Tracking Your Finances, the Easy Way

Mint.com Logo

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably got a variety of checking, savings, retirement, and investment accounts, all at different institutions. On top of that you may have credit cards, a mortgage, or a car loan. It can be overwhelming to get a complete financial picture. That’s where Mint.com comes in.

I love using this service, even if it’s only to give me a rough idea of our net worth from time to time. After you create your account, you will add in all of your different financial accounts. They’ve already got integrations with tons of different financial places. I was surprised to find my local credit union available. For each place that you want to add, you provide the necessary credentials to allow them to read the information. I know at this point, a lot of people would probably freak out. For some reason, I haven’t been that concerned about it. They are well established and have been around for quite some time. If you’re concerned, do some research and judge for yourself.

So, you’ve added your bank accounts, retirement accounts, credit cards, and your mortgage. You can even add your car and that collectible Elvis painting in the attic. It factors it all into your net worth. Here are some of the things that I really like about Mint.com and I’ve found useful.

  • On the lefthand side when you log in, you get the running total of your accounts in one place. It updates when you log in and you get warnings if they couldn’t connect for some reason. If you scroll down to the bottom, you’ll see your net worth. Hopefully it doesn’t scare  you to death.
  • Each week Mint sends out a nice summary showing all of your accounts and how much they’ve increased or decreased. It also gives you your net worth and tells you how much it has increased or decreased. I’ve set it up to also send the same email to my wife so she is able to stay up to date with all of our finances as well.
  • It’s incredibly easy to set up goals. You simply pick what you want to accomplish, when you want to accomplish it by, and which accounts are linked to the goal. For example, if you wanted to save $4000 for a vacation, you enter that in, choose the account you’ll be using to save the money in and it will tell you how much you need to put away each month to reach your goal. If you want, you can put in how much you plan to save each month and it will tell you when you’ll reach your goal. Each month, you’ll get another email showing you the progress of your goals.
  • The Investments tab does a nice job showing you comparisons as to how your doing against each of the major indexes in a nice graph. You can also check performance, value, and allocation in graphs as well.

Mint.com Investments

  • The Trends tab is kind of like the Investments tab. Instead of being for just your investments, it covers all of your accounts. You can analyze your debt, net worth, income, and spending, all in nice looking graphs.
  • If you open up the Accounts window, you’ll see a button for Emails & Alerts. You can create alerts for large deposits, large withdrawals, low balances, bank fees, interest rate changes, going over budget, and a ton of other things. These alerts don’t usually go out right away since they only update information about your accounts on an occasional basis.

There are a few features that are available that I don’t use. One of them is the Transactions tab. On this tab, you can see all of your transactions and categorize them. This helps with some of the other graphs that  tell you where you’re spending money. Honestly, I don’t have the time to go through and categorize them all. Another tab I don’t use much is the Budgets tab. Here you can say how much you want to allocate to different categories and it will tell you how close you’re getting to hitting that amount. Green is good, yellow is a warning, and red is overspending. Of course, this requires that all of your transactions are categorized correctly.

Finally, you’ve got the Ways to Save tab. I have to imagine this is how Mint.com makes their money. From here, they try to connect you up with different financial products like credit cards (stay away), checking, savings, investments, and more. Do some additional research before jumping into something because they suggest it.

I’m sure by now you may be skeptical, or you may not have gotten this far because you were so eager to check it out for yourself. If it’s not for you or after using it you’re concerned about security, you can always delete your entire account. Did I mention that they’ve got a mobile app for your smart phone too?

Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University – Week 1

Retirement

If you’ve never attended or even heard of Financial Peace University, then listen up. Financial Peace University is a 9 week course that covers pretty much every financial topic the typical American family needs to know about. It was developed by Dave Ramsey (the guy on the radio) and his team. Each session covers a specific topic and is comprised of watching a video and then some nonthreatening group discussion. The course is usually put on by local churches all over the country. I highly recommend it if you feel like you’re in need of help with your personal finances, or if you wonder if you could be doing a little better. (Hint, you probably could be doing better.)

Our church is putting on a session at each of their locations. It just so happens that the Saturday one fit best in my schedule this year, so I volunteered to help. So for the next 9 weeks, I’ll be talking about some of the highlights and hopefully entice you to sign up for it in your local area. I’ll admit that not everyone agrees with Dave Ramsey and his approach to each of the topics, and that’s fine. It’s okay to be wrong sometimes.

