Find the Best Rewards Credit Card for You

I love rewards credit cards. Getting paid hundreds of dollars a year to use my credit card to buy things I would buy anyway is, well, rewarding.

With a multitude of rewards cards available and so many categories to choose from (cash back, travel, gas, retail), it’s easy to get lost in the sea of rewards cards. So how do you know which one is best for you?

There isn’t one single rewards card that I can say is perfect for everyone. To find the one best suited for you, take a look at your spending patterns. Do you travel a lot? Are you a college student? Maybe the bulk of your spending is groceries and gas. For each of these situations, there are several cards that could potentially work for you.

Before I discuss how to find the best rewards cards, I should mention that if you carry a balance — no matter how large or small — rewards cards aren’t for you. They typically charge higher-than-average interest rates, so any rewards you might get are negated by fees and interest charges. In this case go with a low-interest card, perhaps from a credit union.

My favorite site for comparing rewards cards is CreditCardTuneUp.com. This site lets you input your average monthly spending in 15 categories such as restaurants, department stores and hotels. To get your monthly spending figures, I recommend looking at your credit card statements from the last 12 months.

Based on the information you provide, you get a list of the cards that best match your spending pattern. It’ll tell you what your first year rewards total would be, minus any annual fee.

Another great resource is NerdWallet.com. The idea is the same, but this site also lets you input your credit score and preferred network (Visa, Mastercard, etc.) You have a choice of either a customized list of your best matches or their list of the best credit cards for 2012. On this list they divide cards by category (rewards, no interest, college, etc.) and tell you why they love the card.

More credit card companies are offering a cash or gift card bonus to entice new members. I’ve seen offers worth as much as $625, but more typical offers range from $100-$200. These signup bonuses are definitely worth a look as you search for your best card.

There are other things to consider as well. If you frequently travel outside the country, look for cards with no foreign transaction fee such as Capital One and some Discover cards. If you fly a lot, be aware of blackout dates and mileage redemption rates. If the card has an annual fee, make sure you’ll spend at least enough to offset the fee.

The key to finding the best rewards card is to look at your spending patterns. Then, use one or both of these websites to compare offers and methodically find the best card for you.

Photo by blog.chargesmart.com

Your Loyalty Could Be Costing You

No, I’m not talking about your loyalty to your spouse or significant other. What I’m referring to is the companies you regularly do business with. Your loyalty to them could be costing you a lot of money.

Companies used to reward loyalty. Take pensions, for instance. It used to be that you went to work for a company after finishing school and you worked for that company your entire career. Both my father and father-in-law have been working for the same company their entire working lifetimes. In exchange for our loyalty, the company provided us with a nice pension for retirement. Today, pensions have all but disappeared.

This same sentiment carried over to the consumer world as well. Now, companies routinely punish loyalty while rewarding new customers with specials and discounts. This trend is taking hold in more and more industries. Below are some specific areas where your loyalty could be costing you.

Cable and Satellite Providers

These companies are among the worst when it comes to punishing loyalty. How many times have you seen an ad for a steeply discounted rate for TV and internet service? If you read the fine print you’ll see that the rate is only valid for new customers and only for the first six or twelve months.

To get the best deals, you need to shop around every time your contract ends. If switching providers sounds like too much work, at least make some calls to competing providers and ask for their new customer specials. Then use that information to negotiate a better deal with your current provider.

Banking Services

Big banks love to reward loyalty with increased fees and minimum balance requirements. They don’t care about you, your family or your future, no matter what they might claim. To get free checking and better service, go with a credit union or online brokerage company like Schwab or Fidelity.

When it comes to savings accounts and CDs, there isn’t one bank that consistently offers the best interest rates. To find the best rates, go to Bankrate.com and select the product you’re looking for. Rates are updated daily, so you can be sure you’re always getting the best rate for your savings.

The Dentist Office

Occasionally when I pass a dentist office I’ll see a large banner announcing a “New Patient Special”. This could include an exam, x-rays and a routine cleaning. As an uninsured college grad on a strict budget, I took advantage of one of these offers a few years ago. At $85, the service was as good as I received from my regular dentist in the past. If you don’t have insurance, you could save over $100 using these offers.

Car and Homeowners Insurance

Insurance companies have different methods for determining the rate they will charge you. Because of this, you might be overpaying for insurance. Take car insurance, for example. Young men aged 18-24 are notorious in this industry because of their high accident rate, so they tend to have a hard time finding reasonable coverage. Progressive is known for taking on this group at lower rates than other insurers would. This isn’t a guarantee, but it shows that comparing rates can save you real money regardless of age.

