Here are some ideas to cut your costs:
Travel outside the box. Your options aren’t just “fly or drive”? Donna Freedman recommends checking out the Megabus. “I went from Philly to NYC for $1.50. Could make day trips really cheap.” She also traveled on the Megabus in the United Kingdom for a fraction of what the train fare would have cost. Speaking of trains, overnight trips on Amtrak can be pretty expensive, but we’ve scored free roomettes (double-bunk sleeper) and bedrooms on overnight trips up and down the West Coast using Starwood points that we dumped into Amtrak’s Guest Rewards program.
Book strategically. The best day to book airfares is often Tuesday, while the cheapest day to fly is usually Wednesday. But Bing’s price predictor can help you figure out whether to snap up a fare or wait a little longer. (Just search for an airfare, and the predictor will give you the likelihood the current fare will increase or drop.) Join frequent flyer programs and sign up for email newsletters so you can hear about special sales. Kiplinger has more here in its “21 secrets to save on travel.”
Rescue orphaned miles. Got points in a travel program you no longer use? You may be able to shift them to a loyalty program you do use. Check out Webflyer.com’s Mileage Converter to explore the possibilities. Speaking of points:
Don’t settle for expensive. Last-minute trips don’t have to be budget-busters. Airlines may release more seats a few days prior to the flight so that you can book them with frequent flyer miles. Priceline and Hotwire are great places to bid for cheap flights, rooms and cars.
Re-shop your reservations. Change fees make rebooking airfares tough on most carriers, but you can typically change hotel and car rental reservations without penalty. I usually book a few months in advance, then check three weeks out and again a week out to see if hotel or car rates have fallen.
Plan cheap fun. Last time we visited Hawaii we bought an Entertainment book for the islands before we left. The $10 we spent for the book was offset with our first museum visit; the coupons for other activities and restaurants were a bonus. Donna suggests talking to locals and doing searches for “free/cheap things to doyou’re your destination. “Maybe something just opened & isn’t on the general radar yet,” she noted.
Dear Liz: A few years ago I finished paying off my debt and now am in the very low-risk credit category. I have savings equal to about three months’ worth of bills and am working to get that to six months’ worth. I’m wondering, though, about an emergency that may require me to pay in cash (such as a major power outage that disables debit or credit card systems, or the more likely event that I forget the ATM or credit card at home). How much cash should a person have on hand? Is there a magic number?
Answer: There’s no magic number. You’ll have to weigh the likelihood you’ll need the green, and the consequences of not having it when you need it, against the risk of loss or theft.
Many people find it’s a good idea to tuck a spare $20 into their wallet for emergencies, and perhaps another $20 in their cars if they’re in the habit of forgetting their wallets or their plastic.
Cash for a disaster is another matter. Power could go out for a week or more, or you may need to evacuate and pay for transportation and shelter at a time when card processing systems are disabled. A few hundred bucks in cash probably would be the minimum prudent reserve you’d want to keep in a secure place in your home. You may decide that you need more.
- How to take advantage of dropping airfares
- How to plan financially for travel and take advantage of discounts
- Good apps and Web sites to use
- When to consider home swaps or rentals instead of a hotel
- How to handle travel setbacks and emergencies
And much, much more.
Dear Liz: I’m getting about $500,000 from the sale of my business this year and next year will be getting an additional $1 million. What’s the best way to invest the money so I can make $150,000 to $200,000 a year? I am 55 years old and will have no other income than what I can earn with this money.
Answer: You probably know that “guaranteed” or “safe” returns are very low right now. If you’re getting much more than 1% annually, you’re having to take some risk of loss. The higher the potential returns, the greater the risk.
So even if you could find an investment that promised to return 10% to 13% a year, there are no guarantees such returns would last, plus you would be at risk of losing some or all of your investment. A down draft in the market or an extended vacancy in your real estate holdings could cause you to dig into your principal.
That’s why financial planners typically advise their clients not to expect to take more than 4% a year or so out of their portfolios if they expect those portfolios to last. If you try to take much more out or invest aggressively to earn more, you run a substantial risk of running out of money before you run out of breath.
Dear Liz: I’m wondering how long we really need to keep bank statements, since banks now offer paperless options. My son doesn’t even open the statements anymore; he just views his account information online.
