A lesson on how to stand behind your work


Does a guarantee really mean anything in this day and age? Think about it: When something goes wrong with an item you buy at a retail store, who bears the burden of proof? The consumer.

What do you hear when something goes wrong with something you purchase? Prove to me you bought it here when you say you did. Prove to me you didn’t break it through misuse.

With services, it can be even more tricky, unless you have it all in writing. And then you have the burden of keeping the paperwork filed someplace where you can retrieve it.

Recently I found someone who has put an end to all that nonsense. We’re in the market to have our exterior block wall covered with a stucco. I’m a bit of a bargain shopper so I called Dwight after seeing his handwritten sign on a neighborhood street corner.

As I worked my way through a litany questions in the backyard, I got around to asking if his work comes with a warranty.

“Yes!” was his response. “As long as I’m alive my work is warrantied. So for about another 25 to 30 years or so. After that, you’re on your own.”

I can’t ask for much more than that now can I?

Read this before you spend another dime on road hazard insurance


I wonder how many people are paying for road hazard insurance unnecessarily. I used to pay the annual fee to a big-name motor club for the promise to help me or my wife out if we had a flat tire, dead battery or needed a tow.

My decision to discontinue the coverage was easy the first time I called for help after being told that it would be over an hour before someone would come to change my flat tire on I-25 in Denver. Ordinarily I would change the tire myself, which is what I ended up doing.

Check with your current auto insurance company before paying someone else for roadside assistance protection.

I enrolled in the plan with my wife in mind, but they covered both of us for the same price so I thought I would try it out. On the day I called for help, my motivation was driven by the fact that my blowout occurred in rush hour traffic in the midst of one of Denver’s famous summer afternoon monsoon gully washers. We discontinued the coverage the next time they sent me a payment due notice.

It wasn’t until recently that I realized I had been wasting my money with the policy anyway. It turns out the full-coverage policy we’ve had with State Farm all these years comes with roadside assistance. I found out about it only recently while scanning my semi-annual premium notice into the computer. I looked into it a little deeper and found that it’s basically the same service I had been paying about $100 a year for once upon a time.

If we ever get locked out of our car, or have a dead battery, or need a tow, we’re covered. You have to call a special toll-free number to take advantage of it but no biggy; we just keyed the number into our cell phones.

Takeaway: Check with your current auto insurance provider to see if they offer roadside assistance. If so, don’t even think about paying another “motor club” for the same service.

Have you heard about the free travel services on Craigslist?


We’re on a tight budget these days but determined to do something fun out of town with the kiddos for Spring Break.  Since we’re new to Phoenix and only a six hour drive from the LA/Hollywood area, my wife and I decided we could work a thrifty road trip into the budget.

Beautiful pic of Santa Monica pier by Dan Adamato
Beautiful pic of Santa Monica pier by Dana Damato (www.danadamato.com).

So we put some dates on the calendar and began to plan. The trouble with searching the web for things to do is that most of the search results include options that cost money. I knew if I could talk to some locals I could find some cheap or free ways to entertain our tween-aged daughters.

Since we don’t know anyone who lives in LA, I posted this plea for help in the “Frugal” message board on Craigslist/LA:

Looking for help from locals. We’re hoping to find a studio tour or filming of some sort to experience that is free or cheap. Any tips?

The crowd came through in a big way. Here are the responses I received in just the first 48 hours:

  • Craigslist has an event calendar for every city,  click on a day in calendar at left side. http://losangeles.craigslist.org/
  • Google free tv tickets Los Angeles. We saw the Jimmy Kimmel show and Jeopardy. The Science Museum in Exposition Park is free. Natural History Museum is cheap. Ride the Blue Line to Long Beach. Take the Red Line to Union Station, walk to Olvera Street and Chinatown. Red Line also to Hollywood Blvd. Gold Line to Pasadena.
  • Call the Burbank studios to get tickets to Leno.
  • Universal has a theme park tour, but I think it costs.
  • Google free tv tickets Los Angeles. We saw the Jimmy Kimmel show and Jeopardy.
  • The Science Museum in Exposition Park is free.
  • Natural History Museum is cheap.
  • Universal city walk – it’s a few miles north of downtown LA (on the subway too) its free to walk around the stores and browse. the biggest cost is parking. but its about $80 a person to enter Universal City theme park next to it.
  • Drive to Santa Monica beach. You have to see the ocean plus the Santa Monica pier is a boardwalk classic the main cost is finding parking at the end of the 10 freeway.
  • Walk around Hollywood & Vine. See the stars in the sidewalk with Grummans theater handprints, and Kodak theater walk into souvenir stores see all the hucksters on the sidewalks, some impersonating stars.
  • Drive up to Griffith Observatory. That’s where they film lots of movies you’ll have a good view of downtown L.A. and the Hollywood sign nice science museum there too; parts are free.

