Getting ready for spring break? Many families are heading out this weekend for a holiday as schools take their annual April vacation. I remember a year ago, after a long spate of sitting at my desk way too much, I was in dire need of a getaway but feeling conscious of a strict budget because we had some fun summer plans that took higher priority for the family funds.
In trolling around for deals, I realized that a credit card that I had been using exclusively for business expenses had racked up enough points for a week’s accommodations in Florida. With a quick click, we were on our way.
It was such a nice surprise to be able to take that trip without breaking my bank. Apparently I’m not the only one who tends to let those balances accumulate without paying much attention. Almost three in four Americans have forgotten about frequent flier miles or credit card rewards points that they’ve earned.
“For people who don’t take advantage of points, you’re leaving money on the table,” said Brian Kelly, author of “ThePointsGuy.com,” a website dedicated to teaching the ins and outs of maximizing the use of points for travel and other benefits.
Kelly worked with Princeton Survey Research Associates to find out how many people are actually taking advantage of points programs and how many are letting them expire. “I was amazed when I would go into a Starbucks how many people would use debit cards or cash,” he said in an interview. To Kelly, who is able to travel business class internationally because of his prolific use of points and spent just $2.50 on a ticket to Brazil last week, not taking advantage of a rewards program for even the smallest purchases is puzzling. Even if you don’t want to travel, Kelly reasons, “you should at least be getting cash back.”
Charles Schwab & Co. financial consultant Kimberly Segal says she recommends her clients save enough to meet 80 percent of their current expenditures when planning for retirement. But a recent survey by her firm finds that Bostonians with means aren’t necessarily hearing the message. Most are expecting to only need about half the income they earn now when they retire, even amidst concerns about healthcare and other rising costs.
It’s not as if Segal’s clientele can’t afford to save. The demographic polled by Charles Schwab are technically well off, with at least $250,000 in “investable assets and retirement funds.” On average they earn $113,000 a year, yet in retirement they expect to only need $63,000.
The disconnect is particularly striking given that the majority of survey respondents plan to continue living in the Boston area in their golden years. Only one in four said they will move to a new area, seeking a better quality of life and lower living costs when they stop working.
“We’re urging people at a younger age to look at retirement planning, prioritize current and future expenses, and take action on the plan to make them financially secure for retirement,” Segal said. “Doing it early on can alleviate concerns, especially unforeseen expenses in medical and healthcare costs.”
Several analysts have reported that car sales are expected to rise this year, in part because there’s a sizeable group of people who need to replace their older vehicles. But how much is the “right” amount to spend?
If you’re looking to finance, you might consider the 20-4-10 rule: 20 percent down; financing that lasts no longer than four years; and principal, interest and insurance that doesn’t exceed 10 percent of your gross household income.
It’s a formula that can help change the way we think about how we define the affordability of a car, and potentially start to free up some extra cash for other, more important financial needs such as retirement or even the more basic emergency savings fund.
“How that change in thinking lowers your stress level is just amazing,” says Mike Sante, a managing editor at Interest.com, which recently completed a study that looked at car affordability. “It can make a tremendous change in your quality of life. This is where the money is for your savings.”
Americans are largely spending too much on cars, an asset that is often our second-largest household expense after rent or a mortgage and offers no potential for increasing net worth. For example, taking into account car insurance costs and the Boston area’s median income of almost $70,000 a year, Interest.com calculated that a typical Boston household can afford to spend up to $26,025 on a car. It would take a pretty good amount of self-control to avoid spending more than that, since the average new car with bells and whistles costs $30,550.
Gas prices eating at your wallet? Try visiting the pump on a Wednesday, before 10 a.m., as well as these other tips
Feeling a pinch from the gas pump? No wonder. According to the American Automobile Association, gas prices rose every day from Jan. 17 to Feb. 20 – a 15 percent jump to $3.778 per gallon, the fastest run-up since 2005.
Not surprisingly, I’ve been hearing from a lot of folks who have “tips” for how to track, and maybe even help manage, the sticker shock. For example, there is an app called Gasbuddy.com that can provide you with a list of gas stations in the area and their latest prices so that you can compare prices before you fill up the tank. In some cases, you can save 20 cents or more per gallon, which can quickly lead to big savings.
I also liked looking at the gas “heat map” on their website, which shows where the highest prices are in the country in case you’re planning a road trip. Massachusetts was definitely on the warmer end, though nothing like California.
Mapquest has a similar function. At the top left corner of the map that shows up on Mapquest.com, you’ll see a series of icons. Click on the one for “travel services” and it will give you a menu that includes “Gas stations.” Click on that, and it pulls up a list of stations with prices.
