December 31, 2010

New Year's Resolution

Ali Bar

On the eve of the New Year we look back at 2010, and despite the economic woes, overall it was a good year in many respects. My family members held on to their jobs, I did well in school, I have good friends and I think everyone learned to be more frugal.  We can only hope 2011 will usher in a more solid foundation to build upon. I’ve begun to think about how I only have two more semesters left in school and will soon enter the real world no longer protected by my collegiate bubble. Economic worries that others have faced will soon become very real to me, especially as I begin searching for a job. That's why I can't stress enough that I really want 2011 to turn for the better. I've already started looking for summer internships in architecture. I'm hopeful I’ll get one, but the sad truth is most don't pay. And that really isn't an option for me. I need a paid summer internship and finding one will be my top goal for the first part of 2011. I may be somewhat limited in this search because if I find a job outside Miami, it’ll have to be in a city where I can afford to pay for room and board. By this time next year, I’ll be out of school and will need to make finding a full-time job my main priority. So my New Year's resolution is to find a job and, of course, to be frugal and not overextend my resources. When I land a job, I also hope to begin saving some money. I really have no savings cushion at this point because I spent last summer studying in South America, not working. So this winter break I’m networking and getting my portfolio ready to send out to architectural firms. Any and all leads are appreciated.

Fireworks02

Happy New Year! May your wallets and hearts be filled in the coming year.


Posted by Ali Bair at 10:27 PM in College finances, Job hunting, Savings
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December 29, 2010

Roman Adventures

Ali Bar

In less than three weeks, I will start my journey to Rome.  And I do mean journey. My Aer Lingus flight leaves from Miami, goes to Boston, then Dublin and finally arrives in Rome. It was the most inexpensive fare I could find when I booked, and now at least I can say I've been to Dublin. Still, at $450 one-way, I wouldn’t call the fare cheap. Once I'm in Europe, traveling should be a little easier to handle financially.  First off, there is Ryanair Airlines. Browsing their website, I found that I can fly from Rome to Paris for 10 euros or around $13.  Because Ryanair offers such inexpensive tickets, it means that weekend trips to other countries should be feasible and that makes me quite happy.  Another place to look for inexpensive flights is easyjet.com. I also just got the news that I landed a job as a library assistant at Cornell University’s facility in Rome, so that means there will be some income available for short side trips – as well as food and other necessities.  Still, I have no doubt this will be my most expensive semester ever. It also will probably be the one I never forget. I will really need to watch my euros. If anyone has any tips about traveling in Europe on a budget or buying food, send them my way. It'll be great to start 2011 in a different country.  Hope everyone has a great New Year's. Ciao (practicing the Italian).


Posted by Ali Bair at 11:05 AM in College finances, Entertainment, Food, Impulsive spending, Savings, Vacations
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December 27, 2010

Finding Warmth in the Cold

Ali Bar

Just before I left New York for Miami, I confess I engaged in a little splurge. It's one more thing that's going to make it more difficult to pay off my credit card in full this month, but I think it was totally worth it. The day I turned in my last assignment, I wanted to celebrate a bit and it was also really freezing outside. So a friend and I decided to head to the Wall Street Bath & Spa, a Russian bath in the financial district that had come highly recommended. It set me back $32.50, but had I wanted, I could have spent the whole day there defrosting. What does that $32.50 get you?  There is a Turkish steam room,  two Russian saunas, a plunge pool, swimming pool, and a jacuzzi.  Other spa services are available for an additional charge and you'll also find a restaurant and cafe area.  We spent around four hours there, which breaks down to about $8 an hour.  The smell of the stoves in the sauna was so nice, and the steam room smelled like eucalyptus oil.  We were warmed from the inside out.  I didn't even feel the cold when we left  despite the 30° temperature . I just felt toasty and relaxed. It's an experience everyone should try at least once. You end up feeling cleansed and all the stress that you've been feeling  build during  the week melts away.  That makes the price a bargain in my book. So if you're in one of the areas in the country where the snow is piling up this week, head to your nearest bathhouse. Your body will thank you.


