Posted by: Kate Ashford | March 29, 2012

Um. Student Loans for Grade School?

Danger: Deep Hole

Right. This.

Ladies and gentlemen, have we all lost our minds? One of my sources today (thanks, Mary) alerted me to the following article from SmartMoney, which indicates that student loans are on the rise. For kindergarten.

There is so much that is wrong with this picture.

Student loans are already a significant problem—and that’s just for college. But if parents start borrowing money to send their kids to private kindergarten, private middle school, private high school, then we are in a world of trouble. Has it really come to this? Is our educational system so broken that parents feel they must pay for private education, even from age 5, and even if they can’t afford it?

Let’s talk about the fact that private schools cost, on average, almost $22,000 a year now. Let’s talk about the interest that you’ll pay on these loans, which ranges from 4% to 20%. The article mentions that lower rates are given to parents with higher credit scores. Folks, if you are borrowing money to send your kid to private kindergarten, and you’re paying 20% on that loan because you have terrible credit, perhaps you should take a look at your financial priorities.

Let’s also talk about what this means for the rest of your financial picture. Because if you’re borrowing money to send your kids to private school, I’m going to bet that you aren’t saving for college. And are you saving for retirement? Are you saving for anything?

The family in the article admits that they’ve saved $0 for college for their two children.

Instead, he says, they’re trying to give them the best education now in the hopes that it’ll open doors to better colleges. “We’ll figure out how to pay for it then, or with any luck they’ll get scholarships,” he says. “Right or wrong, we’re hoping our experiment works.”

I hope your experiment works, too, sir. Because if your children don’t get scholarships and you can’t pay for college out of pocket, you’re looking at tens of thousands of dollars in future student loans, as well—or saddling your kids with that debt. Good luck retiring on that.

Would you take out a significant loan to put your 5-year-old in private school?

(Photo from finkangel on Flickr.)

Posted by: Kate Ashford | March 2, 2012

Thanks For My $80 Magazine Subscription.

JJ Cole Swag Bag

I could buy this JJ Cole Swag Bag for $79.95. Or I could subscribe to a magazine.

I got something interesting in the mail recently. It was a renewal notice for my subscription to Money magazine. The offer? Thirteen issues for $79.95.

Let me repeat that: $79.95.

That’s $6.15 per issue, which is more than the actual cover price if I bought it on a newsstand. That’s just nutty.

That’s so nutty, in fact, that it feels like a scam. Are there people who simply check “Renew” and mail this thing in? After all, the flyer says, in bold type, “You’re receiving one of the lowest available rates we can offer for your regular subscription.” Am I? Am I really?

Also, let’s consider the company sending this offer. It’s not Time Inc. It’s the Associated Publishers Network. A quick Google search yields absolutely no company by this name. In fact, the only thing it pulls up is a variety of links to this guy’s website–he got the same offer that I did. Then there’s the sketchy direction to “make checks payable to APN.” That could be anyone.

I tried calling the company, because I was curious. The first time, I spent about 20 minutes on hold before I was finally directed to leave a message. I didn’t leave a message.

I called back and finally reached Kristie, who cheerfully offered me a new rate: $69.95.

Me: “You know that’s more than the cover price for the magazine, right?”
Kristie: “Yes it is.”
Me: “That’s ridiculous. Do a lot of people take you up on this?”
Kristie: “Yes, a lot of people do.”
Me: “Did you know that Time Inc. offers the exact same subscription for $14.95?”
Kristie: “There are different offers out there, and you can go with whomever you wish.”

She was very pleasant, at least.

I politely declined. I’ll subscribe via the actual publisher of the magazine, thank you. Readers, I hope you’ll do the same.

Posted by: Kate Ashford | February 17, 2012

62 and No Health Insurance? Sure, That Makes Sense.

Trapeze artist with net

This trapeze artist has a net. Maybe he would share it with my uninsured friend?

A good friend of mine, age 62—let’s call him Craig—is without health insurance right now. Why, you ask? It’s because no one will insure him. Craig lost his job in the summer of 2010, and his COBRA health benefits ran out at the end of January. He hasn’t been able to find another position like the one he left, and although he was able to land a two-year temporary position in his field, the health benefits offered through the temp agency don’t include a comprehensive medical plan. Instead, his only option there is a “mini-med” health plan—the kind that is currently under investigation by Consumer Reports.

Craig has a number of pre-existing conditions that require a few thousand dollars in prescription drugs every year, so health insurance companies won’t insure him, for any price. Because he’s not married, he’s unable to get health coverage through a spouse. Because he’s not 65, he’s not yet eligible for Medicare.

