Monday, February 14, 2011

The Absolute, Positive Best Valentine's Day ideas under $50, anywhere!

If you're doing the Valentine's Day thing, you've got just one weekend left to find an appropriate gift. Of course, the thought that counts, not the money you spend, and with finances still tight for a lot of people, I asked my blog readers and Twitter followers to shoot me their best Valentines Day gift ideas for under $50.

Lemme tell you: the answers were, uh, creative. (As an aside, I heard from a lot of you about the farce and commercialism of Valentine's Day. I can't say I necessarily disagree that the biggest Vday winners are retailers and there's certainly nothing wrong with finding your own ways and days to celebrate your love. But, uh, that ain't what this post was about. Besides, if it meant a lot to your S/O, would you really risk pissing him or her off for lack of a few roses and a card?)

Now, for the answers and the winner of the $55 gift code generously provided by CSNStores. I could put the answers into three categories: the quaint, the explicit and the heartfelt.

One woman suggested a "Recession V-day" with "dollar store wine glasses, candles, rose petals and a card"). Another suggested " a love letter. Seriously, a letter with real effort and thought is the best gift."

Might wanna cover the kids' eyes for this one: someone literally emailed me this as a suggestion: the 'sex sling'. Wow.$ the link or use your imagination.

But the winner was @evolve_u, who tweeted the following heartfelt suggestions and gets the $55 from CSN:
"Buy 3 pks of V-Day cards from $1 store. In ea card, write 1 thing you luv about ur love (i.e. "You make me blush when..." "I love how you..." "Our first kiss felt like..."; plant the cards in places s/he will find them... (e.g. in the car, under a pillow, in a lunchbox, under the remote, in the fridge, etc.) everyday leading to V-Day. On the 14th, over homemade candlelit dinner (wearing his/her favorite lingerie/silk pjs), tell him/her in person how much s/he means to you. Total cost $25: cards $3; candles: $2; food: $20; time: priceless; reward: ;-)"
However you plan to celebrate, have fun, and make sure not to breatk the bank. Happy Vday.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

$55 prize for your best under $50 Valentine's Day gift ideas

Four days until Valentine's Day, so help me help out the people with bigger hearts than wallets. Today and tomorrow send me your best  suggestions for Valentine's Day gifts under $50. Get creative. No flowers, candy or blanket-on-the-floor matinee here. Get your imaginations working; you've only got a week to make him or her feel like a million bucks on a shoestring budget.

As a bonus, I'm giving away a promo code worth $55, courtesy of my partner CSN Stores. Best answer gets the prize, which you can use toward anything at CSN, which has more than 200 online shops where you can find everything from stylish handbags, a L shaped desk, or great cookware!

Best idea gets the prize, so be creative. I'm taking as many ideas as you want to send me either here or on Twitter, so send a bunch. It is Valentine's Day, and grown folk do like to get all happy time with theirs. If your idea's all hot & steamy, that's fine by me, but let's not get too explicit. Suggestive's cool, x-rated ain't.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Monday Q&A: Is there a quick fix for low FICO scores?

This question came from one of my formspring followers:

Q: Is there any way you can improve your credit score in a short time?

A: I'd generally say no, but really the answer depends on how much you want to improve your credit score and what you consider a short period of time.

Ruining a credit score usually happens over time, as either bad financial decisions or tough times erode your record of on-time payments and throws your debt-to-available-credit ratio out of whack. If it took you two years for your FICO score to drop below, say 600, don't expect it to be 800 in a year or less.

The things that help you improve your credit score the most are making payments on your debts on time and paying down the balances on any outstanding accounts you have, especially unsecured accounts like credit cards. The faster you can pay off any overdue or outstanding balances, the better chance you have of raising your score. But any blotches on your credit report, like delinquencies, bankruptcies or accounts in collection, can remain a drag to your FICO score for as long as seven years.

Do what you can to be responsible with your credit from here on out, but don't expect things to turn around overnight.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

State of the Union: the President should be unemployed

Jobs were the top issue in President Obama's State of the Union speech, and they should have been. But does anyone in Washington actually understand how unemployment affects a real person's life?

