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?

save money with homemade giftsEarlier in the year, I happened to look over my budget for last year and was shocked to see how much I’d spent on presents for birthdays and Christmas. Having made a big effort to tighten my belt in 2010, I knew that I just couldn’t justify spending the same amount again, but at the same time, I don’t want to look like a miser when I’m handing over the presents. My compromise has been to look into making my own gifts in the hope that the extra effort will save me some cash and still look like a great present. Here are some of the ideas that I'm putting into action in my quest to save a little bit more money:

Personalized Gift Sets

Gift sets of toiletries are often given to females based on the assumption that you can’t go wrong with bath stuff. I’ve been guilty of doing this myself on many occasions with no real thought for whether the recipient will actually use the contents. After an enlightening conversation with one particular friend, it dawned on me that I was effectively wasting my money by buying her gift sets when she was only ever going to use the shower gel (she’s not one for baths). With these gift sets not being particularly cheap unless you can get them when they’re on sale, I wanted to find a way to buy something that would be better received without breaking my meager gifts budget.

My solution has been to put together personalized gift sets of toiletries that I know the recipient will definitely use. Over the last six months or so, I’ve been taking advantage of in-store and online offers on toiletries like shower gels, bath foams, and body lotions, and putting them aside for gifts. The idea is that I’ll only buy items that I know will be used, and because I’ve spread the cost throughout the year, it’s a much more financially manageable way of doing things. Once I’ve got everything I want to include in the gift sets, I place the items in a large sheet of cellophane wrapping and scrunch the top together to create a gift package (sometimes with a pretty ribbon or bow to finish the look).

I recently got the chance to put this to the test with a friend’s birthday gift and she was thrilled that I’d taken the time to put together half a dozen items that she genuinely enjoys using. I was initially worried that she’d think that it looked cheap or tacky but this wasn’t the case at all.

Baking Yummy Treats

If you’re looking for a present for someone who’s got a sweet tooth, you could do worse than turn your hand to baking. Even if you’re not the best at this, you can still bake a batch of muffins or cookies and present them in a basket. Here are two great recipes:

Blueberry Muffins Recipe

This is the recipe that I followed for my trial attempt and it worked well, even for a less-than-expert cook!

You’ll need: 1 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour, 3/4 cup of white sugar, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, 2 teaspoons of baking powder, 1/3 cup of vegetable oil, 1 egg, 1/3 cup of milk, 1 cup of fresh blueberries, 1/2 cup of white sugar, 1/3 cup of all-purpose flour, 1/3 cup of butter (cubed) and 1 1/2 teaspoons of ground cinnamon.

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F/ 200 degrees C, and grease the required number of muffin cups (or use muffin liners).
  2. Add 1 1/2 cups of flour, 3/4 cup of white sugar, salt and baking powder, and mix together.
  3. Place vegetable oil in a measuring cup and add egg and milk. Add this to the above mixture and fold in the blueberries.
  4. Fill the muffin cups to the brim.
  5. Mix together 1/2 cup of white sugar, 1/3 cup of flour, 1/4 cup of butter ,and 1 1/2 teaspoons of cinnamon to make a crumb topping and sprinkle over muffins before you put them in the oven.
  6. Bake for around 20-25 minutes.
Extreme Chocolate Chip Cookies Recipe

This is the recipe that I followed:

You’ll need: 1 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour, 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder, 1/4 teaspoon of salt, 2 cups of semi-sweet chocolate chips, 6 tablespoons of butter (softened), 1 cup of white sugar, 1 1/2 teaspoons of vanilla extract, 2 eggs and 1/2 cup of confectioners’ sugar.
  1. Mix together flour, baking powder, and salt.
  2. Melt 1 cup of the chocolate chips over a low heat.
  3. Cream the butter and sugar.
  4. Add the melted chocolate chips and vanilla.
  5. Beat in eggs
  6. Add flour mixture and the remaining cup of chocolate chips.
  7. Wrap in plastic and freeze for around 20 minutes until the mixture becomes firm.
  8. Create small balls of around 1 inch and roll in the confectioners’ sugar.
  9. Place on an ungreased cookie sheet and bake for 10-12 minutes at 350 degrees F/ 175 degrees C.
  10. Leave to cool.
These are a few of my ideas that really help to save money when buying presents, but there are lots more ideas that you can use if you’re good at crafts. What are your tips for saving money with homemade gifts? Have you ever tried any of the ideas discussed here?

(photo credit: Sarz.K)

save on price of dogBefore I get started, let me say this: buying and caring for a dog is a big responsibility. Although there are ways to save money when purchasing a dog, I don’t want anybody to believe that they should be “bargain shopping.” It is fine to search for the best deal on vet care, food, and toys. But when it comes to buying an actual dog, you want to do your research to ensure that you get the right pet for your family at a price you are comfortable with. Also, this post is not to advise against adopting a dog from shelters; it is specifically written for those who have decided that they want to buy their pet.

Here are several tips to follow if you are thinking about buying a dog and are interested in saving as much money as possible on the purchase:

1. Negotiate. Who would negotiate on the price of a dog, you may ask? While this may sound silly on the surface, it is something that you should be doing no matter if you purchase at a pet store or a breeder. No matter the seller, they are going to have a price in mind. It is your job to “talk them down” if you are interested in saving money.

Unfortunately, there is no “going rate” for dogs. It is often times difficult to look at the market and make an accurate determination on what you should be paying. For this reason, all you can do is feel out the seller and work together to decide on a price that is mutually acceptable.

2. Shop around. This can be the most difficult way to save money because you are dealing with a pet, not an inanimate object. It is easy to become attached to one dog in particular, and you may therefore not want to visit another breeder or pet store for price comparison purposes. This is why you should attempt to gather as much information as you can before visiting any location. For instance, you could call several breeders on the phone for an idea of how much they are selling their puppies for. This way, you can first visit the breeders that are offering the best price. This doesn’t mean that you have to buy, but if price is on your mind it is a good starting point.

3. Breeders are almost always cheaper than pet stores. Early in the year, I spent several days with a friend who was searching for a Labrador Retriever puppy. In our part of the country, these dogs are very common. Not only are they sold in pet stores, but there are breeders from one side of the city to the next.

Soon enough, I realized a huge discrepancy in price when comparing breeders to pet stores. Most breeders were asking between $500 and $1k based on the lineage of the puppy. For example, those with championship bloodlines had a higher price. Pet stores, on the other hand, were asking anywhere from $1,800 and up. As you can imagine, he ended up purchasing through a reputable, local breeder. Not only did the breeder have more puppies to choose from, but the price was three times less than the closest pet store. This is party because pet stores have much higher overhead costs to account for than breeders.

Don’t buy a dog just because it is cheap. Instead, do your homework to determine which breed is right for you as well as your options for breeders and pet stores in your area. From there, you can use the advice above to save money.

Do you have any tips on saving money when buying a pet? Does the very idea of trying to save money bother you?

(photo credit: delta16v)

A couple of weeks ago, I caught up with some friends over pizza. Although we each had drinks and a decent-sized pizza, our total bill only came to $6. Short of throwing a few coins on the table and hot-footing it out of the door before security gave chase, you’re probably wondering how we got away with paying so little. The answer is very simple: we used vouchers to cover the bulk of the costs and only had to pay the difference. We do this every time we eat out now and very rarely pay full price on any meal.

