Parenting Moment – Our “Current” Reward System

Kid with Money

I could have called this a parenting tip or parenting advice, but that would mean I know something more about parenting than anyone else reading this. That certainly isn’t the case.

We’ve got two daughters, ages 6 and 4. One day they returned home from shopping with mom and announced that they were each getting a LeapPad. I guess the guy at the store told my wife that they would be extremely discounted in the next few weeks because a new version would be coming out for Christmas. Anyhow, we can’t let something they’re so excited about come without somehow turning it into a learning opportunity.

The reason I called this our “current” reward system is because, like most parents, we’ve probably tried a hundred different ones by now. This one has stuck for more than a few days, so I figured it was worth sharing.

So, we started with a goal in mind: a LeapPad (or Kindle Fire for the 6 years old). We told them that in order for them to be able to get their prize, they had to earn 100 kid dollars. I was able to find some great printable play money at freestuff4kids.net. We started printing out several sheets on 1, 5, and 10 dollar bills. Each kid got an envelope to put their money in as they earned it.

We’ve tried giving the kid’s money for doing different tasks around the house before. It didn’t last long since they didn’t have a specific item in mind to use the money for. Besides, they technically didn’t lose anything if they decided not to do what we asked them to do. They never had the money in the first place, so it was no real loss.

This time, we told them that they have $5 at the beginning of every day. When they choose to fight, take something from their sister, hurt each other, or do something else they know they shouldn’t do, they lose one of those dollars. On top of that, they also lose a dollar if they come downstairs after being put to bed. They’ve went to bed more than once with all $5, only to lose a good portion of them in about 30 minutes.

So far this has worked pretty well. Whenever things start to look like they may be degrading, we simply ask them “do you want to lose a dollar?” In most cases they stop what they were doing since they know that means it will take them that much longer to get that special item they’ve been wanting. Hopefully they’re thinking “is starting this fight worth losing a dollar?”

We have run into one issue with our 6 year old. She had a breakdown one evening on our way home from the babysitter because she didn’t understand how close she was to the $100 goal. She knew how much she had, but she couldn’t visualize what that meant. To solve that problem, I made a simple graph on the outside of their envelopes and we started filling it in whenever they get their dollars from the previous day. (In our setup, they can’t lose dollars that they’ve earned from previous days.) That seems to have helped quite a bit since she can now see how close she is to getting her Kindle.

I’m not going to say that this approach is right for everyone. I’m sure there are a bunch of you out there finding all sorts of flaws with this or have your own systems. If so, feel free to leave something in the comments below.

Featured Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Recovering From Unemployment – Part 1: Getting Into Debt

IOU Piggybank

Unemployment: One of the most counter-productive methods of saving money out there.  And yet, it’s not uncommon to have periods of unemployment in our adult lives.  Unless you’re leaving one job for another, chances are good you’ll have at least a week or two of unemployment, right?  It can be a scary experience, especially if you have few safety nets in place!

In 2010, our sole breadwinner lost his job.  We knew it was coming, fortunately.  He was a pharmaceutical rep for a small company that was bought out by a foreign company.  It had been undergoing some major changes for years, and there was always the threat of impending job cuts.  About 6 months before the actual cut, there was a rumor that the end was near, and soon the company confirmed this.  Fortunately, we were not in debt aside from our mortgage and my student loan.  We had already been dabbling with moving out to the country, and this news sealed the deal for us.  Our house was a major drain on our finances, and while it was my starry-eyed-newly-married-House o’ Dreams, we both knew that faced with any season of unemployment we would quickly run out of money with our giant mortgage.  It was time to say goodbye to the home we’d loved for the last six years!

Despite a treacherous selling market, despite trying to sell a very unique home for far more than the neighborhood’s worth, and despite selling by owner, our home sold in 4 months.  We fell in love with a beautiful home in the country with a much smaller square footage, and happily, a much smaller mortgage.

By then, Ty had been unemployed for two months.  At the time, we viewed this as a “vacation”.  With all the flurry of selling and buying homes, it was just nice to focus simply on moving.  Our daughter had just turned two, and Ty was enjoying getting a taste of experiencing MY job – the life of a stay-at-home mom!  Once we settled in though, Ty started getting serious about his job hunt.