It’s a good idea to compare rates for car and homeowners insurance (or renters insurance) every 2-3 years when your premium comes due. Sites like NetQuote.com and Insweb.com can help you get quotes.

Grocery Store Brands

Your loyalty at the supermarket could be costing you greatly. The typical family spends $6,500 a year on food. By shopping at discount stores and Walmart for the majority of your groceries, you could save 30%, or about $2,000 a year!

As I mentioned in a previous post, buying store brands is one of the best ways to save on groceries. But what if you just can’t bring yourself to try generic? Then look for the brand that’s on sale, and combine it with a coupon when possible. A couple of examples will drive home the point.

I’m a big frozen meal nut — I eat them 5 days a week at work instead of going out for lunch. There are certain meals I like, but I’ll only buy when they’re on sale. If none of my usual suspects are on sale I’ll try something new.

My wife really likes ginger ale, and sends me to the store weekly to buy some. There are always about eight different brands, but I only consider ones which are on sale. She gets her ginger ale and we save on our grocery budget!

Never be afraid to try things differently from the way you’ve always done them. You’ll save dough and you just might discover something that works better in your life.

Finding Legitimate Work-At-Home Opportunities

Work-at-home opportunities have grown substantially since the Great Recession began as people are looking to get back on their feet financially. These side gigs offer the flexibility of choosing your own hours and can be a great way to earn a little extra cash in your free time. What they will not do, however, is make you rich quickly.

Scamsters have also taken advantage of the increased popularity of work-at-home offers. So you have to be careful to avoid people trying to take your money. Among the most common scams:

  • People asking for sensitive personal information such as your Social Security number, date of birth or checking account number
  • Instructions to deposit a check then wire a portion of it back to someone
  • Claims that someone has access to hidden jobs or government grants that nobody else knows about
  • Anyone requiring large amounts of money up front
  • Promises of earning hundreds or thousands of dollars a month in your spare time

Never, ever give out personal information or bank account numbers to anybody without a good reason.  Because most work-at-home offers are scams, you have to be vigilant in weeding out the bad ones.

So what should you do if you’re searching for legitimate opportunities to earn some extra dough? That depends on your interests and abilities. There are several types of work-at-home outfits on the internet, but I’ll talk about three of the most common ones.

Virtual call centers and help desks

Companies often outsource their customer support, so you might be able to find an opportunity helping customers solve issues on the phone or over the internet. Arise.com and LiveOps.com are two of the bigger sites for these types of opportunities.

Legal assistance to attorneys

Attorneys sometimes need help preparing for a trial. For example, you could be part of a mock jury or focus group helping to determine case value, find which facts to emphasize, and analyze public opinion of a particular topic. If you’re interested in providing this type of service, check out OnlineVerdict.com or eJury.com.

Freelancing

Do you know a foreign language? Are you a math whiz? There are people willing to pay for private tutors for all sorts of subjects. Take a look at what skills you can offer the world, and visit Fiverr.com or Elance.com to find people looking for your expertise. Even if you don’t think you have any skills, you’d be surprised what people are willing to do for a few bucks.

On Fiverr.com, people post what they are willing to do for five dollars. One entry I just saw is from a guy who is willing to put on a hot dog costume and dance for two minutes to a song of your choice!

Work-at-home opportunities won’t make you rich, but they can be a good way to earn a few bucks in your spare time. A good way to get a feel for the reputation of a company is to search online for what other people say about it. If you see a lot of negative comments, you know to steer clear.

A final word of caution: Be skeptical if something seems too good to be true. You don’t want to get taken by the scamsters!

Photo by classifiedwars.com

New Site Takes the Hassle out of Car Buying

When you think about buying a new car, there are so many variables involved. There’s the average fuel economy and reliability ratings from Consumer Reports. There’s the cost to insure the vehicle. Then there’s the actual cost of the vehicle itself. How can you be sure you’re getting the best price, or even a good price, for the vehicle you choose?

A new site called TrueCar aims to solve this problem. They noticed an information gap in the marketplace that made it difficult for consumers to get a fair deal on a new car. Using information they provide, car buyers can now be confident they won’t be taken at the dealer.

You start by entering in the make and model you’re looking for and your location. On the next page, you get a price report based on the options and trim level you choose. They tell you what your “target price” should be, which is the price you can reasonably expect to pay. They also provide a helpful graph that shows the typical range of prices other people have paid for the car.

