painting homeSome people enjoy painting, while other people despise this task. My thoughts exist somewhere in between. For simple projects - such as painting a single room - I actually enjoy getting down to business. However, if the job is labor- and time-intensive, I often call in a professional.

Over the past few years, I have learned quite a bit about the "professional painting industry." One thing is certain: most painters or painting companies are either a pleasure to work with, or a complete disaster. For the money you pay, you should expect the job to be done right. But before your crew ever gets their brushes wet, you need to be aware of common scams and problems you can encounter to ensure that you avoid troubles and hire a crew that will be easy to work with and provide a quality job.

Common Scams to Be Aware Of

Just as with all industries, there are people who are out to scam you. There are many painters who can do the job right - but some of them will want to do a good job while taking as much money as possible. Furthermore, there are painters who may take advantage of naive customers and perform a sub-par job.

1. Prep Work Fees
As I received quotes for an exterior paint job last summer, I quickly found that there was a lot of prep work involved. For example, there were holes that needed patching and some bad wood that needed to be replaced.

After talking to four companies, only one charged for prep work. And not only did he want to charge for prep, the cost was outrageous. While this may not have technically been a scam, it is safe to say that he was charging for something that others were doing for free.

2. Not Applying Two Coats
If you don't know anything about painting, this may be one area in which you get scammed. There are times when a wall or other type surface needs two coats. If you feel this is necessary, there is nothing wrong with requesting or agreeing to two coats of paint.

Of course, there are situations in which applying two coats is overkill. For example, if you are having your walls painted the same color (or a similar, darker shade) as the existing paint, you probably don't need two coats.

In some cases, painters will charge you for two coats so that they can double the cost of labor. To make things even worse, you could be charged for two coats and only have one applied. If your job doesn't need the additional coat, you may never know that you've been scammed.

3. Refusing to Sign a Contract
When you hire somebody to do work on your house or property, you need a contract, no questions asked. For whatever reason, some people just don't believe this. Instead, they think that a handshake is good enough.

Fortunately, for me, the last time I hired a painter, the contract came in handy. In the contract were explicit details on what was and was not to be painted. However, one of the workers neglected to heed the contract and painted an area (the backdoor) that was not to be touched. Soon enough, I realized that this had been done and questioned the crew. The response was not what I wanted to hear: "Sorry, we made a mistake. It will only cost you about $30 for us to fix it."

Despite knowing it was their mistake, they didn't want to pay to fix it. Fortunately, the contract settled the dispute easily enough.

Final Thoughts

If you don't like painting, you may have to hire a professional at some point. This can be an positive experience if you get the right person on the job. However, hastily hiring the wrong person for the job may cause you a major headache. Be sure to stipulate your needs in the contract, and be sure you are not over-paying, nor paying for services you do not need.

What additional scams do you suggest to look out for? Have you ever had a negative experience hiring a painter?

The average college student graduates with more than $20,000 in student loan debt, and hopefully, your reliance was less than this. However, regardless of your level of student loan debt, you will want to do whatever you can to pay off these debts as quickly as possible.

The strain that student loans put on your daily finances is significant, and once you eliminate this debt, you can focus on other important aspects of your financial future, such as your retirement fund and your kids' college fund. If you implement a few common sense strategies and are willing to be diligent, you can get these loans paid off in a short period of time and begin to live a more financially fulfilling life.

Here are six tips to help you expedite the elimination of your student loan debt:

1. Avoid Payment Deferrals
If you have private student loans, this is not an option. However, for your federal loans, never apply for deferment or forbearance. You'll simply be prolonging the inevitable.

Of course, if you have yet to find work and you have no other option, then you can take advantage of deferment; however, far too many people abuse this course of action. If you've got the means to pay the money back, then do so.

2. Research Job Salaries
Do not let an uncertain job market force you into accepting less for a job that you know pays more. Research salaries online for the industry and career you're interested in, and use this information when it comes time to negotiate your salary. Having as much capital as possible on hand is always a good way to quickly pay down student loan debt.

3. Consolidate Your Loans
You may be able to save by consolidating your private or federal loans. Research the interest rates on your private student loans, and visit your bank to see if they can save you money. For federal loans, the interest rate will be a weighted average of the current interest rates on the loans you have, capped at 8.25%. There are online calculators available to estimate what your new interest rate might be.

4. Don't Extend Repayment Terms
If you do consolidate, do not extend the terms of repayment. This will negate any up-front savings you receive, and you'll end up paying more over the life of the loan.

