Sunday, January 31, 2010

Watch out for new credit card fees

Do check out this excellent post from The credit card issuers have been busy dreaming up new fees in light of new legislation designed to protect consumers from unfair practices. Read 'em and weep.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Expense Reimbursements

I used to be terrible about submitting my expense reimbursements on time. As a matter of fact, my employer created a new policy requiring expenses to be submitted by the 15th of the following month, just for me because I would put it off for quarters at a time. So, thanks to the new policy, I'm pretty good about submitting them on time. I have to.

But now I also have expenses to track for medical and dependent care reimbursements. (I'm talking about Medical Savings Accounts and Dependent Care Savings Accounts where you contribute pre-tax money out of each paycheck and then get reimbursed when you submit receipts for qualified expenses) My plan really couldn't be easier--you enter the expenses on a web form, print it out and fax it in and they directly deposit the reimbursement in your checking account within a few days.

Provided you haven't misplaced your receipts. I need a system. That's something I'm going to work on this year. It helps with the cash flow. And, for medical reimbursements at least, I actually can get reimbursed even if the deduction hasn't come out of my paycheck yet. In other words, I buy a $750 pair of glasses (yes progressive lenses for nearsighted old people like me are expensive!) and I get reimbursed for them before my savings plan balance for the year reaches $750.

One good thing is that my plan administrator has instituted a debit card for qualified medical expenses. So I don't have to pay out of pocket for co-pays, prescription & non-prescription drugs, and medical transportation and the like. But I still have to submit the receipts or else I have to reimburse my employer for the stuff I charge on the debit card. This should be interesting.

Another category of expense reimbursements that I am NOT good at is my volunteer expenses. The youth organization for which I volunteer owes me hundreds of dollars because I'm too disorganized to reimburse myself for my expenses. It's always something: I missplaced the checkbook, or the receipts, or I'm registering for an event online that only takes credit cards.

This year I got smart and twisted the arm of another volunteer to be the treasurer. She will hound me for my receipts. And she will not lose the checkbook. (This is also much sounder fiscal policy...more than one person should have access to the money, and there should be checks and balances on spending.)

In the meantime, I still have to dig out the receipts from last year. They're here. On my desk. Somewhere. I think.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Cooking Slow, Spending Slow

a w:slow cooker Oval Crock PotImage via Wikipedia
In the tradition of Julie and Julia, the blog A Year of Slow Cooking follows a woman who pledged to use her slow cooker every day for a year.

My splurge-on-myself after Christmas present this year was a slow cooker. Mr. Poorhouse and I haven't been this excited about a kitchen appliance since we got our first engagement present--and indoor electric grill.

It turns out that slow cooking isn't simply a matter of throwing the food in and leaving it for hours at a time. There's a bit of a learning curve. Combine that with the fact that I'm trying to lose weight at the same time, and I can use all the recipe help I can get.

And this site definitely has that. The author details not only her successes, but her failures.

Here are some of our early #fails:

1. Black-eyed peas, lentils, and presumably other beans never get soft in the slow cooker if you add salt or tomatoes at the beginning. (yuck).

2. Potatoes and carrots don't always cook. Try a small chop or dice instead of hearty-sized chunks.

3. Don't use the temp probe for pot roast if your slow cooker has one. The meat may be "done" but if you use a cheap pot roast cut, it won't be tender.

4. You may not need as much liquid as you think. The lid has a seal, so liquid doesn't evaporate the way it does in stovetop cooking.

5. Don't start something at noon. If you need it to cook all day, put it in before 10.

So why persevere?
  • Because it's really nice to come home to a meal that's ready to eat instead of unwinding for an hour and then looking at each other and saying "what should we eat?"
  • Because the slow cooker makes cheap meat edible.
  • Because it keeps the pizza ordering to a minimum.
  • Because you don't need to cook with as much fat for things to be hearty and tasty in a slow cooker.
  • Because it's nice to vary your menu.
  • Because you can make things that used to take too much time on a weeknight.
 I'm looking forward to exploring more recipes for the slow cooker. What are your favorites?
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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Debt problems of small business owners

Looks like I am not alone. According to Bob Lawless of Credit Slips, 1 in 7 bankruptcy filers are self-employed at the time of bankruptcy. Though I never contemplated bankruptcy, I fit the profile--high amounts of credit card and unsecured debt.

Lawless's point is that people in financial distress are easy targets for debt reduction scams. Be careful out there.
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Polly Thanks You for Your Generosity

You helped me get through this. How?

You contributed to your church, so that children like mine could be in the choir, could participate in religious education classes. You volunteered your time as a teacher.

You made a donation to the Girl Scouts, so my girls like Prissy could go to camp.

You donated to the financial aid fund at your community music school so boys like Paul could learn to play the guitar and girls like Prissy could continue to study piano.