The first weeks session is Super Saving. It covers the basics of the saving components of the program. Dave breaks down his program into the 7 baby steps. Step 1 is to put $1000 in a baby emergency fund and step 3 is to save up 3 – 6 months of expenses as a fully funded emergency fund. He also covers the basic importance of saving in general. The truth of the matter is that you can’t rely on others to take care of you when you get older, and you’re only hope is save money for yourself.

Of the entire lesson, I think the part that has the biggest impact is the story of Ben and Arthur. In the story, Ben saves $2000 a year for 8 years (age 19 – 26) for a total of $16,000 and then stops. Arthur starts saving at age 27 and saves $2000 a year until the age of 65. The funny thing is that in the end, Arthur never catches up to Ben and Ben ends up having about $750,000 more than Arthur. This alone stresses the importance of saving money and starting early.

If you get nothing else out of reading this blog, understand that it’s important to SAVE MONEY and START NOW!!!! If you have kids, or know anyone in high school or junior high, show them the Ben and Arthur link here. If that doesn’t get them motivated to save money, then we’re all in some deep trouble.

Featured Image courtesy of cooldesign / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

What is a Roth IRA and why do I need one?

Beach

I’ve been pretty focused on finding products and services that will save you money in each post. However, this week, I wanted to take a break from the usual and discuss the Roth IRA. I’m sure everyone has heard of them by now, but perhaps you’ve still got some questions. Well hopefully I’ve come up with just about every question you might have and answered them below. If there is a question that I missed, please post it in the comments and I’ll get the answer for you as quickly as possible.

What is a Roth IRA?

A Roth IRA is a type of retirement account that usually contains one or more mutual funds.

What makes a Roth IRA special?

When you put money into a Roth IRA, you put add to it after tax money, which means the money that you take home in your paycheck. The special part about this is that it grows TAX FREE since you used after tax money to fund it.

Grows tax free? What does that mean?

It means that if you put in $1000 into your Roth IRA and it grows over several years to say $50,000, you can withdrawal money out at retirement and not pay taxes on any of it, including the growth. If you had $50,000 in a 401k and decided to pull it all out at once, it would turn into something like $35,000-40,000 after taxes are paid to the IRS. Plus, who knows what tax rates will be like in the future. If they go up a lot, then you would get even less from your 401k when you make withdrawals.

Can I contribute to a Roth IRA?

As long as you have a job and report your earning on your taxes, you should be able to contribute to a Roth IRA. There are income limits however. If you are married filing jointly and make $178k or more, or you’re single and make $112k or more, you should check with a professional to make sure that you can contribute to a Roth IRA.

When can I take money out of my Roth IRA if I start one?

When you turn 59 1/2 you can usually start withdrawing money from your Roth IRA as long as you’ve been putting money in for at least 5 years. You can take your contributions out at any time before 59 1/2, but if you touch the earnings or growth, you’ll be paying a penalty. It’s best to leave it alone if at all possible. For example, if you put in $5500 each year for five years and then one year you decide that you want $2000. You won’t be able to put in $7500 the next year to try to repay the amount you took out.

But I’m a stay at home mom, can I still open a Roth IRA?

As long as your spouse is working, you can open a spousal Roth IRA and contributions can be made on your behalf up to the limit.

How much can I contribute to a Roth IRA?

The limit is currently $5500 ($6500 if you’re 50 or older) for you and your spouse, for a total of $11000. However, you can’t contribute more than you made so if by some chance you made less than those amounts, that would be your cap. Chances are if you make less than that, you’ve got bigger concerns than contributing to a Roth IRA.

Can I start a Roth IRA for my child?

In most cases, the answer is no, unless they made money and you file a tax return for them. So if you’ve got a child actor on your hands, then you might as well start a Roth IRA early for them to maximize the savings.

What does it mean to put money into a Roth IRA?

When you invest in Roth IRA, what you’re really doing is putting money into an investment, such as a mutual fund under a Roth IRA umbrella. The Roth IRA umbrella is what determines how the IRS treats it.

I hope this has been helpful. Before opening a Roth IRA, I would suggest speaking with an investment professional to make sure that you invest in mutual funds that meet your desired goals.

Featured Image courtesy of Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Recommended Reading Added

I’ve added a recommended reading page to the site. This page includes books about personal finance, career, and any other topics that should be helpful as you navigate life and money. Please check out the books that are there. I plan on adding more as I have a chance to read or review them.

