preparing for layoffs: new income sources

My company fired nearly 1,000 people this past week. That was in addition to 5,000 last year. There already is speculation that more will come. Fear of a job loss is a frequent topic of conversation around the office and I have found myself in a position of counseling many of my coworkers. Here is some of the advice I give them and unless you are in a tenured position everyone might want to consider:

preparing-for-layoff

1. Update your resume: This one seems obvious to me, because I have changed jobs several times over the past decade and my resume is either up to date or one hour of time away from being updated. But, some of my coworkers who lost their jobs have worked at the company for 10 or even 20 years and have not thought about looking for work.

2. Sign up for online job updates. Most of the job sites have a service whereby you can be sent daily or weekly  job alerts based on keywords that you can set up. Even if you do not start applying, it is comforting to see that there are jobs available.

3. Research other companies in your field or fields that you might want to work in. Check news stories to see if they have just gotten a big contract, stimulus money or anything else that may lead to job creation. Keep this list handy in case you need to start contacting them. Notice, I did not advise to wait until they have a job posted- the idea is to reach out to them before they advertise positions.

4. If you work for a large company, network inside your company. Get to know people in other divisions or departments. These contacts may lead to a new position within the company.

5. Think about your unique skills that could lead to setting up your own company. While you are employed, start the research needed to make it happen and talk to people who you might want to partner with. Even if you aren’t ready to try and start the company, you can create a web address and reserve it through a hosting site like Godaddy, research the types of corporate structures and how to set them up, etc to generally be prepared.

6. Look into taking on some consulting projects on the side. One place to look is with vendors that you worked with in a previous job or that no longer work with your company. This will help you stash away some extra savings and could be a first step into consulting full time, either until you find a new job or as a new career if you lose your current one.  Be careful to only do your consulting work on your own time and make sure there are no conflicts of interest with your current employer.

7. For vendors that currently work with your company- don’t try to consult with them now (it could be perceived as a conflict) but make sure you have the contact names and phone numbers of their key people at home. This way, if you do lose your job, you have a way to contact them.

Doing even some of these things will, if nothing else, help you be mentally prepared and possibly even excited to find sources of income or a new career if the pink slip comes your way.

 

Credit Card Company Reversing Fee

Some good news for credit card users. Chase Bank has agreed to drop the flat monthly service fee, which it added to more than 184,000 accounts in January. In addition, anyone who was charged the fee will have the money refunded.

credit-card-fees

It took the attorney general of NY to broker this deal on behalf of consumers. Perhaps some of the other less than consumer friendly practices will also be dropped. The news story did not say what would happen for people who accepted the higher interest rate on their card instead of accepting the fee. If you did this, you may want to call Chase.

If you are one of the lucky ones getting money returned, this is a great chance to either pay down some of your balance, or if you pay your card in full every month, to add to your emergency fund. “Found” money is the easiest way to add to your savings.

 

I am refinancing

Several articles on this site discuss refinancing from a theoretical point of view. I thought I would share my experience with an actual refinance. I am refinancing for a reason I haven't seen discussed anywhere- to substantially lower my payment. I am moving from a 15 year mortgage to a 3o year mortgage. With my outrageous property taxes added in, my current payment is $4700 a month. Ouch. The new mortgage will be $2400. This lower payment will give me a lot of breathing room if I was to lose my job.

This makes sense for me, because I do not plan to keep this house when I retire (because of the property taxes). If I did plan to keep the house, I would continue with the aggressive 15 year payments.

My refinance will close on Tuesday. I am locked at a 4.75% interest rate on a 30 year, fixed loan. I actually wished it was not locked, because the rates have actually gone down in the past week. Bank of America currently has a 4.25% rate with 2.25 points. But at 4.75%, I really cannot complain.

So, how did I do it? Part good financial habits, part luck. Because I do have good financial habits, I have an 802 credit score. A solid credit score is essential today.  I also am fortunate enough to still have a job (which is why I am doing this now). Finally, because I purchased my home 10 years ago and did not refinance to take the equity out, I have enough equity left for this refinance.

mortgage-refinancing-checklist

So how was the process? I sent an email to the bank (one that I am already a customer). A rep called me that evening took my application over the phone and answered my questions. It took about 20 minutes. During this conversation, because I asked, the bank eliminated $900 of closing costs. They also agreed not to make me roll in my home equity line (I did not want to because it has a 2.5% interest rate) and to eliminate my escrow account.