Before I go any further, I should clarify that this post will be predominantly about informal restaurants (fast food type places, if you like) as these are the most likely to offer voucher deals. So, how do we get our hands on these cost-cutting vouchers? Finding the vouchers usually comes down to me, because I’m the one who tends to organize our get-togethers. The options that we tend to use the most are:

Check voucher/deal websites. My first port of call is usually specific "voucher" websites that collect together deals and present them in one place. These are some of my usual haunts:

If I don’t see anything using this strategy, I’ll move on to some other options.
Look for newsletters. You may be able to sign up for newsletters or emails that contain links to vouchers that can be downloaded, printed, and taken to the venue. These are pretty commonly offered. All you need to do is sign up for the restaurant's email list and they'll send you random discount vouchers as well as free birthday meals.
Trawl the net. Sometimes, it can just be a case of doing a Google search for the restaurant that we want to go to. Because we’re so keen to use vouchers to cut costs, we’ll make plans around the deals that are on offer. That said, there are a handful of places that we know are likely to be offering vouchers at some point in the near future, so I do periodic Google searches every couple of weeks to see what’s being offered and when the vouchers will expire. A simple search phrase like “[Restaurant name] voucher deals” or "[Restaurant name] discount" will often bring up something relevant and timely.

Survey rewards. One of my friends is a member of an invite-only survey panel and receives reward vouchers a few times a year as a thank you for her ongoing participation. Sometimes she can choose to redeem them for specific restaurants (usually big names with branches all over the country) or sometimes they can be used at a range of places (not just restaurants).

How I Do Things

We plan where to go according to what vouchers we can get. Because of this, we’re unlikely to go to the same place two months in a row unless they’re offering continuous deals to draw customers in over a longer period of time. More likely, it’ll be a different venue each month depending on which vouchers are available at the time. As well as eating in, some of the vouchers that I come across are for deliveries. If the voucher gives us a good deal, we’ll often go with that option and go to someone’s place rather than go to a restaurant as it makes more sense and it's a nice changeup from going out.

If you’re someone who likes to eat out a lot, you’ll probably struggle to cover all of your costs with vouchers. Those that come via email promotions are likely to be a one-time only download relating to the email address that you signed up with. That said, there's nothing to stop your friends from also downloading a voucher so you can all make use of the same deal as long as you use them on separate occasions (most vouchers specify that you can only use one per order).

Do you take advantage of vouchers and coupons when you eat out? Do you have any additional tips for saving money when going out for food? Your feedback is always welcome!

I've always been very careful to live within my means and not take on any significant amount of debt but around six months back, I learned the hard way that this isn’t always enough to keep you in the black. My beloved cat suddenly got very sick and I instinctively knew that I’d do whatever it took to help her. Everything seemed to happen all too quickly and she passed away a couple of weeks later, at which point I’d charged my emergency-only credit card for $1,500 on tests, treatment and medication for her various ailments.

For most people, the prospect of paying this off wouldn’t be a huge problem - you’d just work out how much you could take from your monthly paychecks and throw that at the debt, right? Unfortunately for me, I’m self-employed and don’t have a set income. Sure, I have a few clients who pay me regularly but generally speaking, I can’t say with any certainty how much I’ll earn month to month. Even worse, being self-employed means that it’s not always in your hands even if you’ve got a great idea of how much you’re going to be invoicing for. If a particular client is late paying up or doesn’t want to pay at all, it’s even more difficult to find available money to pay off debt. In that kind of situation, even paying your rent/mortgage bills and putting food on the table can be challenging enough.

Still, it’s by no means impossible to get out of debt when your income is all over the place. My debt isn’t yet fully paid off but I’ve cleared all but $150 of the original total by utilizing the following methods:

Budgeting. Once my regular expenses were accounted for, I intended to throw literally every ‘spare’ cent towards the credit card debt. In the short term, that would obviously mean no scope for luxuries and treats that aren’t strictly essential, but it’d be worth it to know that interest payments are reduced. Of the five months that I’ve been repaying the debt, the joys of being self-employed means that only two of these months have left me with surplus cash to actually follow through on this plan.

I have a separate account that I treat as being somewhere between checking and savings and which I use to take care of regular expenses if my income for that particular month doesn’t stretch far enough. For three of the five months, I’ve borrowed money from that account to use towards debt repayments. Obviously this isn’t an ideal situation but I prefer to do that than let interest build up and prolong the debt even further.

Second income.  In the early days of repaying the debt, I searched high and low for a part-time job that I could fit around my freelance work to secure a bit more money to throw at the debt. I found some work as a bartender and this worked well for a couple of months, until the onset of a recurrent family illness forced me back to working solely from home again. Even though it didn’t amount to all that much in comparison to my freelance work, the fact that it was regular and fixed was a huge help towards the debt repayment.

Other options

Using savings. If you can take money out of a savings account without incurring penalties, you can use this for debt repayment and pay yourself back once the debt is cleared. This would have been my top choice if I hadn’t tied up the bulk of my savings. Needless to say, I’m on the hunt for a savings account that offers easier access now that I’ve been burned with unexpected debt and know how easy it would be for a similar medical expense to crop up in the family.

What are your tips for paying down debt on an erratic income, particularly long-term debt?

I’ve spent the last few weeks trying to pin myself down to one cell phone provider after my previous contract came to an end. I’m not one for fancy cell phones so all I was really looking for was something with a reasonable amount of airtime that wouldn’t leave me out of pocket. Here are some of the things I had to think long and hard over before choosing which provider to go with:

How much airtime I'll really use. I don’t tend to spend a lot of time on my cell phone so I have no real need for a contract that offers 1000 minutes or unlimited texts. Several of my friends are tied into contracts of this nature and never manage to use up all of those minutes or texts, making me wonder exactly why they consider it good value for money! On the other hand, another friend repeatedly exceeds both the minutes and texts on her contract and gets hit with additional charges. On the face of it, none of them seem to be getting a good deal so I was keen to assess exactly how many minutes and texts I use on average and to choose a plan fits my needs. It’s common sense really but you’d be surprised how many people get sucked into a particular cell phone plan without thinking about how much it’ll actually benefit them.

Who I call most. If most of your calls are to people who live in your area, you might want to think twice about any long distance add-on that may be part of a contract. The same goes for an international add-on if you don’t tend to make calls to anyone outside of the US. As I rarely ever make international calls and the majority of my calls in general are to people who live near to me, I wasn’t in favor of having things like this bump up my monthly bill when I was barely ever going to use them.

What I chose in the end. After I compared a lot of contract plans, I ultimately rejected them all. I don’t spend much time at all talking on the cell phone and most of my communication with friends and extended family is through email and social networking sites. Because of that, I went with a pre-paid option, which I decided would give me more flexibility. I can buy a block of minutes that I know will correspond with what I’m actually going to use and there’s no leftover minutes down the drain. This kind of set-up probably wouldn’t suit those of you who use more airtime than me. For texts, it seemed as though they would be more expensive on the majority of pay-as-you-go plans so I’m sticking to instant messaging or social networking sites. Most of my friends (who are the people I’d usually send texts to) regularly check their Facebook through their cell phones so there’s a very good chance that they’ll read the message sooner rather than later even if it’s fairly urgent.

What to do if your contract doesn’t expire anytime soon. If you can’t get out of your current contract in the near future, it’s not a total disaster. Try calling your current provider and seeing whether they have any plans that better suit your situation. Also, don't forget to check out some of these other tips on getting the best deal on your cell phone plan.

Do you have any additional tips that I might have left out that people often gloss over when choosing their cell phone plan? I'd love to hear some great advice from you.

When the topic of making extra money comes up, taking online surveys is often one of the ideas that is put forward. This is something that I do myself after I read about it on an online forum, but it’s by no-means a “get rich quick” scheme. If you’re thinking about signing up for a host of survey websites, it’s best to know what you’re getting involved in so you can decide if it’s going to be worth the effort.

What Are The Reward Options?

