Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Gift Cards an Unpopular Gift in 2008

During past Christmases, I have always gotten a few gift cards from relatives who weren't sure what to get a twenty-something. I can appreciate the relatives who felt it was better to allow me to pick out my own purchases, rather than guessting at my clothing needs and tastes, or buying me something useless.

This year however, my relatives, like many others, avoided the gift card trend, and went with either actual presents, or cash. There is a fear going around that many business will be declaring bankruptcy in the upcoming months, which may affect the ability to redeem gift cards. I received several forwarded e-mails with dire warnings about future store closings. With all of the pre-holiday sales, there was also a potential to get more for your money.

According to a recent article from the Associated Press, lower gift card sales could affect the stores sales throughout the year.

Consumers figured out that for the $100 they would ordinarily spend, they
could get far more merchandise than before. Or get something far more expensive
that had been deeply discounted. And for those really watching their spending,
they could give a $100 gift marked down to $25 and pocket the savings.

That behavior could be bad news for retailers well into the new year,
since they don't record gift cards as sales until they are actually redeemed.
Fewer people redeeming the cards could also hurt future sales, since people
usually spend more than the gift card total.

I am glad that I didn't receive any gift cards this year because, I often either don't spend the gift card at all and forget about it, or I spend significantly more than the gift card, on items that I might not have purchased anyway. I can better brave the holiday sales, without the incentive to spend a gift card. My Christmas money can instead go towards paying back purchases that I have already made. When someone comes up with a "Credit Card Payment gift card," let me know. I'm in.


Mint.com Offers Free Online Money Management

Growing up, I remember my parents tracking all of their finances diligently. They would balance their checkbooks regularly, and utilize Quicken to keep track of their monthly and yearly budgets. Apparently budgeting is not genetic, nor is it a skill that I've picked up along the way.

I was reading through a magazine a few months ago, and I found a blurb on Mint.com, a web site that allows you to track your spending, bill payments, and account balances all in one place. I signed up for an account, and let me tell you, it is fabulous! Mint.com has you input your login information for your different accounts, and then it keeps track of everything all on one screen and let's you see your overall financial picture (my overall "net worth" isn't so hot right now). I can see where I am at with my car and student loans, my credit cards, and my checking and savings accounts. If you have investments, it will let you track those too.

One of my favorite features of the site: Mint.com catagorizes all of your transactions from your accounts, so that you can easily see what you are actually spending your money on. At first it was a little bit scary to see that one of the largest pieces of the pie in my pie chart was Food, but it has allowed me to be more realistic and try to cut out all of those trips to McDonalds and coffee shops.

Mint.com also provides some easy Budget tools, which then track where you are at with each budget item throughout the month. I also have mine sent to send me e-mail updates. Towards the end of the month, it will tell me "checking account has a low balance" or "you have overspent in X budget area." This has really helped me to be more conscious of where my accounts are at throughout the month. I also feel a lot less likely to have an overdraft, which is always a good thing.

One concern that you might have is security. I know I was a little bit scared when I first thought about storing all of my account information in one place. Here is a link to their privacy and security info, in case you are curious.

Mint.com is definitely worth looking into. And if you also have an iPhone, they do have a new iPhone application which can be purchased from iTunes. I know I'm going to look into it!


Becky Bloomwood on the Big Screen!

If you haven't heard, one of my favorite books, Confessions of a Shopaholic, has been made into a movie and is going to be released on February 13!

Check out the preview below:

Isla Fisher is going to be an amazing Becky. And the way the movie is shot kind of makes the clothes look like candy...this could be dangerous. I can't wait to check it out!

Unexpected Expenses and Major Updates

I haven't posted in awhile due to an unfortunate event....the loss of my laptop. It first started having problems in September, and after several attempts to repair, the blue screen of death (complete with the "fatal error" message), showed up on my screen just after Thanksgiving. This has been a difficult loss, and I'm still debating what I am going to do. I will definitely need to purchase a new one, but I'm going to see who has the best post holiday sales before making any quick purchases. I would love to get a Mac Book, rather than another Dell. I have heard that Apple will sell their older computer models at a discount, even though they only advertise the newest ones. I'm going ot look into it, but I think that the price tag might be a little too steep no matter what. For what I'm using it for, probably better to stick with the cheaper options.

One major purchase that I made (prior to the laptop disaster), was an iPhone. You are probably thinking...if you don't have any money, why would you buy an iPhone, that's crazy! I've been wanting one for over a year, and had been weighing the pros and cons for quite some time. After consistently getting the free phones that come with the plan. I decided to treat myself to a really nice phone, with the understanding that Grandma and Santa would be covering that credit card bill. I was able to pay for the entire phone with my Christmas money. Although my monthly plan has gone up quite a bit, I have already found that the phone helps me to be more functional. Plus, it is also an iPod, something that I didn't have and was hoping to purchase. I do believe in treating myself every once in awhile, and this was certainly my big treat for the year.

Two major updates:

First, I got a roommate.

After living by myself for the past three and a half years, a friend moved in with me in September. It has been great having someone else around, and it certainly helps with the monthly expenses when you can split everything. It's amazing the other things that I've been able to focus my money towards because I have that much more income available each month...I've actually been able to save some! Living with a roommate can be challenging, and it's a decision that I thought about quite a bit beforehand, but it has been a great experience so far.

My roomie is also financially conscious, and so she and I have been trying one technique together to be more thrifty - our "End of the Month" list. This is the list of all the things we'd like to buy at the end of the month, should we be able to save our money until then. We don't entirely limit spending, but we try not to make any big purchases until after the 15th of the month. We have found that it is really easy to spend most of your paycheck within the first weekend, which can make for an awful end of the month. By waiting on the big things, it also makes for a fun challenge to see how much you can save until the end. In November, I was able to buy all new bedding, something I'd been waiting to get for the past year. Sadly, December required a payment of personal property tax for my car, so there wasn't a whole lot leftover, but I already have my list started for January.

The other big decision that I made was to register for classes at the university where I work. As an employee, we are able to take a certain number of classes as part of our benefits package each year. With the turn that the economy has taken, I don't think, that there is a better benefit than free education right now. With tuition costs continuing to rise, I'm going to take advantage of every free class I can take right now. If it means achieving another degree, I will be able to be that much further ahead when I take my next step in my career. It will be several years before I'll even be close to the PhD, but Dr. K does have a nice ring to it!

That's what I've been up to for the last few months. With this holiday break, I have all sorts of post ideas saved up from the last few months that I just might get to now!

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