Tag : Financially Fit Friday

cruise

Low Costs on the High Seas—Saving on a Cruise

Some people have never gone on a cruise because they think it’s too expensive. However, when you consider that the room, the food, and the entertainment are all included with the price of your ticket, the cost is comparable to other vacations. If you want to save some additional money on your nautical voyage, here are some tips.

Right place, right time

Cruises range from luxury liners to economy trips—and the cost can vary even more depending on the time of year. Decide where and when you’d like to travel, then look for the cruise line that will give you what you want for the best price. You’ll save some extra money if you go during the off-season, which is typically late spring or early fall.

You can also spend less by either planning far ahead or waiting until the last minute. Some companies will offer early-bird specials for those who book their trip more than a year in advance. On the flip side, when the sail date approaches and the companies want to fill their cabins, some will drop their prices or add incentives to attract passengers, such as additional credits, room upgrades, and complementary amenities. Keep your eye on the prices throughout the year and note what’s included—then you’ll know when you’re getting a good deal.

When creating your budget, don’t forget to factor in the price of traveling to the ship’s location, which is not included with the price of a cruise. Consider using a travel agent—they usually know about the best deals and can bundle your admission with things like airfare and a hotel room, if necessary. Or pick a port close to home to save on travel costs.

Prioritize your perks

Determine what is a want and what is a need before you book your tickets. For example, it would be nice to have a large, private veranda where you can watch the ship pull away from the port, but you can also do this up on the deck. Inside state rooms are cheaper than ones with a view, and you only really need them for sleeping and getting ready. Plus, if you easily get seasick, inner rooms are usually more stable, too.

Many cruisers blow their vacation budget on unnecessary extras. There’s really no need to upgrade for fancy dining when buffets are included with the price of your ticket. Tap water, coffee and juices are usually free, but soda or alcoholic beverages will add up on your final bill. A wireless connection while you’re out to sea can also put you over budget. Unplug while you’re on the ship in order to save money. If you need to check your messages, find a café with a free Wi-Fi on the shore while the boat is docked.

When it comes to shore excursions, you don’t have to purchase the packages offered by the cruise line. You can enjoy a day on the beach, go on a hike and explore the port on your own. If you’re going to buy souvenirs, you can probably get them for cheaper by bargaining with vendors on land than you could in the ship’s gift shop. However, if you’re hungry, you should go back to the boat to get some food, since you’ve already paid for it.

contactless payments

Make Quick Purchases with Contactless Payments

Swipe, dip, tap, insert. It can be confusing when you approach the check-out counter, but contactless payments are now a popular way to transmit funds. And if you think making purchases with your phone is something for a far-off future, the ability is probably in your hands right now.

The technology behind it

To understand how this process works, you first must be familiar with radio-frequency identification, or RFID. This technology uses a memory chip to store data and an antenna to send information to a reader when they are in close proximity. Examples include security tags on clothing in department stores, microchips implanted in pets and, of course, credit & debit cards. In fact, you may already have tap-to-pay access. If the contactless symbol (which looks like a sideways Wi-Fi signal) is on the back of the card, it means you’re good to go.

Near-field communication, or NFC, is a slightly more advanced cousin to RFID. Such memory chips can also act as readers, meaning you can send and receive data—and money—from one device to another if they’re within an inch or two of each other. It’s still relatively new, but most of the latest smartphones come with this feature pre-installed. To check your phone, go to settings and look for the switch that turns NFC off and on.

How to use it

Millions of restaurants and retailers worldwide have contactless terminals. You may also already have a mobile payment app, such as Google Pay, Apple Pay or Samsung Pay on your phone. If you don’t, you can easily download them for free. Then add your compatible cards by manually entering the information or scanning the card. When it’s time to pay, simply unlock your device, open the app and tap it on the terminal.

The benefits

Tap-to-pay technology makes shopping quick and easy. You won’t be carrying around a stack of cards, nor will you need to rummage through your bag to find the right one. All your information is safely secured behind the phone’s lock screen, and there are multiple layers of security to help prevent fraud.