His only option at the moment is to join his state’s high risk pool, a health plan for the uninsurable. The catch? Most residents have to be uninsured for at least three months to get into the pool, and if you’ve just finished COBRA, you must be uninsured for at least six months.

So, at the moment, even though he has a job and he’s jumping through all the proper hoops, Craig will be without health insurance until August 1st. Before embarking on this uninsured leap of faith, he made sure that he’d stockpiled enough medication to get him through the gap in coverage, and he got a full physical from his doctor.

“The doctor said, ‘You can’t imagine the number of people who walk into this office with the same problem,’” Craig says. “He said, ‘Just hang in there for six months and you’re home free.’”

I spoke to Craig on January 31st. “Today is my last insured day,” he said. “Tomorrow I will be uninsured.”

The good news is that in 2014, barring a rollback of Obamacare, this wouldn’t be an issue for Craig, because he’d be able to find health insurance via a state-run exchange. It’s also good news that the high-risk pool is even an option for Craig—and that’s also something that Obama’s healthcare package put in place.

The bad news is that if anything happens to Craig in the next six months that requires major medical care, he’s putting his entire life’s savings in jeopardy.

I’m crossing my fingers for him.

(Photo of fetching trapeze artist from Wylie Maercklein on Flickr.)

 

Posted by: Kate Ashford | January 27, 2012

My College Savings Stress, Solved!

Dollar Bill Yo-Yo

Because this yo-yo is made out of money, but I am not.

I write about personal finance, so I know how important it is to save money for your children’s college education. (As long as you’re not doing it to the detriment of your retirement account, of course.)  I talk to financial planners several times a week, and I know that the key is to start early. START NOW. I get it. I do.

So I’ve been a little stressed out that we haven’t managed to be more aggressive about college savings for our two girls. But we live in New York City, and frankly, it’s expensive. It’s beyond expensive. It’s nuts. And the amount of money we spend on basic fixed expenses—rent, daycare—is outrageous.

And then it hit us. We spend a lot of money on daycare. We spend more money on daycare than we do on rent. (Those of you familiar with NYC rent numbers will understand that our monthly bill is not insignificant.)

But daycare is not forever. At some point, these girls will enter school. Public school, if we can help it, which means we’ll no longer be paying for daycare. Which means we’ll have THOUSANDS to funnel into their college savings funds each year. If we save even half of what we’re spending now, we’ll have a sizable college nest egg by the time each girl is ready for collegiate life.

But could it be that easy? Is it just a matter of redirecting the money we’re already spending? And if it’s that easy, why doesn’t everyone (who pays childcare expenses) do this? And is it okay that this savings strategy won’t kick in until the girls are 5 years old?

I asked a planner friend of mine to weigh in.

“That sounds like a great plan,” says Ted Toal, a financial planner in Annapolis. Most people, he says, are more likely to dream about how they’re going to spend their newly freed-up money, not save it. But this strategy can work with anything. “Let’s say you have a car payment of $500 a month and you pay the car off,” Toal says. “Don’t spend that money. Start saving it. Put it into a savings account. Put it into an investment. Up your 401(k) contribution.”

The takeaway? This could work for us. And I’m no longer stressed about saving for college, because the money is already in our budget. And when the time comes, we’ll just shift those payments from “daycare” to “529 plans”—with maybe a little bit earmarked for “weddings.” Because we do have two girls, after all.

What’s your college savings strategy?

(Dollar bill yo-yo from felipejcontreras on Flickr.)

Posted by: Kate Ashford | January 10, 2012

The Latest Gym Incentive: Pay As You Don’t Go?

Girl on treadmill

Doesn't she look happy? She's avoiding a fine by working out!

It’s January. Tis the season for healthy resolutions and crowded gyms.

But come March, what might motivate you to keep hitting the elliptical at your local Gold’s or 24-Hour Fitness? A personal trainer? A photo of a svelter you? Or—and here’s an idea—what if you had to pay a fine every time you skip your workout?

A new service is betting on the latter option. Sign up with GymPact, commit to a number of workouts per week, and if you don’t hit them all, you’ll pay a predetermined fine (minimum: $5) for every missed sweat session. And if you do keep your gym promises, you’ll actually earn money, paid for by all the schmoes who got fined. The amount you earn will vary depending on how many people paid into the communal pot and how many workouts you scheduled, but it would likely come out to about $1.50 per week. (So it’ll take you a while to save up for that Kindle Fire.)

A few things:

Thing 1: This app is only available for iPhone users, so Android, Blackberry and other off-Apple brands can’t join the fining fun, for now.

Thing 2: The app uses your phone’s GPS capability to know when you’re at the gym. So if you’re an outdoor exerciser (running, anyone?) or doing a Jillian Michaels video at home, this won’t work for you.

