How to Keep Kids’ Activities from Breaking the Bank

kids-sports-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.

Studies show that the average cost of raising a child from birth to age eighteen is nearly $250,000, and a recent study reveals that a decent chunk of that cash is spent on extracurricular activities. In the case of elementary-aged children, it’s an average of $463 this year, and in the case of secondary-aged children, it’s a whopping $1,124 this year.

If you’re “average”, that means you could be spending nearly $10,000 on each of your children’s extracurricular activities over the 13-year period that they’re in school. And that’s simply the national average, which takes into account all school-aged kids – even those not participating in after-school activities. If you’ve got a kid involved in a serious sport such as baseball, hockey, gymnastics or dance, you’re likely spending a lot more than $1,100 a year, even for elementary-aged kids.

If that seems like an astronomical amount of money to spend on kids’ activities to you, you’re not alone. The fact of the matter is that the days when the education system picked up a large amount of the financial burden for extracurricular activities such as sports is long gone, and parents are left to foot the bill.

How can you as a parent keep kids’ activity costs reasonable but still make sure your kids can have the sport or other extracurricular experiences that help make for a fulfilling life? Here are some tips.

Limit Activities to One or Two per Year

Many parents these days feel as if their kids need to be involved in some type of extracurricular activity all year around. The truth is that even one or two activities a year for your child will benefit them and help them to grow in teamwork skills, discipline and obedience.

When considering which activities to sign your child up for, ask them to decide which activity or activities they like best, and narrow the list down to their top one or two. Not only will this save you money, it’ll save time and lower stress levels as well.

Pick Activities That Will Benefit Them as Adults

The reality is that the majority of kids won’t grow up to be professional athletes or world-class Olympians, no matter how much promise they show at a younger age. If your goal as a parent is to raise up a professional athlete, you may want to reconsider your motives and instead choose an activity that will hold life-long benefits.

Activities such as self-defense classes that will show them how to handle themselves should they get trapped in an attacker situation or school sports such as cross country that will help them develop a life-long habit of self-care through exercise are some examples of activities that will benefit your kids long after they’ve graduated from high school.

Do Activities as a Family or With an Organized Group of Friends

Many families choose to do activities together instead of being involved in school-sponsored sports. Some families train for marathons, triathlons and obstacle courses together, or bike together in charity or other events.

Planning regular activities with family members or groups of friends allows those same benefits of teamwork and training for a fraction of the cost.

If you’re set on providing extracurricular activities that do cost more than you’d like, there are a few ways to help make the financial burden less impactful.

Work the Costs into Your Budget

Just like you would with a regular bill such as your utility bill, it helps to figure out the annual amount you’re spending on activities and adding that monthly “bill” into your regular budget, saving the money in a separate savings account or envelope. This way when fees are due you won’t be scrambling to come up with the cash.

Ask if the Studio Will Do a Work-for-Pay Trade

Some sports centers will allow you to volunteer or work there in exchange for lowering your child’s participation fees. Just remember if you do participate in some type of a barter situation to check and follow the bartering tax laws for your state.

Kids reap many benefits from being involved in extracurricular activities. With a little planning, choosing and creativity, those activities can be affordable for almost any family.

How about you all? How do you keep kids’ activity costs affordable?

Share your experiences by commenting below!

***Photo courtesy https://www.flickr.com/photos/luigi_and_linda/7240626210/

 

A First-Timer’s Guide to Closing a Real Estate Deal

The following is a guest post. Enjoy! 

Hopefully, you did everything right from the beginning: You were pre-approved by your financial institution for an affordable home loan; you researched your area extensively to find the perfect property for you; you hired a real estate agent you could trust to gain access to property details and help you navigate the complex seas of paperwork. Now, it’s time to close.

Whether you are buying your first family home or a commercial property for your business, closing is convoluted and seemingly interminable. Even with the help of an experienced real estate agent, you should learn about the closing process before you attempt to survive your first real estate deal. This guide will walk you through the most important steps of closing your deal, so you come through excited to finally own your own property.

 

Obtain Title Insurance

Though it might seem unnecessary, performing a quick title search and obtaining title insurance will safeguard your investment from conflicts down the road. It’s possible that a previous owner of your soon-to-be home left the house in a will to a long-lost relative or failed to pay debts taken against the house. If anyone shows up trying to claim ownership over your home, your title insurance should reimburse you, so you won’t take a significant loss due to the state’s poor record-keeping.

 

Open Escrow

“I’m in escrow!” is an exciting statement to shout, but before you do, you should know what “escrow” means. Escrow is an account held by a neutral third party to prevent you or the home’s seller from being scammed. Until both parties in the transaction finish the necessary paperwork, all the money involved will be stuck in escrow.