Thanks, Craigslisters. This oughtta keep us busy!

Three reasons to say no to cell phone insurance


When I bought my daughter a new phone at Verizon recently, I was asked if I wanted insurance on the phone. The insurance would offer a replacement phone in the event it was damaged beyond repair.

As I began to do the quick math in my head, that little voice of reason that I’ve been hearing from a lot more lately promptly gave me three reasons to say no.

Say 'no' to cell phone insurance
Image courtesy of insuranceinfonews.com

1. Monthly Cost
The upfront cost for the insurance is $7 per month, or $84 a year. If the need arises, we can likely replace the phone with a used model from an Ebay seller for under $100. So unless she destroys the phone in the first two months, the insurance math just doesn’t add up.

2. Deductible
In addition to the monthly premium, if we need to use the insurance, there is a $100 deductible to get a new phone.

3. Obsolescence
The model of your phone will likely be obsolete by the time you need to use the insurance. Earlier this summer my daughter’s other phone gave out. Verizon didn’t have a “comparable replacement” so we ended up buying the exact model on eBay for about $60. We took it in to get the contacts transferred over and she was back in business.

There was a time when we felt it was worthwhile to pay for insurance cell phones. That was when the whole cell phone craze began and we had this fear of forking out a bunch of money just to maintain the ability to use our service. Now that cell phones are plentiful and we have been using them for a long time with no issues, I just can’t justify the cost of insuring them.

Five keys to writing Craigslist ads that sell


by @PaulFiarkoski

If you have you been thinking about trying to post something for sale on craiglist.com but have been hesitant because you don’t know how to go about it, read on.

In 2012 I sold no less than two dozen items using Craigslist. To date, I have a 100% success rate. I also have a bachelors degree in advertising, but my advice here comes more from my actual experience using Craigslist.

craigslist selling tips
Craigslist is a free website you can use to sell items around your house.

1) Write to an audience of one  Knowing and writing to your audience is key to success for any ad. Since you likely only have one item for each ad, you don’t need the type of door buster ad that we see around Thanksgiving. In most cases your target audience is just one person out of a hundred or so that will see your ad. What does that one person need to know about the item you’re selling?

2) Keep it simple  Use simple language. Keep your sentences short; a bullet pointed list is more effective than sentences. Tell as much as you can in the title: brand, color, model, year, etc. This helps people find your ad when they perform a search.

3) List the price  In the world of Craigslist, price is a big motivator. Unless you’re selling something so unique that it can’t be found elsewhere, your ad will likely flop if you don’t offer the item(s) at a bargain price. If you don’t tell them your price, potential buyers are more likely to skip on to the next seller’s ad. Based on my experience, Craigslist buyers aren’t as likely to haggle as garage sale or old-school classified ad shoppers. So you don’t need to price it higher than you really want to sell it for in order to give yourself wiggle room.

Tip: my 100% success rate with Craigslist ads is due in part to my willingness to drop my price (if necessary) over a number of weeks until the item was attractive enough to a buyer.

4) Post pictures Many Craigslist shoppers won’t even open your ad if they don’t see the image icon next to your title.  Craigslist now allows you to upload as many as six pictures per post. Use that to your advantage by showing the item(s) from many different angles. Since the first image you upload is the one that shoppers will see first, make sure it’s the most representative picture. Don’t hide the flaws though. Showing imperfections up front will make the transaction go much smoother when the buyer shows up at your house with the cash.

5) Give your phone number  This is critical. Craigslist buyers tend to be spontaneous. They feel like they need to strike quickly in order to get a good deal and won’t take the time to send and manage a number of emails. Be prepared to delete your ad as soon as it sells so you can eliminate unnecessary calls or text messages.

Tip: It’s best if you give a cell phone number and mention that they can call or text you. This works better for you too, because you can answer or respond to calls if you’re away from home.

Follow the five tips above and you’ll be selling your stuff on Craigslist with the best of ’em in no time. It’s a great way to turn unwanted items around your house into cash.

For examples of what not to do when you write a Craigslist ad, see these OMG Craiglist ads (intended to be humorous).

