Thursday, June 4, 2015

How Earning Gift Cards Pays off My Debt

I am in a lot of debt. Credit card debt, student loan debt, medical bills, and yup, those dreaded loans from family members. I really want to get out from under all this and I am trying to make extra payments to pay off these debts as fast as possible. I try to make any extra cash that I can and keep my costs low, but another way I pay down my debts is by earning gift cards.

How Can Gift Cards Pay Off My Debt?

It seems strange at first to think that a gift card to Walmart will help me pay down my debts, but it really works. Gift cards are really just cash that can be used at only one particular store. If I am planning to making a purchase from that store anyway, then why not transfer the money out of my budget for that item and use it to pay off debt?

How Do I Get Gift Cards?

First, sign up sites and mobile sites where you can earn gift cards for completing simple tasks and surveys. My favorite sites for earning gift cards quickly are MyPoints, Memolink, Swagbucks. The best mobile apps to earn gift cards fast are Mobee (use code VNJW for $3 when you sign up!), CheckPoints, and Shopkick. In fact, just yesterday I earned a Target gift card from Shopkick! Next, complete tasks and surveys to get points. Sometimes that means taking photos of a store display, scanning an item in store, shopping online, or visiting websites. These actions will all earn you gift cards. I also earn gift cards through using my debit card linked to my Capital One Premier Rewards Checking account. I earn a point for every dollar I use my debit card for and those points add up quickly and get cashed in for gift cards a few times a year. If your bank doesn't offer points for using your debit card (debit card! not a credit card! I use my debit card for everything!), you should seriously consider getting a checking account that does. Those suckers add up fast.

What Kind of Gift Cards Do I Get?

There are many, many survey sites, websites, and apps out there that will pay you in points redeemable for gift cards. No matter what company you sign up for, make sure they offer gift card options for companies that you shop at regularly or which offer services which you need and regularly use. Target, Walmart, and any other stores that sell grocery items are a good bet because you will always need to buy groceries. Also, gift cards to gas stations like Exxon, Shell, and BP are something you can always use as well. Jiffy Lube gift cards come in handy also since you will have to get your car’s oil changed sometime anyway. Even Amazon gift cards can allow you to buy essentials you need around the house, or maybe that new lamp you were planning to buy anyway. Most importantly, check the gift card options for any company that you sign up with and make sure that they offer cards for companies which are local to you and which represent sectors of your budget that you will be spending money on anyway, like gas and groceries. Remember, get gift cards for the stores near you, not the gas station or grocery store that is across town and not near your normal commute.

But Don’t Some of These Sites offer Paypal or Visa Gift Cards?

If you sign up with a survey site or app that will offer payment in Paypal or Visa gift cards, that may be your best option because you can apply those funds directly to your debts. But before you cash out, double check the redemption thresholds as it is often the case that it takes more points to cash out for a $25 Paypal payment than for a $25 gift card to Target. Additionally, there may be additional processing fees for Visa gift cards or Paypal payments, so make sure to read the fine print online. If you do choose to cash out via Visa gift card and your debt cannot be paid by credit card, follow the instructions below for how to convert the card into cash.

How Can I Convert this Gift Card into Cash for my Debt?

Converting the gift card into cash is a simple budget substitution exercise. When you have cashed out your points for a gift card, substitute that $25 gift card for cash from its corresponding category. For example, if you got a $25 Target gift card, take $25 out of your grocery budget category and move it to your debt repayment category. Whether you do this with an envelope system or on a spreadsheet, the effect is the same. Don’t think of the gift card as extra money you can play with for a new sweater at Target, it is grocery money. Make sure also that you go to those stores to use your gift cards and don’t lose them. If you follow this method and cash out $50 in Target gift cards and $25 in Exxon gift cards in a month, you’ve just transferred $75 out of your grocery and gas budgets into your debt repayment budget, making an extra $75 that month to help you shovel your way out of debt. Every bit helps!

