Are Conferences Really Worth the Price?

conference-my-personal-finance-journeyThe following post is by MPFJ staff writer, Chonce. You can read more articles by Chonce over at her personal blog, My Debt Epiphany. Enjoy! 

Attending a conference is a great way to network and connect with others, learn new skills and strategies, and gain tons of inspiration. There are probably thousands of conferences dedicated to each specific industry that occur all over the country each year.

Whether you are an entrepreneur, retail manager, gamer, or finance enthusiast, odds are there’s a conference out there for you.

Conferences are often referred to as in investment due to how expensive they can be. Most conferences are between 2-5 days and tickets can range anywhere from $250-$1000+. The average conference attendee who is paying out of pocket can expect to spend at least $1000 for the entire experience in most cases when you consider the cost of your ticket, travel, your hotel stay, food and extra non-including activities and so on.

Now you may be wondering, who can afford to spend that much money on a conference?

Americans spend that type of money on vacations, dining out annually, clothes, etc. very easily. Investing that money in an educational conference instead might be a better way to spend your money, only if you see the return on your investment.

Here are a few ways to determine whether or not a conference is really worth the price.

Determine How Valuable the Education Is

Will you be receiving an education worth $1000+ by attending a particular conference? I know this is hard to determine if you’ve never attended the conference. However, you can do some research by reading reviews from past attendees and checking out the main conference website to look at the agenda for each day.

If you are considering attending a conference in the first place, you must have a main goal in mind that you would like to achieve as a result of the experience. Look at the titles of the sessions along with the bio for each presenter to see if you are interested in the presentation topics and if you will take anything away from it. What skills and strategies do you hope to learn and will they help you save time and money? What issues are you having that could possibly be solved during one of the sessions?

It’s best to organize your schedule before heading to a conference and map out which events and presentations you will attend. You should even write out a series of questions.

What Kind of Networking Opportunities Does the Conference Provide?

Networking opportunities are a given at conferences. When you put a ton of people who have similar interests in the same area together for a few days, there are bound to be active conversations in the hallway, during breakfast, and in between sessions to say the least.

You will definitely meet new people and receive tons of business cards for follow ups which are good things if you’re looking to expand your network.

If the conference you are considering attending offers additional, more specific network opportunities, that is an added bonus. For example, last year I attended FinCon which is an annual financial bloggers’ conference. It’s not just for financial bloggers, though. Podcasters, financial advisors, fin-tech businesses and other companies also attend.

What I loved about FinCon last year was the private networking session they have for freelance writers who were actively looking for work. Before the conference, personal writers had a chance to reach out to blogs and websites that were hiring to set up a time to talk during the conference.

There were also opportunities for people who didn’t set up formal meetings to walk around the room and introduce themselves to potential clients. This event was right up my alley since I was looking for additional clients and I gained a ton of leads that day as this event.

Priceless networking opportunities like these are so worth it.

What Types of Sponsors of Brands Will be There?

Conferences have several sponsors and a lot of them may try to sell you something or get you to sign up for something at the conference. However, some brands and sponsors may also be looking for partnerships as well.

If you own a blog, website, or business, attending a conference can put you face-to-face with popular national brands so you can connect with them on a personal level and secure some new opportunities for yourself.

During FinCon last year, I got the chance to sit down with the team at Credit Karma and share my money story on camera. Months later, they reached out to me with an interest in getting permission to use my story either on their site or for their training materials. When I agreed, they sent me a $500 gift card for compensation – more than the price of my conference ticket itself.

Will There Be Any Freebies or Additional Features and Perks Included?

If the owner or company that is hosting the conference has some additional freebies and offers in store for you, that is always a good thing. Some conferences offer a discount on your hotel room rate, free swag from sponsors, free or discounted entry to events that occur outside the normal conference schedule, a few meals throughout the day and so on.

