What's the Real Purpose of Spending Money on a Wedding?

There are a lot of things I don't like to do the conventional way because I find something to be wrong with the convention.

-I moved to another state without having anything lined up there because I wanted to live there. I figured that if I waited until conditions were perfect, I might never get there. Plus, most employers are not interested in hiring people from out of state. And why should they be? They have plenty of options closer to home.
-I graduated from college in three years because it was awfully expensive and I didn't know what I would have done with the extra year anyway. In fact, only now that my career has gone in some sort of defined direction can I tell you that I wouldn't mind having degrees in journalism, finance, and economics--but how could I have known that without the years of work experience that have led me to where I am now?

-I bought a house with my boyfriend instead of waiting to get married first because I didn't want to spend a bunch of money on a fancy party and then go home and continue living in a crappy apartment. Nor did I want to go the other preapproved route and attempt to buy a house while simultaneously planning a wedding--and, oh, my boyfriend isn't independently wealthy, so you can scratch that whole 1950s notion of the husband buying a house for his wife. Besides, I wanted to help pick it out. I am lucky enough to be in a relationship where both parties understand that committment is something you keep because you choose to, not because you've bought some expensive pieces of metal or gone through a ceremony and put your name on a legal document (though rumor has it that those things don't actually keep people together, anyway).

But now that I have my house, the idea of having a wedding doesn't seem quite as ridiculous. But paying more than $5,000 for it does. I've never been one to blow a lot of money on luxury items, and I've never much cared for parties. In fact, even $5,000 seems high to me as there are actually a lot of other things I would rather do with $5,000 than spend it at the rate of about $1,000 an hour in a single afternoon.

So I've started doing a bit of research into wedding venues, and I am absolutely appalled. Both places I looked at cost $5,000 just for the venue, and then to add insult to injury, they force you to use their preferred catering services to the tune of about $40 per head. For the purpose of simplicity, let's assume a 100-person wedding. That's $4,000 for food, for a meal that no one will remember, that will more than likely be mediocre, and that I won't even get to eat. I know this isn't news to those of you who have planned weddings. I know that the average cost of a wedding is something like $26,000. But that doesn't make it okay.
What is the point of spending all this money, after all? It's different for everyone, but for me, a wedding is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to gather for a happy occasion with the company of all the people who are important to me, in the same place at the same time. For someone like me, who lives entirely too far away from the important people in her life, this aspect of a wedding is particularly appealing. Thus, all the expenditures associated with a wedding should contribute to this purpose.
On the other hand, I think a lot of people plan their weddings the way they do for one of three reasons:
1. Because that's what they think they are supposed to do.
2. Because they don't realize that you control the wedding costs, the wedding costs don't control you.
3. Because they want to impress people.

Wedding expenditures that are designed to impress people, that arise solely out of expectation or tradition, or that are inflated because the item has been tied to the word "wedding" don't exactly support the purpose of having an enjoyable time with my loved ones for however many days they can be in town (or whatever other personal reasons people have for throwing weddings). Hundreds of flowers, centerpieces that will end up in the trash, and $40 chicken dinners are not a means to my end.
The other thing I don't think people think about when considering the cost of a wedding is opportunity cost. When you spend $26,000, or $12,000, or $5,000 on a wedding, you are forgoing the option to spend that money on something else. When I think about spending $5,000 on a wedding, I don't think, "Well, $5,000 is a good price for a wedding, considering that most people spend $26,000." I think, "If I could spend $5,000 any way I wanted, what would I do with it?" And I come up with answers like improve my house, go to Europe for five weeks with my boyfriend, or buy a "new" car. All of these things would be a much better use of the money, if you ask me.
Of course, people whose weddings are financed by someone else don't tend to think about wedding costs this way, but my father and I have similar values when it comes to money, so why would I ask him to spend his money on me in a way that I wouldn't spend my own money on myself?
So the challenge upon me is to figure out how to circumvent expectation and convention to create a wedding that is meaningful to me while spending only a modest sum of money. Stay tuned--I'm sure there will be many more posts on this subject as I attempt to figure it out.

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A Beautiful Wedding On A Budget

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Post by Amy Fontinelle

Alternatives to Health Care As We Know It

My opinions about universal health care have changed dramatically in the last few months as I've become more educated about the issue. I used to be fully in favor of it. Now I'm not. And as the New York Times reports, I'm not the only one.

I have the same concerns about health care as many other people.

-Routine services are too expensive, even with insurance.

-I am afraid to seek health care because I am afraid it will have adverse effects on my insurance coverage, such as higher premiums or being dropped.

-I am afraid that my insurance will be canceled if I actually need to use it for some sort of expensive treatment, and not only will I be without coverage when I most need it, but all those years of premiums I have paid will be money thrown in the trash.

-I am afraid to get on my boyfriend's work plan, where my policy would be less likely (or not likely at all?) to be canceled because I am afraid of the high premiums associated with COBRA and the bureaucratic difficulties of getting an individual plan if he were to lose his job.

-I have had my monthly premiums increase dramatically from one year to the next even though I barely use my insurance at all. One plan I was on increased from $83 a month to $175 a month over a four-year period.

-I don't have very good prescription drug coverage. I have to meet a $500 deductible before brand-name medications are covered.

Under universal health care, I envisioned a system that would reduce my monthly health insurance premiums (say, to $50 a month), decrease the cost of prescriptions, and make me less afraid of how going to the doctor would affect my health insurance premiums/coverage, and guarantee me treatment were I to really need it.

