Most people remember to check their investments, retirement accounts, and financial goals at the end of the year, but you should also check-in with your finances in the middle of the year to make sure you’re on track. This weekend, take a few minutes to check the following areas.
Retirement Accounts and Savings
If you’ve invested your retirement in index funds, you probably won’t need to do any mid-year rebalancing. You should avoid tinkering with those accounts more than once a year unless one of your investments has collapsed or changed hands. However, this is a great time to increase your retirement savings if you received a raise since the beginning of the year or make a deposit in your IRA if you’ve fallen behind.
You should monitor your non-retirement investments more often. If any investments have exceeded your goals or your portfolio is out of balance, now is the time to rebalance. The market is jittery at the moment, so avoid making fear-driven changes, but you may want to remove funds or investments that have changed managers or focuses. If you started with a value fund, and now it’s a growth fund, it’s probably not doing what you want it to do. Replace it with another value fund you’ve carefully researched.
Health Savings Accounts and Flexible Spending Accounts
Some employers enroll employees in HSAs and FSAs in the fall while others do it at the beginning of the year. Regardless of when yours opens to new funds or permits changes in the plan, review your remaining balance now. If you have an FSA that loses the remaining balance at the end of the year, make plans to spend the balance down by the end of the year. Schedule a physical, make an eye appointment, schedule that procedure you’ve been putting off.
If you have an HSA, you don’t have to worry about spending down the funds, but you may want to reconsider your annual contribution if you have a large amount leftover or don’t have enough to get you through the year.
I check-in with my financial resolutions every month. At the minimum, see how you’re doing with yours at the middle of the year. Are you falling behind on your savings or debt repayment goal? See where you can cut back spending. Have you received a raise? Direct the additional funds toward your goals with automatic deposits and payments. If you’ve already met your goals, set new ones.
Has your tax situation changed? You might be subject to a different tax treatment if the following apply:
- You or your spouse returned to the workfore
- You or your spouse left the workforce
- You had a child
- Your child graduated from college or turned 24 before January 1 of this year
- Your child started college
- You or your spouse received a raise
- You bought or sold a house
- You started or closed a business
- You received a bonus or taxable windfall.
If any of the above apply, use the withholding calculator to make sure you’re withholding enough from your paychecks to cover the taxes. If you’re withholding too much, file a new W-4. If you’re not withholding enough, file a new W-4 or start setting money aside in a savings account. Visit the IRS website to determine whether you need to make quarterly payments.
If you take just a few minutes to check in with your finances now, you’ll have fewer surprises at the end of the year. That financial peace of mind will make your summer much happier.
This week two blogs chose me as editor’s picks, so I have two favorite favorites. We shall rush forward without further delay to my picks from their picks.
The Festival of Frugality #131, hosted by Broke Grad Student, chose my post about 13 Frugal Ways to Celebrate Summer as an editor’s pick. If you liked that, you’ll also enjoy You Need a Budget’s 8 tips for avoiding summer spending. (Glad I’m not the only one with that particular issue.)
Next up, the Money Hacks Carnival #18, hosted by My Investing Blog, chose my post about Packing a Suitcase as an editor’s pick. If you enjoyed that, you’ll also enjoy Credit Addict’s tips for using Skymiles to pay for your plane ticket. Next week, this carnival is hosted by me, so get your submissions in!
Finally, the Carnival of Personal Finance #158, hosted by Mrs. Micah, included my post about avoiding airline fees. If you enjoyed that, you’ll also enjoy Money and Fitness Blog’s tips for eating healthy and cheap on vacation.
The majority of flowers are at their peak during the summer, but some are available year-round. If you like to decorate your home with flowers, have a flower-giving occasion coming up, or are planning a wedding, here are a few tips for buying cheap flowers.
Buy Flowers in Season
Roses may be popular for Valentine’s Day, but that’s not actually their peak season. Instead, they’re usually imported from South America. Peonies are a very popular wedding flower, but they have a very limited season. If you stick to flowers that are in season, you’ll save a bundle.
Choose Hardy Flowers
In addition to having a short season, peonies are also very delicate, which makes them difficult to transport. If you choose hardier flowers like roses, sunflowers, or dahlias, you’ll also save money on them.
