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Monday, March 09, 2009

Teaching Kids About Finances

kids and moneyParents face a lot of challenges these days. From first days of school, to first crushes, to when they turn 16 and get their driver's license -- we deal with it all, eventually. But, there are some things that need to be dealt with sooner rather than later. One lesson that kids need to learn while they are still young is how to manage money. Financial responsibility is a skill that will stay with your child for the rest of their life. I'm dealing with the same issue right now with my daughters, and here I'll share some of the things I've done, and offer insight into raising a financially disciplined child.

  • Teach your child the difference between a "need" and a "want". Often, a youngster can't really distinguish between the two, especially if they are used to getting pretty much whatever they want. Here's what I did. I explained to my kids that things like rent, electricity, and car insurance were "needs", meaning we couldn't really get along without them. Things like the newest video game system, or a new cell phone (my 8-year-old wants a cell phone...it's NOT going to happen!) are "wants"....sure, they would be nice to have, but we can get by without them. If your child has a clear idea of the difference between "need" and "want", they will be more likely to spend their money on something that's more important to them, instead of wasting it.

  • Encourage your kids to save a little, each time they earn some money. With my girls, I give them an allowance of a dollar a week, for every year of their age. I also made a rule that they have to save half, and spend half. Think about adding interest to what your children save up. That will show them that sometimes saving is better than spending right away, because they will have more money to spend in the long run. Older kids can figure for themselves how much extra they are earning by getting interest on their savings. This would also be a good time to teach kids the good and bad things about borrowing.

  • Set limits on their spending. Don't allow them to just "blow" their money on anything they want. For example, if you're like me, and you have a child that runs outside with money in hand every time they hear the ice cream truck...you have to teach them that sometimes you can't have whatever you want, whenever you want it, and that they can get a lot more down the road if they just show some financial restraint. Kids model what they see, so set a great example by being financially sensible yourself. Just because that plasma TV is on sale, doesn't mean that you should run out and buy it!

  • Take your kids, as soon as they are old enough, to your local bank or credit union and help them open their very own savings account. My grandparents did that for me when I turned ten. They started me out with a hundred dollars, and by the time I turned 18 I had almost five thousand dollars! That money came in really handy when it came time for me to strike out on my own.

  • Here's something that helped me save money: When I wanted to buy something with part of my savings, (for example, I paid to go to summer camp when I was 13), my parents didn't really object. Being able to reward yourself occasionally is part of what makes saving worthwhile.

  • You may also consider savings bonds, because they can be bought for half of the face value, and if your child uses the interest earned from the bond to help pay for college, it may be tax-deductible. Bonds also can't be spent right away, which will teach your child a lesson in delayed gratification.

  • Let your kids make their own spending decisions (within reason of course). Whether they make a good choice, or a not-so-good one, they will learn from it. Teach them to weigh the pros and cons, and to do some research and compare different options before they make that purchase. If you use credit cards, take that chance to teach them how credit works. They should know how to protect themselves against credit card fraud, how to calculate a bill or a tip, and how to make sure they aren't getting overcharged.

  • Treat your kids' school attendance as if it is a full time job (which in my opinion, it is). Many grown-ups get performance bonuses in their jobs, so why not do the same thing for the kids? Reward good grades, and reward them for improvement as well. That will motivate them to keep doing well in school. When they get old enough, encourage them to get a part-time job so that they can learn about taxes and Social Security withholding. (Plus, if your kids are anything like mine, they value their money more if they are the ones who have earned it).

  • Nurture an entrepreneurial spirit within your child. Many kids earn their own money by walking their neighbor's dog, raking leaves, shoveling snow in the winter, or something similar. Or, if your kids are like mine and have way too much stuff, help them have a yard sale. They'll be de-cluttering their bedrooms, and earning (and hopefully saving) money, too!

  • Level with them in an age appropriate manner. Kids can pick up on things from a very young age. They know when Mom and Dad are stressed out, and when they are old enough, you can start explaining when and if money gets tight around the house.

    In my opinion, kids detect lies, cover-ups and half-truths far more often than most parents realize, and this can lead to a child having problems with honesty later in life.

  • Also, explain to your kids that they shouldn't just blindly buy into what they hear on TV and see on the internet. The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that an American child sees over 40,000 commercials each year. That is a lot for a child to process. Explain to your kids that it may look great on TV or online, but just because "so and so" has a fancy car or all the latest gadgets, doesn't mean that they should live beyond their means.

I've used a lot of these tips within my own family, and I can honestly say that I think my advice is beginning to take root. Just the other day, I asked my daughter if she wanted to spend her allowance at Wal-Mart, in the toy aisle, and she said, "No...I'm saving up to buy a new bike". I was shocked, but I was really proud, too. If you employ some or all of the tactics I've written about here, I'm willing to bet that your child will soon surprise you with a nugget of financial wisdom as well.