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Stacking for Saving Big at Target


I love Target. Love, love, love Target. And now that we recently moved right down the street from Target I get to spend a lot of time with Target, browsing their new home decor options, checking out the clothing clearance racks, and scoring some great deals with coupons! Target offers some awesome ways to stack savings.

Target allows you to stack their Target coupons with manufacturer coupons, allowing you to pair these with regular sale prices or clearance prices for deep discounts. But Target also allows for the trifecta of coupon stacking: stacking Target coupons and manufacturer coupons along with the coupons on Target's Cartwheel app.

While at the store I like to also use Shopkick and Checkpoints (use code alice919 to sign up!) to get points for walking in and for scanning the barcodes of products in the store. The apps give you points for your walk-ins and scans which you can use to get gift cards. I usually get gift cards to, you guessed it, Target. Shopkick lets you get them right on your phone so you can earn it in the store and use it all at once! Maybe that's why I spend so much time there.....

Did you also remember to stack your apps on top of your coupons? Even with the trifecta of coupons, you can still submit your receipts for rebates at SavingsStar, Jingit, ReceiptPal, Snap, StockUpIbotta, Checkout51, Shopmium (use referral code HGCCMKWQ for a free Lindt bar!), and ReceiptHog. Yes, there are often rebates on multiple apps that you can redeem, sometimes even for the same product!

Can't remember your coupons or making an impromptu trip to Target, you know for that one item...oh look there's a sale......10 items later you realize you should have brought your coupon binder because you are going to be there a while. Well, don't fret because there are lots of other ways to save without coupons. The Penny Hoarder just published a fantastic article on how to save at Target without coupons to show you how.

I say its always best to have your coupons with you and shop only when you are planning on it (which nixes those impromptu binges). I always check my Cartwheel app when I go to the store and find myself veering off to look at clothing or items not on my list. Sometimes I score great deals with the Cartwheel app that I didn't even plan on taking advantage of. I also check my apps for great deals I can score with cash back rebates. Plus, I just signed up for a Target Red Card debit card (did you know they have a debit card? It's great!) so I get 5% off my purchase with the card and free shipping online. CaCHING!

Oh, and don't forget your reusable bags! Target will give you 5 cents off for each reusable bag you use which saves you money and saves the planet from drowning in plastic bags made from nonrenewable oil resources. Double win.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

An Open Letter to My Congressman in Support of Paid Federal Maternity Leave

Hello Rep. Garret Graves (LA-6, US House of Representatives),

I am writing you to voice my support of H.R. 532: Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act of 2015. I hope that you will support this bill as well. The bill is currently in the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. I know that you are not on that committee but I wanted to reach out and let my voice be heard. I believe in the democratic system of governance and the expression of individuals through a representative government, and I ask you to hear my plea. Federal employees are not afforded any paid maternity leave and this bill would give them 6 weeks of paid administrative leave, allowing them to retain their full paychecks for longer, hopefully to actually make it financially to the 12 weeks of leave that the Family Medical Leave Act affords them. In a given year only a small percentage of the federal workforce would take advantage of this benefit and the costs can be borne out of an agencies discretionary spending and salary budget. Up to 30% of the federal workforce will retire in the next three years, paving the way for younger employees to take their place. Younger employees who look to the government as a model employer, who demand an appropriate work-life balance, and who want to raise a family while growing their federal careers.

Conservatives and liberals alike agree on the importance of the American family as the backbone of this country. Though they may disagree on what that family looks like, no one says that a mother and father should not do all they can to love and provide for their children, whether adopted or related. The FMLA is based on this understanding that families experience great joy and great suffering through seasons of life, whether through childbirth or grave illness. This law allows American families to be home with their loved ones to care for them in their time of need, which is great, but it does not go far enough.