5. Live Frugally
The thought of carrying a student loan balance for 10 or 15 years after your graduate makes no sense. In order to make more than the minimum monthly payment, you'll have to tighten your belt financially. To do this, postpone any major purchases in your life until these debts are gone. Furthermore, save on smaller purchases too: Clip coupons to save on grocery shopping, and review your monthly bills to see if switching to another provider will save you money on your cell phone, Internet, or your cable or satellite TV package.

6. Set Goals
Once you've got the extra money to spend, plan a time-frame for when you expect to have your debts paid off. Review this budget occasionally to make sure you're still on track. You can also apply any "bonus" money you earn or receive throughout the year to your debts, whether work-related commission, cash gifts, rebates, or any other unexpected funds.

Final Thoughts

Though paying off your student loan debt should be your priority, do not completely put off saving for retirement or investing for your children's education. If the interest rate on one of your student loans is 4%, but you can invest in a Roth IRA that yields a 7% return on your investment, you can see why you can still do both.

Put together a modest retirement portfolio, and once your debts are paid off, you can then begin to contribute more. As long as you remain steadfast and have a plan in place, there's no reason why you can't quickly pay off your student loan debts.

What plans do you have for paying back your student loans?

car financing deal coupleAre you shopping for a car? Whether you are buying a new or used car, there is a good chance that you will be financing the purchase.

Of course, if you can afford to comfortably pay with cash you should consider doing so. But if you don't have the luxury of buying a car with cash, be wary of what the dealer tells you when it comes to financing your purchase.

Car dealers are in the business of making money. This holds true not only for the price of the car, but also for the financing.

Car Financing Tips

Here are several little-known car financing tips that may help you secure a better deal:

1. You do not have to use the bank that the dealer suggests.
Many people walk into a dealership, choose a car, and let the finance department provide the loan. While this appears to make the process easier on the buyer, in the long run you never know for sure if you are getting the best deal. Dealers often have deals with specific banks, which is why they try to push you in a certain direction.

Before you head to the dealer, search for your own financing. For example, speak with the institution that you currently bank with about their auto financing options, compare loan rates online or visit a local credit union. By asking around, you can ensure that you are getting the best financing plan, with the lowest rates.

2. You do not have to use the manufacturer’s lending division.
Many people believe they are required to finance their car at the dealership. Unfortunately, some shady car salesmen and financing “professionals” tell customers that this is a requirement for financing the car.

For example, several years ago I purchased a Honda Accord. Even though the finance department representative said I could use my own lender, he strongly suggested that I go through Honda Financial Services. After comparing my options I found that Honda offered a loan with a 7% interest rate while my local bank offered the same loan at 5%. The decision to go with my local bank was easy.

If a dealer tells you that you are required to use the manufacturer’s bank to finance your car, he or she is lying. It is time to move on to a more honest seller.

3. You can negotiate the rate.
Did you know that car dealers have the ability to “mark up” the interest rate that you are charged on your loan? The difference between the rate offered by the lender and the rate you agree to, if higher, is given back to the dealer.

While this is a way for the dealer to make money on unsuspecting consumers, it is also a way for you to save money. You just spent a lot of time negotiating the price of your car. You might as well continue the negotiating at the financing table. Even if you shave only one percentage point off your loan, negotiating will save you hundreds of dollars (or more) over the life of the loan.

4. Who said you need a down payment? When buying a home, you almost always need a down payment. This is especially true in today’s day and age. Fortunately, the same does not hold true when buying a car. If you don’t have money for a down payment, you can still buy a car. Although this will mean a higher monthly payment, you still have the ability to make a purchase.

Note: Some lenders do require a down payment. If you don’t have the money, shop around until you find a lender that will give you a loan with nothing down, but be sure that you will have no problem making the necessary payments.

5. You don't have to buy, or finance, an extended warranty.
Financing an extended warranty isn't financially responsible, since you will pay interest in addition to the cost of the warranty. However, it can be a good way to get extra coverage without having to spend a lot of upfront money. Make sure that you know the total cost for the extended warranty, plus interest charges, before you purchase this optional coverage. In addition, verify what coverages are included with the manufacturer's warranty before purchasing an extended warranty from a dealership.

When I bought my last car I also purchased an extended warranty. The dealer offered this at a total cost of $1k. I had two options: pay it all upfront or lump it in with my loan. I decided on the latter. Yes, this means that my payment went up by roughly $15/month, but it was better than paying in full at the time of purchase or not having the coverage at all.