Answer: There’s nothing magical about paper bank statements. If your son doesn’t open them, he probably shouldn’t even get them. He can ask his bank to switch him to its paperless option and save some trees.
The IRS accepts electronic documents, and banks keep account records at least six years. Your highest risk for an audit is the three years after a tax return is filed, so you should be able to download statements if you need them in an audit. There might be fees involved to get these statements, however, so you’ll have to weigh the potential cost against the hassle of storing all that paper. Some people get the paper statements, scan them and shred the originals; others download the statements as they go and store them electronically.
If you don’t need bank records for tax purposes, there’s even less reason for getting paper statements. Eschewing them can reduce bank fees and will certainly save a few trees.
FT Press is offering half off (and free shipping!) on a selection of finance and investing titles through May 16. In addition to two of mine, “Deal with Your Debt” and “Your Credit Score,” the titles include Gail MarksJarvis’ excellent “Saving for Retirement” and Lynn O’Shaughnessy’s “The College Solution,” a must-read for any parent who wants his or her kids to go to college. To order, use the link above and enter coupon code FTPF at checkout.
I’d like to thank FT Press for organizing this promotion as well as yesterday’s Tweetchat, and thanks also to the other personal finance bloggers who took part:
- MP Dunleavey formerly of MSN Money and Daily Worth
- Gary Foreman of The Dollar Stretcher
- Donna Freedman of MSN Money and Surviving and Thriving
- Mary Hunt of Debt Proof Living
- J.D. Roth, founder of Get Rich Slowly and More Than Money
- Steve Rhode, the Get Out of Debt Guy
You can check out the conversation on Twitter using hashtag #FTPersonalFinance or visit our Tweetchat room.
Experian stopped offering FICO scores to consumers a few years ago, even though it continued to sell the scores to lenders. This refusal made it tough for consumers to know what rates they should expect from mortgage lenders, which typically take the middle of your three FICO scores (one from each bureau). You could still get your TransUnion and Equifax FICOs from MyFico.com, but not your Experian FICO.
That’s apparently about to change. Buried in a press release today was an announcement that Experian will once again “make FICO Scores available to consumers through myFICO.com and through third parties.”
Great Auntie M. was a lovely older woman, and she was besotted with her cat. Great Auntie M. once told me that if she died first, she wanted the cat euthanized since he “couldn’t possibly live” without her.
Just as Great Auntie M. misunderstood the fundamental nature of cats, so many people misunderstand the fundamental nature of credit scores. There are more than a few parallels between the two, so let me explain:
They’re finicky. Your cat may turn up its nose as its food bowl, or kick litter out of a box that’s not perfectly clean. Credit scores are similarly fussy about certain things: paying bills on time, not using too much of your available credit limits, not applying for new credit too often.
They hold grudges. When my husband moved in with his sister years ago, her cat was not amused by the presence of a new person. The cat expressed himself by depositing a single turd in the exact middle of hubby’s bed. One of our own cats once stalked up behind her brother, lifted up her paw like a prizefighter and smashed his head with it. There was no immediate provocation to this act of vengeance, so we can only speculate what he did earlier to tick her off. Credit scores don’t quickly forgive infractions, either, especially big ones. A single skipped payment can affect your scores for up to three years, a foreclosure for up to seven years, a bankruptcy for up to 10 years. (The impact decreases over time if you use credit responsibly, but it can still persist.)
They have their own agenda. Cats can be cuddly, playful, affectionate. (I have one sitting on my lap right now, monitoring my typing.) But cats typically are independent. They can withdraw affection in an instant, stalk away and regard you with indifference. Cats feel no obligation to oblige, conform or bend to the will of another. They are, in other words, the polar opposite of the dog now sleeping at my feet, a desperate-to-please golden retriever whose primary need is reassurance that yes, he is still part of the pack.
Like cats, credit scoring formulas don’t particularly care what you think. Credit scores were constructed for lenders, not consumers. In fact, originally you were never supposed to know that credit scores even existed, let alone what yours were. Credit scores have their own, internal logic that they follow, regardless of its impact on you.
Here’s another similarity: credit scores, like cats, can reward you if you figure out what they like and don’t like. With both, the effort is worthwhile.