Friday, March 30, 2012

Rules for Buying Big-ticket Items


I can’t stand making big-ticket purchases. I don’t like to finance things, so I like to pay in cash instead, and it’s a big hit to my wallet when I finally have to break down and buy something expensive.

In a way though, having to pay cash is actually a good thing when it comes to higher priced purchases because it really makes me stop and think about what I’m doing and how much it’s going to cost. In the process, I use certain rules to help me make my decision.

Conduct a Thorough Search
One of the first and most important rules that governs my purchase of big-ticket items is to investigate and research my available buying options before I make a decision. Deciding not only where to look but what kind of options -- both in brands/models and prices -- can make a huge difference in how or where I buy.

Deciding whether to buy online or go to the store -- and in that case, which store -- can mean hundreds of dollars in savings during my big-ticket purchases. The time involved in this process also means that I likely won’t just buy the first thing that comes along, which helps me avoid impulse buys that I might regret later.

Utilize the Tools at Your Disposal
With the Internet playing an increasingly important role in many of our purchases these days, it can be a great tool to find out more about big-ticket buying options and conduct a little due diligence. By reading reviews, getting customer feedback, and using the Internet to search various online deals or retailers, it can be a great tool to help in saving money on such purchases. I did this when considering buying an electric fireplace, and saved myself $300 in the process.

I also tend to discuss items I’m considering purchasing with friends and family before I make a decision. This allows me to see if they have knowledge of or experience with the items I’m buying or know of a certain brand or deal out there that could save me money.

Watch for Discounts and Sales
Biding your time and watching for big store discounts or sales could have your realizing huge savings on your big-ticket purchases. When we purchased our king-sized bed, we had a few gift cards to an area retailer who had a home furnishings outlet nearby. We waited for a while though to make our purchase, delaying the gratification of our big new bed until that retailer had a massive outlet sale. We ended up saving hundreds of dollars on our new purchase in the process.

Consider Other Options
Of course, just because you’re buying big, doesn’t necessarily mean you have to buy new, or even buy at all for that matter. We’ve gotten some of our biggest ticket items from friends, neighbors and family for free or almost free. From a patio set and baby furniture, to a sofa and washer and dryer, those closest to you might have items stashed away that they’re not only not using but looking to be rid of at little or no cost to you.

Our family had a storage unit full of stuff that they were tired of paying the rental fee for and that they were itching to be rid of. While our taking of certain choice items came with the responsibility of taking other things we didn’t really want or need, it was worth having to deal with the extra stuff in order to have a nice sofa, a good dining room table, a bed for our son, and other big-ticket items that we would likely have had to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars upon otherwise.

Take Your Time…but Hurry Up
I like to take it slow to investigate my buying options and make sure I don’t buy something I’ll regret later, but taking too long could leave me missing the boat when it comes to a really great deal. That’s why it’s important that while taking time to research and make a decision, I’m still keeping an eye out for great deals along the way.

Whether it’s through a chance encounter at a resale shop or garage sale, an online discount, store sale, or whatever, I don’t want to pass up a great deal just because I’m too concerned about investigating my options. Setting up account alerts or watching particular items through the Internet can be a great option to ensure that you don’t miss out on a deal. But having an idea of what you’re looking for ahead of time and what sort of price range is right for the big-ticket purchase you have in mind can also have you ready to pounce should a great deal arise.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Safety Deposit Box or Stored at Home: What We Keep Where and Why

It can be tough in this day and age to know where to keep your most precious of documents. Personally, I want certain things that I need on a regular basis accessible, but secure, and other items just plain secure. Still, my wife and I don’t want to have to be running back and forth between the bank each time we need certain documents. This means that we must make a call as to whether to keep particular items in a safety deposit box or at home.

Deciding which ones should be kept where though, isn’t always that simple.

Here’s how we make the call.

Social Security Cards, Birth Certificates and Passports
My wife and I haven’t traveled outside the country since our honeymoon cruise nearly six years ago, and with exception of needing our son’s birth certificate for him to fly with us on vacation before he turned two, I don’t think we’ve needed to produce our Social Security cards, birth certificates or passports for any reason since then.

