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Kelly Whalen

Travel On a Budget

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This article is presented by Kelly Whalen, Consumerism Commentary staff writer.

Traveling can be expensive, but worthwhile. At some point everyone needs to take a break from their regular routine. Whether you stay at home, take a car trip to Grandma’s house, or fly across the country, there are ways to travel without spending all your hard-earned savings.

I have a trip coming up soon. I’m not an experienced traveler, so I searched for ideas and tips and compiled the best I found. Here are my favorites.

Check for discounts. Whether it’s a hotel room, plane tickets, or tickets to an attraction, you may qualify as a student, government worker, resident (if you are traveling within your own state), AAA member, or any number of other memberships.

Comparison shop. As with anything you purchase, you should compare prices before you book airplane tickets or plan a vacation. In some cases you can plan a whole vacation around an inexpensive destination at the time of year you are planning.

Read guidebooks. It may feel touristy, but guidebooks will often give you great money saving tips. Some even offer per diem plans, recommend out-of-the-way hotel deals, or tell you about views or attractions you would have walked right past otherwise.

Pack snacks. This tip is not just for parents! When I went to San Francisco in June I packed my own snacks since I am a perpetual grazer and didn’t want to pay $10 for a terrible in-flight meal.

Pack an empty water bottle. No, you can’t take water through security, but once you are through you can fill your bottle with free tap water! This tip also works well for driving, biking, or walking.

Pack your own entertainment. Traveling with kids always means packing toys, books, and DVDs that will keep the kids occupied. But you can use this tip if you are childless or traveling solo as well. I pack my own books, download movies, and make a playlist before I leave to keep myself occupied when I travel.

PlaneCheck the weather forecast and pack appropriately. There is nothing worse than packing too much, and having to pay extra for your suitcase. Be sure to include some layers for cooler nights.

Leave room for souvenirs. Make sure you leave some room for souvenirs in your bag! You don’t want to have to pay for a second bag or for an overweight bag.

Walk as much as possible. Part of visiting a new place is seeing the sights, and it is much better for your health and wallet to see them on foot.

Stay close to home. We’ve all heard of the staycation: stick close to home and see the sights right in your own hometown or the biggest local city. I admit this is something my family needs to be better about. Can you believe we live only 45 minutes from Philadelphia and the kids have never seen the sights?

Prepay for your hotel room. You can save 30-50% off the cost of a hotel room simply by paying in advance. Many hotels will refund your payment as long as you cancel with 24 to 48 hours’ notice.

Stay plugged in for deals. Even after you have bought a plane ticket you may still be able to adjust your ticket if airfares go down. Yapta is a great service that allows you to monitor fares before and after you buy.

Use points. If you, your spouse, or even a friend travels a ton, you can cash in on their points for free hotel rooms. My dad uses this tip all the time. It’s one of the benefits of living out of your suitcase for the work week.

Mix pleasure and business. I am traveling to Los Angeles, where I’ve never been, in early April. I’m extending my trip by a few days so I can enjoy the sights and scenery. This is how my family had vacations when I was a child and young adult. It’s a great way to save on airfare.

What are your favorite tips and tricks to save money while traveling? Do you recommend any sites, books or tools for travel?

Photo: creativesam

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This article is presented by Kelly Whalen, Consumerism Commentary staff writer, who hosts a weekly internet show called the ¢entsible show.

Unexpected income is a problem many people would love to have, but it happens more frequently than people realize. Whether it’s a $20 birthday check from your eighty-something grandmother or a raise, there are few months we don’t have something unexpected.

When you get a windfall you could dream up many ways to spend or save it, so it is important to have a plan.

One-time income

You may find yourself with one-time income when your receive rebate checks, tax refunds, or birthday money, or if you sell something you own. Unless you are like Ebenezer Scrooge you’ll probably have the urge to spend some of this extra cash. The best way to deal with extra cash is to prioritize.

If your windfall is under $50, it’s a good idea to use this as fun money. $50 doesn’t go very far when you try to split it up, and unless you are $50 away from a savings goal or debt repayment, it will be pretty painful to put it away.

If your windfall is over $50 but under $100, put it towards debt. If you don’t have any debt use this as a little boost to your savings goals. If you have a favorite indulgence under $5, perhaps a hazelnut latte or a particular gum, spend a little on that so you don’t feel completely deprived.

