Archive for the ‘Finances’ Category

Did I Just Get Hit by Robin Hood?

23 Feb

I’ve never had reason to consider IdentityHawk or other identity theft protection services.  But recently my credit card information was stolen and used – despite the fact that the actual card never left my possession.  I didn’t have any idea anything had happened until I got a call from the Fraud Department.

They wanted to know if I had recently had a pizza party.

And donated to the SPCA.

In England.

Um.  No.

While I appreciate the apparent philanthropic generosity and low-level theft of the perpetrator, that didn’t stop me from filling out the fraud investigation report the moment it arrived in my mailbox.

It’s a good thing my credit card company keeps a better eye on my expenditures than I do.

 
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The First of Probably Several Posts In Which I Rant About Hating Everybody

11 Mar

Politics drives me crazy.  Most of the time, I find myself wanting to slap some sense into both sides of the political spectrum.  Take the current National Debt Crisis, for example.

Our country has been living a lie.  The government has been living far beyond its means, and has now maxed out its credit cards.  The day of reckoning is upon us and it’s time to figure out what to do about it.

Now, I’m no financial guru.  But I do happen to know a little bit about what to do when you’re in a financial crisis.

The answer seems simple.  How do you get out of a debt problem?  Cut expenditures and raise income.  But can anyone  come to this conclusion?  OF COURSE NOT.  Because this is politics.

Let’s talk about Health Care.  Personally, I think socialized health care would be a great idea, and something my family would benefit from tremendously.  Last year we paid about $4,300 and change for health insurance (see, we’re some of the LUCKY ones who have our health insurance subsidized by Jens’ employer).  Over the course of the year, United Health Care paid about the same amount on our behalf to various doctors and hospitals, and then left us holding the bag for about $$9,000+ of additional charges (actually, I’m probably understating that amount).

A few weeks ago, I slipped on the ice and fell down the stairs, injuring my hand.  At one point, I was pretty sure that it was broken.  But I didn’t go to the doctor.  Going to the doctor would have meant being sent to the hospital for x-rays, which cost about $1,200, in addition to the doctor’s visit that I would have had to pay in full because, as of December 2010, my doctor no longer accepts United Health Care.  I would have been responsible for that $1200 also, because  the hospital is in the process of filing a class-action lawsuit against United Health Care for denying valid claims – so they’re not submitting any more claims for a while.

Under a socialized health care system, my family and I could go to the doctor whenever we needed to without worrying about the debacle that is INSURANCE, and … well that seems like a pretty good situation to me.

HOWEVER.  While I think socialized health care is a great idea, you won’t see me pushing for it because FRANKLY, THIS COUNTRY CAN NOT AFFORD IT.  We can’t afford to pay our own bills, so it would be ludicrous to try to implement something that massive when there is no money to support it.

But that isn’t the way our politicians think.

Democrats, LISTEN UP.  You have been SPOILED and MISLED.  You think a government owes its people certain privileges, which may be true, when the government can afford to grant those privileges. Ours can not.  I’ve been hearing a lot of static lately about the budget cuts proposed by the Republicans, and a lot of whining about things like NPR, poetry festivals, Family planning, and a lot of other programs that truly, a government has no business paying for when it has no money.

I’m not saying these programs aren’t worthwhile.  But they are not a necessary piece of government budgeting and need to have the financial responsibility shifted to the public.

People, we are going to have to CUT STUFF.  It’s hard.  I get that.  Nobody wants to deal with having LESS MONEY around.  But it’s a necessity unless you want to drive this country into the ground.

I’m going to continue this a bit later because I have to go pick up my kids.

But REPUBLICANS.  You’re next.  I’m tired of watching a party masquerade under the guise of fiscal responsibility, yet continue to push insane and egregious agendas that drown “responsibility” in the mud and then step on it for good measure.

 

Uphill Battle

14 Feb

Thank you to TurboTax for sponsoring my writing about household finances. Learn more about how TurboTax can help you find every tax deduction you deserve. I was selected for this sponsorship by the Clever Girls Collective, which endorses Blog With Integrity, as I do.

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2010 was a tough year on us financially.  Even though we did it the cheapest way possible, moving to Alaska was expensive.  We had two months where we were paying our mortgage payment in Texas and our rent payment in Alaska with no rental income to cover it.  This was not part of our original plan when we decided we could afford this move.

Also, living in Alaska is expensive.  Especially when you can’t seem to stay out of the ER.  When I had Kaelin, ER visits with insurance were $75.  Now they’re $200, and that doesn’t include medication, physical therapy, and additional work they might have to do on, say, a shattered elbow.