Please check out the recommended books here.

Foot Family Project

Foot Family

In preschool, our youngest was assigned the project of creating a foot family. For those that don’t know what that is and can’t figure it out from the picture, it is essentially a picture made up of outlines of each family members foot, turned into something fun and supposedly represents our family.

My wife likes to take these types of projects on as a personal challenge. She doesn’t think that she’s very crafty, but I think she really underestimates what she can do. So last Sunday, we headed off to the local craft store to find everything that we would need to make a castle setting with a king, queen, and two princesses…out of feet. Unfortunately, our favorite store for these things, Hobby Lobby, was closed on Sunday, so we headed over to Michael’s.

Needless to say, they didn’t have many of the things we needed and definitely not in the size that would be in scale to our feet. This caused us to have to rethink what we were going to be. I took the kids so mom could reevaluate the situation. Eventually, we decided to head over to the Dollar Tree store to see if they had anything that we could use.

Surprisingly, they had just the right items to turn our feet into the barn animals you see in the picture. For $5, my wife bought construction paper and 4 kits that are normally used to turn paper bags into puppets. Needless to say, it turned out to be a success and I’m sure it’s the best foot family in the class. So while the craft stores may have a lot of options, they may not be the best or cheapest option.

Recovering From Unemployment Part 2: Delayed Gratification

Needs Wants

Delayed gratification is just a fancy word for patience.

I don’t think that anyone is born with the immediate skill of patience; rather it is perseverance developed with experience and a true desire to mature and grow.   I certainly do not come by this skill easily, and tend to want what I want when I want it. (What?)  I am the main spender in the family as I do all grocery, clothing and heavy machinery shopping.  (Just kidding about that last one.)  And while my husband definitely cannot be trusted to walk into a store without “accidentally” buying a can of Pringles or something, the blame for our grocery budget busting definitely falls on me.  I am a marketer’s dream!  $3 tank tops?  Get one in each color!  That gum I tried but didn’t like is packaged in a new container?  Try it again!  10-pack of toilet cleaner?  I won’t have to buy any for a year!

You get the picture.

It took me a long time to realize that people on a tight budget don’t have money for any of those things.  It wasn’t until I sat down and put our finances on actual paper to see that we needed to get frugal, fast.  Being frugal isn’t something that has ever come naturally to me.  I’ve never been a saver and I’ve never been very wise with money…until now.  Unemployment has been very good for me in that aspect, and I can honestly say that I appreciate the years of financial struggle that aren’t quite over because they’re definitely helping me grow wiser in this area.

Here’s a few tips if you have found yourself in the position of not quite recognizing need from want:

  • Have you existed without this object in the past?  Then it’s a want.
  • Can you exist without this object for a week?  Then it’s a want.
  • Will it affect your health to go without this?  Then it’s a need.
  • Will it cause major contention between you and your spouse to go without?  Then it’s a need.
  • Do you feel like it would make you happy to have it?  It’s a want.
  • Does your kid tell you he/she will love you more to get it?  It’s a want.

It’s been a rough learning curve for me, honestly.  It didn’t happen overnight that I was able to go to Sam’s Club and only get what I needed and what made sense to buy in bulk.  (Toilet paper, yes.  Toilet bowl cleaner, no.)  And I still struggle to walk through any grocery store and not pick up something I don’t need…but I can do it.  Some expenses are easier to define.  When a family member needed some major dental work done, it was easy to see the need.  When my beloved 2000 Honda Odyssey died and needed a $1900 transmission rebuild, it was easy to see the want.  Obviously the dental work needed to be done.  And unfortunately, just as obviously the transmission did not need to be rebuilt.  I’m a stay-at-home mom, I don’t need my own car.  We’ve done the one-car family thing twice in the past, we can do it again.  If all goes as planned I will have saved enough to buy a newer model (hoping for 2007 or better) van in two years anyway, and I get really excited thinking about that!

Truly, this has been a good thing.  We’ve downsized not only the size of our house, but also the clutter, the unnecessary spending, and best of all that guilty feeling that accompanies the wanted item.  We’ve maximized our quality time together as a family since we don’t go out much anymore.  I’ve even minimized the time I spend doing laundry since I stopped adding multiple $3 tank tops to my closets!  I’ve also really learned the true meaning of being grateful, and while I still have to work on the skill of saying “No” to wants,  it’s easy to see when I look around me that I am blessed with all that I need.