For the most part, you’ve got the choice between cash and vouchers. Cash may come in the form of a Paypal payment or in some cases, a transfer straight to your checking account. Vouchers tend to be of the gift variety and can be either a paper voucher that you hand over in a store or an e-voucher to redeem at online retailers like Amazon. Some survey sites only offer one or the other so be sure to check this out before you sign up. Some survey sites make it easy to work out how much you’ll get by paying a designated amount (say $0.50) per survey. Others pay in points, so it’s a case of earning so many points and having that converted into earnings (for example, 5,000 points may equate to $5 in cash or a voucher worth the equivalent of $5). Again, read the help or FAQ sections to see how easy (or otherwise) it is to redeem your earnings.

How Much Can You Make?

There’s no easy answer to this question because a lot will depend on whether you fit the demographic for the surveys that you’re invited to participate in. You’ll get survey invitations, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re eligible to actually complete the survey. For example,  the people behind a particular survey may be looking for views from a thirty-something woman with multiple kids, and if you’re a single guy (with or without kids), you’ll be “screened out” of the survey once this becomes apparent and won’t earn anything. Don’t automatically assume that just because a few surveys out there screen you out that there are no options for you. There are a lot of surveys out there and you’re bound to fit the profile for some of them.

If you’re interested in my personal “earnings,” here they are. I earn around $80 worth of vouchers over the course of a year, which I put towards birthday and Christmas gifts or spend on treats for myself. In terms of cash, it’s more like $60 per year. Before this year, I did earn more from paid surveys but I decided to become more picky about which surveys are worth my time. I might be making less but I’m happier that I’m not spending a disproportionate amount of time for what I get back.

So, are these figures good? Considering that I’m not signed up to every survey site out there and I don’t spend every waking minute completing surveys, I see this as being pretty good reward for the time I do spend on surveys. To give you a rough idea, I complete (by that I mean, I get all the way through a survey and have points or earnings credited to my account) 2-5 surveys a week on average and never spend more than twenty-five minutes on any particular survey (25 minutes is on the very high end), purely because the rewards rarely match the effort required for those. If you’ve got more time to spend or you fit the profile for more surveys, you could potentially do better than that.

Survey Sites With Good Reputations

Global Test Market. I know some people who have had good success with this survey site but it's one that I ditched early on. I didn't qualify for many surveys so the high number of points needed to cash out seemed a lifetime away. If you do decide to join, they have an excellent reputation for paying out.

Pureprofile. This survey does pay out by all accounts, but it takes forever to build up your earnings enough to get there and that's the main reason why I stopped using this one. If you've got the willpower to persevere, I've never heard complaints about this company in terms of getting your money.

Survey Sites With Poorer Reputations

Surveyhead. I used to really like this survey site despite the fact that it had some less than stellar reviews. I got a lot of survey invitations for good rewards (up to $4 for a single survey rather than the $1 offered by a lot of survey sites) and qualified for around three-quarters of them. I cashed out in a Paypal transfer a few months after signing up and it didn’t take long to get near to a second payout. Then the problems started. I have enough in my account to cash out but one particular survey has been “pending” for months. I can’t request my money until it’s approved and repeated emails have failed to get the situation changed. On this basis, it’s moved into the “one to avoid” category.

Toluna. This survey site has had a poor reputation for sending out vouchers and often takes far longer than the two months it claims that this process will take. I received two vouchers from them (both of which took three months to arrive as an e-voucher) and who knows what happened to the third, because it never arrived at all despite me emailing them four times about it. Needless to say, I can't recommend this one!

The Bottom Line

Doing paid surveys isn’t an easy way to make lots of cash, so you’ll be disappointed if you’re expecting that to happen. It’s also hit-and-miss due to the fact that you need to fit the profile for a particular survey and if you don’t, you usually get nothing or perhaps a small number of points as an appreciation for your time. It can be a good way to get some extra help towards Christmas, birthdays, other celebrations, or just for a little extra spending money for treats and luxuries, but it's best not to expect any more than that.

Have you had any experience with survey sites? Any thoughts or feedback?

cheap dorm room decorationMost dorm rooms are on the basic side and all you'll usually get is the bare minimum in terms of furniture and decoration. They tend to be impersonal but putting your own stamp on the place can quickly become a challenge for a couple of reasons. Firstly, there's the all-important money issue. Most students are not exactly rolling in dough and are unlikely to have the funds to spend on decking out a dorm room. Secondly, there's the space aspect to consider too. Dorm rooms are invariably rather small and don't lend themselves to hosting much more than the furniture that is already there, so this is something to bear in mind when you're deciding how to furnish a dorm room. Here are some tips for giving a dorm room the personal touch, even when money isn't plentiful:

Spread the word. Before you head off to college, make everyone that you know aware that you're on the lookout for affordable dorm furniture. Chances are that someone will have at least one item that they'd be happy for you to take off their hands, if not for free then for a cheap price. Note: Some college dorms will be 100% furnished so make sure you look into this before you invest in any furniture, though often there will always be at least a few things you will need to add.

Look for bargains. Even if you're not restricted by budget, the open nature of most dorm rooms means that it doesn't make sense to fill your space out with expensive items that could potentially be trashed or stolen. Check local classified adverts for second-hand bargains or even look around the campus to see if anyone is looking to offload their own dorm furniture. Looking on eBay and Craigslist are other options. For the latter, you can always post your own advertisement as well as see what's being offered by others.

Throw a dorm shower. This works in much the same way as a bridal shower or baby shower in that guests bring gifts. In this case, the gifts would be the kind of things that you'll need to take with you to college. Throwing a dorm shower can be a great way to receive bedding, dishes and other items that can soon bump up the costs.

Buy functional items. Because space is usually tight in your average dorm room, there may be literally no scope in either the room itself or your budget for stuff that doesn't serve a specific purpose. Some of the practical things that you'll probably want to get include rugs (to make the room look more cozy and to cover up cold floors or carpets that have seen better days), a dorm fridge (which can often be rented on campus), a futon (this can be very space-saving if there's not enough room for a bed and a couch as it can double a both) and bookshelves (somewhere to store your many textbooks while you're a student!).

When it comes to filling a dorm room, there's no need for brand new furniture. You can easily create a comfortable and homely environment with used furniture, and your wallet will certainly thank you for it! Second-hand items may not be exactly what you're after but you can always customize them to your own tastes.

(photo credit: prayitno)

How can I pay less for this? That's a question you can ask yourself when it comes to any purchase, big or small. You can apply this question to just about anything you spend your money on. The economy is slowly improving but it never hurts to save money whenever you can; no matter what the state of the economy. It never makes sense to pay more than you have to.

I've recently started to apply this method of thinking when I go shopping for those everyday items I use all the time. I tend to buy the same products each and every month; especially when it comes to toiletries. I know how much my deodorant, toothpaste, mouthwash, etc, should cost. I also know that by shopping around a little, I can usually save money those purchases. If I can find a sale, I'll pick up enough to last for awhile.

By doing a little research, I've learned which stores usually have the lowest prices on the items that I need. Experience has taught me that by purchasing the previously mentioned items from a discount store (Wal-Mart, Target), it will cost less than if I bought them from a grocery store.

Another way to save money on those everyday items is to cut coupons. I subscribe to the Sunday paper for the main reason of getting the coupons. Sometimes, I can find a bunch of coupons for the items I need and sometimes, I don't find any. Overall, I would say that I usually save anywhere from $25 - $30 per month by using coupons. Recently, I've started to find the coupons I need online.

Although saving $25 - $30 by using coupons and shopping around is nice, it probably won't have a major impact on your finances. The major savings will come from shopping around on those big ticket items.

