Monday, May 21, 2018

Money Crashers: Mortgage Relief Scams

In my last Money Crashers article, on avoiding foreclosure, I talked briefly about one thing that definitely won't help you: those bogus ads that promise a quick and easy fix to home mortgage woes. My latest piece is a sort of companion piece to that one, going into more details about the nuts and bolts of mortgage relief scams. I outline some of the different types of scams, such as "negotiation" services (something you could do yourself), "forensic loan audits" (which do nothing to get you a better deal), access to government aid programs (which do exist, but don't charge anything), and the worst of all, fake sale and rent-to-buy scams (which usually cost you your house as well as your money). Then I discuss how you can protect yourself from these scams by knowing your rights as a homeowner, recognizing the warning signs, taking precautions in all your mortgage dealings, and taking action if you've been the victim of a scam. Once again, here's hoping you never need this information—but forewarned is forearmed.

Mortgage Relief & Loan Modification Scams You Should Watch Out For

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Repair or replace: Our new used microwave

Brian and I are creatures of habit, especially where breakfast is concerned. My unvarying routine in the morning—at least on weekday mornings—is to pop a couple of slices of bread in the toaster oven, mix up some cocoa and sugar with boiling water in a mug, add milk, and put it in the microwave for one minute. Meanwhile, Brian is loading up his bowl with raisin bran, oats, flaxseeds, nuts, and raisins. (This part of the routine is now in danger, as we discovered on our last trip to Aldi that the price of raisin bran has gone up, leaving us with no packaged cereals that can meet our 10-cent-per-ounce cutoff. You may be hearing more about this in a future blog entry.)

Last week, however, this routine was rudely interrupted. When I put my cup of cocoa in the microwave, I heard a muffled "pop" that I couldn't identify. The microwave apparently continued to run—the light stayed on, the turntable turned, and the fan made noise—but when I pulled the cup out, it was still stone cold.

Not having time to tinker with the microwave at that moment, I simply heated up my cocoa in a pot. However, later that day I got an e-mail from Brian that began, "Been doing a little bit of research on the microwave problem." He found that, first of all, "the high voltage capacitor in a microwave makes it extremely hazardous for the amateur service person to tinker with"—which made it just as well that we hadn't attempted to open it up that morning. Second, the Kenmore website identified "multiple components whose failure might have caused the problem." He summed up the problem thus:
So, to service it ourselves, we'd need to
(1) Safely discharge the capacitor
(2) Identify the component or components that failed
(3) Order those items
(4) Wait for the them arrive (which might be a wait of two weeks or more for some parts)
(5) Make the repair and hope nothing is out of alignment and we're not getting microwave leakage.
The only one that I am confident of our being able to do well with our current resources and patience is #3.
He concluded with "I think this may be a problem that I'm willing throw money at."

I concurred and promptly set out to do some research of my own. First, I checked prices for microwave repairs at Home Advisor, which said it was "usually $70/hour plus the price of parts": a total of $100 to $150 on average. Then I checked ConsumerSearch to find out what a new microwave would cost and found that the best-rated "midsize" model, which was comparable to our old microwave, would cost about $150. The new microwave was readily available at Home Depot, while a shop capable of repairing the old one would take more work to track down—and, when (if) found, would almost certainly need to keep the microwave for several days. In other words, repairing would be a lot more inconvenient, and the savings would be $50 at most and possibly nothing at all. And even if we could fix the old microwave, it would still be a 6-year-old microwave, which presumably would have a shorter lifespan than a new one. In my return message to Brian, I concluded, "Much as it goes against my instincts, I think this is a case where replacing clearly makes more sense than repairing."

However, we couldn't just run out to the Home Depot and pick up the new microwave that evening, since we already had plans (our weekly D&D group). So we had to put it off one more day—and over the course of that day, I did a little more research and made a couple more discoveries. First, the microwave that ConsumerSearch recommended was discontinued by the manufacturer. Second, although it was still available online through Home Depot, there was no way easy to check to see whether any individual store had it in stock. Third, the reason it was discontinued appeared to be because it wasn't very reliable. Many of the recent user reviews complained about it breaking down within a few months—and since it was discontinued, presumably it would no longer be covered by a warranty. Even getting parts for it would be difficult.

I did a little more digging to see if I could find another midsize microwave that was similar to the recommended one, but I came up blank. The closest match I could find wasn't covered in ConsumerSearch and was roundly panned by Consumer Reports. And the ones Consumer Reports liked were mostly available in stainless finish only, which wouldn't go with our old-fashioned white-and-wood kitchen. And it was at that point I asked myself: If we can't find a new microwave that's really ideal for our purposes, why spend the money on a new one at all? Why not buy used?