In my next guest post, I’ll tell you some of the character-building things and ways to cut corners I’ve learned over our years of unemployment.  I think you’ll be able to see why I’m grateful for those years, as well!

In case you missed it, read part 1 here!

Featured Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Saving Money with the Click of a Button Is So Sweet

Honey

How many times has this happened to you? You’ve spent hours filling your virtual shopping cart with a ton of items (hopefully ones you need) and you’re ready to check out. That’s when the promo code box appears. You think, if the box is there, then there has to be a promo code out there somewhere that will save me some money. But where do you start searching? You can start doing web searches and maybe get lucky.

But what if you could just click a button and several promo codes are tried for you automatically without you having to do a web search. Wouldn’t that be amazing?!?!?! You’re in luck if you’re a Chrome browser user. Simply go to http://joinhoney.com/ and install the Honey Chrome extension into your browser. Then when you check out on one of their supported sites the “Honey” button will appear near the promo code box. That’s when you click it and watch the savings roll in.

Or do they? I’ve had Honey installed for quite some time and I usually only shop on Amazon.com. I’ve clicked the button each and every time I checkout and I have yet to save anything. However, it also hasn’t cost me anything to try. To be fair, they do point out that most promo codes are for specific items, which I probably haven’t purchased.

Potential Savings: I wish I had some sort of guess as to what you could save. My only suggestion this time is download it and try it. It doesn’t cost a thing. Please leave some comments if it finds some savings for you.

Featured Image courtesy of piyato / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Replacing a “Poopy” Phone

Swappa

You’re busy, and multitasking is a way of life. There are some places where multitasking should never really take place. Some of those places are obvious to most people, and some of them fall into a gray area for others. One of those gray areas is the bathroom. I know of two people personally who ruined their phones by dropping them in the porcelain throne. If it works after that, it’s never quite the same.

So what are your options?

  • If the phone works, you can keep using it until your contract renews. (Yuck!)
  • Pay full price for a new phone.
  • Extend your contract and get another phone.
  • Pull out an old phone from the kitchen drawer that’s been collecting dust.

But let’s say that you read the post about Ting and you’re convinced that you don’t want to renew your contract, or you like your big carrier, but don’t have the extra cash to go out and buy a new phone and your contract isn’t up for renewal. That’s where Swappa comes in.

Swappa is a site where users can buy and sell good, working phones. Unlike eBay, where you may never really know what you’re getting when you bid, prices on Swappa are set up front and sellers have to follow a certain set of guidelines.

  • Phones cannot have any water damage, including toilet water.
  • Phones cannot have cracked screens.
  • Phones must have clean ESNs (which means they can be activated on the appropriate network when you purchase it).
  • Each listing is approved by a Swappa moderator.

Purchases are paid through PayPal, which gives the buyer and seller extra protections.

Buyers

The price you see is the price you pay. It even includes shipping, so it’s a pretty straightforward system. If there is a certain phone model that you’ve been interested, you can sign up for notifications and receive an email each time someone lists that type of phone. If you like what you see, you can buy the phone.

I believe they originally sold Android phones, but they’ve expanded into all types of phones including iPhones and Windows Phones. They even have listings for tablets as well if you’re looking for one.

Sellers

If you’re a seller, there are no listing fees or commissions that you pay. You simply choose the amount you want to get when you sell it, and $10 is added on to pay Swappa. When the device sells, you ship the phone to the buyer and you get the full amount that you wanted. The buyer pays the $10 fee to Swappa when they buy the device. You’ll need to factor in the cost of shipping since you’ll be paying for that.

We’ve used this service several times to purchase used Sprint phones for Ting, and we’ve directed several others to use it as well when purchasing a phone. It has worked out really well and we’ve been very happy with each phone that we’ve received. They are often in better condition than we assume they will be. Sellers are usually very good at communicating with you and answering any questions you have. In fact, I have even video chatted with the first person I bought a phone from because I had some questions on how to modify it after getting it. Since then, I’ve sent him emails asking different things that weren’t even related to a listing and he’s always been quick to respond.

Potential Savings: You should be able to save 50% or more off the purchase of a gently used phone versus a new one. It all depends on the demand for the device. If it’s a new phone, the price will be higher. If it’s a year or two old, then the price will be even better, even compared to a new version of the same phone.