Think about your next vehicle purchase. Taking a little time to shop around and do a little research, you can save thousands of dollars. If you were to purchase 10 cars over your lifetime and save an average of $2500 per vehicle, you would save over $25,000. If you were to invest $25,000 in a mutual fund earning 8%, you'd have over $275,000 after 30 years.

The next time you make a purchase; whether it is big or small, take a moment to ask yourself, “how can I pay less for this”?

Cars. Most of us need them to get around. When you think about it, the only thing a car does is get us from Point A to Point B. A car is basically four wheels and an engine. If the only thing a car does is get from from place to place, why are they so expensive? Why is it that vehicles expenses are usually the second largest expense in our budget? If cars are only meant for basic transportation, how is it that they have become such a status symbol?

Unfortunately, I got caught up in the car buying frenzy. It seemed like for a period of about 10-12 years, I was buying a new car every two years or so. Even though I had a car that was in perfect working order, I always had to have the newest model with the latest and greatest features.

In my senior year in one of my college business courses, I'll never forget the words of my college professor. Our professor told us that he'd taught us the essentials of business from the book but he also wanted to give us some real world advice. His tip was simply, “Don't buy the car”. He knew that once we got out of college and landed our first real job, the first thing we would want to do is go buy a flashy car. He provided us with detailed calculations of how much money we would throw away by buying a new car and how much money we would potentially end up with if we took the money we were paying each month to the finance company and invested that money in a good mutual fund.

He shared that he had been driving the same car for over 15 years. He knew the car looked bad and he could afford to buy a new car but he chose not to. The car still ran good but it was so old, you could see the ground from inside the car.

As a young 22 year old, I failed to listen to my professors advice. I'd just made a huge accomplishment (getting a college degree) and I was going to celebrate and reward myself. I had a car that was paid for; but it didn't look good. I was getting ready to move to the big city of Atlanta and my old Chevrolet Lumina was not the car for a young college graduate. I “needed” to have a new car. I went to the car dealership and with the help of my grandfather, I drove out in a nice new Nissan Altima.

What cars have I owned in the past?

  • 1st car – Nissan Stanza. This car was given to me when I was 16 by my grandfather. I think he paid about $500 for it. I kept this car for about 2 months until the engine blew. The cost to repair the car was much more than it was worth.
  • 2nd car – Chevy Cavalier. This car was given to me by my Mom. When she got another car, she gave this one to me. I kept this car for a couple of years until it was totaled in an accident.
  • 3rd car – Chevy Lumina. I bought this car after I was in an accident with the Cavalier. I was on a 2 lane road attempting to make a left turn. The car behind me decided to pass me on the left as I was making my left turn and t-boned the Cavalier knocking me into the ditch. My Cavalier was a total loss and with the proceeds from the insurance settlement, I bought the Chevy Lumina. I used the insurance settlement for the down payment and took out a loan. I kept this car for a couple of years and paid off the loan.
  • 4th car – Nissan Altima. This was my first new car. As mentioned earlier, I leased it shortly after college. My monthly lease payment was about $290. I gave the paid-off Chevy Lumina to a family member.
  • 5th car – Nissan Altima. This one was newer than my other Altima and I wanted to upgrade. I rolled in the negative equity from the first Altima and my monthly payment went up to $345.
  • 6th car – Jeep Grand Cherokee. One of my friends had one of these so I wanted one too. I traded in the Nissan Altima and rolled in the negative equity into the new Jeep Loan. My monthly payment went up to $422.
  • 7th car – Dodge Durango. – My cousin worked at a Dodge/Chrysler dealership. I went in to say hey to her and ended up driving out in a new Durango. I'd had a pretty major accident with the Jeep and I kept having problems with it so this helped influence my decision to get rid of it. I rolled in the negative equity from the Jeep and my payment jumped to $555.

Thankfully, I had a financial awakening and enough in savings to get rid of this car loan. It was the best feeling ever. I was no longer writing out a large check to the finance company each month and I had $555 to send to my savings account.

It's been over 2 years since I paid off that loan and I can't believe I kept buying new cars and putting myself further in debt with each purchase. I don't want another car loan. My next vehicle will be paid for in cash.

How many cars have you owned? Do you currently have a car loan?

If you are about to purchase your first home, there are several things you need to do. It does not matter if the home is brand new and has never been lived in; get the inspection anyway.

The first and most important thing you need to do is get pre-approved for a mortgage, unless you are fortunate enough to be paying in cash. By getting pre-approved for a mortgage BEFORE you start shopping for a home, you will know how much home you can afford and avoid wasting time looking at homes that are beyond your price range. There is nothing worse than finding the home you like, then applying for the mortgage only to be told you can't afford the house.

The second is to find your perfect home. One piece of advice I can offer here is to look at as many homes as you need to to ensure you get the home that is perfect for you. You are probably making one of the largest purchases of your life so you want to get it right. If you don't like your home after you purchase it, you can't take it back and ask for a refund.

One you find that perfect home, the third and perhaps, the second most important thing to do behind getting a mortgage pre-approval is to get a home inspection. This is one expense in the homebuying process that you do not want to overlook.

A home inspection can help identify those problems that may be hiding deep behind the walls of your potential home. As a buyer, you may be too busy checking out how many bedrooms the home has, how many bathrooms the home has or how large a lot the home is. You may even be too busy thinking about the neighborhood or the school district. You probably aren't looking at the little cracks in the wall or know that there is an electrical issue that could cause your home to burn down.

Spending a few hundred dollars on a home inspection can save you from making a multi-thousand dollar mistake. A home inspection recently saved my over $50,000. I was going to purchase an additional investment property a few weeks ago. Had I not chosen to have a home inspection done before I finalized the purchase, I would have purchased a home with major structural problems.

What are some of the items covered by a home inspection?

Structural: A good inspector will check the foundation of the home to make sure everything is good with the foundation and no major repairs are needed.

Electrical: The home inspector should test of all the electrical outlets to make sure they are properly grounded. He should also check the electrical box and make sure there are no issues there.

Plumbing: The inspector will turn on the faucets and flush the toilets to make sure there are no leaks. He will also check the dishwasher, stove, fridge and garbage disposal to make sure all is working properly. The home inspector can usually estimate the age of the appliance and recommend the remaining useful life.

Roof: A good inspector will get up on the roof of a single family home to check the status of the roofing materials. If your inspector refuses to get on the roof, you may want to find another inspector.

Exterior: The home inspector will check the grading around the home and check the HVAC of the

One the home inspector has completed his assessment of the home, he will provide you with a copy of the report listing all of the things he's found that were issues or could be potential issues. You should received the report as soon as possible since time is of the essence. Once you get the report and review it, you then have to decide which of those items need to be replaced and those that are getting close to the end of their useful life.

What would you do if you won the lottery? I was driving the other day and saw one of the lottery billboards advertising how much the current lottery is up to. As of this post, the lottery is up to about 65 million dollars. Every time I see those billboards, I always start dreaming about all the things I would do if I won the money.

Sometimes, my dreaming is a little bit premature. I think about what I could do with all that money that I'll never win because I always forget to buy a ticket. When I moved to Georgia 10 years ago, I would buy scratch offs all the time. It was something new and exciting because the state I moved from did not have a lottery. I would never win anything more than a couple of dollars or free tickets. When I realized how much money I was donating (aka throwing away), I stopped playing.

If I did win the 65 million dollars, I'll be willing to bet that I wouldn't end up broke like some of the past lottery winners. 65 million dollars may sound like a lot of money. Yeah it is, but if you don't spend wisely, that money will be gone before you know it. I'm not going to lie and say that I wouldn't buy me a new house and a new car because I would. I just wouldn't go crazy with it.

