Sunday, December 11, 2011

Free and Nearly Free in Philadelphia and Beyond

I came across this wonderful blog this morning and thought I'd share it with you. It's called the Family Penny Pincher: Free and Nearly Free Family Activities and highlights all the low-cost, no-cost family friendly events going on in Philadelphia and locations beyond. It's a nice blog perfect for out-of-town families planning a vacation together with the kids and for local families who want to save money while enjoying the city they call home.

On the left side of the page, there is a nifty daily calendar powered by Google. It features only the local events happening in Philadelphia, but the blog posts cover Philadelphia and more.

How many of you are planning a family vacation for the winter holiday season? How are you managing to save money?

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A Couple Hundred

Recently, I encountered someone who had claimed to have been doing all the right things and had been able to save a couple hundred dollars each month. He said he brought his lunch to work, drove his 1992 paid off car, and stopped indulging in Starbucks coffee among other things to save. Yet, that couple hundred he saved was not enough.

My comment to him was this:

A couple hundred is a lot more than many people can save in a year...or a lifetime. To me, it seems you're doing pretty well, especially if you're good at not spending the money you have saved. The road to wealth is not always a fast and easy one.

It seems many people still have this idea that if they endure the simple life for just a couple of months they’ll be rolling in extra cash in no time. They look at the road to financial freedom like a drive thru: You order the life you want to have and right around the corner it is handed to you in a bag with minimal effort. They don’t understand that what they are embarking on is a way of living that will change their life, one that requires a great investment of time and a reshaping of one’s attitudes toward money and what it means.

Wealth is also relative. Cumulative fines in the amount of $48,000 would mean little for an NFL player, but for a working class individual, it would mean a lot. People forget that the value of a dollar differs sometimes depending on who is doing the spending. Savings is no different. Being able to save a couple hundred dollars each month means a lot when you look at it from the right perspective.

The man I spoke of here was clearly hoping to get rich overnight. He is still learning that the decision to become financially free means not getting upset about being able to save only a couple hundred every month when he would really like to save twice that much or his whole check. It’s a matter of learning to open up to his own abundance.

The man I described here is living a life of prosperity, but because he is so focused on all the things he has given up, he does not realize it. Do you suppose money and abundance will want to stay with an individual who does not appreciate it? A couple hundred is pretty nice.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Black Friday Shopping

So, did you go shopping on Black Friday this year? In my last post, I shared my thoughts on how we might begin to look at Thanksgiving as a day for hitting one’s financial restart button. Were you able to resist the temptation of the Black Friday sales?

Despite my own post the other day, I have to admit that even I struggled a bit. WalMart had a nice deal on a digital camera and I had been thinking about purchasing one for quite some time. There were also other deals like a handful of appliances going for as little as $3.00. I really had to think about my motives for wanting to buy that camera and the appliances. What I found was that the lure of being part of the crowd was the only real impulse pushing me to buy. I did not need the camera, I merely wanted it, and I wanted the appliances only because they were dirt cheap.
For some families, Black Friday is indeed part of a tradition. It is in fact a time when they get together to wait in lines as a family. Shopping for them is as much a bonding experience as the Thanksgiving holiday itself. But for me, Black Friday is purely about consumerism, the lifestyle that I am learning to do away with. So, I didn’t go shopping yesterday despite the temptation.

What I am also realizing about Black Friday is that it is beginning to have no limits. Black Friday doesn’t start on Friday anymore. Perhaps when the trend happens online, it is less invasive to disrupting traditional family time. Amazon, for example, began holding its Black Friday specials not too soon after Halloween this year. That wasn’t so bad. When WalMart announced that it would begin its holiday sales on Thanksgiving Day, it felt like the retailing giant and all its counterparts who followed had taken things too far. I respect Kmart for keeping its hours reasonable this year despite its competition with WalMart and others. It is possible for a business to be successful without merely giving lip service to their commitment to families and communities.

