1. Scaling Back on Christmas Giving?

    According to a recent poll published by Consumer Reports, more than a few of us plan on cutting back the spending this holiday season:

    Not surprising, consumers tell us they plan to watch their dollars carefully, continuing a trend that began in 2008. Planned spending may be down slightly this year, according to the poll; one in three consumers say they’re cutting back on purchases, while more insist they’ll commit to a budget this year (52 percent vs. 47 percent in 2010). And, once again, the bargain hunters will be out in force: 44 percent of respondents feel that getting a good deal is more important now than it was in 2010.

    Yeah … about “bargain hunters.” If you believe that a “good deal” means camping out in a Best Buy parking lot for multiple weeks in advance of Black Friday, well, more power to you, I guess. I just can’t relate.

    But back to Consumer Reports:

    But take some of those numbers with a grain of salt. However noble their intentions, shoppers tend to underestimate their spending. Leading up to last year’s holidays, for instance, respondents anticipated spending an average of $457 on gifts, but in actuality ended up spending $556 — 22 percent more. Moreover, 45 percent of those who made a budget last year exceeded it. Five percent went over budget by a lot.

    …Unfortunately, too many consumers still carry too much debt for too long. As of this month, 6 percent of Americans – around 14 million people – were still paying off their credit-card purchases from the 2010 holidays.

    Obviously, those Six Percenters haven’t heeded my annual admonitions to save up for Christmas throughout the year via some sort of Freedom Account concept. Tsk tsk.

    Because if they had, then Christmas 2010 would be just a (hopefully) nice memory, instead of a monthly Citibank bill with accruing interest!



  2. Travel On the Edge

    As a guy who believes in keeping at least $50 in cash on me (plus the usual credit and debit cards) whenever I’m out and about, I simply do NOT understand why anyone would GO TRAVELLING WITH ABSOLUTELY NO CASH ON HAND.

    And yet, in the auto-service business, I see people doing this fairly often. Typically it involves someone’s vehicle breaking down, leaving them stranded — at least for a while — somewhere far from home. When this occurs, what are they carrying in their wallet or purse?

    A driver’s license, a debit card, some photos … and that’s it.


    Can people just NOT think ahead at all? Does anyone play “What if?” before heading out across the state?

    What if you’re 500 miles from home, and, for who knows what reason, your debit card doesn’t work? With no credit cards in your wallet, and no cash, what will you do then?

    As I’ve said for years, debit cards are often NOT your best friend. I love my debit cards, but they’re certainly NOT a foolproof payment method when travelling.

    (And no, I don’t care what Dave Ramsey says about “All you ever need is a debit card.” I, for one, try not to live my life at the mercy of my bank’s change-on-a-whim debit-card policies.)

    Big Tip: Always Have More Than One Way To Pay

    As I mentioned in a 2007 post, I consider it vital that we ALWAYS have more than one way to pay. Whether “Plan B” is cash, credit card, or debit card, I don’t much care. I just make sure that there always IS a Plan B. And that goes for quick trips to the corner store as well as cross-country jaunts.

    So much that happens in life is out of your direct control. Doesn’t it make sense to exhibit some control where you can, and always have a backup method of payment?

    It sure does to me!



  3. Save Up for Christmas

    It’s time for my yearly admonition:

    Those of you who don’t save up for your Christmas giving by putting aside some cash every month in your Freedom Account — well, all I can say is that you’re probably doing it wrong.

    (On the other hand, if you’re sitting on $10 million in liquid savings AND can manage to NOT piss it all away, then I suppose you can handle your Santa spending however you like, yessir.)

    In any case, the idea is to have your gift money saved and ready to go by the end of November next year. That way you won’t have to rely on FANTASTIC BANKING DEALS like this one:

    Or, even worse, slapping the bills on your credit cards … and letting them simmer for months.

    Even if you can’t be debt-free today, take steps now to make sure that next year’s holiday-season spending won’t dig the hole even deeper!



  4. Document Storage: Digital or Paper?

    Lately I’ve been kicking around the idea of going “95% digital” for my household’s record-keeping.

    Because digital storage is dirt cheap these days, my idea is to purchase a scan-to-PDF machine (such as this Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500, or its little brother, the ScanSnap S1300 machine), and gradually get away from paper record-keeping as much as possible.

    Status Right Now: Paper Is … Okay

    We have what seems, to me, to be a pretty good paper filing system right now. It’s been a long time since I wasn’t able to find what I needed pretty quickly. A couple of filiing cabinets, plus lots of manila folders, work quite nicely.