I think a lot of people who support the notion of universal health care have similar ideas about what universal health care would look like. Take whatever you don't like about your health insurance, or lack thereof--the government will fix it under universal health care.

But, of course, it isn't that simple. The complexities of universal health care are beyond the scope of this article. But I'd like to share a couple of articles I've read that present radically different ideas about what kind of health care system we could have in this country. Some economists have thought outside the box and proposed that many components of our health care system that we take for granted as fixtures in the system might be a major part of the problem and therefore worth reconsidering.

A Sales Pitch for Laissez-Faire Health Care by Daniel B. Klein gives an overview of what our health-care system might look like without many of the components that we now take for granted but could be changed.

Abolishing the FDA by Larry Van Heerden gives an overview of how the FDA's relationship with drug companies has evolved and how the agency creates a false sense of security for patients.

Ranking the U.S. Health-Care System by Jim Peron provides the other side of the arguments we've all heard about how health care in Europe is better than in the United States because of the government's role.

After reading articles like these, I have to wonder if we are really approaching health care reform the right way.



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What You Might Find at the 99-Cent Store

The first time I went to the 99-cent store was about four years ago. I went primarily out of curiosity, and I was pretty creeped out. I was mostly interested in looking at the food, and it seemed like everything they sold was one letter off from the brand name item: Rice Krispis, Milk-e-way, you get the idea. I left without buying anything, convinced that there was something wrong with every item in the store. There had to be for everthing to be so cheap, right?

Well, after listening to a radio show where they interviewed a guy who calls himself the 99-cent chef, I decided to give the store a second chance. The chef, Billy Vasquez, uses surprising ingredients he finds at 99-cent stores to create delicious and affordable meals. When I heard him talking about finding fresh produce, I thought it was time to reconsider the store.

Not everything at the 99-cent store even cost 99 cents. Some items were as low as 25 or 39 cents. I was kind of expecting to find items that cost multiples of 99 cents based on some of the things I’d heard they sold there (like bags of lettuce), but that was not the case. Nothing costs more than 99 cents.

Some items are made to be 99 cents by being sold in unusually small quantities, like a bottle of Tylenol containing only 8 caplets (which is better than the convenience store price of 2 caplets for 99 cents) or a 16-ounce bottle of milk. Some of these items could probably be described as penny wise but pound foolish—they may save you money in the short run, but in the long run you’d come out ahead by buying a larger quantity. Of course, if you don’t take Tylenol regularly, it’s not such a bad deal to only have to spend a buck to get a few caplets for emergencies. Or if your budget is so tight that you’d have to put the Tylenol on a credit card if you were forced to buy a $5 bottle at the drugstore, then the 99-cent option might actually be more economical.

While the store itself was a bit grungy and old and not my idea of a particularly pleasant shopping experience, I was pleasantly surprised by many of the items I found there. Quite a few of them were even brand-name products. Nothing had damaged packaging, either. Here are the items I was most excited about finding:

  • 3 pack of scrubby sponges, 99 cents (comparable item costs $3 or more at a regular store)
  • Goody hair bands and hair clips ($2 to $3 at Target)
  • Name-brand candy, some in regular flavors (Crunch bars) some in unusual flavors (Java Twix, Cherry M&Ms, Mint Crunch M&Ms)
  • Some perfectly good-looking produce (I got an entire bag of limes that would normally cost $2 to $4)
  • The ability to buy individual cans of soda, with brands ranging from always-budget Shasta to normally pricey San Pellegrino
  • 24 ounce, squirt-top bottled water for 39 cents (normally $1)
  • Full-sized Palmolive dish soap for 99 cents ($1.79 at my local grocery store)
  • Full-sized any other cleaning product you could possibly need
  • Picture frames (yes, made of glass. I was expecting plastic)
  • Microfiber cleaning cloths, 99 cents ($5 to $6 at Bed, Bath and Beyond)
  • Duncan Hines cake mix, 99 cents (pretty standard price, but it's a brand name)
  • 3 ceramic plates for 99 cents
  • Wine and cocktail glasses for 99 cents each
  • 250 straws in bright, attractive colors, 99 cents (100 boring white and blue-striped straws, $1.50 on sale at the grocery store)

Some items were clearly of lesser quality, like the not-quite-red tomatoes (of course, I see those at regular grocery stores, too). The plastic baskets looked like they might break easily. And I couldn’t get myself to buy the no-brand soy milk. Actually, I couldn’t get myself to buy anything in the frozen and refrigerated section, at least in part because it seemed haphazardly thrown in there. I also couldn’t get past the fear that some of it might be expired, which wasn’t a concern with boxed items or the produce (since I could see that it was still good).

In the future, I think I’ll make the 99-cent store my first stop any time I need to buy something since they sell such a surprising variety of food, drugstore items, housewares, and other miscellaneous items. The bargains are so good, it’s like going to a garage sale or a thrift store, but with a much larger selection and brand-new items.

Another thing the store can be good for is satisfying the urge to shop without doing major damage. For example, I overheard a customer talking to a friend saying that her kids were bugging her to take them shopping, so she took them to the 99-cent store. That way, she could make her kids happy while spending very little.

After my experience with giving the 99-cent store a second chance, I’ll definitely be going there more often.


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6 More Ways to Minimize Shipping Costs

I wrote earlier about how to minimize shipping costs of by purchasing a digital scale, skipping the post office, avoiding Stamps.com’s printable stamps, buying old stamps from eBay, and using free online tools. Here are six more ways to keep your shipping costs down.