If you’re hesitant to try contactless payments with your phone, we hope this explains it’s not as complicated or scary as you might have thought. In fact, tap-to-pay technology is probably already in your pocket. And once you’ve try it, you may never want to swipe again.

breakfast

Sunrise Savings: Breakfast on a Budget

Just because breakfast is the most important meal of the day doesn’t mean it also needs to be the most expensive. Whether you’re cooking for one or feeding a horde of children, here are some ways to save some money every morning.

Make a Menu

Grabbing whatever you can find as you’re rushing out the door is not only unhealthy, it can cost you. Create a weekly menu so you’re not buying too much at the grocery store. Identify where you can utilize an ingredient in multiple meals, like spinach for a dinner salad as well as your morning smoothie. Proper planning will save you time, prevent waste, and keep you out of the drive-through.

Buy in Bulk

When certain breakfast ingredients go on sale, get larger quantities and store them. For example, if you buy a whole bushel of peaches while they’re in season (May through August), you’ll spend less per pound than you would picking up two or three at a time during the winter. Chop fruits and vegetables you don’t plan on using immediately to freeze before they spoil.

Go Generic

Many Americans wake up to big bowls of cold cereal. Bringing home box after box of name-brand products can get expensive. Generic versions are a fraction of the cost and usually taste the same. This saving principle can be applied to other items such as cream cheese, bagels, jam, peanut butter, bread and even microwavable meals. Don’t pay extra for the label.

Make it Yourself

You’ll also be charged for the labor that goes into pre-cooked, pre-sliced and otherwise pre-made foods. A box of pancake mix is easy, but purchasing flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, eggs, milk, vegetable oil, and making your own batter will produce more and cost you less. Less processed products are the more frugal choice.

Keep it Simple

When it comes to the first meal of the day, people tend to overcomplicate things. Your kids may be just as satisfied with a hard-boiled egg as they would eggs Benedict. And instead of grabbing a breakfast sandwich from a restaurant on the way to work, bring a piece of buttered toast with jam from home. Substitute simple rolled oats for pricey cereals—you can even mix in those delicious peaches you have in your freezer. Start your day off right by saving!

cryptocurrency

Virtual Money: Understanding Cryptocurrency

The concept of cryptocurrency can be fairly confusing to those who are just hearing about it. After all, words like Bitcoin, blockchain and mining sound like they belong in a video game rather than the financial sector. If you’ve ever wondered what this world is all about, here’s a brief introduction.

What is cryptocurrency?

In the simplest of terms, cryptocurrency, or crypto, is virtual money. It only exists electronically. Bitcoin is the most popular, but there are thousands of others, with names like Ethereum, Litecoin, Ripple, Feathercoin and TRON. Users can’t make their own Bitcoins, but anyone with the know-how can create their own digital currency, so it’s not easy to tell which options are viable for investing. Some digital coins may be worth more in the future, but others may disappear completely, leaving the investors with nothing.

How does it work?

People use digital currency much like they do regular money. If someone can find a person or business that is willing to accept the crypto they have, they can make an exchange, no matter where in the world they are. This system is dependent on a peer-to-peer network with multiple parties supervising what’s going on. While users are anonymous, each transaction is logged and verified in digital ledgers, otherwise known as blockchains. Since there is no overseeing authority for cryptocurrency, these blockchains are monitored by various users around the world.

How do people get it?

There are a couple ways. First, people can purchase it with real money. One Bitcoin, for example, currently costs over $6,000. Interested parties can buy a fraction of one coin, too. Another way to earn some types of digital currency is by putting a computer to work, verifying blocks on the blockchain—a process known as mining. When a computer successfully confirms a logged transaction, the owner may be rewarded with a certain amount of crypto. Some people spend lots of money buying special hardware and software to mine for Bitcoin and other virtual currencies.