If a conference doesn’t offer any of these things, you don’t have to write the opportunity off completely, but be cautious of conferences where you are expected to pay for every little thing out of pocket. Freebies and perks can go a long way in terms of lowering your costs and making a conference worth it in terms of your budget in ROI.

Additional Ways to Lower the Cost of a Conference

Speaking of lowering the costs of attending a conference, here are some additional things you can do to make sure you are getting the most out of the experience and not going too overboard on your budget.

Attend a conference in a nearby city first – This may be a good option if you are on the fence about paying for an entire conference experience. Back when I was trying to become a professional resume writer, the National Resume Writer’s Association was hosting their annual conference in Chicago which was only about 45 minutes away from me. I practically couldn’t resist attending because I didn’t have to worry about booking a flight or staying in a pricey hotel since I could stay with my sister who lived in Chicago for the duration of the event.

Order Your Ticket Early – Most conferences have early-bird rates that are extremely discounted so if you know you want to attend a conference, you can probably purchase your ticket for cheap at least a year out in advance.

Consider a Roommate – Even if the conference organizer negotiates a lower hotel room rate for attendees, staying in a nice hotel can still be pretty expensive. For FinCon I got a roommate and it cut the price of the hotel room for 4 days from $650 to only about $325 plus tax. Ask the organizers of the conference if they have any groups for attendees to communicate before the event and secure a roommate.

Cash in Credit Card Rewards for Your Flight – If you have credit card rewards or cash back, attending a conference would be a great time to cash those rewards in to save money on your flight.

All in all, you must keep all these factors in mind and weigh the benefits in comparison to the costs of the entire experience to determine whether it will be worthwhile for you.

How about you all? Have you ever attended a conference? Do you think conferences are worth the price?

Share your experiences by commenting below!

****Photo courtesy https://www.flickr.com/photos/dionhinchcliffe/3020387867/

Why Universal Life Insurance Premiums Are Rapidly Rising

money-graph-my-personal-finance-journeyThe following is a post by MPFJ staff writer, Toi Williams, who is a professional personal finance blogger of American Consumer News. She has backgrounds in personal finance, sales, and real estate.

Many people holding universal life insurance policies received an unpleasant surprise this year, as the premiums for many of these policies skyrocketed. Some consumers who purchased their policies decades ago saw their premiums increase by 20 – 40 percent, leaving them with few options other than to pay the higher cost or let their insurance policy lapse. Policyholders are understandably frustrated, with some taking to the courts to try to halt or limit the premium increases.

So why are the premiums for universal life insurance policies rising so quickly?

The main reason for the dramatic premium increases is the long-running, low-interest rate environment. Low interest rates lower the income insurers make from high-grade corporate bonds and U.S. Treasuries, which insurers hold to maturity. This income pays for most of the cost of insurance. As life insurers’ assumptions about interest rates are falling short of economic reality, it becomes harder for them to pay the benefits for the policies. Insurers have few options to deal with the shortfall other than hiking the amount the policyholder pays into their policies via premiums.

Universal life insurance policies are already more expensive than term life insurance policies because they typically last for the policyholder’s life, guaranteeing a death benefit regardless of when the policyholder dies. These types of insurance policies also have a savings component that accrues value over time, making them attractive for use in saving for retirement. The policies were widely popular in the 1980s and 1990s, when interest rates were higher. In the early 1980s, when interest rates rose to about 15 percent, universal life insurance policies accounted for a quarter of all life insurance sold to individuals.

Premiums for universal life insurance policies are based on multiple factors, including interest, mortality, taxes and expenses associated with the policy. Because of the numerous variables that go into calculating the premium price, the premiums can vary over the life of the policy. Many of the customers affected by the latest rate hikes say that their monthly payments on the policies rose before, but always in relatively small increments.

Some universal life insurance policyholders who bought their policies from the Transamerica Life Insurance Company were notified last year that their rates would increase by an estimated 38 percent. Other companies, including the AXA Equitable Life Insurance Company and Voya Financial, have also been notifying customers of large rate increases for universal life policies. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners is now examining whether the increases were justified.