Buy Them without a Vase
Most people already have a ton of vases. Instead of paying a florist to arrange them in an overpriced vase, buy them nicely wrapped in plastic. If they’re for you, use one of the vases you already own. If you’ve giving them as a gift, the person you give them to won’t have to find a place to store another generic vase. While you’re at it, avoid the other add-ons like bears and bows that further increase the price.
Visit a Farmer’s Market
In general flowers are cheaper at the farmer’s market. If you go at the end of the day, you can bargain for an even better deal. Although some of the flowers may look damaged, you can usually remove the petals around the edges to find a lovely perky bloom on the inside. You can try the same thing at a florist or grocery store the day after a big floral event like Valentine’s Day.
Visit the Flower District
Most large cities have a downtown floral market where florists buy their stock. Although the public aren’t allowed in early enough to get the absolute best blooms, but you can still find beautiful flowers and score amazing deals during the public hours later in the morning. I spent $180 on flowers for my wedding. That amount included cutting and arranging supplies, flower food, containers, a rented silver candelabra for $22, 30 sunflowers, 30 dahlias, 20 irises, 175 roses, and greens. The roses came 25 to a bunch for $6-10. We used all of that to decorate the candelabra, make seven bouquets and 12 aisle decorations, and sprinkle the aisle with rose petals.
Visit a Florist Near the End of the Day
Many florists throw out some of their flowers at the end of the day. Although they can’t use them in an arrangement anymore, you might be able to revive them for your own use. Ask them if you can look at anything they’re planning to throw out. If you find flowers you want, drive a hard bargain for it.
Visit a Discount Warehouse Store
Costco or a Sam’s Club offer great deals on flowers in their stores and online. Costco stores often have two dozen roses for $12-15. If you’re planning a party, you may be able to order them in advance.
Several reputable sites sell cheap flowers online. In addition to the Costco and Sam’s Club websites, consider a site like 2G Roses, which ships flowers directly to your door. This is best for large orders, where the savings potential is huge. A flower market is still cheaper, but this is the next best option if you don’t live in a large city.
Cheap flowers can be found year-round if you shop wisely. Now is a great time to enjoy fresh flowers, but there’s no reason you can’t find them affordably in the fall and winter, too. Let me know if you have other sources for discount flowers.< -->
California is making a big push for native California plants, because they conserve water. Conserving water is also a great way to save money, especially if you live in an area where water rates are rising. Local plants offer several other money-saving advantages, too.
Native Plants Reduce Your Water Bill
Most people have large green lawns, but those lawns are not actually native to most regions. Native grasses and plants have adapted to thrive under typical rainfall conditions. When you move those plants to other regions, you usually have to water them more to keep them healthy. Regularly watering a lawn can add thousands to your water bill. Instead, choose a native grass suited to your region. For example, California grasses aren’t quite as green or thick, but they only need to be watered once a month vs. an imported grass that needs to be watered several times a week.
Other plants can also be water hogs. Pine trees can kill lawns and other plants because of their voracious thirst. Many other plants also consume large amounts of water. On the other hand, cactuses and other Southwestern plants require very little water. If you live in a region that doesn’t get much rain, choose plants that don’t need much water.
Native Plants Reduce Your Maintenance Costs
Native plants are more resistant to local plant diseases and pests. With non-native plants, you usually have to buy a lot of chemicals to keep them healthy. Local plants avoid those costs. In addition, non-native plants can often overrun native species. Ivy, for example, has overtaken much of the south and is killing native forests. The cost of cutting back the ivy is astronomical. If you go native, you won’t have to pay a gardener (or buy chemicals) to keep the non-native species at bay.
Native Plants Have Lower Costs
Non-native plants may be grown in other regions and then imported for sale in your state, which increase the cost. Non-native plants grown for sale in your region often include the additional water and food costs in the purchase price. In contrast, local plants that are easier to grow, aren’t transported over long distances, and don’t consume a lot of natural resources will cost less.
If you’re re-landscaping, contact your local water agency for advice about choosing plants. Some regions offer discount programs or grants to further reduce the cost of buying local plants or installing water-wise sprinklers.
Native Plants Keep the Ground Healthy
This doesn’t seem like a money-saver, but it is. Native plants improve the ground’s ability to retain water, which reduces run-off and landslides. If you live in an area prone to flooding or landslides, native plants could help you avoid or reduce the cost of repairing the damage.
