Thursday, April 23, 2015

Saving At The Vet: How To Keep Your Furry Friends From Breaking The Bank

We all love our pets. Cats, dogs, ferrets and furry babies of all sorts are members of the family. They eat and sleep under the same roof. They give affection when you've had a rough day. Your fridge, mantle and social media are full of pictures of your animals clowning around, just like any other family member.

Also like every other member of your family, if your pets get sick, they need medical care. Medical care for a family member - whether they are furry or not - can get expensive. Unlike what you have access to for other members of your family, veterinary insurance is something offered by very few employers.

This unfortunate circumstance can set families up to make tragic decisions. If your faithful furry friend needs medical care to save its life or daily medication to keep dangerous conditions at bay, costs can add up quickly. Yet, putting a price on your pet's life isn't easy. If there are multiple animals involved, veterinary bills can become a real source of stress. Letting a pet die because of costs, though, can wreak havoc on your emotional well-being.

There aren't easy answers to these decisions, and sometimes they're unavoidable. However, you can take steps to avoid these challenges. Let's take a look at three steps you can take to keep your furry friends safe and your savings account flush. 

1.) Stock a veterinary first aid kit 

Lots of pet health crises can be handled by a compassionate hand and some basic interventions. Scrapes, burns, and bruises can all be handled without professional intervention. Many accidental ingestion incidents can be solved with an expert consultation and a little bit of caring.

A first-aid kit for pets looks an awful lot like a first-aid kit for humans. You should have supplies for dealing with cuts and scrapes, like gauze, adhesive tape and an antiseptic spray or cream. For general illnesses, you need a thermometer to check for fever (make sure to get a fever thermometer- small mammals have natural body temperatures between 100 and 103), diphenhydramine (Benadryl) for allergic reactions, and hydrogen peroxide to induce vomiting if necessary. You should also include activated charcoal or milk of magnesia to protect against accidental poisoning. Other things to include in an emergency first-aid kit include a blanket, a leash and a muzzle.

It may be frightening to muzzle or restrain your pet, but try to see it from their perspective. Your pet is in pain and relying on instinct. Muzzling will help you feel more calm and secure, since you won't be worried about being bitten. That calmness will translate to your pet, who will be easier to tend to when they are a little less panicked.

Before you take any steps to heal your pet, speak to an expert. Many veterinarians have emergency contact hours where they may be willing to walk you through basic first aid. The ASPCA also maintains an animal poison control number where you can speak to a trained representative. They can tell you if you need to induce vomiting, what dosage of activated charcoal to administer, or if you need to seek in-person veterinary help immediately. 

2.) Negotiate 

Most veterinarians got into their practice because they genuinely love animals. They want to help your pet feel better. If you're not sure about your ability to pay, be up front about that. There may be several options available to you.

If it's prescription medication, you may be able to have it filled elsewhere at a considerable savings. Online pharmacies are usually able to offer discounted prices on many medications and animal medications are no exception. These institutions may require a phone call or a fax from your vet, but most veterinary offices are well-equipped to provide that authorization. When your vet recommends a medication, ask for a written prescription so you can shop around to find the best price.

You may also be able to negotiate the cost of a procedure. Veterinarians may know of local charities that help fund care for animals in need. They may also be willing to reduce the cost themselves, or work out a payment plan with you. No one - especially your vet - wants to see an animal life lost over finances. 

3.) Consider pet insurance 

"Pet insurance" sounds like a ridiculous luxury good for the mega-rich. In truth, it's no different than any other kind of insurance that protects against expensive calamity. Compared to a veterinary emergency, these plans are very affordable. If you have an older pet, it's worth considering. 

Programs like PetAssure offer a 25% discount on any veterinary services you need at "in-network" veterinarians. There's no deductible and no limits or exclusions. At $100 per year for 1 dog, the program offers considerable savings.

Every part of veterinary care is expensive. Blood tests on a dog, for example, can easily cost $200. If you need two blood tests in a year, PetAssure pays for itself. In fact, on average, dog owners spend between $500 and $1,000 each year on veterinary services. Getting a 25% discount on that price for $100 is an incredible savings.

Other programs offer more coverage for more money. Healthy Paws, for example, offers 90% coverage for about $230 per year. How much you choose to insure is a matter of personal risk tolerance, but getting some form of insurance is a great way to get peace of mind. 

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Monday, April 20, 2015

Rebuilding An Emergency Fund


A significant financial crisis can wipe out your emergency savings.  If this has happened to you, rebuilding your savings must be a priority. 