Since then, the bank has called me 3 times as the process went on- most recently to set my closing date.

The bank only asked for a pay stub, proof of homeowner's insurance and proof of a bank account with at least 3 months of mortgage payments in it.

So, the key to refinance in today's credit environment is: excellent credit, verifiable income, and at least 20% equity.  What I found interesting, is that in the mortgage environment, which is supposed to be so difficult now, I was actually asked for less documentation than for previous mortgages. I only had to show a recent pay stub, where previously, I had been asked for W2 forms and/or tax returns.

The bottom line is, if you are in decent financial shape and have equity in your home, this is a great time to refinance. The rates are amazingly low and the process is fairly easy.

zp8497586rq
 

Advanced Budgeting

In a previous post I explained my method for setting up a budget.  Not only can a budget help you spend and save, but once it is working for you, a budget can provide financial flexibility.

budgeting

In order to get maximum flexibility from your budget, first try to get yourself into a position where the income you earn this month is next month's spending. There are many benefits to this:

  • you will never overdraw your checking account because there will be a cash cushion
  • you will never be squeezed by a larger bill (like your mortgage or rent payment) that is higher than your weekly or bi-weekly paycheck
  • you will not have to keep a checking account register- just use your spreadsheet to keep track

In addition, by being one month ahead, I put all bills that do not charge a fee for doing so, on my credit card. So, I only have to pay 3 or 4 bills each month, which has greatly simplified bill-paying. In addition, my credit cards give me money back for using them, so this allows me to maximize the return. A note of caution, ONLY do this if you pay your credit cards in full every month.

I also project my budget one or two months ahead. If, for some reason, I have an unexpected bill or a line item that is higher than projected in the current month, I can “borrow” it from myself, simply by deducting it from the next month or two months on my spreadsheet. I then know in the following months to cut back my spending to make up for it. Again, I can do this without overdrawing my checking account because next month's money is already in the bank. The trick is to not do this too often, or for too high of amounts, or it will make the following month too difficult to balance.

I am paid bi-weekly, which means during two months of the year, usally around May or June and again late in the year, I get an extra pay check. I use my budget to know when I will receive this extra money and can plan ahead for its use.  I use the end of year money to pay for Christmas and some extra savings. I use the Spring money in a variety of ways:  Spring clothes for the kids, in some years, for a vacation, in others for extra savings. This year, it will help pay my tax bill, because the AMT hit me hard this year. Not fun, but because I have planned for it, I will have the money when the bill is due.

zp8497586rq
 

Sneaky Tricks from Credit Card Vendors (Part 4)

Credit card companies need to make money just like everyone else. If they couldn’t make money by extending credit, they wouldn’t be in business, and that would force us to pay cash for everything from coffee to vacations. There is obviously a place for credit cards in our society. However, some tricks that credit card companies use to make money can only by classified as sneaky.

credit-card-tricks

This is the fourth in a four-part series on the hidden cost of credit cards.

Balance transfer and “no interest” card offers

“Sign up now and pay no interest for 90 days!” Sounds great, right? Well, it is great if you plan on paying the balance on your new “0% interest” card off before your 90 days are up. If you don’t or can’t, though, that 0% will go up, and fast. Companies offer these offers, both on new cards and on balance transfers from other cards, in part to encourage you to carry a balance. If you’re not paying interest, it’s hard to argue that you should pay the card off every month. The problem is, most people can’t, won’t, or don’t pay that balance when the rate goes from 0% to, say, 22%. If you’re disciplined enough to pay off the balance before the end of the introductory rate term, then hey, this might be a good time to buy that new refrigerator. But if you don’t plan on paying the balance, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
There’s a reason these kinds of card offers are popular just after the holidays. Pay no interest on all my holiday purchases? Sign me up! In reality, though, the credit card company wants you to do exactly what you’re thinking about doing: transfer your existing balances to their card. Then when you don’t pay the card off before the introductory 0% rate is over, they make their money off your interest payments. I have a friend, currently unemployed, who bought a big screen HDTV on Black Friday with his new 0% interest card. Don’t worry, he said. I’ll pay it off before the rate goes up. Guess what? 90 days later, he still doesn’t have a job, but he does have a nice big new 20% interest rate on his nice big new TV. Trust me, it’s easy to forget that rate won’t be around forever, and that circumstances can get in the way of even the most sincere plans.

