A recent story about the spate for credit card fraud involving small charges reminded me of something that happened to me recently.

My Potential Credit Card Fraud Scam
I don’t actually know that this was fraud, but I know that American Express settled the dispute within four days and neither my husband nor I made the charge.

I don’t check my credit card statement frequently, because my husband does. However, I happened to log in one day and notice a strange charge for $14.59 from a web company. I looked into the charge, and it said it was for an “internet download.” I visited the company website, and it said that charges for a variety of websites they service could appear under their name. That alone seemed suspicious to me – how would they track who the money was owed to if all the charges appeared under their own name? The address was near me, and appeared to be a mailbox center. (Yay, Google for image maps!)

I asked my husband if he’d downloaded anything in the last week, and he hadn’t. I filed a dispute and AmEx found in my favor within a week. I now see that the company’s website is gone.

Beware of Unfamiliar Charges
If we didn’t check our credit cards regularly, this charge probably would have slipped by. That’s why it’s very important to view your bill every month. You only have 60 days from the statement date to dispute a charge. Disputing a charge doesn’t cost you anything and it doesn’t take more than a minute to sign on, find the charge, and dispute it.

The scammers referenced in the article above usually charged less than $10 because that will usually go undetected.

What Happens When You Dispute a Charge
The dispute process is simple:

  • First, you dispute the charge phone or online.
  • The charge is removed from your account pending investigation.
  • The credit card company contacts the merchant.
  • The merchant verifies the charge.
  • If the merchant can prove the charge was valid, it will reappear on your card. If they can’t, the charge is invalidated.
  • You’ll receive a letter notifying you of the findings.

If you don’t recognize a charge, first see if your spouse or another authorized user made the charge. If no one recognizes it, file a dispute immediately. There’s no reason not to, and it may help you avoid having your card used in future scams.

Let’s be honest: no one really cares about the wedding favors. Most people eat whatever is edible, then toss the rest or shove the favor into a drawer. But couples stress about wedding favors. Yes, you want it to represent you, but you also don’t want it to eat a substantial portion of your budget.

Buy or DIY Favors?
If you have the time and really want to make it personal, you can make the favors yourself. My husband and I made handrolled 4-inch beeswax candle pairs. The cost was around $90 for the wax, purple ribbon, and homemade labels printed on leftover invitation paper. We ended up making so many that we’re still using the candles five years later, and have given my aunt several more batches, too.

My sister’s were sort of DIY and sort of not. She bought cheap small frames, then scanned a photo of herself or the groom with each person attending. Since everyone who attended was on old friend (even the dates), she was able to find photos from other events or occasions. She didn’t spend a lot of money, but the guests really loved those frames.

Another friend bought purple votive holders, dropped in a votive candle, and wrapped ribbon printed with the wedding date and their names around it.

There’s really no right answer to the favor question. If you DIY, you can save money but it will take some time to assemble. If you buy, the favors are less personal and more likely to get stuffed in a drawer.

If you do buy favors, don’t spend a lot. If you make, don’t spend a lot of money on the materials or it defeats the whole purpose.

I once read about a bride who spent $10 on each favor. They were some sort of crystal googaw. I’m going to assume she had a high budget, but really, how many people want some crystal googaw that suits the couple’s taste rather than their own?

How to Choose Favors
Whether you buy or DIY, the wedding favors you choose should go with your theme or colors. For example, if you’re having a fall wedding, consider a small candleholder with leaf details. A packet of seeds is nice for a spring wedding. But before you get there, first you need to establish your budget.

  1. How many people are you expecting?
  2. Are you giving a favor to each person or to each couple?
  3. How much do you want to spend on your favors total?
  4. Divide that by the number of people/couples.
  5. That’s how much you can spend per favor.

Don’t go over budget. Keep looking until you can find something you right that fits your budget. When in doubt, choose a simple bag of Jordan almonds or chocolate. No one ever minds these tasty treats, even if they’re not the most creative favors.

You’ve probably all heard the news that a California legislator submitted a bill that would allow the state to place digital ads on California license plates. The law has not passed and, given the stupidity of it, I doubt it will. Nevertheless, the whole idea makes me stabby.

We Don’t Need More Advertising
Seriously, we don’t need more advertising. I pass enough billboards on my way home. I don’t need to see ads on the physical cars. Then I go home and see ads on the TV. I see ads on the internet. I don’t hear ads on the radio, but only because I listen to NPR. Instead I hear watered down messages about sponsors.

The world has enough advertising in it. Leave me alone!

Don’t Force Your Ads Onto My Property
This is actually the thing that bothers me more. I already hate it when AT&T sends me text ads on my cell phone. It’s MY phone. I’ll thank you not to spam me on it.