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Thursday, March 05, 2009

Refinancing Our Car Loan Worked for Us

car loan refinancingWith the way the economy is today, everyone seems to be looking for a way to cut their monthly expenses. Besides a home mortgage, or rent, a car payment is probably the single biggest expense that a person has to deal with. The Federal Reserve has cut interest rates nine times in the last ten months, and there may not be a better time to refinance that auto loan that came with a high monthly payment. My husband did just that, and ended up saving our family a little bit of money each month. Eighty or ninety dollars may not seem like much, but every little bit saved helps us in the long run.

He would have never needed a new truck if I hadn't totaled the van that he was using for work. However, I did wreck the vehicle, and the day after that, he went to our local Ford dealership and signed on the dotted line for a shiny new, silver Ford F150. The payment was $515 a month, which I thought was sort of steep- but I didn't really say a whole lot to my husband, because I figured that he knew what we could afford and what we couldn't. Besides, he was without a work vehicle, so he felt pressure to take the first loan offer he received. He made the payments for almost four months, but didn't seem to be paying down the balance too much. I looked at his monthly statement from Wells Fargo, the finance company that had given him the loan to purchase the truck, and I noticed that the interest rate was high. (29%- perhaps it was so high because of his tarnished credit?) That meant he was only putting a little over $300 a month toward the principal on the loan. I knew there had to be a better deal out there, and I encouraged him to look into getting his truck loan refinanced.

He's not into research, and comparing prices, so I did all the "legwork" for him. I made phone calls, and got quotes from several online sources. The best deal was from Capital One, and they offered to refinance his loan at an 18% interest rate. While there was no application fee, and the closing costs were waived, he had to pay a prepayment penalty of $1400, or 10% of the loan balance. Now, over $400 of his monthly $515 payment was going toward paying the balance owed on the truck. That saved us almost a hundred dollars a month!

Refinancing a car loan isn't as complicated as it sounds. With these simple tips, anyone can lower their monthly payment.

  • Look over your loan carefully. Some lenders charge an early payment penalty, so read your agreement and make sure that you actually have the option to refinance.

  • Understand the difference between used-car interest rates and new-car interest rates. Some lenders only extend financing offers to those who have taken out loans on new cars. It's important to do the research, so you don't end up paying more than you did to start with.

  • When in doubt, consult a professional. Auto loan refinancing can have quite a few hidden costs, so make sure that it will really benefit you financially. Some lenders will offer a low, "teaser" interest rate, but then slap you with outrageous application fees. A professional can sit down with you and show you how to tell if you're getting a good deal.

  • If you're almost done paying your current loan, you might want to reconsider refinancing. The average car loan goes for 3 to 5 years. Trying to refinance within the last one or two years of the loan would make the payment period longer, and most likely add a few thousand dollars in interest and other charges to the cost of the vehicle.

  • Make sure your vehicle's information is accurate, so the lender can price the vehicle. If it is worth less than $8,000, you probably won't be able to refinance it. (That's also why it's not really advisable to seek a refinance on a loan that's almost paid off.)

  • Call your current lien holder, and ask how much it would cost to pay the entire loan off.

  • Check your credit, and make sure there are no errors on your report. Lenders will base your new interest rate on your credit history, score, and record of payments made.

  • Make sure your insurance is up to date. You won't be able to get the refinanced loan if your insurance coverage is called into question.

  • Make sure the lien was paid. The Department of Motor Vehicles will record any lien holder on a vehicle, both the original lender and the refinancing lender. When the new loan is given, the first lien holder is supposed to give notice that their lien has been paid off. Now isn't the time for clerical errors!

Some Auto Refinancing Scams to Watch For

Don't pay for a vehicle appraisal, either. Most cars lose value pretty quickly, so you wouldn't want a loan denied because the loan amount is more than the vehicle is worth. Stay away from any lender who tells you that you have to pay for an appraisal, or any other kind of up-front fee. While there are fees involved in changing the automobile's title to show the new lien holder, the loan application and ensuing credit check should always be free. Be especially wary of any lender who claims they can give you more than the balance on your loan. Look over the loan paperwork very carefully, and never sign a blank contract.

If you have unfavorable terms with your current car loan, refinancing is most likely a good idea. If you're able to refinance, cool! But don't squander the opportunity to get ahead. Pay a little more than the minimum each month, but less than what you were paying before you refinanced. Doing so will get the loan paid off sooner, and it will build car equity faster.