Take advantage of free USPS supplies: If you’re sending items via USPS Priority or Express mail, you should know that the USPS will bring free priority and express mail boxes and envelopes to your door. Just select what you want online. You can also pick these up at the post office, but you’ll be able to get a larger quantity of boxes in a better range of sizes if you order online. Don’t forget about flat-rate shipping boxes, which are also free from the postal service and allow you to ship items for the same price, regardless of weight, as long as they fit completely inside the box.

Don’t buy shipping labels: Even if you buy the most basic printable labels in bulk from an office supply store, you’ll spend far more money than if you print the label on plain old paper and use a solid coating of tape to attach it to your package. Print that label on reused paper and you’ll save even more. If you’re shipping items for personal reasons, no one will notice or care what’s on the other side. If you’re shipping something for business, though, make a good impression and use a clean, new sheet of paper to print your label.

Save all of the shipping materials you get when you order something in the mail: Hang on to your bubble envelopes, packing paper, foam peanuts, air bags, boxes, protective wrapping, and so on. All of this is likely to come in handy sooner or later, and few people care (or will even notice) whether their merchandise arrives in a new or used envelope. Everything gets beat up when it goes through the mail, so you might as well save money and use packaging that’s already imperfect looking.

If you receive proprietary packaging, like a UPS padded envelope, and you want to use it to send something through the regular mail, just cut the envelope open and turn it inside out: Then you’ll have a plain gray bubble mailer that the USPS will accept. (Personally, I don’t repurpose USPS packaging in the same way because of the scary warnings they put on their boxes and envelopes: “This packaging is property of the U.S. Postal Service and is provided solely for use in sending Priority Mail. Misuse may be a violation of federal law.”) Clean, empty plastic bags from the grocery store also make a great protective packing material for shipments where you don’t need to impress the recipient.

Ask stores for their unwanted boxes: Stores are another good source of free packing materials. Any store will receive lots of merchandise in cardboard boxes, and they won’t have any use for or space to store the empties. To maximize your haul, hit shopping malls or other highly commercial areas where you can visit multiple stores at once.

When you must buy new, buy in bulk: When you’ve exhausted all your other options and you have to buy new materials, seek ways to minimize their cost. I do this by purchasing padded bubble envelopes in a large size that will hold almost anything and buying them in bulk, thus eliminating the need to buy a variety of sizes in small quantities at higher prices. The same applies to tape - while you can get free Priority Mail tape from the USPS, there’s no way to get around buying plain tape (that I know of), so look for store brands, buy on sale and buy in bulk.

Minimize the weight of packaging: If you have to buy new packaging for shipping, consider the weight of the packaging when making your purchase. Lighter packaging costs less to ship. Paying attention to the weight of your packaging is especially important if you’re shipping something that’s on the verge of pushing you into the next weight/price bracket. For example, if you’re shipping an item that weighs 1 pound, 14 ounces, you’d be better off using packaging (including tape and the shipping label) that weighs less than 2 ounces, because a 1 pound 14 ounce item costs the same to ship as a 1 pound, 15.9 ounce item, but a 2 pound, 1 ounce item will cost more.

If you’re getting your packaging from a free source, however, you’ll probably come out ahead by getting the packaging for free, even if it does increase your postgage rate slightly.


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Post by Amy Fontinelle

How to Maximize Your Credit Card Cash Back Using a Discover Credit Card

I have been a Discover card holder for years because of its cash back program. The best feature of this program is that each quarter, Discover offers 5% cash back on certain spending categories, allowing you to rack up cash back faster than with any other card in certain categories and at certain times of year.

In the last nine months alone I've exchanged my cash back for $175 in gift cards to Chili's, Macaroni Grill, Lowe's, Buca di Beppo, DSW, Bath and Body Works, Bed, Bath and Beyond, and the Gap (and as you know, I'm not a big spender, and I know better than to spend on my credit card just to earn rewards).

Discover's Cashback Bonus can be redeemed dollar for dollar for cash, but to get more bang for your buck, you can redeem it for gift cards of varying amounts. With some partners, you can double your cash back. With others, you can redeem $20 for $25 or $45 for $50. I use these gift cards for things I would have bought anyway, so using my Discover card really does save me money.

Here's a rundown of this year's 5% cashback bonus categories with examples of how I've made the most of this card's benefits.

January-March: Airlines, hotels, car rentals, cruises
I bought two plane tickets on Southwest during this promotion. I ended up not taking the trip, but Southwest doesn't charge a penalty to change your ticket. So I realized that in the future, I can just buy any Southwest plane ticket(s) in the amount I expect to spend on plane fare for the next 12 months, cancel my reservation(s), use my Southwest Ticketless Travel funds later when I need them, and collect my 5% cash back.

April-June: Home, fashion
Normally I use the Chase Home Rewards credit card for all my Home Depot purchases (of which there are many) because it gives me 3% cash back, but from April to June I switched these purchases to my Discover card to get 5% back. Also, anything that I was planning to buy in March or July I tried to shift to April or June to maximize my cash back.

July-September: gas, hotels, theme parks
Last summer I went on a road trip during August and Discover was having this same promotion. Gas was $4 a gallon at the time, so the cash back really helped ease the sting of that trip. This year, I've added my boyfriend as a cardholder so he can help me rack up the rewards.