It’s true that native plants don’t have the same lush look as an expanse of green lawn, but saving water and money is worth it. Native plants can be gorgeous if you choose wisely. If you must have a lawn, look for native grasses or plant a small plot of lush lawn surrounded by native plants to keep the costs and water use down. If I haven’t convinced you, maybe checking your water footprint will.< -->
Recently I saved $600 by making my own slipcovers. However, I needed to borrow a sewing machine in order to do that. That got me to thinking – what other ways could people save money by sharing community resources? Here are a few areas where I think people could start sharing resources.
Although it would be difficult to share frequently-used tools among more than a couple people, other tools are used less frequently and can be more easily shared. Let’s say you live in an area where lawns need to be aerated annually. You and your neighbors could pay a service to do it every year, buy your own aerator, or pool your resources to buy the tool together. Then you could set up a schedule to rotate it between you. That way no one would pay the full price of the tool, and no one would bear the repeated cost of paying a service. The same thing can be done with other tools like specialized drills, snow blowers, band saws, and belt sanders.
If you don’t want to pool your resources to buy one tool together, you could also agree to buy a set of tools. Each person would pay for and own one tool with the agreement that everyone could borrow everyone else’s tools. For example, you could buy a band saw, and then borrow a belt sander from a neighbor when you needed it.
If you and your neighbors have vegetable gardens or fruit trees, you can all cut your grocery bills by sharing the bounty. You’ll also save the cost and labor of growing a wide variety of those items yourself. Instead, focus on nurturing a few trees or vegetables. My family grew peaches and apricots. Our neighbors had cherries, tomatoes, and other produce. At the peak of the harvest, we would swap large bags full of fresh fruit and veggies.
If you choose to can the food, you could also buy a good set of canning tools to share between you, or even hold canning parties. My family canned much of our fruit. We gave some of it to neighbors, who returned the favor with their canned goods.
Many women own sewing machines, so you can probably find someone to borrow one from if you don’t have one. In return for borrowing my friend’s machine, I gave her a piece of cooking equipment I couldn’t use and made her a couple of produce bags with the machine. There are also specialized sewing or crafting machines people don’t use on a regular basis that can be shared by a group.
This one is a difficult for individuals, but it is being done successfully by Zipcar. http://www.zipcar.com/ Members pay a membership fee and an hourly or daily rental fee and in exchange can pick up a car when they need it and return in when they’re done. They don’t pay for gas, insurance, maintenance, or storage.
Using Craigslist to “Share Tools”
If you don’t live in an area where sharing between neighbors and friends is reasonable, Craigslist is one way to find low-cost “shared” resources. My best friend’s dad is remodeling the bathroom and bought a tile cutter on Craigslist. When he was done, he re-sold it on to another man remodeling his bathroom. This same tool had been bought and resold numerous times already, each time reducing in price about $5. Although it wasn’t strictly a community resource, it did keep the same tool in rotation and saved everyone the expense of buying one brand new. It was more like a very cheap rental.
The best to way develop a sharing network is to meet your neighbors or find out what sorts of things your friends own. If you have a project in mind, ask around. You just might find that someone already owns something you need to borrow. Once you’ve gotten used to sharing, suggest pooling your resources. What starts as a one-time thing could become a neighborhood practice.< -->
A decade ago, sample sales were known only to fashion insiders and were a great way to score amazing deals on last season’s clothing. Now that the sales are announced far and wide on the internet, they’re not such a great deal anymore, although it is still possible to find good deals if you know how.
Bridal sample sales are one of the best ways, after eBay, to score great deals on wedding dresses. However, you have to be pretty strong to survive one of these things. Most large cities have bridal sales at some point because the store owners need to move the older gowns. You should be able to find one near you.
If you plan to shop at a bridal sale, follow these tips:
- Bring the shoes you plan to wear with the dress
- Wear the undergarments you plan to wear with the dress
- Arrive very early to get in line
- Check the bridesmaid’s dress samples if you want a simple gown
- Check gowns carefully for unrepairable rips or irremovable stains in prominent places. Hems can be fixed, but the middle of the skirt can’t.