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Monday, February 23, 2009

One More Reason to Read Those Credit Card Terms and Conditions Carefully

One More Reason to Read Those Credit Card Terms and Conditions CarefullyWe've all heard horror stories about it, and we all dread it. I'm talking about fine print. Many of us fail to read it, or even give it a cursory glance before we sign, or agree to something. I'll tell a story of how fine print can trip a person up, and end up costing them more than they expected.

A little over a year ago, my husband opened a credit account with Bank of America. He received the card in the mail, activated it, and began to use it. I advised him to read the terms and conditions carefully, but with the bravado that's so typical of him, he said that "he didn't have time for fine print". I shrugged, and went about my business, hoping that he wouldn't go too crazy with the credit card, and that we'd be able to pay the balance each month.

Oh, how wrong I was.

We managed to pay the balance for about six months, then he bit off more than he could chew by requesting a cash advance on the card. He found an incredible deal on a classic car that needed restoring, and the owner wanted $2500 for the vehicle. He got the cash, but not before I again told him that he should review the terms on the credit card agreement that referred to the interest rate charged on cash advances (If I recall correctly, the rate was 32%. Steep!). He was in such a rush to get the car that technicalities like that weren't important to him. They soon would become important, however.

The next month we couldn't afford to pay the entire balance, of course. The total owed on the card was $3,100, and after we paid all the necessary bills like rent, car insurance, water, phone, and utilities, we could barely manage to pay the minimum of $150. As times got rougher, we couldn't even bear to pay the minimum. After about five more months of not paying at all, the account went into default and collection efforts were started. My husband received several "courtesy notices" reminding him of the money he owed, and he foolishly continued to disregard them. Then, the efforts got decidedly less friendly.

My husband checked his online banking statement one morning, and he was more than $1,000 overdrawn. He'd written five other checks the week previously, but they didn't add up to what he'd had in the account, which was almost $4,000. Here's a breakdown of what the bounced checks were supposed to pay for.

  • Car insurance. He lost coverage that month, and had to borrow money from his parents to get it reinstated.

  • The phone bill. Our house was without phone and internet service for a week, until he was able to pay the bill, plus the returned check fee, in cash.

  • Our electricity bill. Luckily I was able to call and get an extension, to avoid having the lights cut off.

  • The water bill. As with the electric company, I was able to negotiate a payment arrangement to avoid losing the water service.

  • The trash collection bill. As that was the smallest bill of the lot, my husband was able to go to the hauling company's local office and pay in cash.

He called the customer service number for Bank of America, and after waiting ten minutes to speak to a representative, he found out why the account was so seriously in the red. Since he hadn't read the fine print on the credit card agreement, he hadn't known that his Bank of America card was linked to his Bank of America checking account- and that after the account went into default, the credit card company could go in and drain his bank account to pay the bill. He was angry and shocked, but it was really his mistake because he didn't bother to read the terms and conditions that went with the card.

After alternately pleading, feigning ignorance, and arguing with the Bank of America credit card customer service rep, he finally negotiated a deal where he'd be partially reimbursed for the money taken out of his checking account. He ended up losing $2,500- the amount of the cash advance he'd gotten. He was still irritated about that, but as I quite rightly pointed out, losing $2,500 is a lot better than losing nearly $4,000. I told him to let that whole experience serve as a lesson and a warning, which, thankfully, he has. He's much more diligent now about reading the fine print on everything.

Always, always read the terms and conditions on any credit card you're about to sign up for. The credit card companies LOVE it when people don't read the fine print, because that means they can slap them with all kinds of late fees, higher interest rates, and other miscellaneous charges. It may not be exactly fair, but it's perfectly legal.

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Living Together After Divorce: It CAN work

living together after divorceIf you've been through a divorce, you know that running into your ex-spouse can be really stressful. Some deal with that issue every day. Because of the failing economy, more and more couples are choosing not to divorce, citing the financial hardship such a move would cause. Even more couples are being forced to live together because neither one can afford to move out. I'll tell you about one such couple. My father and his second wife, Susan, have been divorced for a year, but they remain in the same home. My dad doesn't really like the situation, but he is handling it with good grace and a great measure of patience.

Susan found out before she and my father married that she has Huntington's disease, a progressive, degenerative neurological disorder. People with Huntington's often suffer from jerky, uncoordinated body movements and a decline in mental abilities. The disease itself isn't fatal, but as symptoms get worse a lot of complications can arise that both shorten life and reduce the quality of it. Knowing what he was getting into, my father chose to marry her anyway. They got along well for almost five years, until my father found out that Susan had been unfaithful. Things around their house got more and more strained, with Susan and my father fighting about everything, day in and day out.