There’s also the little matter that our insurance company (United Health Care) has a reputation for refusing to pay claims that are owed… which is exactly what they did to us.  Consequently, our hospital has filed a class action suit against them, which means that we will probably get our claims paid eventually, but that in the meantime they aren’t submitting any new ones and all the bills come to us in full.

In November, I took a hard look at our finances, something I had not done in several years.

Let me just say that I do not recommend “Negligence” as a financial management strategy.

Bills were getting paid, so at least we didn’t have any creditors breathing down our necks, but savings was nonexistent and credit card debt was horrendous.  I shocked to discover that the financial “portfolio” (a term I use loosely) I had in my head was just a myth.

At first I freaked out.  Then I went through each the Five Stages of Grief (no kidding).  Eventually, I emerged with a determination to get things under control.  While money is tight right now, we at least have a current financial plan, are able to pay what needs to be paid, and are making progress toward being debt free once again.

Here are some steps we have taken:

  1. Reduce spending. There’s not a whole lot to say about this, other than we’re more intentional about the things we spend money on.  For instance, we rarely eat out anymore, and when we do, it’s often McDonalds instead of the nice seafood restaurant.
  2. Increase income. Jens has been taking on additional work projects and working a lot of hours to help meet our needs.  When we move back to Texas, I will likely be re-entering the world of employment as well.
  3. Pay bills with real money. We weren’t really aware (or had somehow lost track of the fact) that we had several bills being charged automatically to credit cards instead of to our bank account.  This created a false sense of wealth because the money that should have been used to pay those bills sat in the bank account (and of course, got spent on other things) instead of being applied to the credit cards.  The debt kept accumulating because the payments we were making to the credit cards did not cover the bills being charged each month.
  4. Compartmentalize income. As I’ve mentioned before, this is a trick we have always done, stemming back from when we got married and each had several bank accounts.  It’s like a modern day version of the Envelope Budgeting system.  We have different bank accounts for different types of expenses (mortgage/rent, bills, food/gas), so it’s much easier to keep from exceeding your budget because when the money’s gone, it’s gone.  You have to actually make an effort to transfer additional money in from another source.
  5. Remove the option to use credit cards. We each used to have several credit cards in our wallets.  Oddly, those cards tended to get used on many occasions, with the idea that we would pay off the balance after the next paycheck.  HA.  Now, they’re all in my desk drawer, except one card for emergencies.
  6. Switch banks. With our multiple bank accounts, we were spending about $24/month just on bank fees with Bank of America.  We have switched to Capital One, where all accounts are free, do not require direct deposit, and have no minimum balance requirements.  In addition, some of our bank accounts earn “rewards” – I just got a $50 gift certificate to Amazon.com from “rewards” we have earned.
  7. Pay Attention. I used to wander through the aisles of the grocery store and just put whatever I needed (or, in many cases, just wanted) into my cart.  When I got to the checkout lane, I had no idea what the total of my groceries would be.  This created some anxiety because I wasn’t always sure if the balance in my bank account would cover the grocery bill, so I often opted to just use a credit card to avoid any embarrassment.  Now, I bring my calculator.  I may look like a dork punching buttons as I go along, but I know exactly how much I’m planning to spend and it helps me make choices. I have been known to put back one item so I can afford two others.  It also keeps me mindful of comparison shopping.  I evaluate prices before throwing the brand name into my cart.  We actually spend hundreds of dollars less per month on food than we used to.
  8. Pay bills first. We use Online Bill Pay through the bank, and schedule all bills to be paid on the same day Jens’ paychecks are direct-deposited.  It’s easier to keep track of a bunch of bills that way, and then we know immediately what we have left as disposable income.
  9. Balance transfers. Ok, applying for another credit card when you’re head over heals in debt already is RARELY a good idea.  But in our case, it made sense.  We had a couple of cards with really high interest rates – well over 20%.  I applied for a Citibank Platinum Select card, which has a 0% interest rate on balance transfers for two years.  We transferred the high-interest balances on it and have set up payments so that we will have the entire card paid off before the interest rate kicks in.  In the meantime, we’re saving a lot of money on interest, that can be used to pay down the debt faster.
  10. Don’t buy stuff.

Well, there you have it.  Our tips and lessons learned the hard way on achieving financial comfort.  It sucks when you have to dig yourself out of a hole, but it sure does feel good to see those looming debt numbers drop.

Now, if we can just stay out of the Emergency Room…

 
 

How a Criminal Has a Better Chance of Opening a Bank Account in My Name Than I Do

23 Dec

At the beginning of this month, I embarked on a mission that would serve two purposes:

  1. Leave Bank of America
  2. Consolidate all our bank accounts under one bank

We have a lot of bank accounts.  More, I suppose than the average household.  See, when we got married, we each had a few accounts.  Rather than cancel half of them like I imagine most people do, we kept them all and assigned different purposes to each.  This eventually evolved into using an electronic version of the “envelope” budgeting system to manage our finances: a different account for each type of expense.