Tips for a productive household budget meeting


by @PaulFiarkoski

After seventeen years of marriage and countless arguments over money, my wife and I recently got serious about getting out of debt. We’ve been following the Dave Ramsey Total Money Makeover program where you take a series of steps with the ultimate goal of becoming completely debt free. First you cut out all frivolous spending and set aside $1,000 in savings. Then you start attacking all your debt from smallest loan to largest. After all your unsecured (no collateral) debt is paid off, you get aggressive with investing.

Pen and paper
For best results, take time to prepare for your household budget meeting.

One of the keys to cutting out frivolous spending is to hold a monthly budget meeting, presumably with your spouse. It’s a good idea for domestic partners and single people too. We’re prepping for our third monthly budget meeting and are really starting to see some results – mainly in the way of fewer arguments over money.

Below are some tips that we have found help us have successful budget meetings and outcomes. If you have questions, post them in the comments and I’ll respond the best I can.

Set some ground rules
Create some simple ground rules to review at the beginning of each meeting. You should read them out loud before getting into the money discussion. We have found it’s also good to pray before starting the money talk to get our heads and hearts in the right place.

Here are the ground rules we abide by:

  1. We’re a team and we’re doing this activity for a mutually beneficial outcome.
  2. It’s not about judging or finding fault; it’s about being responsible stewards with the gifts God blesses us with.
  3. Each will listen and respect the other’s feelings and opinions.
  4. We are not perfect and we won’t do it perfectly but we must get better over time.

Have an agenda
Make the best use of your time by sitting down with specific talking points and outcomes in mind. We use the same agenda from month to month. Below I have outlined the key things we talk about.

Track progress with net worth
Having been a registered financial consultant for over a decade, I learned that the best way to measure financial progress is net worth. Net worth is a pretty simple calculation; although gathering up the numbers can be a chore.

To calculate net worth, add up all your assets (what you own) and subtract your debt (what you owe). Include everything – home, cars, timeshares, retirement accounts, etc. On the credit side include all your debt, even credit cards and no short term furniture loans, etc.

Here is what we include in our net worth calculation:

Net Worth = Assets – Liabilties
Assets
Checking
Savings
Health Savings
Retirement account
IRAs

Liabilities
Mortgage
Overdraft line of credit
Medical bills

Pulling together the net worth data takes some time, but talking about it takes only about a minute. What I do is gather up the data and have it all set to go in a one page report prior to the monthly meeting with my wife. Websites like mint.com simplify this monthly task by aggregating multiple financial accounts into one application. Many banks and credit unions now offer these online aggregation services too.

The idea is to look at your net worth on a regular basis to see if it’s increasing or decreasing. It’s sort of like using a scale to keep track of weight loss.

Wins and losses
Next, talk about what you did well last month from a budget standpoint. This can be a great opportunity to score brownie points with your partner if you approach it right. Focus on things each other did well, rather than spotlight ways where the other blew it. This doesn’t mean you should ignore obvious “withdrawals” of fiscal trust; just be careful in how you approach shortcomings on the part of each other.

Talk about things that pulled you off course.  If talking about who spent how much on coffee, nails, hair, etc. is likely to start an argument, consider making the decision that each of you get a set amount of cash each month to spend as you wish. Then take that cash out at the ATM and don’t hold each other accountable to it.

What’s coming up
Once you have made it through what will likely be the most emotionally charged part of the meeting, talk about what the next month looks like in terms of money coming in and money you need to pay out. I have found it helpful to use spreadsheet and plot out every day of  the coming month and what money we expect to receive or to pay out. It’s time consuming and sometimes painful, but it’s what you will do if you want to break out of a financial rut.

Agreed goals
Finally, close the meeting by reminding yourselves of the financial goals you have in common and discuss how you’re tracking to meet them. If you haven’t established any goals, consider starting with the baby steps that millions of debt-free Dave Ramsey followers have based their success on.

How often to meet
My suggestion is to have the budget meeting once a month for starters. Sit down in a distraction free environment at least an hour and talk it out. We get together on the back patio. Stay in constant communication with each other about the budget, especially when one of you is about to spend money that wasn’t part of the last budget discussion.

Don’t put it off
The only way to fail is to not try it. Feel free to use some of the ideas that have worked for us or create your own approach. I have also found some great resources on Dave Ramsey’s website.

