Monday, February 8, 2016

Winter Weekend Getaways On A Limited Budget



We'd all love to get away for a fun weekend, but don't want to dip into savings. There are many ways to escape the winter doldrums without breaking the bank. You don't have to take an expensive ski trip or visit a tropical island paradise to receive the intended benefits-namely getting away for some rest and relaxation so you can return revitalized and ready to face winter again. Here are some tips and creative ideas for planning an inexpensive trip that won't leave you in the red: 

Stay close to home 
Sometimes all you need is a slight change of scenery or break from the routine to feel refreshed and revitalized. Is there a cute bed and breakfast the next town over that you've been meaning to try? A nearby local attraction? If you'll be driving instead of flying, you'll have more money in your budget for lodging and dinner. If you can, reserve a room with a fireplace or spa, since there's little that beats staring into a crackling fire with a glass of wine or relaxing in a bubbling hot tub. Find a bed and breakfast offering specials near you at bnbfinder.com. 

Avoid popular destinations 
Save yourself some time: Don't even bother thinking about Maui or Cancun. Winter is also peak season for ski destinations such as Aspen, Park City and Jackson Hole. If you want to hit the slopes or bask on sun-drenched beaches at the most popular resorts this time of year, you'll be paying top dollar. If your goal is a ski getaway, why not try out a resort that's close to home? Or if your heart is set on a tropical beach, try out one of the up-and-coming areas where prices are still low. Chances are, you'll have just as much fun. In addition to saving money, you'll escape the crowds. 

Visit a national park 
National parksare one of America's most treasured resources. Together, the U.S.'s 400 national parks draw 275 million visitors per year. Summer is peak season in most of them. A visit during winter would let you enjoy nature without crowds of tourists. If you've already been to the national parks in your area, try taking a road trip to one in the next state over. There's a reason these areas have been preserved-they contain some of the most awe-inspiring scenery in the country. Many parks don't charge admission, and those that do will usually offer three-day passes. You can often find interesting accommodations within the park boundaries, but better deals can usually be found at motels in surrounding towns. 

Do your Internet research 
The Internet is definitely your best friend for finding the best travel deals. Make it a point to bookmark budget travel pages and sign up for their email alerts. Receiving alerts on great deals can fill up your in-box, but you can always set up a special folder for travel planning. Alerts can save you hours of online research, and if you're lucky, one will pop into your inbox at exactly the right time. Many travel websites, including Budget Travel, the Travel Channel and Kiplinger, have put together lists of the best sites for finding good travel deals. There are new websites popping up all the time to help find the best deals on airfare,car rentals,hotels,bus and train travel and even all-inclusive packages. It's just a matter of deciding which ones are your favorites. 

Use your air miles 
If you've been saving up frequent-flier miles through an airline rewards program, now might be the time to use them. Often, these programs have expiration dates, so if you don't use them, you may lose them. And with airfare for your getaway taken care of, that only leaves food and lodging to worry about. 

Take advantage of coupons 
Tons of amazing travel deals can be found through online coupon sites such as Groupon, LivingSocial and Travelzoo. And besides saving you money, they can take you on an adventure. Many merchants who are offering deals through these sites are just getting established or are up-and-coming. They may not have a premier location or a big advertising budget, but since they're seeking new business, they'll most certainly appreciate it when you show up. Signing up for multiple online-coupon sites can easily overwhelm your email inbox. Luckily, there are now several aggregators, including DailyDibs, that can compile deals from online coupon sites and send you a daily report. 

Use Airbnb 

Although the hotel industry is not a fan of Airbnb, travelers certainly are. Not only can you save substantially on lodging, but you can stay in a place with all the comforts of home, including kitchens where you can save even more by cooking your own meals. The site offers 1.5 million listings in 34,000 cities and 190 countries, so it's likely there are available accommodations in the vacation destination you've chosen. Reviews of hosts provide a measure of security. Choose wisely however: Airbnb properties range from rooms in someone's home to short-term luxurious vacation rentals. The plus: most are in desirable neighborhoods and contain all the comforts of home. 

