Clear Those Financial HurdlesWas there ever a time when any one of us turned our backs on a bargain? Probably not. But today there's even more reason to hang on to your dollars. The U.S. economy is cooling down, according to the Federal Reserve Board. At the same time, Americans are piling up more credit-card debt than ever before, and our savings rate is negative, the first time since the Great Depression.
So we've rounded up ten financial challenges, and come up with solutions to help you keep more of your money.
1. That SUV of yours seemed like a good idea at the time, but now you're paying way too much to fill 'er up.
Solution: First, look for the cheapest gas prices in your area before you head for the pump -- they may vary by as much as 20 percent within a few blocks and can change frequently. Gasbuddy.com collects price information for the U.S. and Canada from 173 websites. Gaspricewatch.com collects prices on 128,000 gas stations from 123,000 volunteer spotters.
Be careful about how you use debit and credit cards to pay for the gas. Sure, gas company credit cards offer rebates on gas, usually from one to five percent. But they often carry high annual percentage rates and limit you to a particular brand of gas. Some even offer teaser rebates of up to ten percent, which may be available for only 30 days. A better choice is a general-purpose credit card, with rebates wherever you buy gas.
Avoid using your debit card. When you buy gas on a debit card, your bank "locks up" as much as $100 for as long as several days or until the station owner processes the transactions. If your bank account is running low, you may bounce a check or two.
An easy way to save on gas? Properly inflated tires. Check them weekly and shave up to 9 cents off a $3 gallon.
2. You stop at the supermarket a few times a week to pick up something for dinner, tossing in pricey items as you go.
Solution: Order groceries and staples online and get them delivered to your door. E-grocery stores became one of the biggest disasters in the dotcom debacle a few years back. But a handful of them are beginning to resurface, with more sure to follow.
Some sites are still regional, but amazon.com announced the nationwide opening of its grocery store this summer, with 14,000 nonperishable items, some hard to find and many discounted. Amazon offers free shipping on orders over $25. To see which e-grocer operates in your neck of the woods, check out safeway.com, peapod.com, freshdirect.com and netgrocer.com.
3. Your daughter wants a clarinet, and you need to get rid of that old couch, but it's still got some life left in it.
Solution: Try freecycling. Community groups across the nation have organized to help consumers give away stuff they no longer need and find free stuff they could use. This isn't a barter arrangement. You give or you get, but not necessarily from the same person. Once you find a recycler who has something you want, you make arrangements to pick it up.
Nancy Castleman of Elizaville, New York, has given away Jerusalem artichokes from her garden, lawn mowers, a television, stereo speakers and a sewing machine. She's received computers, a stove, a lawn tractor and a 30-gallon pail of birdseed.
The granddaddy of online recycling is freecycle.org, a network of nearly 2.5 million members in 3,710 communities around the world. Also global is freesharing.org. Members offer furniture, clothing, appliances, computers and more. Check out the list of other "sites like us." For a smaller, folksier site, go to sharingisgiving.org. Search by ZIP code for local garage sales and thrift shops.
4. Your son left for college, and you want to keep in touch -- without paying huge phone bills.
Solution: Talk for free on the Internet. Go to skype.com and download free software that allows you to make free domestic calls (and very inexpensive international calls) to other Skype users. David Kavaler, a junior at Northeastern University in Boston, went to Venice, Italy, for a summer photo program and used Skype to call home. "It was very cheap, so I didn't bust my budget on phone bills," he says. Google is also developing a network to handle calls and instant messages to friends anytime, anywhere. Google Talk is free. Go to google.com/talk to sign up. JAJAH recently introduced a free global calling plan. Go to jajah.com, enter your own phone number and the number of the person you want to call. Your phone will ring and a recorded voice will announce that you are being connected to your friend's phone. Within moments, you are talking. Free. After this initial call, both you and your friend will need to register (no charge) at jajah.com to continue the free chats. Most countries are in JAJAH's free zones, but check before calling. Take note: Some phone companies charge for incoming calls.
5. Your wife's birthday is coming up. She has champagne taste, and you're on a beer budget.
Solution: Get a cup of coffee, prop yourself up at your computer and take a look at some new online options.
Shopping.com compares prices, warranties, dimensions, quality and other factors for the top five sellers in a specific category. It also provides buyer reviews and ratings. If you're looking for jewelry, for instance, you can search by material, stone type, style and store. A no-brainer for men short on patience.
Jellyfish.com helps you earn cash back (two to three percent) when you make purchases through a Web retailer. Here's how it works: Go to jellyfish.com to find the right product at the best price. Once you've made the purchase and jellyfish gets its commission from that merchant, jellyfish will credit your account or send you a check for at least half of what it's received. No fees, no hidden charges.
6. You'd love to get away over the holidays, but with fuel prices and airfares climbing, it doesn't look good.
Solution: New Internet travel search engines analyze data and update prices regularly to help you get the cheapest rate on airfares, hotels and rental cars. Objective price comparisons and no commissions.