Finally, my father had enough and he filed for divorce. The divorce was granted in January of 2008, but by then Susan's health and mental capacity had deteriorated to the point that she could not live on her own. My father couldn't afford to put her in an assisted-living facility, because he is on a fixed income and only gets $800 per month. That barely covers his mortgage payment. She has no family that is willing to help, either. He makes a little pocket money selling on eBay, but not nearly enough to afford a new residence. Basically, he's stuck between a rock and a hard place. He can't leave, but he doesn't want to stay either. Many others are in a similar situation, and here are some tidbits on couples living together after divorce:

  • Many couples choose to live together after a separation or divorce for financial reasons. Perhaps one was the primary breadwinner and the other cannot afford to move out on their own, or they owe more on their home than what it's worth (otherwise known as being "upside down") and cannot find a buyer. This is especially true in today's dismal housing market. Homes that would before sell within weeks, now remain listed for months at a time, if they sell at all.
  • Some couples remain together out of stubbornness. Neither one wants to concede, or be perceived as being "in the wrong", so they delay the inevitable.
  • Living with an ex is usually the last resort. (as evidenced by my father's situation)
  • Many couples who remain together after divorce are seniors living on fixed incomes, who have no family living in the area that they can depend on.
  • Also, a lot of couples who have young children are electing to stay together after divorce, because they believe it's cheaper to maintain the status quo than it is to deal with child support and alimony issues.
Read a related article here, or here.

The state of the economy (such as it is) is surely contributing to the divorce rate. It's been said that money is the number one issue that couples fight over, and it's also the number one reason they divorce. If there isn't enough money to go around, and both parties are stressed out about how their bills are going to get paid, that stress and resentment will spill over into other areas of their relationship, deteriorating it.

I admire the way my father has handled the situation. He's dealing with a wife, who now has the mental and physical capacity of the average five-year old. He takes care of all her personal needs, getting up at 5 am to make sure she takes all of her medications, bathing her, dressing her, feeding her, and anything else she may need. He seems to be coping well, and is receiving a lot of support from everyone in the family. He's a Christian, and I believe that his faith in God is helping him get through this tough situation. We all get together and help him whenever he needs it, and we sit with Susan once or twice a week so that he can get out of the house. I honestly don't know how he has the discipline to do it, (Maybe his training as a Marine has something to do with it) especially as he's no longer legally obligated to do so. He told me that he does it "because I would want someone to do the same for me". I've recommended that he call the local Hospice and get them involved, even if it is just for "respite care" for Susan, so that he can have a break occasionally. He has an appointment with them on February 23rd, and I hope that they are able to help him.

Living together after divorce can happen for many reasons, and some handle it better than others. My father is a prime example of how to "make the best of a bad situation". I hope that others in a similar situation can take something from this story and apply it to their own lives. It's tricky, but it can work.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Identity Theft: How it Affected my Family, and How we Stopped it from Happening Again

Identity TheftYou've probably heard about identity theft, and the ways that the unscrupulous can use our personal information . It wasn't an issue for our family, because we thought we were being careful with our personally identifiable information. I guess we weren't being careful enough, though, because someone used my husband's name, birth date and Social Security number to open a PayPal Buyer Credit account. He was unaware until he started receiving collection notices in the mail.

If you haven't heard of it, PayPal Buyer Credit enables a PayPal account holder to buy now, and make monthly payments. I found out these facts about the service:

  • PayPal Buyer Credit is a credit line charging a variable APR. (Equal to prime rate plus 15.5%, but not less than 20.8%.)
  • If you make a late payment, a fee of $15-$35 applies. That can get expensive, fast.
  • You will receive a paper statement in the mail, and the grace period to pay charges can be up to 26 days.
  • You can only pay your Buyer Credit bill by check, or through linking your bank account.
  • Once you enroll in the program, it will become your default funding source, if you don't have a PayPal balance or a linked bank account.
  • PayPal and Buyer Credit are two separate programs. That means if you close your PayPal account, your Buyer Credit account is still open.

He received his first collection notice back in March of last year. According to the statement, he owed over $1500. Strange, since he had never heard of PayPal Buyer Credit, and had certainly never opened an account with them. He immediately called the toll-free number on the Buyer Credit website, and after waiting what seemed like an hour, he finally got through to a real person. He was told that interest and finance charges had been accruing on the account for six months. My husband told the company that he was not the one who had opened the account, and was told that without solid proof of that fact, he'd still be responsible for the entire amount owed.