October-December: grocery stores, restaurants, movies
You have to buy groceries anyway--you might as well get cash back while you're at it. Our household spends at least $250 a month on food, so for three months we'll get $37.50 back.

You can also earn 5% to 10% cash back year round by logging into your Discover account and shopping through their website. This program works just like eBates, FatWallet, or the AA Advantage Shopping Mall. You choose the store you want to shop at and click through the Discover site to the store website. Discover keeps track of your purchase and as long as you pay with your Discover card, you earn the extra cash back. Some of the stores included in their program are OfficeMax, Target, iTunes, and Best Buy. Of course, you have to take shipping costs into account when shopping online, but you'll also save time and gas money, and if you shop online anyway, you might as well get cash back.

On other purchases, though, Discover's cash back program was never a good deal. The terms were "earn a full 1% on all other purchases after your total annual purchases exceed $3,000; other purchases that are part of your first $1,500 earn .25% and other purchases that are part of your second $1,500 earn .50%."

Now, for billing periods that ended after June 1, 2009, they've removed the $1,500/.50% tier for the Discover® More® Card, the Discover Open Road® Card and the Discover MotivaSM Card.

This really isn't a big deal to me, though--it's not going to affect how I use the card. On regular purchases, you can beat .25% or .50% cash back with any number of cards. As long as you always pay your balance in full and on time, the best way to use a standard Discover card is still to only use it when you're making a purchase will earn 5% to 10% cash back.


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Post by Amy Fontinelle

How to Get a Mortgage and Buy a Home

For a long time, I was afraid to buy a house because I was afraid to take out a mortgage. There is so much to understand, and it's such a major decision. I didn't want to get ripped off.

But eventually necessity (and by necessity, I mean a string of abuses by the worst landlord on the planet) dictated that I move, and recent experiences that I did not want to repeat told me that I should really consider buying a house instead of hoping for a better rental situation somewhere else. So I decided to learn as much as possible about buying a house and getting a good deal on a mortgage.
While I recommend taking the time to read some good books on the subject to really get acquainted with the details of the homebuying process, I've written a couple of articles recently that will help you get started.
The first addresses the common misconception that the most important thing to look at when you're shopping for a mortgage is the interest rate. Check out my Financial Edge article for Investopedia, 7 Ways To Avoid Low-Rate Mortgage Shams. For further reading, see Carolyn Warren's book, Mortgage Rip-Offs and Money Savers. It was a great help to me in becoming informed about the truth behind mortgage interest rates.
For an overview of the entire homebuying process (and if you have a few minutes), read How to Buy Your First Home: A Step-By-Step Tutorial. This article discusses choosing a location, determining what kind of home suits your needs, calculating how much you can afford, getting preapproved for a loan, finding a real estate agent, finding a property, writing an offer, dealing with the escrow process, purchasing the necessary insurance, and closing.
I also recommend these articles:
10 Tips For Getting A Fair Price On A Home - Don't let buying a home bust your budget. Make sure the house you choose is worth the price you pay.
The Hidden Costs Of Home Ownership - Mortgage lenders don't factor the extra costs into your loan amount. Make sure you save for the "little" things.
Understanding Mortgage Impound Accounts - Home buyers with low down payments may get stuck with higher mortgage payments. Find out what you get for the extra money.
7 Smart Steps Every New Homeowner Should Take - Don't let the excitement of owning your own home lead you to make bad financial decisions.

Adapting The Right Mindset To Land Your Dream Job

Do you love your job? Do you wish you did? Your mantra may be, “there’s a reason they call it work,” but you don’t have to trudge through your weekdays forever if you don’t want to.

The first step to landing your dream job is getting rid of the negative thoughts that are preventing you from achieving your goal. Here are some positive thoughts to get you in the right frame of mind.

You can do what you love: The money probably won’t be there at first and it might seem impossible for you to figure out a way to make money in an enjoyable way, but if you are truly passionate about something, there is a way to make it succeed and make a living doing it. It takes a lot more effort than getting a job as an administrative assistant, but if you truly love what you’re doing, that effort will also be the reason that you love putting in the extra hours.

You don’t have to wait forever: There is never going to be a perfect time to pursue your dream job. While it would be great if all the stars aligned and you could begin your dream job without any risk, it isn’t going to happen. You’re going to have to take a chance or forever be waiting. Don’t wait forever for that perfect moment to arrive; just pick a less-risky moment (i.e., not the first month in your new house or the day your wife loses her job) and go for it.

You can use discouragement to your advantage: Whether on purpose or with genuine help in mind, a lot of people will discourage you from pursuing your dream job. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it, but it does mean that you’ll need a tough skin and stubbornness to continue to pursue your dream job when it seems nobody but you believes in it. Don’t take discouragement as meaning your dream is unachievable; take it as advice on what not to do and as fuel to prove people wrong.

Contrary to what you might think, though, you shouldn’t always ignore these people: In fact, you should listen especially hard to what they have to say because the reasons they say your ideas won’t work may be valid points. Listen and figure out a way to address and solve those problems. Understanding the possible pitfalls in your plan can make it easier and faster to reach your destination. What’s more, cutting important people out of your life because they don’t support you can be as devastating as believing that there is no way to get your dream job.

You don’t have to be afraid to quit your job: Even when you hate your job, sometimes it’s easier to keep dragging yourself there every day than it is to quit because you’re comfortable with the familiarity or because you’re terrified of how your boss will react when you say that you’re quitting. The temporary discomfort you’re likely to face when starting a new job or having that difficult conversation with your boss are not nearly as bad as being miserable, or even simply discontent, with what you spend a large chunk of your life doing.