If I won the lottery, I would buy a new house. The maximum amount I would spend is $300,000. I would be able to get a nice big house in a great area. I wouldn't need to buy a 50 room house and spend millions of dollars. I would also pay off the mortgages on my current properties and keep them as rental properties.

If I won the lottery, I would buy a new car. I would buy a 2011 BMW X5. It would cost about $81,000. Yeah, I know this is a crazy amount to spend on a car but with the money I'm not spending on the house, I'll spend a little extra on the car. This would be my big splurge.

If I won the lottery, I would make a sizable donation to several of my favorite charities. To name a few, I would give to the American Red Cross, the Atlanta Community Food Bank, Empty Stocking Fund and the National MS Society to name a few. I would also donate a large sum to the church I attended as a child.

If I won the lottery, I would purchase homes for several of my family members. Some of them are really struggling and could use the help. I would give some of them cash to use as they see fit and others I would purchase what they wanted for them. I know they are bad with money and I wouldn't want them to blow ALL of the money and have nothing to show for it.

If I won the lottery, I would purchase an apartment building. I've always wanted to build a real estate empire but I'm not financially able buy more than one single-family home at a time. Buying an apartment building would help my money work for me. I would be making an investment that pays for itself over and over again.

If I won the lottery, I would put more money in the stock market. I've written before about how I dislike the risk associated with investing in the stock market. The only investing I do right now is through my 401k. Outside of that, most of my assets are in liquid accounts. If I had hundreds of thousands of dollars available, I wouldn't be as worried about losing money in the stock market.

This is just a small list of the things I would do if I won the lottery. If I actually won a big lottery, I would consult a professional on how to best make the money last for the rest of my life.

What is the first purchase you would make if you won the lottery?

Do you live in a property owned by someone else? If so, are your personal belongings properly protected in the event of an unfortunate catastrophic event? If you live in a medium to large city and watch your local news, you see it all the time. At least once a week, there is a report of an individual or family that lost their home due to a fire. You may think you don't have to worry about someone else causing a fire and burning down your apartment building because you live in a single-family dwelling. Fires can happen there too. Yeah, the risk of loss is not a great living in a single-family residence as compared to when you are living in a building with multiple families.

It doesn't matter where you live or what type of dwelling you live in when it comes to weather related events. If you live in tornado alley, you have a pretty good chance of your home being hit by a tornado. Even if you don't live in tornado alley, your home can still be hit by a tornado. According to the National Weather Service, tornados can happen at any time and in any place if the conditions are right.

Maybe it's not even a weather related event that causes you to lose your belongings. Your belongings can also be stolen by a deadbeat (aka burglar).

If you can't afford to replace all of your belongings at one time or think it will wipe out your savings in order to replace your belongings, you probably should consider purchasing renters insurance. Renters insurance is very affordable and well worth the cost for the peace of mind it provides. Speaking of cost, you can get a very good rental policy for less than $300 a year; most times it will cost less than $200 a year for a basic insurance policy. When I was renting an apartment, I had a $25,000 policy and it cost less than $150 a year.

Don't be fooled into thinking you are covered by your landlord's insurance policy. That policy usually covers the structure and anything attached to it but not your personal belongings. I have a landlord's policy for the rental property I own and it only covers the structure and attached items; not my tenants personal belongings. If a tornado were to flatten the house or if my home was destroyed by fire, I could get the home rebuilt but there would not be any coverage for my tenants belongings. I make sure to include this in my lease and verbally tell my tenant that her personal belongings aren't covered under my policy. She's been with me for four years and she has still not taken out her own policy to cover her personal belongings. I would feel really bad if something happened but I did give her plenty of warning.

Where should you look for renters insurance? 
If you own a vehicle, your first place to look should probably be your current automobile insurance company. By having multiple policies with the same company, you may be eligible for a multi-policy discount which will save you money on both policies. You can also use a site like InsureMe which will allow to input your information one time and obtain quotes from multiple insurance companies.

What type of losses does renters insurance cover?
Some of the things covered by a renters insurance policy include:

  • Fire or Lightning
  • Windstorm or Hail
  • Smoke
  • Vandalism or Miscellaneous Mischief
  • Theft
Be sure to read your policy to determine what is and what is not covered.

Are you currently a renter? Do you have a renters insurance policy? How much coverage do you have?

(photo credit: dullspork, komunews)

Have you ever heard the saying, “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail”? I'm not exactly sure who originally said this but it is one of my favorite quotes. This quote can be applied to multiple areas of your life and not just your finances. Without a plan, you have no clue where you are going or how to get there. Not having a plan is like trying to make it from the East coast to the West coast without a map (or GPS these days). You know the general direction but you don't know an exact route. Just like a map can guide you from Point A to Point B, a good financial plan can serve as a roadmap to financial freedom.

I usually review my financial goals/plans at least three times a year. At the beginning of the year, I usually make my financials plans for the coming year. At the middle of the year, I'll review my goals and add or delete goals as necessary. In December, I review my goals for the year and determine which goals I completed and one's that I need to work harder on.

Here are my current goals/plan for the rest of this year:

Cash Savings. I set a goal last year of having at least $50,000 in cash savings by December 2010. As of this post, I am approximately 80% of the way there. I know some of you may cringe at the thought of having so much cash sitting idle and earning almost nothing in interest. Yeah, I know but I feel better knowing there's a nice cash cushion for me to fall back on should I need to do so. I also like knowing if I had $50,000 in the bank yesterday, I will have that same $50,000 today. I don't have to worry about some crazy happenings in the stock market causing the value of my account to fluctuate daily. I'm not a big fan of the stock market and I only do minimal investing outside of my 401k. Once I hit my $50,000 goal, I do plan to put a little bit more money in the stock market.

Debt. Looking back at my financial spreadsheet, it appears that at the end of the month, I'm only decreasing my debt (mortgages, student loans) by about $700-800 a month. My goals is to decrease the principal balances on my debt by at least $1000 a month. I'll only need to make minor changes in my monthly budget to accommodate the additional money. I usually get a nice bonus at the end of the year and I plan to apply most of it towards my debt.

Expenses. At the beginning of the year, I've been using a zero-based budget based on expenses of $4000 a month. Basically, at the beginning of each month, I transfer $4000 to my checking account for that month's expenses. Once that $4000 is gone, I can't spend anymore money for the month. (If an emergency pops up, that money comes from my short-term savings account set aside specifically for infrequent expenses. So far, this has worked great and I've had $200-300 left over each month.

Do you have a financial plan? What are some of your financial goals? How often do you review your goals?

Don't you hate those months when it seems like everything comes due at the same time. Thankfully, those months don't happen all the time or I'd be up a financial creek. I'm also happy that I've already planned for those expenses in advance and tucked the money away in a special savings account.

As much as it sucks that I'm going to be emptying out my pre-planned expense account, it's nice that the money is there for those expenses and I'm not trying to figure out where the money is going to come from or having to whip out the credit card.

What's going to be draining my bank account this month?

Auto. In Georgia, vehicle tag registration fees are due on or before your birthday. My birthday is on May 25th so I need to send a check to the county tax commissioner before my birthday or I'll be subject to a late fee. They late fee is pretty steep (10% of the amount of the ad valorem fee and 25% of the tag fees). I'll be stroking them a check for almost $400 which includes the annual license plate/registration fee, ad valorem tax and mail fee. It sucks paying a nice chunk of change for just a sticker. For that kind of money, you would think that we would get a new tag each year. Nope, I've had the same tag since I moved here 10 years ago.

Insurance. My auto insurance comes due this month. In order to avoid a $2.00 fee each month for paying in installments, I pay the bill for the six month premium in full. I save $12.00 by paying in full and I also get a paid in full discount. In addition to saving money by paying in full, I also get peace of mind. I don't have to worry about forgetting to pay the bill and driving around without insurance. The cost of my auto insurance is around $600.