You wrote a check to your local children's theater so that girls like Prissy could have a part in a play or a musical.

You answered the call of your local PTA so that kids like mine could go on a field trip to a local museum and could attend a performance at a community theater.

You volunteered as a Girl Scout leader, so girls like my daughter could climb a wall, or ride a horse, or learn to knit, or collect money for a food bank.

You and your kids shoveled your neighbor's walk because they were busy and overwhelmed and you wanted to be nice.

You coached a soccer team so kids like Prissy and Paul could get some exercise and learn how to be a teammate.

You were able to parent help while parents like me and Mr. Poorhouse had to be at work so that teachers in the classroom could get some extra help.

You contributed to your local conservatory so that kids like my daughter could attend a music camp.

You volunteered at a service society's fund raising fair so they could fund a program for middle school girls that helps to prevent sexual abuse.

Thank you so much. I hope someday we can pay it forward. We couldn't have done it without you.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Working out on the cheap

I'm obese. And I'm tired of it. My doctor says that once I hit menopause it will be very difficult to lose the weight.

I'm in better health than I have a right to be. I have a thyroid condition. My triglycerides are high. My joints creak. My knees hurt. I have plantar faciitis. I have rosacea. I'm depressed. But other than that, my body is holding up pretty well. And probably every one of my minor complaints could be helped by losing weight. (Well, maybe not the rosacea.)

So I'm going to do it now. But how?

I need to get some exercise. I'm a desk jockey, who loves to read, knit, and play the piano. None of these things are getting my heart rate up. I'm lucky I live in a three-story house with the laundry in the basement, or I'd never move at all.

I can't go back to the local Y. I wish I could, because they recently remodeled, have great pools, new equipment, and an environment where I don't think people would point and laugh. But for a single person, the fee is $57. A month. Yeah, I don't have that. And that doesn't include the rest of the would be even more for a family membership.

Ah, you say, but Ys have financial aid. Yes, they do. And I might consider applying. Except that during the dark days, the Y was one of the bills I couldn't pay. The way it works is that they suck the money out of your checking account every month. And I had no money in my checking account for months. And so I was in debt. To the Y. Mind you, I wasn't actually using the facilities. But what I learned was you can't just stop paying. You have to call them and quit. So they referred me to collections. Whoops. And I didn't pay it, because in the grand scheme of things (hmmm, mortgage, or gym membership I'm not using) it didn't seem like a high priority to pay it. So, I can never go back there.

Well, what are my alternatives? Other clubs are as expensive. There's Curves. Less--$35 ish a month, but no pool. Walking? Yes, but it's cold outside. And I'm afraid to fall on the ice.

But, we do have a stationery bike that we bought during a past fit of good intentions. Originally I put it in the living room. The idea was no TV watching without getting on the bike. Yeah, except that didn't work. It was just a piece of ugly gym equipment in my living room. So we exiled it to the porch. Where it didn't get used.

Fabulous Mr. Poorhouse and I wrestled the confounded thing (hey, it's heavy) upstairs to the guest room a few weeks ago. And I've been using it.

My routine is I get up when Prissy the middleschooler is getting ready for school. I'm close enough that I can hear that she's making progress on getting dressed, making her lunch, etc. And I can send her out the door on time.

How am I motivating myself? I'm watching The Biggest Loser while I'm on the bike. OK, so I have some reservations about the health of people losing 30 lbs a week. But it gets my legs going faster.

I'm not doing weights. I'm not building muscle. I'm doing repetitive motions. But hey, I'm moving. When it warms up outside, I'll add walking, hiking, or real biking to the mix.

And it is costing me very little (OK, I paid for past seasons of the show on iTunes.)

So far, I'm five pounds down. 75 to go. It's just like digging out of debt. No end in sight.

What cheapo ways have you found to work out?

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Monday, January 25, 2010

Have more time than money? An idea to help Haiti

This is the coolest thing I've come across in a long time. Techies and not-such-techies get together in regional "Crisis Camps" organized by Crisis Commons to build technological tools to help those in, well, crisis.

For example, Crisis Commons has created projects to identify RSS feeds that give important information about Haiti, to create maps to enable supplies and food to be delivered, to create sites to help individuals find their loved ones, to console those in the midst of the devastation, to identify the capacity of hospitals, and much more.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Buh-Bye Amazon Chase

First 4 digits of a credit cardImage via Wikipedia

This was a reward card I applied for in the days when I was chasing lower interest rates. It ended up chasing me back, almost all the way to bankruptcy court. I transferred a hefty balance, was late on a payment or two, and my rate skyrocketed to close to 30%. I tried to renegotiate the rate, but got nowhere. I finally transferred the balance to another card, which, at least temporarily had a lower rate. (That's a story for another day).

