I read a story on NPR’s Marketplace today that really made me stabby. Apparently some banks are now charging fees for customers to receive monthly paper statements. Sure, most of us can access our accounts online and have opted out of paper statements, but that’s not everyone. Banks shouldn’t charge you a fee for providing a core service, like statements.

Who Needs Paper Statements?
I’m sure that’s the question that wealthy bank executives ask themselves. They forget about their poor customers, their rural customers, their elderly customers. Of course, they probably don’t want those customers anymore, but they can’t close the account if there’s money in it, so instead they charge ridiculous fees.

The fact is that some people don’t have internet access, or have unreliable or insecure access. The elderly are a case in point. Although there are some Facebooking Grandmas, most still prefer to do their financial business on paper. It’s how they learned it and how they feel comfortable. They shouldn’t have to spend some of their meager income on a piece of paper that is mailed to their home.

Internet access is also a challenge in rural areas. In these regions, there is no cable or DSL access. Some areas don’t even have landline telephone access, so dial-up isn’t an option. Satellite internet exists, but it’s expensive and unreliable. Why should rural customers have to pay for something that used to be free just because banks have decided that most customers use the internet?

And what about the poor? They might not even have a computer. Sure, they can go to the library, but do you want to print your bank statement at the library? Yeah, me neither. Not to mention that they may be working during rapidly decreasing library hours, which means they couldn’t even print statements there if they were willing to take the risk.

It’s Time to Tell the Banks No
I’m glad that at least one Senator is aware of the problem and urging Elizabeth Warren to do something about it. First it was fees to see tellers, then it was fees to speak to someone on the phone. Now it’s a paper statement? Those are printed by a computer, stuffed by a machine, and mailed by a machine. It’s not costing them that much in salary or benefits, unless those computers are cyborgs, I suppose.

I understand that banks are a business, but they also make money off our money. It doesn’t just sit there in our accounts. They use it to make loans or collect interest on it. Then they collect monthly fees and other ancillary charges. They can spend a few cents a month to send me a statement if I want one.

Charging a business $9.99 a month for a piece of paper and an envelope? I’m sorry, but that’s highway robbery. Pure greed. We shouldn’t stand for that!

Halloween is just a few days away. Have you finished your costume yet? Have you decorated your house yet? If not, here are five last minute Halloween costumes and five last-minute decorations to get you by.

Last-Minute Halloween Costumes
Just in case you haven’t looked at a calendar, or you got invited to a party at the last-minute, here are five ideas for cheap, DIY costumes you can pull together at the last minute. For the ladies – I promise no slutty costumes! I think the slutty [insert role here] look is played out!

Zombie
Zombies are all the rage, and couldn’t be easier to put together. If you have an old pair of ripped pants and shirt with holes in it, more the better. If you don’t, just grab and old shirt and pants and rub them in some dirt. Throw them on, then smear some Halloween makeup on your face. You should be able to find it pretty cheap at any drugstore. Mess up your hair and you’re done!

Ghost
It’s so cheesy that it’s classic! Stop by a thrift store to buy an old white sheet. Cut two holes for eyes. Drape over you. Done. Is it creative? No. Is it funny? Yes.

Politician
Put on a suit. Stick a “Vote for Me” sticker on the lapel. If you don’t have a small flag you can carry, use a flag pin or print out a flag sticker, which you should also attach to the suit. Now you’re a candidate for political office! Bonus points if you’re a woman and add a witch’s hat. Now you’re Christine O’Donnell.

Old Spice Guy
This one really only works for men. Put on a pair of white or light khaki pants. Roll up the cuffs. Alternate – wear a towel. Toss a scarf around your neck. Carry a bottle of Old Spice. Speak in nonsense.

Hobo
Yet another classic. Dress in baggy clothes. Bonus points for a flannel shirt. Stuff wadded up plastic bags into a ball and wrap in a handkerchief. Tie the bundle to a stick. Now you’re a hobo.

Last-Minute Halloween Decorations
Did you suddenly discover that trick-or-treaters will be coming to your area after all? Are you the only person in the building/on the block without decorations? Here are five last-minute decorations.

Pumpkin
Okay, this one’s a duh, but no Halloween house is complete without a pumpkin to decorate the front stoop.