Farecompare.com collects data and updates 6 million fares between 77,000 city pairs up to three times a day. For last-minute getaways, see the Top Deals list. Suppose you live in Denver, Colorado, and you would like to slip away for a long weekend. At FareCompare, you can see that it would cost you $158 round-trip to Chicago, $198 to Cancun and only $247 to Anchorage.
Kayak.com gathers flight and fare information from hundreds of websites in real time to provide what it claims are the best travel deals available, including flight, hotel and rental cars. A recent check found that the cheapest nonstop round-trip fare between Boston and Pittsburgh was $139 on either United or JetBlue. Click on the airline of your choice and you will be linked to that site with the flight ready to book.
Farecast.com charts the lowest fare between the departure and destination cities you choose, predicts whether fares are heading up or down and allows you to see what time of year is cheapest for travel. The site searches the airlines and provides links to each. Click "flexible search" to get a lower-priced option. This site is in beta testing, and for now, departure cities are limited. A recent search showed that the lowest price for a round-trip ticket between Seattle and Houston was $244. Twenty days later it had risen to $333. Farecast predicted that fare would hold for seven days.
7. You signed a two-year contract for a cell phone only to discover that the service in your area is unsatisfactory.
Solution: You're facing two years of dropped calls or a $150 termination fee to cancel the contract. But a new website -- celltradeusa.com -- can help you find someone to take over the remainder of your contract.
Click onto this bright red website; the screen is split between "Get Out" and "Get In." There are advantages on each side: The seller gets out of the long contract and keeps his old number. The buyer gets a shorter-term contract and pays no activation fee.
Once you sign up to sell your contract, you'll begin receiving e-mails from interested buyers. Pay the $19.99 registration fee and you'll receive their contact information. Celltrade does not guarantee that a potential buyer will be approved by your service provider. The company will check on the creditworthiness of the buyer, just as it did with you.
8. Your credit-card application was denied, and your mortgage rate is higher than your sister's. Ouch.
Solution: Improve your credit score and save thousands of dollars. These scores determine how much you pay in interest on your mortgage and credit cards, and how much you pay for auto and life insurance and more. Credit scores can even be the deciding factor in whether you get the job you want (some employers think it speaks to character).
The Fair Isaac Corporation was first to develop credit scores to determine how likely you are to be a good credit risk. A chart at myfico.com lists mortgage interest rates, updated daily, and shows what interest rate you might get, based on your score. For example, someone with a score of 760-850 could get a 6.31 percent interest rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage of $216,000, according to the site. His monthly payment would be $1,338. For the same mortgage, someone with a score of 620-639 would get a 7.89 percent interest rate and pay $1,569 per month. That's a difference of $231 a month, or $83,160 over the life of the 30-year loan.
To determine your score, computers grind up a ton of information about your credit history -- and spit out a number. FICO scores range from 300 to 850; a score of 720 or more is considered good by most standards; above 760 gets you the best rates -- and the right to negotiate even better ones with some lenders. The fastest way to improve your score is to pay your bills on time and reduce the amount of debt you carry.
Go to annualcreditreport.com for your free report -- you're entitled to one every 12 months from each of the three bureaus. You'll pay extra for your credit score.
9. You're living paycheck to paycheck, worried you'll never own a home, get a degree or retire.
Solution: Consult a financial planner. Time was when they refused to do anything short of a full financial plan, which cost thousands of dollars. Today a network of fee-by-the-hour planners will help you with one specific goal -- choosing investments for your 401(k) plan, getting out of debt, saving for college -- for as little as a few hundred dollars.
To find an à la carte planner, go to garrettplanningnetwork.com. Participants in this network have been trained and approved by Sheryl Garrett, the planner in Shawnee Mission, Kansas, who set up the network and who has been named one of the most influential people in financial services. Michael Donahoe, a planner in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, met with a young couple who wanted to buy a home. They had $10,000, but they couldn't manage to save the remaining $10,000 needed for the down payment and closing costs. If they kept their $10,000 invested at 8 percent, Donahoe estimated, it would take them about 8 1⁄2 years to buy a home.
Donahoe set them up with a systematic investment program and reviewed their retirement benefits at work. As a result of his suggestions, they will probably be able to purchase a new home in two years, says Donahoe, who charged them only $370. Donahoe provides a fee estimate before he starts work. "And I don't bill above what I estimate," he says.
10. You'd like to go to the movies and eat out more often, but the "fun stuff" really costs.
Solution: Check out meetup.com, a social networking site unlike the others: Folks actually get together. Over 2.5 million have joined local Meetups, and there are more than 4,500 interests listed, including dining out, movies, belly dancing, scrapbooking and ghost tracking. Join an existing group for free, or start your own.
But you'll have to check your neighborhood at meetup.com to see which groups discount activities or offer them at no charge. A yoga instructor in Brooklyn, New York, for example, gives free lessons since she found a studio she can use at no cost; she asks for a $5 donation. A movies Meetup in Orlando, Florida, and a vegan group in Boston get group discounts.