Finishing Up School on a Budget

Ali Bar

Amid final exams and projects and the stresses that go along with it, watching my spending was, well, let's just say I'm a little less frugal during those times. My time becomes more important than my finances. Case in point: Spending on food during finals week got out of control. Since this happens every finals week, you'd think by now I'd have some clever way of handling working really hard and eating on a budget. But no. I will also throw out there that I was plagued by the flu during finals week. While it felt like pure death at the time, I actually saved money due to my nonexistent appetite. I realize that sounds like kind of a pathetic rationalization. Hey guys, get sick. You won't want to eat, save money. Uhh, NO!

Let me tell you what I would recommend. First off when you are stressed out and feel as though you have no time and you just want to go to the super expensive French bakery downstairs, HALT. Do it once and you will eat there not just for breakfast but also for lunch and dinner. I’m sure you students and former students know exactly what I’m talking about. Just because you're super busy, doesn't mean you can totally throw your budget out the window – especially if you check your accounts as I did after the frenzy of late nights in the studio and realized my next credit card bill will be something I can’t pay in full. I’m particularly paranoid about paying off my credit card bill entirely each month. So slipping up a little here and owing a little more there is definitely a habit I want to avoid.

But back on topic, what to do when you are stressed, busy, and don't have time to make lunch. Go to grocery stores for sandwiches and subs. They are most often cheaper than restaurants or cafes. And if you really are in a bind, go to the $1 a slice pizza joint, not the healthiest, but definitely the most budget friendly. Or find a place with good prices and big portions to extend a meal's life by having it for lunch and dinner. That way you also save time. I found a little Thai restaurant near my studio that had $7 lunch specials. I got the Pad Thai with four small egg rolls. That was good for both lunch and dinner
and at $3.50 per meal was definitely better than the $11 I would have spent at the French bakery.

Here’s another option: Work really hard, and then take a longer break that allows time to go home and eat dinner. Or try to plan the day so you begin your studies early, eat breakfast at home and then manage to get home for a late dinner. Hopefully this coming finals week, I'll follow my own advice. Of course, this will be easier said than done, considering I'll be in Rome for a semester abroad and will want to try every restaurant that I come across. But I'll restrain myself.

Despite my money woes, this semester ended very well. Now I'm back in Miami to revitalize and there couldn't be a better place. Oh, 74° how I missed you.

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My road to refi, Chapter 1

Name bar For months now, I've been meaning to pursue refinancing of my mortgage. What's stopped me: I don't think it will happen. The value of my home is visible only with a microscope, and things are getting worse, not better.

I bought in 2004, along with thousands of other South Florida suckers. I had a truly horrible real estate agent who pressured me into signing a contract the same day I first looked at the house I ended up with. She ended our relationship by hanging up on me a few times. (Really, I'm not bitter.)

But at the end of the day, I wanted to buy. I was tired of living a rental lifestyle where there was hardly parking for me, much less a few friends if I wanted to have a get together. I wanted a garden and a washer and dryer that didn't jangle to life via endless supply of quarters.

So I did it. It was scary, but exhilarating. I got a solid loan, nothing that involved private mortgage insurance or a balloon payment or wouldn't build equity. I made modest improvements to the house but I still have no dishwasher and 50s-era cabinets and no home equity loan to pay down. I had parties and grew vegetables and did laundry at midnight without sifting through my change first. Undewater

Two years later, a (different) real estate agent convinced me not to sell, that property tax reform was going to kick in and I'd be better off waiting until 2007. You know how that story ends.

Despite taking a massive pay cut for a year, and now getting paid only a little more than I did when I bought the place because of additional cuts to my pay, I've never missed a mortgage payment -- or have ever been close to doing so. I don't want my mortgage company to finally pay attention to me for the wrong reasons, though I wish they would stop including those inserts in my statements that tell me about all the wonderful options there are out there for people who wish to refinance.

I'm not looking for a break on my principal. I bought the house at the price I bought it for. But I'd love a slightly lower interest rate and a break on closing costs would be a nice touch.