Paper Ghosts
Make tissue paper ghosts and suspend them from a tree if you’re not expecting rain on Halloween. you can also make spiders and pumpkins out of construction paper. To make ghosts, Get two pieces of facial tissue or gift-wrap tissue. Wad one up into a ball. Drape the other one over it. Tie a loop under the ball with string or yarn. Draw on eyes and a mouth. Stick a safety pin in the top to attach the hanging string to.

Spiderwebs
Stop by the craft store to buy some spiderwebbing. It might also be called Angel Hair. Stretch it apart and drape it over gates, trees, shrubs, and anything else it will cling to. You’ll probably only need one bag to get good coverage.

Headless Dummy
Stuff an old pair of pants and an old shirt with newspaper so it looks like a body. Set it on a lawn chair in a darkened corner of the front yard. Attach shoes. Either use an un-carved pumpkin for the head or leave it headless.  If you can set a light under it, it will cast an eerie upward glow to add to the spookiness.

Gravestones
Find some flat rectangles of styrofoam or cardboard. Cut out grave shapes. Spray paint them gray. Paint silly epitaphs in black letters. Attach them to garden stakes or poles and stick them in your front yard.

You don’t have to spend a fortune on Halloween costumes or decorations. If you need more ideas, check out these previous posts on cheap Halloween costumes and more cheap Halloween costumes.

This is the season of open enrollment. If your company, like most companies these days, does the annual health insurance dance, check with HR to find out when your open enrollment period is and make the necessary changes. You should also check to see if your plan operates on a calendar year or benefit year system, and plan your appointments and procedures accordingly.

Common Changes to Health Plans
During open enrollment, employers give employees the option to do several things. In some cases, the employer will also make changes to the plans that affect all employees. Some examples:

  • Adding insurance companies to the list of options
  • Changing insurance companies for everyone
  • Removing insurance companies from the list of options
  • Adding different plan types, such as HMOs and PPOs
  • Adding FSA or HSA options
  • Changing employee contributions
  • Adding or removing spouses or dependents

If you receive notice that your employer is changing the options, review that notice carefully and be sure to act by the deadline.

For example, this year my employer for the first time is adding an employee contribution for spousal and dependent insurance. The charge per month for my husband would be $87. He has free insurance through his employer, so we have to decide whether secondary insurance is worth $1044 a year. Last year, it would have been because the secondary policy saved us $4000 in medical bills from his surgery. This year, it may not be worth it. We have to run the numbers.

You may also have to choose your FSA election soon. The rules are changing for 2011, so review them carefully, then total up your expected costs and choose a limit accordingly.

Calendar Year vs. Benefit Year Benefits
Once you make the necessary changes to your plan, also note which benefits are on a calendar year and which are on a benefit year. For example, if your deductible is on a calendar year, it runs January 1 to December 31. If you’ve used it up, then plan as many appointments as you can before December 31 to avoid incurring more costs. On the other hand, if your deductible operates on a benefit year and your benefit year starts November 1, then you only have until November 1. However, if you haven’t used up your deductible, and need several appointments, you might be better off waiting until the start of your new deductible so you don’t have to double pay.

If you’re undergoing treatment, you should also confirm whether it falls under calendar year or benefit year coverage. If it’s benefit year and your benefit year ends shortly, your provider can start billing your insurance again once the next benefit year starts. If it’s calendar year, they can start billing your insurance again on 1/1.

If you’re not sure when your open enrollment period is, or where to find out what your benefits include, you should first check with your HR department or manager. Next, look at the back of your card for a toll free number. They can confirm benefits. Finally, visit the website for your plan. You can create an account that will detail your coverage and claims.

Today is Blog Action Day and the focus is Water. I live in Los Angeles, where water conservation is a big deal. California is in yet another drought, and Los Angeles has had our water supply drastically reduced due to court orders. Although reduced yard watering schedules, increased use of native plants, and low-flow appliances and fixtures have brought our water usage down to 1970s levels, we still have a ways to go. Here are my five tips for monitoring and improving your water footprint, even if you don’t live in a drought region.

Modify Your Outdoor Watering Schedule
Recently, DWP changed my watering schedule from Monday and Thursday to Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. We had a heat wave coming, so I reprogrammed the watering schedule. However, now that we’re heading fully into fall, I’m going to set it back to twice a week. Once I’ve pulled my tomato plants, I’ll set it to once a week. When we had heavy rain last winter, I turned off the timers for two months, but that sort of rain only happens every 5-7 years so I expect to water more this winter.