Posted by Ali Bair at 03:04 PM in Entertainment, Vacations
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December 26, 2010

King Mango Strut

Ali Bar

For anyone looking for something enjoyable to do on the day after Christmas that will put an end to the streak of spending, I’d recommend heading over to the 29th King Mango Strut parade in Coconut Grove. The festivities start at 2 p.m. The King Mango Strut, which now has outlived the Orange Bowl parade, is all about humor – humor taken from the year’s top headlines. One year the high school girls behind the viral Chongalicious video on YouTube rode a float and performed. So sad to think that when I was in New York, no one seemed to know what I was talking about when I said chonga. The parade begins at the corner of Commodore Plaza and Main Highway. This joyful afternoon of satire is absolutely free. The only thing you might end up paying for is parking. My family and I usually head over to Scotty's Landing for lunch or dinner before or after the parade. It’s a little difficult to find since it’s tucked behind a boatyard, but it’s right on the water and offers a variety of reasonably priced burgers, sandwiches, and salads and, of course, there’s seafood. It’s nice to get together with your family one more time before everyone returns to work on Monday. Hope everyone had a very enjoyable Christmas. We ordered a ham and turkey breast, but my mom and I opted out of buying pre-made sides and made everything else from scratch from the sweet potato cheese cake to the corn bread – and even had homemade salad dressing. There are tons of leftovers and, in retrospect, we may have gotten a bit carried away with the menu but we had an excellent dinner and probably won’t have to cook for the next week.


Posted by Ali Bair at 11:08 AM in Entertainment, Food, Savings
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December 24, 2010

Holiday Festivities

Ali Bar

For those of you still scurrying around for last-minute gift ideas, today is it. For those in New York, there was the Union Square Holiday Market to make gift buying a little easier. I'd pass through it occasionally on my way to the subway, and, of course, I had to look at everything. I paused at the scarves and jewelry mostly. Some of the merchandise is reasonably priced; other items are quite expensive. On the bargain end, a find of mine bought a nice pair of earrings for $20. But it's definitely a cheery atmosphere and a great way to get into the holiday spirit. Being the eve of Christmas, it closed at 4 p.m. today. But keep it in mind for future shopping. It’s open from Thanksgiving until Christmas Eve. There are more than 100 merchants selling a variety of local and handmade gifts.  And even if you don't end up buying anything, it’s still fun looking. You can top it off with a cup of hot chocolate or warm apple cider and it adds up to a pleasant way to spend an afternoon in New York City.

Now I’m back in Miami, and the smell of backyard pig roasts hangs in the air. Even though I don’t like pork, it smells good. If you’re still not in the holiday spirit and need a cheap fix of cheer, check out the lights on 137th Terrace off 16th Ave. in North Miami. The whole neighborhood participates and lights are strung up into the lofty heights of huge live oaks. Check out the video and you’ll see it’s pretty special. The line of cars crawling down the street can be pretty daunting but it usually ends with a candy cane. You need to drive slowly anyways to check out all the lights. We used to go every year when I was a kid and I still enjoy the tradition. Merry Christmas


Posted by Ali Bair at 06:39 PM in Entertainment
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December 23, 2010

An Alternative to Buying Presents

Ali Bar

Considering my bank account has dipped quite low around this holiday season, I'm struggling to get gifts for friends and family. And while they may understand holidays aren't about gifts but about spending time with the people you love, I'd still like to treat them to something nice. In my case, that has to be something nice that also is low cost. Hard perhaps, but lately I’ve been feeling very DIY, so I’m optimistic.

In the past I've silk-screened T-shirts -- a skill I picked up in high school. Plain T-shirts at craft stores cost about $6. Since I already have the supplies, T-shirts have been really good gifts that are also quite personal. I’ve silk-screened designs of artists, and flying horses based on an Ecuadorian textile. If you want nicer T-shirts, try looking at amazon.com where you can get basic American Apparel shirts for half of what they sell for in the store. You can also stitch designs on T-shirts with different color threads –a technique that’s easier than silk-screening.

Handmade cards are also a good way to let friends and family know you care. Another idea I’m toying with is making a candle holder out of Rockite, a concrete-like material. I’m not sure how this will work out, but if it doesn’t, I’m only out the cost of Rockite, which isn’t too expensive. If I’m happy with the design, I’ll add a few tea candles and it’ll be ready to go.