Final Word

It is easy to get duped when financing a vehicle purchase. After all, you are excited about the car you are buying and you just put a lot of time into negotiating the price. Although you may think the negotiating has ended by the time you reach the financing department, make sure you follow the five tips above to get the best deal on your car.

These tips can help you secure better financing for your vehicle. Do you have additional tips to share? Tell us how your favorite negotiating tactics worked for you when you purchased your last car.

financial checklistHave you ever created a year-end financial checklist? If not, you are missing the boat! This is something that can improve your financial situation at the present time, while also making life easier in the year to come.

Of course, there are many reasons and excuses for not working on a year-end financial checklist: you don’t have enough time; you don’t have the right information; you don’t know where to start. While you could once again rely on these excuses to bail you out, why not take the initiative this December, and create a year-end checklist that will help better your situation for many months to come?

Here are five things to include on your checklist.

1. An overview of your savings, as well as the progress you have made during the past year
In short, determine how much money you have in the bank at the present time, as well as how much you've saved throughout the year. For example, you may find that you had $10k in savings in January 2010. Now, you have $20k. This means that you saved $10k over a 12 month period. Are you happy with this? Will you be able to do it again next year? Do you want to save more money in 2011?

2. Tax information
It is never too soon to begin preparing for tax season. Even though your return is not due until April 15th, it makes good sense to include the proper information on your year end checklist. This should include how much you paid in taxes, an estimate of the amount still due or the amount of a refund, and any information on deductions and credits. You may not want to believe it, but taxes greatly affect your overall financial situation. It is important that you always know where you stand with the IRS, as well as where you stand with your state and local tax agencies, too.

3. Review your insurance policies
Most importantly, take a close look at your health and life insurance. While doing so, consider how much you pay each month, whether or not you are happy with the coverage, and if any changes are in store for the year to come. Some insurance policies (health insurance) are paid for and used time and time again. Others, such as life insurance, are not for regular use. Instead, you continue to purchase this coverage to protect your family should the unfortunate occur.

4. Did you reach your financial goals for 2010?
As you look back on the year, you will probably find that you reached or exceeded many of your goals. At the same time, you may find that you came up short on quite a few. Even if you failed to reach any of your goals, it is essential that you assess your situation to ensure that this does not happen in 2011. You can learn a lot about your finances by reviewing your goals, and considering your successes and failures.

5. Debt, debt, and more debt
If you are like the average American, you have some sort of debt weighing you down. This can include everything from a mortgage to a car loan to a credit card. How you deal with this debt will have a big impact on your financial future, just as it played a major part in your financial past. It is important to list out all your debt at the end of the year so that you can devise a plan on how to attack it down the line.

Final Word
This statement is echoed by tens of thousands of people every year: "I never have time to make a financial checklist because I am so busy at the end of the year!"

Many years ago, I was one of these people. I never had time, and I continued to let December come and go without looking back at the past year or planning for the future. But guess what? Once I got in the flow of creating a year end checklist, I realized just how much better my financial situation had become.

It only takes a few hours to review the five points listed above, (as well as any others that you find to be important) and dig up all the necessary information. When complete, you will feel much better about your finances as you head into the New Year.

Now that you know what to include on your year-end financial checklist, the last thing left is to get started!

(photo credit: Juggling Frogs)

are cash back sites worth it?When I first stumbled across cashback sites, I loved the idea of being able to earn “cash back” on things that I was going to buy anyway. Along with the best online paid survey sites, I saw them as a good opportunity to make a bit more extra cash on the side in my free time.

Things had been going great with these sites until the proverbial "bubble" burst with these sites. Some of the cashback sites that I’d been using started to experience payment issues and some went under altogether. At that point, I decided I needed to reevaluate whether it was worth the time and effort that these sites required.

How It Works

If you’re not familiar with cashback sites, here’s a brief guide to how they work. When you want to earn cash back on online purchases, first go to the cashback site, and then click through to the retailer at which you want to shop. Then, you just go about your shopping as usual. Sounds too simple, right? The reason you get cash back is because these cashback sites are given a percentage of your spending by the retailer. To entice you to shop through them, these cashback sites in turn give you a portion of what they gained on your purchases.