All the best financial experts agree you need to keep an emergency fund. Keeping 3-5 months of living expenses in a savings account, certificate account, or investment account can be the difference between a temporary hardship and a life-long debt trap. Using that money instead of credit cards or short-term loans is a lot less expensive in the long run.

There are many reasons why you might need to use that money. It could be from an unexpected expense, like a medical bill or a car repair. It could also be job loss that forces you to tap out your savings. Whatever the cause, it's a whole lot cheaper to pay for it out of savings than to have to borrow, and it's much less embarrassing than having to beg friends or family to cover your bills.

In the midst of a stressful crisis, it can be hard to focus on the positive. It's important to take a moment to congratulate yourself for having the foresight to manage your problem. Things could be much worse than they are now. In addition to all the stress you're currently feeling, you could have a big ball of debt to add to it. It's not because of luck, it's because of good planning.

Despite that relief, you're not out of the woods yet. Without savings, you're in a position of significant insecurity. Another crisis right now, even a very minor one, can cause financial problems that will create a ripple effect on into the future. You could find yourself in a much worse position in three months' time than you are now.

Getting back to a position of financial security should be your highest priority. That means rebuilding your emergency fund as quickly as possible. These three steps will have you back on track before you know it.



1.) Make an emergency budget - and stick to it! 

Without an emergency fund, you're one blown tire, one missed shift or one broken arm away from a financial catastrophe. That's why an emergency fund is so important. Cut spending wherever you can. If you can do without cable for a few months, call and suspend service. Temporarily cutting back on media, clothes, and other discretionary spending is also a great idea.

Also, consolidate your savings. If you've been saving for a vacation, a new car or some other big ticket item, stop putting money into those "buckets" until you rebuild a few months' living expenses. Once you return to having a decent cushion, you can get back to saving for your other priorities.  Visit a Destinations Credit Union Member Service Representative to see if there are higher rate options for your saving or if refinancing a loan from elsewhere could cut your payment amounts.

If these cuts aren't enough, finding money in more extreme places might be helpful. If you can, spend a few months taking public transportation. If it works out well, you might find yourself thinking about selling your vehicle for another quick infusion of cash.

Remember, a budget is only as good as your commitment to it. If you make extreme cuts that you can't keep, you'll end up spending even more because you feel entitled to it. Make sure your budget is realistic and humane! 

2.) Build income wherever you can 

There's no secret about building your savings. You can only save the difference between your income and your expenses. In your budget, you worked on the minimizing expenses part of that equation. Now, it's time to turn your attention to the income side.

Raising your income at work could be as easy as asking for a raise. It could also mean taking additional hours or picking up extra shifts from co-workers. You don't have to do so for the rest of your career, just for a few months until things get better.

You may also need to boost your income outside work. Selling old clothes and books can be a source of quick cash. Picking up freelance or contract work can also be a way to earn extra money. It'll create a stressful few months, but it'll be worth it to get back to security. You might also make connections that could help your career over the long term. 

3.) Build a backup plan 

The worst thing that could happen right now would be another crisis with no way to pay for it. You may not have the money to deal with it, but you've still got your financial smarts. It's time to make a plan. 

Think about what you'd do now if you lost your job, even without your emergency fund. Make a list of phone calls you can make to find temporary work. Who in your network do you know who could use your skills on a temporary or contract basis? Do you know anyone who, if you absolutely had to, you could call for a quick loan? 

There are a few other questions to ask. What stuff sitting around your house would you sell if you had to? What does your food budget look like with $50 taken out of it? It's easier to make these decisions when you've got the time and space to reflect on it. Making these choices with a past due notice in hand is much harder to do. 

Hopefully, you'll never have to use these ideas, but you'll feel better for having thought about them beforehand. It's also something pro-active you can do instead of worrying. Taking action, any action, to remedy your situation can help fight the stress involved in insecurity and get you in a better head space. That alone is worth the effort. 



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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Don't Panic: A Last-Minute Guide To Tax Preparation


It's the second week in April. Spring is in the air. The flowers are blooming. We're just past opening day for the Orioles (Go O's!). As you begin to enjoy the pleasantness of this time of year, do you have that lingering feeling that you've forgotten something?

April 15 is Tax Day. That's the day all returns must be postmarked or e-filed to the IRS. If you haven't started yet, you may be feeling a bit of panic as the deadline races up to meet you.