Another gift that’s always appreciated is giving the gift of yourself – in other words, offering to help someone else with a bit of physical labor or a service. My mother wanted to rearrange office furniture, so I spent a few hours helping her push around furniture and I put her new bookcase together. In the past, I’ve painted the gazebo and a bathroom as a surprise. I found the paint in the garage, so the only expenditure was my energy. These are kind of nontraditional gifts but I think they mean more than just picking up something from a store. And, of course, you also avoid fighting the mobs at the mall.

If you have any other cost-saving gift ideas, post them quick so everyone will be ready for December 25.


Posted by Ali Bair at 09:27 PM in Impulsive spending, Savings, Shopping
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December 22, 2010

Finishing Up School on a Budget

Ali Bar

Amid final exams and projects and the stresses that go along with it, watching my spending was, well, let's just say I'm a little less frugal during those times. My time becomes more important than my finances. Case in point: Spending on food during finals week got out of control. Since this happens every finals week, you'd think by now I'd have some clever way of handling working really hard and eating on a budget. But no. I will also throw out there that I was plagued by the flu during finals week. While it felt like pure death at the time, I actually saved money due to my nonexistent appetite. I realize that sounds like kind of a pathetic rationalization. Hey guys, get sick. You won't want to eat, save money. Uhh, NO!

Let me tell you what I would recommend. First off when you are stressed out and feel as though you have no time and you just want to go to the super expensive French bakery downstairs, HALT. Do it once and you will eat there not just for breakfast but also for lunch and dinner. I’m sure you students and former students know exactly what I’m talking about. Just because you're super busy, doesn't mean you can totally throw your budget out the window – especially if you check your accounts as I did after the frenzy of late nights in the studio and realized my next credit card bill will be something I can’t pay in full. I’m particularly paranoid about paying off my credit card bill entirely each month. So slipping up a little here and owing a little more there is definitely a habit I want to avoid.

But back on topic, what to do when you are stressed, busy, and don't have time to make lunch. Go to grocery stores for sandwiches and subs. They are most often cheaper than restaurants or cafes. And if you really are in a bind, go to the $1 a slice pizza joint, not the healthiest, but definitely the most budget friendly. Or find a place with good prices and big portions to extend a meal's life by having it for lunch and dinner. That way you also save time. I found a little Thai restaurant near my studio that had $7 lunch specials. I got the Pad Thai with four small egg rolls. That was good for both lunch and dinner
and at $3.50 per meal was definitely better than the $11 I would have spent at the French bakery.

Here’s another option: Work really hard, and then take a longer break that allows time to go home and eat dinner. Or try to plan the day so you begin your studies early, eat breakfast at home and then manage to get home for a late dinner. Hopefully this coming finals week, I'll follow my own advice. Of course, this will be easier said than done, considering I'll be in Rome for a semester abroad and will want to try every restaurant that I come across. But I'll restrain myself.

Despite my money woes, this semester ended very well. Now I'm back in Miami to revitalize and there couldn't be a better place. Oh, 74° how I missed you.


Posted by Ali Bair at 10:07 PM in Banking, College finances, Food, Impulsive spending, Savings
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December 21, 2010

Presenting ... the girl with no gifts

Name bar I have not bought a single present for anyone in my family. For the significant other. For my friends, the lawn guy, co-workers or even me for that matter.

I considered braving the mall last night, but my last meeting ended at 8:40 and my stomach was growling so much I knew I'd end up buying some overpriced gourmet chocolate for myself and walking through the aisles in a bewildered state of confusion.

My family is usually easy to shop for. My parents say they need a thing or two here and there without realizing they are giving me gift ideas. The significant other drops hints without knowing it, too.
My nieces are happy with anything I give them, including books, dictionaries, clotheCHRISTMAS-SHOPPINGs and craft supplies. I usually turn photos of the girls into gifts of some kind -- calendar, coasters, wall hangings -- for my sister and brother-in-law.  

But I've been so self-absorbed lately I haven't even started thinking about presents until now.

A happy new year's it will be for my friends and family, apparently!

For those of you who are wiser than me but still scouting for that last gift or two, I want to share some advice from Kiplinger's.

They have a "10-things-not-to-buy" for the holidays list and if you have fallen prey to one of its members, there's still time to undo your purchase.

Televisions aren't really at their best price this time of year, they say. January or February is when retailers lower prices in the previous year's models. Cameras, what with the likes of Ashton Kutcher hocking them, may be a must-have for someone on your list. Like TVs, it's best to wait a few more months as the older models are put on the clearance shelves. President's Day might be a more fitting holiday to celebrate with a new photo gizmo.