So I searched Craigslist, and I managed to turn up one almost-new GE microwave, roughly the same size as our old one, for $50 in Bridgewater (about an hour away). It took a while to get through to the owner, but that evening we heard back and found it was still available, and we drove up to get it. It was a bit of a comedy of errors getting into the house; he'd attempted to text us and tell us to meet him round back in the garage, not realizing that the number I'd called him from was a landline, so he was down there and couldn't hear the doorbell when we rang. But eventually we managed to get in and complete the transaction.

Our "new" microwave is now settled in quite happily in the kitchen. We're still adjusting to a couple of things about it, like the lack of an interior light, which still makes me think "Uh oh, what's wrong?" every time I open it, and the slightly shorter interior compartment, which makes my usual bowl-and-inverted colander method of popping popcorn slightly more complicated. (I have to put the bowl in first and then the colander on top, rather than adding them both as a unit, and remove them the same way. But on the plus side, I no longer have to worry about the colander being knocked out of place by the popping kernels, because there's no room for it to move.)

But the bottom line is, we now have a microwave that's actually quite a bit newer and in better condition than our old one, and we only paid half of what it would have cost to repair it. And, since we bought secondhand, we were still saving a microwave from the landfill, even if we couldn't save ours. From an ecofrugal perspective, that's a win-win.

It didn't occur to me until this weekend that this is actually a case of history repeating itself. Five years ago, when our old blender suffered a cracked collar (the part the jar screws into) for the third time in a row, we decided to buy a secondhand one off Craigslist for $10. In that case, too, we ended up with a model that was newer and better than our old one for less than we were planning to spend on parts to fix it. (And, in fact, that same secondhand blender is still going strong five years later.)

So next time something around here breaks, unless it looks like something we can quickly and easily fix ourselves, I'm just going straight to Craigslist. It's probably cheaper than either a professional repair or a replacement, and it's definitely easier.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Money Crashers: How to Avoid Foreclosure on Your Home

My latest Money Crashers article is on a topic I hope none of my readers will ever have to deal with: home foreclosure. Losing your home has got to be financially and emotionally devastating under any circumstances, and when it happens because you couldn't meet your payments, you have the added burden of feeling like it's all your fault.

The good news is that there are ways to avoid a foreclosure. If you act soon enough, you might be able to avoid falling behind on your payments altogether, either by raising extra cash or by refinancing the loan. If you're already behind, you still have a chance to save your home through a home loan workout (such as a loan modification). And if worse comes to worst and you know you can't get caught up, you can at least shield yourself from the worst effects of foreclosure through a short sale or deed in lieu of foreclosure.

So, once again, I hope you'll never need to know this—but it's worth learning anyway. That way, if you or someone you know ever ends up in this terrible situation, at least you'll know your options.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Money Crashers: Graduation Gift Ideas on a Budget

Graduation season is in full swing. Rutgers had its commencement last weekend, causing us to rearrange our driving plans to give New Brunswick as wide a berth as possible, and we'll have to make similar adjustments next month for our local high school's graduation. Luckily for us, we don't actually have to fight our way through the traffic to attend any of these events, since all our relatives and close friends are either safely through school or still a few years away from graduation. 

But we've both attended our share of graduations in our time, and along with all the other arrangements, there's always one troubling question: "What would make a good gift?" This is an even tougher question to answer when you're on a tight budget. Normally, if you're really stumped, you can just punt and give cash or a gift card—but if all you can squeeze out of your budget is $20, or even less, you end up looking cheap as well as unimaginative.

My latest Money Crashers post is an attempt to address this dilemma. I've suggested 18 gifts appropriate for different types of grads—high school or college age, male or female—at prices ranging from under $20 to nearly $100. You'll find ideas for practical gifts like food and housewares, sentimental gifts like flowers and framed pictures, and just-for-fun gifts like a board game or tickets to an event.

Unfortunately, I realize this post will come a little too late for some of you. I wrote it back in March, thinking that would be plenty of time to get it published before May, but apparently I underestimated how long the editing process would take. So if you had to attend a college graduation this year, it's probably over already. But most high school graduations, at least, are still about a month off, so I hope it's in time to be helpful to some of you.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Household Hacks: Summer wardrobe edition

Summer is icumen in, it would appear. In the past week or so, we've had a couple of days that got up close to 90 degrees, and I started pulling some of my summer garments out of storage. Unfortunately, in the process, I discovered that a couple of them were worn out, which threw me face to face with that age-old ecofrugal dilemma: repair or replace?

The first problem popped up on the first day I ventured out in sandals. My current summertime solution to the shoe conundrum is a pair of sturdy Columbia sandals in a "big kids" size 5. Because boys' and girls' shoes are both the same size and width, this shoe fits just fine on my wider foot; it's a bit long, perhaps, but the adjustable straps allow me to keep it snug. And as a bonus, kids' shoes are usually a bit cheaper than those designed for adults, so I was able to pick these up for only $30 or so at Famous Footwear.