Regardless of where you live, you should readjust your watering schedule in the fall and winter. Most lawns and other plants go dormant. Those that survive are designed for the harsher winter conditions. And remember to turn off the timer when rain is coming, or buy a timer with a rain detector and automatic rain delay feature.

Install Low-Flow Appliances
Most areas now require low-flow showerheads and toilets. With advances in the technology, these really aren’t that different from regular showerheads and toilets, except that they save water. You can go further than that, though, and opt for a water-saving dishwasher or washing machine.

When we bought our washer, I looked at the water efficiency to find one that would save money. The washer I chose has a sensor that detects the load size and auto-fills to that point. It also lets me choose Cold, Tap, and Cool water temperatures to save on gas use. In addition, the washer I chose doesn’t have a central agitator, which helps the clothes move around more and get cleaner with less water. I didn’t opt for a front-load washer, which is the most water-efficient, because they’re too deep and I needed to be able to open the laundry room door!

Reduce Your Wash Loads
At risk of grossing people out, we only change our sheets once every two weeks. We also only wash towels once every two weeks (we change them once a week, but only have enough for a full load every two weeks.) It also takes us about two weeks to build up enough clothes for white, light, dark, and red loads. By amassing a large load every time, I’m able to reduce my water use significantly. Sure, occasionally I’ll have toss in a small load, such as when the cat vomited on the blanket, but most of the time I can get by less frequently.

Don’t Buy Bottled Water
Unless you live in an area where the water is contaminated, most tap water is safe. I used to not like LA water, but now that I live in a home with copper pipes, the water tastes fine. Before that we used a faucet water filter. We rarely buy bottled water because not only is it expensive, but it takes water to make the plastic for the bottles that hold the water! Why not just fill a glass from the tap and skip the wasteful middle man?

Opt for Native Plants
No, you don’t have to pull up your prized rose bushes, but try to plant some plants that are native to your region. These plants will be the most adapted to your local rainfall and groundwater levels, and will therefore thrive, whether you live in a desert or in a hurricane region. Try to avoid bringing in plants from other regions that require a lot of water to survive in yours. A big one for this is lawns. Many people in the west have lawns more suited for the rain-heavy northeast. Instead, opt for a California native lawn. It may not have that well-manicured expanse of green, but it will still look nice and reduce your water bill.

Interestingly, most of these water-saving tips aren’t expensive to implement, and most will actually save you money. Most of us pay for water, so every gallon you save is a few cents off your bill. It quickly adds up.

For most of the summer, I’ve been eagerly following the story of Diana Nyad as she strives to achieve the goal she first conceived of over 30 years ago. It’s definitely been a struggle, and at this point, she may not achieve the goal this year, but we can learn a lot from her.

Have a Big Goal
Diana’s goal is to swim 103 miles from Cuba to Key West in open water. No shark cage, no wet suit. She’s doing this at the age of 60, after having failed to complete the goal 1978. It’s not an easy goal, but that’s the point. Having a big goal, whether it’s a record-breaking swim or paying off all your debt, gives you something to strive toward. A focus.

Be Prepared for Setbacks
Prior to deciding to attempt this swim at the age of 60, Diana hadn’t set swum a stroke in over thirty years. She was burned out. But then, with that milestone looming, she realized she was in the best shape of her life and now was the time to try.

Of course, there are many challenges. First, the money. This outlandish swim requires a lot of training, an extensive crew, and assistance from experts. She’s been raising money for this dream from the beginning. Second, the logistics. The biggest challenge there was getting the necessary permissions from Cuba and the U.S. Even with the help of the Secretary of State, that took longer than it should have. The last challenge is the weather – she missed a key window in July and August because of the visa issue. Now she has to outwait hurricane season.

We’ve all been through similar, if smaller, experiences. My husband and I were starting to build our nest egg back up when he had to have surgery. We made it through that struggle and now we’re back on track again. Life slowed us down, but it didn’t stop us.