If your windfall is over $100, plan to split it between spending and savings (or paying off debt). A good rule of thumb is to use a 50/50 split, though in some houses, like mine, that may be a 50/25/25 split.

If your windfall is over $1,000, I would highly recommend using it to (in this order):

Windfall

Regular unexpected income

Whether your side business suddenly takes off or you get a raise from your job, careful planning will keep you from lifestyle inflation. Lifestyle inflation is an increase in cost of living corresponding to an increase in salary. No matter how much extra income you earn, you need to have priorities.

If you are in debt, paying off your debt should be your first goal. Do whatever you can to make that happen as quickly as possible. The easiest way to pay off debt is to have your money automatically deducted from your checking account the day after your paycheck arrives.

If you are out of debt, or have a comfortable amount of debt (many people consider a mortgage comfortable debt), you should consider saving all of your dough. It’s unlikely you will miss your hard-earned cash, because you are already accustomed to living within your means. Choose your own order of savings, but I highly recommend using the following order:

If you are already doing all of the above, you should consider using your leftover money to fund other investments.

If you are out of debt, maxing out all your retirement options, funding your children (or future children’s) college investments, and have a healthy savings account, you should consider any other income that isn’t accounted for your do-as-you-wish money.

How do you deal with unexpected raises or revenue? What do you do when you get an extra $100?

Photo: ervega

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This article is presented by Kelly Whalen, Consumerism Commentary staff writer.

It’s fairly straightforward to figure out the difference between a need and a want. Needs are basic: food, shelter, clothing, water, warmth. We can also add to that our emotional needs: love, friendship, and care.

Wants seem easy to define. Wants are all the extras, the things that are not necessities. No one “needs” the latest gadget, the most expensive pair of running shoes in the store, or the biggest house on the block.

When it comes to actual purchases though the waters seem to get murky. Is a new pair of shoes a necessity or a want? The answer to this question depends on many factors. You would probably want to know what kind of shoes are being considered, how many pairs of shoes the person already has, whether they’re replacing another pair of shoes, and the answers to a dozen more questions. This evaluation of needs versus wants takes time.

We may go through days without having to make spending decisions, but throughout our lives we make tens of thousands of these decisions. Whether they are small purchases like a pack of gum or large ones such as our homes, we are faced over and over again with the question, “Do I really need this?”

If you are asking that question, you are already practicing smart spending habits. “Do I really need that?,” is only the tip of the iceberg though. We can build on that question to make a checklist that will help keep more money in your pocket.

shopping cartsThe situation where this often becomes useful is when you are shopping for something, perhaps groceries or a birthday gift, and you see a widget you have been thinking about buying. You look at the widget in passing or may even stop and pick up the widget off the shelf while you make a decision. Here are the questions you need to ask yourself before you put that widget in your shopping cart.

  • Is this widget on my list? If it isn’t, put it down and write it on your list for future purchases. If you aren’t shopping with a list, start! Lists are a great way to keep track of all the things you need and want. If it’s on your list you can continue.
  • Do I need this widget? No justifications here. Is it an absolute have-to-have-it item? If you said yes, buy it. If you said no, continue to the next question.
  • Can I afford this widget? If you answered no, put the credit card back in your wallet and back slowly away. If you answered yes, continue to the next question.
  • Do I want to spend my money on this widget? Are there better things you could be spending your money on? Is there a goal you have in mind? For me the idea of being debt-free is much more appealing than the widget I am considering. You may have a goal in mind such as a new home or a vacation with your family, so while the question might be easy to answer, it will depend on what your individual goals are.

Taking a few moments to evaluate our purchases while making them is crucial to maintaining a healthy balance of spending and saving. Using this checklist will only take a few seconds, but it could be the difference between a decent net worth and a fantastic one.

As a mom, I am faced with purchasing decisions not just for myself but for my family and household as well. Using this checklist has stopped me from overbuying, overspending, and buying things I don’t need.

How do you keep yourself in check when you are spending money? Do you use a checklist or evaluation process?

Photo: robholland

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This article is presented by Kelly Whalen, Consumerism Commentary staff writer who attended Toy Fair this week in New York City.

Should you be one of the millions of Americans (nearly 75%) who receives a tax refund this year, you may be making all sorts of plans for your money. Some people will plan to spend it and some will plan to save it. What’s the best use of your refund?