We have an account for food/gas expenses, with which we do all our grocery shopping, eating out and gas station purchases.  We have an account that the mortgage and rent payments are drawn from, an account for general household bills, accounts for each of the kids, and our own checking accounts for “play money.”  Throw in a few savings accounts (medical expenses, charity, rainy day, etc), a business account, and that account that we opened at Chase just so we could get a free $150, and you’re looking at quite a mess when it’s spread across several banks.

Thus the need to consolidate.

Also, I’m a bit fed up with Bank of America.  They charge fees for everything – $9.95 per month just so I can download my transactions into Quicken.  Plus $8.75 per month for each account that doesn’t have direct deposit (and since we’re only allowed to DD into 4 accounts, that’s a lot).  Plus, their idea of “interest” on an account is abysmal.

There are two choices for local banks here.  The first is an Alaskan credit union, and while I’ve had great experiences with the people in the branch (it’s currently where our food/gas account is held), it’s just not up to speed enough to meet my needs.  Plus, I’m trying to avoid having to do this all over again when we move back to Texas in a few months.

The second choice is Wells Fargo, which is basically another Bank of America.  Fees, fees fees, no interest, and lots of restrictions.

So I went on the Great Bank Hunt of 2010.  I thought I had found the answer to my needs with Ally – an online bank that offers free accounts with great (comparatively, at least) rates, free checks, no direct deposit requirements and will refund ATM fees.  They also charge a MAXIMUM of $9 per DAY in overdraft fees, which I appreciate because even though I try to keep a good handle on what’s going in and out, our “system” necessitates that account balances get very low from time to time.  Nothing irks me more than miscalculating and having to pay $35 in fees to cover that $3 Starbucks run.

However, I then discovered that Ally doesn’t download transactions directly into Quicken.

I know.  I’m hard to please.

So then I started looking at Capital One, where I’ve had an account for several years.  They too offer free accounts with no direct deposit requirements, no fees to download to Quicken, and if you open their “Direct Banking” accounts (online like Ally accounts) you can get some decent interest rates.

So I began by opening an online account.  I got it all set up and decided that this was the bank for me.  I then proceeded to open the rest of my accounts, and that’s when things got hairy.

In order to open an account online, many banks require you to answer some “security” questions to “verify your identity.”  First, let me say that this is the STUPIDEST thing in the world.  It’s supposed to discourage unscrupulous people from trying to open an account in your name, but guess where the multiple-choice answers to these security questions come from?

YOUR PUBLIC PROFILE.

So any thief with a few bucks on hand can purchase a copy and have all the answers right in front of him.

Second, the process assumes that your public profile is a) correct, and b) that you’re aware of all the information on it.  Both assumptions can be (and are often) false.  So a thief reading your public profile can suddenly become MORE qualified than you are to answer your own security questions.

…to be continued…

 

3 Things That Are Really Stupidly, Amazingly Difficult to Do When You Live in Small-Town Alaska:

16 Dec
  1. Switch banks.  Especially if you’re not interested in using either of the two banks that have branches in this state.
  2. Get fresh berries out of season.  I totally splurged and bought blueberries yesterday because the grocery store actually HAD SOME for the first time in months.  For $17/lb.
  3. Order Christmas gifts from places like Brookstone.  “Sorry, this item cannot be shipped to your location.  Because obviously you live on another planet.”

I am also currently frantically waiting for about 5 pieces of mail to arrive to me.  One is our Christmas cards so that hopefully I can get them addressed and sent out this week, though I am certain the majority of recipients will be receiving theirs well after Christmas this year, sorry.  The other things have to do with our banking, a project that I would really like to put behind me, but am at a complete standstill on until these things show up.

Every day, I think, “TODAY MUST BE THE DAY.”  Yet every day I sift through a useless pile of Christmas catalogs to find not a single piece of mail that I have been waiting for.

I hate waiting.  I am not good at waiting.  I do not enjoy waiting.  Waiting makes me a bit crazy in the head.  And I hate waiting.

 

Countdown

27 Oct

In approximately 48 hours, we will be in or driving to Anchorage with kids and luggage in tow to board one of three flights that will eventually land us in Dallas.

I have not begun to pack, nor have I finished the requisite laundry that would allow me to do said packing.

I haven’t cleaned the house, which is a) necessary for it to be in house-sittable condition, and b) a sort of personal goal so that we won’t return to an utterly depressing mess.

Tomorrow will be a busy day.