Congressional Democrats and Republicans have used unemployment as a political football for two years, even allowing unemployment benefits to expire for those who needed them while they argued over the terms of an extension. In the meantime people who receive unemployment were dealing with the reality that they weren't getting out of the system nearly what they put in, and very likely weren't getting enough to keep themselves afloat. I'll use myself as an example to explain:

The first thing you need to know about unemployment benefits is they aren't guaranteed to everyone. You only collect unemployment if you were previously employed full time; part-timers and those who were self-employed or had contract work usually don't qualify. Unemployment benefits are funded by money your former employer pays into a kind of insurance fund which pays off if you lose your gig. But that's the problem. Most people buy enough insurance to cover all their losses from an accident, flood or whatever else you're insuring against.  You wouldn't insure a $45,000 car with a policy that'd only give you $20,000 in coverage.

With unemployment, typically the best you'll do is about a third of what had been your weekly pay. Raise your hand if you could pay all your bills with that.

This is how that worked out in my case: Until Dec. 31, my gross income was about $2700 each pay period. Here's what that state of Ohio approved under unemployment claims:

The top number, $470, represents what I'm eligible to receive each week (provided every week I go online and fill out a form that certifies I could work, I looked for work and didn't turn down any work that was offered to me). Do the math and you'll see that the weekly amount is about 14.7 percent of my previous salary. And I've got children. Luckily, I also have savings.

The bottom two numbers are the total unemployment benefit I'm eligible for and how much of that is remaining. That's right: the state is granting me a whopping 12 grand and change in unemployment benefits, of which I've got just about $11,000 left.

Oh, and one last thing: there's a "waiting week", akin to the NFL's bye weeks, where you're approved for benefits but don't get a payment at all. I found that out after calling the state unemployment office and holding for more than a half-hour to ask why I got money for the past two weeks but not the first week of the year.
(Notice the $470 becomes $423 after taxes. Yes, they take taxes out of unemployment payments.)
The woman on the phone explained to me that everyone has a 'waiting week' under Ohio law; I explained that someone should tell our legislators that people's bills don't take a week off.

Which brings me back to the State of the Union speech. I don't believe President Obama has done a bad job on the economy and I'm not cynical enough to blame him for all the country's job losses or the fact those jobs haven't returned yet. The Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton and Bush 43 presidencies passed while the economy was being wrecked; it won't be fixed in two years.

Still, I think we need a New Rule here: No politician can give a speech about jobs until they've experienced the unemployment bureaucracy for at least one month.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Should you hire a tax preparer or DIY?

Here's a question from a Twitter follower who's striking out on his own:

I usually avoid tax questions, and for good reason: I'm not a CPA or tax preparer, so anything dealing with the specifics of a return, etc. is more than I'm qualified to answer. This, though, is a general question and important to answer since so many people are going through career transitions and need to make similar decisions.

Your employment status shouldn't necessarily dictate whether you do your taxes on your own or hire someone. You need to consider the complexity of your return and how confident you are that you can do it without errors that might hold up a potential refund or trigger an audit.

Even though I held only one full time job in most years, for example, I still used a CPA to file my taxes. It cost more than just using Turbo Tax, but I've never been comfortable enough with the dizzying tax forms to want to do even a basic return myself.

If you're uncomfortable with filing taxes on your own, hire a qualified CPA or tax preparer. It will save you headaches, and possibly money down the road. Thanks for the question.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Best money bets for college students

A question I get asked often is for advice for college students. One of my Twitter followers, @BeForREAAL, brought the topic up last week:

My thoughts on that question never waiver: the best financial decision college students can make is to avoid graduating with unnecessary debt. The two most important ways to do so is avoid over-borrowing for school (i.e., borrowing for more than tuition, fees and books instead of working to pay for incidentals), and using credit cards for non-essential purchases. The average college student in the 2008-2009 school year had borrowed more than $23,000. That's a lot to have to pay back -- with interest -- in a tough economy where it's hard to find a job.

I opened the question up for my timeline and got some other answers:

Pretty sound, common sense advice. What else would you suggest?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Got questions you want answered on my blog (or just anything you wanna know in general?) ://