Last time I attempted a refinancing was two years ago. It took roughly 20 phone calls to get a human being on the phone to set a rate and start the paperwork, only for them to appraise my home for far less than they had in 2004 and using all kinds of language and criteria no one mentioned before. The person I was dealing with over the phone intially told me to call her back, bypass the phone web. I did. A dozen times. She never called me back but eventually changed her voicemail message to indicate no one should leave a request for her to respond.

A friend of mine starting on the same path as me has written letters to his mortgage company. He's been declined. He called the designated person assigned to his mortgage. Not one return phone call. He visited a branch office this week hoping for better luck. The bank employee proceeded to call the same customer service line he had and stay on hold for 45 minutes until finally giving up.

So things don't look good. But since persistence is my business, I'll keep trying, and I'd be curious if you have any words of advice or stories of success to share.


Posted by Nirvi Shah on | | Comments (0)

Future Finances With an IRA

Amanda Bar

Following the citywide fiasco with our pensions, I finally recieved a check from Principal Financial so that I could start the process of rolling over my savings into an IRA.  I thought the process would be much more painful than it turned out to be, mostly because I have no idea what most of the interest rates, CD options, and account types mean.

Luckily my Bank of America advisor was helpful enough to guide me through my various options.  I eventually settled on a Money Market IRA with a .55% interest rate/annual percentage yield.  I also have it set to a "traditional CESA" plan-type, which allows me to withdraw or transfer funds to the account if I so choose.  Also, I had him make it quite clear that if I decided to change my account type (AKA if a more financially sound friend or family member advises me to do so) I have the option to tranfer the funds sans penalty.

Ideally my job will reinstate employee pensions once the city gets back on it's feet, but until then I'm glad to have this financial weight off my shoulders.

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Don't forget...

Name bar Saturday is when you can get free financial planning advice in Miami. Here are the details.

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Free financial advice -- no sales pitch allowed

Name bar If you've ever been curious about talking to a financial planner, and maybe now more than ever, here's your chance.

On Oct. 2nd, the Financial Planning Association of Miami-Dade and City of Miami are offering a chance to talk to a certified financial planner at no charge. And the event is intended to be all about your financial concerns and questions: The person you speak with isn't allowed to follow up with you or even give you a business card, said Philip Herzberg, an Association board member.

Herzberg said the free advice and counseling could be especially useful for younger people experiencing a floundering economy and uncertain about how to manage their money.

"How you plan now and the financial habits you develop ... those patterns of discipline will dictate how you handle your finances and live your life in your 40s, 50s, and 60s," he said. Financial planning

The event, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., will be at the James L. Knight Center, 400 SE 2nd Ave. in Miami. Walk-ins are welcome, but people who register will get the first shot at talking with a planner. Register and get more information here. You can also register by calling 877-861-7826. If you have specific questions, bring your financial documents with you.

If you check this out, Iet me know how it goes.

Posted by Nirvi Shah on | | Comments (1)

Pension Planning For the Future

Amanda Bar

As I mentioned a few months ago, the city which I work for has recently found itself struggling under the financial crisis, and in order to regain some losses it decided to cut the benefits of all civilian employees working within the city.  Not only did I lose 4% of my total monthly income but my pension was also frozen, and I knew that sooner of later I'd have to decide what to do with my stagnant pension funds.

This week I received a letter from the Principal Financial Group advising that I currently have $12,000+ sitting in my pension plan (including interest) and I had two months to choose my options: either direct rollover into an IRA, or go for a cash distribution.

I know that I need to focus on the future, and that an IRA is the smart and obvious choice.  I don't currently need the extra pocket money, and I'd lose a large portion of it via an excise tax if I choose the pay-out option.  But woah, is it tempting!  It's been near impossible for my to build up my savings accounts since I purchased this house, and I still have so many little projects I'd like to accomplish if I could just get my hands on some extra cash.

Luckily I have relatives and co-workers to steer my impulses in the right direction, because it's so hard to think of tomorrow when you could use the funds today.