Take couch surfing to a new level 
You can't get much cheaper than free! Operating on the same principles as Airbnb, couchsurfing.com lets you send out queries to people who might be interested in hosting you in their home for free. Popular among Millennials looking to travel and meet new friends, couchsurfing lets you experience a locale on a local level. Often your hosts will not only put you up for the night and feed you in the morning, but also take you sightseeing and introduce you to their friends. The idea is that if you're part of this network, you'll reciprocate by hosting travelers in your home sometime, too. 

Try house-swapping 
Know some friends in another city who may want to escape for a little while, too? Arrange for a house swap. With accommodations taken care of, all you'll need to worry about is the cost of travel. If you're flying, you should be able to find a good deal by using one of the plentiful cheap airfare finders. If you don't have friends interested in switching abodes, you can look for places on sites such as HomeExchange.com and LoveHomeSwap.

Whatever you do, make it a fun vacation. Set a budget and reward yourself for sticking to it by planning your next getaway when you get back!

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Hosting A Super 'Big Game' Party On A Budget

Big brands are paying upwards of $5 million for 30-second Super Bowl ad slots, and the city of San Francisco is forking over $4.8 million to host weeklong festivities leading up to the big game. But when the two top NFL teams compete on Feb. 7 in Santa Clara, California, for Super Bowl 50, thankfully you'll be shelling out considerably less than that to hold your Big Game party.

Super Bowl parties are among the most inexpensive to host. Besides the traditional chicken wings, tortilla chips and guacamole, and beer--the most important must-haves are adequate seating and a big-screen TV to watch the game.

The most widely watched sporting event of the year last year drew an estimated 184 million viewers to see winning team the New England Patriots take on the Seattle Seahawks. According to the National Retail Federation's  Super Bowl Spending Survey, viewers spent an average of $77.88, up from $68.27 the previous year. That covered everything from game day food and new televisions to athletic wear and decorations. Food and beverages accounted for nearly 80 percent of the total of $14.3 billion in spending.

Hosting or attending a Super Bowl party in someone's home was the most popular option. Only 5 percent of viewers opted to watch the game in a restaurant or bar, where loud noise can detract from the game-watching experience.

So if you're planning to host a Super Bowl party for family and friends, how can you avoid going over your budget? Below are some ideas for throwing an inexpensive event that will still be fun and entertaining. 

Keep It Casual 

Set expectations with guests that your event will be low key and casual. After all, it's the game (and the commercials) that will be the star of your event. Nearly half of viewers in the NRF survey say that the game itself is the most important part of the day, followed by nearly one-third saying that the most important parts for them are the commercials and hanging out with friends and family.

Stress in your invitation that you're just hosting a casual get-together to watch the game. No fancy invitations are required: a simple email or e-vite with time, place, directions, and other details will do. And make sure you ask guests to RSVP so you'll have an idea of how many people plan on attending. That way you'll know how much food to buy--and won't overspend for guests who won't attending. 

Make It a Potluck 

People love sharing, and this goes double when it comes to sharing favorite dishes with family and friends. Asking each guest to bring a dish will not only create an interesting array of food and beverage offerings, it will significantly reduce your expenses.

You might say in your invitation that you'll provide one hot main dish (such as chili or soup) and snacks (such as cheese and crackers or raw veggies and dip) so you'll have something to serve in the very unlikely event a majority of your guests show up empty-handed. But in all probability, once you ask guests to bring something, you'll be inundated with food and beverages.

And don't worry about asking people to sign up to bring a specific type of dish (such as a beverage, snack, entree, or dessert). For some mysterious reason, potlucks always seem to turn out. You may be buried under an avalanche of chips, guacamole, salsa, and beer for a while--but that's a good problem to have since you can always eat the leftovers or give leftovers to guests.

If one of your guests has a special recipe (such as spicy chicken wings or a football-shaped cake) that you think could be the star of your party, you might reach out privately and ask them to bring it. Once the teams are decided, you can ask people to use the colors of their favorite team in the food they bring (or their serving dishes) to up the fun factor.