 

Sneaky Tricks from Credit Card Vendors (Part 3)

Credit card companies need to make money just like everyone else.  If they couldn’t make money by extending credit, they wouldn’t be in business, and that would force us to pay cash for everything from coffee to vacations.  There is obviously a place for credit cards in our society.  However, some tricks that credit card companies use to make money can only by classified as sneaky.

credit-card-tricks1

This is the third in a four-part series on the hidden cost of credit cards.

Shortened grace period

In the past, vendors have allowed up to about a 25-day grace period on payments.  A grace period is the time between the statement date and the due date.  A lot of companies are now shortening that grace period—in the fine print.  Where you used to have 25 days, maybe now you only have 14.  For some people this is the difference between being able to pay on time and being forced to pay late, but worse than that, a lot of people are being caught unawares.  They may simply not KNOW that their due date has been changed.
They then get slammed with late fees AND finance charges.  This is a particularly sneaky trick of the credit card companies.  If you’re even a day late, you may be charged a late fee in the $40-$50 range.  And not only are you penalized with that fee, but you’ll probably also be charged interest on the balance that was late, even if you pay it off in full—plus, some companies charge you interest on every purchase until the end of the NEXT billing cycle!  Sound like a ripoff?  It is. Next time you get a bill, check to be sure that due date is what you think it is.

 

Setting Up a Budget

Do you have a budget? Many people think of a budget as almost a form of punishment that keeps them from spending money on things they want. If used correctly, a budget is a powerful tool that can help you get the things you want in life.  So why not start one today?

budgeting1

I like to use a combination of a set bill/discretionary bucket approach. This way, I do not have to track every penny I spend, but I track categories, especially for my discretionary saving and spending. I use a an Excel spreadsheet that I created based on my needs.

So how do you do this?  First, make a note of your monthly pay. I put this at the top of a column for each month. Then I create two columns, one for my anticipated spending, and one for my actual spending for each month.

It looks something like this (using made-up numbers):

 

  Mar-09    
  5000    
  Anticipated Spent notes
mortgage 2300 2300  
nat gas 165    
phone 22    
electric 90    
car insurance 150 150  
gasoline 250    
food 500 230  
miscellaneous 400    
unexpected bill 24 24 license renewal
savings 800 800  
cable 111    
cell phone 79    
gifts 25    
       
  4916 3504  

I used the Excel autosum feature at the bottom of each column. When I add an amount, it adds the column automatically, so I can see how I am tracking against my budget for the month.

What is nice about this method, is I have two buckets of spending that are not set: the food bucket and the miscellaneous bucket. If I shop wisely at the grocery store and have money left, say $40 in that bucket, then I can go out to dinner during the month, guilt-free. The miscellaneous bucket is my “walking around money”. I can do whatever I want to with that-buy a snack, go to a movie, whatever, again guilt-free.   I always budget in a small amount for an unexpected bill- in the example here, a driver’s license renewal in March. The other important item is the car insurance. I pay this quarterly, but put money aside every month, so that when the bill is due, I have the money instead of a budget-buster. I also try and anticipate any items like gifts I may need to purchase ahead of time. With this budget, as long as I do not overspend, I will have saved $800 during March, because I put that money aside in my budget, first (see pay yourself first on this site). I move that $800 to an online savings account on one of the paydays.

Try it yourself- just fill in whatever bills you pay every month. Within a couple of months, you will have a clear idea of how you are spending your money be on your way to meeting YOUR goals.

 

Sneaky Tricks from Credit Card Vendors (Part 2)

Credit card companies need to make money just like everyone else.  If they couldn’t make money by extending credit, they wouldn’t be in business, and that would force us to pay cash for everything from coffee to vacations.  There is obviously a place for credit cards in our society.  However, some tricks that credit card companies use to make money can only by classified as sneaky.

credit-card-tricks2

This is the second in a four-part series on the hidden cost of credit cards.