Creating your own business is not as risky as you think: Starting your own business is indeed risky, but not creating one in pursuit of your dream job is even riskier. When you are older, the last thing you want to be saying is “I wish I would have…” Even if you happen to fail, you will know that you tried and never have that regret hanging over you. Although everything that you try may not be a success, you will not regret giving them a try as much as you will regret the things that you choose not to try.

You don’t have to get lucky: Okay, so there are people who genuinely do get lucky and win the lottery or inherit a ton of money, but it’s not you. If you wouldn’t be willing to risk your future prosperity and happiness on a lottery ticket, then you need to succeed the way the other 99% of people do: with a lot of hard work and determination. That is the way to create your own luck.

Dream jobs do exist: Many people will tell you they don’t, but don’t listen to them. That doesn’t mean that your dream job will come knocking on your door or be easy to find. In fact, you may have to create your own dream job. But don’t let anyone convince that there isn’t something better out there if you aren’t satisfied with what you’re doing.

How to Become a Millionaire

In my July 13, 2009, Investopedia article, So You Want to Be a Millionaire?, I examined how long it might take a person to become a millionaire under a couple of different scenarios. (And if I may shamelessly brag for a moment, my article appeared on the homepage of Yahoo! Finance earlier this week.)

Becoming a millionaire is clearly an achievable goal: A June 2008 New York Post article reported that there were 3,028,000 millionaires in the United States, defining a millionaire as someone with investable assets of at least $1 million. And in the world as a whole, there are around 10.1 million millionaires.

This article looks at some specific steps you can take to make it to that goal, regardless of your time frame.

Cut loose from the man. Thomas Stanley and William Danko, authors of The Millionaire Next Door, report that “[a]bout two-thirds of [millionaires] who are working are self-employed.” Indeed, starting a business paves the way to wealth for many people. While a salary can be viewed as guaranteeing a specific annual base income, it often also limits you to that number. Work for yourself, and your rewards become more directly linkd to your efforts and abilities--which is ideal if you’re ambitious and talented.

Stanley and Danko report that “self-employed people make up less than 20 percent of the workers in America but account for two-thirds of the millionaires. Also, three out of four [millionaires] who are self-employed consider [themselves] to be entrepreneurs. Most of the others are self-employed professionals, such as doctors and accountants.”

Get a high-paying job. If self-employment isn’t for you, a high-paying job certainly won’t hurt in your quest to become a millionaire. To earn this kind of money, it helps to have a college degree, since so many employers use it as a screening mechanism. Kurt Badenhausen, writing for Forbes.com, reports that the highest-paying field for college graduates in 2008 was computer engineering, with an average salary of around $60,000 for workers with fewer than five years of experience. Ten to twenty years of experience gets you into the low six figures. Economics, finance, and math majors should see even more meaningful percentage increases in earnings once they have experience. Careerbuilder.com’s Laura Morsch reported in December 2008 that the 10 highest-paying careers that don’t require a college degree have average salaries ranging from $57,290 (for ship engineers) to $105,820 (for air-traffic controllers). But the second-highest-paying of these jobs, real estate broker, averages only $76,930.

Diversify and choose investments with minimal fees. Alan Corey, author of A Million Bucks by Thirty, states that one of the reasons he was so successful is because he diversified his investments. When he realized the potential of real estate, he put most of his money there, but if he had noticed an upward trend in another investment category, he would have put himself in a position to profit from that instead. Of course, you shouldn’t count on there being any sort of investment boom during the period when you decide to fast-track your millionaire status (nor should you count on your ability to identify it or to buy and sell at precisely the right moments). In addition to diversifying, don’t spend your money on loads or commissioned brokers. These will diminish your returns and delay your day of financial freedom.

Avoid get-rich-quick scams. John Beck's Free & Clear Real Estate System and other “programs” and “investments” that offer something that sounds too good to be true are just that. If it were easy to get rich, we’d all be sleeping soundly beneath 1,000-thread-count sheets instead of contemplating the offerings of infomercials at 2 a.m. Putting your time, energy, and money into these schemes will only delay your plan.

Live in a state with low or no taxes. The states with no state income tax are Alaska, New Hampshire, Tennessee, Florida, South Dakota, Washington, Nevada, Texas, and Wyoming. State taxes can really take a chunk out of your take home pay and, over the long run, your net worth.

Eliminate your housing expenses. Since housing is the largest monthly expense for most people, finding a way to eliminate, even for just a few years, can help you save a chunk of change. Living with relatives, live-in work arrangements, and living in a portion of a property that you own and rent out are all good ways to accomplish this savings feat.

Live on one income.If you’re fortunate enough to not be going it alone and if you and your significant other both work, stop spending everything you bring home. Gradually cut back until you are able to live on just one paycheck. Then you’ll be able to save thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars a year and increase your savings at a fantastic rate.

A million dollars may not be worth what it used to be--once considered the ultimate standard of wealth, it’s now seen by some people as merely a milestone on the path to financial freedom. But being a millionaire isn’t terribly uncommon, either. If 10.1 million other people can do it, why shouldn’t you?