You don’t get your cash back straight away though. Generally speaking, you can expect to wait several months before your cash back status moves from “pending” to “validated” or “awarded” and is then eligible for redemption. Most cash back sites use PayPal or bank transfers as payment methods, but there may also be an option to redeem your payments in the form of Amazon vouchers. Keep in mind that not all popular retailers are on cash back sites though. For example, you’ll rarely find Amazon there.

Who to Trust?

If you’re thinking about signing up for cashback websites to get a little extra back while you’re shopping online, you’re probably also wondering which are the best options. My favorite site is eBates. They pay by check or Paypal (and other payment methods in some cases) every three months as long as you've earned over $5.01. They have a great reputation and I'd much rather use them than most other cashback websites for this reason.

Another one that I like is Treasure Trooper. Treasure Trooper will often have retailers not offered on eBates. And while Treasure Troopers offers PayPal and check as payment options, it has a higher $20 threshold. Their turnaround time on payments is pretty dependable.

Is It Worth The Time and Effort?

If you’re using cashback sites purely for getting a bit of money back on your online purchases, it’s simple enough. Going to the cashback site and clicking through to your chosen retailer doesn’t take long, and assuming that you were going to make this purchase anyway, you’re not losing anything if the cash back doesn’t track or the retailer doesn’t pay up. There’s no guarantee that the cash back will materialize, so don’t dramatically change your shopping habits just to get a some cash back. The best way to use cashback sites is to just shop as you normally would and treat the cash back as a nice added bonus. That would be my best piece of advice.

One other quick thing about another feature of cashback sites. Some of these sites offer “daily clicks” which pay you a small amount (often just a couple of cents per click) for click-throughs to retailers on comparison websites. This seems to be more popular in the UK than the US, but you can sometimes find “Cash Clicks” on sites like Treasure Trooper. This isn’t something that I’ve used too much, but friends who have tried this strategy frequently complain that retailers don’t pay up on time (or at all) in comparison to the more traditional cash back route on purchases discussed in the rest of this post. Based on that, the "click strategy" is something that I’d be more wary of doing because of the lack of dependability and the extremely small payouts.

Do you use cashback websites? Which ones do you recommend or advise against?

(photo credit: GenBug)

When I talk about my savings, I’m rarely referring to just the one account. Currently, I have three: my on-going emergency fund (which may also act as an additional retirement fund in the future); an “overflow” account that contains enough money to pay for my regular outgoings if I have a bad month on the self-employment front, and an account to cover what I call “semi-regular expenses” that come around once or twice a year. Having asked around to various people that I’m acquainted with, it seems that I’m not alone with my split savings approach. It can be confusing sometimes to keep track of multiple savings accounts, but I’ve developed five great techniques to keep my savings accounts as simple and straightforward as possible:

1. Deciding How to Split Your Money

It can be tricky to know how much you should be allocating to each individual "pot" without feeling that one pot is being favored over the others. Some of the ideas that you can use to help you with your decision include:

  • Prioritize your accounts. If there is an account that is especially important to you, it makes sense to give this account the priority. In my case, it's the emergency fund. The "overflow" and "semi-regular expenses" savings accounts are nice to have for extra piece of mind, but they're not as essential to my survival as the emergency fund. If you're saving for material purchases in one fund and financial security in the other, it should be pretty clear which fund is higher priority.
  • Allocate goals. Another option is to use savings goals to prioritize an account. You should already have some targets for each of your funds, and it might be a good idea to feed the "pot" that is furthest away from the goal. Alternatively, you can choose to boost an account that is close to the goal for the satisfaction of being able to tick that one off the list. Whatever you choose, you need to stick with your goals until you've obtained the mark you set.
  • Still stuck? If you're still unsure how to split your money, choosing the account with the highest interest rate is a good way to go because you know you'll get the best return in comparison to the other accounts.
2. Keeping Track of Your Money

However you decide to allocate your savings between savings “pots,” you need to keep track of things. Not too long ago, I had all three of my savings “pots” with the same financial institution as my checking account, and I loved the luxury of being able to log into my online banking and easily check all of my balances or move money around. However, at the moment, my savings “pots” are in various financial institutions in an effort to maximize interest. I have to admit that I’m finding it quite challenging to keep track of my savings as a result.

With that in mind, there are some tactics that can help you out:

3. Spreadsheets

Whenever I make a transfer into one of my savings accounts, I enter the details into a spreadsheet so that I can quickly see how much progress I’m making. This has been very handy for my accounts where online banking doesn't exist or when the online banking site is down. My spreadsheets aren’t very complicated and generally list the account in question, how much I transferred, the date of the transaction, and if applicable, how much more I need to save to meet my savings goal. It's nothing ground-breaking but it helps me to get a good overview of where I’m at financially, especially since my savings accounts are not in the same place anymore.


