Ten ways to improve your finances over a holiday weekend (or any weekend)

Teachers should assign How I wasted my summer vacation. It’s a topic that more accurately reflects what actually happens. Most of us look forward to a long weekend, and many of us resolve that we’re finally going to do some long put-off project, that will have tremendous benefits.

Me, my resolution is to power wash the house. Phew! luckily, it’s supposed to rain all weekend.

Projects that don’t get done are generally too big. So, I’m asking you to break it down into something that can be accomplished in less than an hour, and you’ll take a small but significant step forward in your financial life. DO NOT do all 10; plenty of other weekends are coming up.

  1. Find a financial software program you might actually use and install it. I’ve used Quicken for 20 years now, so I’m a little biased. Other people report they like Mint. Neither of these? Try searching Personal Financial Software and you’ll find quite a few. Don’t think to long—just make one work.For the future: Watch or read one quick start guide. Download one account into it.
  1. Find out how to access Morningstar online. Many articles and a lot of information is free. In order to (eventually) access deeper analysis, check out whether your library offers access to premium content through your library card. Read at least one personal finance article or watch a video.
  2. Pull out a statement from your 401k or IRA. Go to Morningstar and read what the analyst has to say about it (“premium” content).
  3. Read a blog. Don’t believe everything you read, but start somewhere. Don’t get lost, okay? I said one hour. I like:

Mr. Money Mustache

Chris Guillebeau: The Art of Nonconformity

Get Rich Slowly

I Will Teach You to Be Rich

Kiplinger

 

  1. Clean out a file. Notice I didn’t say file drawer, closet, or room. I recently cleaned out a file box (ouch!) of records from my dad that’s been sitting under my desk since 2010, when he died. I found nearly $200 in it, squirreled away among Medicare statements. You’ll be amazed at all the stuff you don’t need.
  2. Install a password manager on your computer. I use the free LastPass and it really improves cybersecurity. Change any of your passwords that are the name of your children, dog, or your birth date.
  3. Take 15 minutes to identify what good causes you really care about. Instead of giving 10 bucks to everyone who asks, choose half a dozen or less that you really care about and resolve to give to fewer, but more green. It saves them processing and fundraising. Like their Facebook page so you have some idea where your money is going.
  4. If you’re going shopping over the weekend, resolve not to buy anything major until next weekend, when you’ve had time to think about it. In the meantime, do a little online price comparison.
  5. You know all those travel points you don’t use? Check out Award Wallet, which (for free) will consolidate and update all your programs on one page. Then make a plan to use them—earn and burn!
  6. Learn about travel hacking. If you like to travel, you’ll earn more per hour spending a few hours learning how to do this than at most really good jobs. A real money saver, and really—not too hard. Here’s where I started, but there are many sites that can teach you.

Ripping off charities

It can be hard to do good.  From each client payment, I set aside a specific percentage of the check and put it in a savings account. I’ve found this far easier than coming up with a lump sum at the end of the year. I can fund things throughout the year, rather than in a blitz in December. And, I know exactly how much I have to give—whatever the account balance is.

However, like all of us, I get multiple appeals from GoFundMe, Facebook friends, etc. I also just had a rather odd experience with a donation on Giving Tuesday (note to self: always write thank you notes when someone does something for you). I started to wonder about how this all works, and whether it was the best way to donate the maximum amount. Here’s what I found.

Donate your bag credit at Whole Foods?

Unless someone convinces me differently, I think this is a scam. Apparently, Whole Foods takes this as THEIR charitable deduction, not yours, so you’re actually funding a giant tax deduction for them. Also, you have no receipt. Keep your bag credit, put it in a jar, and give it to an actual charity at the end of the year. For me, 8 bags a week ($0.80) x  (say) 48 weeks would be a $38.40 donation.

Petsmart?

This turns out to be an actual donation to Petsmart Charities and you should save your receipts showing this if you do so. However, according to my research the deduction will be reduced by whatever the merchant credit card fees are, if you use a card.

