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Hacked

Money Tree

The following is a staff writer post from MikeS.  He is a married father of 2.  So, with the cat, he ranks number 5 in the house.  He loves numbers and helping people. Please leave any questions or comments below for either Mike or Crystal.

I am a pretty laid back guy.  I tend to not get overly stressed or worry about things in general.  So, when I saw the headlines recently about the data breach at Home Depot stores, I mainly shrugged it off.  Yes, I had used one of my credit cards there during the time they were hacked.  So, in theory my account information may have been compromised.  The best reaction I can muster is a yawn.  Why am I not more concerned?  There are several ways in which I am protected, some of which I had already been doing already and one that is new since the breach was reported.

Daily Routine

It is not quite every day, but at least every work day, I spend five minutes and log-in to my accounts to check the activity.  This routine serves two purposes.  The first is used for my budget tracking; I record any new activity into my spreadsheet.  The second purpose is early fraud detection.  Any activity that I don’t recognize, I can instantly report it and hopefully limit any damage.  I have been keeping an eye on the card that may have been breached and have not noticed any unusual activity.  My card company has also informed me that they also are monitoring my card for any suspicious activity.

Credit Score

One of the perks of my Discover It card is that it shows me my FICO credit score every month.  So, I have the history of the last few months to see if there have been any changes.  Since I know that I haven’t been applying for any new lines or credit or credit cards, my score should remain more or less then same.  As it turns out, it has risen in the last couple of months. 

Credit Report

My next line of defense is my actual credit report.  You can check your report from the 3 main credit bureaus once per year.  I do check them one per year, but I do not check all 3 at the same time.  This was a trick that I learned from Crystal a few years back.  I check one of the bureaus every four months.  Then I wait a year and check them again.  By only checking one bureau’s report at a time, I am only four months away from checking my report at a time.  Granted, not every credit institution reports to all three bureaus, but I am much more likely to spot something sooner with a check every four months as opposed to every twelve months.

Credit Card versus Debit Card

Since it was my credit card that was potentially breached and not my debit card, there is some built in security.  With the credit card agreement, I am not responsible for fraudulent charges as long as they are reported in a timely manner.  With both myself and the company on the lookout for suspicious charges, I think we have this one covered.  The hackers also do not have access to my bank account.  With a debit card, they could potentially drain the checking account associated with it.  This is one of the reasons I prefer a credit card to a debit card.

Credit Monitoring

This is the one security measure that I started after the breach.  Mind you, I am not paying for it, it was offered to me by The Home Depot.  They offered to pay for one-year of service because of the breach.  I did really think I needed the extra protection, but at no cost to me, why not take the insurance.  The service will alert me any time a new account is opened and they have personnel to help repair any damage done to my credit history.

Status Quo

At the end of the day, the breach means very little to me because of the steps that I have already taken.  The only real change is I receive a monthly e-mail from the monitoring firm announcing that nothing has happened.  If you don’t check your credit report at least once per year, you need to start.  Since I have created an excellent credit history, I want to keep it that way.

Open Enrollment, Take 2

Money Tree

The following is a staff writer post from MikeS.  He is a married father of 2.  So, with the cat, he ranks number 5 in the house.  He loves numbers and helping people. Please leave any questions or comments below for either Mike or Crystal.

Once again, it’s Open Enrollment time for my employee benefits.  As I discussed last year, there were some pretty big changes to my choices.  This year will be no different, but I am happy about the changes.  Naturally, there were calculations involved and of course I’ll share.  The changes are only occurring with the health insurance options, so thankfully there was only one moving part to worry about.

Current Plan

This was the first year of being enrolled in a high-deductible health insurance plan (HDHP) with a corresponding health-care savings account (HSA).  I personally did not feel like the deductible ($2,500) was all that high.  I was rethinking that slightly after the first month, but things settled down for the most part.  I also knew that we would hit the deductible without question given my son’s condition.  His annual check-up with his cardiologist is about $2,500.  Still, the premium was a reasonable $184 a paycheck or $368 a month.