As a personal finance writer, from now through April I hear from many readers who don’t know what they should do with their tax refund. The average tax refund is over $2,600. That’s quite a few clams!

You have three options, and I’ll offer several ideas on how to use each option.

1. Save your money.

  • Emergency Fund: If you don’t have one, using your tax refund to jump-start an emergency fund is an excellent use of your money.
  • IRA: If you throw the money you anticipate getting into an IRA you can get an even bigger tax break. Jump-start your retirement savings, and save on taxes as well.
  • Long-Term Savings: Are your emergency fund and IRA fully funded? Save it for a nice boost for your car replacement fund, down payment fund, or other savings goal.

2. Spend you money.

  • Pay off debt: Many Americans will spend their money on necessities, reducing their consumer debt. This offers the most bang for your buck. If you are debt-free, keep reading.
  • Needs: Many people put off larger purchases, whether because they can’t afford it, or the expense is painful. Use your tax refund as a means to purchase something that is needed. Whether it’s a new set of tires for your car, or a new water heater.
  • Wants: If you’re a frugal person who has their finances in order it’s likely that you don’t spend a lot on things you want. Now is the time to spring for the vacation you always put off or a new wardrobe to replace your dated work clothes.

3. A combination of spend and save.

Saving and spending portions of your income tax refund is a balanced approach. That way you get to take care of something important or necessary, as well as have some fun with your money.

A word of wisdom: If you are getting a large refund, you should consider changing your withholding on your paycheck. You can print out a W-4 from IRS.gov or pick one up from your Human Resources Department. While many people, including myself, receive refunds due to the sheer number and variety of deductions and credits they have, you may be able to adjust your withholding so that you receive more money in every paycheck.

Rather than wait all year to get a large check you can set up your own refund system by automatically debiting your checking account on each payday to send the “extra” money to a savings account, or specific debt. You still won’t see the money in your account, and at the end of the year will have that much more saved or paid off.

Do you typically get a tax refund? If you will be this year, what do you plan to do with your money? If you need some more ideas, here are ten ways to spend your tax refund for fun.

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Time Management: Outsource to Save Money and Time

by Kelly Whalen

This article is presented by Kelly Whalen, Consumerism Commentary staff writer who bought a second car with her husband last weekend. As a busy mom of four and work-from-home parent, I often get told people don’t know how I do it all. It’s simple, I don’t. These are some of my techniques to save time, ... Continue reading this article…

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Fitness: Physical or Fiscal?

by Kelly Whalen

This article is presented by Kelly Whalen, Consumerism Commentary staff writer. The costs of health care rose dramatically in the past year for many Americans. Hewitt Associates, a global human resources consulting firm, measured an increase in group insurance premiums of 6 percent percent in 2009, and that’s only part of the full health care picture. ... Continue reading this article…

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Buying a Second Car

by Kelly Whalen

If my husband had a car to drive to work and had taken my son to school, I would have saved three hours of my day. Yes, three hours. We are a family of six with one car. This is the result of a decision we made a few months ago when our second car ... Continue reading this article…

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Debt Relief: Reminders of What You Are Doing Right

by Kelly Whalen

This article is presented by Kelly Whalen, Consumerism Commentary staff writer. Like many Americans my family has debt. We are working diligently to pay off our debt. We’ve slashed expenses, given up hobbies, and even become a one car family. We have a plan. A timeline. We’re constantly working on creative ways to shave some ... Continue reading this article…

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Discounts Via Social Media: A Surprising Way to Save

by Kelly Whalen

This article is presented by Kelly Whalen, Consumerism Commentary staff writer. Kelly is celebrating her one-year blog anniversary this week. Everyone loves a good deal, but finding time to comparison shop at various stores can be time consuming. As a parent of four kids I’m not keen on taking the kids to multiple stores just ... Continue reading this article…

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How To Stick With Your 2010 Resolutions

by Kelly Whalen

This article is presented by Kelly Whalen, Consumerism Commentary staff writer. It’s the time of year when everyone is talking about their New Year’s resolutions or goals for the year. Tops on the majority of Americans’ New Year’s resolutions for 2010 are losing weight, quitting smoking, and saving more money. While losing weight and quitting ... Continue reading this article…

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