GoFundMe?

Not only is this not deductible, since it’s considered a personal gift not a charitable donation, but the recipient is charged 5% by GoFundMe as well as 2.9% by payment processors. This is an outright waste in my mind, and I recommend never donating in this way. Just send the person a check if you really do care.

Facebook?

These donations are deductible if the organization is a 501(c)3. However, FB charges the charity 5% to sign up. FB did match the amount if you donated on Giving Tuesday—but only up to $7 million, a pittance which was gone in minutes, as far as I can determine. For all my kind friends who have been induced by FB to post donation requests on their birthday—maybe think again? I suppose 95% of something is better than 0% of something but again, a direct contribution would be better.

Credit card, Paypal, or Square payment?

Once upon a time, some credit cards did not charge charities for donations put on cards. As far as I can determine, this is no longer the case, and charities are charged whatever the merchant fee is for the card. Pay through Paypal and they’ll be charged 2.2% + 30 cents per donation. Square rips them off at 2.75% if there’s an actual credit card to swipe through their reader. It’s an even more whopping 3.5% + 15 cents if the number is manually entered.

Sure, it’s easier to give a charity request a credit card, but for most charities, especially small or local ones, every cent really counts. Many people tell me they no longer have checks, but here’s the ideal place to use them if you have them—or learn to send one directly online from your bank if you don’t use this service.

For more information, check out this site:

How to Maximize Your Online Donation to Charity

Don’t put your money where the guns are

As anyone who has tried it knows, investing in socially responsible funds is a thorny problem. Even if you drill down to a mutual fund’s holdings, it’s really hard to be okay with everything in a portfolio. Most people interested in the area can agree that tobacco and arms manufacturers are not socially responsible. But what about drug companies (at least some)? Or makers of junk food? Mining companies? Oil companies? Banks with exploitive lending or account opening policies? Or tech companies that are known to exploit workers overseas? Depending on how involved you are, it becomes really difficult to pick a portfolio as well as have a realistic chance of actually making some money.

Nevertheless, while nothing in this world is perfect, we, and investment products, can move toward better choices. Socially responsible investment funds have lately done quite well compared to the market as a whole, so it appears that even with this selection process, you can still find solid investments. But then we get to the issue of guns.

There’s a website, www.GoodbyeGunStocks.com, where you can input your mutual fund and find out if the fund invests in gun companies or purveyors of guns. Sure, withdrawing your own investments from funds that own gun stocks won’t, in itself, change the world. But, making your opposition clear definitely has an impact long-term on both the mutual fund manager’s choices and screening, and the attractiveness of the underlying company.

I conducted an analysis of all the funds I recommend to my management clients. It was rather depressing. Again, there’s going to be a tension between what would be ideal, and what is possible. I can make my peace with managers owning Walmart, one of the largest retailers of guns and ammo, because they are such a large company that they sell just about everything. Getting them to stop selling this would, I think, require a change in gun laws and so action is better taken on the political/legislative front, in my opinion.

The next level, and this is where it starts to bother me, is investment in sporting goods stores who promote guns and ammo as a major business angle. I, personally have a problem with funds that invest in, say, Vista Outdoor and Dick’s Sporting Goods and will be reviewing investment recommendations in funds that own them. I’m going to leave this up to a client’s decision if this disturbs them, but from now on I will be raising the issue. I do live and work in an area where there is great support for stringent gun control.

The ones that really bother me are the ones that directly invest in gun producers, like Ruger and American Outdoor Brands (Smith & Wesson).  I’m not sure I can personally invest in any mutual fund with holdings in such companies, and I will be making clients aware of this in discussing investment possibilities.

In addition, I have contacted the managers of these funds to raise my objections to these specific holdings. Hearing directly from advisors and investors makes a direct contact. You can easily find the managers of your funds on Morningstar.com, or contact me and I’ll get the names and addresses for you.

Most international funds are free of these investments. Thanks to stringent gun control in other countries, most gun manufacturers and sellers are in the U.S. Sigh.