Did you go shopping on Black Friday this year? Or on Thanksgiving Day? Please share your story. I would really love to know what everyone thinks about this sense of consumerism encroaching more and more on all of our holidays. New Year’s Day seems to be the last holiday not tied to some sort of mandatory shopping frenzy. What are your thoughts?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Pushing the Financial Reset Button a Little Earlier This Year

People have a great tendency to overspend during the holidays. Sometimes the spending takes the form of buying gifts for others. Other times the spending comes from a lack of discipline during a time when all the outer stimuli in the world says, “Buy, buy, buy!” It’s hard to stand up to that sort of social and societal pressure. Then on top of it all, spending behavior rather than saving behavior is encouraged for three long months, from the end of October to the start of the new year.

Too often it is not until the new year starts that people have the opportunity to breathe and escape the pressures of encouraged spending behaviors. It doesn’t have to be that way. You can push the restart button on your spending and finances any time of the year. And for those feel that they need a milestone holiday or event to help them jumpstart their saving behavior rather than spending behavior, they can look to a holiday like Thanksgiving for help.

Thanksgiving is all about family and friends. It’s all about caring for and being thankful for what little we have. Even millionaires do not own the world and they can be thankful for what little part of it they do have just as the beggar can be thankful for what he has received. More so than New Year’s Day is it a grand opportunity to resolve to reduce one’s spending and put first what is most important in one’s life, those things that we acquire without money and that all the spending in the world could not buy us.

Rather than wait until January 1st to make yet another resolution that will be hard to keep, begin your commitment to being a saver rather than a spender on the last Thursday in November, Thanksgiving Day. Start the habit to save just at the point every year when you're tempted to begin spending the most.

Black Friday doesn't have to be the retailer's Christmas. You can take the day back and reclaim it as a day to save. Even if you do go shopping, you can make conscious decisions about how much you will spend and when you will spend it without being cajoled by the marketplace into believing that you have no real alternatives. Take the holiday season back a little earlier this year and begin on Thanksgiving Day to refocus and reset your spending. Go into the new year with money in the bank and a different resolution that will keep you prosperous all year. 

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

While You be Debt Free

One of the biggest problems I've had with my new lifestyle and life change is what to do while I'm waiting. What do I do with my time while I wait to go on vacation? Or buy season tickets for a baseball game? Or buy my niece an iPad for college?

This thinking led me to realize that there is really more to becoming debt free or financially independent than just paying one's bills on time. Being aware of one's money, how it's used, and who it goes to is like a meditative practice. It forces you to levels of heightened awareness. For example, in buying a pair of shoes, you have to stop yourself and say, "Is what I'm about to buy a true need or a want?" The very act of thinking before you buy or, to borrow from another phrase, looking before you leap, draws us into awareness about what our motives are for buying things and causes us always to seek the truth in our financial actions.

What I find is that as I separate the wants from the needs, I find myself realizing that I don't really need all that much. So, whereas with an impulse some might be inclined to buy just anything that catches their eye, I wouldn't because it doesn't fit into my values or my goals for becoming debt free.

So what happens is all that time that was spent in the past doing idle things, like window shopping or buying things out of boredom, begins to go by the wayside. The energy that was left to engaging in those things is now in need of someplace else to go or something else to do.

When trying to become debt-free or even after they've become debt-free, some people turn to home economics to fill this energy gap. They grow their own food. They start canning. They learn to sew. They take up some sort of hobby that fills the gap between excess and fulfilling a need. Most people like this do not need to grow their own food to survive. They do not need to sew their own clothes. Even under the guise of simply saving money, activities like these fall short because there are so many other healthful, fast, cost-effective ways to save money and still get food for one's family or put clothes on their back. A simple look at the opportunity costs versus the financial costs of these activities illustrates this point.

Let's say it takes someone 20 minutes to look through a newspaper to find all the stores within a 5-mile radius with sales on fruits and vegetables. Then let's say it takes 3 hours of yard work on average to grow the same amount of vegetables you might buy from the store. On the one hand, growing the vegetables might be a bit cheaper, but on the other hand, buying the vegetables is faster and likely more convenient. The extra 2.5 hours you spend digging in the ground for a tomato could have instead been spent on taking the kids to the park, going to the gym, or reading your favorite blog (which I hope one day will be Simplify and Prosper). That's opportunity cost in a nutshell.