Little did we know how brutal this would be!  At first, we thought this was the perfect opportunity for Ty to switch careers, but while he applied to plenty of non-sales opportunities he was more than qualified for, he never even got an interview.  So eventually he decided even a job he didn’t love was better than no job, and in the meantime our severance package was dwindling.  He started applying for pharmaceutical jobs again, and began to feel the true sting of rejection.

Let’s fast-forward one year.  Ty had a few unsuccessful interviews, but mostly he felt frustrated over the interviews he didn’t even get.  This was new territory for him, in the past he would apply for a job, quickly receive an interview, and usually walk out of the interview with a job.  He had never not even gotten an interview before!  It was a humbling year, to say the least.

By January, he scored a 6-month contract with a pharmaceutical company and we were able to breathe a little easier for awhile.  We also welcomed our second daughter into the family at the end of March!  We tried to replenish our savings account, and he kept searching for permanent work.  Unfortunately, once the contract ended, Ty would go on over 20 interviews over the next year and a half – all fruitless, frustrating ventures.  We both took whatever odd cash-paying jobs came our way, but it certainly wasn’t enough to sustain us.  By the end of 2012 this no longer felt like a vacation, but rather a very scary nightmare.  Unemployment benefits were up, our savings account was dry, and there was little hope in sight.

Finally, finally…a miracle!  My parents expanded their catering business and needed a manager… score!  Not only did Ty get the career change he longed for, but also an environment that built up his crumbling self-esteem, and perhaps best of all:  A Paycheck.  It’s really amazing what a paycheck can do to your psyche, isn’t it?

Now that we have a regular paycheck, we have some work to do.  Although we had tried to budget, cut corners and be wise during our period of unemployment, we still ended up falling back on a credit card.  Most of the debt came from legitimate budget-breakers like a major dentist bill, replacing a few leaking windows, and several auto repair bills, but honestly, some of that debt came from unwise purchases as well.   So now it is time to completely revise the budget:  we certainly don’t have enough money to live extravagantly by any means, but we DO have enough to LIVE and get out of debt, albeit slowly.

The first step is to make an oath to retire the credit cards.  Those things are the DEVIL.  They are too easy to use, and they make a new pair of shoes seem so much more affordable in the moment!  We decided to take this very, very seriously.  This is a time for delayed gratification.  This is a time for continuing to cut corners.   This is a time for hope!

Stay tuned for Part 2: Delayed Gratification!

Featured Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The “ALDI” Experience

Anyone who has shopped at ALDI probably remembers their first time and how awkward an experience it was. If you managed to fill your cart with groceries (assuming you got a cart), you may have found yourself leaving it in the checkout lane and simply walking out. You might have felt like you just walked into an exclusive club where no one checked your membership card.

We had similar thoughts when we first shopped there. After the first time, my wife and I said to each other “well we tried it” and didn’t have plans on going back accept maybe occasionally. Something changed though. As we went back to our old shopping habits, we realized how much extra we were paying for the same stuff at ALDI. Why would we pay a dollar more for a gallon of milk, or frozen pizza, or spices, or almost anything else for that matter.

So we gave it another shot. After about two months of transitioning, we slowly started to feel more comfortable with it. After about a years worth of shopping there, it’s now our first choice before we go anywhere else.

ALDI Shopping Tips

Bring a quarter. In order to use a shopping cart, you’ll need to put a quarter into one of the contraptions on the cart to unlock it from the rest of the shopping carts. Don’t worry, you’ll get the quarter back when you return the cart. You may be thinking “seriously?!?!?”, but think about it. How much do retail stores have to pay for a shopping cart? If we estimate somewhere between $100-200, then by ensuring that it gets returned means they don’t have to pass that expense along to the customers each time one mysteriously disappears. Plus, you can rest assured that you won’t be parking next to a cart corral or that a cart won’t get loose and run into your car. If you’re one of those people who likes to leave a cart anywhere in the parking lot, ALDI isn’t for you.