In light of people's food preferences (vegetarian, vegan, low-carb, low-fat) and food allergies (gluten, lactose, nuts), it's also a good idea to ask guests to label the dishes they bring accordingly. A small card indicating the dish is vegan, vegetarian, or gluten-free, or containing nuts can go a long way to making sure your guests enjoy themselves and don't ingest anything that won't agree with them. 

Buy in Bulk 

Whatever food and beverage items you plan to supply for the party, watch for sales and try to buy in bulk. Your local retailers are gearing up for the Super Bowl and will have an abundant supply (and probable sales) on Super Bowl staples such as avocadoes, tomatoes, salsa, chips, carrots, celery, chicken, and beer.

Watch for the circulars that show up in your mailbox, and take a trip to the local supermarket to see what they have on sale. Now might be a good time to visit a big-box outlet such as Costco and take advantage of savings by buying in bulk. You can always use the party leftovers to feed your family in weeks to come. 

Seating Options 

You'll want to make sure you have adequate seating for guests, but you don't need to go overboard and rent chairs. Clear extra pillows and cushions that might reduce the seating capacity of your TV-adjacent sofa and chairs, and place them on the floor to create comfortable nearby viewing areas.

If your seating options are skimpy, don't worry. Many people like to stand up to watch the game, freeing themselves for circulating or enthusiastic cheering when their team scores. And if you must bring in extra seating, ask a friend or family member if they can bring over a few folding chairs. 

Decorations 

It fun to spruce up your home with banners, balloons in team colors, or football-shaped trinkets. Definitely feel free to unleash your inner decorator for your Game Day bash. But your friends are really there for the game, and in all likelihood, they won't remember your decor. It will be the fun they had, the nail-biting moments of the game, the moments of triumph and defeat as they watch their favorite team struggle for dominance. And thankfully, moments like that cost nothing.

If you must decorate, dig out decorations you have on hand or visit the dollar-store so you won't break your budget. And is with everything, less is more. A strategically placed banner or a few balloons will go a long way to add a spirit of festivity to your gathering.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Charitable Giving

It's that time of the year again: a combination of New Year's resolutions and the start of tax time has many of us looking for a place to donate money. It can be difficult to figure out which charity is most deserving of your money and how to make your charitable donations work best for your financial situation.  

You might have a favorite charity, like a local group or someone with whom you've worked for years. If not, finding the right charity can be a difficult task, both because unethical individuals may want to exploit the best intentions of others and because running a nonprofit organization is a difficult task, making many well-intentioned charities ineffective at fulfilling their mission. 

Check out the charity with an objective watchdog group 

One of the difficulties with charitable giving is understanding where your money goes. In recent memory, there might be no better example of the confusion surrounding a charity than Invisible Children, the organization behind Kony 2012. It soared into the public consciousness a few years ago behind a viral marketing campaign, followed by a very public arrest of one of its central figures after an alleged act of public indecency.

In the wake of his arrest, various reports accused the organization of diverting attention from larger human rights abuses in the region and questioning the financial background of the organization. It's unclear, even this far removed, what happened with Invisible Children, and whether the public backlash was warranted, but various watchdog groups certainly paint the charity in a positive light. That's why the best way to determine whether a charity is a good organization and worthy of your donation is to check with the three biggest charity watchdog organizations: Charity Navigator (charitynavigator.org), Charity Watch (charitywatch.org), and the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance (give.org), all of which are also endorsed by Consumer Reports. 

Verify each charity's tax-exempt status 

Never assume an organization has tax-exempt status, even if it might seem like it does or should. For example, some universities offer tax-exempt donations for their general scholarship funds and other donations, but giving to specific departments or organizations, such as the debate team or theater department, is not tax-exempt. Even if your donation was tax-exempt last year, even if someone involved in the organization tells you that they're tax-exempt, even if you're 99% sure the organization is tax-exempt, check with the IRS website at https://www.irs.gov/Charities-&-Non-Profits/Exempt-Organizations-Select-Check 

Always give money directly 

One way that scammers will use the goodwill of charities for their own benefit is to call people and ask for donations over the phone. Don't assume that someone who calls you actually works for the organization. Instead, finish your conversation and then donate directly to the organization. Even legitimate fundraisers often take 40 percent of the proceeds, keeping your money from the people you really want to help.