What are the risks?

Cryptocurrency has been referred to as the wild west of the financial world, because there aren’t many rules or regulations. Some say investing in it is akin to gambling, whereas others say it’s the future of money. Either way, investors should not convert funds they can’t stand to lose. Since crypto isn’t regulated by any state or government, no one is there to investigate fraud and investments aren’t insured or protected. If the virtual coins in a digital wallet disappear, the money is gone.

There is a lot more to say on the subject, but this article is a quick overview to help you understand what the digital currency trend is all about. In summary, cryptocurrency is a volatile and experimental market and only time will tell how worthwhile such an investment might be.

school

Back-to-School Savings

Kids aren’t the only ones who get anxious about going back to school. As summer winds down, many parents are financially stressed because all of the supplies & extras they’re going to purchase. Here are some tips to save a few bucks this year.

Reading

Research it beforehand. Check out popular sites for discounts on backpacks, folders, laptops, calculators, colored pencils and whatever else you need. Follow your favorite stores on social media to see when deals are available. Sales occur at different times, so keep a list and compare prices.

You don’t have to shop exclusively online or at big-box stores, either. Get your local supermarket’s ads and browse dollar stores for inexpensive essentials. You may even find some great bargains at secondhand stores or yard sales.

Writing

Make a combined list of what each child needs for the upcoming school year. Picking out cute accessories or extras is fun, but they can add up—especially if you have a large family. Stick to what you wrote down and you won’t find yourself surprised by the total tab.

Consider sending an email or group text to other moms & dads about buying school items in bulk. A teacher may request two highlighters, for example, but you can go in with five others and buy a pack of ten, sharing the cost.

Arithmetic

First, do the math to see how much you’re going to spend. You can even involve your kids in this process to teach them basic budgeting techniques. Have them chip in with some of their own money if they want to buy something extra or upgrade to an item that features their favorite movie character on it.

Buying early can also lower your bill. If you know the basics of what your child should have, you can spread out the purchases during the year. Alternatively, since prices are usually lower after classes start, you can stock up on cheap supplies for the following year. A stockpile of school items will make you feel more prepared and you’ll save more, too.

The Cost of Cycling

If you’re searching for a new hobby, cycling is a fun & healthy choice. But if you’re going to take it seriously—even train for races such as the Tour of Utah—you’re going to spend some money. Here’s a brief cost overview:

The bicycle itself ($500 – $2,000)
Absolutely the most expensive component. Road bikes are far more aerodynamic and lighter than those made for trails. High-end models are also more expensive because they have carbon fiber and titanium construction. Those you see in the Tour de France run around $12,000, but that’s certainly not necessary for those on the entry level.

Headgear ($25 – $300)
If you’re going to ride fast, a safety should be your first concern. You can be more frugal here, because all bike helmets must pass standardized safety tests. Those that are the most expensive are usually designed for function and aesthetics. These versions weigh less, provide better venting and are more technologically advanced—yet a cheap one will protect your brain from injury just as well. Most manufacturers recommend you replace helmets every five years.

Clothing ($30 – $350 each)
For casual riding, you can wear whatever you have on. However, if you’re going long distances, traditional cycling gear is more comfortable and effective. You may feel a little self-conscious wearing the shorts at first, but they’ll prevent painful chafing. Moisture-wicking jerseys and gloves help regulate body temperature and keep blisters away. Lots of cyclists also buy cleats to improve their pedaling. Once again, these items aren’t required, but they make a difference.

Misc. equipment ($20 – $200 each)
Of course, you’ll also need glasses to keep the bugs out of your eyes, a water bottle to hydrate on the go, a compact bike pump, a multitool for minor repairs, a mirror, sunscreen, and a pack to store all the extras.

