Thursday, May 15, 2008

Surviving High Gas Prices

How to do it? Well, there are car-maintenance tips (such as keeping your tires inflated and taking out anything that might be adding excess weight, like junk that's been hanging out in your trunk). There are Web sites such as that let you use the power of the Internet to search for the cheapest gas nearby. You could go green and drive a hybrid, bike, walk or take mass transit. Of course, you could invest in, say, Exxon or BP and try to recoup some of your money as a shareholder.

My latest strategy? Stopping the pump once it hits $25. And reducing how far and how much I drive, by walking when I can, not driving one or two days a week, or running errands while already on my way to or from work so that I try to accomplish more in fewer trips.

So far, I've been able to spend only $50 bucks total on gas this month, but with a trip to the exurbs in my immediate future and half a month still to go, we'll see how this strategy works out in the end. The fact that local gas stations are all within easy shooting distance of charging $4 a gallon for regular is going to prove to be a challenge.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Coming Soon: Rebate Checks

Whether you've already made plans for your economic stimulus check or not, now you'll at least know when it's coming. The IRS says checks will start going out on May 2, for everyone eligible and who filed their taxes by April 15. All rebates going to those who selected direct deposit will be out by the end of May. Those awaiting a paper check may have to wait into mid July. For either method, checks will be sent out according to the last two digits of taxpayers' Social Security numbers. To see the schedule, go to

Sunday, March 9, 2008

A Simple Start to Finance

Real Simple's March cover story (if you missed the print version, click here to read it online) looked at solutions for six money problems, including spending too much and saving too little. Each problem comes with immediate steps to take, and more advanced steps to do next. Plus, sidebars feature real people, their budgets and advice from a planner.

All in all, the article is a good way to dip your toes into reading about personal finance. The advice is sound, though I would quibble with a couple of things.

Just keep in mind that this is a starter article. Take the next step: Direct your attention to the section of your local newsstand that features the magazines devoted solely to the topic of personal finance to get more in-depth information.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Caught in the Middle

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke again suggested a proposal that mortgage lenders should write down principal for troubled homeowners as a measure to help mitigate fallout from the housing crisis. Not a bad idea necessarily.

But what about those homeowners who are upside down on their mortgages, yet can still afford to pay them and aren't in risk of foreclosure? Do they get to take advantage of such a proposal? My guess is no. If such a homeowner had to sell in this market, however, they could be down by tens of thousands of dollars, which could cause a bankruptcy or at worse severely impact their financial foundation.

It's this group of homeowners caught in the middle -- between the most troubled borrowers and the owners who have plenty of equity -- who I wonder how they'll survive the crisis. Save for one recent article in The Wall Street Journal, no one yet seems to be talking about them. I suspect that soon they'll become a bigger topic, if they're anything like the owners in the Journal article who are also beginning to mail their keys to the bank.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

An Ode to Tax Software

I've been doing my own taxes for years, and for much of that time, I used pen and paper. But four years ago, I turned to tax-preparation software and I've never looked back.

If all you're filing is a simple Form 1040, you could probably stick to the old-school method. But if your tax situation is more complicated, tax software can ease the pain of figuring it all out -- which forms to file, whether or not you should itemize, etc. The only thing I dislike is having to type in the information from your W-2s, but that annoyance is worth making the rest of the process a breeze. I've used Tax Cut and TurboTax -- both are pretty good and walk you right through your taxes step by step with a series of questions. Be sure to have all your tax documents handy before you begin, and you should be done in no time.

What's even better is that, if you qualify, you can use tax-preparation software free through the IRS's Free File program. To be eligible to use the service, your adjusted gross income has to be $54,000 or less for 2007. I found the service fairly easy to use the year I tried it, though I did have to consult the FAQs several times to clarify some of the rules. But if all that's holding you back from using software is the cost of buying it, this is a great way to use it free — and if you use e-file you don't even have to pay for a stamp. (Note that with paid-for software, generally you have to pay a fee to electronically file. In that case, mailing the forms is usually the cheaper option.)

Monday, February 11, 2008

Review: Girl, Read This Book!