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Post by Amy Fontinelle

How to Nicely Furnish and Decorate Your Apartment for Under $1,000

When you move into a new apartment, you will undoubtedly need or want some items that you didn’t have in your previous apartment. Every apartment has a different layout, different windows, different amounts of storage space, and other subtleties that can invoke the desire to buy something that solves a problem—whether it’s a new couch when you move up from a studio to a one-bedroom, or some area rugs when you move from a place with carpet to one with hardwood floors.

But if you’re a young apartment-dweller who’s at a stage in life where moving frequently is the norm and paychecks are entry-level, it doesn’t make sense to buy expensive furnishings for your new apartment. That doesn’t mean you have to settle for dog-chewed furniture and posters taped to the walls, though. Here are some strategies for keeping the costs of furniture, decorations, and other housewares within your budget while avoiding the bachelor pad look.

First, there’s something you should know about the market for these kinds of items: for the most part, they have a very low resale value. Perhaps this is because many people think that other people’s used couches, beds, drapes, and dishes are contaminated in some way. While there are certainly horror stories of rat-infested sofas out there, most of the used items available for sale will be carefully screened by both you and the store that’s selling them. The low resale value of home goods makes buying them secondhand from thrift stores, garage sales, and eBay a great option. Consider mixing new items with well-cared-for secondhand ones to get the nicest look and the most bang for your buck.

Furniture

  • To get the best garage sale furniture, you’ll have to be the dreaded early bird, so plan to set your alarm on Saturday mornings until you find what you need.
  • Supplement your garage saling with daily trips to all the local thrift stores to see what’s new. You never know when someone else might drop off your future couch. My $50 Salvation Army like-new La-Z-Boy recliner was a great find that I enjoy to this day.
  • Some people might think they have to buy new furniture because they need a store to deliver it to them, but if transporting furniture is an issue, just rent a pickup truck or cargo van for a few hours. Even with the added cost of a vehicle rental, you’ll still come out way ahead over buying your furniture new. If you’re the adventurous type, you can even hire a stranger off Craigslist to move it for you. $50 is a very reasonable offer for a short move of one large item.
  • Consider recycling furniture you find in the alley. If you live in an apartment-filled area, you’ll probably encounter a steady stream of abandoned furniture in your alley as tenants move out. Inspect the items carefully and clean them thoroughly with a bug- and germ-killing product. You may want to avoid soft items like couches, rugs, and mattresses altogether as they can harbor bugs. If you want to be more proactive about finding free furniture, get your hands on a pickup truck or cargo van and go on an alley crawl one weekend.

Housewares and Small Appliances

  • People are always getting rid of old dishes, silverware, and other kitchen items, which means that you can easily obtain them for free from friends who are moving, parents who have accumulated too many over the years, and thrift shops. If you’re the type who needs a perfect set of matching everything, this strategy won’t work for you, but if you care more about function, a couple of visits to Goodwill will allow you to cheaply accumulate a variety of interesting plates, bowls, glasses, and whatever else you need. Clean them with plenty of soap and very hot water and you’re ready to go.
  • Due to their relatively low cost compared to the other things you need for your apartment, things like blenders and toaster ovens aren’t bad candidates for things to buy new from the big box store. It’s hard to say how long the thrift-store one will last, but the new one will come with a warranty.

D├ęcor

Once you’ve got the basics covered, you’ll probably want to personalize your space with some decorations.

  • One of the fastest, cheapest, and easiest ways to spruce up a living space is to paint it (check with your landlord first, though—many places don’t allow it). You can paint a room for around $25, including both paint and supplies, as long as you do the work yourself. The most time-consuming part is usually finding the right color—the painting itself is easy.
  • If you have ugly floors, get a few inexpensive rugs to add some warmth and color to your rooms.
  • If you’re the creative type, use your own photography or artwork and some inexpensive frames to decorate your walls. If you’re not, talk to a friend who is.
  • If your apartment doesn’t have adequate overhead lighting, buy inexpensive lamps to brighten your space.
  • Replace generic plastic switchplate covers with decorative ones.
  • Clean everything thoroughly. Ideally, a new apartment would be clean when you moved in, but depending on the previous occupant, the landlord, and the length of time the unit has sat vacant, it might be pretty dingy. Even an old, cracked countertop looks better when it shines.
  • If interior decorating isn’t your strong suit, that’s okay. Just ask some friends whose living spaces you like for suggestions. They’ll be flattered that you asked and probably be happy to give you their input (for free!) on how to decorate your apartment.

Following my own advice, I was able to decorate and furnish my first one-bedroom apartment for about $1,000. That’s not super cheap, but when you think about how a new couch alone can easily cost $1,000, it seems like a pretty good deal.


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Post by Amy Fontinelle

11 Actions You Can Take To Improve Your Airplane Experience

When we pay so much money for plane tickets, why does the experience have to be so miserable? Well, maybe it doesn’t have to be. While this article won’t tell you how to maintain your sanity in a grounded plane for seven hours, it will give you some ideas for making the best of a relatively ordinary flight.

Get your seat in advance: Book your flight far enough in advance to get a window or aisle seat, whichever you prefer. Then make sure to pick your seat when you book your flight. The best way to do this is to book directly through the airline rather than through a third-party site, which may not transmit your seat preferences to the actual airline (in fact, you may not end up with a seat at all until you arrive at the gate, which will ensure that you have the worst seat on the plane or are at risk for getting bumped).