Rental Property. I completed the long overdue quarterly checkup on my rental property and found that several items needed to be repaired and/or replaced. There are several windows in the property that need to be replaced. There is condensation in some of the windows and the tenant is complaining of high utility bills. The exterior trim needs to be repainted and resealed. The deck has some loose boards and needs to be repaired. The casing/trim around the patio doors needs to be replaced. The railing going down to the basement needs to be reattached. My tenants son kept putting it back up and eventually caused damage to the drywall. The wall needs to be patched and the railing will need to be put back up with drywall screws. The only good news about the repairs is that my uncle (the handyman) owes me quite a bit of money so I only have to buy the materials. I will have him do the repairs and the labor cost will be deducted from what he owes me. Including the cost of the windows, I estimate the cost of the materials to be around $1000.

At the end of the month, I'll have spent roughly $2000 on top of my regular monthly expenses.

How do you handle irregular expenses?

Have you ever gone out with a bunch of friends, had a great time but found your bank account much lighter when you got home? Or you went to store with a friend just to pick something up, but a few more items ended up in your bag? Whether or not you want to admit, sometimes friends can help enable poor spending habits.

You might want to take a hard look at your friends and avoid hanging out with these personality types:

Bargain Hunter
On first glance, you might think this friend is great to go shopping with. He knows where to go to get the best sales and always haggle his way into a better deal. However, if you find yourself buying things because it’s on sale and not because you need it, then your friend might be enabling a bad shopping habit.

Money to Burn
Money never stays long in this friend’s pocket. He likes to buy whatever catches his eye. Even if he’s got a trust fund or some other way to replacing that cash in his pocket, you find that when you’re hanging out, your money burns a little faster too.

The Latest Thing
Gadgets, video games, sports…it doesn’t matter what his interests are, except that he has to have the latest thing. Then he’ll bring his prize to you to show it off, and it gets you thinking, “Hmmm, I’d really like to get that.” Or worse, you’re at the store with your friend to pick up his latest prize and you find yourself picking one up as well.

Hey Look at That
This friend likes to browse, looking for things that catch his eye. When he finds that new, cool thing, he has to point it out to you. He may not have enough cash in his own pocket to buy it himself, but he has no problem helping you spend your money.

Mr. Mooch
Possibly the worst out of the bunch, this friend never pays his own way. There’s always an excuse, “Oh man, I forgot my wallet.” Or “Hey I had to pay for , do you mind covering me this time?” Regardless of the situation, he always finds a way to get something for nothing. You’re stuck paying the bill.

Sometimes you’re not aware that you’re hanging out with these spending enablers. However, if you find hanging out with the friends becomes a budget buster, then you need to look a little closer at who you’re spending your money with. Remember, at the end of the day, it’s you, not your friends who have to pay your credit card bills so make sure that what you buy is really what you need. Don’t let yourself get talked into spending money you don’t have.

About the Author
The following is a guest post from Kathryn Katz, a Certified Personal Finance Counselor who works for Consolidated Credit Counseling Services in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Their non-profit agency helps families through financial crisis using credit counseling, debt consolidation and financial education.

This past weekend, I finally got around to doing some long overdue tasks around the house. One of the major things I had planned to do was pressure wash and seal the deck. I've been meaning to do it for quite awhile but it was one of those things that I kept putting off over and over again. As a homeowner, if something needs to be done around the house, it's up to me to get it done or pay someone to do it for me.

If you are a homeowner, a house maintenance fund is a must. There will be things that need to be done that you don't have the time or ability to do on your own. From what I've heard, the best rule of thumb is to set aside at least 1-2 % of the cost of your house for your maintenance fund. I keep at least $1000 set aside for any emergencies that may come along. I bought my home brand new so thankfully, I haven't had anything major come up yet.

With all of the affordable properties out there, you may be thinking of taking the leap towards home ownership. If you are thinking about becoming a homeowner, consider these pros and cons:


  • Freedom. I like being able to make any changes in my home whenever I want. There are several things I want to do around my house and if I have the money to do it, I can. If I don't like my paint color, I can change it without having to ask anyone.
  • Tax Benefits. As an unmarried person with no kids, there are not a lot of things to reduce the amount of the taxes I owe the government. As a homeowner, I get to write off the interest I pay to the mortgage company each month. In addition to being able to deduct the interest I pay on my home loan, I can also deduct the cost of my homeowners' insurance and property taxes.
  • Equity. Each month that I make my mortgage payment, a little bit of the money (and I do mean a little bit) goes toward the principal balance. After 30 years, if I make all of my payments as agreed, the property will be mine free and clear. It's also nice that most home loans allow you to make additional payments towards the principal allowing you to pay less in interest and own your home sooner.
  • Freedom. Although it was listed as a pro, this can also be a con. As a homeowner, you can't just pack up and decide to move without figuring out what to do with your house. If you choose to sell your home, you have to deal with your house possibly sitting on the market forever, losing money if your home has decreased in value or having to come out of pocket to close the deal if you do sell the home. If selling your home is not a favorable financial option, you find yourself becoming a landlord.
  • Maintenance. Living in a rental property usually means all repairs are the responsibility of the owner. If you are the homeowner, you are your own landlord. When the toilet backs up or the water heater goes out, your are responsible for the repairs. Remember that home maintenance fund I mentioned earlier? Here is where it comes in handy.
  • HOA. If you live in a newer subdivision, you probably have a homeowners' association. The responsibility of the homeowners' association is to keep the subdivision looking nice and helping to maintain property values. Although you can do what you want on the inside of your home, the homeowners' association usually has the final say on what happens outside your home. Usually, there are rules governing paint colors, grass height, lawn decorations and rental restrictions.
  • Higher Expenses. Buying a home usually involves spending more money. If you are buying a home that's larger than your rented place, your monthly expenses will probably increase. Having more space means higher utility bills.
I'm not saying that buying a home is all good or all bad. I'm just saying that it's not for everyone. Evaluate your individual situation to determine if it is right for you.

Have you recently become a first-time homeowner? How is it working out for you?

If you are getting ready to purchase a home, whether new or used, before you sign on the dotted line, I recommend that you get a home inspection. Getting a home inspection can keep you from making a home purchase that you will regret later on down the road.

I just had a home inspection save me from making a home purchase that would eventually cause me many headaches and cost me thousands of dollars. I'd been searching for the past few years to find another property to add to my investment portfolio. Remember that investment property I found for such a great price? I thought I'd found the perfect combination of a low-priced property that only needed minimal cosmetic repairs in order to get the house ready to be rented.

I had the home inspected Friday by a licensed home inspector and the results were very disheartening. The house I thought only needed minor cosmetic repairs has major structural issues; specifically, the foundation of the house. Within minutes, the inspector found that the foundation walls have shifted and part of the house is not even attached to the foundation. He took me in the crawlspace and showed me where you could look through at the foundation wall and see daylight. One section was so bad, you could see the cars passing in front of the house. Anyone who didn't know what to look for would not have been able to notice how bad the damage is to the foundation. The inspector estimated that the cost to repair the foundation correctly would be about $25-30k. Right off the bat, the foundation repair would cost me as much as the price of the house.

The other major issue that I didn't know about and wouldn't have known about without an inspection is that the electrical system in the home is not up to code. The power was on and all the lights seemed to work properly so I thought it was ok. The inspector had some kind of nifty little gadget that he plugged into the outlets and determined that there were “open hot's” on all of the outlets. In layman's terms, if this was not corrected by a licensed electrician, the outlets could cause an electrical fire.