Bring some bags or be prepared to buy some. Call it environmentally friendly, or another way to pass some savings on to the consumer, either way, you’ll need to bring your own bags or buy some at checkout. They do sell a variety of bags from paper to heavy plastic to insulated for frozen items. If you prefer, you can just grab an empty box from a shelf as you’re shopping and put your items in there when you check out. Oh, I forgot to mention, you’ll be bagging or boxing your own groceries.

Leave the checkbook and credit cards at home. ALDI only accepts cash and debit cards. It’s faster for them and they avoid the fees credit card companies charge. If you don’t remember your debit card pin number, you might want to call your bank before you head out for your shopping trip.

When you’re checking out, if there is an empty cart nearby, put it into place next to the cashier when you’re done. This saves the cashier from having to get up and move it into place and allows them to start scanning the next person immediately.

If you like to shop late at night, you’ll need to go someplace else. ALDI is only open during the most profitable hours, which means when most people would be out grocery shopping. If you like to shop at midnight, ALDI isn’t for you.

Produce can be good or bad. Many times their produce is pretty good and they have quite a selection, but you’ll want to check it out before you get it. You can always ask an employee when they get their produce shipments and they’ll be happy to tell you. That way you’ll know the best day to come in and get it at its freshest.

Things You’ll Notice

No music to calm the shopping nerves. If you hear music while shopping, you might want to get checked out by your doctor. I’ve never noticed any music being played over a speaker system. Music costs money.

To-the-point receipts. Don’t you hate those huge receipts or the six feet of coupons that print out at other stores? Well, you won’t need to worry about it because everything on an ALDI receipt is printed very compactly. It uses less paper that way.

Barcodes everywhere. There are large barcodes on items or barcodes on multiple sides of an item. This helps speed up the checkout process.

ALDI carries more than just food. You might find kids swimming pools, walkers, or a variety of other items. If they get a good deal on something, you might just find it in the store. It’s kind of like a grab bag of goodies and you never know what you’ll find.

Friendlier shoppers. The shoppers at ALDI generally seem to be a little bit more friendly than at other places. It’s not unusual to walk up to the checkout with only a couple items in hand, and have the people in front of you let you go ahead of them. This is a purely subjective observation.

Shopping at ALDI is generally faster and easier than going to a larger store. For one, there aren’t as many choices (who needs 3 brands of flour to choose from) and the aisles are arranged in a way that you can quickly move between them and get what you need.

You will find some, but not many name brands. One local ALDI even has a sign hanging up saying that their store brands are made by the major manufacturers. Does that mean all of the products will taste the same as the brand name products? Not in all cases. However, we have found in some cases that the ALDI store brand product is better than the brand name products. One example is the American cheese slices. They are meltier on grilled cheese sandwiches than any other cheese slice we’ve used. Cereal on the other hand is hit or miss. Some of them are good (like their Cinnamon Life cereal equivalent) and others definitely taste different. This may bother some people, but after a while, you tend to find out what is good to you and what isn’t. They do offer a Double Guarantee so if you don’t like a product, you can always take advantage of it.

We decided to give ALDI a try and I think it’s worth it for most people to try as well. You don’t have much if anything to lose, but a lot of potential savings. Hopefully these tips will help you feel like a pro the first time you go. We don’t buy everything at ALDI, but we do the majority of our grocery shopping there and we think it’s worth it.

Potential Savings: This is hard to quantify, but as a point of reference, we budget $430 every 4 weeks on groceries for a family of 4, 2 adults and 2 younger children who sometimes eat like adults. Most months, we stay under this budgeted amount without any trouble. Shopping at ALDI has given us some extra room in our budget to be able to purchase other grocery items (shampoo, face wash, meat items, etc.) at other places without killing the budget.

Featured Image By Bidgee (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Target REDcard debit card

Target Logo

Do you shop at Target? Do you have a Target REDcard yet? More specifically, do you have a Target REDcard debit card? Assuming you shop at Target and you haven’t signed up for one, what are you waiting for?

When we were first asked by the cashier if we had a Target REDcard we of course said “no”. We don’t have credit cards and we don’t sign up for them in order to get a deal. That’s when she told us that they had a debit card. Of course, the question that came to mind was, “what’s the catch?” Since I couldn’t see any at first glance, we decided to sign up for one and start saving right away. We’ve had our Target REDcard debit card for probably 3-4 years now and the benefits have continued to get better.

