Discover Halloween Savings

October is a month of pumpkins, costumes, candy and ghosts. It’s also a time when parents of all ages open their wallets to spend. Halloween purchases can really add up, as this is one of the most popular holidays in the U.S.

Don’t let the first holiday of the fall season break your budget. Read on to discover ways to reduce those tricky costs.

1. Trick-or-Treating
For the trick-or-treating items you’ll only use for a couple of hours, consider budget-friendly alternatives. Rather than purchasing overpriced candy baskets from the store, use a pillowcase or shopping bag to haul in those treats. Not only will it save money, it’s a chance to be creative and decorate an accessory to match your child’s costume.

2. Halloween Entertaining
Whether you’re hosting a big party or going to someone else’s event, keep these tips in mind to make a big impression without spending big bucks.

– Plan ahead. Make sure you have all the costume materials, decorations and candy you’ll need on Halloween to avoid last-minute splurges.

– Make a budget and stick to it. Avoid the temptation to overspend by setting a realistic budget using our Entertainment Planner calculator.

– Reuse decorations. If you keep decorations in good condition, they can be stored away and reused for years to come.

– Get crafty. Make decorating a fun group activity by getting your children or friends involved in making decorations. Construction paper, pens and a little imagination can go a long way.

– Get together. To help offset some of your holiday costs, host a party with friends and family and share the expenses.

– Shop clearance sales for next year. Buy new items the week after Halloween to get savings on costumes and decorations for next year.

3. Cost-Conscious Costumes
Whether you’re outfitting yourself or helping to dress up your children, you don’t have to break the bank to have a ghoulishly good costume for Halloween. Here are a few time-tested tricks for saving money on costumes.

– Skip the store. Seasonal Halloween stores can be tempting, but purchases can really add up. Instead of visiting a specialty shop for your entire costume, get your outfit elsewhere first and hit seasonal stores for accessories.

– Be thrifty. Cruise the thrift stores to look for the costumes you are creating. Whether it’s for a princess, a superhero or a zombie, you can often find what you need at a consignment store for a much lower price.

– Swap with friends. Children don’t typically wear the same costume year after year. Consider joining up with neighbors who have daughters or sons the same age as yours and swap costumes from previous years.

– Jump online. If you are set on the idea of buying a complete costume, check out online Halloween stores or other discount sites. Children’s clothing swap websites also offer options for cost-conscious costumes.

Some Couples Invest in Their Future in Ways Other Than a Diamond Ring

What does an engagement ring look like? For many people, my wife included, the answer is a diamond ring. While that’s a concept that didn’t become widely accepted until the diamond industry’s marketing campaigns in the mid-1900s, it’s one that holds strong today. However, some couples are going in an alternative direction. The intention isn’t to be cheap, but rather to use the savings to make a different kind of meaningful investment in their future together.

When and how a proposal happens can be a surprise, but hopefully, the answer won’t be. That is likely doubly true if the question is popped without a diamond engagement ring, or perhaps without a ring at all. As always in a relationship, communication is key. While some people may be excited by the idea, it could be a deal breaker for others.

What will a meaningful investment look like to the both of you? A friend of mine recently shared with me the story of how he proposed to his now wife, and the decision to forgo an engagement ring altogether.

When they first started discussing marriage and engagement rings, she said she’d rather put the money towards a down payment because starting a home together was more meaningful to her than a ring. He didn’t ask right away, but when he did take a knee, ringless, and ask her to marry him – clearly she said yes. Today they live in the home the savings helped buy, wear only wedding bands and he says neither of them regrets the decision.

A down payment might not make sense for you, but there are other ways to invest in your future together. For some couples, paying down debts or saving for their wedding so that they don’t go into debt might be a better fit. Or, you might want to start a travel or honeymoon fund.

Consider your options if you want to buy a ring. Understandably, the idea of proposing without an engagement ring isn’t for everyone, and there is a middle ground. A less expensive engagement ring with the savings going towards your shared goal.

Here are few options you could discuss with your significant other:

  • Alternative stones. There are a variety of alternative precious and semi-precious stones you could pick for the ring. Matching a stone’s color to the person’s eyes or choosing their birthstone could imbue the ring with a personal touch. However, be careful about picking a “soft” gem that could be easily scratched if it’s worn daily.
  • Diamond look-alikes. You could choose a synthetic diamond or a stone that looks similar to a diamond but costs much less, such as a cubic zirconia. Some of the man-made and alternative options can look more brilliant than genuine diamonds, and you don’t need to worry about whether or not the stone is conflict-free.
  • A solid band. While it won’t have the same flash as a ring with a large gemstone, choosing a smaller diamond or solid metal band with a symbolic meaning could be just as meaningful to your partner.
    Family heirlooms can also make for memorable engagement rings and often there isn’t a price tag attached (although a lengthy discussion might be in order). A vintage ring could appeal to some people’s style, or the center stone could be reset in a modern band. In either case, there’s something special about wearing a gemstone that’s been in one of your families for generations.