God willing, we may all be able to experience the joy of parenthood one day, if we so choose. Statistically, our nation and our species depends on the majority of us becoming parents to keep this train going. The birth of a child is a blessed event to be met with joy and love. Yet many American families also meet it with fear and an empty pocketbook. Sure, we could argue that all pregnancies should be planned (improbable) and that parents should be financially secure and able to afford the costs of a childbearing and maternity leave (also improbable and unlikely). We can argue the same with retirement and health care but no one is repealing Medicare and Medicaid, but I digress.

Health and wealth are not usually afforded to a person at the same time. During our prime child bearing years when we are in the best health, we are usually not wealthy and are at the beginning stages of our careers. We are trying to make ends meet, grow our careers and families, buy a home, and try to pursue the American Dream. At the end of our careers when we have had the opportunity to save and grow wealth, we often find ourselves stripped of our health.

I believe that the United States is severely lagging behind the modern world in offering paid maternity and family leave. The Family Medical Leave Act, for the roughly 60% of the American women in the workforce that it applies to, only guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave for women and a promise that their job will be available for them to return to. Medical experts suggest that it takes at least 6 to 12 weeks to recover from childbirth, depending on the delivery and potential complications. New mothers are recovering from a major medical event, barely sleeping, surging with hormones, attempting to breastfeed, and then have to worry about how they will pay their bills. Many return to work much sooner than 12 weeks because they cannot afford to stay home, even if it is medically advantageous (or even necessary). Even after 12 weeks they often return to the office unable to give their all at work and are still mentally and physically recovering. I have friends that have returned to work after 4 weeks because they had to pay the bills and had no other options, especially if they worked for a business not subject to FMLA, were not afforded maternity benefits, and ran out of annual and sick leave.

Most Western nations offer paid maternity/paternity/adoption, most around 14 weeks of full or partial pay with some for up to a year or more (Canada, I will never again make fun of you). Nations like Sweden, Russia, and Croatia, pay for these programs through increased taxes. Our nation is quite tax adverse yet we all want happy and healthy families. Personally, I would like to see a federal or state maternity leave plan, similar to California's, which is paid for through a slight tax increase and allows for women to take maternity leave with at least partial pay benefits.

I understand that the idea of a state or federal tax increase is unpalatable for much of the public. So let's look at how employers handle maternity leave as an alternative.

Many employers offer some paid maternity leave as part of an employment compensation package. They want to attract top employees and retain them, so they offer full or partial maternity leave or offer short term disability group coverage through their company. These benefits allow their employees to stay home, recover, heal, and bond with their new child (all vitally important no matter what side of the aisle you sit on). Of course, many other companies do not afford these benefits to employees, and women and men looking for jobs today weigh these benefit packages to determine what job is the right fit for them and their current and future families. More and more companies see maternity leave benefits as an important tool for attracting and retaining quality employees and are adding or expanding it within their benefits packages.

Now for the federal government. They say you should write about what you know and as a 30 year old, married, female federal employee looking to start a family in the coming years, I have done some homework.

Federal workers are not afforded any type of paid maternity/paternity/adoption leave (unless you are a direct White House employee and they likely only would have a couple of people taking advantage of that leave benefit a year). Federal employees may save as much leave as possible, within the allowance of rolling over up to a maximum of 30 days of annual leave. Most employees in their prime child bearing years would not likely have upwards of 15 years of government service and thus earn the maximum amount of annual leave available, so most would max out at 19 days of annual leave (yes, that is more than some other employers offer but I can't do the calculations for everyone). Hence the most leave an employee could generally cobble together would be 49 days if they took no annual leave for over 2 years which is, let's be honest, very unlikely to happen. If a federal employee had that miraculous maximum of annual leave, they could get about 9 weeks of annual leave, maybe a few days more if there were a few holidays sprinkled in over that time period.