Never Give Up
Diana hasn’t given up on her dream, even as the window of possibility shrinks. She keeps training and preparing for this swim. And that’s the key – even when all seemed lost, she found the focus to keep going. It will be the same with your goal. Emergencies will come up or life will get in the way. Once you deal with that, reclaim your focus on your goal and you’ll quickly catch up to where you were.

Create Steps Toward Your Goal
Diana didn’t just decide to do this on day one and then jump in the ocean on day two. It took time. She had a plan. First, she had to start training again. Then she had to gather her experts and crew. Then she had to start raising funds. Then she had to apply for the necessary visas. Then she had to start training with her crew. First, there was a 24-hour swim as a test and several other long test swims. All of that will make this possible.

You have to do the same for your goals. Don’t just say, “This is my goal” and hope you’ll figure out how to get there. Make a plan. Write it down, step by step, and establish deadlines for those steps. Then hold yourself to the steps.

I hope you’ll follow Diana Nyad’s dream, too. It’s truly inspiring.

Summer has officially been over for two weeks. In some areas, fall is in full force. In others, winter is getting ready to make itself known. Now is a great time to perform five home maintenance tasks, and save yourself potential trouble this winter.

Check Weatherstripping on Windows and Door Frames
Check the weatherstripping around windows and door frames for drafts now. Then head to the home repair store to pick up new materials. Damaged weatherstripping can allow leaks during a heavy rain storm. They also let the warm air out and cold air in, which will increase your home heating costs. If the draft is really bad and weatherstripping doesn’t fix it, you may need to replace the window.

Look for Roof Leaks
During the next rain, go up in your attic and look for leaks. Also check ceilings and around windows for leaks. If you find anything, caulk the windows or call a roofer for repair. Do it now, before the winter really sets in!

Clear Brush Around the House
Clear brush that could become a haven for insects and rodents. If you live in a fire zone, clear any brush or shrubbery that overgrew during the summer.

Test the Furnace
You don’t want to find out your furnace is broken on the first cold night. So, crank up the heat now to test the furnace. You may notice a bad smell at first. If it doesn’t clear up soon, call an HVAC specialist to check the system.

Check the Fireplace for Cracks and Brush
Fall leaves have a way of gathering around the chimney. Clear out the chimney cap to prevent sparks from starting a fire on the roof. You should call a chimney service to inspect your chimney and any gas lines leading to it for cracks or leaks. A damaged chimney or gas line could start a fire in your house.

None of these take a lot of time and the service calls shouldn’t cost a lot of money, but they could save your home from a fire or save you money on repairs and energy.

Late last week, the IRS announced that it will no longer be mailing tax forms. Apparently, they only mailed the forms to 8% of the population last year, and not mailing the forms will save $10 million. That’s not a small amount. If you really, really, really want to file on paper, you’ll still be able to get them at the post office or library, but it’s probably faster and easier to download them at IRS.gov. Of course, using tax software is the fastest and easiest way to file your taxes.

Help Older Relatives Get the Forms
If you’re reading this blog, then you probably already file your taxes online, so this warning isn’t for you. It is for your older relatives however. If you know that a parent, grandparent, aunt, or uncle still files on paper, gently let them know that they should not expect to see those forms in the mail this year. Offer to download the forms for them. If they need instructions, swing by the post office or library to pick up the packet (it’s long, so you don’t want to print it.) If it’s a parent, offering to fill out their taxes for them is a great way to become familiar with their finances. It may even help you spot potential problems early on. For example, if you notice inaccurately entered numbers, forgotten payments, late notices, etc., that will provide an opportunity to discuss who should handle their financial matters.

If your relative won’t let you complete their taxes, refer them to the AARP, which offers free tax preparation for low-income filers. Contact your local AARP branch for help.

So, this weekend I called my sister to tell her that I’d found my mom’s Christmas present. I haven’t bought it yet, but I know what it is unless Mom drops some hints that she’d like something else. To be fair, it was something I almost got her last year and then opted for something else, so it wasn’t a new idea. Nevertheless, my sister was a bit startled that I’d already started thinking about Christmas. Now I know what you’re thinking, but I am going to insist that it’s time to start thinking about Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Planning for Thanksgiving
For Thanksgiving, figure out if you’re cooking or traveling. If you’re traveling, I hope you already bought your plane tickets. If not, BUY NOW! If you’re driving, well, then, you’re planning is done. If you’re cooking, set a budget now and start watching the grocery store sales to match with coupons and stock up. I’m already seeing sales on baking items.