This would go a bit further, by forcing me to broadcast ads from my car. Unless they’re giving me a free car, the answer is no. It’s MY car. I choose what goes on it. I don’t even have a bumper sticker. I think I have a dealer license plate frame on the front, but the back one was stolen along with the plate. If I do want to advertise on my car, then I should get the money for it, not the state. Why should I buy a car with my money, and pay for auto registration every year, only to have the state slap ads on it?

California Needs to Clean Up the System, Not Find New Revenue
I’m not a fan of the California legislature – on either side of the aisle. The Democrats always find new ways to spend more and more money, and the Republicans have just enough power to hold up the budget without proposing any real solutions.

Our idiotic proposition system doesn’t make things any better. At this point, some 63% of general fund spending is mandated by law. The legislators get no say in the matter. This is thanks to government by the people, who blindly vote for propositions that tie up more and more money, which gives the government less power to direct the money where it’s needed.

The first step in solving this problem would be to eliminate the proposition system. It costs the state money and the ballot initiatives usually end up doing more harm than good.

The second step is for the government to go on an austerity plan. Stop promising state employees cushy retirements and health plans if you don’t intend to save the money to do so. Stop wasting money on campaign mailers and other fluff. Stop paying legislators when they don’t pass the budget on time. Stop stealing from future budgets to pay for this year’s expenses. Stop stealing from local governments to pay for state expenses.

And finally, stop trying to foist new revenue-drivers on the people of California. For example, keep your ads off my license plate!

As I’ve mentioned before, we opted to contribute the maximum $2500 to our FSA account this year because we initially expected to pay $2000-$4500 in coinsurance for my husband’s surgery. As it turned out, we paid $0 in coinsurance, which meant we have to scramble to spend down the $2500.

Half-Year FSA Check-In
We use our FSA frequently, so I frequently check the balance and process requests for additional information. On a side note, I don’t know why they say you can use the card to pay at the doctor’s office if we ALWAYS have to send backup information and receipts. That doesn’t make it any more streamlined!

If you don’t check your FSA regularly, mid-year is a good time to check and see how much you have left to spend. Then you can start scheduling doctor’s appointments now, rather than waiting until the last month to try to fit them all in.

Our Progress
By the end of this month, we’ll have managed to spend almost exactly half of the money. That’s about $500 in prescriptions, two emergency room co-pays, miscellaneous travel/parking expenses, some over-the-counter items, and physical therapy. My husband’s preferred physical therapy center is no longer in Anthem’s network, but we opted to pay the higher co-pay rather than find a new center because we knew we had the FSA to spend down. That’s about $150 a week. (It varies. Some visits are $50, some are $25.) I’m not sure how many visits he’ll have, but twenty sessions will get us pretty close to the cap.

Planning to Exceed the FSA Limit
Given the higher PT expense, we’ll probably actually spend more on medical costs than our FSA limit. I still need new contacts and new glasses, as does my husband. He takes a few prescriptions and we still pay co-pays for those. I also have to schedule a few doctor visits for myself, so that will push us over the edge.

At first I was annoyed that we might exceed the cap and have to spend our own money, but then I remembered that the FSA is our money. It’s simple to forget that it’s ours because we don’t pay the bill for it at the end of the money, but I also always remember that we have to spend it all by 12/31/2010 or forfeit it. So, I’d rather exceed the cap and have to go out-of-pocket than leave money on the table.

It seems impossible to spend $2500 on medical care in a year, and in a normal year it might be, but even in a normal year it wouldn’t be that hard to spend $1000. It’s amazing how quickly these things add up.

It’s been almost three months since I transplanted my tomato seedlings into the garden. The plants are still growing. Two are four feet tall and still growing. The third is also tall, but I suspect it has a virus and I’m going to have to pull it.

Harvesting My First Tomato
I have my first striped Roman tomato. It weighs in at five ounces. It came in a full month earlier than the others, so it will be a few more weeks before I have more tomatoes to show for my efforts. At my current count, I have 23 more tomatoes growing on the two plants combined, and it’s still early in the season. So far, that would come to about $1.80 per tomato, but I’m hoping it will get down to $1/tomato or less.

my first tomato

Pruning Tomato Plants
Be careful not to overprune the tomato plants. I think I might have done that with my suffering plant, however I’m also pretty sure it has a mosaic virus. There’s no cure for that, so I’ll have to pull it before it gets onto my other plants.

Each week, I visit my plants to pull off any suckers or new vines that are forming. Right now each plant has two vines growing off the base. One of those branched out into two more, which is really the limit.