The official maternity leave policy for federal employees states that feds have to use their sick leave first and only for pregnancy and recovery from childbirth for the first 6-8 weeks of maternity leave, medically prescribed bed rest, doctor appointments, and serious illness of the baby or mother. Let's be honest here. A pregnant federal employee is going to use their sick leave prior to childbirth. There are a flurry of doctor's appointments, late mornings due to nausea and vomiting, as well as any potential complications and illnesses that may arise during 9 months of the most major medical event of your life. The maximum amount of sick leave a federal employee could accrue in a year would be 13 days. You could roll that over for a few years but again, most people use their sick leave since no one wants their office mate to come to work with the flu or even a cold. So if you had those 13 days of sick leave plus another miraculous year's worth of sick leave saved, you could have 26 days of sick leave which could stretch for 5 weeks of sick leave.

Adding together that 5 weeks of sick leave and the 9 weeks of annual leave (and really, I don't know anyone that has this much leave accrued), a federal employee could cobble together 14 weeks of maternity leave (just like Germany offers). That's not too shabby, but it's statistically improbable. What really happens is federal workers have to save as much sick and annual leave as they possibly can, pray that they have a healthy pregnancy, an uncomplicated delivery, and a healthy baby, and then stay home from work as long as they can afford and as long as their office will allow, usually up to 12 weeks.

Some offices are quite generous and will allow further unpaid leave to their employees, depending on the need of the agency or office, and some will allow advancement of sick leave. In fact, President Obama mandated in January 2015 that federal agencies (given appropriate circumstances) allow employees to advance up to 240 hours of sick leave to recover from childbirth or care for a sick child, and up to the annual maximum of annual leave, which is 19 days or less depending on where you are in the year. Sure, that sounds good but what it really means is that federal employees may have to give up their sick leave for up to 4 years and would only do that in dire circumstances for prolonged illness.

I have been a federal employee for five years and all the agencies that I have worked for have been supportive of families and have tried to be as flexible as possible on leave policies. Of course, they need their employees in the office to do the work of the nation and many offices cannot afford to allow an employee to be out on extended maternity leave for as long as they desire. Most federal employees are hard working and dedicated to their jobs. They want to go back to work, but they also want to do what is medically necessary for themselves and their baby. But the realities of life quickly catch up and those missed paychecks or rapidly depleting leave soon take their toll and women often return to work in less than 12 weeks.

Federal employees don't go to work in public service for the money. They go to work for service to our country. They earn an honest wage that fairly compensates them for their hard work. Federal employees are respected for the work they do to keep our country safe and running (relatively) smoothly. But my friends are appalled when they learn that federal employees are not afforded any type of paid maternity leave, or even the option to purchase short term group disability insurance that covers post-partum recovery (I have called OPM, they don't offer it and no insurance company offers it to individuals).

Women are becoming the top income earners in many families across the nation, especially among younger generations getting married within the last 5 years. Like myself, these women have to think long and hard about how and when they can financially afford to have children. If the breadwinner knows that their income will be diminished or depleted for a number of months, the pressure is on to save as much as possible to cover the costs of maternity leave as well as planning for possible medical complications pre-delivery. A woman's salary is not second to her husband's and yet she may be forced by biology to stop working for a time. In this changing workforce, modern maternity leave policies have to catch up. Parental roles are shifting to be more flexible based on the needs of that particular family. Though many men and women still choose to stay home with their children and forego working for a number of years (though some are essentially forced to stay home if their salary cannot cover the costs of childcare), maternity leave is medically necessary for a woman to recover from childbirth (including assistance from her spouse) and both maternity and paternity leave gives the child essential bonding time with both parents.

I think it would be economically and socially advantageous to pass H.R. 532: Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act of 2015. The federal government should be seen as a model employer and be able to attract and retain top talent to to the nation's work. Affording 6 weeks of paid maternity/paternity/adoption placement leave for its employees is a step toward that goal. A healthier, happier, and more financially stable workforce would greatly benefit the country as a whole. Modern American families are the backbone of this country, so please support them.

Further reading:

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Buying Our First Home: Part 2

This is Part 2 in a series. You can read Part 1 here.