    Truth be told, the reason I’m considering this move is that most all of the banks we deal with offer perks for going paperless — and I’ve always signed up. So I’ve already taken our bank-statement filing into the digital realm. On balance, this has worked out nicely. I’ve got statements going back a few years … and no paper copies to shuffle through should I need to find something.

    Everything else, though, is still paper. Which means it takes up space.

    Considerations: Backing Up and Retrievability

    Hard drives crash. Your teenage son decides to use your laptop as a Frisbee. Your house becomes target practice for a lightning storm and catches fire.

    Stuff happens.

    The trick is: What do you do about it beforehand? Well, you try to plan for contingencies.

    So, as far as backing-up your records, it sure seems that digital files would be FAR easier to maintain on an ongoing basis. In case of a house fire, for instance, whatever’s in our filiing cabinets would be quickly rendered to ash.

    Digital records, however? That’s another story. With digital, you’ve got options.

    Thanks to previous hard-drive failures, I already have a second, external hard drive for backup purposes. If our house were to burn down, though, that wouldn’t be of much help. (Unless we had the time and forethought to grab the thing on the way out. Yeah, right.)

    Ideally, I would need to look into services like Mozy or Carbonite for off-site (read: as close to “truly safe” as you can get) storage.

    Paper can be stored off-site, too, of course. But what if the storage facility floods or burns? Your one and only copy of [insert document here] just went bye-bye.

    In the end, I have to think that the backup- and retrieve-ability of digital records FAR exceeds that of paper, no matter how you slice it. So digital gets two points here.

    Score: Digital 2, Paper 0.

    Consideration: Space Requirements

    This one’s a no-brainer: Digital records take up less space than paper. Duh.

    Of course, the scanner itself will take up some counter space. But then, so do the document folders I keep close at hand with my laptop. Could those folders be made to disappear, courtesy of the scanner? Glancing through them now — FSA receipts, use-tax receipts, small-biz documents — I’d have to say that most of them could.

    Most, but probably not all.

    Now, how much file-cabinet space could I save by going digital? Umm … a LOT. I have scads of file folders that are just BEGGING to be digitized.

    Score: Digital 3, Paper 0.

    Consideration: Price

    As evidenced by a quick Amazon link-click above, PDF scanners aren’t exactly free. Price tags of $250 to $450 are common.

    And should the need to print documents arise, at least in any appreciable amount, well, toner ain’t cheap, either.

    On the flip side, monster amounts of storage are easily had. Gigabytes and terabytes are (to my thinking) cheap, and getting cheaper. This applies to hard drives, thumb drives, and beyond. And online storage ranges from free to a few dollars per month.

    But what’s the cost of keeping the paper I already have? What’s the cost of keeping the paper copies we’re sent in the mail? Well, you have to buy folders every so often, but beyond that, it’s pretty much nil. (Aside from the physical-space aspect, which I already covered.)

    Meh … gotta go with paper on this one.

    Score: Digital 3, Paper 1.

    Consideration: Ease of Use

    Fun Fact of the Day: I’ve been known to be damn lazy at times.

    I know, I know. You readers can hardly believe that. (That’s what I’ll tell myself, anyway.) But it’s true.

    So if I bought a scanner, would I consistently use it?

    Depends how quick and easy it is to operate. And this, I can’t answer. I’ve never used a dedicated PDF scanner such as those linked above.

    (We have a Dell printer at my workplace that can scan to PDF and save on a USB thumb drive. While that functionality is a lifesaver at times, the Dell ain’t the fastest thing in the world. Its warmup time, to be blunt, sucks like no other.)

    If anyone out there has experience with a dedicated scanner like this, I’d appreciate your thoughts on this aspect!

    Given my scanning inexperience, I’ll tentatively apply “no advantage / no score” here.

    Score: Digital 3, Paper 1.

    Summary: Is Digital Worth It?

    At this moment, I sit at my table, staring at an accordion folder’s worth of small-biz documents — plus a few folders of standard household records. I think of the additional two filing cabinets’ worth of documents we have in our computer room. I think of all the paper that’s going to be coming into my life from this point on.

    Egads. That’s a lot of paper to deal with. And much of it will need to be stored.

    So I wonder if the several hundred bucks I’d be laying out for a scanner isn’t really a bargain. Perhaps my largest obstacle here is getting over the “comfort” of paper. Because my current system has worked well, I’m comfortable dealing with paper. Moving to a digital library of PDF’d documents means creating a new system. It means moving away from comfort.

    Which makes a guy like me — a guy who strives for control — nervous.

    Any considerations I’m missing? Am I seriously late to, or overly cautious regarding, the digital-document revolution?