Local retailer Cumberland Farms also recently introduced a new payment program called SmartPay Check-Link that the company says saves drivers 10 cents on every gallon of gas, every day. You have a choice of downloading the SmartPay app or picking up a plastic SmartPay card at a Cumberland Farms/Gulf location after registering for the program on the company’s website and syncing it up with your checking account. Each time you fill up your tank, the payment is automatically withdrawn from your bank account.
I feel like every January, most personal finance columns encourage us to kick off the New Year with a fresh set of financial resolutions that involve finding ways to streamline our budget and save more. At the top of almost every list: give up that daily Starbucks latte.
I’m kind of tired of hearing that same tip, and feel that if at this point people haven’t gotten the message then writing it one more time isn’t going to persuade them to change their habits.
So let’s assume that we all know it’s not the smartest move to spend several dollars on that higher-priced cup of Joe every day when you can brew a less expensive version at home and put it in a go cup. This year, what else can we do to get our financial house in shape?
Bob Stammers, who heads up investor education for CFA (Chartered Financial Analysts) Institute, offered a few other ideas that I found pretty helpful:
Last year, my New Year’s Resolution was to go paperless. I succeeded, but not in the way that I expected.
I began the year trying several new online applications that aimed to help me organize tasks ranging from setting up a snapshot of all my bills and reminders to pay them, to creating a family system that would allow my kids to track their allowances and chores.
As I often discover (and re-discover) when I embark on an effort to create new habits, starting simple is best. As such, I found that a lot of these applications fell by the wayside, probably because I tried to integrate too many of them into my busy routine at once. Collectively they were too new, and therefore too difficult to master, in an efficient amount of time.
I ended up laying the foundation for my paperless life – and eliminating literally bags upon bags of clutter - with three simple steps:
1. Assign one email address as my contact for reminders from banks and bill companies, and then sign up for paperless statements.
2. Create a filing system on my computer to organize all documents, back it up twice with an external hard drive and a cloud-based storage system, and set quarterly reminders on my calendar to download statements.
3. Buy a desktop scanner that’s also portable for when I travel. As silly as this may sound, having the big all-in-one printer/scanner/fax machine that sits at the opposite end of the room was simply too much effort when I could more easily throw a piece of paper into the scanner to file online while talking on the phone or finishing an email.
2013 is going to be another good year for borrowers, and a lousy year for savers, as interest rates remain low amidst a slow-growth economy, Bankrate Senior Financial Analyst Greg McBride said in an interview.
McBride forecasts that the U.S. economy will expand by about 2 percent this year, tempered by an unemployment rate that will decline very slowly and gains in wages that will be “nothing to write home about.”
Those consumers looking to purchase or improve their homes or upgrade the cars will have a window of opportunity as borrowing costs remain low. Auto loans, for one, are at record lows and are still falling, making 2013 a favorable year from a financial standpoint for anyone looking to buy either a new or used car, McBride said
I have to admit, I found this infographic from creditsesame.com cute, festive, and relevant to the holiday shopping season ... A nice way of reminding all of us to watch our credit even as we spend it ...
My work and personal email inboxes are chock full of online ads, promoting next week’s so-called “Black Friday” retail doorbusters to kick off the holiday shopping season.
Seems as if retailers in the Greater Boston area need to do a little more homework, though, if they want to capture this market. According to the results of the survey that I posted last week, more than 70 percent of Boston.com readers plan to wait to do most of their holiday shopping until early December, when there aren’t many crowds in the stores. I have to agree with my readers. Who wants to deal with Black Friday when you can wait a few days and have some time to think and space to breathe in the stores?
Several companies that have contacted me, claiming to have done “studies” that forecast an increase in holiday shopping spending, also don’t seem to have a good pulse on what Boston-area residents plan to do. Sixty-four percent of readers who answered my survey said their budgets are going to stay the same this year. Another 25 percent said they’re reducing it. Only 11 percent will increase their budget.
Excel spreadsheets are once again becoming my best friend.
As I begin preparing my annual Christmas shopping list, instead of my usual paper system tacked onto my bulletin board or stuffed in my wallet, I have decided to lay out my list of people, and purchases, in a few simple columns so that I can easily find and track all of the information.
At the end of last year’s holiday season, I realized that my budget should not only include those items I buy for gifts, but all the other items I end up purchasing because it’s the one time of the year that I actually take time out to shop. It’s the extra things that end up blowing my budget and bloating my credit-card bill come January.
It also helps me reinforce the fairness factor among my kids. We always try to make sure that we split our immediate family budget pretty evenly among them, but having a formula that automatically tallies up the amounts for me as I input each one makes it a lot easier to make sure that I am keeping my word.