The first time I came across financial expert Glinda Bridgforth was on Oprah, when she participated in the "America's Debt Diet" series. Bridgforth was the unfortunate expert who got stuck with the family who wouldn't follow expert advice, even though the advice was sound. When I was handed a copy of her latest book, Girl, Get Your Credit Straight!, I decided to take a look.

With its catchy title that I couldn't get out of my head, I dove in and found an interesting read. The book is directed to African-American women, but any woman will find this book useful. Bridgforth weaves in her own personal struggles with money with tales of other women, who like her, have overcome their financial troubles. Having dug myself out of a mound of credit-card debt, I always find other real-life stories of conquering debt fascinating.

Bridgforth also breaks down financial terms and jargon into regular language, and gives step-by-step advice on how to prioritize and pay off debt. At times, Bridgforth gets a little too spiritual for my tastes, but all in all, her book's an entertaining, educational read. The book is the third in a series: The second, Girl, Make Your Money Grow!, written with a co-author, was a bit harder to get through. I have not yet picked up her first book, Girl, Get Your Money Straight!. But Bridgforth's book on credit was helpful enough that I plan to pick up her first book soon.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Go Fee-Free

One secret on the road to wealth: Cut the fees you pay. If you can't avoid them altogether, then make sure you're paying as little as possible.

It may take a little comparison shopping, but who doesn't like to shop? There are all kinds of ways to shave the amount you pay in miscellaneous fees. Get free checking and credit cards with no annual fees, for example. Protect your nest egg by choosing an IRA that charges minimal to zero account fees, and ask how much you're paying in annual and investment fees for your 401(k).

If you're investing on your own, trade with a discount brokerage that charges low commissions. If you invest in mutual funds, pick no-load funds, which have no sales charge. Choose funds with low annual expense ratios; index funds and exchange-traded funds offer some of the lowest annual expenses around. The amount you pay in investment fees eats into your investment returns, and that can add up to big bucks over time.

Don't be afraid to question fees you're being charged. If you're buying a house or a car, be particularly careful that you understand what every dollar is paying for. And inquire if there are ways to cut those fees. If you're carrying a credit card balance but pay on time every month, ask your credit card company if it will reduce your interest rate.

Changing your behavior helps, too. Don't use ATMs that aren't in your bank's network, and pay your bills on time. Pay off your credit cards every month so you won't pay interest. Avoid incurring overdraft fees on your bank accounts. If you have to meet certain minimums to avoid service fees, then meet them.

Fees pop up everywhere these days (see LookGirl on the go for the latest airline fee to avoid), so you have to be vigilant. The less you pay in fees to companies, the more money you'll keep in your pocket — which is where it belongs.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

In Search of Better Rates

Ben Bernanke & Co. at the Federal Reserve have been slashing benchmark interest rates in hopes of saving the economy from recession. Lower interest rates are great when it comes to things like credit cards and mortgages. But if you're trying to earn some money on your cash in a savings account or certificate of deposit, it's a different story.

Not that long ago online banks were offering rates on savings accounts at 5% or more. In recent weeks, they've cut rates to less than 4%. That's still a good deal when compared with many brick-and-mortar bank savings accounts. But if you're shopping around to score the highest rate possible, check out You can search for the highest rates for savings accounts and CDs nationwide. And if you are looking to benefit from the Fed's rate cuts, you can also search the site to find the lowest rates on mortgages and credit cards.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

It's Just Business

There's something about Celebrity Apprentice that's got me hooked. Perhaps it's the throwback feel to Battle of the Network Stars. Granted, it's lost some pizzazz since Gene Simmons got fired, and the show usually devolves into the participants cashing in their celebrity to win. But like Project Runway, I like the fact that Apprentice makes its contestants use at least some brain power to complete their tasks.

The show's started, and turns out the Vinnie/Piers fight is a put-on. With its twist of sabotage, we'll see how this episode turns out. My prediction is the women's team, Empresario, is going to lose again and Omarosa, who backed Vinnie coming into the team, finally goes home.

UPDATE: My powers of prediction were poor on this one. With Carol Alt as project manager, the women score their first win with the Crocs challenge. At least Piers ended up staying, thank goodness.