Buying health insurance in the Obamacare era


by Paul Fiarkoski

The Affordable Care Act – aka Obamacare – has become a hot political topic as of late. Oddly, this issue has divided even voters registered within the political parties.

From my perspective, much of the talk before the Obama healthcare plan went into effect was rhetoric based on fear. As a result of my insurance training, the notion of having everyone in the U.S. insured would spread risk across a huge pool of people and greatly reduce costs across the board.

Now that Obamacare has been in place for about a year, I’d like to share my family’s recent experience with the health insurance buying process.

Want the conclusion? Here’s mine: Obamacare is sorely needed in today’s economy.

Background
Due to a new career path I decided to take, my wife and I recently (July 2012) found ourselves in the market for health insurance for our family of four. I gave up the group insurance I had for the last twelve years and decided to pay out of pocket for a high-deductible individual policy. We have two tween-aged daughters. The company we dealt with is Aetna. That’s who I had the group policy with and who I applied for the individual policy with.

I thought it would make things simpler to stick with them since every one of our health insurance claims went through Aetna for more than a decade. I couldn’t have been more wrong. We still had to document for them every doctor visit, illness, etc. over the past ten years. When I suggested that they look up our claims and base their decision of whether or not to insure us based on their records, the representative said they couldn’t do that due to privacy laws. Right from the script!

Playing by the insurance company’s rules
Really? Privacy laws prevent me from giving my own insurance company access to their own files containing information about my health. I didn’t like that answer but played along since I really didn’t want my family to be uninsured.

As it turned out, my wife was denied coverage completely. And not just for me misstating her height and weight. It was that, combined with something that was not discovered in the physical but that my wife mentioned to the doctor, who logged it in her notes to the insurance company. We paid out of pocket to have the doctor treat the other matter, then appealed Aetna’s decision knowing in our minds that my wife would likely not be able to get coverage with another company now since one of the key questions on a new application is “Have you ever been denied coverage by any insurance company?”

I was issued a policy but with a 40% higher premium than I was originally quoted. Even though the bloodwork that I paid out of pocket for revealed that I’m in better health than I was five years ago, they rated me for “pre-diabetes,” likely because I mentioned on the application that a family member has diabetes. Great, now I’m paying more for revealing information that is none of Aetna’s business and they would have otherwise had no access to. Both of my kiddos were issued policies but one of them was rated higher due to an injury she sustained at gymnastics practice six months earlier.

At that point I couldn’t help but wondering if I had not mentioned the gymnastics injury, or my family member’s diabetes, or if I had been accurate with my wife’s height and weight, would we be having any of this trouble. Would Aetna have detected omissions on the application by checking our claim history? Call me a cynic, but my hunch is that yes they would.

Light at the end of the tunnel
Currently I and my two kids are insured. My wife is still uninsured as we await the outcome of the appeal. In the meantime, thanks to a tidbit I found in small print on Aetna’s denial letter, my wife will be eligible to apply for a “no pre-existing conditions” policy in early 2013. Prior to Obamacare this option would not have existed. I have already checked the premiums and the cost is about 30% higher than what Aetna originally quoted us. Chances are that even if Aetna does decide to cover her, it will be at an increased rate.

Regardless of the outcome, it is good to know that thanks to Obamacare we have the ability to get insurance for my wife. We just need to pray that she remains healthy until her insurance kicks in.


 

Option for people who have been denied health insurance
Apply for insurance under the Pre-existing Condition Insurance Plan made possible by the Affordable Care Act. Get details at www.pcip.gov


As for the runaround and rated policies we received from Aetna, I don’t attribute that to Obamacare. Having dealt with them for the last twelve years for my group policy, I have become wise to their archaic infrastructure and tendency to stonewall when it comes to paying out benefits.

Lessons learned
Here are some tips I would offer to anyone thinking about applying for an individual (not group) health insurance policy:

  • Don’t guess when completing the application. I guessed my wife is 5’8′ and 120. Although I scored big points with her for that one, Aetna said she was too thin to be considered for coverage.
  • Don’t overshare. Since insurance companies are allgedly prevented from obtaining health information about your relatives, don’t reveal anything. Make them insure you based on your health.
  • Apply to more than one company about three months before you need the coverage. That’s about how long it can take to get insurance from the time you apply. This way you can go with the company that offers you the best overall package (price, service, efficiency) and tell the other(s) you won’t be needing them.
  • Keep detailed records of medical treatments you and your family members receive. It will save you a lot of grief if you ever have to apply for individual health insurance.