After being worn nearly every day for the better part of two summers, the soles of these sandals were seriously worn down. In the middle of the ball of the foot, especially, there was a spot where the rubber was nearly worn through. I'd noticed last summer that they were starting to wear and tried to patch them with Sugru (the stuff we used to repair our old toilet brush), but it didn't stay put. So when I first put them on this summer and found I could nearly feel the pavement through them, I thought they were probably done for. Given that I'd worn them regularly through two summers, you could hardly say I hadn't gotten my money's worth out of them, but I was still disgruntled at the thought of having to shop for a new pair. I'd originally bought these at Famous Footwear, but the selection there is ever-changing, and I couldn't be sure of finding them.

So I decided to have one more go at patching them, this time using a product that's more or less designed for the purpose: Shoe Goo. Unfortunately, I didn't think to take a "before" picture of them, but even in this "after" picture of the repair job, you can see the wavy texture of the worn patches. What's not clear from the picture is how well they'll hold up. I've used Shoe Goo on worn shoes before and managed to get another couple of months of wear that way, but it eventually gets dirty and peels off. So it's not clear whether this fix will be enough to keep this pair of shoes going through the summer, but at least it will save me from having to hunt for new ones in a hurry.

I also ran into difficulties the first really warm night of the year, when I switched to my summer sleeping attire—an old tank top and a pair of men's boxers. I've had these for a few years now, and the waistband elastic, as you can see here, is almost completely kaput.

What I'd normally do in this situation is add a drawstring, as I did with these shorts three years ago. However, the way this waistband is designed makes that technique impractical. It's all one solid piece of elastic, so there's nothing to slip the drawstring through.

Now, these are actually cheap enough that buying a new pair would be no big deal. But the idea of tossing out the old ones just irked me. The fabric was all still perfectly good; it was only the elastic that was worn. It seemed like throwing them away just for that would be a blot on my ecofrugal escutcheon.

So I did a little experimenting and eventually found that if I could just wrap them a little tighter in the front and secure them somehow, I should be able to get them to stay put. So I folded over a big flap of fabric in the front, stitched it together, and attached a button...

...and cut a small buttonhole through the waistband opposite.

The finished result isn't exactly elegant, but it should be enough to keep them from falling off, which is all that really matters for night wear.

So with those two quick fixes, I should be more or less set for summertime. I don't know how well either of them will hold up, but even if I end up having to buy new sandals or sleep shorts before the summer is out, at least I'll know I didn't give up without a fight.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Money Crashers: 17 Reasons Why You Should Get Out of Debt

The only debt Brian and I have ever had—not counting credit cards that get paid off every month—is our mortgage. And pretty much the whole time we had that, we were obsessed with paying it off. We made extra payments as often as possible, and I (in my usual hyper-organizational mode) entered all those payments on a spreadsheet to keep track of our remaining principal, our growing equity, and the time left until it was paid. We didn't have a "mortgage-burning party" to celebrate like some people do, but we certainly felt happier and freer without it.

Now, many financial advisors would say this wasn't really the best move on our part. After all, they'd argue, by throwing all our spare cash at our mortgage, we were only getting a 4.5% return on our investment (or 6% before we refinanced); most likely we could have done better than that by investing in stocks. Now, I would argue that a guaranteed 4.5% return is nothing to sneeze at, but even granted that we could have done better in the stock market, I think paying off the mortgage was still the right choice for us. We're both incredibly uncomfortable with the idea of being in debt, and we were never going to feel entirely secure until that debt was gone.

I realize, of course, that most people don't feel this way. But I'd like to argue that even for those who don't, devoting your extra money to paying off debt has more benefits than you may realize. Aside from the obvious financial perks—more cash to spend or invest, more security—it has documented benefits for your mental and even your physical health. And it has the potential to make your relationships with other people—especially people who share that debt—stronger as well.

Learn about the 17 reasons to get rid of debt in my latest Money Crashers article:

Monday, May 7, 2018

Are Millennials the ecofrugal generation?

Sometimes I ask myself if I'm a Millennial trapped in the body of a Gen-Xer.

This first occurred to me last year when I came across an article in Advertising Age about Millennials' shopping habits. Unfortunately, the article is no longer available to non-subscribers, but the gist of it was that Millennials are less likely to be brand loyal than previous generations. They care less about the name on the package and more about the price and the quality of the item. The Brandless online store, which I wrote about back in September, seeks to appeal to this group with healthy, high-quality products at reasonable prices.