If you find a beat-up gown, but are good at sewing, it can be a good starting point. My cousin scored a dress with a beautiful skirt for $100. The bodice was trashed, but she and my mom sewed a new bodice in matching fabric for less than another $100.
There are three types of sample sales: designer, store, and warehouse. The designer sales happen mostly in New York and Los Angeles, where most of the design houses are located. If you can get into one of these, you can indeed get good deals.
Store sample sales can be hit or miss. Although they’re less crowded, often the items are very dated or worn-out. The popular sizes are already gone, too. If you have to pay a fee to get in, I wouldn’t bother. Instead, I’d become a good customer and ask the staff to call me just before they have a sale
Finally, there are the massive warehouse sales. These can happen anywhere and several companies host them. You usually pay an entrance fee. Although they feature clothing from numerous designers, the styles are usually a few seasons old and the quality isn’t always the best. Some of the items are genuine samples, which means the sizes may be off or the size-runs may be limited.
It’s easy to blow a lot of money on stuff you’ll never wear at a sample sale. To avoid that, and also to ensure you get the best deal, follow these tips:
Arrive early. Get to the sale a few hours, at least, before the opening time.
Arrive with a plan. If you’re going for jeans, don’t stop to look at the tops first. Head directly for the item you want.
Pre-shop. A few days before the sale, visit a store to try on clothes from the designers you’re interested in. This will give you a better idea of their size run so you don’t buy a medium only to get home and discover that it fits like a small.
Wear easy to remove clothes and shoes. There may not be changing rooms, so bring easy to remove clothes and shoes.
Set a budget. Don’t just bring a credit card and figure you’ll know when to stop. Give yourself a budget and stick to it.
Skip sales with high entry fees. If you have to pay a fee of more than $5 to get in, don’t bother. The clothes inside may not be worth the money you paid just to look at them.
Instead of dealing with sample sales to save on last season’s hot items, I buy classic clothes at discounted prices that I can wear forever. It may not be the most fashionable way to shop, but it’s the most hassle-free.
I have two main problems with online coupons: they fill up my in-box and they tempt me to buy. I solved both problems with one quick fix – email filters. Here’s how to set-up email filters to reduce your spending.
How to Set Up Email Filters
I use Thunderbird, so these instructions apply to that. Go to Tools > Rules and Alerts to set up filters for Outlook. It’s not quite as simple, but it can be done. I highly recommend switching to Thunderbird. It’s a much smaller, cleaner program. Here are the instructions for filtering your email there:
- Create a Coupons folder in your in-box
- On the top toolbar, click Tools > Message Filters
- Click New
- Name it “Coupons” or something similar
- In the “Perform these actions” field, select “Move Messages to” and then select “Coupons on [inbox name]
- In the top fields, select “Match any of the following”
- In the middle box select, “From” and “Contains” in the first two fields. Now enter the first store name. Something like “Amazon” or “CVS”
- Continue filling in the first four boxes, then click the plus button to add more.
- Go through your inbox and enter a portion of the company name as it appears in the email address.
- Click OK.
- Click Run Now.
- All your current messages will move to the folder. As future messages come in, they’ll automatically move to that folder.
How Email Filters Save Money
You’re less tempted to buy. The key is to not look in the folder until I realize you need to make a purchase soon, then check the folder regularly for offers from that company. I complete the purchase when a great offer comes in. This way the offers don’t tempt me to buy when they come in unless I’ve already decided to make a purchase.
You Don’t Miss Valuable Coupons When It’s Time. I could just unsubscribe from the offers and use Retail Me Not, but then I’d get back on the mailing list every time I placed an order. Also, CVS and a few other stores send offers for in-store purchases that can only be used if you print the email.
You Can Learn the Offer Cycle. I keep old offers for a few months to track the offer cycle. That way I can see how often certain coupons are offered and when I’m likely to receive them.
As an added bonus, email filters keep my inbox tidier and I don’t manually sort messages. I wasn’t much of a shopper to begin with, but I’ve been less tempted to even look at an online store since I started filtering my emails. Try it and see how much you save.
As usual, I have three carnivals to share this week. As you may have guessed, these three are my favorites. I do like to stick to my favorites. However, I treat them all like my children (were I to have any), in that I don’t have a favorite favorite (except when one makes me an editor’s pick). Here, in no particular order, are this week’s carnivals.
