homework assignments on money management. The book was just sitting next to my easy chair. But, in fairness, my kids have heard me talk about the value of money on a regular basis. And I do hope that some of the lessons stay with them.
You have the same opportunity to help shape your teen's money perspective. Lessons learned now could save them a lot of grief later. So let's spend a little time talking about what to teach your teens about money.
A cornerstone of building a sound financial future for your teenager is to teach them how to save money. Sounds easy, but even many adults don't know how to do it. And that might be because no one ever taught them.
You can use three strategies to teach a teen to save. First, you can encourage them to reach a goal. Suppose that they want a $100 pair of shoes. Let them save $5 or $10 a week until they have the purchase price. Have them put a reminder of their goal in strategic places. They'll learn patience and persistence. And by the time they save the money, they might also learn that they really don't want the shoes any more.
Another way to encourage savings is to match any money they put into a savings account. Set a minimum length that the money must stay in the account before being withdrawn. Don't want them to put it in with your match and withdraw it a few days later. This won't work for everyone, but some teens will love to watch their savings grow.
The teen years are also a good time to teach your young adult to 'pay themselves first'. That means that they set aside part of their income for savings before spending anything.
It's a perfect time to learn this lesson. Most teens don't have any real financial responsibilities. They don't have items that they're forced to buy each month (like rent, electricity, food). They generally just spend what they have available.
Of course, many adults do the same thing. They spend until they're out of money. Learning to set part of any income aside for savings is a great habit that will pay dividends for their entire lives.
Next a question for you. Do you remember who taught you to balance your checkbook? Most of us don't. And that's a shame. You'd be surprised how many people reach adulthood without knowing how to perform this simple task. And it's important that your teens learn it.
First, they need to know where they stand financially. Even a teenager should know how much money they have. The reason is simple. It's essential to understand that you can run out of money. Balancing a checkbook is a wonderful way of teaching them that there are penalties if you spend money that you don't have.
The alternative is to let them learn to keep spending until they've reached their credit limit. And that lesson will create heartaches later in their life.
PC software makes balancing a checkbook easy. But make sure that they don't just enter numbers and let the software do all the work. They need to understand the basics. You put money in. You write checks to take money out. What's left is the balance.
They also need to learn basic investment information. It's really essential for modern life. Teach them that stocks represent ownership in a company. And bonds are like an IOU. Introduce them to CD's, money market and mutual funds. Perhaps you'll want to subscribe to Money magazine and discuss the articles with them.
Don't forget to teach them how risks and rewards work. They need to know that a big return will include a big risk. It's surprising how many people think that they can get huge returns without taking any risk. That's a good way to lose money.
Also teach your teen about the beauty of compound interest. Let them know that money will double every 7 years if it earns 10%. That means that $1 that they don't spend on a soda today would be worth $128 when they're in their 60's. Compound interest is the secret ingredient of building wealth.
Conversely, they need to learn the risk of compounding debt. They'll learn this lesson before they die. Help them to learn it without pain. Teach them that borrowing money obligates them to pay the loan back with interest. And that credit cards are set up so that they keep making payments each month without ever paying off the debt. In fact, if they pay the minimum due on a charge card each month, it's just like doubling the price of everything they buy. That's a lesson that's less painful if you learn it before the bills come due.
Teach them what things cost. Some families share budget information with their teens. Others prefer to keep that private. If so, send your teen on a pretend 'first apartment' hunt. Have them walk through all the costs of setting up an apartment including rent, utilities and food. It will be a real eye opener for them.
Finally, help them to learn the difference between creative thinking and creative financing. Creative thinking is the ability to have a need and find a way to fill it without spending money. People who don't have money are forced to consider alternative answers. And some of those answers are quite creative.
The flip side is the person who only thinks of creative financing. He can't think of a way to solve his problem without making a purchase. His creative energies are spent trying to figure out who will loan him the money to make the purchase. Not only will he spend a bunch of energy trying to figure that out, but he'll make making payments for quite awhile, too.
Many of these lessons will pay dividends for the rest of their lives. Who knows, if your teen learns them well perhaps the apples will fall close to their tree, too.
A friend just sent me a video clip. It showed an ice fisherman sitting alone on the lake with a pole in his hand. In the background, you could hear the wind whistling over the frozen lake. The pole dipped a few times as the man began to reel in a fish. Suddenly, a huge shark broke the surface and ate the man. Naturally I was caught unawares and surprised by the shark. It was funny.