New Choices

This year, the company is essentially moving everyone into a HDHP.  We have 4 choices, 3 HDHP and one preferred-provider organization (PPO) option.  The PPO was far and away the most expensive and one that I did not even consider. 

The 3 HDHP’s all have different deductible options and different co-insurance provisions.  For my family, we have the choice of a $3,000, $5,000 or $7,000 deductible with a 10% co-insurance for the $3,000 deductible or 20% for latter two.  To throw one more variable into the mix, the company would contribute $800 towards your HSA for the $3,000 and the $5,000 deductible options, but nothing for the $7,000 option.  Got all that? 

The premiums for the 3 options ranged from $156 a month to $404 a month.  So, which one is right for me?

Evaluating the Options

This is something that I love to do, figuring out which is the best choice for me because I love working with numbers.  In the end, I will either be paying my medical costs in premiums or directly via claims.  So, the first thing I did was to make sure my claims information is up-to-date.  Yes, I keep track of my claims; that started with my son and trying to make sure all the bills had been paid.  Now, I can use that information to actually keep track of my medical costs, so that in situations like this and know what numbers to use. 

The gross medical costs for this year were about $12,000.  If I just used that number, then the $3,000 deductible option (called the Value option) with the highest monthly premium was the appropriate choice.  When I thought about it some more, I began to question whether I should use all of the claims we had this year.  Specifically, my son had hernia surgery this year, and that represented about half of our total claims for the year. 

Now, the choices look much different.  The best option is between the $5,000 deductible (Standard) or the $7,000 (Basic).  I also remembered that my daughter had some vision therapy in the first half of this year that would not be repeated next year.  Removing those claims brought the total down again by about a $1,000.  My anticipated expenses for a year were actually closer to $5,000. 

This means the Basic option is actually the most cost effective choice.  I will be paying for virtually all of my medical expenses with only major events triggering the insurance to kick in.  My premiums are going to drop from $384 a month down to $156 a month while still fully funding the HSA.

Taking on More Risk

By selecting the Basic option, I am basically accepting more risk for lower premiums.  This is a trade-off that I am more than willing to make.  Since my financial position is more secure and stable, I can accept more risk.  Should costs end up higher than anticipated; I have the money in the HSA and also my emergency fund should we approach the out-of-pocket maximum. 

Do you have any changes for your benefit options this year?

Five Tips to Get Your Master’s Degree Without Incurring Student Loans

Graduation

Just when you thought you finally had your undergraduate student loans under control, the idea of graduate studies enters your mind. Advanced degrees certainly aren’t cheap, and borrowing money often becomes a necessity. According to data from New America, in 2012, 58.6 percent of students who completed a master’s or professional degree program borrowed money, some doing so in amounts upwards of $41,000. However, there are alternatives to borrowing. Here are five tips for earning your degree without incurring significant student loans.

1. Validate the Value of That Degree

Graduation

Image via Flickr by j.o.h.n. walker

Some people make the mistake of going to graduate school without really thinking about the type of job they’re aiming to acquire when their studies conclude. Carefully consider the value of the program and your return on investment. For example, professionals with master’s in health informatics degrees are in demand now as healthcare facilities work to meet a 2015 deadline to implement Electronic Health Records (EHRs) in their practices.

Many common courses of study offer some or all of their classes online, so you can save money while working toward a degree that will lead to an in-demand job. Choosing a practical major makes for a win-win situation.

2. Save With State Universities

State universities sometimes get overlooked when it comes to quality of education. However, state schools are among the top-rated schools for higher education. Reasonable tuition rates are one top advantage over private schools. Bonus tip: In-state residents can receive additional savings based on residency status; explore your options close to home.

3. Make It Work

Going to graduate school can certainly consume significant amounts of time. If you’re trying to avoid loans to finance your education, make sure you have a job — or two — to put money in the bank while you’re taking classes. Don’t take a gamble on your future by banking on a coveted, high-paying job after graduation. The more money you make and save while you’re in school, the easier it will be to pay for your education without taking out loans.