Thing 3: Isn’t this kind of the idea of paying for a gym, to begin with? The if-you’re-paying-for-it-surely-you’ll-use-it argument? Although I guess your gym doesn’t add money to your account if you go. So there’s that.

Still, GymPact claims that its users complete their promised gym commitments about 90 percent of the time.

Would this work for you?

(Photo from jamesmcashan on Flickr.)

Posted by: Kate Ashford | December 15, 2011

Wait. Am I Supposed to Be Holiday Shopping?

Free Shipping DayIn my head, I am not a procrastinator. In my head, I have plentiful, joyous plans for the holidays that involve buying gifts in November. NOVEMBER, people.

And in some ways, I am on top of things. We had family holiday photos taken the first weekend in November. I really felt like I was ahead of the game. But between the time it took to receive the images and the time it’s taken Shutterfly to fill our holiday card order (What’s up, Shutterfly?), our cards will be mailed tomorrow, at earliest. That would be December 16th, for those of you who haven’t checked a calendar in a while. (So look for your card — we’re sending them to EVERYONE! Wait, no. Maybe not everyone.)

Speaking of December 16th, let me bring up one of my favorite holiday happenings: Free Shipping Day.

Have you heard of this? It is the Best. Thing. Ever. For those of you who’ve been putting your holiday shopping off until the last minute (i.e. me), a variety of merchants will be offering free shipping, with guaranteed delivery by Christmas Eve.

That’s tomorrow. TOMORROW.

So if you’ve got a stack of catalogs sitting on your kitchen table, tonight is the night to go through them. Get your Internet ready. Because tomorrow, December 16th, is Free Shipping Day.

Retailers include Barnes & Noble, Bed Bath & Beyond, Land’s End, Sephora, Apple, Eddie Bauer, you name it. (The full list will be revealed in the morning.)

I will be shopping like a maniac. Join me at FreeShipping.org.

Posted by: Kate Ashford | December 9, 2011

Money Clips (12.9)

Money Clips: A collection of interesting news that may or may not be about money.

Foldeer

It's a paper deer head for your wall. You fold it yourself. No, really.

Poor Rudolph. In retrospect, experts think Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer may have been bullied. After all, all of the other reindeer used to laugh and call him names, right? From ABC News.

What Not To Do At Work If You Want to Keep Your Job. The list includes taking shots of Jack Daniels at your desk and calling your congressman employer an “idiot boss” on Twitter. Take note. From CBS.

Spirit Airlines keeps it classy. Now that Rod Blagojevich has been sentenced to 14 years in prison, Spirit Airlines is offering a “Slammer Sale.” From their marketing materials: “You don’t have to live in the ‘Big House’ to take advantage of these fares.” Nice. From NBC Chicago.

Got a Ford Fusion? Or a Mercury Milan? Ford is recalling its 2010 and 2011 models of the cars because, well, the wheels could fall off. Good luck with that. From USA Today.

4 gifts that keep on taking. What if you could give a gift that would cost its recipient hundreds of dollars over time? You can! Check out SmartMoney.com’s list.

Wedding oops. Supposing you were getting married. And supposing your in-laws were Muslim and religiously opposed to eating pork. Then supposing your wedding caterers served rice with pork sausage, potatoes with ham, salad with bacon, and ham sandwiches? (Aside from the obvious problem, what kind of food selection IS that?) From the Consumerist.

Deer on the wall. So you’ve always wanted a deer head on your wall (don’t we all?), but you don’t want to shoot one? Enter Foldeer, stage right. It’s a paper toy deer head that you fold yourself into a 25-inch piece of 3D wall art. Don’t everyone order all at once. From ABC News.

Happy weekend, all. Try not to bully any reindeer.

Posted by: Kate Ashford | December 8, 2011

An Easy (ish) Way to Save on Holiday Gifts

Gift Card Bracelet

A bracelet made from recycled gift cards. It seemed fitting.

If you aren’t buying gift cards this holiday (ahem, shopping) season, you’re in the minority. Something like eight out of 10 holiday shoppers have plans to buy gift cards, according to the latest numbers from the National Retail Federation’s 2011 holiday survey.

What you might not know is that you don’t have to pay full price for gift cards, according to this neat little piece from MSNBC. The answer: Buy them from resellers and save up to 35 percent on gift cards from retailers like Home Depot and Macy’s.

But here’s the thing you may not have considered: You don’t necessarily have to buy a discounted gift card and give it as a gift. (“Here’s a gift card with $33.97 on it. Merry Christmas!”)

You can buy a discounted gift card and use it to buy gifts.