Our flight leaves at around midnight on Friday night and we get to our destination sometime Saturday evening.  The first thing I’m going to do when we get there is sleep.

Assuming my children are willing to do the same.  I’m not counting on that, because, well, they’re my kids.  They laugh in the face of sleep, especially when travel and airplanes are involved.

The second thing I’m going to do is go to a restaurant and possibly a large chain store.

The third thing I’m going to do is dress my kids up in their Halloween costumes and enjoy the Fall Festival, then make our way to the World Series game.  Does that count as one thing or two?

And finally, the last thing on the “List of Immediate Things of Utmost Importance to Do With Haste and Again With the Urgency”  – and believe me, the only reason this isn’t #1 is that we’re arriving on a weekend – is march into Capital One and close my bank account.  More on that later.

 

A Package of Pull-Ups

11 Oct

I have always looked upon the fraud prevention measures taken by bank and credit card companies with mild annoyance.  A necessary evil, I suppose, but in the past they have only caused me undue frustration.

Numerous times, my cards have been canceled without my knowledge, all because of charges I made myself.  I once shopped at the same store three times in one day.  Apparently that’s a no-no if you want to keep your card.  The next thing I knew, my card was being declined at the gas station and when I called to inquire, I was told that it had been canceled and I should have a new one within two weeks… which of course, doesn’t help me when I’m standing at the pump wondering why I can’t put gas into my car.

Another time, I had made a purchase online that the card company didn’t approve of.  I don’t remember what it was, but all of a sudden, my card was unusable.

If I’m lucky, I can call them before they go so far as to cancel the card, and then they’ll push the charges through and I get to keep the card.  But that doesn’t seem to be the case most of the time.

So I rolled my eyes today when the cashier at Safeway told me my card had been declined.  After checking with Jens for any obvious issues, I called Bank of America to ask why I was unable to purchase groceries.

The girl on the other end of the line asked me the routine security questions, and somehow I was able to answer most of them (“What’s your online ID?” “I don’t know, it’s stored in my browser”).

And then she rattled off a list of charges to my bank card that I didn’t recognize.  At all.

They were from all over the country and all in small amounts – $0.96 here, $10 there, $2.61 to Robert H Cash in West Virginia.

So I spent 10 minutes on the phone in Safeway sorting through the mess of charges, and was told that my card would have to be canceled but that I could go to a branch to get a new temporary card to use until the new card gets here in the mail.

Except that this is Small Town, Alaska, so of course there are no Bank of America branches.  Which means I’m card-less for the next 7-10 days.

Also, I was told that the bank would have to be on the phone with me when I went through the grocery line so the charge would go through.  Unfortunately, I had not allowed an extra 20 minutes in my schedule to mess with fraud, so I was out of time and had to leave to pick up Kaelin from dance class before I could go back through the checkout lane.

I left my shopping cart in one of the empty registers and told the cashier I would be back in a few minutes to check out again.

I arrived at Kaelin’s dance class to find that they were running late, so I probably could have stayed to check out after all, but suddenly remembered that we had to hurry home because Jens needed the car to get to his physical therapy appointment.

On the way home, I tried calling Safeway to let somebody know that my shopping cart would be sitting there for longer than a few minutes, and as luck would have it, the number listed was wrong.  So then I tried calling the floral department (only number I could find) but the woman on the other end of the line couldn’t hear me.

At this point, I was in awe over how much effort I was having to exert just to get a package of pull-ups to take to my son’s school.  I wondered aloud in the car why everything had to be so difficult today.

Kaelin, who was in the back seat, didn’t miss a beat.

“Mama, nothing’s difficult today.  Maybe it’s just difficult FOR YOU.”

 

A Delicate Balance

19 Apr

We’re shopping for a house right now. And discovering once again that this kind of thing is always more complicated than you think it’s going to be.
First there’s the mortgage, and the fact that the myriad of mortgage calculators available online are virtually useless because they never seem to match what the bank seems to think you can afford, nor can they estimate important stuff like property taxes which have quite the impact on your monthly payment.
And mortgage paperwork is insane. Two months records of this, three months of that, last year’s this, your most recent that, every piece of identification you have available. Sign here, here, and here. And here. And here. Oh and here, here, here, here, here, no just initial there and there, sign here, here and here.
The timing is also quite crucial. If your lease expires in June, you want to close on a house in June because that way you get to skip any housing payments in July and can therefore use the money for moving expenses, closing costs, etc. So if you start your search early and find a house you like, you end up waiting around until the proper time to make an offer, just so you can close at the right time. But if you don’t start searching early enough, you end up being unable to see all the options and possibilities available, and wonder if you’re purchasing a second choice instead of “the one that got away.”
Sigh.
One day things will be simple. They will.

 
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