4. Consider How Marital Status Might Affect Grad School Plans

Married couples with one or both spouses in graduate school will almost certainly see a significant change in their budget. Since each graduate program has different requirements and different demands on a student’s time, a spouse may need to quit a job to accommodate program demands or may need to change from full-time to part-time student status to keep a job while going to school. Couples need to engage in plenty of discussion before they make school commitments.

5. Toot Your Horn for Tuition Remission

If you are employed and plan to begin a graduate program for professional career development purposes, check your employee handbook or ask your human resources officer for details about tuition remission. If you’re looking for a job while you’re in school, inquire about opportunities on campus. Some colleges offer tuition remission as an employee benefit!

Earning a master’s degree shouldn’t put you in debt. Keeping these tips in mind can help you make the most of your studies and your finances.

Before You Say I Do: Understand the Full Scope of Your Finances

Push Yourself

You’re finally engaged, which is a joyous occasion to celebrate, but be honest… can you afford it? Not the wedding ceremony and honeymoon…. But the financial responsibilities that will ensue after you’ve tied the knot. Whether you’ve gone through premarital counseling or not, chances are, you have barely touched on your finances.

Why talk about money? You don’t care what his/her salary is. As long as you can pay the bills, who cares? You’re in love. You’ll make it. You’re not into materialistic things… While those are all great and common reasons not to touch on the financial aspect of your life, once you’re united together as one, it can become a bigger issue than you thought.

My Debt + Your Debt = Our Debt

For X amount of years, the two of you have been managing your own money (or lack thereof) and accumulating your own debts. As you join hands in marriage, what was once one person’s responsibility becomes joint responsibility. Student loans, credit card debt, medical bills, and whatever else you have lingering on your credit history will ultimately affect you both in a major way. It can affect your ability to get a home, finance a car, or even open a new credit account…. So why not safeguard your marriage and get more informed about your current financial status ?

Seek Financial Advice before Tying the Knot

There are plenty of financial institutions and professionals out there that can help you and your significant other to clean up your debt and prepare for marriage. The main objectives prior to going into marriage as it pertains to finances should be:

·  Gain insights on negative spending habits

·  Learn how to tie up loose ends (as it pertains to financial accounts)

·  Learn to budget and manage money as a couple

·  Learn new avenues and methods for investing

Each of these tools is essential to strengthening your marriage, and preventing financial arguments from occurring down the road. By working with financial service providers, you two will get the full understanding of working together in a very challenging part of any relationship – finances. Having this vital knowledge then prepares you for everything from saving up for a vacation to applying for a new car loan.

Locating Financial Services You Can Trust

If you’ve decided that you are going to look into financial services, trust is important. You’re going to be opening up to an individual about very personal details of your life and therefore need someone that will handle those personal details with care. Ideally, you want to work with a company or professional that not only has the experience in the areas you need assistance in, but someone that you can trust to handle, assess, or even make recommendations as it pertains to your finances.

Consumer Opinions Matter

In order to determine the trust within the financial sector, you will want to check out what other consumers have to say about them. This might include searching for reviews on a particular company online, or even reviewing what consumers have to say on their social media pages. For example, if you were looking for credit repair services and were referred to a legal firm, you might first check Lexington Law reviews for credit repair services to see if consumers were in favor of or against the company prior to doing business with them.

After locating the various financial service providers you need (i.e. financial advisor, debt relief services or credit repair services), you will need to set up appointments to begin getting your finances in order. Within a few months of diligence and guidance, you two should be a lot closer to working together as a team.

After completing the above recommendations you and your spouse to be will have the necessary tools to begin your lives together. It might seem like a lot of work before getting married, and may even require a few meetings with various financial service providers. However, at the end of the day, what matters most is making sure that you’re ready for marriage…Not just emotionally, but financially as well. A marriage is like a partnership, and just as you wouldn’t want to go into business with someone who isn’t financially conscious or responsible, you shouldn’t want to marry into it either.

 

Benefits of Good POS Software

CC

Reliable point-of-sale (POS) software is crucial for any retail business owner. The last thing you want to see in your store is a long queue of customers who are waiting in line impatiently to pay for their purchases because it takes your staff a lot of time to manually process a sale. Aside from processing orders and payments quickly, good POS software will allow merchants to do a lot more such as track and record sales, monitor inventory and study customer behavior. Here are other benefits of investing in good POS software.