Donating directly also gives you more control over the paperwork, ensuring you get all the documents you need for a tax deduction. You can also confirm the quality of the organization and that the organization is tax-exempt. 

Make sure to request privacy 

Once you've given money to a charity, it's easy to end up on countless lists with people calling constantly from other charities. If you've ever given money to a political campaign, you've probably already experienced this. Some of our members report that they've received correspondence from political parties for decades, even after switching political parties. So be careful! Make sure you care enough about the charity that it won't bother you to have your dinner interrupted or get junk mail. 

Sources:

Friday, January 22, 2016

IRS Scams 2016


Every year, the Detroit Auto Show brings in visitors from around the world to see the newest models from major car manufacturers. The Consumer Electronics Expo gives us a chance to see all the new gadgets that will be on our wish lists come holiday time. Penny Arcade Expo unveils the year's new video games that our teenagers will be using to ignore their homework. For those of us who spend our days protecting other people's money, January is the time of year we get to see the newest makes and models of IRS scams. 

That's right, they're back. Scammers are using tax time to take advantage of the unwary, and much like the newest Ford at the auto show or yet another iteration of the Madden video game, all of the hype is kind of disappointing, because this year's models look so much like last year's. What happened to innovation? 

So let's take a look at the "new and improved' 2016 lineup of IRS scams. Of course, it's important to remember that innovation can happen at any time, so just because something isn't listed below, it does not mean it's not a scam. If you have any suspicion you're dealing with a scam, hang up, call the IRS or send an email to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Caution is your best approach. 

The telephone scams 

Up first is one of the oldest scams in the IRS scam lineup. You get a phone call from someone claiming to be from the IRS and claiming you owe money. They insist that if you don't pay right now, you'll go to jail. You might recognize this one as a variation on a grandparent scam or Nigerian Prince scam, but if not, the process is simple: You don't owe the money and the scammers are trying to get you to give them money they don't deserve. 

If someone calls you claiming to be from the IRS, even if your caller ID says "IRS" or the like, hang up and call the IRS. If it's legitimate, then you will be able to find out from the IRS. If not, you'll find out right away. Remember, you have a right to an attorney, you can have your accountant present if you're being audited, and you have the right to due process no matter the charge. Don't ever assume you have to pay anyone right away just because they called you and demanded payment. 

The email scam 

One newer variation of the telephone scam is an email version carrying the same threat, but asking for much less money. This is a traditional phishing scam in which scammers ask for a modest sum that's payable online. Their hope is that you'll see a small amount, compare it to the terrible consequences they're threatening, and pay to make it go away. After all, who wouldn't spend $50 or $100 to make the IRS go away? Unfortunately, though, you won't be entering your financial info on a secure site that's provided by the IRS. You'll be entering your info on a dummy site that's set up by scammers to grab your credit card or checking account information. They'll in turn use that info to rack up all sorts of fraudulent charges. 

As a rule of thumb, never, ever, follow the link in an email to a site where you may be asked to enter financial information.  If you have an email from the IRS, see if you can find your account by going directly to the IRS website.  The same is true for eBay, Amazon, and other retailers that scammers love to impersonate. Yes, it's easier to follow a link than it is to find the right page on your own, but scammers are counting on that.  A few clicks could save you thousands of dollars. 

The tax preparer scam 

The final variation of this scam is the tax preparer phishing email scam. In this one, the goal is the same as the variation described above. Instead of impersonating the IRS, they're impersonating a tax preparer. They'll likely have some authentic-looking credentials, which are fake, and assure you everything's alright, but you need to update your info on the IRS' e-file page. The problem is, the link in the email doesn't take you to the IRS' page. It takes you to ... you guessed it! A dummy page that looks like an IRS page but actually captures the financial information you enter. 

Don't be a victim. Always follow through with an extra phone call or email. Don't follow links that are provided in emails and don't assume that a webpage that looks OK must be OK. It's tax time, the time of year where we get a national math test, and math tests are stressful for everyone. Scammers know that and they prey on it. 