 

Negotiate Closing Costs

Escrow isn’t free, but odds are you aren’t sure how much it should actually cost. Most escrow companies will try to take advantage of your ignorance and inflate their fees unnecessarily. By displaying your knowledge of the system (and using a few smart negotiating tactics), you can lower your closing costs and save some money. So-called junk fees to watch out for include:

  • Administrative fees
  • Application review fees
  • Appraisal review fees
  • Ancillary fees
  • Email fees
  • Processing fees
  • Settlement fees

Complete a Home Inspection

Do you know the difference between a wall crack caused by foundation settling and one caused by water damage? Can you tell just by looking how old the pipes are in the master bathroom? Can you recognize black mold? Most likely, the answer to all these questions ― and any questions about home repair or construction ― is “no.” That’s why you need to hire a home inspector to survey your desired property before you close the sale: You should know exactly what you’re in for before laying down cash.

You should also consider hiring a pest inspector to look for signs of damage due to wood-eating insects. If an infestation is discovered, most mortgage companies require the seller to resolve the issue before closing.

Renegotiate

Based on what your home and pest inspectors find, you might be able to lower the price you previously agreed to. Because you will likely need to complete some amount of repairs, you should ask that the seller to lower the cost by at least as much as the cost of the repairs ― or else request they complete the repairs themselves.

Set Your Rates

If you didn’t seek pre-approval ― which you should have, by the way ― it is time to lock down your interest rate. The best lenders will watch the market for a dip in rates, but you should avoid becoming too obsessed with obtaining the lowest possible number. Interest rates fluctuate several times every day, so your goal should be to obtain a reasonable rate that you can afford.

Funding Escrow

Finally, you can enter escrow. When you signed your purchase agreement, you likely deposited some earnest money into your escrow account to convince the seller that you do intend to buy the house. By now, both parties are certain about each other’s intentions, and it is time for you to move a more significant amount of money into your escrow account. You should deposit the full amount of your down payment (less the earnest money) and closing costs.

Sign the Papers

The last step of closing on your deal is signing the paperwork. In total, there should be about 100 pages worth of material, detailing the agreements of the sale, and you should read absolutely all of it. Because a home purchase will impact your finances for decades, you must know for certain that the contract says what it is supposed to. You don’t want any surprises in the way of rising interest rates or unknown fees down the road.

Don’t Lose the Farm at an Investment Seminar

The following post is by MPFJ staff writer, Marie. You can read more of Marie’s articles over at her own blog, Family Money Values. Enjoy! 

Attending seminars and training sessions to learn about a topic of interest to you is a worthy endeavor, but you have to be careful about taking action based on those seminars.

Some are entirely legitimate and you might find the perfect financial resource to accomplish your goals.  Financial advisors come in all shapes and flavors – some are just broker house representatives, others are highly trained and certified professionals and some are just shady dealers trying to get your money.

Often my spouse and I get invitations to attend investment related seminars – including a free dinner.  We get them more often now that we are over 65.  Typically they are for dinner at a popular local restaurant with pretty good food.  Headliners have included things like:  “Come learn how to make your money last in retirement”.  “How to invest in a down market”.  “Plan your retirement income” and etc.

It’s not surprising that we receive these invitations. Forbes article Beware The Free Lunch (Or Dinner) Investment Seminar reported:

“According to FINRA research, 64 percent of those responding to a survey of people age 40 and over had been invited to an “educational” seminar with a free meal offered.”

The North American Securities Administrators Association says:

“State securities regulators warn senior investors to be aware that a combination of “free lunch” seminars, misleading professional “senior specialist” designations, and abusive sales practices can create a perfect storm for investment fraud. Remember: there’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

The Alberta Securities Commission has a list of various types of scams including these.  They note some red flags – such as:

  • “Above average returns with little or no risk. No investment is risk free.
  • Offer of loans to cover both the investment and further investment seminars.
  • Claims of a secret or exclusive technique for building wealth. The salespeople at seminars can make misleading claims that entice you to sign up right away.
  • Limited time offer that discourages investors from getting independent advice.
  • Promises to ‘be a millionaire in three years’ and ‘get-rich-quick’.
  • Sales pitches of no cost involved or free attendance at seminars. The first session you are invited to attend may be free, but you may have to pay fees and commissions that the promoters did not tell you about beforehand”

A few years ago, we (my spouse and I) actually attended one of these free dinner investment seminars.  The dinner was hosted by a broker (supposedly associated with one of the big wire houses – I don’t remember which).  The event took all evening, from about 5 pm until about 9 pm.  It was at a nice steakhouse in my home town – one that is on the upscale side of the price range.  We did get a nice dinner.  After dinner, there was a presentation and a long sales pitch.  We listened and squirmed, wanting to leave and get home so we could get some rest for the next day.  We bought nothing and we gave no information.  We were not contacted much afterward.  Overall, it wasn’t an unpleasant experience.  We felt we paid for our dinner by listening to the pitch, but didn’t feel obligated to buy because we had a ‘free’ dinner.  We’ve never been back, preferring to rely on our own research and studies to figure out our investments.

