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Saturday, July 29, 2006  

My Credit Card Pick

When I started working full-time I decided that it was time to stop just using my debit card and get my own credit card to start building a credit history. I think many people end up with whatever card they got an offer for in the mail, but you can really impact your finances by choosing a good credit card. Since I knew I would be paying my card off every month I didn't care so much about the interest rate, for me the most important factor would be the benefits I would get from my card. And of course that there was no annual fee - if you are paying an annual fee on any banking or credit accounts you are getting ripped off.
There are four basic types of rewards you can get from a credit card:
    Airline Miles: These are very popular cards but are almost never a good deal. There are so many rules and restrictions and you have to spend so much money to be able to get a ticket this is only a good card to get if you fly on the same airline every week. For most young people this is not the case - if you are flying that much it's probably through your job and they're paying for it.

    Store-Specific Rewards: I'm not talking about cards that are issued to you through the store (such as a sears card, banana republic card, etc), I'm talking about the new breed that are visa or mastercards but earn points towards one specific place. An example is the Amazon Visa Card. These vary a lot in how good a deal they are, but they mostly serve as fun bonuses. With the amazon visa card you get a $25 amazon gift card for every $2,500 spent on the card (your rate is slightly better if you're spending at amazon). So if you are an amazon fan and you are spending that much on your credit card anyway then it's not a bad card to get. BUT you have to be careful to avoid the trap of spending more than usual to get "free stuff" from amazon. (Hint: it's not free if you spent an extra $2,500 to get it!)

    Gifts Rewards: These are the cards where you earn points with every purchase that you can redeem for various gifts. An example of this is the Citi Diamond Preferred Rewards Card. The rewards include everything under the sun from concert tickets to home furnishings. In my opinion this is not a good choice because you are basically getting JUNK that you didn't even get to pick out. Yes you will have a list of their choices to pick from, but wouldn't you rather just have cash to buy what you want? Which leads me to the best type of rewards program . . .

    Cash-Back Rewards: For almost everyone this is the best type of credit card to chose. You get a percentage of your spending (usually between 1 and 5 percent) back in cash to do whatever you want with. The downside is there is a cap to the amount of cash back you can receive in a year, but hopefully you aren't spending that much to begin with! Having a credit card that doesn't give you cash back is passing up free money.

The credit card that I ended up picking is the Citi Dividend Mastercard. (You can view a list of their various cash-back cards here. The card gives me 1% back on all purchases and 5% back on gas and groceries. If you are looking for a way to build credit and you drive a car getting this card and just using it for gas would be a wise way to go. Citi also has a merchant network where you can get higher percentages back at a large number of online stores (overstock, gap, target, urban outfitters, saks), a feature I took advantage of for holiday shopping. After researching online cite dividend was my pick for the best deal on a credit card, and so far I've earned $60 cash back.

Friday, July 28, 2006  

Festival of Under 30 Finances

Just posting to let everyone know that my post about Laptop Lunches is part of this week's Festival of Under 30 Finances.

I've decided that whenever one of my posts is in a carnival I'm going to link to the posts that I found most valuable from that carnival.
Start investing for retirement early with a Roth IRA
This is a good basic description of a roth IRA. Nothing too advanced but a worthy read if you don't know what it is and why you should have one.
Paid Application Help
This one is from a blog that I always enjoy - it's about how to decide whether or not its worth it pay for help in essay and test preparation.
How we paid down our debt and saved money at the same time..it can be done!
I think the idea of weekly payments is a great one. I don't pay my credit card weekly but I usually pay off whatever I've just purchased on it through online bill pay instead of doing one monthly lump sum.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006  

Expanding the Definition of "Professional Development"

When I hear professional development I think of huge corporations paying their employee's way through college or professional training classes. I didn't really understand how one finagles their employer into paying for say an advanced college degree and kind of dismissed the entire category. But if you expand your definition of professional development you can get a lot more value out of your job.

I work as a print and web graphic designer at my first full-time "real job" out of college. To me that means I am here to learn all that I can - especially in a field where there's a lot of freelance potential I want to learn how to be as skilled and self-sufficient as I can in every area. I work for a local, 12-person company that doesn't have any sort of formal professional training program. So I made my own.

This is a perfect example of why you should never be afraid to speak up and ask for you want. In the case of further training, its mutually beneficial for both you and the company you work for. In my case my employer was looking to hire someone to program the websites that our clients often need. Although my professional focus is design, not programming I know that in the world of web design programming knowledge makes you a much more valuable designer. So I stepped up and asked if my workplace would send me to training classes in dreamweaver and CSS. They happily obliged. After all, it is much more cost-effective for them to train someone who is already employed than to hire someone new. I've taken two classes and I've spent the summer reading up on CSS and other web programming techniques from books which I picked out and my employer was more than happy to pay for. This week I take over the maintenance of our websites so it's finally time to put my skills to the test! Even if you would like to expand your skills in area that isn't directly related to your current position it's worth a shot to ask - one it shows initiative and two if you're a valued employee they will be interested in prepping you for a more important position.