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Paper for your plastic (bills)?

Name bar In principal, I love the idea of getting all of my bills via e-mail, where they can be stored forever and don't have a role in the dual epidemics of arborcide or (air, land, and probably sea, too) pollution.

I certainly pay them all online. I only grudgingly write my lawn service a check each month and mail it to them in exchange for the handwritten invoices and inexpensive price tag that brings these angels of green mercy to my home. I consider that if they started taking credit cards and set up an online bill pay option, my $30 service would be as obsolete as wampum.

But I still get great satisfaction out of looking over my bills on paper and checking them for errors or noticing whether my spending habits or energy use or bank balance are fluctuating in a way they shouldn't.

Every once in a while, this habit really pays off. This week, I saw a $2 finance charge on my bank statement. I haven't used an out-of-network ATM for a decade, so I was curious. Apparently, though it's not clear when you use the ATM, the now-merged Wachovia and Wells Fargo charge $2 if you request a receipt that includes the image of a check you deposit.

I did this the other day without thinking about it. Had there been a tipoff about the price, I'm sure I wouldn't have done it. Thankfully, the bank removed the charge without the slightest bit of resistance. The representative told me these calls are common right now because of the ongoing merger.

Sure, $2 isn't life or death. Now. But I keep hearing about this possible double dip. And it has nothing to do with ice cream cones, skinny dipping or germy habits at the hors d'oeuvres table.

And on the other hand, a friend and colleague who moved and had all of her bills converted to electronic statements got a bit of a shock. The notice that her Macy's bill was due was ensnared in the sometimes-evil spam filter of her e-mail.

Three months, maybe more, had passed, and Macy's was unsympathetic to her wayward bill. Somehow, they didn't have a current phone number for her, so they said they had no other way to let her know she was so behind. The late payment (and ugly finance charge) led to her credit score getting docked. Thankfully, she's not in the market for a big loan anytime soon.

I'm hard pressed to recommend that everyone get all their bills on paper. Especially considering I'm overrun with paper at home. Credit card statements from 2000. Pay stubs from my first job. This is absurd, considering you don't really need to keep credit card statements for more than a few months, in general. I just haven't gotten around to buying a shredder.

But over the years, inspecting the bills on paper has saved me fees and overcharges and caught errant uses of my credit card by other people. I just need to find a way to reconcile that with saving our beleaguered planet.

Posted by Nirvi Shah on | | Comments (0)

Updated: Get wh@t you deserve

Name bar My friend and former colleague Niala Boodhoo is in the midst of a cross-country move to Chicago.

But last week she went another direction, to Los Angeles, for a media conference. In the process, she somehow lost her ATM and credit cards. 

This was super inconvenient timing, considering she's still figuring out where she'll live in the Windy City, so she doesn't know what her new address will be, but won't be in Miami much longer.

Niala figured that using a national bank meant that she'd be able to replace the ATM card fast. There are Bank of America locations everywhere.

She figured wrong.

At first, Bank of America offered to send her a new ATM card -- but it would take seven to 10 days, days Niala can't wait. Then they suggested she go to the bank where she opened the account in person to get a new card, but not just ANY BofA. 

That's great. Except she opened the account more than five years ago -- in Washington, D.C.

Niala doesn't take no for an answer very easily, however. She went public with her gripe, broadcasting the inconvenience on Twitter. (She said it took a little work to target her message at the right BofA Twitter account.) Twitter bird

Her first post: Dear @BofA_Help, can you explain why a natl bank can't issue you a temporary ATM card in a state different than where you opened yr account?

They replied a few hours later: BofA_Help @NialaBoodhoo We are making every effort to integrate our systems so all services are available to our customers despite region.

Remember how I said Niala doesn't take no for answer easily? Here's her reply: @BofA_Help Tks, but that really doesn't help when your ATM card was stolen in CA, and you live in another state. 

Then another hour passed and she was told, @NialaBoodhoo We would be happy to expedite the delivery of a new card. Please DM name/zip/phone and we’ll see how we can help.