Wait for January white sales to by sheets and towels -- an annual tradition dating to the 19th century, Kiplinger's says. Tools for Dad will be cheaper around Father's Day than they are now.

Check out the other no-no's, never mind the snow blower.

Granted, this collection of don'ts isn't giving me a reason to rush out and abuse my credit cards, because I wasn't thinking I'd get a good deal anyway, shopping in a listless state. If you have suggestions or advice for me and my fellow present procrastinators, well, don't be a Scrooge.


Posted by Nirvi Shah at 01:17 PM in Impulsive spending, Shopping
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December 20, 2010

Gifting Ideas for Kids

Amanda Bar

Being a new aunt (my nieces are 2 years and 6 months, respectively) I've had to become a child-friendly present buyer for the holidays, but sometimes its difficult to find something unique and fun to give when every other relative seems to be purchasing the same thing.  Honestly, how many stuffed animals can two kids have?  Taking a creative approach - and one that's neither hard to do OR expensive - you can come up with cute little gifts for any young relatives, without worrying about giving a gift that's already been given.

If you go to Target or Payless you can find plain white sneakers (Keds or any other brand will do) for under $10; then head over to any other craft store and purchase a jar of glitter glue and a bottle of glitter of any color (Martha Stewart products are my preferred brand and are available at Michael's), each of which should cost about $3.  Return home, clear yourself a work space, and set to work.

 Photo2

As you can see, I decided on gold for my color of choice.  I painted the shoes yellow in order to have the color "pop" better, but that's an unnecessary step.  Then you simply apply the glue & glitter a section at a time, and voila!  Adorable and unique little shoes that should only cost you about $15.  They're also comfortable, as I made adult-size pairs for myself & two friends for Halloween:

Shoes

Make sure you seal the glitter by adding a fews sprays of acrylic gloss or some other clear sealant, though these shoes aren't really made to last.  But they are fun, decorative, and thoughtful little gifts perfect for any child this holiday season.


Posted by Amanda Conwell at 07:32 PM in Entertainment, Savings, Shopping
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December 11, 2010

Car Repairs Best Done Early

Amanda Bar

Here’s a bit of advice for the mechanically disinclined folks: if your car is making a noise, you should probably get that checked out.  And by probably, I mean as soon as possible because it just might end up saving you hundreds of dollars.

For several months my car breaks have been squealing.  I’m aware that this is usually an indication that something is wrong, but since I have little to no savings in my bank account I figured that the impending car repair bill could wait until 2011 (paid for with, hopefully, the X-Mas cash I would be receiving from my obliging relatives!).  However, my doting father would have none of it when I mentioned my car trouble to him, so off we went to Tires Plus.

Not only were my rear brakes entirely destroyed, but my front brakes were so worn down that the metal was starting to dig into the rotor.  If I had gone much longer before bringing the vehicle in for repairs they’d have to replace the entire rotor for an additional $400 on top of my already pricey repair bill.  Thankfully I hadn’t managed to cause any permanent damage to my car and they were able to salvage the rotor, but I still had to replace all four brakes as well as the rear supports.  My overly obliging father offered to pay for the bill at the expense of my X-Mas AND future birthday presents, and I was more than happy (and thankful!) to accept the deal.

Bottom line: cars are expensive, so heed the squeaks and groans of your vehicle and save yourself the hassle (and the money) by getting it checked early!  You might think you’re saving money by holding out a trip to the repair shop, but you’ll only be earning yourself a larger bill in the future.


Posted by Amanda Conwell at 08:04 PM in Savings
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December 04, 2010

A Big Bag of Nothing for the Holidays

Amanda Bar

I think most people have a love/hate relationship with the holiday season.  It's difficult to come up with unique gift ideas for each family member and friend, and (especially this year) my cupeth doth not overflow with money like it did last year.  My solution?  Don't give presents!

Or to be more specific, and to appear less like the Grinch, don't give presents to your friends.  I don't have a huge circle of very close friends in South Florida (many are out of state) but I happen to have a rather large extended family; while I'm obligated by familial guilt to purchase presents for all of my relatives, with my friends I can always compromise.

