The Expatriated Consumer

Imagining life without debt. Working to make it reality.

Posts Tagged ‘personal finance’

Dancin’ with the Devil…

Posted by Max Finkle on September 6, 2008

I happened to be engaged in a rare activity today, viewing a little television, and my interest was piqued by a commercial advertising easy cash loans. On the surface, it sounds pretty decent: a no-nonsense loan, requiring no collateral besides employment, with easy repayment terms. However, the devil is in the details. If you can read faster than the fine print is flashed at the end of the spot, you find that the average finance rate for a typical $2600 loan is a reasonable 99.25%, (no, not a typo, thank you) with an origination fee of $75. Repayment terms are over a 40 month period.

If you don’t mind kicking over $6500 in interest and fees over three years, it’s not a bad deal!

That set me to wondering what else one could do to get out of a jam in a pinch. I realize, that with such agreeable terms as 99.25%, there’s not really any need to look further. But, just for the sake of argument, I decided to take a look at what other sources are out there for a reasonable person in need of cash. Here’s what I came up with.

Sell stuff. If you look around there are opportunities to sell things everywhere you look. Some ideas?
illegal contraband. The mark up on illegal contraband is generally very high, and as an aggressive salesperson, the returns can be quite good. Play your cards right, and inventory won’t cost you a cent either.
your body. No matter your body type, there is someone out there willing to throw their good cash at it. The investment on your part is minimal, and the rewards can be great.
your neighbor’s car. This has multiple rewards, in that you get the cash you need, and you no longer have to endure the neighbor dwelling on how great the car is at your emotional expense.

Find free money. There are a number of places to look, and if you’re creative enough, opportunities abound. While starting with the couch cushions is all well and good, unless you’re Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, it’s a safe bet that it was no roll of $100 bills falling out of your pocket. Some other ideas come to mind, though:
start a corporation. The possibilities here are endless. From exploiting tax loopholes, to setting up shell companies to hide losses, qualifying for government grants for R&D, and enjoying the perks of being a corporate CEO, you can use that ,Inc. status to generate mountains of green!
acquire a loan from the local convenience store. They’ll never know it’s you if you work it just right, and he’s certainly not going to question the authenticity of your instrument of persuasion. The beauty of this loan is that you never have to pay it back if you don’t want to.
– likewise, acquire a loan from the bank. Credit score be damned, with the right persuasion, any banker will hand over that much needed cash to get you out of your pinch. Though unconventional, the money is green. If free money doesn’t sit well with you, then perhaps:

Get a more conventional loan. Concerned about your credit score? It’s a safe bet that your local mob boss is not. No messy paperwork, no waiting, and the terms will be laid out for you. However, if you don’t understand the terms, you will be laid out. It’s advisable to avoid these loans if there is a chance that repayment will be a problem.

Start a side business. There is loads of money to be made for someone with the entreprenueral spirit. Examples include:
Establish yourself as a handyman, and sell your skills door to door. The elderly are particularly gracious contributors, and will pay to have almost nothing done. They are quite trusting, too, and will accept you into their homes, with few if any, questions.
Start a cross country moving company. Undercut the competition to get business, and then explain to the homeowner that the estimate was too low, that in order for their valuables to arrive, more money must be forthcoming. More often then not, they are agreeable to the new terms, as it’s not unreasonable for them to want their stuff to arrive unharmed.
Become a financial logistics coordinator. There are displaced princes, and other rightful rulers ousted from power in foreign lands all over the globe. Assist them in organizing the collection of the funds solicited by email from sympathetic people all over the world. Help them keep things organized as they attempt to wrest power back from those who’ve booted them from their rightful positions, so that they may pay back, with interest, all the generous souls who loaned them the money to make their coup possible.

If you’re desperate for cash, a 99.25% interest rate is just the ticket. While I tend to take those commercials with a grain of salt, because although I’ve mismanaged my funds in the past, I realize that easy money is never easy in the long run. You will pay for the easy part somehow, such as some sort of outrageous repayment terms. But it occurred to me that I’ve seen that commercial quite a few times recently as I pass through the living room while someone else is glued to the tube.

Why is this airing so frequently? Duh. Because someone out there is desperate enough to actually fall for the pitch. I’m betting, since it’s broadcast on a national network, that lots of desperate folks are falling for it. While it’s easy for me to dismiss it, knowing there is a monster in the closet, some people are gullible enough to believe that the services offered are just the ticket they need to get out of a jam.