For more than a year now, the card has been dormant--no charges, no payments, zero balance? Good, right? Not so much. Rate for new purchases? 28.99%. So, what the hey, my record is getting cleaned up, I figured I'd call and get them to lower my rate in case I needed to shuffle some more balances.

My Indian call center rep was very polite but firm. "We may reevalute your rate in August. We don't have a payment history on this account." (Translation: you're not using it lady). He suggested that I charge $10 to the account and then pay it on time so that they can reestablish a payment history.

No, I don't think so. How about you lower my rate first, and then I'll think about using the card again?

"Well, I'm sorry, ma'am, but if you don't use the card, the rate will not go down."

How about you cancel my card then, as it's useless to me?

"Certainly we can do that, ma'am. And please consider Chase again in the future if you need another card."

Uh, I didn't have a good experience with Chase. Why would I want another card?

"Well your experience with this account does not determine what your rates will be on future accounts."

Huh? So why don't you just lower my rate?

Oh, never mind.

So probably getting ticked off and closing the account on the spur of the moment was not the wisest move. Maybe it will even negatively affect my credit scores, since by lowering my available credit I have a higher debt/credit available ratio.

Mabye it wasn't smart. But it was so satisfying.
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Peer support for financial problems

My church is in the process of forming covenant groups for the year. And they're trying to get people interested in a new type of group, a Commonweal Group. This group weaves together mutual help, education, and social action--all around financial topics.

So far, from what I understand, few people have signed up to participate. Maybe it's because in our affluent community it isn't cool to be struggling, though many have been affected by layoffs. Maybe it's because people are focusing inward and don't have the time and energy to meet and share. Maybe it's because it's a new idea and people don't understand it.

I've been asked to lead a group. I probably won't because I already suffer from overcommititis. And I'm not doing a very good job handling my exisiting volunteer commitments.

But I'm kind of torn about it. Because I think it's a great idea. Maybe you'd be interested. The Common Security Club website has a lot of material for how to get a group started in your own community, including sample meeting plans. Worth a look.
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Friday, January 22, 2010

I'm baaaack

1832 portrait of English writer and biographer...Image via Wikipedia

So, I took a break from blogging. For more than a year. I think I've been in denial. I didn't want to think about my financial situation every day. Too overwhelming. It was a lot of work and stopped being cathartic. And nobody was reading. Not very rewarding.

But I'm back, although sporadically. I'm going to put down my thoughts occasionally. I'm probably not always going to bother to post relevant pictures or spell everything right. This is for me this time.

This blog is never going to be an income stream for me. Most of the Google ads that are "relevant" are scams targeting people already in financial trouble. Be careful with those.

So what good things have I done for myself financially since last year?

I'm in a payment plan with the IRS and the state revenuers for back taxes.

I'm current on all my credit card payments. Most of my credit card interest rates are 10% or below, though I have a partial balance on an annoying CitiCard that morphed to 28.99% after the bait and switch balance transfer teaser rate expired.

The vast majority of our disposable income is going towards paying down debt, and we are current on all our bills and our mortgage. I have begun answering the phone again. Usually.

In order for the little poorhouses to participate in extra curricular activities I have asked for financial aid, and in most cases received it, despite the fact that on paper our income looks pretty high. We are not the only ones in dire straits, and organizations know it.

Mr. Poorhouse and I are both working at jobs we (usually) love. We both got raises this year. This is a good thing. We have good health care. Would that everyone did.

We are again saving for retirement and for college.

We took a vacation last year--road trip, and cheaped by priceline. It was probably still more than we should have spent, but then again, it could have been worse.

We still have suspended charitable contributions. This feels awful, especially given the current devastation in Haiti. When Katrina and the tsunami in southeast Asia hit, we made very generous donations to the American Red Cross. More generous than we could really afford, to tell the truth. Maybe, though even $10 will help some. We can do that.

We don't buy books anymore. The children's voracious reading habits are being satisfied by All it costs is the cost of postage to mail the books we are purging. Cool deal. I got a Kindle for Christmas (that was a splurge) and am only downloading free books. (And there are so many wonderful free books in the public domain that I'm not missing more modern ones. I'm currently discovering Elizabeth Gaskell.)

I'm getting some counseling to deal with the depression that living under this rock has caused.

That's the good news.

The bad news that being in debt stinks. I can never imagine a day when we'll be free. We are still perilously close to insolvency. All it would take is another layoff, or a serious illness in the family to send us back over the brink. Our cars are in serious need of repair. We put that off. Our home is in serious need of maintenance. We put that off. My body is in serious need of exercise. I'm working cheap alternatives to a health club. Our credit is still damaged, so we can't take advantage of the equity in our house to refinance the debt.

I still have some financial stuff to work on. Maybe I'll talk about that tomorrow. After all, tomorrow is another day.

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