He didn't know how someone had gained access to his personal information. We always shred all our bank statements, credit card offers, and any other such mail. I guess some enterprising soul with a lot of time on their hands went through our trash, or intercepted some of our mail when it was still in the mailbox. It's also entirely possible that a keylogger or Trojan on our home PC could have allowed a criminal access to that information. He's still trying to clear his name, and clear the blemish from his credit report. Here are some steps that we have taken to clear up this fiasco:

  • We've documented all communication and actions with the company that's trying to collect debts that we don't owe.
  • We limit further disclosure of personal information. He told the bank, credit card companies, and any other entity that he does business with that he wants to "opt out" of programs that share personal info.
  • I changed all our online account passwords.
  • We've updated the virus definition files of our virus software, and we are in the process of scanning all our computers and external hard drives.
  • He filed a police report concerning the incident.

After about six months of wrangling, he finally got the mess sorted out. PayPal Buyer Credit finally understood that he in fact did not authorize the charges made under his name, so they closed the fraudulent account and absolved him of any responsibility for the money owed. The entire situation left him mistrustful and frustrated, and I don't blame him at all. It's all too easy for someone to steal another person's identity, but extremely hard for the victim to clear their good name. Unfortunately, identity theft victims are usually "guilty until proven innocent".

I convinced him to sign up for LifeLock identity theft protection service, and it has been very effective. The company placed fraud alerts on his credit reports, which are renewed every ninety days. They also requested that his name be removed from lists for pre-approved credit card offers. He hasn't received one since! This service is well worth the price, and my husband and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

There's nothing like the sinking feeling that you get in the pit of your stomach when you realize that your identity has been stolen, and I wouldn't wish it on anyone. But, in case it ever happens to you, the tips I've outlined here can help reclaim your identity.

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Monday, February 16, 2009

Sometimes Giving Up a Career to be a Stay-at-Home Mom is the Right Choice

giving up a career to be a stay-at-home momWe all know (or we should, anyway) that mothers work harder than almost anyone. Whether they stay at home, or they hold down a job outside the home, women often shoulder much of the responsibility for caring for children. Most mothers work for pay, and they spend a lot of time juggling their careers, and the needs of their families. That's why a lot of women are "opting out" of trying to have a family and a full-time job, and choosing to stay home with their children full time. Let me tell you about a friend of mine, who gave up running a successful business to be an at-home parent. Did she know what she was giving up? That's hard to say.

Her name is April, and I've known her since the ninth grade. Even back then, she had an entrepreneurial spirit. She was always the one raking lawns or walking the neighbor's dog to pick up a little spending money. She always told me that her ambition was to run her own dog-grooming business, because she loved dogs. After we graduated, we lost touch for a few years. I recently got into contact with her again, and what she had to say surprised me.

She told me that she'd gone to Florida Atlantic University and gotten a two-year degree in business management. All in all, she spent about $12,000 to get that degree, broken down like this:

  • $7,000 on tuition

  • $1,000 on books and study materials

  • $2,000 on child care so that she could attend evening classes

  • $2,000 on other miscellaneous expenses (gas, school supplies, etc.)

It was tough for her and her family during that time. Her husband couldn't help with the children in the evenings, because his job required him to work 14-hour shifts. So, she did the job of both parents, all while working a full-time job and going to school. She worked really hard though, and ended up getting an associate's degree.

She started her business, grooming and boarding dogs and cats. She was quite successful at it, building a loyal customer base who wouldn't take their pets to anyone but her. But, the 12-hour days took their toll. She told me that she just got tired of working her fingers to the bone every day, with rarely a day off, and then having to go home and work a full day there, too. She discussed it with her husband, and they decided together that the constant worry and stress weren't worth it, and that she'd sell the business and become a stay-at-home mom.

April, and women like her, give up a lot when they decide to stay home and take care of their families full-time. In her book The Feminine Mistake, author Leslie Bennetts states that:

  • A woman who stays out of the paid work force for three years will lose at least 37% of her earning power.

  • This book also tells us that elderly women are more than twice as likely as elderly men to live in poverty.
Contrary to what people may think, marriage isn't a lifelong paycheck for the stay-at-home wife. With more than half of marriages ending in divorce, women give up their permanent financial security when they decide to leave the working world.

According to the book Leaving Women Behind: Modern Families, Outdated Laws by Kimberly Strassel, tax laws, labor laws, and employee benefit laws work against women who are trying to balance a career with raising a family. She says the laws are designed for couples where one is a primary wage-earner and one is a stay-at-home spouse, and that these laws punish any other kind of arrangement. Some would like to work a 25 or 30-hour week, allowing them to spend more time with their families, and these rigid laws make that tough for those who depend on their employer's health insurance coverage, pension plan, and other benefits.With all the things working against them, it's no wonder that many overwhelmed, overworked, and underpaid women decide to remove themselves from the rat race completely.