While this list certainly isn’t exhaustive, it does highlight other ways of generating cash in a pinch. Just be careful you don’t get pinched. Of course, a good offense is a good defense, and properly managing your money in the first place is the best way of ensuring that you are prepared for unexpected issues that may lay in wait, and you have a better chance of avoiding more unscrupulous avenues of revenue generation.

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Now that’s music to my ears!

Posted by Max Finkle on August 20, 2008

I read a lot of personal finance blogs, get tons of great ideas, and free advice, all for the price of a big donut. I really like most of what I read, and oftentimes I follow up on some of the suggestions, like utilizing the library. I hadn’t been to one in years. Kinda forgot they were there, ya know?

Recently it occurred to me that as an avid music fan, no one seems to talk about how to obtain free music. With the Napster heyday long over, and the RIAA stretching the boundries of the Constitution in pursuit of illegal downloaders, what is rabid music fan supposed to do besides listen to the radio? I love listening to music, and I don’t like the idea of obtaining it illegally.

Over the air radio has it’s place, but I generally can’t stand the offerings. I like to have complete control of my listening material, and don’t like being force-fed the tripe that passes for music nowadays. To top it off, I have little tolerance for all of the marketing that goes along with listening to the radio.

Enter the digital age! The Internet has changed the way many of us listen to music, especially with the introduction of ITunes and other pay-for music download services. Even Napster is a pay-for use service now, with a subscription model, verses a pay for ownership model. As long as you subscribe to the service, you are welcome to listen to most of the music. Stop paying, lose the right to listen. I’ve read that music companies are trying to encourage that model, because it gives them perpetual earnings, instead of one-time purchase money. Their goal is to keep listeners’ wallets open.

The alternative, for those of us who like to buck the system, and do it legally, is to seek out free sources. Fortunately for us, they abound, and the offerings run the gamut from popular music to the obscure. Lets take a look at some of the available goodies out there.

The local library. Yep, for those of you who haven’t been to one recently, many of those archaic archival institutions crept up on us and entered the musical foray years ago. My local library only recently opened, and has little to offer, but the next city over has an extensive collection of CD’s just begging to introduce me to artists and genres that I’ve been overlooking my whole life. The bonus to library CD’s is that I don’t have to worry about the clutter of ownership, or being stuck owning a terrible CD that I shelled out good money for. Additional bonus: if I like it, I can borrow it again any time I want.

Friends & neighbors. What better way to relate to someone than through music? I’ve been introduced to some great and even some not so great music by friends willing to lend a CD to me. Borrowing CD’s can be risky, though, so if you don’t plan to return them, or if you’re concerned that a friend may not return yours it’s not worth losing a friendship over. Rule of thumb, if you’re not willing to risk losing a treasured disc, don’t lend it out.

Internet radio. Live365.com, Shoutcast, AOL, Pandora.com. are all free Internet radio, where you can customize your stations to your heart’s content. I’ve toyed with a few of them, and a quick Google search will net you all the links you can stand. All seem pretty easy to sign on to and set up. Unfortunately for me, they still don’t give me the control I like over what I listen to, and I’m generally subject to adverts, which I can ignore onscreen, but can’t avoid when they are slipped into the playlist by the vendor. Granted the advertisements are less intrusive than over the air radio, but I’m picky, what can I say?

Individual band Websites. For all of their blustering during the early days of file sharing, Metallica, of all bands, offers free music for download directly from their Website. Hunt around and you can find many others that do so as well. The Allman Brothers Band hosts a forum, and topics include trading live recordings of the band. Oftentimes, music traders will allow you to send them blank CD’s and they will send them back to you with music. All for the cost of blanks discs and return postage.

Live music trading communities. Etree.org is arguably the most popular of the music trading Websites out there. No copyrighted material is allowed, but the scope of music you can obtain for free from traders is mind boggling. None of the material is for sale, so if someone asks for money in exchange for the music, they are illegally bootlegging for profit. Trading with no intent to profit is the only way to get the goods from here. Learn proper trading etiquette and you can net obscene amounts of music. Some music is also linked to:

The Live Music Archive. Archive.org has one of the largest collections of free music anywhere, and it keeps getting larger on a daily basis. They host the largest publicly available collection of live Grateful Dead recordings and all are available to listen to whenever you wish. That collection alone could keep you busy for the foreseable future, nevermind the hundreds of other bands from all different genres that make their music available free there as well. All the recordings are from live performances, so if you seek perfection in your listening, you won’t find it there. The collection is extensive, and it’s easy to get lost there, so be careful!

