Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Bi-Weekly Mortgage Payments

Paying your mortgage every two weeks, instead of every month is a great way to save money. Since there are 52 weeks in a year, a payment every two weeks will total 26 payments or the equivalent of 13 monthly payments. Many mortgage companies like Countrywide even offer this payment option directly one their website. Be careful, I have heard that some banks with charge additional fees, so read the applicable terms before enrolling.

"One extra payment a year will enable you to pay for your house an average of six to eight years ahead of schedule" [Bankrate].

Check how much you can save with this simple bi-weekly Mortgage Calculator.

Friday, March 27, 2009

IRS Tax Refund Calendar

I was lucky enough to receive my tax refund today. The IRS does their direct deposits every Friday. If you are wondering where yours is, check out the IRS e-file Refund Cycle chart at http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p2043.pdf is very helpful.

The IRS also offers another module, which I have not yet used, called Where's My Refund. The drawback with the module is that you need to know the exact dollar amount of your refund, in addition to SSN, and filling status.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Watch for Shrinking Credit Cards

My credit card company pulled some interesting shenanigans the other day, which slightly inconvenienced me and hopefully didn't affect my credit score.

Like the average American, I am in the process of paying down some credit card debt. I have one card with a revolving balance equal to about 35% of the total card limit.

A few weeks back I had to make a semi-large purchase that would be reimbursed later, so I figured I'd just use my credit card. The purchase was much less than my 65% available credit, but during the transaction my card was declined. Fortunately, I had another form payment.

When I got home, I looked up my credit card status online, and found that my credit card company had lowered my card limit by almost 50%. Now, instead of my revolving balance occupying only 35%, it's practically maxed out. I felt somewhat cheated, since I'm a good customer and make my payments on time.

Normally I would call the credit card company and make a fuss, but I am planning to pay off the card in full this month with my tax return.

About a week later, I got a letter from the credit card company stating they were going to lower my limit. The letter didn't really have clear explanation of why. I can only assume that it's repercussions from the economy.

Keep an eye on your credit card company, they can be a sneaky bunch of buggers.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Difference Between Saving and Savings

Sometimes when I get home from work, my wife says "I went shopping today. Guess how much money I saved?" I can only wonder how much money was actually spent to obtain those savings.

You can "save" money by looking for the best deals shopping, but if at the end of each month you're still broke, you are not "saving" anything. Saving money is really about contributing to a savings account or retirement fund that progressively grows over time. It doesn't matter how efficiently you spend money, if it only lasts until your next paycheck. There's no difference between living day to day, paycheck to paycheck, or month to month. In all of these cases you are not actually saving anything.

Contributing 10% of you income to a 401k, a Roth IRA, or to a savings account is considered the norm for saving. Take a moment to understand how much that is. [Move the decimal point once to the left on your paycheck]. That is the amount of money that should be divided up among your various savings vehicles.

Getting some people to set aside money, and not touch it, can be like pulling teeth. My Motto is out of sight, out of mind. Set up an automated 10% deduction from your paycheck. After a little while you won't even miss it. Next keep the money with another bank or somewhere that makes it inconvenient to transfer money back into your checking. That way you won't be tempted to replenish your checking account when you overspend.

Even if you continue to live paycheck to paycheck shopping for all the best deals, you will be secretly be saving, and that's all that matters.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Bring Donuts to Work

Nothing makes everyone's day like randomly bringing a box donuts to work. This simple gesture will drastically increase the office morale, and might even keep you out of hot water. Everyone likes donuts and they are cheap, but be careful walking to work carrying that pink box, you don't want to get mugged by breakfast deficient onlookers.

Be the office hero today and treat you co-workers to a box of donuts, you won't be sorry.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Everyone's Going Green

"Going green" is becoming so widely accepted, that it's becoming the new social norm. All the commercials on TV have green themes, alternative fuel projects are receiving more financial assistance from the government, and people are becoming more recycle conscious.