Decide on your priorities as a couple and act accordingly. According to The Knot’s 2015 Real Weddings Study, an average of $5,871 was spent on engagement rings. For some, there’s no better way to spend money. After all, it’s a ring that’s going to be worn for decades.

However, you can discuss engagement ring expectations before you ask someone to marry you. If a diamond isn’t particularly important, an alternative ring or gemstone, or no ring at all, can be an equally timeless and beautiful gesture of love when you both know the money is going to an important step in your future together.

Planning That Affordable Holiday Trip

Are you an advance planner or an improviser? Your travel planning style might save you money during the busy winter holiday travel season.

Generally, families with children and a need for specific seating and direct flights may need to plan earlier to secure such reservations. More flexible travelers can roll the dice on last-minute deals.

Here are some ideas to explore:

Be open-minded about scheduling. Most people know red-eye and dawn flights are typically cheaper. However, holiday travel presents its own set of opportunities for pricing and availability if you don’t follow the crowd. For example, with Thanksgiving always on a Thursday, most travelers choose Tuesday or Wednesday for arrival and Sunday for departure. Choosing a different scheduling window, including travel on the actual holiday, may not only save money but considerable stress getting to and from clogged airport, train and bus stations.

Drive smart or leave the keys at home. If you’re using your own vehicle, make sure your collision and liability coverage are adequate to cover potential medical and repair costs for other motorists if you’re in an accident out of town. If you’re planning to rent a vehicle, speak with your auto insurance agent before you go. Many personal policies do extend domestic collision and liability coverage to rentals, but it’s particularly important to confirm coverage if you’re traveling outside the United States. Of course, if you’re visiting a place with excellent public transportation or safe bike routes, check pricing. An affordable bike rental (pack a helmet) or multi-day city or regional bus-and-rail pass might eliminate the need for a car altogether.

Sleep cheap. Saving money on accommodations is another area where you can save significantly by either planning ahead or trolling for last-minute bargains. Top family destinations generally require reservations months in advance, but see how full they are closest to the actual holiday dates. Many family members may travel a week before or a week after the actual holiday but won’t stay over the holiday. That leaves more rooms and activities available. The same goes for stays in other popular tourist locations around the world. Check destination hotels closer to the date to see if they’re offering special rates or packages.

Put your membership dollars to work. If you belong to an auto club or have credit cards with particular travel benefits, see whether any of those benefits – from actual mileage points to coupon discounts – can be used to save money.

Check your home, health and business insurance. If you are traveling domestically or globally, see if your personal health insurance extends to your destination. The same goes for home/rental and business insurance. Many people don’t realize that some or all of their personal insurance coverage may cover medical, theft, liability, injury and other risks at their destination. Read your policy and confirm your assumptions with your agent.

Consider travel insurance to fill any gaps. Once you’ve confirmed the limits of your personal coverage, research travel insurance policy sites like http://insuremytrip.com and recent articles on travel insurance so you can make sure common risks like trip cancellation and lost luggage are covered as well as specialized risks like advanced medical care and medical transportation at your destination.

Watch those bags. Many airlines charge ascending fees for every checked bag, so packing light has never made more sense. However, major air and ground shipping companies are now offering luggage-shipping services for domestic and overseas travelers with pickup options at their ground facilities. Make a call and see if this option might work for you, particularly if you take extra clothes or gifts with you at the holidays.

Bottom line: Holiday travel bargains can be found months in advance and sometimes at the last minute. Your flexibility will determine the deals you can get.

Moving Soon? Keep Costs Under Control

Even if you’re only moving across town, it’s likely to cost more than you think.

According to the latest figures from the American Moving and Storage Association, the average cost of an in-state professional move – based on 7,570 pounds of stuff – is $1,170. The average state-to-state move costs $5,630.

How can you control moving expenses? Start making a master checklist to collect data and consider all costs and personal aspects of a potential move. You may even want to include a pro-and-con list that addresses all conceivable economic and lifestyle outcomes – the real long-term costs and benefits of a move. After deciding whether the move is worthwhile, consider these subsequent steps:

Seek solid advisors. Whether or not you plan to sell a home with a licensed real estate broker or agent, most are open to do a market valuation of your property and suggest repairs or improvements that could maximize a sale price. If you use a qualified financial planner or tax advisor, include that individual in early discussions on how a move might affect your finances. Also, if you’re selling property, find an experienced real estate attorney to review broker and sale contracts.