What options do holders of these universal life policies have?

Universal life insurance policyholders are left with few options to cope with the premium increases. If policyholders don’t pay the higher rate imposed by their insurer, the higher deduction amount will eventually deplete the policy’s cash value account, and the policy will lapse. For policy holders that are near retirement, finding affordable replacement policies would be difficult now because they are much older.

Holders of universal life insurance policies could reduce the death benefit of their policy, increasing their period of coverage in return for less of a payout. Policyholders also have the option to surrender the policies and take whatever cash value remains. However, taxes would probably be owed on the cash, reducing the amount the policyholder receives even further. Roughly a decade of low-interest rates has already made it hard for savers trying to preserve their nest eggs in low-risk fixed-income investments.

In theory, premiums could drop if a sharp and sustained increase in interest rates occurs. However, there is no indication from the Federal Reserve, which sets benchmark interest rates, that rates will be rising anytime soon. The agency raised interest rates by a modest amount last December after nearly a decade of historic lows, with further rate increases expected throughout 2016. Subsequent economic headwinds have delayed those plans for the foreseeable future.

Breaking down the Transamerica lawsuit

Angry consumers have filed a lawsuit against Transamerica over the premium increases imposed on their policies. The lawsuit, which is seeking class action status, accuses Transamerica of trying to “impermissibly shift to the policyholders its own, independent obligation to make good on the interest rate guarantees in the policies.” Plaintiffs allege that the premium hikes constitute a breach of obligations under the policies and have led to damages against contract holders.

The cost increases by Transamerica began in August 2015 on universal life insurance contracts sold in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Most of these policies guaranteed an interest rate of no less than 5.5 percent annually. The complaint says that Transamerica raised monthly charges by as much as 38 percent “to subsidize its cost of meeting its interest guarantee, to recoup past losses on the policies and on its investment portfolio, and to make the policies more profitable by inducing policy terminations by those policyholders who could not afford the increase.”

The lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles, alleges that Transamerica breached its contract and acted in bad faith. It notes that the insurer is raising its rates as the time nears when policyholders will begin collecting on the policies. Harvey Rosenfield, founder of Consumer Watchdog and one of the lawyers working on the case, said in a statement, “After taking their premiums for many years, Transamerica is attempting to dump its elderly and retired policyholders at a time in their lives when they are counting on the policies.”

A Transamerica spokesman says that the increases were permissible under the policies and that no policyholders are being charged more than the maximum rates specified in their policies. Another said the firm has communicated with policyholders about expected changes based on what it forecasts future costs to provide coverage will be. Further rate increases can be expected in the future if interest rates remain low.

How about you all? Are you familiar with or have any experience with universal life insurance or know someone involved with the Transamerica lawsuit?

Share your experiences by commenting below!

***Photo courtesy https://www.flickr.com/photos/68751915@N05/6551520247/

3 Ways for Parents of Current (or Future) College Students to Save Money For Their Education

These days, a college education is not exactly cheap.  In fact, it’s more expensive than ever to attend a university in the United States.

While this is rather daunting, there are ways that parents of current (or future) college students can save money to help finance their education.  Here are just three examples:

 

  • Have your student apply for scholarships:

There are a lot of different scholarship opportunities out there, and often times the ones closest to home are overlooked.  While there are larger national-level scholarships available, there are often scholarships available locally for students to apply for in order to help finance their college education.  These local scholarships are also often less competitive than larger regional or national scholarships, so your odds of getting one are greater.

  • Optimize your student’s meal plan:

When it comes to paying for your student’s meals on campus, make sure you’re not pouring money down the drain by having the wrong meal plan.  If you find you are ending up with a lot of extra meals at the end of the term, you should consider changing to a plan with fewer meals (and likely a cheaper price tag!).