We are beginning to realize how important it is to take care of our planet, and there are ton's of ways for all of us to do our part. Here are a few simple tips to consider, if you aren't doing them already.

  • Consider taking mass transit to work - A train, bus, bike or even carpool is a great way to travel, especially if you work in a dense metropolitan area.
  • Bring your own grocery bags to the store
    - We keep a set of canvas Safeway bags in the trunk of our car. Stores likes when you bring your own bags because it saves them money, regardless if the bag is from the competitor.
  • Install Compact florescent bulbs
    - These energy efficient bulbs will save you money as well as the environment.
  • Use a reusable water bottle
    - Using a water bottle once and throwing it away just doesn't make cents.
  • Recycle Batteries
    - If are not yet using rechargeable batteries, the least you could do is dispose of them properly.
  • Set your printer for double sided printing
    - Most printers have this feature, and it can drastically cut back your paper usage.

Although I am probably the farthest thing from a "tree hugger", I do see the importance of doing my part help. Please comment on ways you are going green.

Understand that Life Isn't Fair

Life isn't always fair, and hopefully I'm not the first to break this bad news to you. Periodically, difficult situations will arise, and how we overcome these situations is an important part of who we are.

Obstacles like getting laid-off, being evicted, or loosing your license, are harsh realities that happen to even the best of people at times. One reaction is to do nothing, meagerly hoping that the storm will pass, which usually leads to more trouble. The other reaction is to accept this new reality, and take measures to survive.

If you are struggling to pay your rent or mortgage, put your pride aside and get a roommate. Roommates are also a great for helping with the utility bills. If you loose your home, consider putting your belongings in a storage shed, and staying with friends until you can get back on your feet. If your license is revoked, offer to pay for gas while carpooling with a co-worker. Drastic times cause, for drastic measures, and usually the quicker you act, the better off you will be. Having a pity party for yourself will only waste valuable time.

If your credit card is maxed out, hiding from the bill will only make matters worst. Make and effort to combat financial issues head on as soon as possible. Contact the credit company and negotiate a payment plan, and then cut up your credit card.

If a misunderstanding causes you to look bad in front of your boss, don't throw your co-workers under a buss. Instead make an effort to work harder from that point forward to regain your bosses respect.

Just because something is unfair, doesn't mean there a magic want to make it all better. The sooner you learn to deal with unfortunate situations the better off you'll be.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Celebrate Today

Every day is filled with tons of reasons to be happy. The fast pace of nature of everyday life can sometimes blur our appreciation of these simple joys. Take a moment to slow down and briefly relinquish in the fact that today is the first day of spring, the Sounders won last night, and it's Friday.

These of course are my reasons to be happy, but I know you are more than capable of determining your own. Why is today a good day for you? By focusing on the good, you will lose sight of the bad, and everyday will become progressively better as mentioned in my article The glass is always half full.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Don't Personalize Business Mediums

In all of us, there resides a desire to express our individuality. It can be seen in various cultures throughout the span of time. Please do everyone a favor and suppress this desire when immersed in the world of business.

There is nothing worst than opening a message from someone who has taken the liberty to customize their email template with a neon pink background, obnoxious fonts, and/or irrelevant slogans. After reviewing a business proposal, I don't want to see a signature block telling me to "Have fun in the sun all day long!"

I understand we are all entitled to our own creativity, and if need be, free to customize our personal email accounts at will. For the sake of your credibility and character, please try to keep any business emails professional.

Cell Phones
This also applies for the answering machine message on your cell phone. I don't recommend blaring Snoop Dog in the background while you say "Yo! I ain't here, so leave a message. Peace out!" Especially when your submitting job applications or want anyone to actually take you seriously.

Keep your cell phone on vibrate at work, so it doesn't come to life in a business meeting and start rocking out to AC/DC as you fumble around trying to turn it off. Also don't act embarrassed if it rings in public, everyone knows that you are the genius who decided to download that particular ring tone.