We first began looking at homes online through Zillow (geez, I can lose hours on Zillow) to see what was available, checked out a couple of open houses, and contacted Quicken Loans to get a quote on a mortgage. We pulled our credit reports and checked for errors as well as comparing the debts listed against the debts I track on my spreadsheet. We compared a few loan types including VA, FHA, and Conventional. We began to work with our Realtor and he recommended a local mortgage broker rather than an online mortage broker since the local bank had knowledge of homeowner incentive grant programs in our local parish (that's county for all you non-Louisianians).

We settled on a mortgage broker from a local bank based on a recommendation from our Realtor. We started going through the pre-qualification process with them to find out what we qualified for. We knew that we didn't want to take out a mortgage loan for as much as we could qualify for, since we wanted to be able to comfortably make the payments and not over buy, so we told the mortgage company what range we were looking in and asked them to give us quotes for what a mortgatge for that price range would look like in terms of monthly payments.

We thought we would go for a VA loan because of my husband's prior military service, but we decided against it when we realized that it had higher fees and rates and we didn't really need 100% financing since we had a downpayment. So next we looked at FHA loans since we were looking to put down around 3.5%. Our mortgage broker told us about a parish incentive program for people looking to buy their first home in the parish who made under a certian salary cap. We qualified for the program and I asked about all the strings attached since usually those grants require you to stay in the home a certain number of years, etc. But there were no strings! (I checked and double checked).The FHA with the bond money (grant money) came tied to a 30 year fixed APR at 4.7% which we thought was pretty good and we planned to pay it off in way less than 30 years. When my husband graduates from school and starts working full time again we plan to continue to live off of just my income and chunk his income at his student loans and then at our house payment.

We were excited that we could use the grant money from the parish to pay almost all of our downpayment and keep most of our money for savings and for paying for things we may need to fix or buy for the new home. That was so exciting since I was so nervous about buying a house and totally wiping out our savings since that just seemed like it invited disaster to strike. Plus, I hear callers in to the Dave Ramsey Show calling about just that situation and Dave would talk about how buying a house when you're broke only invites Murphy in. So I really wanted to make sure we were being responsible. Yes, we hadn't followed the baby steps by buying a home while we were still in debt, but I still think he made a good point about making sure to have an emergency fund, especially as a new homeowner because now you are responsible for all repairs and there's no landlord to call.

So with the ball rolling on the mortgage, we asked our Realtor to take us looking at some houses in our neighborhood. We liked our neighborhood for its proximity to my husband's school and my work, as well as its central location to all our friends, shops, and restaurants. We particularly were interested in forclosures since I have had friends in the DC area who have snagged great deals going that route, and because we still had about 6 months on our lease so we had time to wait if we needed to. Our Realtor cautioned against forclosures and short sales since they were a headache, but of course we thought we knew better.

He was a good sport and agreed to take us to look at a few houses we had picked out in our neighborhood, including one that was a foreclosure. We learned a few things on that first house hunting trip:

1. Listen to your realtor when he cautions against foreclosures
Our Realtor agreed that there were some good deals to be had with foreclosures, but that they were often way too much of a hassle for first time homebuyers. He also said that many need a lot of work. In my naiveté, I didn't know what "a lot of work" meant until we saw this first house. This foreclosure was a total wreck. The windows were broken and looked like rocks had been thrown through the glass or they were covered with plywood. The floors had had standing water on then as evidenced by the ring on the baseboards and the completely warped laminate wood flooring. The house smelled terrible, the backyard was just dirt and rocks, and when we turned the corner to walk down the hall there was what looked like blood smeared on the wall. We ran out of there. Perhaps if those were the only issues with the house and we loved it otherwise we could have gotten it at a price low enough to cover the cost of the repairs it needed. But, as our Realtor pointed out, if some bad seed is being foreclosed on and is angry, they may have inflicted damage on the house intentionally or they may have just totally neglected it, so lord knows what other problems may lurk beneath the surface. It reminded me of an episode of Flip or Flop where the former homeowners poured concrete down the toilets when they were foreclosed on. So terrible. No thank you.