Junk mail isn’t the only avenue used by brokers and other’s dealing in securities investments for a living to offer free seminars.

You can find one in most local ‘communiversity’ classes (classes taught by community volunteers, usually held at a local school and charging only a small fee for participants).  Heck, your company may even host one.  Mine did.

My company brought in local financial advisers to teach a course that covered retirement saving and investing.  The company offered it only to people 55 and over.  As part of the course, the advisers offered to do a free financial plan – a value (they claimed) worth hundreds of dollars.  At the seminar the advisers really played up the benefits of variable annuities.  They did such a good job that one of my co-workers fell, hook, line and sinker for the pitch.  She turned over her entire retirement savings to them to invest.  I’m pretty sure she is back at work now!

Even Vanguard offers a ‘financial planning’ service.  They, however, are very up front on their web site with the fact that their recommendations will put you into Vanguard mutual funds only – so if that’s not what you are looking for, don’t ask them to do a financial plan for you, even if it is free!

So, if you read your junk mail, and want that free dinner, be prepared to invest your time to pay for it and don’t feel obligated to buy something just because you got dinner!

  • You don’t owe the broker a sale for the dinner.
  • You don’t owe the charity a donation for the return address stickers.
  • You don’t owe the company a response because they sent you a dollar in the mail – unsolicited.
  • Heck, you don’t even have to get the junk mail (but it does help the USPS stay afloat).

How about you all? Have you ever attended a financial seminar? Did you feel pressured to buy any of the products?

Share your experiences by commenting below! 

***Photo courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/ctbto/7995586057/in/

How to Painlessly Switch Mortgages When You Need a New Home

The following is a guest post by George. George writes at Sobredinero.com, a personal finance site for Latinos in the US. Enjoy!

Let me tell you about a man named David. The first thing that attracted David to his condo when he first bought it was how close he was to his job. On top of that, it was near a trendy area packed with nightclubs, bars, and fancy restaurants. It was perfect for David when he was single with no kids. However, David started a family and his housing needs changed.

With a wife, one child, and another child on the way, waiting 10 years to build equity and then liquidate that equity in his condo was not an option for David. He was ready to trade in his two-bedroom downtown condo for a three-bedroom home in the suburbs.

 

Analyze the Options

David knew which house he wanted, but like most people, he could not afford to pay for two mortgages at the same time and even though he was fairly certain that his condo would sell quickly for the asking price, he did not want to risk his family’s financial security.  He thought about moving to the new house and renting out his condo to cover the mortgage while he had the condo on the market. However, after speaking with the condo board president and reading the homeowner’s association paperwork, David discovered that renting out his home would require a lengthy and rigorous vetting process with the board.  He did not have the time or money to do that.

David also considered borrowing against his 401k for the second mortgage, but if he were to leave his job before paying back the loan, he would be obligated to pay the outstanding balance of the loan within 60 days or be hammered with taxes and penalties. He learned fact by reading through the 401k materials he’d received at orientation three years earlier and he also learned that those terms were common for 401k plans. That was a dicey and expensive option.

After thoroughly weighing all of the possibilities, David decided to put his condo up for sale and simultaneously file for a second mortgage. This sounds risky on the surface, but David knew that the bank would only grant the second mortgage after the condo sold. This practice protects the interests of both the lender and the borrower.

 

Factor in the Real Cost

Once David decided on the list and file simultaneously route, he put in some research on mortgage terms. Taking on a mortgage is not just about paying back the amount of the loan itself. Smart borrowers also consider the interest rate, total annual cost, monthly payment terms, and the total payment. Additionally, ancillary costs such as bank fees, housing association requirements, taxes, and transportation need to be factored into the real cost of a new home purchase. David used a mortgage calculator to help him understand the true costs of his mortgage options.

 

Time It

David had everything in place and the only thing left to do was to sign the paperwork. To cancel a mortgage and acquire a new one requires the bank as well as a notary public, so David made sure to schedule the two transactions in one meeting and ensure a smooth process.

This didn’t always used to be the case. Historically, purchasing and selling a home at the same time was a long process. Say for example if David had purchased that condo recently to “flip” (buy for a low price and quickly re-sell at a higher price with inexpensive upgrades), he might not have been able to sell the condo because of restrictions that prevented a home sale if the home been had purchased within 90 days. However, the Federal Housing Administration has eliminated this restriction.

