Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Offbeat Money-Saving Tips for College Students: Beyond the Conventional Wisdom

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , ,

one piece of paper - 50 thousand dollars

By Michele Stillwell

After reading Punny Money for a couple of years, you college students out there might know that you can save lots of money avoiding the school bookstore and flashing your student ID at area businesses for a discount. But for today’s college student on a shoestring budget, sometimes you have to go beyond conventional wisdom to make it through your four (or five, or ten) years of college financially intact.

Credit Cards

Conventional Wisdom: Get the Citi mtvU Visa and receive 5 ThankYou Points for each dollar spent at the college bookstore (including textbooks, clothing, and other necessities), and at restaurants and movie theaters. Send in your transcripts each semester and get up to 2,000 points for good grades.

Beyond CW: When you’ve accumulated some points, rather than getting a gift card that you’ll spend on things you don’t need or trading it in for cash at a less that 1 point for $1 exchange, use it for student loan rebates and get the full value of your points in a check to your student loan bank–it’s easy to do and the check comes quickly.

Textbooks

one pile of books - seven hundred dollars
Conventional Wisdom: Look online (Amazon and AbeBooks, among many others) for used books at a fraction of the price. See if there are any student co-ops or book swaps for getting cheap textbooks. At the end of the semester (or better yet at the beginning of the next semester), sell your books online and avoid the bookstore buyback at all costs.

Beyond CW: Many college bookstores hire temporary cashiers for two weeks at the beginning of the semester during the textbook buying rush. Contact your bookstore to see if they’re hiring. Not only will you get paid an hourly rate, but you’ll get an employee discount (as much as 15%) on your books for the semester.

Many professors get free textbooks sent to them by publishers hoping they’ll choose to use it for their class (thus putting more money in the pockets of the publishers). Often the professors don’t need or want them and they’re relegated to recycling or a box in storage. Ask your professors for their unwanted books or check recycling and you might come across some brand new, most recent edition books that will sell very well online.

If you see your book online for extremely cheap and then realize it’s an earlier edition than the one on the booklist, don’t immediately dismiss it. Textbook publishers often come out with new editions after only making minimal updates or adding one chapter. If you have a classmate with the newer book to fall back on, you can usually save a huge amount by getting an older edition. But make sure to do your research on the changes because occasionally there is a major update and you’ll be lost with an outdated book.

As soon as you have your booklist, check out the books from the school library (do it quickly before someone else beats you to them). After you attend class and get a syllabus, you’ll have a better idea of which books you really need and which ones the professor put on the booklist only because he wrote it and gets a cut for each book sold. Plus, if you decide to buy it online, having a copy from the library will ensure you don’t get stuck without the book when you have an assignment. Your library doesn’t have the book? Check out the inter-library loan or consortium program–they’re often really easy to use and give you access to a huge database of books.

Using the College Discount

Conventional Wisdom: Use your college ID to get discounts at the movie theater, on transit passes, and in other places. Get a Student Advantage card to save money with companies like Amtrak, Greyhound, Target, and more.
one slightly used car, no engine - nine hundred dollars
Beyond CW: If you live in a city that has a car sharing company like Zipcar or Flexcar, most universities have organizational memberships which give affiliated members–including students–discounts. If you use a car share instead of the costs of parking, maintaining and fueling your own car, your savings will soar.

Many universities, usually the department in charge of student activities, have Costo/Sam’s Club memberships and make the cards available to student organizations. Use the card to access one of the warehouse clubs and save money on buying soda, veggies, and more in bulk.

Many first-run live theaters offer half-price tickets (or even less–I’ve gotten $10 ticket to Broadway-esque plays in the past) to students if you go to the box office on the day of the presentation and ask.

Unite With Your Fellow Students

Beyond CW: Many universities have not-for-profit, student-owned-and-operated coffee shops, book co-ops, convenience stores that offer books, clothes, food, and more at prices cheaper that surrounding businesses. If your university doesn’t have one, consider starting one up and gaining amazing business experience while saving your fellow students money.

Share expenses with floor/dorm/apartment mates. For example, rather than buying separate cable for your room (and wasting time in front of the TV when you should be out experiencing college life), see if you can get people on your floor to contribute a few bucks for cable in the common room and make TV watching a social event.

