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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Make Your Life Easier With Online Banking

The term "bankers hours" is seldom heard these days, and with good reason. Gone are the days when banks were open from 9 - 3 Monday through Thursday and 9 - 6 on Fridays. Thanks to online banking, banking services are available 24/7. Today practically every banking transaction except making a cash deposit or accessing your safe deposit box can be done online. But with ATM machines even cash (other than coins) and check deposits can be made 24/7 via an ATM machine.

The name of the game here is service and security. We want to be able to access bank services quickly and easily and make sure that our money is safe. Ironically, despite all the Internet scams we read about where people lose money, studies have shown that people who use online banking regularly have fewer losses than those who do their banking the traditional way. The reason is that people who use online banking generally access their accounts online many times a month and can quickly spot when something is wrong. While those who engage in traditional banking have to wait until they receive their statement at the end of the month to see if anything is amiss.

Like services from traditional brick and mortar banks, the services from online banking operations vary in price and quality. However, with online banking you literally have every bank in the nation competing for your business, so you can shop around to find the bank that offers the types of services you want and the quality of service you want either for free or a low price. For instance, my main bank is a totally online and mail operation. They offer excellent service and most of their services are free (free interest bearing checking accounts, free bill pay, free savings accounts, etc.). I can not only move money between accounts at that bank but can move it between other banks that I do business with. To handle things like checks I receive in the mail and my wife's pay check, which is still hand written by her employer, I maintain an account with a neighborhood credit union. Checks are deposited into the credit union ATM and the funds are then moved, via the Internet, to my main bank. We also have the children's accounts at the credit union and have received some good deals on loans from them as well.

Being online, I can access my accounts from anywhere. I also have my paycheck automatically deposited to my checking account. Even when I am traveling out of state or out of the country on pay day, I still have immediate access to my pay check from wherever I am and, using the bank's bill pay service, I can sit down in my hotel room and pay my bills on the spot rather than waiting until I get home and risk a late fee.

However, I have discovered that "online" means different things to different banks. A couple of months ago my wife and I stopped by a couple of car dealerships on a Saturday morning window shopping for a car for our daughter. We found a nice one but did not want to do the financing through the dealer. I drove home, went online with my main bank, filled out an application and received an approval all within about 30 minutes. I printed the approval which stated that I had the loan contingent upon my actually purchasing the car and confirming to the dealership that a check would be FedExed to them on Monday. I picked up my daughter on her lunch break and she had her car before she returned to work. Then a couple of weeks ago I went online with my credit union on a Sunday evening, filled out an application for a Visa card for my wife and I, and submitted it. On Monday evening there was a message on my phone to call the credit union, which I did on Tuesday and was informed that the card had been approved but that my wife and I would have to come in and sign the application. When we arrived we discovered that "signing" the application meant giving a loan officer all the information I had previously submitted on line. He dutifully typed it into the computer, printed it out and we signed it. An hour and a half later we left with the assurance that the cards would be mailed to us shortly. Obviously, some banks have put more thought into their systems than others.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Adding Zest With Spices

Anyone who does any food preparation at all needs to have at a least a small collection of spices on hand. These bare essentials, which add flavor and make food more enjoyable would include at a minimum:

Salt - which, for health reasons, should be used in moderation but is excellent for bringing out the flavor in food.

Pepper - which adds taste to many dinner time items. Black pepper is the most common and now days you can purchase peppercorns, or unground pepper, that comes in a small jar with a built in grinder which can be placed on the table like a traditional pepper shaker. Keeping the pepper unground until you use it helps to retain the oils and freshness which gives it more taste.

Red Pepper and White Pepper - these are variations of black pepper with each having a slightly different taste and can be used in things like soups and stews when cooking.

Cinnamon - a great seasoning for baking. Adding cinnamon to homemade applesauce gives the applesauce a nice old fashioned taste. Mixing cinnamon with sugar makes a quick and easy topping for toast in place of jam or honey.

Oregano - an herb that is a must for Italian cooking. It also goes well sprinkled on fresh cut tomatoes.

Nutmeg - a pungent spice, a little bit of which greatly enhances things like fresh applesauce, eggnog and a common ingredient in baking.

Allspice - another all purpose spice for baking.

Garlic powder - fresh garlic cloves are great for many types cooking especially Italian. But powdered, garlic is great to have on hand as well and can be used in place of fresh garlic. My children and I make garlic bread by slicing fresh French or Italian style bread, buttering each slice then sprinkling garlic powder on each slice and placing them in the oven (set to broil) for a couple of minutes to toast them. These are a must with spaghetti!