April has been a stay-at-home mom for three years now, and she couldn't be happier. She tells me that when her children are both in school, she'll look into getting a part time job, or finding work that she can do from home. As she and I are in the same situation, I'm curious to see how well she fares, and I wish her all the best.

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Friday, February 13, 2009

The Real-World Cost of Getting a GED: About $1000

The Real-World Cost of Getting a GED:  About $1000Everyone has probably heard that people who don't graduate from high school don't make as much money over the course of their work life as those who did finish school. I knew that, I was aware of what I was giving up, and I quit school anyway. I was young, and infatuated with someone, and in the haze of what I thought was "true love" school seemed inconsequential. I never officially withdrew from school, I just decided one day that I wasn't going back. I figured that it didn't really make any difference, but as it turns out, quitting school cost me in more ways than I could have conceived.

The person I was dating never encouraged me to go back to school, and I was just along for the ride. I ended up getting a few dead-end jobs, first as an assistant at a dog grooming salon, then as an attendant at a car wash, then as a waitress at a Waffle House. All of these jobs brought in money, true enough, but none brought in enough to even pay half of the bills. I felt cheated and unfulfilled.

Then, I learned that I was expecting a baby. I was 21, and work immediately took a back seat to making sure I had a happy, healthy baby. My fiance (now my husband) and I discussed it at length, and we decided that I would stay home and take care of the baby and the household. It would have been cost-prohibitive for me to return to work at that point, because child-care expenses, fuel, and other costs would have consumed my entire paycheck.

When my oldest entered school, I took stock of my life. I decided that when my other daughter was old enough to start school, that I would go back to work. First, I needed a high-school diploma. I looked into GED classes at the high school in my town, and I was told that the prep course would cost $100, and to take the exam for my GED would cost $50. I signed up, and started classes the next Monday.

Studying for my GED wasn't without its costs after the initial investment. I had to pay for gas to get back and forth between home and the school, and my husband and I also had to pay for a babysitter five evenings a week. If he had been able to take care of them, that would have saved us a lot of money, but his job was dependent on him working evenings and it wasn't possible for him to take the kids along. All in all, we probably spent $1000 so I could get my GED.

  • Child care cost us $30 per day, five days a week.

  • I spent an average of $10 per day on gas.

  • The GED prep course cost $100.

  • The exam (which thankfully I passed on my first try) set us back $50.

For me, quitting high school was one of the biggest mistakes of my life. When I think back to what else my family could have had with that $1000, I think that:

  • We could have taken a family vacation to the Florida Keys. I've been there before and I'd love to return.

  • I would have had the money to have some work done on my car. If I would have put that money into my vehicle, it would probably be fully restored by now.

  • My girls would have been able to go to summer camp, which they have wanted to do for about two years.

  • We'd have a big-screen TV and home theater system instead of the 17" and the bookshelf stereo that we have now.

  • My husband and I would have been able to afford to have a getaway for two, maybe a couple of days in the Bahamas.

  • I'd be able to buy my daughters more things that they want. Sometimes I feel badly because I can't buy them more toys and clothes like the other girls at school.

So, by impulsively quitting high school, I set myself way back. I'm just now getting to where I should have been, career-wise, ten years ago. I'm hoping to land a regular job, but that's tough these days. Meanwhile, I'm doing some freelance writing from home in order to bring in a little extra cash.

If I had it to do all over again, I would have finished school and then taken some college courses, maybe in graphic design or fitness and nutrition. If I can finance it somehow, I may still take some classes. The moral of my story is: Don't quit school, or it will cost you money far into the future.

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

How Cancer (And A Lack of Health Insurance) Cost My Mother Her Life

cancerWe all know the damage that cancer can do to lives and families. Not one of us has gone untouched in some way by this terrible disease. Almost as terrible, is the fact that a lot of people who have cancer either don't have insurance or cannot afford it. With President Bush and his veto of a bill that would have provided health insurance funding for children in low-income families that make too much to get Medicaid (but not enough to pay for private coverage), I don't see it getting any better. I'm here to tell you my mother's story, because she is no longer here to tell it herself. If, through telling this story, I can keep one person or family from going through what I've been through, then I've done something right.

My mother was a happy, vibrant, great person. At age 40, she had been through her share of struggles- a rocky marriage to my father, and then an abusive relationship with a man who almost beat her to death more than once. She managed to leave him, and rose above her circumstances. She met a wonderful man, who treated her with love and respect. A year after they met, they were married. Life was great, and for a year and a half everything went smoothly.

And then that peace was gone.