Bittorrent. Careful with this one. There are sources of illegal file sharing out there if you’re so inclined, and then some, like Lossless Legs, and Dime a Dozen, offer material that falls into the gray areas of copyright laws. While material is available there often without the express consent of the artists, the music is not technically copyrighted because they are most often live recordings or radio broadcasts. The communities are self policing, and when copyrighted material shows up, the site owners ban the files. They also take pains to prevent music from being available from artists who’ve expressly stated to the site owners that they don’t condone the free trade of their recordings. Most artists seem okay with the fact that the community does a spectacular job protecting copyrighted music.
If you’re not comfortable toeing the line, etree.org also hosts bittorrents only of bands that expressly approve of the electronic transfer of their live recordings and otherwise non-copyrighted works. Unfortunately, that greatly reduces the choices of bands and genres, but at least it’s all legal with no hitches.

There are loads of other venues to get your paws on great music for free, if you desire. Just be cautious. With so much of it out there, it’s easy to forget that there is life beyond great tunes. Enjoy what you find before you seek out more, as the quest for free music is as addictive as a good beat.

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Doc, that hurts!

Posted by Max Finkle on June 27, 2008

Never thought it would come to this. I’ve now had to start bargain hunting for medical care. Yep. That’s what I’m reduced to. The cost of medical care has skyrocketed, never mind that that my out-of-pocket costs increased dramatically when I relocated, what with a higher payroll deduction for insurance, to higher copays for services and prescriptions, and having to pay out of pocket for expenses that are not covered.

I find myself having to improvise, to stretch my dollar as much as possible. I am not going to skimp on my health, or my family’s because the cost is too much. I consider it a non-discressionary expenditure, so I work the system as much as I can to my advantage. Some things I do, in no particular order, to reduce my overall medical costs:

Shop around to get the best price on prescriptions and over-the-counter medications. My favorite is CVS’s ECB bonus program; at one time I was receiving a $5 off a $20 dollar purchase coupon for each new prescription I brought in. That paid dividends numerous times this year. You can also use those same coupons towards your copay. According to my local store, you can’t use ECB’s accrued from product promotions, though. Check with the pharmacy, too to see if your prescription qualifies for a discounted copay, as many are offering hundreds of prescriptions for as low as a $4 copay now.

I also shop at in-hospital pharmacies. Most hospitals have one, and oftentimes they offer many over-the-counter medications for retail sale, as well as prescriptions. One near me offers a bottle of 100 ibuprofen (same thing as Advil) for a mere $1.86. The generic version at the local big box retailer is upwards of $7. Children’s acetamenophen (Tylenol) & children’s ibuprofen are offered for 2-3 dollars less than the retail giants. I don’t get there often, but when I do, I stock up.

Find an “in plan” provider. Contact your health insurance company and ask them if they offer a list of doctors that are preferred providers for your plan. This can pay in a couple of ways, the most obvious being that often times there is a reduced copay for seeing those doctors on the list as opposed to one that is part of the “extended network,” or providers that accept your insurance, but aren’t part of the “inner circle” as I like to refer to it as. Weigh the pros & cons; for example, before I relocated halfway across the country, I continued to see the same doctor I had for the previous ten years despite higher copays with my last job’s insurance plan. This paid off because he knew me, knew what to expect of me, and tailored my care to that.

Ask the doctor if a recommended follow up appointment is truly necessary. She may put the decision in your hands. I’ve gone to the doctor for everything from broken ribs, to cuts, colds & sore holes and my previous doctor never recommended follow ups unless I felt like I needed it. He never blindly had me schedule another appointment simply so I could fork over a copay to be told the treatment worked, when I knew that already. Instead of having me come in to review lab work, he would call me, and council me over the phone, if say, my cholesterol was high, to remind me of the consequences, and encourage me to change my eating habits.

Conversely, I’ve been to a doctor who wanted to follow up every 4 months to evaluate a treatment I was receiving, when I knew the treatment was working for me, because I felt better, and was experiencing no side-effects. After the first 4 months I didn’t bother going back. I emphasize that I am comfortable with that decision because of the nature of the issue. Use your head, though, and don’t skip out on follow up appointments that are truly necessary – please don’t endanger your well being, or your life. Your doctor needs to monitor the effects of many therapeutic drugs, such as Coumadin, Depakote, and blood pressure medications, for example. Some of those medications, when not monitored properly can cause very serious problems. Carefully evaluate your circumstances, talk with your doctor, but most importantly, if you’re unsure, go to the appointment.