Be creative and have fun with your friends for free rather than paying for theater tickets or cover charges. Have a unique costume party or pot-luck–the crazier the theme, the better.

Other Tips for Saving or Making Money

Conventional Wisdom: Before buying anything new, check Craigslist, Freecycle, local thrift stores and moving sales to see if you find it cheap or free.

If you’re eligible for work study, find a low stress job at an academic department or office and use down time to study.

Beyond CW: Instead of visiting Blockbuster, check your college library’s DVD collection–there might be something you want to see. Often libraries have some great independent and arty films, and occasionally more popular hits.

Check out bulletin boards for notices of science or psychology studies that will pay you to answer questions, drink green juice, or something similarly harmless.

After You Graduate

graduating with honors when you paid your nerdy little brother to write your senior thesis - pricey
Conventional Wisdom: Consider consolidating your student loan. Try to avoid lifestyle inflation. Oh, and find a job.

Beyond CW: See if your university has an alumni association that you can join. Many offer numerous discounts, cheap membership to the university gym, and use of other university facilities that can come in handy even if you move to another city. Careful though, you’re also likely to get calls and letters asking you to donate all the money you’ve saved and more to your alma mater.

If you’re a member of United’s Mileage Plus program, take advantage of their 10,000 mile graduation reward and you’ll be almost halfway to a free air ticket.

Above all, make sure you utilize all the amazing facilities available to you. Never again will you have so many resources–the library, the gym, the career center, the mental health center, and activities, events, speakers and student organizations–available for free (well, free after you or your parents paid thousands of dollars for the access).

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Michele Stillwell is a communications associate for a nonprofit in California. She’d love to hear from you by email.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Five Mistakes Twentysomethings Make With Their Money

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , , ,

twentysomethings beware

By Matt Busse

I don’t know what it is about people in their twenties these days. A frighteningly high number of us are simply terrible about managing our personal finances. Why is that? To hear our parents and grandparents tell it, when they were young, they grew their own tomatoes, made their own clothes, and bought their first cars for fifty bucks each, all while fighting wars on the other side of the world. By contrast, I know people my age who can’t even balance a checkbook, let alone grow a proper vegetable.

Worst of all, there are a handful of mistakes many, many twentysomethings make when it comes to personal finance. You can trust me on this, because I have personally made all of these errors–some of them multiple times–so I know what I’m talking about. In no particular order, here are five common personal finance mistakes to avoid if you’re in your twenties, plus tips on how to steer clear of them.

  1. Using credit cards. Scott Adams, creator of the “Dilbert” comic strip, says credit cards are the crack-cocaine of the financial world. He’s right. They trick you into ignoring how much you spend and pushing into the back of your mind the fact that you will, eventually, have to pay them off. And once you’ve received your first card, the sharks start circling. Other companies send you offers. They seem tempting. Zero percent interest for a year, one says. So you transfer your balance to that card instead of paying it off. Then you do it again with another card a month later. Soon, you’re playing hot potato, opening up one line of credit after another, racking up charges and flushing your credit score down the toilet.
    Solution: Use a debit card or cash for your purchases. If you absolutely must use a credit card, get a low-interest card and use it only when needed. Pay off your balance on time.
  2. Buying the latest and greatest. Why are some twentysomethings obsessed with always having the flashiest cell phone, the biggest television, the fastest computer? It’s an image problem, a consumption problem, and it’s a big waste of money. If you like luxury items, and you have the money in your budget to get them, that’s fantastic. Enjoy. Have a blast. But don’t do it just to have the hottest new thing. And don’t do it if you have more pressing expenses at hand, like paying off student loans or saving for your first house. Solution: Be satisfied with what you have. If you want something new and cool, make sure you can really afford it.
  3. Financing items that depreciate in value. This goes hand in hand with the previous item. That 52-inch television might look nice in your living room, but will it still seem as cool when you’re paying for it four years down the road? Even worse, four years from now, it’ll be worth only a small fraction of what you paid for it. Getting financing on big-ticket items can sometimes be considered necessary if it’s a washing machine or other appliance you would call a “need.” But for big-screen televisions, booming car stereos and other frivolous items, it’s just not worth it. You should only finance things that gain value over time. That includes not financing cars, if you can afford to always buy used.
    Solution: Save up your money instead and pay for what you want upfront. That way, not only can you avoid interest, but the extra time it takes to save up for a pricey item will force you to really think about whether you want to spend the money on it.
  4. Ignoring your 401(k). If your company offers a 401(k) retirement plan with a matching contribution, take advantage of it. Max out your investment to match the company’s contribution (in other words, if your employer matches up to four percent, you should put in four percent). It’s like free money from your boss. And you’re never too young to start thinking about retirement.
    Solution: Max out that 401(k)! Don’t touch it until you retire. You’ll be glad you did.
  5. Refusing to learn how to budget. I know a number of people in their twenties who just don’t want to learn how to keep a simple personal budget. They say it’s too hard, or it takes too much time and work. That’s ridiculous. There are a slew of books and websites available that can teach anyone to make an easy, low-maintenance budget using a computer spreadsheet. All it takes is a few minutes a day, or a little longer if you update it every week. If you learn to allot your money to different bills and expenses, track your purchases and save your extra cash, you’ll be much better off in the long run for it.
    Solution: Suck it up and learn. Go to Google and type in “learn personal budgeting.” It’s not difficult, and it’s definitely worth your time.
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Matt Busse is a journalist and freelance writer living in Lynchburg, Virginia. Since 2004, he has covered business, technology and government for Lynchburg’s daily newspaper, The News & Advance. He writes a
blog about writing at mattbusse.com.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