We spend a lot of time in our cubicles. I agree it's fun to spruce them up with pictures, custom calendars, and knick-nacks. But, please don't make your cubicle look like your kids art studio, or you living room. If every square inch of your desk and shelf space are cluttered with your Beanie Baby collection or exotic plants, it makes me wonder where you actually conduct work, or even "if" you do any work at all.

My vision of Live for Improvement is to help people obtain a better quality of life, and not to complain about their behaviors. But, I also think by considering these points you may inadvertently improve the lives of those around you. Just a thought.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Happy St. Patty's Day

Just because St. Patrick's day falls on a Tuesday this year, doesn't mean you can't go the extra mile and celebrate. Have a low key dinner for your closest friends with all of your favorite fixings like: Bangers and mash; corn beef and cabbage; and potato soup. Be sure to accompany your meal with these signature St. Patrick's day drinks:

  • Green Beer- Take you favorite light beer, preferably Irish, and add a few drop of green food coloring which can be picked up at any major grocery store for cheap.
  • Black and Tans- Fill a pint glass half way with a light ale like Bass or Harps, then slowly pour in a dark stout like Guinness.
  • Green Martini- Add gin, creme de menthe, and bitters into a martini shaker. Shake well. Strain into a chilled martini glass.
2 jiggers of gin
2 jiggers of crème de menthe
2 splashes of mint bitters

Happy St. Patrick's Day!!!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Save Money on Your Heating Bill

Having lived in California most of my life, I was not familiar with the costs of heating a house. After Moving to Washington, I found that my heating bills could be anywhere from $50- $200 a month. Here are some simple tricks to saving money by keeping your gas bill down:

  • Use a programmable thermostat to lower the temperature while you are sleeping and at work. After doing some research, I found that fluctuating temperatures inside your home will save you big bucks.
  • Gradually decrease you homes ambient temperature over time as you acclimate. If you normally keep your home at 68 degrees, try turning it to 67 degrees for a few days according to your tolerance, if you're ok with 67, then try 66. Continue to lower the temperature until a comfort tolerance is reached.
  • Keep vents and doors closed to guest rooms, or rooms that are not used often. This will keep the unused rooms from being heated, by decreasing the overall square footage of your house, and ultimately your bill.
  • Make an effort to seal any drafty windows or doors.
Each ambient degree lower on your thermostat will save you about 1% of your total bill. There is a common myth that it takes more energy to reheat a room if it has cooled down, because the furnace has to work harder. I have found this to be untrue. Use these tips to help find that perfect point where frugal meets comfort.

For someone like me who is not used to seeing snow, please comment if there is anything I missed.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Big 100th Post

I just wanted to announce today that this is the 100th post on Live for Improvement, which may not seem like a big deal, but it means a lot to me.... especially considering all my hours of article writing for little or no pay.

With that being said, I wanted to thank all of my regular readers for their support including Brussels, West point, Australia, So-Cal, Bay Area, East Coast and the Mid West. I also wanted to thank all you guys in India, Malaysia, Philippines, Finland, Vietnam, Bulgaria, South Africa, and the Czech Republic. I don't know how you found this web site, but I'm glad your reading my posts.

Feel free to comment on what you like or don't like about the site, and let me what you want to see in the future

P.S. I have no idea who the guy is in the photograph.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Fix Your Car With Google

It's an unfortunate fact that all cars will require some kind of service during their lifespan.

Taking you car to a repair shop will usually cost you an arm and a leg, and not because the parts are expensive. It's the price of labor that get you every time. I am the first to admit that my automotive knowledge is minimal at best, but I have been able to skip the repair shop by doing small repairs myself with a little help from Google.

With today's technology, you can learn anything on the Internet. This includes basic repairs and diagnosis of cars. Many sites even have pictures and step by step instructions how to preform common repairs. Our Ford "Exploder" needed a few various repairs over the last few years. In each case, I was able to spend some time researching the symptoms, locating a part, and fixing it for pennies on the dollar. The last few that I remember were: the PCV valve, a turn signal switch, and a seat belt. I was quoted a few hundred dollars for each repair at the dealer, but ended up fixing them all myself for under fifty bucks total.