Securing the Plants
My plants have outgrown their original cages, so I have to add taller stakes. The tricky part is avoiding the roots, so I’ll have to be very careful to put the stakes far enough back in the soil, while still offering support.

tomato plants

I’m enjoying this experience of growing my own food. Next year I’ll have much more to show for my efforts, but I’m learning as I go, which is important, too.

Last week I started using a search engine called SwagBucks, and I’ve already earned enough points (swag bucks) to buy a $5 Amazon gift card. Are you in on the latest way to win free prizes?

How SwagBucks Works
SwagBucks is simple. Perform searches at their engine and occasionally you win points for those searches. However, they also offer other ways to earn points, and that’s where they really rack up. You can then use those points to buy prizes in the SwagBucks store. Most people opt for the $5 Amazon.com gift card, but they offer many other prizes, too.

How to Earn Extra SwagBucks
In addition to the random bucks awarded through searches, you can also earn points for various other tasks, such as:

  • Answering the daily poll question
  • Completing surveys
  • Completing special offers
  • Trading video games and other items
  • Turning in an old cell phone
  • Shopping
  • Participating on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media
  • Downloading the Toolbar
  • Promoting SwagBucks.

They also release Swagcodes on their blog, Twitter, Facebook, or toolbar, usually one a day, that earn additional points if you see the code and enter it before the deadline.

Search Results Accuracy
My first concern was that Swagbucks wouldn’t be as accurate as Google. The truth is, they’re not always, but I can usually find what I want on a search and if I can’t, I switch to Google. You’ll also notice that there are a lot of sponsored results mixed into their results. Some of these are helpful, some aren’t. However, they are always labeled as Sponsored in the URL, so you can weed them out.

Special Offers
Swagbucks has special offers you can complete, such as signing up for a credit card or joining the Netflix free trial. Some are as simple as watching a one-minute video, but the big rewards could cost you real money or require real effort. If you’re tempted by a big offer, you might find that those same offers earn better rewards through your credit card rewards program or one of the shopping rewards sites, so compare the rewards carefully before choosing.

For example, DirecTV is offering 9975 bucks for subscribing to the service. You could also earn $50 back from ShopatHome for the same thing. So, you have to decide which is worth more to you – the points or the cash. It appears that most rewards in the 9000SB range are worth about $50, so it could be a break-even.

Surveys
Surveys are a great way to rack up lots of points, but they can also be frustrating.

The surveys interface offers several surveys in a variety of categories. The system indicates how likely you are to get accepted for a survey. I tried to take one that said 90% acceptance, and I was rejected. I suspect that my income level, education level, or lack of children is excluding me from most of the surveys. I was able to take a financial service survey worth 75 bucks however. It took about 15 minutes.

The frustrating thing about the surveys is that you have to answer several questions before even being told if you qualify. Sometimes it takes as long as 5 minutes to get rejected. Do that six times and you’ve wasted half an hour.

In addition to surveys, you can complete profiles, which help them figure out which surveys are appropriate for you. You earn bucks for these profiles, and you may be able to cut some of those preliminary questions by completing the profiles, but I haven’t done them all yet.

If you want to earn prizes just for searching, or if you’re willing to take surveys, sign up for Swagbucks.  I earned 400 points my first week, and you only need 450 to get the $5 Amazon gift card.

Note: I will earn Swagbucks for referring you through the links above. If you’re not comfortable with that, go directly to Swagbucks.com without clicking the link.

This is mostly about time management, but it also applies to personal finance. Every week, I create a To Do list in my notebook. It includes my usual weekly tasks (because I like crossing things off lists, not because I worry I’ll forget to buy groceries), the TV shows I plan to watch, events I plan to attend, as well as the things I need/want to do. I never mark off all the things on the list, though, because I make other things a priority.

Choosing Between Priorities
This weekend, for example, I wanted to do several things:

  • Go for a hike with my best friend
  • Paint my powder room
  • Make curtains
  • Paint a box for the bathroom
  • Work on a writing project.

Obviously, I had to narrow that list down, because there was simply no way to do it all and still have time with my husband.

So, I figured out which was most important to me.

I’d already agreed to the hike, and it was her birthday, so that was easy. Plus I got exercise, which I needed. Working out was also on the list!

The writing project was next on my list because I’ve given myself a personal deadline for it.

After taking care of some other household chairs, the other three things on the list didn’t happen. They’ll move to next week’s list.

Tips for Setting Priorities
If you’re deciding on priorities for your budget or your time, it’s all about calculating the relative importance.

My best friend is more important than my curtains. My writing project is also more important than my curtains, but less important than my best friend. If I had a paying deadline, the writing project might take the top spot.