Before you pick your seats, use Seatguru to get advice on the best and worst seats on a particular plane. Beware that sometimes exit row seats, the seats in front of the exit row, and the seats in the last row don’t recline, and that while you’ll have more legroom, you can’t keep any luggage at your feet in the masthead sections. On the plus side, if you book far enough in advance to get a seat near the front of the plane, you might get lucky and end up with an economy plus (read: extra legroom) seat without even paying extra for it.

Experiment with different airlines: Most airlines are barely distinguishable from one another, and it often seems like you have no choice of airline if you want the cheapest ticket from point A to point B. Some people seem to have better luck with some providers than others, though. Also, there are a few that try to offer something genuinely different (like Southwest, which doesn’t assign seats, or Virgin America, which boasts wider seats, mood lighting, and 110v power at every seat to plug in your electronics in-flight).

Wear headphones from the moment you get on the plane: Whether you are listening to anything or not, headphones will signal to people that you want to be left alone (of course, this tip assumes that you do want to be left alone!). They also help transport you to your own peaceful world, free of those constant intercom announcements and the other obnoxious noises associated with flying.

Redeem some of your miles for an upgrade to business or first class: Nowadays, miles are easier than ever to get with rewards credit cards (and their generous signup bonuses), so you won’t have to feel like you’re sacrificing hard-earned miles when you use them for something that isn’t an actual plane ticket.

Use fare tracking tools like Yapta and Farecast before buying your ticket: The better a deal you’re getting on your flight, the less annoyed you might be about any inconveniences.

Fly at night so you can sleep: People tend to be a lot chattier on daytime flights, not to mention that there’s sunlight coming in through the windows. So if you want some peace and quiet or like to sleep on the plane, choose a flight that departs after dark.

Do things that you are too distracted to do when you’re at home: If you’re the type of person who normally can’t sit still knowing that there’s a house that needs to be cleaned or weeds that need to be pulled, take advantage of being forced to sit still on the airplane and do something you wouldn’t normally be able to relax enough to enjoy, like reading a book.

Book a nonstop flight: Flying directly from point A to point B decreases your chances of having a delayed or canceled flight. Sometimes it costs more, but often it doesn’t, or the price difference is negligible.

Have a drink: Some people think that drinking on the plane is a sure way to make yourself miserable since flying is already dehydrating enough, but other people swear that alcohol helps calm their nerves about flying or lets them pass the time faster by napping through their flight.

Board last: Why rush to get in line when your plane arrives? The sooner you board, the more time you’ll spend sitting in those 17-inch seats. If you wait until final boarding, you’ll avoid the cattle call, spend less time waiting in line, and spend less time on the plane.

Board early: On the other hand, if you have significant carryon luggage, you might prefer to board early, lines and all, to make sure you have room for your luggage. If you get stuck storing your luggage in a bin behind the row where you’re seated, you’ll be the last person off the plane.

Those who fly frequently usually have an airplane system all figured out, but if your system is broken or you aren’t such a savvy flyer, these tips might make your next few hours on an airplane more enjoyable.


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Post by Amy Fontinelle

6 Ways to Minimize Shipping Costs and Maximize Your Profits

If you’re like me and you sell pretty much anything you don’t use anymore on eBay, then you do a lot of shipping. I hate to eat into my profit margin by paying for shipping supplies, though, so over the years I’ve found ways to minimize their cost. Whether you’re shipping things for your small business, online sales, or cross-country birthdays, these tips will help you keep your shipping costs as low as possible.

Purchase a digital scale to make sure you can weigh your items as accurately as possible. This way, you won’t overspend on postage and you won’t have orders returned to you for insufficient postage. Digital scales are expensive at office supply stores, but you can find a wide variety of scales at different price points on eBay.

Skip the post office: Who wants to waste time and gas money or deal with the hassle of going to the post office? The USPS will pick up your shipment from your door for free as long as you have at least one Priority or Express mail item in your shipment and no single package weighs more than 70 pounds. The only catch is that you have to schedule the pickup a day ahead of time. And if your mailman doesn’t care, you can even ignore the Priority/Express item rule.

Don’t buy stamps from Stamps.com: Stamps.com, an online service that allows you to print all classes of postage from your computer, can be a great service, but they charge a premium for pretty much everything. Just to use their basic service costs $15.99 a month, plus whatever postage fees you incur. One of the items they sell are their proprietary stamps (Net Stamps), with the idea that you can weigh your letter and only print exactly the amount of postage you need instead of, say, wasting an extra 41 cent stamp when you only need ten more cents of postage.

However, when you combine the Stamps.com monthly subscription fee with the fee of $3.99 for 125 stamp labels, you probably aren’t going to come out ahead. If you purchase a digital scale and a variety of stamp denominations, you can simply use the free USPS Postage Rate Calculator to avoid putting excessive postage on your mail. You can purchase stamps online from the USPS in denominations such as 1 cent, 10 cents, 1 dollar, and more.

Buy old stamps from eBay: If you want to save even more money on postage, you can buy older stamps in a hodgepodge of denominations from eBay. I haven’t done this myself yet, but I understand that you can save around 10% on stamps with this method. Plus, you’ll always have the right combination of stamps for your mail. To avoid headaches, keep in mind that items over 13 ounces that bear stamps (as opposed to a shipping label) cannot be placed in mailboxes or given to your mail carrier. They must be taken to a post office.

Use free online tools instead of paid subscription services: Instead of spending $15.99 a month on a subscription to Stamps.com, use the USPS’s Click ‘n’ Ship service to print Priority and Express mail postage. As long as you know the weight of your item, you can easily print a shipping label for it right from the USPS website with no fee.