I approached each of my good friends down here and laid it out for them: Look, says I, we all know that money is tight this year - if you're not opposed to the idea how about we agree that you gift me a big bag of nothing and I do the same for you?  Also, my birthday is in January so just think of it as a way of me saving you the burden of another gift purchase so close to the holidays.

Luckily all of my friends agreed that this was a great idea (naturally, for I am a fiscal genius!) and I wasn't called out for being the cheap miser that I am.  It's a win-win!


Posted by Amanda Conwell at 07:26 PM in Savings, Shopping
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December 03, 2010

The check is in the mail

Name bar The single silver lining for me in this downward spiral of a real estate market is that my property taxes have sunk. Low. Way low. They are something like a third of what they were when I bought my home.

My mortgage company forces me to escrow my taxes and insurance, so while the payments toward interest and principal haven't budged a cent in nearly seven years, the declining property taxes have meant lower monthly payments. (Perhaps "force" is a strong word. But my interest rate would increase if I didn't fork over the taxes and insurance in monthly installments and paid them on my own instead.)

The payments drop based on the schedule of my mortgage company. When they decide to review my escrow holdings, they send me a check and notify me of my new payment amount. But since it's my money anyway, why should I rely on their schedule?

This week, after three attempts (the automated phone system kept disconnecting me), I reached a person who could discuss my escrow amount. She gave me an estimate for what I'd be due when the amount they collect each month is reviewed: $465! I asked for a review on the spot. She said they were going to look at it anyway next month. I said I could use any sum of money now, especially when it's mine to begin with. She punched some buttons on her computer and voila, there's a check in the mail to me for $432, the official amount I'm due.

I highly recommend doing the same if you are a property owner or if you already have, I'd love to hear the kind of paybacks you're anticipating.

Happy holidays, indeed.


Posted by Nirvi Shah at 12:31 PM in Housing
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November 29, 2010

Pricey Phone Plans and Added Fees

Amanda Bar

Several months ago I purchased an iPhone 4, not necessarily to jump on the hype-bandwagon but because my contract was up for renewal and my provider has always been AT&T.  That being said, I love the phone and I adore the various applications and internet do-dads you can access.  However, these gadgets can come with a heavy price and I’m not referring to the purchase fee.

Earlier this month I received a text from AT&T advising me that I was at 75% usage of my data plan.  For those of you not in the know, AT&T’s 3G service requires that you purchase a monthly data package that allots you a certain number of GBs for uploading/downloading information – if you have a connection to a WiFi network (whether at home or otherwise) internet access and data usage is completely unlimited.  The problem is, I’m not always in range of a WiFi service…especially at my job, where I find that I access my iPhone capabilities the most.

I tried to be careful with my usage in the following weeks, but it wasn’t long before I was notified that a $10 charge had been added to my AT&T bill for going over my data limit.  This is the first time I have encountered this issue in the four/five months that I’ve had the phone, so I suppose it can be considered a one-time fluke, but it is definitely something that I will make myself aware of from now on.  I’m already paying $90 a month for my cellphone service, I don’t need to end up in the triple digits due to web surfing!


Posted by Amanda Conwell at 05:18 PM in Savings
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November 28, 2010

On my own for Thanksgiving

Ali Bar

Meal I really wanted to spend Thanksgiving with my grandparents in Buffalo, but after some of my transportation plans fell through and the alternatives kept getting more expensive or complicated, I ended up staying in New York for the holiday. I was very sad but was willing to make the best of it. After all, spending Thanksgiving in New York should be fun. On Wednesday a friend and I traveled to our nearby supermarket and purchased all the provisions for our Thanksgiving feast. Since I don't eat much meat, all of the dishes were vegetarian. I know, I know – a turkeyless Thanksgiving. But just let me share the menu: baked, buttered Brussels sprouts with walnuts; Portobello mushrooms stuffed with brown rice, lentils, onions, bread cubes and spices, and gnocchi with red onions and radicchio sauteed in balsamic vinegar. For two people, it was a ton of food and there were lots of leftovers. I’ll eat one of those leftover mushrooms today and figure I’ll use the rice and lentils that didn’t make it into the mushroom stuffing for some sort of soup. I had planned on making pumpkin dumplings to go with the red onions and radicchio but they failed. The gnocchi was a last-minute replacement. The grocery bill for the Thanksgiving meal – plus food for the next week -- was $80.