  • Cloud-based POS solutions offer greater flexibility

For a traditional POS system, tasks other than handling order and payment processing would be difficult to do. Thanks to recent cloud-based software, ecommerce platforms have become much more flexible to allow merchants to handle various aspects of their business while making data sharing possible and easy. If you choose software that allows the integration of other cloud-based apps, you can easily expand the function and features of your site.

  • You can go mobile

Because your store data is in the cloud, you can use a mobile device such as a smart phone or tablet as a POS terminal. This means, your checkout counter is no longer restricted to a fixed area in your store but you can actually walk up to a customer anywhere in your store and perform a mobile checkout with your handheld device. The iPad POS of Shopify can even be wirelessly connected to a supported cash drawer, which can be opened from the iPad. Also, mobile POS software that is designed to accept credit card payments will be able to send customers their sales receipt via email. The ability to process a sale on the spot or influence a purchasing decision is a great strategy to increase sales.

  • Empower your employees

The retail sector sees some of the highest staff attrition rates, partly because of employee dissatisfaction. One of the reasons behind this is the fact that many companies don’t provide the right tools to their staff so they can do their job well. Investing in good POS software will empower your sales staff. With an intuitive interface, it will not take long for your staff to learn this tool. It will also give them the information they need about your products right on their fingertips, which will help them perform their jobs better.

  • Having a secure system will earn customer trust

 

It’s only normal for a customer to question your process of handing credit card payments on a mobile device, especially since their details will be entered into someone else’s phone or tablet. However, if you choose the right POS software, you can be easily transparent with customers by showing them the software’s simple interface so they can see how you’re using your phone or tablet as a sales device. This will help gain the trust of customers but you have to keep that trust by ensuring their private data is all securely encrypted. Using PCI compliant software is a requirement if you intend to handle credit card transactions.

  • Manage your inventory the easy way

Any retailer knows how inventory management is important to their business. But this task can be quite time-consuming and manual tracking is prone to inaccuracies. For instance, you can’t really determine which products sell well on a particular time and day just by perusing receipts.

However, good POS software with built-in inventory management capability will not only help with tracking product availability but also finding out which are your best and worst-selling items. Then, looking at the collected data and reports, you can analyze your sales further to identify which products are the most or least in demand on certain days or certain months, and at what best prices to sell them

With this kind of tracking and reporting capability, you can streamline your inventory management so that you always have your best-sellers on stock. You can also tie this functionality with an accounting application so you can see in real time your most profitable product lines. This will help you make adjustments to your pricing to align with customer behavior so that your business remains competitive while keeping your profit margins.

  • Boost sales and retain your customers

Good POS software includes customer relationship management (CRM), which lets you manage information about your existing customers. With this feature, you can pull up the complete purchase history of customers by searching on their names. You will also be able to see what their preferences and interests are and details such as their birthdays. All of these customer data can be used to improve your business by helping you develop the relevant promotions and special offers to increase sales as well as build customer loyalty or rewards programs to keep customers happy. So by investing in good POS software, you have one of the best tools to improve customer satisfaction. And you probably already know that retaining existing customers is an easier task than attracting new ones plus it’s cheaper, too.

Three Cheers for Savings!

Money Tree

The following is a staff writer post from MikeS. He is a married father of 2. So, with the cat, he ranks number 5 in the house. He loves numbers and helping people. Please leave any questions or comments below for either Mike or Crystal.

Three cheers for saving!! You generally cannot go wrong by saving money and in my case it helped rescue me from myself. I know the rules for managing your finances, but sometimes I am still surprised by them when they work. I have talked before that I was opening an HSA for this year and how the first month of the high-deductible plan went.