It started gradually. My mother would try to act as though nothing was wrong, but I knew something was up. She began to make a lot of trips to the restroom, and began to complain of bleeding and stomach cramps. After a couple of weeks of this, I urged her to see a doctor. She was reluctant to do it, because she didn't have health insurance, and could not afford to buy it. We were hard-pressed to get her the medical care she needed. Tired of seeing her suffer, I took her to the nearest emergency room because I knew that the doctors there are obligated to treat every patient who comes in.

When the doctor finally saw her, he took note of her symptoms, and gave her a (very) cursory examination. All in all, the whole process took less than ten minutes from start to finish. I kept expecting the doctor to order a round of tests, or want to draw blood, or something, anything. I was surprised when she was given a diagnosis of a severe urinary tract infection (UTI), written a prescription for antibiotics, and sent home. I'd been with her since the symptoms started, and I knew from the bottom of my heart that something was really wrong.

After almost six months with her illness getting worse day by day, I found a gynecologist who would be willing to see her, and work with her on a payment plan. I went with her to her first appointment, and I was very impressed with the quality of care that she received. Within a half hour she got a complete exam, and the doctor found that she had a tumor roughly the size of a baseball. He immediately made her an appointment for a biopsy, at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida.

I was both angry and dumbfounded. If the attending physician in the ER had been more thorough in his examination and treatment of her, the tumor would have been found a lot earlier. Looking back, I wonder if the fact that she was uninsured had anything to do with the way her treatment was handled.

She went for a biopsy two days later, and we all prayed and hoped for the best. But, when she got the results, I knew what they were before the doctor even opened his mouth. My mother had cervical cancer, and it had already begun to spread. If she'd been able to afford proper health coverage, she would have received care when the symptoms first started, and she certainly wouldn't have had to wait six months to see a specialist.

"Although cervical cancer used to be one of the most common causes of cancer death among American women, in the past 40 years there has been a 75% decrease in mortality. This is primarily due to routine screening with Pap tests (Pap smear), to identify precancerous and early-invasive stages of cervical cancer. With treatment, these conditions have a cure rate of nearly 100%."

The staff at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center were outstanding. They gave her the care she desperately needed. I was with her through hospital stays, radiation treatments, and daily chemotherapy.

My mother was worried sick about how she and her husband were going to pay the bills. By the time it was all said and done, they added up to almost $200,000. I wasn't concerned about that, I was scared for her. The chemo and radiation took its toll on her, and she was getting sicker every day.

At an appointment in the beginning of October of 2002, her doctor asked me to leave the room so that he could speak to her in private. I excused myself, and went to the waiting room. When she came out, she could barely walk, and was trying not to cry. I asked her what was wrong, and it took a few minutes before she was ready to tell me.

"My doctors told me there's nothing else they can do for me- my cancer is terminal." She was given two months to live. This couldn't be happening! I had so much more to tell her. I'd just found out the same week that I was expecting a baby, but I didn't tell her because I didn't want her to know about a grandchild that she'd never get to see.

We tried our best to pack a lifetime of love, laughter and tears into the next few weeks. Then, three weeks after her 41st birthday, she began to have breathing problems, and I rushed her to the hospital. Her doctors examined her and said that her internal organs were shutting down. I knew it wouldn't be long before she was gone. She passed away on November 4th, 2002. I was inconsolable, and the stress made me so sick that I almost had a miscarriage.

For all the things my mother went through, I wouldn't wish it on anyone. That's why having AFFORDABLE health insurance is so vital. Hopefully, President Barack Obama will remain true to his word, and implement some sorely needed health-care reform.

"According to a U.S. Census Bureau report, the number of uninsured people in America has increased by 1.3 million to 46.6 million, including 400,000 more children." http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/health/july-dec06/insurance_08-30.html

Please, please make sure you and your family are covered. If you cannot afford insurance, look into your state's eligibility requirements for Medicaid. If my mother had done that, she might still be here today, and her husband wouldn't be under a mountain of unpaid medical bills.

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Monday, February 09, 2009

Debt and Marriage: How Selling on eBay Helped Me

When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Sell Their Stuff On eBayAnyone who is in debt, or has been before, is aware of the stress it can place upon other areas of life. I know it all too well: my marriage almost ended because of our financial worries. We were overextended and stressed out over our mounting debt, and that made us more prone to argue about anything and everything else. Our relationship is faring much better these days, mainly because I am now actively seeking work, plus I'm bringing in a little extra money each month by selling on eBay.

I started my eBay "career" by selling a dress, similar to the one in the photo, that I wore when I was a bridesmaid in my mother's second wedding. I really liked the dress, and it had a bit of sentimental value to me because my mother passed away a couple of years ago. I knew, however, that the chances of me ever wearing it again were low. I ended up selling it for $48.00- not bad for something I didn't pay a dime for, and that was just languishing in my closet!