2. Small is really small
We were used to living in an apartment and I felt that a 1200 square foot house would give us the room we needed. After all, we didn't need a lot of space and I didn't want to have too big of a house to clean and heat or cool. But after looking at small houses, we realized that small really is small. Sure, a good layout does wonders but if we are looking for a home we can grow into, small isn't it. My husband decided we needed to look for homes over 1600 square feet and while that dramatically cut our options for what was available in our price range, I agreed with him after seeing a few homes that were way too small.

3. You can't change location, but you can change everything else
Location, location, location. Of course we have heard that old adage about real estate but its so true. You can't change the location of the property or the size of the property, but you can change just about everything else. On that first house hunting trip we realized that a lot of the homes in our neighborhood were small and had small yards. Since a yard is really important to us, we realized that that wasn't the right location and looked for other neighborhoods with bigger lot sizes.

4. Weird layouts suck...and you always need a door to a bathroom
Weird layouts that don't make sense are a dealbreaker for me. I do not want to add or remove walls, though if its a simple fix I may be open to it. But completely reconfiguring the plumbing of a bathroom and adding a new wall and door to enclose it? No thank you. Why do people even build bathrooms without doors on them? And by changing the layout I do not mean "oh, I prefer the tub to the left of the shower". No, I mean the tub was in the bedroom (yes, you read that right). That's why you need doors to section off a bathroom. This one house my husband and I looked at ticked all our boxes and was a bit dated (read: popcorn ceiling) and had a small-ish but useable kitchen and was way under our budget (like $15,000 under). Plus it had a garage (albeit a broken door) and a nice sized fenced yard. But we would have had to completely reconfigure the master bath so that the tub was not actually in the bedroom (yup, next to the fireplace...what is this, a romantic ski lodge?). Plus it had a scary shower (see below) that needed to be completely re-done. Despite the low cost we would have had to sink a chunk of change into it. And unlike people on Property Brothers, we don't just have those "savings" lying around (seriously, who has a budget of $250,000 and "saves" $30,000 on a fixer upper so that means they have that money in cash just lying around to pay for renovations?). We were open to a house that needed work which we could do over time, not something that needed to be done just to make it hospitable.

5. Scary Showers
Another thing that we learned was a dealbreaker for us was scary showers. Those are the small tiled in showers that are about 3 square feet large and the ceiling is about three inches above your head. They have no light in them and are these tiny, wretched coffins that spout water onto you. Shudder. I value my shower time and want the shower to be a place where I can relax and be comfortable, not fumbling around in a dark box too small to even bend over to shave my legs. And fixing them means that you have to rip them out and totally replace them with a normal shower. (cash register sound effect) No thank you.

Stay tuned for Part 3.....

Monday, March 16, 2015

If You Don't Have the Money, You Don't Have The Money

There are so many purchases that we make regularly that we often don’t have a line item for in our monthly budgets. Things that occur every few months or bi-annually can be especially tough surprises if we haven’t budgeted for them. Sure it would be great to set aside the money I know I will need the next time both cars need an oil change, but sometimes emergencies come up and you have emergency vet bills, a broken microwave, and a broken cell phone all in the same week. Then I wonder how I will pay for that oil change, haircut, or new pair of black pumps for work. And sometimes what we budgeted for a budget line item (especially groceries and gas but yes, sometimes the cable and phone bill) is much higher than we had planned.

That’s when I have to stop and remember a simple fact: If I don’t have the money, I don’t have the money. If the money I was planning on spending on that haircut has to be spent on a vet bill, then so be it. It can be tempting to dip into that dwindling savings account or swipe that good old American Express to pay for something, but isn’t there another way?