Planning for Christmas
Christmas is more involved, so your planning will have to be more involved, but not quite yet. For now, I want you to do four things:

1. Decide if you’re having an artificial tree or a real one. If it’s artificial and you need to buy one, now is the time to start shopping online for early deals. If it’s not, plan to pull it out soon just to test it and make sure it still works.

2. Decide if you’re traveling. If you are, start pricing tickets, reserving days off, booking rooms, now.

3. Decide who is getting gifts.

4. Decide on a budget for everything – gifts, decorations, travel. Start saving now.

Once that is done, just keep your eyes open for potential gifts as you’re out and about. If you see something perfect at a good price, snap it up. Then stop shopping for that person. Once the gift is bought, you’re done. Do not decide to find something better and give an extra gift if you want your budget to remain under control.

Consider Giving to Charity
If at all possible this year, donate money to a holiday charity or plan to contribute to several toy collections/food drives. Although the economy is starting to turn around, many are still suffering. I started to receive requests for aid two weeks ago. Please, please put needy families in your budget. A great way to help is to organize a family gift where your family pools their money to create a great Christmas for a needy family. My family does it with my relatives and with a group of good friends to help spread the cheer. If you can, please do this, too.

Unfortunately, I can’t personally help the people who write to me. If you need help, visit this page to learn how to sign up for a program.

Reader Question: My GF is burdened by enormous student loan debt and it is impacting my life as well.

She has a mixture of private and federal loans, mostly private so the income based payment plans and such do not apply. I was suggesting she consolidate them, which would take the current amount and bring it back to 25-year terms, which would lower the payment and make life a bit less burdensome. Granted she’d pay more in the long run but at least it wouldn’t be a $1000/month payment as it is now.

Many places aren’t consolidating and for private loans, you can only do a variable rate. I’m curious to your experiences and if you can shed some light on how you handled your debt, other than making extra payments to pay off earlier.

My husband and I consolidated our loans (separately from each other) before the new consolidation laws took effect, but much of what the reader says holds true for private loans. Here’s how it works:

Federal Loan Consolidation
When we consolidated, we were able to combine our Federal loans into one loan with an averaged fixed interest rate. For example, my rate is 2.85%. My husband’s rate is higher because some of his original loans had much higher rates. Then, with on-time payments and auto pay, we were able to reduce our interest rates by .25 to .5% after 36 months. So, actually my rate is now 2.35%. Not too shabby! This was, of course, before the changes to the law that made the new base rate significantly higher. This law makes me a bit stabby, but that’s another post.

You can still consolidate Federal student loans, but only with the Direct Loan program. Private lenders no longer offer federal consolidation. Your rate may not be reduced much because of the new mandatory rates, but you will get a single payment and a longer term, which lowers the monthly payment.

Private Student Loan Consolidation
Private student loan consolidation is trickier. You can’t combine your federal and private loans into one consolidation, so my husband has two consolidations – a private and a federal. He also has a couple of small standalone loans that couldn’t be consolidated. Although the loans are consolidated, the rates are still variable. However, we only have one payment for the bulk of those loans. The benefits of consolidating are threefold:

1. We don’t have to track 15 different loans (three years of professional school, plus four years of undergrad produce a lot of loans!)

2. We get a longer term. Rather than the original 10-year term that most of those loans came with, the term is 30 years. We’ll pay them off faster if we can, but it gives us breathing room.

3. Co-signers are removed. I’m still a co-signer on one of my husband’s smaller, non-consolidated loans, but consolidating removed me from the larger loans, which means I won’t be on the hook if he dies early or defaults.

Options for Reducing Monthly Payments
If you consolidate, get the longest term you can. Usually this is dependent on the amount of the loans, but large balances like those of the above questioner would probably qualify for the longest term.

Even with private consolidation, you can ask for a graduated payment plan. That reduces the payment for the first few years, but you end up paying more interest in the end. Our payments are set to jump $500 next year because my husband’s graduated payment plan is converting to a full payment plan. We’re already budgeting for that eventuality, and it’s one reason we bought our house when we did.

If you’re interested in a private loan consolidation, start by contacting your lender to see if that option is available and which loans can be consolidated into it. Although you may not get them all, getting at least some will help.

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