If you’re not already familiar with, you’re missing out on a great way to juggle multiple savings accounts. The best feature is that you can see everything in one place. You can also set a target for each savings goal and Mint will track your progress to let you know how far along you are. As long as your accounts have online banking attached to them, you should be able to link them to your Mint account without much effort at all.

5. iPhone Apps

While I don’t have an iPhone, there are various iPhone apps that are intended to make your life a whole lot easier when you’re juggling multiple savings account. If you’ve got a account, you can download an iPhone app that gives a convenient overview of your linked accounts so you don’t even need to be near a computer. SplashMoney and PocketMoney serve similar purposes for those who don’t have a Mint account. Seeing as I don’t have first-hand experience with using these apps, it’d be great to get some reader thoughts on the best ones out there.

What are your tips for handling multiple savings accounts?

Auction sites like eBay can be a great way to make some extra income by selling your unwanted belongings. You can go down the road of just slapping up a basic listing and hoping for the best, but personal experience has taught me that being proactive can pay dividends when it comes to improving your success rate.

When to Sell

Before you even start putting together a listing, think about whether it’s the right time to put your items up for sale. Sometimes, the best time to sell items will be a no-brainer -- after all, who will be looking for patio sets in November? Even if an item isn’t tied to a specific time of year, there can still be benefits to not just slapping up a listing as soon as you decide to sell (more on this in the next section).

When To Start and End an Auction

Timing can make all the difference for clinching an eBay sale. For example, there’s no point planning to end an auction in the middle of the night when hardly anyone will be around to place bids. In my early days on eBay, my enthusiasm to get the auction started as soon as possible cost me sales when I found myself in direct competition with auctions that were going to end at much more civilized times of the day (whereas mine were scheduled to end in the middle of the night). My items were often in the same condition and similarly priced but weren't selling as well, so I knew it was timing that was to blame. A friend who is a long-time eBay seller advised that things can get hectic in the last hour of an auction, which is to your advantage, but not if everyone is asleep!

If I come across similar listings that have some big advantage of mine (for example, they’re going for a ridiculously low price or they’re brand new), I’ll often plan my listing to start when the their auctions have finished so that we’re not in competition at all.  That way, anyone searching for that item is more likely to bid on mine and there is the added possibility of drawing in bidders who didn’t come out on top during the previous auction.

Setting a Price

Contrary to what you might expect, I’ve had some good success when starting with a low price. The advantage to a lower price is that it attracts more bidders at the beginning who, if the auction is timed right, will bid against each other in the last hours and you'll leave with a legitimate price.

If you want to have control over the price, a fixed price auction is your best bet. If you’re open to negotiation but don’t want to give the buyer too much say, a Best Offer auction can work well too. For a regular auction that still gives you some control over the price, you can set a reserve price to make sure that you don’t sell to anyone who doesn’t meet this.

You can forgo the auction aspect of eBay altogether with the Buy It Now option. Buyers taking advantage of this option can buy your item straight away without having to wait for the auction to end. It’s worth setting a Buy It Now price if you’ve got a definite price in mind or you’re happy to sell at a lower price (perhaps lower than competitors) if it means that you can sell the item quickly. However, it’s probably not the best option if you’re hoping for a bidding war to pump up the price. You can choose between having the Buy It Now price alongside a normal auction or just having the Buy It Now price with no option for bids. Personally, I’ve never had anyone buy through the Buy It Now option in either scenario.

Getting Your Listings to the Top of eBay

Getting your listing higher up in the Best Match results increases the chances that it will be seen by the right people. There’s no foolproof way to do this but you can help your cause by having a good track record as a seller, pricing your items competitively, creating accurate and descriptive titles, and listings with good photos.

Uploading Photographs

It’s not impossible to sell items without uploading photographs but you can increase your chances to sell by doing so. It’s not surprising that prospective buyers will want to see what they’re getting before they put in a bid given that they can’t handle an item like they could in a shop. While it’s no definitive gauge on condition and appearance, you can at least partially put their minds at rest that it’s not a sub-standard offering. I try to take photos from as many angles as possible, especially if I’m hoping to fetch a decent price for it.

What are your tips for becoming a successful eBay seller? Do you have any other tips that you'd like to share with us?