If you can’t afford it now, don’t buy it now. I know, I know, why delay satisfaction when I can just swipe a credit card? I’ll have the money in the future, the next paycheck, or next month’s budget, so I can just pay myself back and make that deposit back into savings or pay back the credit card before the bill comes. But how often do I actually do that? Once it’s swiped, it’s out of my head.

So how can I accept that I can’t pay for something that I had planned on purchasing? Well, first, I ask myself if it is a need or is it a want. When I am honest with myself,  anything that doesn’t shelter me, transport me, feed me, or take care of my health is a want….well maybe my cellphone is a need too. Then, I ask myself if I can do without it until I actually have the money in hand and am not borrowing from next month’s budget or charging it on the credit card. Borrowing from next month’s budget sounds ok, but if you do it enough you will find that you quickly run out of money that next month and have to borrow from the following month too.

Here are some tips for delaying those purchases when you just don’t have the money.

Yes, your ends are dry and splitting and no, you don’t have money for a cut now. Instead, try going to a beauty school rather than a regularly-priced salon to get those tresses tamed. Also try a deep conditioner, wearing topknots or buns, or just try some new hairstyles to keep it looking fresh until the money comes in.

Oil Changes
Are you getting an oil change every 3,000 miles still? Sure, we all remember that Jiffy Lube jingle, but most cars built since 2005 (and some even earlier) can go 6,000 miles between oil changes. Don’t know if your car can? Check the owner’s manual and check the oil indicator light in your dash. Until it’s at 15% or lower, you’re good to go. And if you actually need that oil change but can’t afford it? Look for coupons online to bring the price down or drive as little as possible. Take your significant other’s car to run your errands or ask your friend to swing by and pick you up before girl’s night rather than meeting her there. Maybe even carpool to work with a nearby colleague.

Great Deals at Drugstores
But it’s free with register rewards! This is my favorite kind of toothpaste and it’s only $.50 (after the Target gift card I get with purchase)! We all love deals, otherwise we wouldn’t be Krazy Coupon Ladies. But let’s get real. You probably have tons of toothpaste in your stockpile right now. And if you need that money for something else, like perishable veggies or milk, don’t spend it on adding to your stockpile. It may be a great deal and it’s sad to miss it, but great deals are cyclical and it will come again. The same rule applies to the sale rack at Marshalls. Step away. You can get another skirt when you can actually afford it.

Scuffed Heels
We all have that trusty pair of black pumps that we wear to work every day (and everywhere) and it has seen better days. One day, you look down and realize how scuffed the toe is, the seam is starting to rip, and the heel is almost totally worn off. Is it time to head to the mall for some nice, new, “professional-looking” shoes. Stand in your truth (or your scuffed heels rather). If you can’t afford a new pair of heels, even if there’s a big sale, wait until you can. Get some Kiwi shoe polish and buff out the scuffs. Take those pumps to a cobbler (yes, they are still around) and they can repair the worn heel and ripping seam for just a few bucks, allowing you to get another few month’s of wear out of them. And really, no one is looking that closely at your shoes anyway.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Buying Our First Home: Part 1

We are officially homeowners now! My husband and I just closed on our first home and we are beaming with boundless excitement, hope, and possibilities that come with buying a home that we hope to grow into for years to come.

Our home buying story began last spring. My husband and I had been talking about "one day when we buy a house" for a few years, especially since we moved to Baton Rouge from Washington, DC two years ago because home prices here are a quarter of what they are in DC (for serious, a quarter of the cost, we checked). Home prices were low and the market was recovering. We kept hearing about historically low interest rates on mortgages and started thinking that maybe that now was the right time. We knew we were settled into Baton Rouge, had friends, knew the town, and planned to stay even after my husband finished his degree.

