Sunday, January 21, 2018

Why you should FREEZE your Credit now!

Earlier this fall news broke of a data breach at credit reporting giant Equifax.  It has been estimated that some 143 million consumers may have been impacted by this epic security failure:  social security numbers, addresses, credit card information, all potentially leaked.  Consumers were then asked to go to a special website set up by Equifax to let them know whether or not they "may have been" impacted by the incident.

Note to consumer:  You were probably impacted.

I don't care what their website says.  If 143 million people were impacted, why would I assume I wouldn't be?  It would be a little naive, wouldn't it? I mean, let's think about it?  The same agency that allowed my information to be leaked in the first place is asking me to trust that they have a handle on knowing exactly who was impacted and to what extent?  Furthermore, I am supposed to blindly trust that they have a grip on cleaning up the aftermath?  Sorry Equifax (not sorry)!

Just out of curiosity, I did use their system to check whether or not my information "might be" at risk.  I wasn't even successful at finding out.  Their system must have been so busy that it couldn't handle all of the consumer traffic it was getting.  So, I didn't actually get an answer.

I was in the middle of a mortgage refi at the time, so my credit was definitely being utilized.  A few weeks down the road, I received a letter from AT&T stating they were "helping with the Equifax investigation" (though they hadn't been hacked themselves), and that I "might have" been impacted.

Gee, tell me something I don't already know!  If 143 MILLION consumers were impacted, I already know I "might have" been as well.

Equifax has oh so generously offered free services to help with the clean up:  credit monitoring services, etc.  If you have credit monitoring, you can use it to lock and unlock your report with the agency.  Sounds great, right?  Not so fast!  While the credit bureaus are pushing the credit lock, I wouldn't be too fast to jump on board.

First off, a credit lock and a credit freeze look like the same thing in basic function.  They make your credit report inaccessible to anyone trying to get credit using your information because you basically locked/froze your report.

A credit freeze is a tool that is guaranteed by the law (yes, the government is involved, so this gives you some further protection.  A credit lock is not guaranteed by the government or law in any way.  It is an agreement between you and the credit bureau.  Which do you trust more:  the law or the credit bureau that did a poor job of handling your personal information in the first place?  Additionally, if you opt for a credit lock, what is that bureau going to put in the fine print for you to agree to?  Did they leave a clause that allows them to change the terms of the agreement on you whenever they see fit?  Are they asking you to agree that you will not hold them responsible (legally) if someone happens to steal your identity?  Do you see where I am going with this?

A credit freeze can seem like a bit of a pain.  You have to freeze it with each of the three bureaus separately, and there may be a fee at each of them.  Those fees are regulated by individual states and are generally fairly inexpensive.  But honestly, does it really matter?  If someone said, "Hey, you can either pay ten bucks or have your credit stolen." Would you actually be worried about the ten bucks?

When you initiate a credit freeze you will get a PIN.  You have to use the PIN in order to lift a freeze when that time comes.  There might also be a fee each time you freeze and unfreeze your credit report.  All of these things might seem unpleasant, but having your credit stolen seems entirely more unpleasant as far as I'm concerned.

Listen, I can't tell you what YOU should do, but I will tell you what I did.

I don't like the credit lock.  I have more faith in the legal status of the credit freeze.  So, I froze my credit at all three bureaus (only after pulling and carefully checking all three reports for free).  In my opinion, it is too dangerous to leave it open at this point.  Too many numbers have been compromised, and I hate to sound paranoid, but it seems more like a matter of "when" someone tries to gain access rather than "if."  I'm not playing around when it comes to my financial future.

As a side note:  I wasn't charged a fee when I performed the freeze.  That being said, I don't know the details of this being free or how long that offer might be available, but I thought it worthy of mention.

Have you used a credit freeze?  Do you plan to use one?  Feel free to share your perspective in the comments below.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Pet Insurance

Confession Time:  My cat has health insurance.  In fact, Petunia's health insurance even covers some of her dental.  Human plans aren't even that good!  If that isn't confirmation that I've finally joined the middle class, I don't know what is!  But seriously, all joking aside, I think this is a topic worth bringing to your attention.

This past summer, we re-established Petunia's Veterinary Care.  When we lived on the West Coast, we were very well established with a veterinary hospital system, but hadn't done such a great job of getting reacquainted in New York.  Eventually, we found ourselves in a situation where we both had full-time incomes and health insurance.  That being said, it seemed to be the responsible thing to do to make sure Petunia was also being taken care of.

It turned out that the same veterinary hospital system we were using on the West Coast, exists here in NY as well.  Major score!  We called them up immediately and made an appointment.  We definitely felt ahead of the game because they had all of her previous records already in their computers.