Raised interest rates

That sneaky little fine print in the dozens of communications you receive from your credit vendor can contain a hike in interest rates.  By law, credit card companies have to make you aware of changes to your account, including changes in interest rate.  Unfortunately, there’s no legislation governing font size.  Even if you need a microscope to read it, as long as your vendor notifies you of the interest rate hike, you’re stuck.  Check that billing statement again to make sure your rate hasn’t risen while you weren’t looking.  If you don’t carry a balance on the card month to month, it doesn’t really matter; you’re not paying interest anyway.
If you do have a balance and you find that the interest rate has gone up, it’s worth a call to the company.  Although you can’t just decide not to pay interest, you CAN decide to move your account to a different vendor.  Remember, for every customer who calls the service line to request a decrease, there are hundreds who just let it go.  The credit card company is still making out like a bandit on the interest rate hike, and so are willing to make the occasional exception.  It’s in the company’s best interest to keep its customers happy.  Customer service reps are often able to lower the rate for you again.    If they say they can’t do it, ask to talk to a supervisor.  He or she is paid to resolve complaints—so complain!

 

Sneaky Tricks from Credit Card Vendors (Part 1)

Credit card companies need to make money just like everyone else.  If they couldn’t make money by extending credit, they wouldn’t be in business, and that would force us to pay cash for everything from coffee to vacations.  There is obviously a place for credit cards in our society.  However, some tricks that credit card companies use to make money can only by classified as sneaky.

credit-card-tricks3

This is the first in a four-part series on the hidden cost of credit cards.

Annual fees

Some cards carry annual fees.  This isn’t new, but it’s also not necessary.  It’s also no announced in big neon letters when you sign up for a new card.  Sure, it’s in the fine print, but for all we know so is War and Peace!  It’s nearly impossible to get through all the legalspeak.  Almost every major card vendor offers at least one card that does not charge an annual fee.  You may get better rewards, like cash back or airline miles, on a card that charges you 50 bucks a year, but really, are the benefits on that card 50 bucks better than the no-fee card?  I have two no-fee cards.  One gives me 1% cash back on every purchase and the other gives me airline miles.  Those seem like pretty good benefits to me, and I don’t even have to pay for them.  You can research a no-annual-fee card on your current card vendor’s website.  If they do offer a no-annual-fee card, often you can roll your existing balance over to the new card.

 

Thinking of Refinancing?

Pretty much the only good thing about the tanking economy is that interest rates are down.  Not such a good thing if you’re saving and investing, but potentially helpful if you want to refinance your home.  Over the last years lenders have been approving some pretty crappy loans.  If you have one of them, want to lower your interest rate, or just want to take some cash out, now might be the time to think about these advantages:

mortgage-refinancing-checklist1

1.    Refinance out of a bad loan. The spike in foreclosures lately is due largely to bad loans, rather than the state of the economy.  A lost job or decrease in portfolio may just be the catalyst for mortgage payment delinquency.  If you are in a loan that could get you into trouble, but still have a good credit rating and a job, now might be the time to think about getting into a safer product.  Even if you’re in a pretty favorable Adjustable Rate Mortgage (ARM) or Interest Only (IO) loan, rates on fixed-rate mortgages are so low that the switch to a safer product might be financially wise.
2.    Lower your interest rate.  If you bought your home in the eighties and haven’t refinanced since, you’re in for a treat.  You may be able to get an interest rate less than a third of what you’re paying now.  Of course, if you bought your home more recently you won’t see quite such a bonanza, but if prevailing interest rates are more than 2 percentage points below what you’re paying now, it’s probably worth looking into.
3.    Cash out.  If you have significant (read: more than 20%) equity in your house and are struggling in this economy, you might want to think about doing a cash-out refinance.  This allows you a potentially lower interest rate on your mortgage and some cash in your hand.  This can be a very risky strategy, however.  If you live in an area where home values have been declining, you may not have enough equity.  Additionally, and for a nice change, lenders are VERY picky about who they approve.  You’d probably need excellent credit, stable income, and a large percentage of equity to be approved.  Nonetheless, it may be worth considering if you’re planning on refinancing anyway.

These days it’s pretty difficult to get a loan.  All the stars (or in this case, financial criteria) have to align before you can get approved.  Use resources like bankrate.com and lendingtree.com to help you find lenders willing to accept your application.  Happy hunting!