When you start riding, you’ll learn what’s essential and what isn’t. Make your initial investment wisely and you’ll get a lot of benefit in return.

credit cards

Smart Spending: Use Credit Cards Wisely

Credit cards may have an iffy reputation, but the truth is that they’re beneficial financial tools if you make wise choices. They can boost your credit score, bring some cash back, and generate rewards. Use them carelessly and you’ll pay for it—literally. Here are some best practices.

Maintain zero balances

Treat your credit cards like personal loans to yourself. Don’t spend more than you have. Carrying a balance means you’re being charged interest, which is money you don’t need to spend. Pay in full and on time every month to avoid this cost. If that’s not possible, at least submit the minimum or more so you don’t rack up fees. And mark the statement closing date on your calendar so you don’t forget to pay when the bill comes due.

Track your spending

Never treat your card like a bottomless pit, create a budget to track spending. Review monthly statements to figure out how often you’re charging, then determine where you can cut back. Also, look at the transaction history regularly and set up balance alerts that tell you when you’re nearing the established limit.

Don’t max out

If you’re consistently reaching your credit card limit, you’re either spending too much or your available cap is too low. Raising your limit is not a bad thing if you’re sensible about it. In fact, using less than 30% of your total available credit can improve your credit score, while repeatedly reaching a smaller limit can make a dent.

Avoid fraud

When you shop online, only enter your card information on reputable sites. Look for URLs that begin with https:// and have a green padlock icon next to the address bar, which means they’re properly encrypted. At gas stations, look for pumps nearest to the shop. Choose indoor ATMs when possible and always check for signs of tampering before inserting a card. If you suspect your card has been compromised, contact your financial institution immediately.

Get rewarded

Many cards offer rewards. Visa® Platinum from America First, for example, gives you 1.5% cash back on every purchase. Or you can get one point for every dollar you spend, redeemable for merchandise, hotels, flights, gift cards and more.

Using your credit cards wisely means you’ll earn more and pay less.

IRAs

Traditional vs. Roth IRAs

Individual retirement accounts, or IRAs, are a way people can save money specifically for when they leave the workforce. The two primary types of retirement accounts are traditional and Roth. Here’s a quick rundown of the differences between these options.

Traditional

With traditional IRAs, you normally won’t pay taxes until you withdraw the money. Some or all of your contributions may be tax deductible, depending on your gross adjusted income, and your earnings can also grow in a tax-deferred environment. Any money you put into a traditional IRA will lower your taxable income that year, which could help you qualify for other tax incentives.

You may continue to contribute to traditional IRAs until you reach the age of 70½. After that, you are required to begin taking distributions. Also, if you withdraw funds before you turn 59½, you’ll pay a 10% penalty. However, there are some ways to not get penalized for early withdrawal, such as if it’s for a first-time home purchase or the disability or death of the account holder. If you want to know more about these exceptions, contact a financial professional.

Roth

On the other hand, Roth IRAs are taxed now, but can be pulled out tax-free when you begin distribution. So your contributions aren’t deductible, but your earnings will grow untaxed with this type of retirement account. If you believe that you will be in a higher income tax bracket when you retire, then a Roth IRA might be right for you.

You can make contributions at any age to Roth IRAs. Distributions aren’t required, either. Plus, you won’t pay any penalties for early distribution, as long as it’s not more than the total amount that you’ve contributed. If you want to withdraw your earnings, you can do so tax-free if the Roth has been open for five years and you’ve turned 59½, you’ve incurred a disability, you need it to make a payment for your first home, or the account holder’s death.

Setting up an individual retirement account is easy, and the earlier you start, the more you’ll have when it’s time to retire. If you want to learn more about investing in IRAs, visit americafirst.com.

tires

All-Wheel Savings: Caring for Your Car Tires

You should always take care of your wheels—and we’re not just talking about the car itself—because it will save you money in several ways. Properly maintained tires get better mileage, so you’ll spend less on gas. Regular checks and rotations will help them last longer and prevent blowouts, which could cause costly damage to your vehicle and potential injury. Here are some tips on how to take care of your ride:

Monitor the Pressure

Air pressure is measured in pounds per square inch or PSI. The PSI number on the sidewall is the maximum amount of pressure, and therefore should not be the number you use when inflating. You can see the ideal PSI in the owner’s manual or on the driver’s side door frame. Check the pressure regularly, because even a perfectly healthy tire can lose up to two PSI per month. Underinflated tires have more rolling resistance, which means the engine burns additional fuel. It can also lead to heat buildup, causing treads to wear down more quickly.