On the other hand, if your student doesn’t currently have a meal plan, or he or she has a plan that doesn’t include enough meals to last the whole term and they’re spending more on groceries or take-out than they would if they had a larger meal plan, scale up.  Take a closer look at their budget (or what you’ve set for them) and if you find they are spending more money on outside meals than they would if they went for a larger meal plan, then consider upgrading to a meal plan that includes more meals per term.

  • Use a cash-back credit card:

While you need to be careful that you keep your spending in check and not let it get out of control, when you do use a credit card you should make sure you use one that offers cash-back.

For example, the Upromise MasterCard® is a great example of such a card, allowing you to save money or directly help pay off your child’s student loans while you spend. With over 850 participating online stores, over 10,000 restaurants, and several major travel sites, you can get up to 10% cash back on your purchases through Upromise.com simply by using the Upromise MasterCard. There are a lot of necessary items that you’ll need to purchase for your student, and with hundreds of online retailers participating, there’s no reason not to get cash back on what you spend. Similarly, if your student lives far, you’ll want him or her to travel and visit during school breaks, and with several major travel sites participating, you can get cash back when you book your travel plans using the Upromise MasterCard. Further, you can get up to 2% cash back at certain department stores and movie theaters. Finally, you can get up to 1% cash back on any other purchase you make, therefore no matter what you spend your money on, you’ll be able to get a little bit back each time to help you finance your child’s college education. If you’re interested in learning more about the Upromise MasterCard, take a look at the infographic at the link below!

Upromise MasterCard_How it Works

This post is sponsored by Upromise by Sallie Mae, opinions are my own and based on my experience with the program. Follow them on Twitter @upromise

 

10 Smart but Frugal Wedding Gift Ideas

wedding-gifts-my-personal-finance-journeyThe following post is by MPFJ staff writer, Laurie Blank.  Laurie is a wife, mother to 4 and homesteader who blogs about personal finance, self-sufficiency and life in general over at The Frugal Farmer. Part witty, part introspective and part silly, her goal in blogging is to help others find their way to financial freedom and to a simpler, more peaceful life.

With wedding season in full swing, some might be a bit overwhelmed with working extra money into their budget for wedding gift expenses. Wedding gift shopping is of a whole different genre; you want to give a gift that the newlyweds will cherish forever. So, how to make that special gift mesh with a frugal budget? Here are ten ideas for frugal wedding gifts that come from the heart and will bring joy and remembrance to the wedded couple for years to come.

Personalized Cookbook

Purchase a blank cookbook and fill it with hand-written versions of your (or their) favorite recipes (if you don’t have great handwriting, print out the recipes and glue them to the book page). You can also use some pages to put photos on or to share memories you have about the couple’s pre-wedding years. Remember to leave at least half of the pages blank so that the newlyweds can add their own favorite recipes.

Themed Gift Basket

Themed gift baskets can cover so many different genres and are a joy both to give and to receive. Here are some basket ideas:

A cleaning supply basket containing:

  • A brightly colored cleaning bucket
  • Staple cleaning supplies such as window cleaner, toilet bowl cleaner, dish soap, hand soap, etc
  • Sponges, paper towels and/or cleaning rags

A dinner basket containing:

  • A box of pasta
  • Your favorite sauce
  • Non-refrigerated garlic or other bread
  • Croutons (for a salad)
  • An inexpensive bottle of wine
  • Inexpensive wine glasses

A bonfire basket containing:

  • Hershey’s chocolate bars
  • Marshmallows
  • Graham crackers
  • A cozy blanket

A picnic basket containing:

  • A picnic basket
  • Plates, silverware and napkins for two
  • A cozy blanket
  • An inexpensive bottle of wine
  • Wine glasses

There are a host of other gift basket ideas you can use too; just check online at sites such as Pinterest for more ideas. Wrap the baskets in clear cellophane and use a bow to add extra sparkle to the gift.