In opening the HSA and fully funding the account for the year, I kind of expected to have a decent amount leftover. I have tracked my medical expenses explicitly for the past 4 years. It started when I had to track all of my son’s bills after he was born. It was mainly to make sure we did not forget to pay anybody, but I have kept up with the process since then. I always feel that more information helps me manage our finances. So, going into this year I expected our expenses would run in the $3,000ish range. That’s based on what we spent the last 2 years roughly. I may not have as much left as I expected.

The Unexpected

The first medical expense surprise that we got was my root canal. It turns out even with insurance, that root canals are pretty expensive. Between the crown that I needed and the root canal itself, the bills totaled $1,459. My dental insurance has a $1,500 payment cap for a given plan year and I easily hit that with both procedures. I wish I could say that will be my last root canal, but given the previous damage I have done to my teeth, more are likely in the future. I have some rather large fillings, that when they are replaced will likely result in root canals. The second and third surprises came from my son. It was nothing serious or life-threatening, thankfully.

The second was he simply needed a hernia operation. His 2 ½-year check-up revealed the problem in May. It was a simple surgery and we were in and out the same day. It did not seem to even bother him much, he was back to running around in a few hours. I certainly did not expect my 2-year old son to be having surgery this year, cardiologist check-up sure, but not surgery. His bills totaled up to $5,649, but because we had already hit our deductible for the year in April, our portion was only $565. The third surprise was some developmental therapy for him. He is a little behind where he should be and we have some therapists working with him to catch him up. Those bills will come out to be about $720. It is a state program, so thankfully I do not have to pay the full amount.

Benefit of Saving

When I was evaluating whether to go with the high-deductible plan with the HSA, I was I could say that saving for the unexpected medical expenses was the primary driver. I was more focused on the tax savings and the long-term savings potential. As I said in the beginning, I was expecting to have around $3,000 leftover in the HSA to invest for the future. Thankfully by paying myself first, my finances have not been disrupted in the least. I can remember years ago when an unexpected doctors visit would cause me some anxiety about how I would cover the cost. Now, I can honestly say I did not even blink when any of the costs came up. Even if there are more surprises this year, the HSA can pay for them. Once the HSA is exhausted, we are not that far away from the out of pocket maximum for the health insurance. Three cheers for savings!!!!

Timing Our Next Investment Property

Home

Mr. BFS and I paid off our first home in early 2013.  It has become a nice rental property.  Now we are considering when to buy another one…

Getting Pre-Approved for Another Home Loan

Our first step in this process was to look around at home loan requirements since the whole idea would have been moot if we couldn’t secure a mortgage.  I used search engines to find options, like being able to compare a range of home loans online at NPBS.  When it was obvious that the interest rates are doable for us and that we had 20% for a down payment, I applied for an investment property home loan.  We were pre-approved within a couple of days.

Keep in mind that being pre-approved for a home loan is way easier than actually getting a home loan, BUT it is an important step.

Finding Our Next Investment Property

Our next property will need to fit a very specific set of requirements.  We are looking for something within a half hour of our current home.  It also needs to be at least 1600 square feet and have at least 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms.  Easy parking is also a must.  Lastly, we are looking for something built somewhat recently – no earlier than 2000-2001.

In our area, a home like that can cost $75,000 or $200,000 depending on the neighborhood, condition, and a billion other conditions.  We are looking for something in the $80,000-$125,000 range that is located in a neighborhood that rents for $1100 or more per month.

Our mortgage will be around $500 a month, property taxes will be another $300 a month, and home owner’s insurance will be around another $100 a month.  That will leave us with a $900 bill per month, so the home needs to be able to rent out for at least $200 more per month so it can afford its own maintenance.

Saving More

We’re self-employed, so we are going to take a few more months to save as much cash as we can before we jump into the buying pool.  I would like us to be able to afford the 20% down payment without using the majority of our emergency savings and padding.  You never know what you will be making the following month when your main business is blog-related.  Having padding is what keeps us sane.

All in all, we won’t be closing on another rental property until at least 2015.  But I do like our current circumstances.  It’s nice to take our time to look around.  It’s nicer knowing that we can make low offers and have the time to wait until one is accepted.  We’ve always felt rushed when buying a home before.

Do you have an investment property?  How did you pounce on it?

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