If you’re budgeting, your rent/mortgage and other bills are priorities, whereas the vacation savings can wait.

If you’re choosing between purchases, or budgeting your spending money, decide which is more important to you. Do you need to buy the shoes more or can those wait so you can add to your vacation savings? Should you go out to eat or would it better to eat at home so you don’t have to put the movie tickets on the credit card?

Here are five questions to ask yourself before taking an action:

  1. Is this a want or a need?
  2. Is this related to an obligation?
  3. Is this related to a personal or financial goal?
  4. Can I do afford this without stretching my budget?
  5. Is the benefit greater than the cost?

For the hiking trip, the excursion was a want. The exercise was a need. It was an obligation, because I’d already agreed to go. It wasn’t related to a goal. It was free, so no cost. Definitely had a lot of benefits!

The Benefits of Setting Priorities
Obviously, we all want to do more than we have time for, and most of us want to do more with our money than we reasonably can. So, it comes to making choices. Priorities help make those choices easier. Most people, including me, have goals in the backs of their minds. By consciously prioritizing those goals and writing them down, you can more easily prioritize the other choices you have to make instead of taking an action and then realizing later that it was a mistake.

I don’t usually have trouble with coupons for free items. Usually, manufacturers or stores send them on glossy paper or they are only good at a certain store, both of which make them hard to fake. This week, however, I had trouble with a freebie coupon that was poorly designed. I was persistent, however, and my persistence paid off.

The Tropicana Free Juice Coupon
As a promotion for its Juicy Rewards program, Tropicana gave away 50,000 coupons for a free carton of orange juice. In order to receive the coupon, I had to cash in five Juicy Rewards points, which I received for entering codes I found in the same blog post that informed me of the promotion.

A few days later, I received the coupon. It was formatted like an internet printable coupon, but was attached to a letter. I detached the letter and put it in the recycling, then tucked the coupon in my folder.

The Trouble with Free Coupons
Most stores have a policy against accepting internet printables for free items, due to fraud. It’s a shame, but I understand the policy. However, I didn’t know that when I want to use it, and I didn’t print it. It was mailed to me.

The first night I tried to use it, the evening manager absolutely refused to accept it. She sounded like she didn’t believe I had received it in the mail. She made all sorts of claims about it needing to be printed on special paper etc. I was in the express lane, so I removed the juice from my purchase and left.

When I got home, I examined the coupon. It was, in fact, printed on microdot paper with embedded security features on the back.

I went back to the store Friday morning and went directly to the manager’s station. I simply explained that although it looked like an internet printable, Tropicana had mailed it to me. He looked at it and explained their policy. I pointed out the security features, and he approved it. When I used the coupon at the register, I actually got 99 cents back because the juice was on sale!

Tips for Freebie Coupons
If you receive freebie coupons, here are a few tips:

  1. Use it at the designated merchant (if it’s store-issued), or use it at a store where you shop regularly.
  2. Keep the envelope and supporting letter with the coupon, especially if it looks like it might have been printed on your home computer.
  3. Don’t argue with the cashier. She doesn’t have the power to do anything. Instead, ask for the manager.
  4. Use a regular checkout, not an express lane. You don’t want to hold up the express lane if you have to get a manager.
  5. If you don’t get anywhere, ask for the general manager’s name and phone number. Call to ask for help, or return to the store when that manager or another high-level manager is available.
  6. Be polite. Don’t get into a heated argument or make accusations.
  7. Be persistent. If you don’t succeed on your first visit, go back until you do. If you strike out at that store, try another store.

My free juice coupon saved me $3.50. Actually, I guess it saved me $4.49. Even though it took a little extra effort, I think $4.49 is worth five minutes.

Two years ago, I posted my top 5 budget busters. Now my life has changed a lot, so I’ve got a mostly new set of budget busters.

House
Want to blow your budget fast? Buy a house. On top of the tens of thousands we spent buying the house (in the form of the down payment), we’ve also bought paint, furniture, and home maintenance tools. So far we’ve managed to keep the costs manageable, but a $5500 sewer bill sure put a dent in our plans!

Husband
Sadly, my husband is still one of my budget busters. He’s getting better, I promise, but he still has his moments. I thought I’d broken him of his habit of buying weekend lunches while he was recovering from surgery, but once he was able to drive again he went a bit crazy. He went even more crazy once he started working part-time. I’m still struggling to rein him back in.

He also still has ideas about what we should buy to keep up with our lifestyle. He keeps telling me I can afford a more expensive car, but I don’t want a more expensive car! He’s insisting that he’s going to buy himself a very nice car in keeping with his profession. Clients don’t see his car, but he still thinks he deserves it.