First up, the Money Hacks Carnival #17, hosted by Mrs. Nespy’s Frugal World. If you liked my post on saving money with travel rewards, you’ll also enjoy Northern Cheapskate’s tips for traveling on a tight budget.
Next, the Festival of Frugality #130, hosted by Out of Debt Again. This week included my post on summer spending habits. In a completely unrelated, but uber-amusing post, The Digerati Life reveals why people are switching to Spam to save money. Now try to get the Spam song out of your head.
Finally, the third anniversary of the Carnival of Personal Finance, hosted by Consumerism Commentary. If you liked my post about deciding whether to dump your bank, read Think Your Way to Wealth’s tips for stashing your emergency fund somewhere safe.
It’s officially summer. Although many places started to get hot a few weeks ago, the season officially kicks off today at 4:59 PM Pacific Time, the exact moment of the solstice. In honor of the season of sun, sand, and surf, here are 13 frugal ways to celebrate the summer.
I love lemonade in all its forms – pink, yellow, mixed with lavender, sweet, tart, pulpy, smooth. You can make the lemonade yourself with lemons from the farmer’s market, grocery store, or, if you’re lucky, your backyard. You could also use one of the plethora of lemonade coupons to buy it already made in a carton or can. No matter how you do it, get yourself some lemonade and drink up.
Got leftover lemonade or fruit juice? Make popsicles. My mom had popsicle molds when I was growing up, but you can also use paper or plastic cups. Fill them 2/3s full with juice, then set them in the freezer. Once they start to set, insert popsicle sticks. Freeze until hard. Now you’ve got a cheap, easy treat.
Host a Lazy BBQ
Most people host barbecues on the 4th of July, but I prefer to host one some other random weekend. That makes it more relaxing, and less theme-oriented. Use my tips for throwing a party on a budget to avoid overspending on your shindig.
Make Ice Cream
I have an ice cream maker attachment for my stand mixer. When I was growing up, my mom had a rock-salt ice cream maker. These days you can pick up an electric ice cream maker for $20-50. If you go join Bed, Bath, and Beyond’s mailing list, they’ll send you 20% off coupons. Use one to get yourself an ice cream machine. Although it takes a bit of advanced planning, you’ll be able to make much tastier ice cream for less than the brands in the store cost (and without all the additives.)
Summer is the season of cherries. Sure, you can probably get imported cherries at the grocery store already, but fresh, US-grown cherries are at their peak in June and July. The wait is definitely worth it. Stop by a farmer’s market or produce stand to pick some up.
Hit the Beach
If you live anywhere near an ocean or lake, pack up your lunch, snacks, water, sunscreen, towels, and beach toys. Make sure you leave early to score a good spot, and then spend your day lazing in the warm sun and playing in the water. Bonus points for building a sand castle.
Attend Free Cultural Events
You’ll find all sorts of free or cheap cultural events during the summer. Make plans to visit at least two or three. Not only will you get free entertainment, you’ll experience the arts. Sure it sounds high falutin’, but it doesn’t feel that way when you’re wearing shorts and a t-shirt.
Attend a Street Fair
Nearly every town hosts a street fair during the warmer months. Although they’re usually filled with vendors hawking food and crafts, it’s usually not ridiculously over-priced. Buy a gyro or a funnel cake, then sit on the curb and enjoy the free street musicians. You can also get your face painted or do some early Christmas shopping with unique vendors.
Host a Block Party
My street never had a block party when I was growing up, but I heard about them. If you live on a smaller street, contact the city to ask how you can block it off. Pick a date, and then recruit your neighbors to join in the fun. Set up multiple BBQ stations, organize volleyball games, and let the kids cover the street in chalk drawings. The goal is to relax and get to know your neighbors better. If New York City can close their streets for a day, certainly you can.
Hang Out by the Pool
My neighborhood pool was a must for every family. Even people who had backyard pools joined the club. The club hosted a few evening events for the adults, and kids rode their bikes over during the day. Although it isn’t free, you only have to pay membership for a few months and it’s usually affordable, especially compared to the cost of maintaining your own pool. If you don’t have access to a neighborhood pool, check your local city’s department of parks and rec for a list of community pools.