I knew that I did not know anything about the home buying process and I wanted to become as informed as possible, so I started researching it. I went to the library and read Ilyce Glink's 100 Questions Every First-Time Home Buyer Should Ask: With Answers from Top Brokers from Around the Country cover to cover. It is a bit dated, but has solid advice and information so I would recommend it to any newbie home buyer. I read other books, blogs, and articles on the current housing market, changes in mortgage rates, and other bloggers' home buying stories. I spoke with my friends and family about their experiences and rounded out my education so that I felt comfortable with my understanding of the process. I wanted to make sure that we knew what we were doing and felt comfortable with the purchase process.

Almost 20 years ago, my parents had bought me and both of my sisters stock with $800 that my grandparents' had given to each of us. My parents being the money savvy people they are, they bought stock in a natural resources company which had historically seen a good return from rising stock prices. Thank god they did not put it in a savings account earning less than 1% interest or took us on vacation with the money. My parents told us about the money and told us that they bought stock with it. As a kid, that is a lame Christmas gift. But my parents are known for fiscally responsible albeit lame gifts, like the year that we all got envelopes with IRA paperwork we needed to sign because my folks were opening IRAs for us in minor trust accounts.

I forgot about the stock until last spring when I did our taxes and was entering in the taxable amount of the dividends earned on the stock (we reinvested the dividends so they just kept buying more shares). I do that every year but this year I realized that the stock value had grown to over $5,000, enough to use for a down payment!

My husband and I had many discussions about what we wanted in a home, mostly a backyard and comfortable space to live in and grow into. We also took a look at our budget to figure out how much we could afford to spend monthly on a mortgage note and used online mortgage calculators to roughly determine our price range. We agreed that we wanted to be able to comfortably afford our mortgage on my income alone so that when my husband graduated from school in a couple years we would be able to pay off his debts and our mortgage without stress. That would also leave breathing room for future costs like children.

We got a referral for a great Realtor from friends of ours who had recently bought a new house near us. We had a few calls and emails with him discussing what we were looking for in a home before we went out looking at homes. We are easy to please, no demand for granite countertops and we like dated kitchens and bathrooms. We don't care if it's pink tile, as long as we can move in and comfortably live without having to knock down structurally deficient walls and in a safe part of town, we are happy.

More on our house hunt in the next installment...

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

I Got Paid!: January 2015

Online surveys and mystery shopping get a bad rap. Many people think that they are just scams but there are really some great (and legitimate) companies out there that will pay you for your time and effort. And to prove it, here's what I earned from online surveys and mystery shopping last month, among other endeavors. I completed these mystery shops and surveys in the previous month (or earlier) and received the payment this month. Some of these mystery shops required me to pay something out of pocket to purchase a good or service (which I get to keep) but I was reimbursed for my purchase and was usually paid an additional fee. The amount I earned from mystery shops includes the reimbursement for my purchases.

Mystery shopping usually requires that you purchase something specific from the store you are evaluating for which you are then reimbursed. I usually charge those purchases onto my credit card so that I get rewards points and so that it does not use up my grocery budget for that month. When I am paid for mystery shopping I pay myself back and transfer the amount of money I spent on those mystery shopping purchases back to the credit card. The remainder is my profit.

January 2015
Freelance Writing- $50.00
Blogging/ Ad Revenue- $15.00
Intellishop- $32.15
Sinclair Customer Metrics- $26.28
About Face- $13.00
Rebates- $20.00
Pact- $15.08
Ibotta- $10.00
Shopmium- $.45 (use referral code HGCCMKWQ for a free Lindt chocolate bar when you sign up!)
Gigwalk- $6.00
Field Agent- $23.50
EasyShift- $21.00

Total: $232.46

What did I do with this extra income?

I used this extra cash to make the last payments to my Mom and sister for the rental houses we stayed in while we were in England over the summer for my other sister's wedding! YAY! I was so excited to write those checks. I have never been so happy to give someone money I owed them. I feels great to know that all this hard work has been paying off and two more debts have been scratched off of my list. On to the next one!

Did you make any extra income last month? What are you using your side hustle money for?