App-O-Ramas and Bumpage: The Secret Arts of Free Money and Flawless Credit Reports

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , ,

balance transfer offers are waving free money in your face

By Rebecca Lennox

BETHESDA, Md. – Tuesday is just another day on the internet for 25-year-old WalletMan81. He pulls up his RSS feed reader and checks out what’s happening in the world of geek culture. Maybe he kills a few minutes playing his favorite Flash point-and-click games. But there’s always one thing WalletMan81 is sure to do each morning before logging off and piling onto Interstate 495 along with 100,000 other D.C.-area techies.

He clicks a few magical buttons and increases his credit score.

“A little bumpage a day keeps the FICO score… uh, happy,” he says. While I wasn’t surprised to learn that WalletMan81 is not his real name, maybe it should be. WalletMan says he spends at least an hour every day using the internet to orchestrate his vast financial holdings.

“Well, maybe not vast,” he corrects me. “I mean, I do have about $175,000 sitting in the bank right now, but most of it isn’t mine; it’s the credit card companies’.”

WalletMan has mastered the little-known personal finance tactic known as the App-O-Rama. Every six months or so, WalletMan will take a day off of work just to apply for credit cards–often dozens of them in a single sitting. But from his relatively modest one-bedroom apartment setting, you can tell that he’s not signing up for these credit cards to load up on luxuries and plunge himself into debt.”

“I’m after the zero-percent bee-tee money, man.” He points to a computer display showing his current savings account balance. “This… this money here I’ll have to pay back in the next six to twelve months. But this right here…” He points to the interest paid column. “That’s all mine.”

App-O-Ramas: Making Free Cash With Credit Card Company Money

WalletMan is one of hundreds who participate in an online discussion forum that talks about secret financial techniques like the App-O-Rama that aren’t generally known to the public. He explains that the purpose of the App-O-Rama is simple: cram as many credit card applications as possible into a short period of time. With each subsequent application, WalletMan knows his credit score will take a hit since credit scoring bureaus see applications for credit as a reason to ding his creditworthiness. But if he applies for 30 cards all at the same time, the credit card companies will all see the same higher credit score than if he spread those applications out over several days. The gradual approach would allow the first batch of applications to dent his score, threatening the likelihood that the subsequent applications will be approved.

“Once the apps go through–takes a few days or a couple weeks–I’ll do a zero-percent bee-tee–a balance transfer–from the new credit line to my savings account.” WalletMan takes out a credit card mailing advertising a no-fee, zero-percent balance transfer, essentially a cash-out of a card’s credit line to another credit card or even a bank account. Unlike most credit card balances which carry interest rates upward of 30%, these promotional offers allow cardholders to borrow money at low or no interest for six to 24 months, requiring only a small balance transfer fee (usually $75 or less, though sometimes as low as zero) and monthly payments of 2-4% of the current balance.