This is genius, I think. Buy a $200 gift card to Pottery Barn for $180, then use it to pick up gifts for a handful of people on your list—and you’ve saved 10 percent before you even started.

MSNBC recommends using established sites to do this, and I second that recommendation, but I’d never really poked around on them before. So here’s a rundown:

  • Plastic Jungle: This seems like a really nice site, selling gift cards from a variety of big-name retailers, and you simply search for what you want, and purchase. Completely simple. (Spotted: 10% off cards from Pottery Barn Kids.)
  • Gift Card Granny: At first glance, this site seems like it offers a ton of great gift cards, but then you realize that the majority of them are eBay finds—meaning you have to jockey with the masses to secure the deal. I don’t have time for this. (Maybe you do. Go for it.)
  • CardHub: I’ve heard good things about this site, but I can’t tell you much. The gift card portion of the website was down all day.
  • Cardpool: Another nice little site with a nice selection of gift cards. (Spotted: 15% off gift cards from Anthropologie.)
  • Giftcards.com: Limited selection, and you can’t tell what kind of discount you’ll get until you click on a merchant. Even then, the site doesn’t calculate the discount for you, as other sites do. That doesn’t mean there are no good deals here, but you’ll have to work harder to find them. (Spotted: 13% off cards from Pier One.)
  • Gift Card Castle: I wasn’t wowed by the selection here, either. (Why so many Tommy Bahama cards? Do people really buy gift cards for Tommy Bahama?) There is no way to sort by discount, and many of the major retailers are missing. Not impressed, but again, you should check it out if you have a specific retailer in mind. (Spotted: 12% off cards from iTunes.)

Last, but not least, a note: These sites will also help you sell a gift card, if you get one that doesn’t appeal to you. Just something to think about, come January.

Shop on, campers. Shop on.

(Bracelet from Courtney Dirks on Flickr.)

Posted by: Kate Ashford | November 4, 2011

Yet Another Reason to Read Your Mail

Checkboxes

Yep. That about covers it.

So I got a mailing from Chase Bank the other day, and I almost ditched it immediately—it had that junk-mail air about it.

But I opened it. And I’m glad I did. Because this is what it said:

Currently, our records indicate that you are not being mailed any offers from Chase. We are updating our customers’ preferences for receiving these mailings. We want to be sure that you know about available offers and that you have the opportunity to consider them.

Please completely fill in the ovals below next to the Chase product and service offers you do not want to receive by mail: (Emphasis theirs.)

  • Auto and Vehicle Financing
  • Credit Card
  • Education Loans
  • Home Equity & Mortgage
  • Annuities and Insurance
  • Investments
  • Personal Banking
  • Business Banking
  • Value Added Products and Services

If you do not respond, you may begin to receive offers in the mail about these products and services. (Emphasis mine.)

Okey doke. Let me get this straight. I have somehow managed to successfully opt out of your unwanted promotional mailings, and you’re just double checking to make sure I still don’t want a flood of useless offers in my mailbox?

And if I’d chucked this into my trash can without reading it—as many Chase customers will probably do—I would have started receiving promotional offers in as many as nine different product categories?

Frankly, I’m actually not all that irritated. I’m even a little impressed by the attempt, which will bump more than a few absentminded Chase customers back onto the bank’s marketing lists. I mean, it’s not like they didn’t ask.

Well done, Chase. Very sneaky. (But, readers—pay attention to your snail mail.)

(Earrings from Web Property Developer on Flickr.)

Posted by: Kate Ashford | November 2, 2011

Bank of America says, “Eh, maybe not.”

Crab

Because debit card fees make me crabby.

I imagine the past few weeks haven’t been the best for Bank of America’s public relations team, after BofA announced that it was going to charge customers $5 a month to use their debit cards.

Oh, the outcry! The petitions! The bad press!

(I’ll bet the media team at Netflix could commiserate.)

The kind of hilarious part about all the hubbub was that Bank of America wasn’t the only bank contemplating charging fees to access your own cash. A handful of other banks were testing fees in various markets around the country.

Evidently, no more. Last Friday, Chase and Wells Fargo decided to nix the debit card fees they’d been testing in a few places. And on Monday, Regions Financial Corp and Suntrust dropped the fees they’d already put in place—and said they’ll be reimbursing customers.

Then, yesterday, the big kaboom. Bank of America is ditching its debit card fee as well.

Triumph! The little guy wins!

At least, for now. Banks will surely think of another way to charge higher fees, now that they’re collecting so much less revenue otherwise. But it’s nice to know that publicly airing our dissatisfaction can make a difference, especially when it comes to egregious fees.

Keep voting with your feet, folks. If you don’t like the way your bank is doing things, find another bank. It actually works.

(Photo from Big Max Power on Flickr.)

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