One thing I really like about TrueCar: They tell you what the actual dealer’s cost is. This gives you bargaining power if you decide to negotiate with the dealer on your own.

When you’re satisfied with your selections, you’re able to locate dealers near you and get a guaranteed price certificate. All you have to do is go to the dealer with your certificate in hand and drive off in your new car at the guaranteed price (assuming you’ve arranged financing.)

As an example, I chose a 2012 Ford Fusion SE. The dealer’s cost is $19,933, and the target price for my area is $20,647. It tells me that a great price is anything below $20,806. There are 3 certified dealers in my area willing to provide a price.

There’s no cost to the buyer to use this service. TrueCar makes its money charging dealers about $300 for each customer that ends up buying a new car through its service.

This site has the potential for increased sales at dealers, but many aren’t happy. Profit margins are already fairly thin on new cars, and dealers fear that TrueCar will further reduce their ability to make money. They also fear that customers will simply obtain a dealer’s best price, then go to another dealer to ultimately buy the car at an even better price. There’s no question though that TrueCar and other similar services will revolutionize the way we buy cars going forward.

For a lot of people, the worst part of buying a new car is haggling with the dealer over price. If this sounds like you, TrueCar can make the car-buying experience as painless as possible, and maybe even enjoyable!

Photo by fordinthenews.com

Low-Cost Options for Cell Phone Service

Recently I wrote about 5 ways to save on your cell phone bill. One of the strategies I talked about was to consider a lower-priced carrier. Over the past few weeks I learned of two other companies offering no-contract cell service, so I want to elaborate a little on my original post.

Some of the companies I mentioned before include Straight Talk, Virgin Mobile and Metro PCS. Each of these offers no-contract service for both light users and those who need unlimited talk, text and web. The other two competitors I want to mention are Page Plus and Republic Wireless.

Page Plus has been around in its current form since 2000 but only recently started offering an unlimited talk and text plan for about $40 a month. With Page Plus, you can choose a basic voice plan with the option to add a text plan, or you can choose a bundle.

Their cheapest bundle, called “The 12”, offers 250 minutes, 250 texts and 10MB of data for $12 a month. Plans step up from there, ending with the most generous plan, “The 55”. This is equivalent to their $40 unlimited talk and text plan, except you get 1GB of data for an extra $15 a month.  Page Plus uses the Verizon Wireless network.

Started in November 2011, Republic Wireless uses technology that differs from traditional cell phone companies. Realizing that much of our cell phone use occurs when we’re in range of a WiFi signal, they developed a phone that routs calls, texts and data use through wireless internet signals whenever possible. When you’re not in range of WiFi they run on Sprint’s network.

The only phone they offer right now is a very basic Android phone for $199, which includes the first month’s service. Each month thereafter is $19 and no contract is required. If you don’t mind a basic smartphone and spend a lot of your time near WiFi, this could be for you.

When you consider the range of options for low-cost cell phone service, there’s not really a good reason to lock yourself into an expensive contract with one of the Big 4. If your contract is expiring soon, take a look at your cell phone usage. Could one of these players offer a better option?

Photo by learnvest.com

Spend More Time Doing What You Love: Six Time-Saving Tips

My aim for this blog is to help you find ways to save money. By spending less on things that don’t really matter to you, you’ll have more to spend on things that do. This also applies to something equally important: your time. The way you spend your time is a reflection of what is important to you.

With this in mind, I’ve come up with six ways to help you save time so you’ll have more to spend doing things you love.

1. Watch Less TV. We’ve all heard the statistics about how much TV Americans watch. My wife and I got rid of pay cable last summer and I haven’t missed it a day. Simply put, watching TV is a time drain. It’s so easy to sit on the couch and channel surf that before you know it, an hour has gone by and you have nothing to show for it. In addition, watching commercials could lead to greater temptation to spend.

If you really enjoy watching TV, set a limit for yourself and subscribe to Netflix or Hulu Plus to see programming on-demand with far fewer commercials.

2. Plan Ahead. For so many areas of life, we would benefit enormously from a little advance planning. When you have several errands to run in the same area of town, try combining them into one trip. If you know you won’t have much energy after work, plan a week’s worth of easy meals so you won’t have to put much thought into it each night. You can even lay out your clothes the night before if you’re not a morning person. The idea is to make it easier on yourself by planning for upcoming needs and activities.