Now, I'm a good ten years older than the oldest Millennials, but this sounded like a pretty good description of the way I've been shopping all my life. Many of the products at the Brandless site, too, seemed calculated to appeal to ecofrugal shoppers like me: organic peanut butter, Fair Trade coffee, "tree-free" bath tissue, and cruelty-free skin care products with no parabens or phthalates. I started wondering: are Millennials actually a whole generation of ecofrugal shoppers?

Other stories I've read seemed to shore up this suspicion. CNBC, for instance, reported that Millennials are wary of debt—one in three say it's their greatest fear—and tend to eschew credit cards. USA Today notes that Millennials save a greater percentage of their incomes than previous generations (though they save less in dollar terms because their earnings are lower). And the Organic Trade Association reports that Millennials, especially those who have kids, are "big buyers of organic."

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I heard a segment on Young House Love Has a Podcast that made me start to question this view. This podcast, by the way, is the current endeavor of John and Sherry Petersik, the creators of the Young House Love blog I celebrated in my 2013 Thrift Week series. In 2014, they decided to stop updating the blog on a regular basis, and I spent a while hunting for a substitute without success—but a couple of years later, they popped back up again with a new weekly podcast, which I now listen to in the shower every Monday.

Anyway, John and Sherry themselves are right on the cusp of the Millennial generation—they sometimes refer to themselves as part of the "Oregon Trail generation"—and in their latest episode, they were discussing some of the ways in which they do and don't correspond to others in their demographic. For example, other Millennials supposedly dislike using top sheets on their beds; they think it's a lot easier to make the bed if you have only a duvet and a fitted sheet. Their view, which I agree with, is that making up the bed with a top sheet is a lot less work than wrestling the duvet out of and back into its cover every couple of weeks so you can wash it. However, they are in agreement with their fellow Millennials about not using bar soap because it's too germy, or fabric softener because they think it's unnecessary, or paper napkins because, hey, paper towels are pretty much the same thing, so why buy two separate products? In fact, they say, they've gone one better and done away with tissues as well, because toilet paper off the roll—especially if you buy the nice soft kind—works just as well.

From an ecofrugal perspective, I agree with some of these choices but profoundly disagree with others. For instance, I completely agree that there's no need whatsoever for fabric softener. Clothes feel plenty soft enough if you wash them with just water and a little soap, so there's no reason to apply extra chemicals to them. (I don't even bother with dryer sheets, even when I actually put things in the dryer rather than hanging them on the line; if there's any static buildup, I find I can dispel it by giving the things a good brisk shake before putting them away.)

But bar soap, to my thinking, is clearly a more ecofrugal choice than liquid soap; all the waste it generates is a small plastic wrapper, or even a paper one that can be composted, rather than a whole plastic bottle and pump assembly. (The plastic bottles may be recyclable, but the pumps never are.) Plus, according to Grist Magazine's "Ask Umbra" column, bar soap uses a lot less energy to produce and to ship, and we use less of it, making it greener all around. And why worry about getting a few germs on your hands if you're about to wash them right off?

Likewise, I was entirely in agreement with the Millennials about not using paper napkins—until I heard that they were replacing them, not with washable cloth napkins, but with paper towels. We don't even have paper towels in our house, because there's nothing they can clean that can't be cleaned just as well with cloth rags, which are both reusable and free. I would have thought this idea would appeal to thrifty Millennials—but perhaps, given their reaction to bar soap, they'd find the idea of reusing a rag too icky. And they'd no doubt be horrified to hear that the reason we don't have tissues in our house is not because we find it easier to use toilet paper, but because we actually blow our noses on—ewwwww!—reusable cloth handkerchiefs. (Though I wonder whether these same people are actually all that diligent about discarding their disposable tissues immediately after use and then washing their hands immediately, every time. If they're not, I'm prepared to bet that my sturdy cloth hanky does a better job of containing germs than a wussy paper tissue that gets soaked through after one good sneeze.)

So now, frankly, I'm not sure what to think. It appears Millennials are more ecofrugal than older folks in some ways, like eating organic and being price-conscious rather than brand-conscious. But they're just the reverse in some other ways, like eating out more and choosing more heavily packaged products.

I guess the bottom line is that the Millennial generation probably isn't going to remake the world on more sustainable lines, all on their own. But on the other hand, at least some of their habits suggest that folks this age are likely to be receptive to the concept of ecofrugality. They care about cost, and they care about environmental benefits—at least as long as they can get them without sacrificing convenience. So maybe, what blogs like mine need to do is focus on green products and services that can deliver all that in one package. That way, we can attract the attention of more Millennials and, in the process, expose them to the broader message of ecofrugality. If we can get them on board with that, they might eventually be willing to change some of their less ecofrugal habits, swapping out some of those disposable soap pump bottles for bars. Or maybe they'll come up with some entirely new form of soap that no one has thought of yet—one that's cheap, eco-friendly, and easier to use. That would be a win for everyone.