The repair cost continued to grow as we went outside to the exterior of the home. I knew the roof would eventually need to be replaced since it looked like the shingles were pretty old. The inspector looked at the roof and advised not only does the roof need to be replaced ASAP, the roof had no flashing so water basically sits on the roof. An inspection of the attic also revealed several boards that need to be replaced due to water damage.

The inspector could see the disappointment on my face and tried to make me feel better. He told me that there are houses out there that can be had for a good price and only need cosmetic repairs. His exact words to me about this house were, “I'm not telling you not to buy the house, but if it were me or any of the many investors I work with, we would be asking for our earnest money back from the seller”.

So there you have it, I'm still on the hunt for my next investment property. I'm out of the $250 bucks I paid for the inspection but that $250 saved me thousands of dollars. I called the realtor and explained the issues and told him I would be withdrawing my offer. He emailed me the termination agreement and advised the $2500 earnest money I submitted will be sent back to me.

Image Credit: tholland

I've had it and I'm fed up. For the past two weeks, I've had this telemarketing company calling me anywhere from 10-15 times a day (no joke) on my cell phone.

It started a few weeks ago when I got a call from an unknown number and I answered it. It was a gentleman with a thick Indian accent asking me if I knew (????). I said yes, I know (???), he is my uncle. They then started about they would like to offer him a free $50 Target gift card for trying some service free for 30 days. I told them I didn't think he would interested in their service (because I knew there was a catch). He had such a thick accent and was talking so fast, I couldn't even understand what he was trying to sell.

I finally got a little tired of the sales pitch and asked the gentleman to remove my number from his database and not to call me again. A few hours later, the calls started coming every few minutes. I ignored the calls and then they called from a different number with a completely different area code. I answered the call and it was a different person, but with the same sales pitch. Again, I told them I was not interested, they are calling the wrong person, and to remove my number. They hung up and I thought that was it....until I received a call again from the first number.

This time it was a female with an undistinguishable accent but still hard to understand. I told her that I was tired of them calling me and I had asked them to remove my number. Her response was that this was her first time calling me. I told her that it may have been her first time calling me but I'd already received several calls from this number. She totally ignored me and went on with her sales pitch. This is when I lost it and gave her a few choice words that I don't usually use. I'm sure I dropped the “F” bomb a few times. She immediately hung up and I thought that was the end of the calls.

Fast forward a few days and the calls start all over again. I answered the first one and the person on the other end started with the same sales pitch again. This time, I tried a different approach. I was very calm until the person finished. I then asked to speak with a manager. He asked me why and I told him that I had asked them to remove my number a few days ago and to stop calling me. Can you believe he had the nerve to hang up on me?

I thought maybe the phone calls were done now. Nope, no such luck. Each day, they would call over and over again. I thought maybe there was some way I could report them but I wasn't able to find any company information. Each time I try to call the number back, I get a busy signal. I googled the number and there were multiple complaints from other people received the same type calls. I then decided I would not longer get mad, it was time to get even.

I remembered my little cousin had left an air horn at my house. If asking them nicely to stop calling me and being mean didn't work, maybe they would stop if I gave their ear drum a nice surprise? Today, they kept calling me while I was at work and I would just answer the phone but not say anything. I hoped they would continue calling until I got home to the air horn. I got home and I didn't think they were going to call but the calls finally started up again. Each time they would call, I'd say hello to get a live person on the phone. When they started speaking, I would sound the air horn until they hung up. I did this about 3 times and the phone calls stopped. Hopefully, this will stop them for good. 

Have any of you received calls from these numbers? The first one is 978-570-2067 and the other one is 603-214-3311.

This post may rub some people the wrong way and I’m sorry about that but it’s how I feel. I’m getting so tired of people blaming others for their problems. I think this country, and the world as a whole, would be much better off if everyone just accepted responsibility for their actions.

What ever happened to personal responsibility? Why is it that your financial problems are usually because of someone else? Don’t get me wrong, I know sometimes bad things happen to good people. I know bad things happen sometimes but most of the time, it’s our own fault.

I get so tired of people talking about how evil the credit card companies are. Yeah, some of them are evil but they are a business and businesses are designed to make a profit. While I may not agree with all of their practices and fees, no one requires you to have credit card debt. I blame no one but myself for the credit card debt I racked up during my younger years. Maybe the credit card interest rates and fees weren’t fair but I accepted those practices when I decided to use the card. I paid them off and now I don’t have to worry about them anymore. I don’t know what the interest rates are on my credit cards and I don’t care. I no longer carry a balance so I don’t pay any interest. If I can’t pay the balance off in full the next month, I don’t use the card. I only spend what I can afford to pay. I’ve become the type of customer that the credit card companies hate. They lose money on me since I don’t pay them any interest. Of course they still get some money from the merchants where I use the card but as far as paying them thousands of dollars in interest; nope, not me, not anymore.

This whole home foreclosure “crisis” is so frustrating to me. I bought a home that I could afford and I make the agreed upon payment each month. There are some people that bought homes with crazy mortgages that they could not afford. They are now blaming the mortgage companies for making their payment unaffordable. No, No, No, back up a bit. Remember all those papers you signed at the closing table? Did you read them? Did you understand what you were going to paying? Yeah, I know there are some people that did buy homes they could afford and knew exactly what they were getting into. They made the payment as agreed until some type of life event caused them to no longer be able to afford the home. For those people, I generally feel bad for and don’t mind them getting help. For the most part though, the majority of those foreclosures though were a result of people being irresponsible.

A couple of months back, I read an article online where these people in California are just walking away from their homes because they are upside down and the banks are refusing to lower their payment. WTF?

What are your thoughts? Do you agree or disagree?

Most financial bloggers, myself included, are always telling you ways to fix your personal finances. But what if you arenʼt aware of the bad things youʼre doing that are wrecking your finances in the first place? If you arenʼt sure of the cause of the problems, but trying to fix them, itʼs like putting a band-aid on a major wound. If you arenʼt fixing the underlying problem, things arenʼt going to get any better.

Are you doing any of these things?

Overspending. Are you spending more than you bring in each month? This is one major way to wreck your finances. If you are spending more than you earn, the deficit has to come from somewhere and that somewhere is probably being covered by taking on debt. As your debt increases, that leaves you less money to save. As you debt grows, your quality of life decreases. You donʼt have as many options in life and your probably always stressing about how you are going to make ends meet and itʼs probably pretty hard to sleep at night.

Not Saving. Are you not setting aside any money for a rainy day? What are you going to do when the car breaks down or you have an unexpected medical expense? If you have kids or own a car and/or home, Iʼm willing to bet good money that you will have an unexpected expense within the next couple of months. Not only is it important to save for those things that may pop up right now, itʼs also important to save for your future. You donʼt want to have to work in your golden years when you should be relaxing and enjoying the good life.

Paying Unnecessary Fees. Are you giving away money to your bank? If youʼre paying monthly bank fees, you may as well take your money and flush it down the toilet. There are many ways to avoid those pesky bank fees; especially the ones just for having an account with the bank.

You may not even need to change banks. Most banks have several different account types to fit your needs. If you arenʼt sure which one is best for you, go in and talk with your bank and have them help you pick a better account.

Most accounts these days are free when you have your paycheck directly deposited into your bank account. Iʼve had my paycheck direct deposited every since I started my job 10 years ago. No matter what, I know on payday my paycheck is there waiting for me. I like not having to go to the bank and wait in line to deposit a check. I donʼt even remember the last time I went inside my bank.