We find it silly, and frankly somewhat dangerous to keep them at home, since if there were a break-in or fire, we’d possibly lose such documents and go through much more trouble replacing them than having to go to the bank once every blue moon should we need them. Therefore, we keep these documents in our safety deposit box.

Credit Reports
I run our credit reports several times a year just to make sure everything is in order and that there are no surprises lurking in wait somewhere within those pages of past and present creditors.

I tend to retain such documents at home, since for both me and my wife, they are just a bit bulky to go into our safety deposit box. However, I retain them devoid of any sort of identifying account numbers or other personal information such as Social Security numbers in the event that they should be compromised in some way.

Bond Certificates
While I know that I can get replacements for things like government savings bonds, I really don’t want to have to go to all the trouble; therefore, we keep these items in our safety deposit box. Considering my wife received a $50 bond for each birthday and Christmas holiday from the time she was born until she was about 15-years-old or so, you can see how just sliding the envelope full of these bonds into the safe deposit box and letting them sit there is much simpler than considering the result should there be a fire and I had to try to get the government to reissue 30 or more individual bonds. Plus, this way we don’t have to worry about theft either.

Backup Files
As we keep certain financial information and data on electronic files, it tends to make sense that we back up such files. While we don’t keep specific account numbers or personal information on these files, the general information we do retain is important for our tracking purposes and in assisting us to stay apprised of our current financial situation. We therefore keep backup copies (on flash drives since they are small) both at home and in our safety deposit box.

Extra Cash
We have a little extra cash both at home and in our safety deposit box. Having some extra spending money at home helps protect against unforeseen emergencies where banks might be closed, and saves time and trouble not having to run to the bank whenever we need a little extra spending money.

Having some cash in our safety deposit box protects against the banks being open in an emergency situation, but maybe not with the same ability to conduct cash transactions should their system be down or they’ve run out of cash.

Rare Coins
I don’t have a lot of rare coins, but I do have some rolls of silver coins. I tend to keep these items at home since they aren’t of extremely high value and they would take up a lot of room in our safety deposit box. If they were stolen, homeowner or renters insurance would likely cover the loss, and if there was a fire, they’d probably just melt into an easier to carry lump of silver.

Insurance Inventory
We keep our insurance inventory list and video in the safe deposit box. It wouldn’t do us much good if we kept them at home and they were ruined by a flood or burned up in a fire, would it?

Wills
I keep the family wills at home. There is no real identifying information on them and are replaceable should they be lost or stolen. Plus, they are kind of bulky documents and would take up valuable space inside the safety deposit box.

Monday, March 19, 2012

5 Money Saving Dangers of the Local Farmers Market


I enjoy wandering the local farmers market. It’s a nice way to start a Saturday morning, it’s a great way to get a little fresh air, and it gets a secluded, self-employed person like me, out and about.

While I do most of my shopping at local grocery stores, I like to keep my eye out for something special at the farmers market. I find it feels good to buy fresh occasionally and in the process, support local growers and merchants. There are however, a few money saving dangers that I have encountered at the local farmers market.

Convenience
When the farmers market is only blocks from your home, the pure convenience can be a danger to your pocket book. Waking up in the morning and just wandering over, even when you really don’t need anything, can lead to unnecessary purchases.

Overpaying
While you might reap the rewards in quality, some farmers markets charge a premium on their products. I’ve found that many of the items sold at our local farmers market are a good 25-50% costlier than at our area grocery stores.

While I understand that the local producers have to pay for their time and labor, that they may not have many of the advantages of larger growers, and that their products may be of better quality and healthier, it’s hard to pay the significantly higher premium on their products.

Trying New Things
As my mother says, “It’s good to try new things.” This can be true, but it can also be costly.

We recently bought some fava beans at the farmers market. We’d never tried them before, and let’s just say there weren’t our thing. While this was largely an isolated incident in our farmers market purchases, trying new things can get expensive, just ask my son.