Get multiple estimates from movers. An early walk-through at your home or apartment by two to three U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT)-registered movers (http://ai.fmcsa.dot.gov/hhg/search.asp) can provide a reality check on how much you’ll want to take and whether you can afford luxuries like packing or storage. Online resources can also help you evaluate those estimates.

Watch for fraud. Recent news reports have highlighted a trend called “hostage load,” a practice whereby unscrupulous moving companies demand more money from customers before finishing a delivery. Getting references from trusted friends and advisors is a good first step to finding the right registered mover for your relocation. DOT has launched the “Protect Your Move” (http://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/protect-your-move) site that allows you to download a moving fraud protection guide and offers tips on proper ways to investigate and hire a mover.

Start downsizing – now. Getting early estimates from movers certainly helps you decide what you’re really willing to take. If there are valuables you think you can sell, consult professional appraisers and even general marketplace sources like eBay to get a realistic idea of value. Otherwise, consider garage sales and donations for the rest.

Insure what you’re moving. Whatever plans you’re making for home or renter’s coverage at the new destination, make sure you have proper coverage in place for the contents of your move. The Insurance Information Institute provides a useful guide (http://www.iii.org/article/getting-right-insurance-coverage-moving) to properly insuring the possessions you’re moving.

Build a cash reserve for deposits, fees and incidentals. Keeping moving costs low can help you handle dozens of smaller and sometimes unexpected expenses that crop up immediately before, during and after a move. Budget for those hidden costs which can include deposits, fees and multiple trips to the discount store, home center or grocery.

Bottom line: Thinking about moving? Give yourself adequate time and resources to plan all aspects of this major life and money event.

10 Open Enrollment Mistakes to Avoid

How much time do you spend reviewing your benefits before open enrollment each year?

If your answer is “not much,” you’re not alone. A recent survey by insurer Aflac (http://workforces.aflac.com/about-the-study.php) says that 90 percent of Americans choose the same benefits year after year and that 42 percent forego up to $750 annually by making poor choices.

Rushing through annual benefits updates or making such uninformed decisions in insurance, retirement or other workplace-based benefits are actually part of a bigger story. Open enrollment is just one part of an overall financial plan: Unfortunately, too many employees see it as the only financial planning they have to do all year.

In reality, a safe financial future depends mostly on the savings, investing and spending decisions you make outside the workplace. As many employers are looking to shrink or discontinue the retirement and health benefits they offer, it’s time to take a fresh look at open enrollment.

Here are 10 benefits mistakes you might want to avoid.

1. Not having an overall financial plan. Your company may offer excellent benefits now. However, the Labor Department reports that average worker tenure at U.S. companies is only 4.6 years, so the biggest open enrollment mistake might be assuming your current benefits assure your financial future. It’s important to work alone or with qualified advisors to determine the right work-based benefits as part of overall spending, savings and investment activities throughout your lifetime.

2. Making choices at the last minute. Your benefits are important and deserve time for consideration. Put your open enrollment dates on your personal calendar with a reminder a few weeks ahead of time to coordinate with qualified advisors if you have them.

3. Forgetting to coordinate with your spouse or partner. Many employers are planning big changes to spouse/partner benefits. While the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) lets parents keep children on their health plans until age 26, more employers are instituting “spousal surcharges” or excluding spousal coverage altogether if they already have access to employer health insurance.

4. Ignoring your state’s Health Insurance Marketplace. Even if you have employer health insurance, things change. If you lose a job or cannot stay on your spouse or partner’s health plan, it might be worthwhile to familiarize yourself with your state’s ACA-mandated health insurance marketplace ahead of time.

5. Underestimating how big life events might affect your benefits. Salary changes, marriage, divorce, serious illness or starting a family are big signals to check your benefits, preferably well in advance of open enrollment. Think through every potential situation you might face and ask questions about how those changes might affect your benefit selections.

6. Passing on flexible spending accounts (FSAs) and health savings accounts (HSAs). FSAs are workplace-based accounts that allow you to set aside money on a pre-tax basis to help you pay for healthcare and dependent care expenses during the calendar year. HSAs, if you qualify, also allow you to set aside pre-tax dollars in a qualified investment or savings account for long-and-short term medical expenses not covered by insurance. They don’t require you to spend out those funds every year. Your workplace benefits counselor, qualified financial advisor and Internal Revenue Service Publication 969 can assist with eligibility, types of accounts, contribution limits and tax issues associated with these choices.

7. Leaving retirement selections unchanged. As the Aflac data indicates, many individuals don’t change their investment focus in self-directed retirement plans for years. That’s why reviewing options in advance is essential.