Join a Summer Sports League
Now that it’s still light in the evenings, there’s ample time to play sports. Whatever your sport: softball, basketball, or soccer, you can find a community league in your area to join. You’ll need to buy equipment, but the membership fees are usually less than $50 for the season.
The Vodka Watermelon
This one’s strictly for the adults, but what summer is complete without a vodka-injected watermelon?
Eat Dinner Outside
If you’ve got a backyard, or a nice balcony, eat dinner outside. Not only do you get to enjoy the sunset and the fresh air, you’ll also save money on air conditioning. You get bonus points for grilling your food outside, which further reduces the need for air conditioning inside. My goal for July, August, and September is to use the oven less and to grill more. It just feels more summery.
Summer will be gone in a flash, so get out there and enjoy it while you can. Do you have any more ways to celebrate the summer? Share them in the comments.
The best way to avoid baggage fees is to choose an airline that doesn’t charge them. You can also see yesterday’s tips for avoiding airline fees for more ideas. If you are stuck with an airline that charges fees, and you booked after the fee was imposed, then your next defense is packing wisely. Here’s how to pack a suitcase.
About a week before you plan to leave, start a packing list. Start by listing your necessities, including the following items:
- Number of pairs of underwear and socks
- All toiletries
- Carry-on items
- Items you’ll wear on the plane
- All accessories.
Now look at the activities you have scheduled, including tourist destinations. Figure out what you’ll want to wear to those places.
With your list of activities in mind, plan your outfits accordingly. If you plan to visit churches, then you’ll need to pack long pants or a skirt, and a top with sleeves or a light sweater to throw over a tank top. If you plan to do a lot of hiking, bring thicker socks, hiking shoes, and lightweight t-shirts and shorts. Try to mix and match your outfits so that you can wear 2-3 tops with the same pair of pants, or wear the same top from day to night with only a change in the bottoms. Limit yourself to three pairs of shoes, max: 1 dress, 1 casual walking, 1 for hiking and heavy walking. Wear your heaviest or biggest pair of shoes on the plane.
As you go through the week, whittle down the list until it’s manageable. Now it’s time to start packing. Never pack a suitcase the same day you leave. Instead, pack at least the night before to avoid overpacking, underpacking, or leaving out necessary items.
Choose the Right Suitcase
When my husband and I went on our honeymoon, we packed one big suitcase for the two of us, and then brought a smaller carry-on suitcase to bring home souvenirs wrapped in his t-shirts. We also had a backpack for our reading material and plane food. When my parents travel to Europe, they tend to move around a lot, so they each bring one small rolling suitcase and plan to do laundry once while they’re there.
Wherever you’re going, try to condense your packing as much as possible. Carry-on restrictions are becoming stricter, so measure and weigh yours to make sure it meets the limit. If you’re traveling as a family or couple, you’ll pay fewer baggage fees if you consolidate more than one person’s belongings into a single suitcase.
How to Pack a Suitcase
Lay everything you plan to pack on the bed. You may notice that you’ve listed too much, so trim the list further as you go. Now lay out your suitcase. Does that pile on the bed look like it will fit? If not, trim the list more. If so, will it fit so snugly that you can’t fit souvenirs? Again, trimming may be in order.
There are two methods for packing wisely: rolling and stacking. I prefer a combo of both. Here’s my method.
1. Lay pants, dresses, and long skirts lengthwise in the suitcase so the ends stick out.
2. Lay shirts that tend to wrinkle on top.
3. Roll knits, t-shirts, and other less wrinkly items. Arrange them in a row on top of the pants.
4. Tuck shoes into the sides, along with belts, socks, and underwear, chargers, and a small package of accessories.
5. Fold legs and arms over the top of the bundle.
6. Lay a hand towel on top of the clothes.
7. Lay toiletry bag and other shoes on top of the towel. Liquids inside the toiletry bag should also be encased in a resealable plastic bag if the pressure could force the liquids out of the containers.
8. Close it. Place a list of last-minute items, like your PJs or toothbrush, on top so you remember to add them right before leaving. Now you’ve got a neatly packed, wrinkle-reducing suitcase.
The airlines have declared war on our stuff, but we all know that we can’t reasonably expect to travel without it. Overhead bins aren’t getting any bigger, and I doubt the baggage fees are going anywhere, so learning how to pack is the best to avoid getting slapped with extra fees.