Look at the Tread

Check your wheels monthly, looking for damage, cracks, punctures and bubbles on the sidewalls. You should also monitor the treads, as bald tires won’t grip the road well and affect steering and handling. Underinflation will cause your tires to wear on both edges, whereas center-worn treads indicate overinflation. Use a tread depth gauge or, alternatively, a penny. Insert the coin in the grooves upside down and facing you—if you can see the top of Abraham Lincoln’s head, your tread is too low. Replace damaged or bald tires immediately.

Remember to Rotate

If your tires are unevenly worn, it’s because they haven’t been properly rotated. During this process, each wheel is taken off and moved to a different position, making them last longer. Most tires should be rotated every 6,000 to 8,000 miles, or roughly every other oil change. However, if you notice any irregular wear on your wheels—even if you haven’t reached 6,000 miles yet—go in for a rotation.

Watch Your Speed

Going fast means a greater chance of tire damage due to heat buildup or road hazards. Excessive spinning can also cause faster wear. Check your owner’s manual to learn the vehicle load limit to avoid unnecessary stress wheel or engine stress.

Take care of your vehicle and it will take care of your wallet.

moving

Moving Out & the Cost of Independence

Living on your own is an essential part of growing up, but it comes with a price and independence isn’t cheap. If you’re thinking of moving out, here are some costs to consider. This isn’t intended to scare you, but rather prepare you for the budget realities you’ll face.

Housing

One of the biggest monthly expenses is your rent or mortgage payment. The average one-bedroom apartment in downtown U.S. cities can range from $600 to over $3,500, depending on where you live. Some places also require security deposits, as well as first & last months’ rent. Plus, if it’s unfurnished, you’ll need some money for a bed, tables, chairs and other furniture. And let’s not forget about the basics, such as light bulbs, utensils, shower curtains, toilet paper and cleaning supplies.

Utilities

In addition to housing payments, you’ll pay utilities to keep the lights on and the AC running. On average, Americans spend over $100 per month for electricity, another $100 for gas, and around $40 for water & sewer. Sometimes these bills will be rolled into your rent, but if not, be careful with your thermostat.

Groceries

If you’re single, you’ll be spending up to $50 a week on milk, eggs, fresh produce, bread and other groceries, but you’ll also want the staples—flour, sugar, salt, oil, condiments and spices. A fully stocked fridge is the best way to avoid the cost of eating out too much.

Entertainment

A television or computer can keep you entertained and connected, but they come at a price. While many people are cutting cable TV, the internet is becoming more of a necessity than a luxury. Service providers charge between $40 and $70 monthly for basic packages, and that doesn’t include the cost of router and a modem.

Insurance

Your place should also be insured, protecting you against huge losses due to fire, flood or injury. Homeowner’s insurance is common, but renter’s insurance is also an option. If you own a vehicle, you must get it covered and you’ll need health insurance, although it’s offered as a benefit by many employers. All this adds hundreds or thousands of dollars to your yearly expenses, but it’s worth every penny in case of emergency.

Miscellaneous

If that weren’t intimidating enough, there are also a bunch of miscellaneous things to pay for: car repairs, maintenance, appliances, tools, fire extinguishers, etc. Even the act of moving out will dent your budget, because might be paying for boxes, tape, packing materials, renting a truck and feeding everyone who came out to help.

Finally, you don’t want monthly expenses to exceed 30% of your net income. If it’s more than that, you might want to take on a second job or cut some spending. Otherwise you may find yourself moving back in with your parents.