Framed Wedding Photo or Wedding Invitation

Purchase a nice but inexpensive wedding frame and use it to frame their wedding invitation or a great casual photo you have of the couple, either from their wedding reception or from another event.

Personalized Stationery

Hook the newlyweds up with a package of personalized stationery designed to fit their personalities, and add a nice but inexpensive pen/pencil set if it’s in the budget. Online sites such as Vistaprint have a host of different types of personalized stationery at affordable prices.

First Anniversary Bottle of Wine

Go to the wine store and find a nice, specialized bottle of wine – maybe something locally produced – and place it in a basket with a nice hand towel, some inexpensive wine glasses, a corkscrew and a note saying that the basket is for the celebration of their first anniversary. Wrap the basket in cellophane and a bow to keep it looking nice for the year.

Photo Scrapbook

If you have access to a dozen or so photos of the newlyweds, consider buying an inexpensive scrapbook and making a nice album for them to hold cherished memories of their life pre-wedding. Take advantage of craft store coupons when buying supplies to save even more money on this gift.

Personalized Christmas Ornament

A personalized Christmas ornament ready for their first Christmas together as a married couple is another great gift idea. Online stores, sites like Etsy and brick-and-mortar stores such as Things Remembered are great venues to find personalized ornaments.

Digital Kitchen Timer and/or Scale

These are two items that I really find helpful in our kitchen but didn’t take the time to buy until years after I was married. You can pick up a digital kitchen timer and a digital kitchen scale for less than $40 if you shop right.

Lawn Chairs and/or a Full-Sized Cooler

This is one of those gifts that your newlywed friends will likely use over and over again. An especially great gift if the couple likes to hang out in the great outdoors.

A Nice Blanket or Quilt

We received two really nice blankets from different people as wedding gifts and we still use both blankets nearly every single day after twenty years of marriage. Every time we use them, I think about the people who gave them to us with fond remembrance for this useful gift idea.

With a little thought, you can come up with a cherished wedding gift for your newlywed friends that won’t break your budget.

How about you all? What are your favorite smart but frugal wedding gift ideas?

Share your experiences by commenting below!

***Photo courtesy https://www.flickr.com/photos/43027029@N00/1078586764/

The College Talk that You Need to Keep Having Every Year

graduation-cap-my-personal-finance-journeyThe following post is by MPFJ staff writer, Melissa Batai.  Melissa is a freelance writer who covers topics ranging from personal finance to business to organics to food.  She blogs at Mom’s Plans where she shares her family’s journey to healthier living and paying down debt.

I met with some of my friends a few nights ago.  One woman I’ll call Rose has a daughter who will be a senior in high school this year.  Rose is frustrated because her daughter has her heart set on attending one of three different colleges twelve or more hours away.

The distance away isn’t Rose’s concern.  She’s concerned that each of these colleges costs $40,000 to $50,000 a year, and her daughter will not consider any other options.  Rose and her husband refuse to go tens of thousands of dollars in debt for their child’s college education, and they don’t want their daughter to leave school saddled with debt, either.

Unfortunately, this scenario will be played out across the country as upcoming seniors set their sights on their dream colleges, which often cost a fortune.

However, your child doesn’t have to be one of these kids with unrealistic expectations, especially if you talk with him regularly from middle school on about what you can pay for college.

Here are some strategies you can use to help keep your child’s expectations in line with your financial reality:

Let them pay for their own expenses

Many high school seniors who have unrealistic expectations about attending a pricey college haven’t had to handle their own budget.  Their parents may supply them with a car and insurance when they’re teens.  When it’s time to go out with friends on Saturday, they just ask mom or dad for money.  This dependent relationship isn’t helping the parents or teens.

Instead, put your kids in charge of their own budget as early as possible.  When kids are in 7th grade, increase their allowance (perhaps based on the chores they do) and let them assume some of their own expenses.  Let them buy their own clothes and pay for their entertainment.  Don’t forget to also teach them to save.