8. Overlooking wellness options. Many employers pay for exercise, cholesterol screenings, weight loss, smoking cessation, immunizations or related benefits that can make you healthier, save money and possibly lower health premiums.

9. Bypassing transportation breaks. If you drive or take public or company-sponsored transportation to and from work, you may qualify for specific discounts or tax deductions. IRS Publication 15-B covers these programs and how to use them most effectively.

10. Forgetting education benefits. If an employer is willing to train you to advance in your career, don’t pass it up. However, get advice on the possibility of tax liability for these benefits. Separately, check out employer-sponsored education grant or scholarship awards for you or your kids – that can be free money.

Bottom line: Open enrollment is just one piece of a well-organized financial puzzle. Make sure your employer provided benefits choices compliment savings, investing and spending decisions you’re making on your own.

How to Manage Your Money After a Natural Disaster

Floods, fires, earthquakes, and other natural disasters can wreak havoc with your personal life – including your finances. The following tips can help organize an action plan to tackle potential difficulties.

Insurance

-If it is safe to enter, assess your home’s damage, and make a list and take pictures of damaged and destroyed property and possessions. Gather whatever receipts you have for affected items.

-If your home is uninhabitable, see if your insurance company covers the cost of a hotel or temporary lodging.

-Review your insurance coverage, and file claims as soon as possible. Respond promptly to any requests for additional information.

-When dealing with a claims adjuster, take notes during the conversation.

-If you disagree with the insurance company’s settlement offer, be polite but firm in your request for reconsideration. You may want to hire an independent claims adjuster to help you determine a fair amount and build a case. If appealing is not effective, you may want to hire a lawyer to explore your legal options, but be sure to weigh the costs against the potential gains.

Credit

-Take inventory of your credit cards. If you cannot locate them, call the issuers immediately to report them missing.

-Use credit cards prudently. You may not have the means to repay a large balance in the future.

-Avoid using cash advances. The interest rate is typically higher than for purchases, and interest accrues immediately, making a cash advance a pricey way to acquire funds.

-Beware of scams. Pass on credit and loan offers that seem too easy to obtain, list a 900 number, or require you to pay something before receiving money. If you need a loan, contact a lender you know and trust. If you are in a declared disaster zone, you may be eligible for a Small Business Administration disaster loan, which can be used to repair your home and/or replace personal property. (See www.sba.gov/content/home-and-personal-property-loans for more information.)

-Do not reveal your Social Security number, credit card information, or checking account number over the telephone unless you made the initial phone call. Always beware of giving out sensitive information by email, as no email is completely secure.

-If you are unable to pay all of your creditors, be proactive and communicate with them as soon as possible – you could save your credit history from future damage. Following these actions can help:

  • Explain your situation honestly and in detail.
    Request specific solutions. Depending on your circumstances, ask for either reduced or suspended payments. Be realistic – never propose more than you can afford to pay.
  • Give a date that you will be able to resume normal payments.
  • Provide relevant documentation.
  • Keep copies of all correspondence.
  • Update your creditors regularly

Income and Expenses

-Develop a financial priority list. Your spending plan may be seriously affected by reduced income and increased expenses, so consider each line item carefully. What bills do you absolutely have to pay, and what bills can wait or be eliminated for now? Also make a priority list for any replacement products that you need to buy.

-Keep the majority of your money in your financial institution. Cash in pocket is far riskier than cash in a checking or savings account. Even if your financial institution was affected by the disaster, you will likely still be able to access your money.

-Research tax breaks that you may qualify for due to your situation. You may be able to deduct causality-related losses on your federal income tax return and/or qualify for other special tax benefits. (See www.irs.gov or consult with a tax professional for more information.)

Reconstruction

-If needed, make immediate temporary repairs (e.g., board your windows) to secure your home and prevent further damage. But do not enter your property if it is not safe to do so.

-Be cautious of contractors who knock on your door asking for work or place a flyer in your mailbox or on the street. Con artists often come out of the woodwork to prey upon those left vulnerable after a disaster.

-Get estimates from at least three licensed, bonded contractors. Check their complaint history with the Better Business Bureau (www.bbb.org), and ask for and contact references.

-Always get a written contract, and don’t pay the full amount up front. Generally, you should not have to pay more than 30% initially. The final payment should not be made until the job is done.

-Make sure that repairs are done in accordance with local building codes and that you get a permit for any work that requires a permit.

Additional resources

Here’s where you can find help after a disaster:

-Your state and county offices of emergency preparedness.

-Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Visit www.fema.gov or call (800) 480-2520.

-American Red Cross. Visit www.redcross.org and search for your local chapter.

 

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