WalletMan provides a cheat sheet for friends and family to try their own “bee-tees.”

  1. Sign up for a bunch of credit cards with good BT offers.
  2. Log on to the website (or call) and move about 90% of the total credit line to another card or request a paper check.
  3. Pay the minimum each month for the length of the offer.
  4. Pay it off at the end.
  5. Pocket the interest and repeat.

“I only use about 90% of any credit line because going higher than that can really trash your score.” WalletMan refers to the Fair Isaac Corporation (FICO) credit score, a number between 300 and 850 every American has that indicates his or her ability to handle credit. WalletMan shows me his latest FICO score pull–755, near the top of the range. “I’m planning another App-O-Rama in August, so that’ll probably drop back down to 600 for a bit.”

WalletMan reveals that he learned about App-O-Ramas and making interest from credit card company money four years ago from a personal finance website. “The trick was pretty new back then, but a lot more people have gotten into it since. The card companies are starting to get wise to us and’ve been dialing back on the bee-tee offers. Now they usually come with a higher fee or non-zero interest rate.”

He explains that card companies give out balance transfer offers to attract new customers–hopefully new customers who will carry lengthy balances and cough up more in interest payments than it will cost the companies during the promotional offer period. But WalletMan is no fool. “I’ve never paid a dime in interest to credit card companies. I let them pay me instead.”

Of all the credit card companies, WalletMan points to Citibank as the friendliest to App-O-Rama’ers like himself. “You can move balance transfer money to your Citi cards and request a check to deposit right into your savings account. Not a lot of companies make it that easy.”

WalletMan even started his own business whose sole purpose is to allow him to apply for business credit cards. He takes out a copy of his LLC’s Articles of Organization. Sure enough, on the line “Purpose for which the Limited Liability Company is filed is as follows:” appears the typed-in text “To apply for business credit cards and perform balance transfer arbitrage.”

“Business credit cards give out huge credit lines, sometimes four or five times what you’ll get with regular cards.” WalletMan opens a thick three-ring binder to the middle and reveals pages and pages of plastic baseball card sheets full of business credit cards. “Between regular and business [cards], I’m at 93.” Most of the cards still have their activation stickers on them, indicating WalletMan has never used them for purchases.

Bumpage: The Credit Report Cleanser Card Issuers Don’t Want You To Know About

WalletMan jumps out of his chair and thrusts his leg into the air. “Bumpage is like a Chuck Norris roundhouse kick to your credit report.” He laughs and adds, “That would have been much cooler if you were a video blogger.”

He goes on to reveal the best-kept secret of the App-O-Rama community, a sneaky trick formally called bumpage but often simply referred to as “B” by personal finance ninjas lurking in the back alleys of the internet.

“Hard pulls–which your credit report gets when a card company pulls your credit during an app–those ding your score anywhere from 5 to 20 points each.” WalletMan clicks his mouse, brings up a copy of his credit report, and points to the section headed “Inquiries.” He taps the screen to indicate inquiries marked “Citi” and “Chase,” two major card issuers.

“Soft pulls happen whenever you request your own credit report, like I just did. They don’t affect your score at all. Two of the main credit reporting agencies, TransUnion and Equifax, only store a certain number of soft and hard pulls. So if you can fill up your credit report with soft pulls, you can bump off all the hard ones. And that’ll bump up your credit score overnight.”

WalletMan says that his morning ritual includes pulling his credit report from numerous websites in order to plow those hard inquiries off his reports. “It takes a month or two, but I can reverse all the damage done to my score by an App-O-Rama. Then I simply repeat the whole process.”

Subscriptions to the credit reporting services WalletMan uses to fill his reports with soft inquiries, including PrivacyGuard and TrueCredit, run anywhere from $10 to $30 a month, but he says they’re well worth it.

WalletMan warns that, while bumpage is fairly effective when done right, it can lead to problems if you don’t know what you’re doing. “Some credit reporting services like Equifax’s Credit Watch will cut off your soft inquiries just before you get to the level needed for bumpage. They call that ‘choppage’.”