We signed Petunia up for a health insurance plan that was a couple of steps above the basic plan.  We did this knowing that there were certain things included in the Optimum Plan that corresponded with her needs that were not included in the more basic versions of the plan.  We pay $40 per month for her insurance plan.  I have to be honest, I really hate having monthly obligations.  I avoid them at all costs.  The less bills the better as far as I'm concerned.  However, there is something I hate entirely more than monthly bills, and that's unexpected, astonishingly large bills...  Petunia's wellness plan is definitely saving us from that!  In August of 2017, we actually saved 61% on her veterinary bill because of her insurance plan.  We just took her back this month, and saved 53% on her veterinary bill.  Even when I added up the dollars saved, and compared it to the dollars we've spent on her services and monthly fees this year, we've still saved 36% this year on her medical expenses by having the insurance plan.  That's a substantial savings! Not to mention, let's be honest. She's getting much better care with insurance then she should without it.  Since she has insurance, we aren't hesitant about bringing her in to see the Vet.  She has unlimited office visits on her plan.  The regular fee for an office visit at her hospital is $80.  We pay $0.  Recently, she got an ear swab.  That typically comes with a $50 price tag.  We paid $0.  Comprehensive feline exams cost $45 typically; we spent $0.  I can go on and on about the things we didn't have to pay for this year, but I think you get the picture.

It's important to me to be a responsible pet owner, and that means providing my pet with basic veterinary care.  That care comes at a cost.  There's no way to eliminate that cost, but I've found that I can minimize its impact on my financial goals by keeping Petunia enrolled in an insurance plan that meets her needs, and eliminates fees for certain basic upkeep.

Do you use pet insurance?  Has it saved you money?  Would you recommend it to others?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Review: Inbox Dollars

I have to admit, I'm a sucker for anything that allows me to earn money on the side.  I especially love anything that's super easy, and doesn't cost me a ton of time.  I love reading those articles people put out about "20 Fabulous Things" that will allow me to earn money in my pajamas.  Several such articles have sited Inbox Dollars as being a terrific tool to earn extra money.  So, I decided to try it.

Inbox Dollars is a company that pays cash rewards to individuals for completing certain activities.  Those activities include viewing email advertisements, playing games, taking surveys, watching videos, among others.  They give you $5 just to sign up. So, I downloaded the app on my phone so I could easily do this while in transit.

I figured this would be a great way to make money and kill time on my commute home.  I take two buses, and it can get pretty dull.  I thought if I could keep myself entertained, and make a little cash it was an all-around win.   Most articles I had read told me that I could make a couple hundred bucks a month doing this. So, I started off by checking all of the paid emails and taking surveys.  I made two cents per email.   Surveys paid various amounts.  Some a dollar, others a quarter or a nickel.  The app was pretty handy at telling me how many minutes each survey would take, so I would click on one that was listed and go for it.  I started to notice that I would have to answer a lot of questions at the beginning of the survey, only to find out that I wasn't even qualified to take it.  Then the app would send me back to the list to choose another.  Once I would finally find a survey that I was qualified for, it was relatively smooth sailing, though the questions at the beginning ate up a lot of time.  The survey itself might only take ten minutes, but the questions at the beginning to determine my qualifications would take another ten.  On my forty minute commute, I might make a quarter.  Compared to the $45 dollars an hour I make at most of my side gigs, this quarter wasn't very enticing.

Once my total earnings hit $10, I decided to cash out.  That was when I learned that I couldn't cash out until I hit $30.  I was disappointed, to say the least.  So, I kept going.  It didn't take long before I grew tired of the surveys.  I tried out the video watching, but it took a lot of videos to accrue any cash, and it was eating up a lot of my cell phone data, so I fizzled out on doing that.  At this point, I basically just click on the emails because it's really easy.

I finally got to $30, and am eligible to cash out.  There will be a $3 processing fee in order to cash out, unless I accept a "special offer" to wait another 30 days and attempt to get to $40.  If I make it to $40 in 30 days, they'll waive the fee.  Since it's taken me about a year and a half to make $30 on Inbox Dollars, I doubt I will make it to $40 on time.

So, I will probably just cash out, accept the processing fee, and throw in the towel.  Perhaps you can make decent money on Inbox Dollars, but I wasn't highly successful.  Perhaps I am not patient enough for the surveys, or perhaps I just prefer to spend my time doing something else.

Monday, January 1, 2018

2018 Goals

I am a believer in the Law of Attraction: that like attracts like, not only in a spiritual or deeply philosophical way but also in a highly practical way.  This shows up in a lot of ways like when I am really giving to others, it seems that generosity also finds me.  When I put positivity out into the universe, positivity also finds me.  That being said, I am also someone that likes to take action.  Somehow, I feel the most positive when I come up with a game plan, and start to take steps toward it.

This being said, I am only really interested in taking what I call "inspired actions."  I am not looking to dive really deep into the nature of work or how much effort is too much effort, etc.  However, what I will say is this.  In the past, I have made a lot of New Year's Resolutions because I've felt particularly inspired to achieve certain things:  I really wanted my credit card debt gone a few years ago.  Last year I really felt inspired to get rid of my private student loan debt.  This year there are several things that are of interest to me, but none of them have really struck me with that same intense desire.  In the past, I would have pushed myself to come up with SOMETHING so I wasn't "wasting time."  I'm not going to do that this year.  One thing I know about the Law of Attraction is that me feeling really good is the key.  I need to feel really good first.  Then, inspired action will follow it.  So, I've been thinking:  What makes me feel really good?  I love making deposits into our savings account.  I mean, I seriously love it.  It brings me tremendous amounts of joy.  I also love helping people to become inspired about their own finances, and helping them to make choices they feel really good about.  That brings me an intense amount of joy as well.  Also, every time we make an improvement to our home that makes it more organized and less cluttered, I feel intense happiness.