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Save Money on Grocery Shopping

One of the ways to measure a society's economic progress is by comparing the percent of income spent on food now with that spent by our ancestors. Our prehistoric ancestors devoted most of their waking hours to seeking food. As society has advanced the time and money spent acquiring food has steadily decreased. When I was in college the it the average household spent about 25% of their income on food. Today that average has decreased considerably.

Despite the fact that the portion of income spent on food is decreasing, most of us spend considerably more for food than is necessary to sustain life. But then most of us seek more from life than just keeping ourselves alive. The fact that we do have the luxury of choosing food on the basis of what we enjoy eating rather than struggling to get what we can in order to keep ourselves going is a tribute to the economic progress which has allowed us to fewer and fewer personal resources to the acquisition to this basic ingredient of life. I can still remember my macro economics professor in graduate school who cited a study which claimed the average person in the 1970s could live on $75 worth of food per year. As we looked on in astonishment, he made a face and said "Of course the diet consists of mostly sauerkraut and beans!"

Given that the portion of our income spent on food is decreasing (and this is especially true for people whose incomes are rising) and that much of what we spend on food is discretionary, the household grocery budget is a place where cuts can often be made when money is tight or we just want more funds for other things. climate

The obvious first place to start is to look at food consumption in the household seeking to first identify and eliminate waste. Next, check for substitutes. If you can't tell the difference between the brand name soda, cereal, etc. and the generic equivalent then buy the generic. However, despite the fact that the taste may be the same, if you get more pleasure from drinking soda from a red Coca Cola can than the brown store brand can then, by all means, continue to purchase the Coca Cola. The goal here is to improve your life style by spending more wisely not build cash by sacrificing and lowering your standard of living. Similarly, if you shop at the local Mom and Pop grocery store but can purchase the same products at a lower cost at the Wal Mart down the street go to the Wal Mart. Again, only make this change if your level of satisfaction remains the same. If you enjoy shopping at the Mom and Pop store then continue shopping there.

However, what if you cannot find waste or substitutes? Savings are still possible by managing your spending on groceries. By making some alterations in the way you shop, you can reduce spending on groceries without changing what you buy or where you buy. The suggestions below apply to both those who are unable to find savings through elimination of waste or by making substitutions as well to to those who have achieved savings through one or both of the above.

Below are six suggestions for achieving savings simply by altering your shopping habits:

1 Make a list before going to the store. This can be very elaborate or very simple. At a minimum you should have a general idea as to what you will be eating during the next week and then check the pantry and refrigerator to see how much you already have. Your list will then contain the items that you need but don't have. The more elaborate method would be to plan each meal and then list what you need to purchase to serve those meals. Once in the store stick to your list and limit or, better still, avoid impulse buying.

2 Don't shop when you are hungry. When you are hungry you have a tendency to purchase what looks good. The end result is you use a good portion of your budget for the week's food on a couple of days worth of meals. In conjunction with this try to do all of your grocery shopping in one trip as this will give you both better control over the amount you spend and limit the number of times you are in a store and subject to the temptation of impulse buying.

3 Set a spending target, then keep track of the price of each item you place in your cart and try to keep the final total close to your target. Again, if you do all of your shopping once a week it will be relatively easy to determine how much spend in an average week on groceries. Once you determine a realistic average try to make that your spending target so as to maintain the average.

4 Take advantage of sales. Most cities have multiple stores and they are very competitive. Check the flyer's you receive in your newspaper or in the mail from each store to see who has the best deals. The time to review these flyer's is when you are making up your shopping list. If practical, divide your shopping between a couple of stores, buying the items on your list from the store with the best price. But, be realistic and don't chase all over town buying an item here and and item there just to save five or ten cents. What you spend on time and gas will be more than what you will save on food.

5 Buy frequently used, non-perishable items in bulk or on sale. Things like paper towels, toilet paper, flour, sugar, etc. often offer significant savings per unit when purchased in larger sizes. So long as you use these items regularly and have room to store them, it makes sense to take advantage of the savings. These items are also often either on sale or have coupons which further reduce your final cost. Warehouse stores, like Costco and Sam's Club, often carry these items in bulk at significant price reductions.

6 Sign up for and use a grocery store savers card. Many stores have done away with paper coupons and offer the same sale discounts when the shopping card is presented. Sure, the store will be tracking what you purchase. But, what is so secret about what you are buying? The store's purpose in collecting this information is to enable them to determine what items their customers prefer the most and stock their shelves accordingly. In some places stores also use the information to send targeted coupon mailings to customers. This not only saves the store money on marketing but saves you, the customer, from having to leaf through a 20-page newspaper insert trying to find the two or three coupons for items that you want.