But sometimes our finances work the same way. We think that we're fishing for something small. Even think that we've got it hooked. Only the truth is that we're about to be swallowed by something much bigger than we are.
I wonder if that's not true with some folks who took out mortgages with low teaser rates that were to be adjusted in a few years. They thought that they were just getting a good low rate on their mortgage and that they had found a way to buy a home that they couldn't really afford. Unfortunately, now that the rate is about to be adjusted, some of them will be swallowed up and lose their home and credit rating.
Some surprises can't be predicted. Our ice fisherman's encounter with the shark for instance. But some, like the mortgages with sharply escalating rates, can be predicted. And, unless you like being eaten, it's probably wise not to go fishing in that pond. It's too late for some people now. Hopefully, others can learn from their mistakes.
I am curious as to whether or not charge-offs can continue to accrue interest. I was always told "no" but today an attorney for one of those "third party collectors" told me "yes." I had already paid $900 into the charged-off debt and then that collector dropped us after I confronted them about some shady practices. They withdrew funds without my authorization and a new law firm picked it up and tacked on another $1500 above what I'd already paid! The first law firm didn't charge interest, but this one is. Any information you can offer would be most appreciated! -- Jennifer
Sounds like Jennifer is in a tough spot. To make the best of the situation, she's going to need to learn a little about what a "charge-off" really is, how collections work and whether the lender can charge interest on the debt.
When Jennifer borrowed money from a company, she created an expectation of future income when the debt was repaid. That's an asset of the corporation.
When a company "charges-off" a loan, they're saying that they don't believe that they'll ever be able to collect the debt. So they "write-off" the asset. It's an accounting entry that reduces their profits and taxes.
They'll also report the charge-off to the credit rating agencies. That makes it more difficult for Jennifer to borrow money later. An overdue debt can be shown on your credit report for 7 years after the account became delinquent.
But, that's just the accounting aspect. What happens to the debt in the "real" world?
Just because a debt has been charged-off does not mean that Jennifer still doesn't owe the money (plus interest and penalties). What she owes depends on the original loan agreement, state law concerning the Statute of Limitations (SoL) and the federal law governing collections.
The original terms from the loan still apply. All that fine print that no one reads becomes important now. Generally, it gives the lender quite a bit of latitude to charge interest and penalties.
Next Jennifer needs to find out the statute of limitations (SoL) on her debt. In most cases, it's between 3 and 6 years. State law and the type of debt will determine the SoL. The SoL says that after a certain period of time that the debtor is no longer legally required to pay a debt.
There are actions that Jennifer could take that would restart the clock on the SoL. Making a payment, signing an agreement to pay or even admitting that the debt is valid could be enough to stop or reset the SoL clock to zero.
She'll need to do a little research to learn the SoL in her state. Her phone book should have a number for the state's information operator. They should be able to point her to the state agency that can explain the law.
Two notes about SoL. Even though the SoL says that a debt doesn't have to be repaid, it's not illegal to attempt to collect it. And, if the lender gets a judgement against the borrower, there's no SoL on the judgement.
Jennifer also needs to know a little bit about collection agencies. Some work for a percentage of any money that they're able to collect. Others buy a group of bad loans for pennies on the dollar. Then they keep everything collected. Since they own the loan, they're also allowed to re-sell it to another collection agency. That could explain why Jennifer has heard from more than one agency. They're also sometimes affiliated with law firms so that they sound more important.
Whoever owns the loan, original lender or collection agency, is allowed to keep charging interest and penalties per the original loan agreement and applicable laws.
Anyone trying to collect the loan is supposed to obey the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. But, as you'd expect, some will bend or even break the collection rules.
It's no surprise that they tapped into Jennifer's bank account. She might have given permission without realizing it. They will also try to garnish her wages or put a lien against any property that she owns. There are, however, laws that keep them from just taking anything they find.
If Jennifer does agree to settle the debt by paying a portion of it, she needs to get a release from the agency saying that the balance of the debt is forgiven. She should look for the words "payment in full."
Once a debt as been reported as written-off, paying it will not wipe away the bad comment in her credit report. It will look better, but only slightly. It's possible that the original lender may agree to remove the item if a partial payment is made. But, only the original lender may do that. Not an outside collection agency.
Hopefully, Jennifer will be able to close this unfortunate episode and never have to revisit the issue again.