If you suspect you've been the victim of identity theft, let us know. The sooner we know, the more protection we can offer. Also, file a complaint with the FTC and alert one of the major credit bureaus.


Sources:
https://www.irs.gov/uac/Tax-Scams-Consumer-Alerts

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Lessons Of Powerball


With the Powerball jackpot eclipsing one billion dollars, an unprecedented lottery fever is sweeping the nation.  Around watercoolers, in person and virtually, the entire country is consumed with conversations about how to spend a hypothetical windfall.  While you didn't win, it's been fun to think and fantasize about.  Some observations from listening to our members talk about the jackpot: 

1.) Never take the annuity. 

The average return on the annuity comes out to less than a 2 percent annual yield. Historically, that's less than inflation, meaning you're better off stuffing cash in your mattress than taking the annuity. Side note: Do not stuff several hundred million dollars in a mattress; aside from the financial and security concerns, your mattress will be incredibly uncomfortable and scrape the ceiling. 

If you were to put your money into one of our savings products, you would get a much better return. Again, we wouldn't recommend putting a few hundred million dollars into your savings account and calling it a day, but spreading your money around in a variety of financial products could yield much better results. For example, our money market accounts, savings certificates and similar savings products all offer returns with low risk, much better than leaving your money in an annuity provided by the lottery commission. 

2.)  No one seems to understand what a billion dollars is. 

One billion dollars is not a lot of money. It's an impossible amount of money. It's easy to forget that one million dollars is one thousand times larger than one thousand dollars; it's even easier to forget that one billion dollars is one thousand times larger than one million dollars. In other words, if you currently owe $250,000 on your house, one billion dollars would pay your mortgage, the mortgage of every family in your neighborhood (100 houses at $250,000 is $25 million), the whole neighborhood's car notes (200 cars at $40,000 is $8 million), put everyone's kids through college (200 children at $250,000 is $50 million) and still have enough money left to do the same for 10 more neighborhoods just like yours. 

3.)  One billion dollars is so much money, it's enough to rethink our happiness. 

As long as we're all having trouble pretending to spend the jackpot, it's a reminder that joining the one percent doesn't have to be the goal. If you can't think of a way to spend one billion dollars, you probably don't need to make one billion dollars. If you were to hit a jackpot big enough to pay off your debt, fund your retirement and set up a fund to take care of your family for the next century, would that be enough to satisfy you financially? If so, you could probably do so for a fraction of the Powerball jackpot. Each individual's experience will vary, but for most of our members, a few million would be enough to hit all of those goals. 

So what would you do with the rest of the money? Who cares? Everything after that point would be fun, but meaningless. We'd all love to own an NBA team, but most of us would be almost as happy with season tickets. A lot of us would rather watch the game at home, anyway. Would you really like to drive a nicer car? That's great, but how much time would you spend in your Bentley if you weren't commuting to work every day? 

The other side of the coin is true, too. The horror stories about lottery winners who ended up alone, broke, and miserable have given a lot of people reason to pause. It seems like every conversation about the Powerball jackpot has to bring up the curse of the lottery. Whenever that happens, people talk about putting aside enough to make sure they're happy, but instead it seems like having so much money is what causes the curse. With one billion dollars, you could give away 99 percent of your winnings and still have enough money for everything in the last paragraph, so why not just give it all away at the outset? Then, no one is coming around with their hands out, you never have to wonder if people are after your money, and you'll still be set up well forever. 

4.)  Figure out your retirement number. 

One of the most interesting things underlying these conversations is that people don't seem to know how much they'd need for the rest of their lives. While it's not likely to ever come up because of lottery winnings, knowing how much money you need to live on for the rest of your life is important. It lets you plan your savings, investments and schedule your retirement.  If you don't know your number, it's time to make serious plans.  Stop waiting on a lottery windfall. We'll help you come up with a reasonable, achievable plan so you'll eventually be able to retire.  It might not be a retirement in the Bahamas, but even on your salary, you should be able to retire someday.