Considering Twitter is free, it takes seconds to set up an account and not long to figure out how it works, this was a nice change of pace for the sometimes impersonal Internet.

Every Twitter complaint doesn't have a happy ending. (I've complained about airlines, my phone company and Niala once tweeted about our horrid experience at a local restaurant, all of which have Twitter accounts, and we heard not a peep. Or should I say, cheep.)

But at least Niala can leave Miami on a happy note -- and easy access to her cash.

UPDATE: So things didn't go as smoothly as Niala though they would. BofA sent Niala's new ATM card via FedEx. FedEx managed not only to not get Niala the card before she left town, but they couldn't even locate it. She tweeted about that, too. @FedexAl asked if she wanted her to try to find it, but by then BofA had already canceled the card.

BofA said she could go to any branch and get a temporary ATM card -- and she wonders why they didn't just say so in the first place.

Posted by Nirvi Shah on | | Comments (2)

Taking overdraft fees to the bank

Name bar If you have an ATM or debit card, right about now you should be getting a note from your bank about some changes to the way the card will work if your account is low on cash.

From now on, banks will need your permission before they can cover you when you're short -- and attach a $30 or $35 fee to the transaction. These fees have been known to turn a $5 cup of joe into a $40 cup-runneth-over with annoyance. Worse yet, once you committed the sin of overdrawing your account, some banks charged another fee for every additional purchase until your account was replenished -- instead of just letting the card get turned down.

There's a lawsuit in the works over the whole issue. 7022934-overdraft-fees-may-take-you-by-surprise-custom

But the rules have changed. So this is not a time for you to trash the note from your bank and assume its incomprehensible gobbledygook you can live without paying attention to (unless you're like me and never use your ATM or debit card to buy anything. Ever.). If it helps you fight the urge to trash this missive without looking it over, consider that banks made over $38.5 billion just from these fees last year.

My bank's note says that starting Aug. 13 for existing accounts and July 23 for new ones, debit and ATM transactions will be declined if I don't have enough money in my account to cover them. I can opt in to the old way of doing things -- having my charges covered no matter what the exorbitant fees -- if I choose. My bank says that from now on, if I have this service, I'll only be charged four of these fees per day, max. (I guess this is actually a victory in some way, so thanks.)

But I can also get low-balance alerts -- even in the form of text messages from some banks -- or link another account to my checking account, so that I'll be covered with my own cash, and not the banks, if I spend beyond my bank balance.

These rules don't apply to overdraft fees for paper checks or automatic bill payments, which could be a sizable loophole for banks to keep collecting money based on our mistakes. This is one you can't afford to make.

In case you're thinking the banks are just feeling generous by reining in these fees, think again. Some banks already have plans to kill free checking accounts and tack on other fees and charges to make up for what they won't be bringing in with errant swipes.

As if you needed another reason not to trash those notes from your bank.

Posted by Nirvi Shah on | | Comments (2)

Automatic Banking Bloopers

Amanda Bar

It's one thing after another when you own a home, I suppose.  A new emergency sprung up again this evening as I went to check my Bank of America home loan account. Recently money has become a little tight for me, so instead of waiting for the June 1st mortgage payment to be automatically deducted from my checking account I had decided to pay it off a little early (on May 25th to be exact).  The money was removed from my account, and according to the Bank of America website my next scheduled payment was for July 1st.

Thankfully I happened to check my loan today, because when I pulled up my information I see that I am currently in the negative; despite my early payment the June 1st mortgage had been deducted from my account a second time, and I now had a big fat -$900 next to my checking account!  I called BoA's 1-800 number and spoke with a representative who assured me that the fee could be transferred back into my account just as soon as I can make it to a bank location in person, but unfortunately that requires I wait until tomorrow morning.

I have no idea if this banking error will have any impact on my credit, but it certainly has done a number on my nerves; as if finances weren't enough of an issue without this bank blooper stirring up the pot!

Posted by Amanda Conwell on | | Comments (0)

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