Use PayPal for media mail and parcel post shipments: If you don’t want to pay for a Stamps.com subscription and you can only use USPS Click-n-Ship for Priority and Express mail, how do you cheaply and conveniently ship media mail and parcel post packages? If the item weighs less than 13 ounces, go ahead and put stamps on it. If your package weighs more than 13 ounces, ask a friend or relative with a PayPal account to send a penny to your PayPal account and mark the payment as being for “goods.” When you receive the payment, PayPal will take the penny for its service fee, but then you’ll be able to print a shipping label through your PayPal account. You don’t even have to use the name or address of the person who sent you the penny on your shipping label—you can change it online.

It can take a while to adjust to a different way of mailing things, but once you get used to it, I think you’ll agree with me that the savings in time and money are worth the effort.

Eight Less Commonly Mentioned Benefits of Home Ownership

You’ve already heard that owning a home can be a great way to build wealth and financial security and that there’s this mysterious thing called “pride of ownership” that makes it enjoyable to mow your lawn even when it’s 100 degrees outside. But the seemingly small benefits of living in a house that’s all yours instead of renting a hole in a box that belongs to someone else can actually have a bigger impact on your quality of life than you might expect.

Storage space: When you rent an apartment or condo, the only storage space you’re likely to have is whatever closet space is in the unit. Some apartments have supplemental storage, but you can’t count on it, and where it does exist, the storage conditions may be poor (a basement prone to flooding) and the security may be minimal (a wire cage with a padlock). When you own a house, not only is it probably going to be bigger than the place you were renting (600-square-foot apartments are a lot more common than 600-square-foot houses), automatically giving you more room for your stuff, but you can also put things in the attic, the garage, and the backyard. You can even buy a shed for your backyard to create additional storage space if you exhaust your other options.

Neighborhood quietness: As a homeowner, there are fewer people living on my entire block than there were in my former apartment building (which was also surrounded by other similarly high-density dwellings). Setting aside the obvious benefit of no longer sharing your walls, floors, or ceilings with neighbors when you own a house, with fewer people around, period, you generally get less noise. Of course, to accomplish this, you’ll have to buy a house in an area that is zoned only for single-family residential.

Pet options: Renting severely restricts your options for pet ownership. Either you can’t have one at all, it can only be a certain type, it has to be under a certain weight, you can only have one, you have to pay an extra deposit for it, or you have to pay a monthly “pet rent” for it. When you own a house, not only do you have near complete control of your property, you also have more space for animals to roam. The only restrictions on pet ownership you’ll face as a homeowner relate to city ordinances and your neighborhood norms (so if it’s your dream to raise chickens, do the research before you buy). And, unlike moving from one apartment to another, where finding a pet-friendly place is always a hassle, an owner-occupied house is almost always pet-friendly.

Control over repairs: When you live in someone else’s property, you’re at their mercy as to when repairs get completed. If this Friday is a bad day to have your toilet fixed because it’s your first vacation day in six months and you don’t want to wake up at 8:00 to deal with a plumber, your landlord probably doesn’t care. But if it’s your house, you can schedule the repair for a time that’s convenient for you. You also have the option of having someone else redo the repair if the first repairman botches the job, whereas in an apartment, your dishwasher will probably be spraying water all over your counter for as long as you live there if the building owner’s usual maintenance crew can’t fix it.

A short walk to the washing machine: Unless you live in a luxury apartment, doing laundry probably involves trudging your heavy laundry bag and detergent down at least one flight of stairs only to find out that all the washing machines are occupied. When you own a house, your washing machine will always be available — no more doing five loads of laundry at 9:00 on a Tuesday night. And no more hunting in the couch cushions for quarters or worrying about people stealing your clothes and having strangers see your underwear (unless you want them to, of course). You’ll also have the option of line-drying your clothes outdoors in the backyard, which is good for both the environment and your wallet. Many rental agreements prohibit fresh-air clothes drying, considering it to be “low-class” or “an eyesore.”

Fewer noise complaints from the neighbors: Need to assemble 10 bookcases from Ikea in a single afternoon? No problem. Do all the hammering in your house with the doors and windows closed and no one else is likely to hear it. But even if you do it outside, the neighbors probably won’t complain — after all, there are days when they need to make loud home improvements, too, and they’ll want you to return the favor of not minding their noise.

Not having to move: As long as you pay your taxes and your mortgage (and eminent domain doesn’t rear its ugly head), no one will ever tape a note to your door telling you that you have to move. What’s more, if your needs change, you won’t necessarily have to move when you own the place where you live. Instead, you can adapt it to suit you. You can add on another bedroom, screen in the patio, or turn the garage into a gym. There’s a certain sense of peace that comes with knowing you can lay your head in the same spot every night for as long as you want.

The freedom to choose: In an apartment, you might only have one option for extra television channels, and it’s probably cable. When you own a house, you’re limited only by the service providers that serve your area — not by restrictions on modifying the building. If you want to install a satellite dish or a special box on the exterior of your house, you probably can. Your phone service options might also improve in a house. For example, an apartment might necessitate a land line if you want the ability to buzz in friends and takeout delivery people from your fourth-floor abode, but in a house, you might be able to rely entirely on Internet-based phone service, which generally provides more calling options for less money.

Don’t underestimate the benefits of owning a house — they’re more than just financial. In fact, even when owning a house isn’t better for your bank account than renting, you may find that the emotional and lifestyle benefits are worth it.