He always wants to get a balloon animal from the “Balloon Man” or get his face painted, buy a snow cone or a hot dog, or have some similar novelty item. While such items can be fun treats, they can become costly over the course of our visits.

Familiarity Breeds Spending
One of the money saving dangers of our farmer market that I feel most prevalently, is that of familiarity. For me at least, as I begin to get to know some of the local merchants, I also begin to feel obligated to buy from them.

While I know I shouldn’t feel that way, walking by a friend, neighbor or associate’s stand with no customers in front of it, tugs at my heartstrings. I then feel obligated to make a purchase whether I actually need or want what they are selling or not.

Guilt
The familiarity I breed with those selling things at the local farmers market begins to turn to guilt if I don’t buy. I realize that some of these people are starving artists or just trying to make a living like myself, and I start to feel obligated to buy their stuff. Especially if I stopped in last week and make a purchase, I feel kind of weird passing by the following week, just waving or throwing out a kind word.

I’m sure not all people are susceptible to such feelings at their local farmers markets, but these are a few of the dangers I encounter when it comes to how my money is spent at such locales.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Preparing to Care for Aging Parents


As parents age, the feeling of invincibility that followed them wherever they went when you were a child, begins to fade. You suddenly start to realize that it’s time to reciprocate some of that time and effort they spent on you. Well, at least that’s the way I feel.

Personally, I think that it’s important to start preparing for aging parents early on and stay on top of those preparations as situations change. That’s the plan I’m trying to stick to at least as my mother and in-laws start to enter their golden years.

Financial Organization
While at first thought, it might not seem any of an adult child’s business what their parents’ financial situations are, as those parents begin to move into their golden years, it can become more of our business. I’ve tried to open a dialogue with our parents early on in the process, choosing to ease into subject matter that will likely become more and more a part of our shared lives as parents age and the responsibility of their care starts to become an increasing part of our lives.

Knowing where parents stand financially, how their money is invested and where, and the possible expenses they will begin to encounter as they age can play a crucial part in helping to care for them. Starting this process early on can help us leave less to chance and not only help them make this transition into old age, but help me and my wife better prepare as well.

Even with our parents only in their early-60s, the sooner we can grasp their financial situations, the better I can plan and help them plan for the future since I can’t be sure when a stroke, heart attack or similar unforeseen incident or accident could suddenly leave us in charge of caring for them.

Legal Questions
We’ve done our best to ask parents questions and find out about certain legal questions we’ve had. Suddenly finding a parent incapacitated and not knowing the answers to questions relating to a will, a living will, power of attorney, and similar items can leave you and your family in a bind.

While I don’t want to seem greedy or intrusive, parents have such legal preparations in place for a reason, and that reason is typically to have their affairs in order to make their passing or incapacitation easier for their friends and family. Therefore, to me, logic would dictate that if they have such legal issues answered, they shouldn’t mind sharing them, and if they don’t have them answered, they should begin preparing to answer them sooner than later.

Locations
Part of my preparation for caring for aging parents includes knowing where things are. I’m not knocking elderly people here, but it’s a fact of life, people forget things. Having a son, daughter or other trustworthy sources who know where safe deposit keys are located, where important paperwork is kept, and similar information can help keep things in order and avoid the time consuming and possibly costly misplacing of items and documents as parents age.

Family History
I’ve been sure to try to collect as much information as possible regarding our family health history while the parents are coherent enough to discuss such matters and it is still readily available. It might seem somewhat flippant to say such a thing, but in my opinion it’s best to start forming an idea of conditions and diseases that seem to be more prevalent in a family before that information becomes hard to come by as family members age and such information starts to become lost in the memories of years gone by.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Websites I Use for Gathering Valuable Real Estate Information


While in the past I’ve certainly not been the biggest of fans when it comes to real estate, it doesn’t mean that I don’t like to research various possibilities regarding homeownership. Our first -- and last -- homeownership experience cost us a heck of a lot of money, and certainly temporarily deterred us from re-entering the real estate market; however, I have still kept an eye on the market in several different geographic locations.

Here are some of the sites that I like to use to research and gain valuable insight into a variety of housing options in different locations.