WalletMan peruses internet discussion forums daily, looking for warning signs that credit reporting agencies are engaging in choppage. “So far, I’ve been lucky. A lot of others haven’t been.” He bows his head as if talking about comrades who never returned from a dangerous journey. “It can be a wild ride, these App-O-Ramas and bumpage and all. One wrong move and you can severely damage your credit report. But for me and many others, it’s been worth the risk.”

The Payoff

“Last year, after taxes, I made $10,360 doing balance transfer offers.”

By moving the cash-outs from balance transfer offers into savings accounts and CDs, WalletMan earns interest on the interest-free money lent to him by credit card companies. “All I have to do is make the minimum payments each month and pay off the balance before the low-rate period ends. I make the interest instead of paying it to the credit card companies.”

WalletMan says he only goes for safe investments with balance transfer money since stocks carry the risk that he won’t be able to pay back the money he borrows from credit card issuers. He suggests internet-only or small-time banks as the best place to score high interest yields. “Right now, I have a few bucks in CDs, but pretty much everything is sitting in the First National Bank of Omaha earning six percent APY.”

Drawing from his research into consumer law, WalletMan says that the whole operation is completely legal. “It’s not breaking the law to borrow credit card company money for profit. And I pay taxes on every penny of interest I make.” But WalletMan confesses to a few shady actions required to rein in some of the juicier balance transfer offers. “I may have indicated that my business makes $175,000 a year on business credit card apps. In a way, I do; I just have to pay most of it back.”

WalletMan is still a long way off from turning App-O-Ramas into a full-time job. “I’m hoping to net $15,000 after taxes from bee-tees this year.” That’s not nearly enough to survive in his Washington D.C. suburb where rent on a one-bedroom apartment starts at $1,400 a month. “Now I could maybe move to some small town or the middle of nowhere and survive on $15,000 a year, as long as I had an internet connection.”

The road ahead for WalletMan and his balance transfer schemes is uncertain. More card issuers are becoming wise to App-O-Ramas, and the balance transfer offers and coming less frequently or with strings attached. “A lot of offers now want you to pay a fee of three to five percent of the balance when you do the transfer. That eats up most of the interest I’d earn right there.” He admits there are still lots of offers available out there, “But you’ve gotta take the time to find them.”

When asked if he has an accountant to handle some of his more complex financial endeavors, WalletMan sticks his thumb to his chest. “No way am I paying somebody to do this job for me. It’s too easy.”

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Rebecca Lennox is a freelance writer from Baltimore, Maryland.

Interested in writing for Punny Money like Rebecca and making $10-$50 an article? Learn how to get paid to write for us.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Put Down the Subprime Mortgage Application and Back Away Slowly

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , ,

stop in the name of basic human intelligence

Are you itching to buy a home but think the best you can do is an 8.75%, 5-year variable ARM with 3 points and a kick in the face? Chances are you just aren’t looking hard enough, says some guy whose job it is to stick poor suckers with ridiculous mortgage loans. Here are some startling–no, shocking numbers on how many well-qualified dummies are saddling themselves with subprime loans:

  • What is the difference between a prime 6.00% and a filthy 9.00% $300,000 mortgage payment? $600 every month, or more than $200,000 on a 30-year mortgage.
  • Fannie Mae says half of subprime borrowers can find a prime loan instead.
  • Over 30 percent of homebuyers let their real estate agent find their loan for them.
  • How many subprime but prime-qualified borrowers could have saved thousands and thousands of dollars if they weren’t lazy and dove into the homebuying process without knowing a thing about it? All of them.

So what about that other half of sub-prime borrowers who are truly subprime? Maybe they should spend a few months fixing their credit before making the largest purchases of their lives at a trashy interest rate. Then they can come back, carefully explore their mortgage loan options, and save a stupendous amount of money.

Besides, the subprime label usually indicates someone who

  • isn’t the best at handling money,
  • doesn’t have a decent down payment, and
  • can’t afford to pay an extra 25% on their monthly mortgage bill.

In other words, subprime borrower should be synonymous for “person who has no business taking out a six-figure loan.”