For entertainment I went to see the inflation of the balloons for the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade in a staging area at W 79th and Columbus Drive.  Apparently 6 p.m. was prime time for viewing the balloons. There were so many strollers rolling over me and kids riding on their parents’ shoulders and tugging my hair that I didn't have the best time. Since the balloons were open until 10 p.m., I should have reversed my plan of going to see the balloons and then a movie. That way I would have arrived at the balloon staging area later when all the sweet children were blissfully asleep.

I hope everyone had a glorious and stuffed Thanksgiving. One friend of mine bought a pre-made Thanksgiving dinner for 8 to 10 people at Target for $60. The Target dinner included an Archer Farms turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, green bean casserole, cranberry relish, rolls, a 9-inch pie and a coffee sampler. It seems like a pretty good deal if you aren’t into serious holiday cooking but still want the comfort of a holiday meal.

For future reference, let me hear how you spent the holiday. I’m always on the lookout for ways to celebrate without spending lots of money.


Posted by Ali Bair at 11:11 AM in Entertainment, Food, Home decor, Savings
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November 24, 2010

Soups for the Nearing Winter

Ali Bar

Being too lazy to prepare lunch for myself in the mornings before I head to class has threatened to turn into a bad habit lately. Of course, when I’m thinking more clearly at lunch-time, I kick myself for doling out $10 for a meal. It doesn’t happen too often, but enough so I regret it. And when it does, a better option would be picking up lunch at the grocery store instead of a café or some other little lunch joint. At the grocery I can buy crackers for around $2, and while that might not be the healthiest meal, it will usually tide me over until I get home. If I know I’m going to be really late, I can pick up a pre-made sandwich at Whole Foods for about $5. The most fantastic things I've found so far for curing a hunger attack are dehydrated Trader Joe's brand rice noodle soups sold at Trader Joe's for 99 cents. They’re surprisingly filling and a cut above your average noodles in a cup.  While I don’t think I should make these noodles my steady diet, they’re fine every now and then when I don’t bring my lunch. The best option, of course, is to just do a little advance planning and bring my lunch from home. Recently I did just that. A housemate and I decided to make up a soup. Using just miscellaneous ingredients we already had in the kitchen we crafted a very tasty soup. What was in that soup you ask? Well, a can of cream of mushroom soup, a can of black beans, potatoes, carrots, garlic, ginger and a dash of salt and pepper. It was very thrifty and lasted the two of us for three days. It was also easy to take to school: open refrigerator, heat up soup, pour in thermos, place in school bag. I estimate the total cost of the soup was around $10, making the per-serving cost around $1.70. As the snow nears, I expect to be making many more soups since they’re so easy and my laziness factor only increases when the weather outside is freezing.


Posted by Ali Bair at 10:56 AM in College finances, Food, Savings, Shopping
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November 22, 2010

Thanksgiving Dilemma

Ali Bar

The big question -- how do I get to my grandparents’ house for Thanksgiving -- still looms. Although Buffalo is only about six hours away from New York, almost every option I’ve checked is EXPENSIVE. These are the times when having a microscopic income is really frustrating. But I've been doing odd jobs here and there so I’m optimistic my resource picture will be getting brighter. But let’s get back to the logistics of traveling to grandmother's house in the most economically savvy way possible.

First I looked at the bus, which was approximately $140 roundtrip. I found taking the train was a little cheaper, but my procrastination meant no train tickets to Buffalo were left. If I were smarter, I would have planned this out months ago and probably would have garnered some cheaper fares. The best, current price for air travel was $285, counting me out. That takes us to the last option: renting a car. Since I’m too young to rent one myself, this involved enticing a friend who is over 25, and therefore can rent a car, to make the trip with me. Since he had no plans for Thanksgiving, now he won’t have to spend the holiday alone and he’ll be fully stuffed by my grandmother's cooking and her abundant leftovers. With him on board, we started looking at rental car prices. Prices are absurd for a last-minute rental from an agency in the city. Try a day rate of $150. I saw my plans for a big Thanksgiving surrounded by family collapsing.