I am not saying that you should use google to rebuilt your transmission, but next time you starts making noises consider a quick Internet search before taking it in for repair. You might just find that its a common problem with a simple fix.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Creating and Storing Passwords

With today's technology, we are responsible for memorizing bank pins, Myspace passwords, id log-ins at work, and everything in between. I probably have twenty passwords memorize that I use on a regular basis. To make things worst some web apps are requiring you to change you password every 3-6 months. It can be very overwhelming, especially when you factor in case sensitivity.

How to make a good password:
  • Some people suggest combining two words like dog and cat with alternating upper/lower case to make "DcOaGt"

  • Another way is to use a funny phrase, like "I eat crayons".

  • You can also use a descriptive phrase for each site: "Gotta get paid" (bank), "My box is full" (email), "What are you looking at?" (myspace)

When you are forced to change your password frequently:

  • You can number you password sequentially, like DcOaGt01, DcOaGt02, DcOaGt03, DcOaGt04

Password management:

  • Some people use encrypted thumb drives to store all of their passwords. I am fearful of doing this in case the thumb drive is lost or stolen.

  • Others write down all of their passwords on a piece of paper and keep it under their keyboard. This is another method that I am leery of doing, if others have access to the computer.

  • It's easy to let windows save your passwords on you home computer, but you might not remember you password, when checking you email at a friends house. Not to mention anyone at your house, or anyone with your computer, has a total access pass.

If you guys are wondering what method I use, you can keep on wondering. Do you really think I'd post my password strategies on a public site...fat chance. I use my own hybrid methods that not even my wife is privy to.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Easy Financial Calculators for Everyone

As a financial analyst for Seattle's local government, I regularly work with all those math formulas we said we'd never use as kids. Fortunately now you don't have to remember how to calculate compounding interest, or factor out monthly payments. There is a convenient website called Dinkytown.net that has ton's of easy to use calculators for all of your financial needs. These calculators can make it a lot easier to pay off credit cards, save for retirement, or even find out how many interest points to buy down on a house.

Dinkytown.net is a very valuable resource, and can help all of us make better decisions, regarding, big purchases, investing, or debt reduction. In today's Economy most people can't afford not to take advantage of this great site. I promise it's worth your time in gold.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Office Salad: the Cheap and Healthy Lunch

I noticed that some people in my office keep salad fixings in the fridge and make a salad every day for lunch. This strikes me as not only healthy, but also a cost effective way to eat. Last year, I wrote an article call Eat Lunch Every Day for $1, and although it's cheap, it's probably not good for me to eat microwaveable dinners every day. By leaving an assortment of lettuce, tomatoes, vegetables, cheese, and maybe some fruit or meats in the office fridge, I can make a big salad if I am hungry, or a small salad for a snack. There is also one less thing to think about in the morning, you don't have to remember to bring a lunch, but hopefully you remember to throw it out before it goes bad.

Try leaving some salad making supplies in your office fridge and maybe a cutting board/chef knife. It is definitely the healthier way to go.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Salvation Army and Good Will become Trendy

Yesterday, Good Morning America did a segment on the Good Will that glamorizes savings in second hand stores. Having shopped at the Good Will for years, I avidly support this effort. It's very difficult to compete with the prices offered at the Good Will. When I first moved to Washington, I purchased a long winter coat, that I still wear today, for about $16.00. My long daily commute on the train allows me to cycle through books quickly. Sometimes I will pick up a good Tom Clancy book there for about $0.50. It is my favorite place to shop for a Halloween Costumes. You can find all kinds of unique clothing and accessories for pennies on the dollar. They also have tools, electronics, furniture, a plethora of jackets for your kids to loose, and jeans for them to rip when they scrape their knees. Find your nearest second hand/thrift store, and start considering it for more of your day to day purchases. With today's economy, it's "In" this season.

What have you purchased at the Good Will?