Utilize telephone triage services at your doctor’s office, your local hospital, or through your insurer. Don’t be afraid to call in and ask to speak to a nurse or a doctor over the phone to discuss health concerns. This can work well if your doctor knows you well, and especially if she knows your financial situation. You may have to leave a message with the office to call you back, but oftentimes they can tell you from your description of your concerns whether or not you should make the trip to town. The worst that will happen is they will recommend that you come in to be seen. All it cost you is a phone call, and it can save you copays & mileage, and even the entire office visit fee, as was my case a few years ago when I was uninsured.

Make sure that auxilliary services in your doctor’s office are covered by your insurance. I know here in Texas, insurance coverage is very fragmented, and I’ve received bills in the mail for laboratory services that I assumed were covered at my doctor’s office, only to find out after the fact that my insurance mandates that my labs be processed by one particular contractor, leaving me with a big ‘ol bill to add to the top of the pile.

Price shop for procedures. We had a recent non-emergency surgery in our house, to take place in an outpatient setting. We received a call from the anesthesiologist’s office letting us know that we had to pay an additional $500 for their services that were not covered by our insurance (instant headache & nausea…) After pow-wow’ing with our doctor, we discovered that it was cheaper for the procedure to occur in the hospital surgical center next door, than it was going to cost in the doctor’s office. Why? Because our insurance is directly associated with the hospital, and the anesthesiologist was not. The doctor’s office explained that for most folks, it’s less expensive in the outpatient setting, and oftentimes more convenient, so they had blindly assumed that was the case for us. The icing on the cake: we even saved on the office visit copay, since hospital procedures are covered in their entirety. Work with your doctor & insurance to find out what works best for you.

Utilize your healthcare spending account (HSA) benefits at work. May as well pay for as much of your healthcare as possible with pre-tax dollars. That can equal as much as a 30% savings on all of your healthcare expenditures up to $1500 annually. Watch yourself though, because once you commit a particular amount to the HSA, you’re locked in, and whatever you don’t use, you lose. There is a myriad of things you can use it for, so familiarize yourself with it to get the most out of it. Don’t be afraid to talk to the folks in your human resources department if you have questions.

Healthcare costs keep growing and growing, with out of pocket contributions from patients increasing annually. Get the most bang for your buck, by knowing what’s covered by your insurance, and familiarizing yourself with the in’s & out’s of healthcare in your area. Ask questions. It’s your right to know all the alternatives, and you have the final say in what happens to you. Hopefully, with a little bit of work, and utilizing some of the ideas above, you can get the healthcare you need, without finding yourself in the poor house.

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I’ve been living a lie…

Posted by Max Finkle on June 24, 2008

I’m relatively new to managing my budget. I’m still figuring out the in’s and out’s of proper money management. I look at the numbers, little gears whir and spin in my head, something computes, panic hits, and then I remember that we have some little chunk of money coming in that I hadn’t previously accounted for. Then I know we can make it for another month, and I can worry about next month when the time comes.

I have regular panic attacks about money, because I fear losing all the hard work I’ve invested along with my wife, in building a comfortable life for our family. We certainly don’t live like kings, by any means. We also don’t live like paupers. But I discovered that we do live beyond our means. Very hard reality to accept.

It feels like we should have enough money, but at the end of every two weeks, when I’m done paying the bills, I notice the tank running close to empty.

I’ve read that most people don’t realize how out of whack their finances are until they actually see it on paper. Authors always recommend writing down your budget. So, being smug, I read that, then read onto the next chapter, because I know in my head what was coming in and what is going out. “Thankfully, that doesn’t apply to me,” I think. I meticulously track our expendatures in Quicken, so that I can print off some nice looking reports that don’t make any sense to me at the end of the month. At least I know what my monthly payments are, and what my income is. Then after all that hard work being meticulous, I have a panic attack because DOOM looms ahead. Why? Because of the stuff not in the accounting software in my head. Like the $40 in medical costs to bring the baby to the doctor. Tack on another $80 for the two prescriptions that my insurance won’t cover, and there goes the money I had earmarked in my head for the car payment.

Where does all our money go? For some reason, looking at the numbers that Quicken compiles for me doesn’t ring any bells for me. Perhaps it’s because I’m not watching the math in real time, or doing the work myself. Perhaps it’s something in the software, I don’t know. But, I discovered quite rudely, after finally reading it for the umpteenth time, that you need to sit and actually take the time to WRITE DOWN a budget.