Benefits

5% off your purchases

This benefit is the one that appealed to me the most – 5% savings on purchases at Target stores and Target.com. You might wonder how they’re able to offer 5% off your purchases and not charge any fees. This is what I’ve come up with. With a normal debit or credit card, when you make a purchase, the store is charged a fee to process your purchase through your card. It’s a cost of doing business that most stores absorb to win your business. With the Target REDcard debit card, Target is able to do the processing and take the money out of your checking account using a bank transfer. This keeps them from having to pay the fees to the banks or credit card processors. They can then pass the savings on to you. The normal processing fees probably don’t amount to 5%, but I’m sure they’re willing to take a little bit of an extra hit to give everyone the 5% rebate.

Free Shipping from Target.com

They didn’t originally offer this when we signed up for our card, but I’m not going to complain. I took advantage of it recently when buying an anniversary gift for my wife that they didn’t have in the store.

Extra 30 Days for Returns

If you use your REDcard, you get an extra 30 days to return your purchases. Not that you’ll need it though, but it is a benefit.

Take Charge of Education (1% to the school of your choice)

You can enroll your REDcard with Take Charge of Education and choose the school you’d like donations to be sent to. One percent of your purchases is sent to the school of your choice. You can even log in and see how much has been sent to your chosen school because of your purchases and the purchases of others who support the same school.

NO DEBT!!!

They don’t list this as a benefit, but really it is. What good is saving 5% if you’re going to pay interest on your purchases because you went into debt for them?

Drawback

Spending More

One drawback that I can see (and they probably hope for) is that you might spend more than you normally would because you know you’re saving money. A little self control can fix this problem. As long as you use it to purchase the items you would have bought anyway at Target (for us, that was diapers and wipes), you will save money. Otherwise, stay away if you have a shopping problem that you can’t control.

An Extra Card to Carry

That extra weight in your purse or wallet could cause some serious health problem. Not to mention the anxiety that is caused by making a purchase at Target and then realizing you forgot to use the REDcard. Then you’ve got to consider the chiropractor and counseling charges. This thing could end up costing you a ton more than you’re saving. (Can you tell that I’m having a hard time coming up with drawbacks?)

Potential Savings: I guess this depends on how much you spend at Target, but essentially 5% of your total purchases and free shipping if you use Target.com. If you have the willpower, take the savings (which prints out on your receipt) and put it in a savings account, towards your debt, or in a 529 for your kids. You would have spent it anyhow, so you might as well redirect it before it gets absorbed somewhere else.

Update 11/24: 5% Off Gift Cards

I’ve recently discovered that you can get 5% off of gift cards that you purchase through Target. They don’t have everything available, but they do have quite a variety. We’ll be saving $140 off of our Disney vacation by purchasing Disney gift cards through Target.com and using them to pay for the trip. That’s some serious savings!

Ting: Mobile That Makes Sense (for most people)

Ting Logo

I’ve heard people tell me “we could never afford smartphones”. I think what they mean to say is that “we could never afford smart phones on one of the big 3 carriers (AT&T, Verizon, or Sprint). Personally, we could have “afforded” smartphones a long time ago on one of the big 3, but I could never swallow paying over $100 a month for two phones. That all changed when we decided to go the prepaid route.

A lot of people probably think that prepaid is for those with bad credit or not a lot of money. Honestly, I think the prepaid, no-contract route is for those who are wise with their money. It’s really quite simple:

  1. You buy a phone.
  2. You decide on the plan that you want to use with it.
  3. Enjoy saving money.

Enough about all that, this is supposed to be about one no-contract carrier specifically. I believe that for most people, Ting is probably the least expensive and most disruptive mobile phone service to hit the market in quite some time. There are several reasons you should give it a look, and a few that may dissuade some of you.