Zillow.com
I like the Zillow.com site because it provides a variety of estimates regarding not only a home’s particular current value, but its value over time, as well as the area’s value in which the home is located. It provides an estimated price range for a home’s value as well as its estimated rent estimate range and a 30-day change valuation. I can also see information such as sales price histories and changes, as well as property tax amounts, assessment histories, assessed valuations, and adjustments over the years.

Trulia.com
I can also find information regarding a property’s tax rates, its valuation, as well as the trends of the area’s home values and price changes while on the market at Trulia.com. I also like this site because I can pull up information regarding comparable homes and find information about area sales trends.

Realtor.com
I find Realtor.com to be an easily searchable site that provides a range of data on an area’s available housing. Like some of the other sites on my list, it includes information regarding area schools, listing “Parent Ratings” and “Great School Ratings” to help me get a better overall feel for how good an area’s school system really is. It can also provide sales history and tax history for properties.

Realestate.Yahoo.com
I enjoy using realestate.yahoo.com as a real estate resource because it can help me gather information not only about specific homes within an area, but about the area a whole. I like to gauge what the market in a particular area is doing by using the site’s “Market Value Change,” which enables me to view trends over a 1, 5, and 10-year timeframe.

Using the “Real Estate Market Snapshot,” I can also get a feel for how many homes are for sale or in foreclosure in a particular area, which can help me better understand why prices or sales activity might be moving the way it is in a certain place.

Homes.com
Homes.com is a good overall site when searching for homes and gauging prices in a particular area. While maybe not offering some of the in-depth statistical detail of some of the other sites on my list, it’s still on my list of sites to search when it comes to homes, and it does offer comparables that are currently on the market in a particular area as well as those that have recently sold. This can help me get a better overall feel for what a home in the area may really be worth versus what the owners are asking for it.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Donating to Charity in 5 Simple Steps


I’m not the biggest of fans when it comes to making cash donations to charities; however, this doesn’t mean I’m against all forms of charitable donation or that I don’t like helping others; just the opposite in fact. Whether it’s donating by way of canned goods, clothing, household accessories, automobiles, or my own time and energy, I’ve given back in many different ways over the years.

Here are the five steps that I use in helping me to decide how and where to donate to charity.

Step #1 – Determine How to Donate
The first step I typically take in donating to charity, is determining how to donate. Some people prefer giving cash, others their time, skills, and physical labor. When I was younger and single, I preferred to donate my time and energy.

Now, as an adult with a family and career, I prefer to donate by way of personal belongings that we no longer need. This way I’m keeping our household tidy and organized and making use of things that we no longer want but that other people might.

Step #2 – Selecting Charities
My second step to donating to charity is to select an organization or organizations that I feel comfortable working with. Personally, since I take advantage of shopping at the Goodwill store and another resale shop in a nearby neighborhood, those are the places to which I typically make my donations. In a way, I’m just continuing the reuse and renew cycle.

Step #3 – Tracking Donations
When I make a donation to such operations, I ensure I get a receipt for the goods I’ve given. While such receipts are often just a signed slip that I’m allowed to fill in with a list of what I’ve donated since the organizations typically don’t have the time to go through and provide a written inventory, I try to do this as soon as I’ve made donations, ensuring that I can give a proper accounting of items and associated values before I forget.

Step #4 – Getting Something Back for Giving Something Back
With my receipts as proof of donation, I will typically take an estimated charitable donation amount as a deduction on our annual itemized tax return. In the past, this deduction typically ranges somewhere in the $250 to $500 range. However, on years in which we utilize the standard deduction, our donation doesn’t do anything for me in the way of reducing taxes, but it still holds intrinsic value.

Step #5 – Help Others Help Others
I often help the in-laws do their spring cleaning, which typically results in a lot of stuff being set out in the donate pile. While certain clothing items they might set out throughout the year for the Veteran’s Association to pick up, when it comes to larger donation goods, my wife and I will typically load up their stuff and deliver it for them. This allows us to donate in another way, by helping others help others, and it helps them recognize the tax savings of charitable donations as well.