How does this all translate into inspired action?  I am going to start with these three things that I know bring me joy, and determine what action I can take in order to keep the flow of positive feelings about my money going.  In doing so, I will set goals that are composed of "inspired actions."

So, here are my goals for 2018:

  1. Save Money:  My partner and I will sit down in the next week or so to review our current strategy and determine what we'd like to save each paycheck so as not to let things slide between our fingers.  I will also continue to save all of the money from my side gigs.  So, we haven't determined a dollar amount yet, but we will shortly.
  2. Help Others to Help Themselves:  I love helping others, but I don't want to "make a plan" for someone else, I want to help give them the tools to make a plan that works well for themselves and their goals.  In order to achieve this goal, I am going to take some smaller actions that bring me an intense amount of joy.  I am going to keep learning: attend conferences, read a few books I've been interested in, etc.  I am also going to help relay what I know and learn to others by blogging.  I might also offer professional development to my co-workers (my boss has been requesting one) about a variety of personal finance topics.
  3. De-Clutter:  My partner and I have already been working on this, but the more organized our space gets the better we both feel.  It's amazing how connected these things can be.  The more our home flows, the more inspired we are to make healthy choices for our bodies and our money.  We will likely do another 30 Day Declutter Challenge this summer, and invest in a few organizational pieces over the course of the year.
Are you making any resolutions for 2018?  If so, what are they?  Do they feel like "inspired actions?"  Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below.

2017 in Review

On the last day of the year, I love to sit down and think about everything that's happened.  It gives me a sense of accomplishment that my time and energies were well spent.  It also helps to give me a sense of where I'm going.

In some ways, it feels a little odd to "let it all hang out" there and literally publish what I've accomplished and in some cases failed to accomplish, but I do think it's important.  It keeps me honest, and also is meant to give my readership a sense of what can be done, but also that I'm human, and occasionally miss the mark.

So, without further delay, here is what I set out to do, and what got accomplished in my world this year.  Side Note:  I am also a teacher so you will see that many of my goals are structured around the school calendar.  I frequently set things that I want to do by June (when school lets out), and readjust goals around September (when school starts back up).

In 2017, I paid off my private student loan debt.  The balance was just under $10,000 on January 1st of 2017.  My goal was to pay it off by the end of June, and I accomplished that on time.

I have continued to be free of credit card debt and maintained paying my federal student loans on time.  This being said, I have not made extra payments in order to reduce the principal of the federal loans but rather been paying the scheduled amount.

When September came, I originally wanted to start rapidly paying down the federal student loan with the highest interest rate but was detoured from that goal when another opportunity presented itself.  In August, I saw that my credit union was running a mortgage special that included refinances for a very inexpensive fee.  So, I took advantage of it, saving myself about $100,000 over the life of the loan.

Rental Property:
My partner and I took advantage of a mortgage refinance.  This detoured us from our original plan, but we both feel that it was worth it.  It cost us some "right now" savings in favor of a much larger savings over the life of the loan.  We had been paying on a 30 year fixed and refinanced into a 15 year fixed.  We were able to reduce the rate and the term of the loan.  We are paying more than the required amount and will have it paid off in 12 years or less.  I will still be in my 40's.  That feels really good.

This summer, while we were doing the refinance, we also took care of the siding on the house and repainted it.  Not only did we increase the property's value, but additionally, made it a more appealing rental that could be rented for a higher monthly rate in the future.  We paid for this project in cash.

I had set a goal for my Freedom Fund at the beginning of the school year (last fall) and hoped to reach it by June of 2017 using only funds from my side gigs.  By the end of June, I had reached 120% of that savings goal.

My partner and I had created a separate savings goal from September until now, but were unable to reach that goal.  Instead, we used the funds that otherwise would have been saved for our refinance.

I increased my retirement savings by 12%, and my partner increased hers by 5%.  This is in addition to the contributions we already made to our IRAs.  We have contributed to our workplace retirement accounts and our IRAs, but haven't maxed any of them out.

We traveled domestically to Oregon, North Dakota, and Indiana for family functions.  We also traveled abroad to Sweden and Iceland.  We paid for these trips in full (we don't care over balances on credit cards).

We successfully implemented a 30-day DeClutter Challenge this year, and just bought a new dresser to further aid in our endeavor to declutter.

My partner finished 3/4 of her graduate program.

In total, over 40% of my income this year went to saving, investing, and/or paying off our debts!  I am super pleased with that number.

When I look at this list, I think "No wonder I'm tired."  There were a couple of goals (savings and debt repayment) that we didn't quite hit, but we also took care of a couple of unexpected things that we are super pleased with.  All in all, we really made every dollar work for us.  That is always my goal.