3. Make a To-Do List. This is a great example of planning ahead. A To-Do list helps you focus on things you need to get done. I have a running To-Do list on my desk at work and constantly add to it as things come up. Then, if I have some free time during my lunch hour or after work, I can take care of things from the list. I get a sense of accomplishment as I cross off each item knowing I took care of something important.

You may want to divide your list into things that can be done quickly and those that take more time.

4. Stay Organized. The more clutter you have lying around, the more time it will take you to find something. I’ve always considered myself an organized person. In college, I stayed on top of assignments and always had them done early. Since moving out on my own I’ve developed a system to organize incoming mail, important papers and various other things around the house. Recycling has its own container. Keys go in the basket on the bookshelf. Shoes go in the closet. In other words, everything has its place.

Develop your own organization system and you’ll find yourself wasting less time looking for things.

5. Use Online and Mobile Banking. Mobile banking has made my life much, much better. To deposit a check, I used to have to drive to the bank during lunch, wait in line, and deal with deposit slips. Now I simply sign the back and deposit it using my smartphone without leaving the house.

Online bill pay has had a similar effect. Instead of trying to remember to mail a check each time the electric bill was due, I set it up to be paid automatically each month. My car loan is also paid this way. This prevents me from the burden of remembering when bills are due and possibly missing a payment.

6. Make Waiting More Productive. How much of your week is spent waiting? At the doctor’s office. At the bus stop. At the pharmacy. Is there a task on your To-Do list that could be done during this time? Filling in gaps in your day with things you have to get done is one of the best ways to save time.

Are there any other time-saving tips that work for you?

Teaching Your Kids About Money

Kids today are woefully unprepared for many financial decisions they will have to face. To prove this fact, ask any high schooler what a budget is. I’m willing to guess that about half will stare blankly at you as their eyes glaze over, and the other half will say something along the lines of, “It’s something Mom and Dad fight over all the time.”

Part of the problem is that some parents aren’t sure how to approach the subject with their kids, so they just avoid it. They may not be very good with money themselves. Other parents may assume kids will learn important lessons about money outside the home. Whatever the reason(s), kids aren’t getting the financial education they need.

LearnVest lists 9 money lessons financial experts teach their kids. Obviously we’re not all financial experts, but I want to talk about a few of these I believe any parent can handle:

2. Money is about making choices

Every time we spend a dollar we are making a choice. We are choosing to trade our life energy and resources for a product or service we hope will enrich our lives. By using our money for Item A, it means we’ll have to do without Item B for the time being. Also, by choosing to buy Item A, we’re choosing not to invest that dollar for the future or to give it to charity. This is why it’s so important to evaluate our needs and wants, put them in proper order by making a budget, and only buy our wants after our needs are taken care of.

3. Delaying gratification can pay off

Let’s say you really want to buy an item costing $200, but you only have $100. You could buy a $100 item that you like or you could wait until next month, save up the extra $100, and get the item you really like. In order to do this though, you have to go a month without any items. That takes discipline and a willingness to delay gratification until you can afford the item you really want. Alternatively, you could invest that $100 at the beginning of the year and have 7% more – $107 – at the end of the year given a 7% interest rate. To get that extra seven dollars though, you have to wait all year. Is it worth it?

6. Work for what you want, and it will mean more

For my 17th birthday my parents bought me a used car. Because it was my first car and it meant I didn’t have to ask my parents for rides anymore, I was pretty excited. I took care of that car and enjoyed having it during my senior year of high school. My parents sold it when I was in college and I went almost seven years before I had my own car again. At 24 I bought a car by myself for the first time. I still drive this car almost every day. Even though it’s not the newest or nicest car out there, the sense of accomplishment I get when I’m behind the wheel is greater because I paid for it myself.

8. Budgeting is a family affair

Do you involve your kids when making financial decisions? If not, you’re missing out on a chance to teach them how you make decisions about where your money goes and why. When they’re old enough to earn money doing chores around the house, get them a piggy bank like this and require that a portion of the money goes into each of the four slots: save, spend, donate and invest. Explain the importance of each category and get them excited about saving.

9. A little goes a long way

Just a few examples set by financially responsibly parents can set kids on the right track. Show them your retirement accounts and explain that a portion of every dollar you make is saved for when you choose to not work anymore. Show them what you’re saving up for whether it’s a family vacation, new furniture, or Lasik. Explain that by waiting and saving up a few extra months you can avoid credit card debt and instead rely on savings. If you donate to a charity, explain why.

Always look out for opportunities to teach your kids about money and finances. You’re the best example they have.

Photo by enemyofdebt.com