First, Ting has a great selection of smartphones. Some no-contract carriers are locked into a very specific set of phones, and a lot of them were great phones at one time, but are now out of date. Ting has a great selection of new phones including the Samsung Galaxy S4, Samsung Galaxy Note II, and HTC One. They recently added a Windows 8 phone and they’re working on bringing over the iPhone. For any carrier, that’s a pretty strong lineup. To top it all off, you can bring over a lot of used Sprint devices to Ting. That opens a huge selection of great, affordable phones into reach. All those old Samsung Galaxy S3 phones have to find a new home when everyone upgrades to the S4 right? I’ll discuss where you can find these affordable used phones in a future post.

Second, with Ting you pay for what you use each month. At this point, a lot of people will probably stop and think, “I NEED unlimited data, talk, or text” or “what about my mobile-to-mobile and night and weekend minutes?” If you do the research, you’ll probably be surprised to find out that you don’t use as many minutes as you might think. With WiFi surrounding most people at home and work, you probably don’t use that much data either. And texts, well texts are cheap on Ting, so who cares.

Let’s break down how their pricing works. Each line on your account is $6 a month. So if you only need a phone for emergencies, you can plan on paying $6 a month plus taxes and fees and that’s it! Minutes, texts, and data are broken up into tiers. For example, if you use only 100 minutes, you’ll only pay for the small tier which is $3 a month. The other minute tiers are 500, 1000, 2000, and finally 3000 minutes a month. Texts and data are broken into similar tiers, and all the minutes, texts, and data are shared across all of the lines on your plan. If you don’t like that sharing (and I can’t think of a good reason why you wouldn’t), then you can start a new account for a different line. In the end, you only pay for what you use and not more.

To make things easier, here is a video put together by Ting that describes it better than I could. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5a3nRcsba4A They also have a great savings calculator to determine how much you could save by switching.

Finally, Ting has great customer service so far. Many issues can be resolved over the phone. If you call during their open hours, they have a “no hold policy” where you should be connected with someone quickly. If you don’t want to use the phone, you can open a support ticket and they will respond to them pretty quickly, even during times when they can’t be reached by phone. I’ve assisted several people with the move to Ting, and their customer service has been there every time I’ve needed them.

I want to highlight one instance in particular that shows how different they are as a company. On one of our bills, we noticed that they didn’t charge us the correct amount for our usage. Essentially they charged us for our two lines as if we hadn’t used them all month. I brought this to their attention and they replied that they were looking into the situation. A few days later, we got an email stating that they had found a problem that had affected a small number of accounts. Since the mistake was in the customers’ favor, they decided that they weren’t going to worry about correcting everyone’s accounts since the problem would be fixed going forward. Do you really expect one of the big 3 to say “we screwed up and we’re going to let you keep the $30 or so we should have charged you but didn’t?” I don’t think so.

At this point, it probably sounds too good to be true, right? There are some cases where Ting might not work for you.

Ting operates on the Sprint network. If you have horrible Sprint coverage in your area, then it may not be a good fit for you. If you’ve had Virgin Mobile or Boost Mobile in the past, you might know where the dead spots are around you as they operate exclusively on the Sprint network. Ting does have one advantage here. For talk and text, your phone can roam on to other networks, which is something that Virgin and Boost do not allow. There is no data roaming at this time.

The only other case that I can think of where this may not fit for you is if you are an EXTREME user of minutes, texts, or data and you are currently on an unlimited plan. You’d probably have to be a very EXTREME user for that to fit the case. I forgot to mention, that even though the XXL plans have a set amount, you can go over those and they charge a very low rate for each of the categories for each minute, text, or MB you go over. I can’t find the rates right now, but that’s how it used to work and I’m assuming it still does.

I forgot about one other major benefit. Ting has a great referral program. For each person you refer, you get a $25 credit, and they get $25 towards a phone or service. Sometimes they even give extra perks where you can get more. If you’re the type of person who likes to tell everyone when you’ve found a good deal, then this may be for you. So far, I think we’ve went about 7 months without paying for a monthly bill out of pocket due to the referrals we’ve gotten from telling friends and family.

If you have any questions or comments, leave a message below. If you’re interested in checking out Ting, send me a note and I’ll send you a referral code so you can get started with a $25 credit.

Potential Savings: We saved approximately $30-40 a month after switching from Virgin Mobile. Use the Savings Calculator to find your potential monthly savings.