Surgery
My husband’s surgery blew our budget in the sense that the drop in income required us to shift some budget items around. So far we haven’t had to pay much in the way of medical expenses, but there have been some, which have come out of our FSA. That means that other FSA expenses we have planned may have to come out of our pockets.

Food
Food is still one of our biggest budget items. We’ve cut it in some areas because I’ve been shopping at farmer’s markets and using more coupons, but it’s still high. Gluten-free food will do that to a budget. Throw in my husband’s lunches (even though I buy him food), and you can see the problem.

Insurance
With the house came higher insurance costs. On top of higher auto limits (we have more assets to protect now), we have homeowner’s, flood, earthquake, and life for me. We’re still shopping for my husband’s life policy. For some reason, they didn’t want to insure a guy going in for surgery! Our insurance bill currently tips the scales at $5100 a year, up from $1800 when we rented. It will only get higher once we add my husband’s life insurance and the rate increase for my new car.

Despite these new budget busters, we’re managing to keep our budget in check and have resumed saving money (or at least we’re not drawing down our savings too much despite the big sewer bill.) It’s more of a struggle, though. And we’re certainly not saving the 25% we once managed with ease.

I’ve written a post in the past about inexpensive hobbies, but I happen to have a really expensive hobby. It’s also very time and labor-intensive, so I don’t get to do it often, but I haven’t given it up. In fact, I’m thinking of taking up a new project now that I have a house.

Expensive Hobbies
Several of my friends have very expensive hobbies. I have a friend who is an excellent quilter, but quilting is very, very expensive. Scrapbooking is another pricey one. Knitting, too. Basically, crafting in general has gotten expensive unless you only use the cheapest supplies.

Playing a sport can become expensive if you join a team, have to buy equipment, or have to pay team dues or rent game spaces.

Horseback riding, bike riding, etc. can also easily get expensive, especially if you do it competitively. Really, any hobby that you try to transition into a career or competition can quickly become expensive.

Collecting anything can be a very pricey hobby indeed.

I have two hobbies. One is novel writing, and yes, it can be expensive. However, because I pursue it professionally, I can deduct some business expenses for taxes. My second hobby, which I can’t deduct, is stained glass crafting.

I haven’t actually made a stained glass piece in at least ten years. I tried to make one in my old apartment, but glass-crafting is very messy. First I had to tape garbage bags all over my dining room to avoid getting glass slivers on the floor while I cut it. Then I had to tape garbage bags all over my kitchen and crouch over a stool to grind the edges of the cut glass. After that, I vowed not to make another piece until I had a house where I could do the work outside or in a garage.

Calculating the Cost of Expensive Hobbies
Well, now I have a house and a small window in need of decoration. I plan to make a small window hanging from stained glass. I already own most of the supplies, but I may need to replace some of them, and that could be expensive. For example:

New diamond grinder head: $26.95
Copper foil: $5.95 a roll
Cutter tip: $14.66
Particle board work surface: $20
Pattern paper: $8.95 for 100 sheets
Glass: $8-20 per sheet

Of course, I’m not truly considering the cost because I enjoy making stained glass windows and I want to make a window. I’ll try to keep costs down by using some of the glass I already have. I have several large sheets, as well as a big box of glass bits that are perfect for small cuts.

If a hobby is truly expensive, you’ll either have to decide how to afford it, or find a new hobby.

Budgeting for an Expensive Hobby
|When cash was tight, I didn’t make stained glass pieces. I simply couldn’t afford it. If you have debt, you can’t afford a hobby. If you don’t have debt, arrange your budget to accommodate your hobby without creating debt. Look at your expenses to find other areas you can cut.

Some simple examples:

  • Use coupons at the grocery store. Put your savings toward your hobby.
  • Cancel or reduce your cable. If a hobby is keeping you busy, do you need cable?
  • Brown bag your lunch.
  • Sell CDs, DVDs, or supplies from old hobbies you’re no longer active in.
  • Cancel monthly subscriptions.
  • Pool resources. If you know other people with the same hobby, schedule meetings where you can share your supplies and avoid having to buy all the tools that others might have.

Once you make the necessary cuts, budget the hobby into your monthly expenses so you’ll have the funds ready when you need to buy supplies or sign up for a class. You should also follow crafting blogs or newsletters to be alerted when supplies or equipment go on sale.

We all need hobbies. They’re creative outlets that help us reduce our stress and provide simple enjoyment. In fact, if you spend most of your time sitting on the couch watching TV, you probably need to get a hobby! Just make sure it’s one you can afford.

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