Being Oblivious. Donʼt have a clue about who or what you have or what you owe? If you donʼt know where you are financially, you canʼt make it better or move forward. If you were to ask me how much money I have, I would be able to tell you within a few dollars. If you wanted to know how much money I owed, I could also tell you within a few dollars. Maybe Iʼm a bit more obessive about my finances than most people but I like to know whatʼs going on. I think I have a bit of OCD because I check all of my financial accounts each day. I know this is overkill for some people but this way, if something is not right, I can catch it immediately and get it fixed.

Keeping Up With the Joneses. Just because your buddy Joe just bought a new car, doesnʼt mean you have to buy one. Do you really need to upgrade to a larger home? Just because your friends are doing it, it doesnʼt mean you have to do it too.

(Photo credit: jack_a_daniels)

Here it is ladies and gentleman. Iʼm currently waiting to hear back from my realtor as to whether or not I am the new owner of this property. If youʼve been following the blog for awhile, you know that: I already own two properties (my primary home and a rental property). You probably also know that Iʼve been looking to pickup another rental property to add to my portfolio for a few years now. If fact, there are a couple of blog posts to document my failed attempts in the past. You can read about those here here and here.

Iʼm looking to spend no more than $30,000 for this property since I will be paying cash. Fortunately for me, due to the “housing crisis”, there are thousands of properties in the Atlanta area (and in alot of areas around the country) that can be picked up for peanuts compared to what theyʼve sold for in the past. Each day, I comb the real estate listing in my area looking for the perfect investment property to come on the market.

A couple of weeks ago, that perfect property appeared on my computer screen. The property above was listed for $12,900. No, I didnʼt leave off a digit or put the comma in the wrong place. The property was listed for $12,900 and is bank-owned. There were about 12 photos available and they all showed that the house was in pretty good condition. Prior experience has told me that properties at this price and needing little work will be snatched up pretty quickly. I found the property at about 10am and by 12:00pm, I was on my way to look at the property in person. The listing broker could not meet me at the house but he was nice enough to give me the lockbox code so I could go ahead and look at it. After checking it out, I called the realtor and put in an offer.

The House. This little beauty is a 3 bedroom, 1 bath ranch on a crawlspace. It was built in 1950 but has been renovated within the last few years. The sales history for the house from the county public records are:

  • $105,000 in December 2006
  • $63,900 in July 2006
  • $115,900 in February 2006
  • $108,000 in April 2003
  • $82,500 in October 2000
Repairs. The home definitely has good bones. The windows are fairly new. The AC unit appears to be in good condition. The carpet is in good condition but needs to be cleaned. The kitchen and bathroom has nice ceramic tile and the hallway has laminate flooring. There is a nice sturdy deck on the back of the house but it needs to be pressure washed and stained. The roof needs to be replaced but it can actually hold on for maybe a year or so. The interior needs minor repairs to the ceiling and walls and a new coat of paint. I plan to have an inspection completed prior to the final purchase to make sure there are no major issues.

Financials. I said earlier that the house was listed for $12,900. I knew that if I put in an offer of $12,900, I would be quickly outbid. My initial offer was for $15,000 cash with no contentions. A few days after my initial offer, I heard back from the realtor. The home had over 10 bids already and my offer was not among the top. I initially decided to give up on the house and move on to the next one. After doing a little research on the comps and having my uncle (the contractor) check it out, I bumped my offer up to $25,000. I really think the home is worth approximately $60,000 in the current condition. I should hear something on 4/12/2010. You guys wish me luck and Iʼll let you know what happens.

Hello, folks. In case you haven’t noticed, I haven’t been around for the past few weeks. Well, there was this space ship that came down to earth and kidnapped me for a couple of weeks. They finally decided to let me come back provided I didn’t tell anyone what happened while I was there. Nah, I’m only kidding. Actually, I’ve had a couple of things I’ve been working on that have taken up the majority of my time.

Work has been extremely busy for the past few weeks and I've been working approximately 12 hour days. Unfortunately, it hasn’t resulted in additional income since my salary is based on a 40 hour workweek and there is no overtime pay. If I work 38 hours, I get paid for 40 hours. If I work 60 hours like I've been doing the past few weeks, I still get paid for 40 hours. It's a little frustrating sometimes but I like to think that my hard work is rewarded during my annual salary review.

The other thing I've been working on is a joint venture with my uncle. He's been doing construction for over 25 years and can fix or build anything with his eyes closed. He’s finally decided to start out on his own and needed a little help; both physically and with the business end of it. I’ve helped him with setting up an email account, getting his business cards and putting out flyers to help him advertise his business. In addition to that, I’m also in charge of managing the finances of his business and his personal finances.

To say he is not good with money would be an understatement. This is the same guy that used to go to the casino like he was going to work. This is also the same guy that blew through $20,000 in casino winnings in just a few hours. It’s so weird because he would win money EVERY time he went to the casino. I’ve gone with him a few times in the past and each time, he won some ridiculous amount of money while I would sulk over losing $20 in the slot machine.

So far, the business has been going well. He’s hooked up with a few realtors and they are sending him tons of referrals. All of these things have led to me not having any spare time left for blogging or any fun. Right now, my schedule consists of getting up in the morning and going to my regular day job. After I get done with that, I usually meet up with my uncle to either help him out with a job or work on writing up estimates for a potential job. Before you start thinking I’m a nice guy, let me tell ya, my services aren’t provided for free. Right now, I’m only charging him 10% of each job. For the jobs that he gets, it’s a good deal for me. The only bad thing is that if he doesn’t get the job, I don’t get paid for my time.

Work should be slowing down a little so I should be back to a regular posting schedule. Thanks for hanging in there and I thank you for reading the blog.

Budget. To some people, budget is a dirty, ugly, disgusting word. It was the same for me. Iʼve tried using several different budgeting methods in the past using anything from spreadsheets to budget building software. All of them left me frustrated at the end of the month.

Iʼd use them for maybe a month or two and then decide that I didnʼt like it or that the budget didnʼt allow me any flexibility. The biggest problem I had was trying to allocate money to various categories within my budget. At the end of the month, I would get so frustrated because I was
over budget in some categories and under budget in others. Every month, Iʼd make adjustments only to have the same thing happen again.

At the beginning of the year, I decided to switch to a different budgeting method. Iʼve tracked my finances long enough to know what I bring in during the month and approximately how much I spend. Each month, my income minus expenses was ending up at around the same amount; give or take a hundred dollars or so.

I decided to change things up and start budgeting using a set amount of money for the month, instead of trying to budget for different categories. For example, Iʼm currently basing my budget on monthly expenses of $4100. At the end of the month, whatever amount of money left in my checking account is transferred to savings to “zero” out the account. At the beginning of the next month, I transfer another $4100 to cover expenses for that month.

So far, this method is working like a charm. I currently use Quicken to track my income and expenses for the month. To me, using this new budget method makes it so much easier to manage my budget and I can easily see how much money I have available to spend and/or save.

As much as Iʼd like to say this was my own idea, itʼs not. Itʼs actually called “zero-based” budgeting. The premise is very simple. You assign a category to every dollar you receive. Itʼs really easy to get started with this method, if you have a good idea of your monthly income and expenses.

If you are fairly familiar with what comes in each month and what goes out each month, getting started with a zero based budget is pretty simple. The first thing you want to do is find out how much money you bring in each month. Take that number and subtract from it the amount of your monthly expenses. The resulting number should be a positive number; hopefully, itʼs a large positive number. If not, itʼs time to thoroughly review your expenses and find out what you can cut out. Do you really need all of your premium cable channels? Actually, with all of the ways to watch TV for free, do you need to subscribe to cable at all? Do you frequently eat your lunches and dinners out of the house? Finding ways to cut your expenses will probably end up cutting out some of your fun but in the end, it is all worth it.

Are you currently using a zero based budget? Are you happy with it?

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