But my friend knew about a train to Poughkeepsie and suggested that taking the train and renting a car there might be cheaper. The train to Poughkeepsie is $30 round trip. The day rate for renting a car in Poughkeepsie is about $40, a much more agreeable number. We plan on leaving Wednesday and coming back on Friday. So if you’re following, that’s $120 for the car and $60 for two train tickets. I figure we’ll need about $100 for gas and tolls but I hope I’m overestimating this. That means the trip will cost $280 split two ways or $140 – the cost of the bus. But we'll get there much quicker than the eight or nine hours it takes on the bus and be more comfortable. Plus since we’ll have a car, we’ll be able to run last-minute holiday errands for my grandparents and do a little Buffalo touring. Yes, this trip will be something of a budget-buster but I hope by taking on extra jobs, I’ll be able to pay if off relatively quickly. Besides sometimes you just can't put a price on visiting family.  But just before I charge the rental car, I might see if anyone from the city is driving to Buffalo on Craiglist (this could be an extremely cheap option).  If nothing's up, then perhaps I'll put a listing on Craiglist to get some more people on board to help with the gas.

If anyone has any better suggestions, send them my way – quick.


Posted by Ali Bair at 11:58 AM in College finances, Entertainment, Savings, Vacations
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November 21, 2010

Advice for the Money Conscious

Ali Bar

I suppose to manage your money wisely, you need a little money. But right now I’m in student-pauper mode. That may be why I like the name of American Express’ website for Gen X and Gen Y: getcurrency.com.

As I’ve noted, I’m scratching to come up with money for daily expenses and school supplies (and why I’m going to demand a discount for a package of cardboard I ordered for model building that arrived with about $30 worth of material too bent up to use…ugh). At any rate, I decided to check out getcurrency.com to see if there were any money-saving tips that could help me.

What you’ll find here: blogs, articles by leading financial writers and even an iPhone app that allows you to share purchases, sales and other shopping info with friends. There’s even a 25-minute course on managing student loans – complete with quizzes. I decided to check out the loan consolidation section. When you have a string of government loans with different due dates each month, I learned, sometimes it’s good to combine them in one loan. It generally won’t lower your interest rate much, if at all, but you can stretch out the payment terms and you’ll get one bill.

An article about four ways to save on holiday travel caught my eye because I’d really like to go to my grandma’s house in Buffalo for Thanksgiving dinner but am thinking I can’t afford it. I didn’t learn much I didn’t already know from this one: use travel sites like Travelocity and Expedia to compare air fares, travel either early in the morning or late at night to save or consider flying to a nearby airport – ie. West Palm instead of Fort Lauderdale or Miami – if fares are lower. Not much help there. The article also suggested that renting a car could be as expensive as a flight. Since I was going to look into this option, perhaps another article – “Hosting Your First Thanksgiving Without Freaking Out’’ – may be useful.

Just in case I have to do my own Thanksgiving, I did find an article about serving a cheese course interesting. It suggested serving three to five different cheeses – any more than that will overwhelm your guests, and serving cheeses of varying milks – cow, goat or sheep. I also found some of the suggested cheese pairings – blue cheese with honey and Manchego with quince paste – interesting.

So if I don’t end up going over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house for a dinner with more courses than I can name, maybe I’ll serve cheese.


Posted by Ali Bair at 09:25 AM in College finances, Savings, Vacations
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November 20, 2010

Agent Anything

Ali Bar

If you’re a student living in New York City, you may have seen an advertisement for something called Agent Anything. The premise is that people in the city come up with missions for college students to accomplish for pay. I was certainly somewhat skeptical of the Agent Anything website, because I can see ways in which it could be abused.  However, a friend of mine accepted a mission to help move some boxes. I went with him as a safety precaution. I'm really strong and can scare people away (sarcasm -- in case you didn't get it). But it turned out to be a good experience. The guy offering the job was nice and friendly. On top of the $40 he offered for the job, he gave us a $20 tip. At first we refused but he insisted. A few days later my friend accepted another mission, moving boxes once again, for $60. This time he got a $10 tip.

Of course, not all the missions are as fruitful and some are definitely strange. One rather weird one is reading a bedtime story every night to a man whose only other requirement is that once he falls asleep, the reader locks up and leaves. You can ask questions about the missions before accepting them. Someone asked the bedtime story man, “Is this serious?" The answer was a sincere yes.

I'm still a little wary, but most of the people we’ve been in contact with so far just seem to want to help students out. It’s nice that these jobs are only offered to students. To sign up for Agent Anything, you must use your college e-mail address. To get paid, PayPal sends an e-mail that you link to an account. Once you finish a mission, you go to the Agent Anything site and mark a mission as accomplished. The person who requested the mission also must mark it as accomplished. Then you get paid. :) I think I might start a profile and maybe do some missions.