Now, I hate pen and paper, I’m rather a perfectionist in my own mind, (upon close observation of me in action, many would argue vehemently otherwise, but I digress…) so I hunted around for some budget templates for spreadsheet programs on the Web. I discovered the one that fit my needs quite well right at Microsoft’s Office site. I like that I can change catagory names on the fly and that it does the actual math for me, and I just watch the numbers change after data entry in each catagory. There are a couple columns near the top, one that indicates income, the other indicates output. Guess which number is higher?

To the tune of $1000 – $1500 a month, our expendatures outpace our income on a regular basis, in case you didn’t guess correctly. That puts me square in the middle of one of the popular statistics among personal finance advisors – that the average American family spends between $1000 – $1500 MORE a month than they earn. That makes me hoppin’ mad, because I hate being a statistic. Needless to say, I hate the idea that I actually have been so obtuse to believe that I was immune to such egregious tendencies, as well.

Consequently, my wife has had to go back to work sooner than we had anticipated after our move, I’m in the process of looking for additional work, and our spending plans are getting a big ol’ makeover. We are struggling to rework the numbers so that they are in line with reality. Man, oh man, it ain’t easy, but we’re plugging away at it.

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What’s in YOUR bottle?

Posted by Max Finkle on June 4, 2008

One of the keys to achieving financial success is knowing what you’re buying. Name brands are not always better, the most expensive is not always better. Oftentimes, price is the marketing point. It’s expensive, so it must be good, right? Not necessarily. Case in point:

I worked in a liquor store for many years not so long ago. Being interested in all things beer at the time, I stumbled onto an article in the local industry beverage journal regarding Rolling Rock beer. I had not-so-fond memories of hairy next-morning experiences in relation to that beer brand, given that it was the beer of choice as a fresh 21 year old on a limited budget.

For those who may not remember, Rolling Rock was infamous for their longneck import bottles. They came in reusable flip top case boxes that could be purchased for as little as $10 a case. In addition there was a $1.50 deposit to ensure safe return of the empties so they could be reused by the brewer. It was always a glorious weekend when the stack of empties was large enough to net us a “free” case of beer after bottle redemption.

There was a slight ache in my heart when suddenly the price of Rolling Rock sky-rocketed to close to $20 a case, and they started to phase out those glorious longneck import bottles. They had upgraded their packaging, now retailing the beer in boxes and six pack racks featuring crisp images of Rolling Rock bottles sporting beads of sweat, indicating they were ice-cold and ready for the thirsty. The old packaging was a dull green, with the most interesting feature being the “33” on the back of the bottle, that everyone saw, but no one wondered about.

At the time the article was written, Rolling Rock was running full tilt with their ad campaign “Same as it ever was.” Little did I understand when the commercials started airing that it was a bit of a tongue in cheek statement. What was really going on was pure marketing genius.

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s the brewer was on the verge of going under. Sales were dropping precipitously, and corporate knew something had to happen, and fast. They decided to bring in a new marketing exec.

He came along, looked at numbers, reviewed their promotional history, and furrowed his brow. “You need to raise the price,” he finally decided.

“You’re nuts,” corporate retorted, “We can’t sell the beer now, at the current prices.” And they prepared to tar and feather him for wasting their time. They were expecting recommendations for prize promotions or a new recipe.

“Hold your horses,” he replied, “Consider this: Budweiser is the standard by which all beer is held in this country. Folks see Rolling Rock at budget prices, and think: Cheap. Cheap = not as good as Bud. Raise the price to a tier just above Bud, put on your Galoshes and watch the cash flow tidal wave.”

Corporate considered the logic, and without changing a thing in the recipe, took the leap, raised prices, launched the “Same As It Ever Was” campaign, and suddenly Rolling Rock went from being the darling of the college frat houses to the bell of the ball for the yuppie crowd. Sales skyrocketed, and they found themselves rolling in piles and piles of cash.

Many consumers actually believe that Rolling Rock is a better beer today than it was yesterday simply because the price went up. I have an occasional one just to reminisce about the old days, but I don’t buy it simply because it’s a “Premium” beer now.

Every time you make a purchase consider why you chose that particular product. Price is a consideration, but should not be the only criteria by which you make a particular buying decision. Oftentimes, the less expensive options can be as good or sometimes even better than the more expensive ones. Let the marketers spend their money, keep as much of yours in your pocket as you can by seeing past their schemes.

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