What drives people to make these choices is the need to exhaust the energy that was once used spending money and instead use it something for else. What that something else is can be a confounding question.

What else besides home economics do you do to replace the time and energy you spent spending money? How do you occupy your time while you wait to be debt free?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Car Sharing With Zipcar

Zipcar is one of the more popular car sharing companies now gaining a large share of consumer interest in major cities all across the country, including at over 100 college and university campuses. You can also find Zipcar in some not so major cities like Frederick, Maryland and Carlisle, Pennsylvania. There are also Zipcars in Canada and London.

How it works

To reserve a Zipcar, you just go online and choose the time and location where you’d like to pick up a car. The cars come in various sizes and colors and can fit many driving needs. If a car with your selected criteria is available, you can put in a reservation. If a car isn’t available, you can choose from other nearby locations or different times. When your reservation is over, you return the car on time to avoid any penalties. That’s it.

Membership benefits

For an annual fee, you can become a Zipcar member. The membership allows you access to rent cars in any location around the world. This means that if you are a Zipcar member in Florida and take a trip to DC in July, you can get a Zipcar to use while you are on vacation. It would be good for a weekend trip from DC to Fredericksburg, Maryland, for example, since commuter buses and trains to that area do not run on the weekend.

Being a member of Zipcar also affords you additional benefits. People who use Zipcar a lot can save money by registering for one their frequent user programs. If you know for example, that you will use a car often enough to spend $125 each month, you can enroll in one of the programs for that rate and receive discounts every time you rent a Zipcar. Members are also privy to special discounts at area businesses. In San Francisco, you can get discounts from the Bend Yoga studio, Fog City News, Lombardi Sports, SixFlags Discovery Kingdom and more. Each city has different offers.

Despite all those benefits, the best perk about renting with Zipcar is that there are no hidden fees. Let me say that again: There are no hidden fees. Included with your rental is insurance, roadside assistance, and gasoline. That’s everything you need. You don’t have to worry about maintenance fees, oil changes, or keeping air in your tires. The vehicles are kept clean and they run well.

Is there a downside?

While Zipcar is terrific, I will admit that it would be nice to have the vehicles vacuumed a little more often (I always seem to get the cars with pet hair left in them), but really I can’t complain. Besides, buying a hand vacuum cleaner to carry with you is a lot cheaper than buying a whole car. I can live with that.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

What Is Car Sharing?

Car sharing offers all the benefits of owning your own car without all the burden. The concept is like renting studio space. You have 24 hours in a day, and people can sign up to rent that space in 30-minute increments. You can rent the space for as long as a day or more. Then when you’re done, the space is free and open for someone else to reserve. The difference with car sharing is that the “space” you’re renting is not just space but an entire vehicle that you can use to drive as far and long as your time permits.

Sharing vs. Renting

Getting a rental car differs from car sharing because rental cars require you to pay for your own gas and insurance and limit the time you can rent a car to full-day increments. You could not just rent a car for an hour or two, and those items that are included with car sharing—insurance, roadside assistance, and gas—are additional costs when you rent with a rental car company.

Car sharing can save you money if you need to have a car only sporadically. Taking day trips or using a car to transport heavy purchases or moves are ideal uses for a car sharing rental. These are trips that take only a few hours to complete and no more than 24 or 36 hours at the most.

People who will need a car to drive around for an entire weekend or more are better off getting a rental car. The savings generally begins to level out after the first 24 hours. Then the cost of car sharing becomes more expensive than renting. It is likely that the car sharing system was designed that way on purpose. It is best used for local and shorter term trips.

Pros and Cons

The benefits of car sharing are its convenience and low cost. However, because you are sharing a vehicle with hundreds of others, you do run into the following problems:

--Not having a car available at the time and place you prefer
--Ending up with a car that is not up to your own standard of cleanliness

The workaround to these obstacles is, of course, planning. Reserving a vehicle well in advance reduces the likelihood of not being able to reserve a car when you need or want one. Brining a hand vacuum or some baby wipes to spruce up a car before you drive it can resolve the cleanliness issue for most people.

Car sharing is catching on with a lot of people, and those who remain flexible can enjoy the benefits of it the most.