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Search and Ye Shall Receive: Credit Card Jail, Inflated Salaries, and AP Exams for the Lazy

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , , ,

It’s time for a triple dose of Search and Ye Shall Receive. Here are some questions people have recently asked search engines that brought them to Punny Money.

And don’t worry, these are genuine answers, unlike my answers to a certain other set of questions.

Jail for Credit Card Debt?

hamster debtor in jail

Will I go to jail if I don’t pay my credit cards? (via Google)

I feel it necessary to reiterate that I am not an attorney, so this is not legal advice. The answer to your question is probably not, assuming you’re in the United States. Now most people would tell you “definitely not if you in the United States” since the U.S. no longer has debtor’s prison. That said, credit card debt can still land you in jail if you misrepresented yourself in any way to the credit card company. For example, if you claimed that you make $100,000 when you really make $15,000 a year in order to get a larger credit line, and then you proceeded to max out that credit line and can’t pay it back, you better hope the credit card company doesn’t find out because lying on a credit card application is a criminal offense.

If you don’t pay your debts and they’re sent to a collections company, you may be threatened with jail by heavy-handed collection agents. These intimidation tactics are illegal. You won’t go to jail simply for having an unpaid debt.

Now for the scary part. Even though there is no debtor’s jail in the U.S. anymore, you can still go to jail for certain unpaid debts, most notably child support and alimony. Thanks to the Child Support Enforcement Act of 1984, you can send your state’s attorney after a deadbeat spouse to garnish wages and tax returns, seize property, and suspend licenses. If these efforts don’t squeeze some cash from your ex, he or she can be found in contempt of court and thrown in jail for failure to pay child support and alimony.

Photo by SantaRosa OLD SKOOL

Pay Keeping Pace With Inflation?

picture of a pound, because it is british

Is my salary keeping up with inflation? (via Google UK)

We recently talked about income vs. inflation for the U.S. in a reader poll showing that less than half of people expect their 2007 incomes to keep up with 2006 inflation (4% for the U.S.).

Now since this search came from the United Kingdom version of Google, it might be more helpful to know the British inflation rate. Over there, the chief measure of inflation is the Consumer Price Index (CPI). As of March 2007, the annual CPI was 2.8%.

So if your British employer didn’t bump up your 2007 pay by a good 3% or so, and you’re not finding other ways to make some extra pounds, you might want to get shirty with your twat of a gaffer and throw a right jolly good wobbler at him so he can see how narked you are.

AP Exams Without Class?

take the class and avoid the evil red pen

Can you take an AP exam without taking an AP class? (via Google)

Advanced Placement (AP) exams are one of the best ways to get through college cheap. For just $83 (the cost of an AP exam as of 2007), you can test out of an entire college class (sometimes more than one!).

The short answer to this question is yes. There is no requirement that you take a course labeled as “Advanced Placement” before taking an Advanced Placement exam. The longer answer is I don’t recommend it, and here’s why:

  • AP classes can be much more challenging than regular or even honors classes. That extra challenge and the additional content you cover in the AP version of a class can mean the difference between a marginal and an excellent score on the exam.
  • AP exams have unique formats. Don’t think you can walk in from the street and ace the AP U.S. History exam just because you know your American Revolution. Certain AP exams have question formats you won’t see anywhere else like the dreaded Document-Based Questions (DBQs).
  • AP classes teach you how to do well on AP exams. I have seen AP classes that teach exactly the same material as their Honors or Gifted and Talented counterparts with one very important addition–AP exam skills. In my AP U.S. History class alone, we spent no less than four weeks of class practicing DBQs. You won’t get this kind of practice in non-AP classes unless you do it on your own… and kids don’t do schoolwork on their own.
  • Your teacher might not appreciate it. If you wanted to take the AP exam, you should have taken the AP class. That’s what the AP class teacher will likely tell you when you ask to take the AP exam with his or her students. The AP class teachers will look down on the fact that you didn’t challenge yourself throughout the year by doing the AP coursework, and they may be more reluctant to help you prepare for the AP exam now.

So if you’re a home-schooled student or carrying an A+++ in your regular classes, AP exams are still an option for you. Heck, they’re even an option for the dumb students too if they don’t mind wasting 83 bucks (but they’re probably bad at math and won’t notice the money is gone anyway).