Your child will quickly learn that she’s not earning enough money to meet all of her wants.  When she’s shopping for back to school clothes, maybe she’ll pass on the $90 jeans and instead by two pairs of the $30 jeans.  (True penny pinchers may even check out the thrift store.)

The earlier a child understands the concept of money and how far it can or cannot stretch, the more he will understand why a college that costs $50,000 a year is not feasible.

Match their own college savings

One easy way to motivate your children to save for college is to match their college savings contribution.  My husband and I want to help our children with college, but we don’t want to just hand them money that we alone have set aside for their college education because we don’t believe they’ll value the money or the education as much.  Instead, we want our kids to be invested in saving and paying for college.

Our son just turned 12, and for the last six months he’s been saving for college.  Of course, he’s also used his money for other things, but so far he’s saved $100, and we matched that amount.  We have it invested, and he gets excited seeing the money grow (even though at such a small amount it’s not earning much interest yet).  This strategy not only helps him invest in his own education, but it also teaches him about matching, which will be so important when he’s in his twenties and newly employed.  I’m quite sure, based on this experience, that he’ll take advantage of the company match on retirement savings.

Let them borrow money from you and pay it back with interest

At least once or twice, when your child’s wants are greater than her available money, let her borrow money from you with interest.  Put her on a payment plan, though make the repayment terms a bit aggressive.  Maybe she has to use 50% of her allowance per week to use to pay back her loan to you.  Also include interest.

While this tactic sounds mean, it teaches your child how constrictive student loan payments can be on a budget, especially when it’s a large student loan with steep monthly payments and the borrower is earning a relatively low salary when starting out.

Hopefully, after a time or two of borrowing money, your child will learn that it isn’t worthwhile.  If she doesn’t learn the lesson, however, feel free to turn her down for loans.  She also need to learn to stick to her budget so that she doesn’t constantly borrow money as an adult and stay in a never ending debt cycle.

Clearly outline what you can contribute to their college education

No parent likes to tell their child no, but for your own sake, you may need to.  Decide in advance with your spouse how much you plan to pay for college per child and then have a chat with your child, as early as possible, perhaps even as early as 8th grade and then repeat the conversation every year.

This talk will help your child understand how much is available when shopping colleges, and it may also motivate her to look more aggressively for scholarships or to pick more reasonably priced schools.

Remind them grad school might be time for the school of their dreams

If your child will need to attend grad school for his chosen career path, encourage him to choose a more reasonably priced college for undergrad.  Then, he might choose the college of his dreams that is best in his field for grad school.  There are more opportunities to help fund grad school such as assistantships than there are for an undergraduate degree.

Let them apply to the unrealistic college

Finally, if all else fails and your child is adamant about the unrealistic college choices, as my friend’s daughter is, let her apply to the schools.  Once accepted, she can then fill out the financial aid package.  This may be the time that your child finally accepts financial reality.  Or, it may be the time that you’re surprised by the generous financial aid package.

I went to a community college for the first two years of college.  When it was time to transfer, I looked at our local four year college and a more prestigious four year college several hours away.  I was shocked when I got the financial aid packages.  It was cheaper for me to attend the prestigious college after financial aid, even though that college cost about 50% more.  Turns out the college had generous alumni, so that school was able to offer more financial aid.

When it comes to raising your children, college is likely the biggest expense you’ll face.  However, if you regularly chat with your child about how much you can afford to pay for college AND if you teach your child financial responsibility from an early age, hopefully you can avoid a fight over which colleges your child should plan on attending.

Most importantly, stand your ground.  A child who doesn’t get to go to his dream college will likely understand years down the road and thank you, especially when say “no” to your child and expensive college parental loans means saying yes to your own retirement funding.

How about you all? How did you handle college choices and expenses with your child?  Or, if your child is not yet that old, how do you plan to handle this situation?

Share your experiences by commenting below!

****Photo courtesy https://pixabay.com/en/graduation-grads-cap-diploma-907565/