  5. Contingency Planning: Lost or Stolen Wallet

    We all have our little fears. One of mine, oddly enough, has to do with reaching the end of a discount superstore checkout line:

    I have a cart-full of stuff. I put my stuff on the conveyor belt, and the cashier rings it up. I reach back for my wallet …

    … and find nothing but an empty pocket.


    And right there is where my heart cliff-dives into my stomach.

    Now, to be fair, my inner “fear” of this probably has more to do with me being placed in an awkward situation (needing to pay for stuff at checkout, but having no money to do it with) than it does with the actual loss of my personal filing cabinet (i.e., my wallet).

    But in reality, it’s that second condition that would cause the larger turmoil. And dramatically so.

    To date, I have never lost my wallet. But it occurs to me now that doing so would precipitate a huge mess in my life. I mean, I’ve never gone through any other guy’s wallets, but I suspect that I keep a lot of stuff in mine, relatively speaking.

    Careful consideration suggests that having all that “stuff” fall into the wrong hands could prove to be really, really nasty. And taking a few actions now, plus having some sort of contingency plan in place should my fears be realized, is probably a really good idea.

    Perhaps both of us, Dear Reader, should practice some wallet “preventative maintenance.”

    Know “What’s In Your Wallet”

    I will be deadly honest here: I have not inventoried my wallet in years.

    If that thing disappeared tomorrow, would I know everything that it held?

    Would I know what accounts were compromised?

    Would I know what banks and institutions to call to notify and/or close those accounts?

    Embarassing as it is to say, I certainly wouldn’t have those answers immediately. Sure, I could garner a lot of the required info from my Quicken 2010 Deluxe file, but that would take time. And it wouldn’t be exhaustive. For stuff like insurance cards, I’d need to dig through our filing cabinets as well. Which means more time. And more opportunity for bad stuff to happen with my information.

    So obviously, knowing what’s in your wallet is key. With that in mind, it’s time to see what I can do to, uh, mitigate the potential damage.

    Minimize Wallet Contents

    The way I figure, the best way to keep your wallet from becoming some identity thief’s Jackpot of the Month is to make sure that said wallet is (1) as empty as possible, or (2) as full of useless crap as possible.

    (When Mr. Thief scours all the hidden folds of your wallet, hoping to score a Benjamin or two, and finds only a couple of Arby’s receipts from 1997 … well, it’s fun to imagine the look on his face.)

    In this vein, I’ve read that some guys don’t even carry their driver’s licenses in their wallets. Instead, they elect to keep it in their vehicle … say, in a glove-box wallet, or in a console compartment. While I understand the goal — don’t let the thief get your address, etc. — the side-effects seem way inconvenient to me. And what if your car gets stolen? According to at least one source (though a flimsy one), that’s way more likely to happen than having your wallet pilfered.

    Anyway, considering your wallet’s contents, odds are that your name will be in there on SOMETHING. But if you’re good with keeping your driver license elsewhere, you might as well yank out anything else that could tip off a thief to your address, birthdate, workplace (think business cards), and other vitals. Why make identity theft any easier than it already is?

    Don’t Be An Idiot

    Yes, these should go without saying. But a little reinforcement can’t hurt.

    Don’t carry your Social Security card in your wallet.

    Don’t keep your Social Security number anywhere in your wallet.

    Don’t keep ATM pin numbers in your wallet.

    Do Consider Human Nature

    If you think human nature matters, regardless of situation, then you might want to keep baby pics in your wallet, though. If you do, display them prominently. There’s no charge for playing to someone’s sympathies!

    Think It Over: Debit vs. Credit

    Remember: In the event of a wallet or purse mishap, debit cards will give Mr. Thief direct access to your bank account. Credit cards will not.

    “Reward checking” programs that require some minimum number of debit-card purchases each month can bring pretty fat interest rates to your account. But there is a cost here that many people don’t consider: You’re making your debit-card info that much more available to folks who would like to do bad things with it.

    (Lisa and I have had our credit-card accounts compromised at least once, and it was practically a non-event. We’ve never had our debit-card numbers fall into the wrong hands, thankfully, but we’ve heard from folks who have. And it wasn’t pretty.)

    Inventory Those Wallet Contents

    Now that we’ve cleaned out (hopefully) a bunch of peripheral stuff from our wallets, it’s time to do a bit of Contingency Plan record-keeping.

    • Scan, photograph, or photocopy fronts/backs of cards.
    • Keep a list of website URLs / contact phone numbers somewhere. (My personal choice is a filing cabinet, using a folder labeled WALLET INFO and the current date.)
    • Keep photographs/scans/copies in safe place. (The above-mentioned filing cabinet seems good enough to me.)

    After all this, we’ve hopefully done enough thinking ahead to mitigate some of the hassle associated with a lost wallet … should it ever occur!