In the immortal words of Douglas Adams, "Don't panic!" There's still plenty you can do, and so long as it's in the mail or in the Internet tubes by midnight on April 15, you'll be fine. Take a deep breath, grab a cup of coffee, and make a plan. Also consider these three handy tips: 

1.) You can file for an extension

If you do nothing else to prepare for tax day and there's no hope for getting your return done on time, do this. The IRS will, in most cases, approve an automatic 6-month extension for individuals. Form 4868 asks you to estimate your tax obligation, your total payments and the balance due. If you're due a refund, there's no problem. You'll get your refund as soon as you file your return and you'll have until Oct. 15 to do so. If you owe additional taxes, Form 4868 also includes a way to send estimated payments.

If you're filing on behalf of a corporation or partnership, you can still qualify for an automatic extension of five or six months, depending upon the entity type. The form to fill out there is 7004. It's a bit longer, but requires the same basic information and also includes the option to pay your estimated tax immediately.

There's a penalty involved in late payment. You'll be charged 5% each month or part of a month your return is late, to a maximum of 25%. These charges will be at least $135 or the balance of your taxes due, whichever is smaller. The IRS may excuse these penalties if there's a good reason you didn't file on time. Attach a statement to your return explaining why you didn't pay on time (not your request for extension) and the IRS may forgive the penalty amount. These exemptions are typically granted for people who were out of the country or deployed to a combat zone for a significant part of 2015.

You'll be responsible for interest on the amount due, plus penalties. The IRS charges 0.5% per month or part of a month your account is past due. They'll charge that on the whole unpaid amount. So, if you were to pay your tax bill in full on April 16, you'll be charged a full month's interest.

As expensive as filing for an extension can be, it's better than the alternative. If you don't file, the IRS will eventually file for you. They don't have any incentive to get you any deductions or credits. If you end up owing more than $25,000 in interest and penalties, the IRS will be knocking on your door!

2.) Filing isn't actually that hard

For most people, filing your taxes takes less than half an hour. If you worked only one job, have one bank account, and don't have a lot of deductions, you won't have to fill out more than a few forms. The 1040-EZ is pretty accurately named. It is, in fact, easy.

You really only need your W-2 and you can file from your computer desk. Make a game of it. Set a clock- see if you can beat a 20-minute time goal!

3.) Don't forget the little deductions!

If you're really scraping to cut your tax bill, there are a few easy deductions you might miss. For example, if you subscribe to a financial newsletter, that's a deductible expense. If you consulted with an attorney or another paid professional to prepare a will or trust for your assets, that's also deductible.

Your medical expenses can be somewhat flexible, too. For instance, if you installed a hot tub on the advice of a physical therapist, that can be deductible. Laser eye surgery can also be a deductible expense if it promotes the proper functioning of the body.

There's a thin line to walk with aggression. It's very unlikely you'll get any grief from the IRS provided you can prove most of what you're claiming. At the same time, saving a few bucks on your taxes isn't worth a massive headache.

If you're getting a refund, make sure to directly deposit it to your Destinations Credit Union account!

SOURCES

Friday, April 10, 2015

The Three Best Jobs For College Students



College is a place for learning, but one of the best ways to learn is by doing. If you've been keeping up with friends who have graduated, you know the job market can be a cruel and unforgiving place. To prospective employers, your GPA, your extracurricular activities and your major matter a whole lot less than the all-powerful "experience." You need a job!

In addition to the resume boost, a little disposable income can really take the pressure off your budget. Being able to finance a spontaneous road trip, a midnight taco run or a ticket to your favorite band's show without having to dig yourself further into debt is a great feeling. How can you squeeze in work experience between classes, projects and a social life? It's all about choosing the right job. Here are three jobs ideas. 

1.) Retail sales 

Getting a job working in sales is a great way to start a career in marketing, advertising, or business. It doesn't matter what you're selling, because you'll learn the fundamentals of convincing people to buy. Look for stores you shop at regularly. If you're a clothes horse, Kohls or GAP might be your best bet. If you're more outdoorsy, REI or Sports Authority could be a better fit. These places do most of their business after hours and on weekends, so you can work around your class schedule. 

2.) Freelance writing 

If you're thinking about a career in journalism, getting some bylines under your belt is a necessity. One of the best ways to do that is to sell your own work. Sites like Blogmutt will pay a few dollars for a few hundred words, while sites like Elance offer longer-term projects. Either way, the work is the focus, not the hours. You can tackle projects in your spare time, earn a little money, and build your portfolio in the process. 

3.) Fitness instructor 

You know you need to get to the gym anyway. Why not make a gig out of it? Teaching yoga or leading a calisthenics class can be a great way to get your sweat on while building your resume. If you plan to go into education or physical training, this experience will set you apart from your peers. Even better, you'll learn how to market yourself - which is a valuable skill in any endeavor.