I also sell eBooks on CD. I found a website where private-label resale eBooks can be downloaded free of charge. For the price of a blank CD (less than fifty cents), plus a dollar or two for shipping, I had an instantly successful product. In my first week of selling eBooks, I had over fifty orders. My profit that first week alone was almost one hundred dollars!
Oster stand mixer sold on eBay
Not stopping there, I also make a decent amount of money by selling assorted knick-knacks and small items that I pick up at yard sales and flea markets for a low price. For example, last month I bought a 1970s-era Oster stand mixer at a garage sale for $4. I took it home, cleaned it up, and made sure that it worked and all the parts and pieces were there. Then I listed it on eBay, and it sold for $77 plus shipping. Quite a profit!

I also sell through drop-shipping. I list items that I think will sell. When the auctions end, and the money for the item is in my PayPal account, I go back to the drop-shipper's website, place the order, and the item is delivered directly to the customer. I don't have to keep an inventory or anything, which is what makes drop-shipping a convenient way to get into the eBay business. I have sold everything from baby items to mp3 players, and some are more profitable than others.

motorcycle sold on eBayMy biggest eBay sale to date is a motorcycle. My husband had it advertised in our local newspaper first. We had a few callers, but no one wanted to give a fair price for it. I listed it on eBay Motors, with a starting bid of $900, and it took off from there. It sold for $1,750, which was $250 more than we had hoped for.

I'm not claiming that becoming an eBay seller is a ticket to financial security, but I've been able to pay for our family's health coverage, and occasionally I can afford to put a little bit of money toward our credit card debt.

Money issues can cause stress in a marriage. I know it did for me, mainly because I didn't feel as if I was contributing to the household finances. Finding a side job (such as eBay selling) can go a long way toward easing that worry, and ironing some of the "wrinkles" out of daily life.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Stay-at-Home Moms: Returning to Work for Financial Security Reasons

Stay-at-home Mom Returns to Corporate AmericaI have been a stay-at-home mom to two little girls, for the last eight years. I was privileged to be able to be there for all their "firsts"- first steps, first words, first day of kindergarten. Now that they are both in school, it's time for me to re-enter the work force. Why am I going back to work? Well, there are a few reasons. I want to feel as if I am contributing to the household financially. I sell a little bit here and there on eBay, but that's barely enough to pay the monthly premium on our family health insurance. Money is really tight right now in our house, and it's getting harder and harder to get by on one income. My husband is self-employed, delivering steak and seafood to restaurants, and business has suffered because of the recession. I guess fewer people are eating out these days, so orders haven't been as fast coming in. We have about $15,000 in credit card debt. All three of our cards are at about 28% interest, and we can barely afford to pay the minimum, which averages out to about $250 a month. Sometimes we try to pay a little more, but most months we pay just enough to get by- and the bills just keep coming.

Since I have actively been seeking a job, I have had four interviews, each with the typical questions about skills, experiences, and qualities that I could bring to the job. None of them had the result I was hoping for. Every employer wants someone with more experience, and I don't have a lot because I have been at home with my children since I was 21. I have a lot of skills, such as multitasking, and working under stress, but my time as an at-home parent doesn't count toward my resume. It's a catch-22. I can't get a job due to lack of a work history, but I can't get any experience until someone hires me.

In order to return to the working world, I have taken classes online, and researched extensively on corporate America and what employers are looking for. I know there are a lot of people out of work these days, and most of those people definitely have more skills than I do. It's hard to get back into the game, after being at home for so long. When I finally do land a job, hopefully it will be during the hours my children are in school. That will save me a lot on daycare expenses. Child-care centers in my area charge about $120 a week, per child. If I cannot find a job with the hours I am hoping for, I will probably ask my family for help with caring for my children. It's important for a parent to have a support system in place when they decide to return to work, and I'm really fortunate to have a loving and helpful family.

As far as salary goes, that's negotiable. I'd like to make at least ten dollars an hour, but right now I'd take anything above minimum wage. High-paying jobs are scarce these days, I know. I'd take a job with no medical benefits, because my husband, children and I already have insurance, which I finance through my eBay selling.

I'd really like to find a job that allows me to set up an IRA or a 401k, because I have not begun to save for retirement. I have no delusions that Social Security will be enough to keep me afloat when I get older, so I'd like to be able to start putting some money away.

Returning to the corporate world is tough (it has been so far, anyway.) I'll keep you posted on my progress, and provide other useful tips in my next post.

And, of course, if you have any advice for me, please post your thoughts in the comments section of this entry. Thanks!

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