If anyone has had any experiences with Agent Anything worth mentioning, let me know (good or bad). Click the image below to check it out.

Alogo


Posted by Ali Bair at 06:28 PM in College finances, Coupons, Job hunting, Savings
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November 19, 2010

Sweating It Out for Fashion

Amanda Bar

What with the holiday season inching closer and closer, and the Florida weather ever-so-slowly reflecting the winter temperature, I’ve once again found myself buying cold weather clothing that I neither need nor use outside of a few weeks out of the November to February months.  The sweaters, jackets, and boots that I already own are more than sufficient to last me several years through, but it’s hard to resist updating your winter wardrobe when so many stores delight in holiday sales.

We live in a sub-tropical climate…just how many scarves does a girl need to own before it becomes hysterically (and financially) impractical?  Just walk outside when the weather dips even the slightest below 72degrees and you will see women wearing fur-lined boots and fashionable overcoats – sweating all the while, of course, but if we paid for it we will darn well get our money’s worth.  Fashion sometimes dictates more than common sense.

I’ve desperately avoided perusing the numerous boot aisles in the department stores – dependent upon quality just one pair of knee-highs can run over into the triple digits – but I’ve already been lured into buying two new jackets ($95 in total) to add to my already numerous jacket pile collecting dust for 10 out of 12 months in my closet.  It’s only early November yet, so I’ll have to monitor my wallet and my impulses to keep my checking account safe enough for imminent holiday shopping.


Posted by Amanda Conwell at 06:11 PM in Clothing, Impulsive spending, Savings, Shopping
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November 18, 2010

My road to refi, Chapter 1

Name bar For months now, I've been meaning to pursue refinancing of my mortgage. What's stopped me: I don't think it will happen. The value of my home is visible only with a microscope, and things are getting worse, not better.

I bought in 2004, along with thousands of other South Florida suckers. I had a truly horrible real estate agent who pressured me into signing a contract the same day I first looked at the house I ended up with. She ended our relationship by hanging up on me a few times. (Really, I'm not bitter.)

But at the end of the day, I wanted to buy. I was tired of living a rental lifestyle where there was hardly parking for me, much less a few friends if I wanted to have a get together. I wanted a garden and a washer and dryer that didn't jangle to life via endless supply of quarters.

So I did it. It was scary, but exhilarating. I got a solid loan, nothing that involved private mortgage insurance or a balloon payment or wouldn't build equity. I made modest improvements to the house but I still have no dishwasher and 50s-era cabinets and no home equity loan to pay down. I had parties and grew vegetables and did laundry at midnight without sifting through my change first. Undewater

Two years later, a (different) real estate agent convinced me not to sell, that property tax reform was going to kick in and I'd be better off waiting until 2007. You know how that story ends.

Despite taking a massive pay cut for a year, and now getting paid only a little more than I did when I bought the place because of additional cuts to my pay, I've never missed a mortgage payment -- or have ever been close to doing so. I don't want my mortgage company to finally pay attention to me for the wrong reasons, though I wish they would stop including those inserts in my statements that tell me about all the wonderful options there are out there for people who wish to refinance.

I'm not looking for a break on my principal. I bought the house at the price I bought it for. But I'd love a slightly lower interest rate and a break on closing costs would be a nice touch.

Last time I attempted a refinancing was two years ago. It took roughly 20 phone calls to get a human being on the phone to set a rate and start the paperwork, only for them to appraise my home for far less than they had in 2004 and using all kinds of language and criteria no one mentioned before. The person I was dealing with over the phone intially told me to call her back, bypass the phone web. I did. A dozen times. She never called me back but eventually changed her voicemail message to indicate no one should leave a request for her to respond.

A friend of mine starting on the same path as me has written letters to his mortgage company. He's been declined. He called the designated person assigned to his mortgage. Not one return phone call. He visited a branch office this week hoping for better luck. The bank employee proceeded to call the same customer service line he had and stay on hold for 45 minutes until finally giving up.

So things don't look good. But since persistence is my business, I'll keep trying, and I'd be curious if you have any words of advice or stories of success to share.

 


Posted by Nirvi Shah at 10:00 AM in Banking, Housing
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