Ideally the professional training you receive will lead to the ultimate goal of your personal finances - more money! But even if your current employer doesn't see it that way it will add skills to your resume for your next job. And in my case, all the training that my job is paying for is enabling me to start doing freelance web work. Whatever the outcome, it's a smart way to add value to your professional, money-making self.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006  

free tax file service

2005 was the first year I've done my own taxes and since I spent part of my year being a dependent to my parents, part of it doing freelance work, and part of it on a payroll it was a complete nightmare. Not to mention the fact that I moved from a state that doesn't charge income tax (texas) to one that does (illinois). I decided to use turbotax and hated every minute of it. To file my freelance earnings I finally figured out that own business on turbotax which was really confusing and wasn't explained at all. I really don't feel that it was any easier than just filling out the actual forms. Also when I finally got to the end of the process they had tacked on a bunch of fees that I wasn't aware of when I started. Moral of the story: I will never use turbotax again so I've been keeping my eyes out for an alternative for 2006. I was very happy to come across this link from the IRS on Penny Foolish. If you make under 50k a year you can e-file for free on a variety of tax-filing websites. Yes turbotax is on the list, but this year I will be going elsewhere.

Monday, July 24, 2006  

laptop lunches

Everyone knows that one of the biggest ways to save money is to bring your lunch to work. For myself I've found that eating out for lunch was by far the number one "leak" in my cashflow. This is one of those products where you have to make an initial investment that seems a little high to save money in the long run, so stay with me if this seems like something you don't need to spend money on.

I LOVE my Laptop Lunchbox!

The laptop lunchbox is a product that's inspired by the Japanese bento box. The idea is that when you pack your lunch you end up wasting a lot more resources and money by buying single-serving items that create a lot of trash but are easy to pack in lunches. (Admittedly this is more of a problem for children's lunches than adult.) But a problem I found in packing adult lunches is that if you want to bring a variety of foods there is no efficient/convenient way to do so. Enter the laptop lunchbox. The lunchbox comes with individual containers that can be washed and re-used that all fit into one convenient box. No more need to juggle oversized or undersized tupperware containers.

But the main way the laptop lunchbox will save you money is that it truly motivates you to pack your lunch. There are several blogs dedicated to creatively packing bento lunches (my favorite is The Vegan Lunchbox) that will have you scouring your kitchen for new items to fill those cute little containers with. This product has inspired me to eat more consciously and healthfully, pack my lunch to save money, and create less packaging waste in the process. It's one of those rare purchases that I feel has definitely saved me money.

spare change

Today as I was spray-mounting on the wall street journal (OK I don't actually sit down and read it but I do occasionally skim a few articles while I wait for the spray-mount to get tacky) I noticed a blurb about the possible elimination of pennies. I couldn't believe that it actually costs more than one cent to make a penny! I feel like that should add up to a huge problem somehow . . .

This has been something on my mind because I've been making an effort to use more cash in order to help myself stick to a food budget for the week. I think using cash is a great way to limit spending and be more aware of the money that is going out but I see a big problem with change. For me change is essentially wasted money, I rarely use it to pay for a purchase because I don't like to hold up the line to dig for then count change that I may or may not have. I mostly use it for tipping at coffee or sandwich shops, or put the extra in a jar when I get home that I don't use for anything. The change that I get when I use cash is cent-by-cent being drained away from the amount of cash I have allotted myself, which is not a problem when I'm using my debit card.

I recently decided I should do something with all the extra change (I also collect the change I find lying around the house that has fallen out of my boyfriend's pockets- there is your evidence that I'm cheap if it hasn't become clear already) and I have heard that it's a huge hassle to get your change deposited into your account at your local brick-and-mortar bank. Full disclosure- I am too lazy to actually call my local bank of america and see if they'll take my unused change because there isn't a convenient one for me to haul my change to if they actually do take it unrolled. So I looked up the coinstar website to see what my options are there. In case anyone isn't familiar coinstar are machines that you put change in and then spit out a voucher for cash. The percentage they charge is so hefty that they don't even tell you what it is on the website, so what I'm interested in are the gift certificates where you actually get the value of 100% of your change. They actually have some good options including amazon, starbucks, borders and itunes that are places many people are spending at anyway. For me the only one that I regularly spend at is itunes so I'm planning on taking my change to a coinstar and getting an itunes gift certificate soon. As long as I actually manage to keep up with all my change I feel that it's a way to make sure the change I get back from cash isn't wasted, through at the same time it still isn't really correctly fitting into the budgeting that I'm trying to accomplish. Though really it's OK to spend my extra food money on itunes as long as I stay within my budget ($60 a week for eating out), I can just think of the itunes as extra for being good!

I am really curious what others do about this topic- do you feel that the spare change you get is money wasted? What do you do about this problem?

Introductory post

ThenThings takes it's name from the mantra of my favorite personal finance advisor Suze Orman- "people first. then money. then things". In my own personal finance journey I try to keep "then things" in mind and realize that the money I spend on things isn't as important to me as the money I save. I have spent a lot of time lately reading other personal finance blogs so this is my way to put my own viewpoint out there and share links that I enjoy.

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