 

Get the Happy Ending

At the end of everything, David and his family turned out just fine. The condo sold, the mortgage terms for the new home were agreeable, and everyone settled into a more comfortable arrangement. Gone are the days of being tied to a house simply because you signed a mortgage. Granted, it’s not as easy to move when owning a piece of property as it is for renters, but it is certainly possible in today’s modern housing market, and the last thing you want to do is be unhappy with your home. Happy house hunting! Be sure to check out more advice about mortgages here, or here.

How I Afforded Christmas as a Single Mom

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

Single moms have a lot on their plate especially since they usually act as the single source of financial support for their family.

I was a single mom for about 6 years and I recently got married. Before I met my husband and back when I was still working on establishing my career, I remember that tense feeling I would get whenever the holidays came up.

I know that the holiday season is not just about money and gifts, but I still wanted my son to have a nice Christmas and have all his needs met. Luckily, I was able to meet all my holiday expenses and more while being a single mom and here are a few things I did to make it more affordable.

 

I Started Saving Up Ahead of Time

I’d recommend that everyone start saving up for the holiday season early especially if you are a parent. I never really spent a ton of money throughout the year so holiday gifts were always a mix of things we wanted and needed.

I kept holiday expenses in the back of my mind as early as July of each year and started to sock away a little cash every month. Sometimes it was small amounts like $20 each pay period, then I gradually increased the amount to $50 and son on. By the end of the year, I had quite a bit of money saved up.

 

I Picked Up Extra Work

I worked a part-time job with very limiting hours when I was a single mom and this was partly because I was juggling college at the time. During the holiday season, hours at my job picked up a bit and I always volunteered to work extra hours for Black Friday and on special weekends when there was in–store promotions.

Another thing I did was pick up extra shifts doing in-store demonstrations to promote certain products. Being a brand ambassador was a great side hustle for me because the pay was always more than minimum wage and the shifts were short and flexible.

Some days, I’d host alcohol tastings in popular stores for $20/hour. After a 4-5 hour shift, I had made quite a bit of extra money to put toward holiday expenses.

 

I Joined Holiday Sponsor Programs

The holiday season is all about giving. When you don’t have a lot, it’s okay to be open to receiving help as well. When I had a low income and was a single mom, I would sign up for holiday gift programs where sponsors help provide Christmas gifts for kids in the community.

There were quite a few groups and organizations that provided kids with gifts like local churches and the Salvation Army. Some programs had income limits for families to meet since they wanted to make sure they were serving families in need but for a lot of programs, household income didn’t even need to be disclosed.

At my college, there was a program called Christmas for Kids and it allowed kids to create holiday wish lists that would be matched up with a sponsor so they could receive Christmas gifts. The gifts were given at an annual event that included dinner so kids could meet with their actual sponsors and take pictures with them.

These events and programs were super helpful when I was a single mom because they helped provide my son with gifts that I might not have had the means to buy.

Now that I am in a better place financially, my family actually gives back by sponsoring a child for Christmas each year through our church.

 

I Participated in Gift Exchanges and Gave in Other Ways

Buying gifts for my child was one thing, but exchanging gifts with other people like family and friends also weighed heavy on my wallet. When I couldn’t afford to gift everyone, I decided to form a holiday gift exchange as well similar to a Secret Santa where each person was assigned someone to get a gift for instead of buying something for everyone in the group.

I usually didn’t stress about giving a bunch a gifts when I couldn’t afford to do so and focused on showing my appreciation for people and giving in other ways like baking special treats, doing a favor for someone, sending a holiday greeting card, etc.

 

I Accepted Gently Used Things

To stretch my budget even more so I could make ends meet and have a pleasant holiday season, I accepted some hand-me-down items especially holiday decor. Decor can be expensive so when my mom offered to give me her old tree and all her ornaments and decorations for it, I couldn’t pass up the offer.

Decorating our home for the holidays and putting up our tree is an important tradition we have that it a lot of fun. I’ve replaced the tree my mom gave me after a few years but we still use the decorations year after year which saves me a lot of money.

I also wasn’t (and I’m still not) opposed to picking up used toys and clothes depending on what they were. I’ve already shared my strategy for saving money on clothing, and I realized that young kids will play with just about any toy thanks to their imagination.

I’ve found some really nice thrift store finds for my son including toys he absolutely loves so mixing in something used with new items is just another way I liked to keep holiday expenses affordable.

 

The Holidays Don’t Have to Be Super Expensive

Christmas in my house has always been bright and special no matter what my financial situation was. It’s so fun to see how excited my son is each year and be able to create some special memories with him.

As you can see, the holidays don’t have to be so costly as long as you know your budget, can utilize local resources, and start saving up ahead of time. Worst case scenario, there are plenty of ways to earn extra money so your finances aren’t super tight around this costly time of year.

The tips and strategies I used can be used by anyone to make Christmas more affordable.

***Photo courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/pagedooley/3132286400/in/