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Monday, October 19, 2009

Seven Daily Routines That Can Cost You Big

1. Tossing out the "junk mail" from your credit card company.
The Credit Card Holders Bill of Rights Act goes into full effect in February. Ahead of that deadline, companies are changing the terms of customer agreements. For example, the new law prohibits raising the interest rate on existing balances unless a customer pays more than 60 days late. To skirt that provision, firms are notifying customers that their cards are now "variable rate." (Translation: We can jack up your rate whenever we please.)

So watch those benign notices, and be ready to call and demand a fixed-rate card or take your business elsewhere. Amid these tactics, a new bill calls for moving up the deadline on the credit card law to Dec. 1.

2. Using a debit card without writing down the transactions in your account register.

Debit cards are expected to account for 60 percent of transactions this year, but debit-card users tend to lose track of their money: Swiping plastic triggers 44 percent of overdraft fees, while paper checks account for just 27 percent.

A new report finds 50 million Americans overdrew their accounts at least once in a 12-month period, and 27 million incurred five or more overdraft fees. At an average of $34 a pop, that's a lot of beans -- literally. By one account, Americans spend about the same amount on overdraft fees as they do on fresh vegetables.

Why write down debit spending? Because swiping a card doesn't feel the same as laying out cash. The discipline of recording the transaction may reduce mindless spending and makes money easier to track. Simplify your money trail by using online bill pay for all your regular monthly bills, rather than having money withdrawn from your account by outside companies. Then take 30 seconds a day to log on to your account, add the pending transactions in bill pay to the outstanding checks and debits listed in your register that haven't cleared yet. Subtract from the current balance. If the result is nearing zero, add money to the account. Voila -- no overdrafts, no fees.

3. Ignoring new bank charges.

You may have noticed banks are a bit desperate these days to make a buck. One of the more recent innovations is dinging customers who make electronic transfers to an external account.

Example: In the last year, Wachovia started charging customers $3 per transfer to an outside bank. Let's say you automatically stash $100 a week into a savings account at an online bank offering 1.8 percent interest (the current top rate). Smart move. Except Wachovia will now ding you for 3 percent of that weekly deposit. Annual cost? $156.

Meanwhile, Wachovia doesn't offer any savings accounts that compete with a 1.8 percent rate (except Way to Save, which severely restricts the amount you can deposit). Solution: Find a local bank or credit union with no transfer fees, so you're free to access higher returns.

4. Investing time in the wrong things.

Maybe you're someone who will drive 20 minutes to a store on your lunch hour to get $5 off a $20 sweater. Or you'll spend 45 minutes on the phone protesting a $3 error on the cable bill. But when you start a new job, you procrastinate for two years before joining the 401(k) plan or leave your contribution languishing in a money-market account.

Make a weekly to-do list of your financial decisions (savings and spending) and then prioritize them in terms of bang-for-the-buck over time. When you do the math, you'll see why paying off credit cards in full and contributing to a retirement plan that offers a match should be at the top of the list.

5. Spending with no goals to guide you.

One definition of insanity, attributed to Albert Einstein, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Yet that's how some people approach their finances. They earn and spend and earn and spend, and wonder why they aren't making any progress.

Break the mindless cycle by figuring out what you value most, whether it's world travel, returning to school to change careers, home ownership, a peaceful retirement or a debt-free college education for the kids. Then set specific goals, with real time frames, and track your advancement on a monthly basis. Make this a daily discipline by putting a list of those goals in your face -- the fridge, your desk at work, your wallet.

6. Failing to track spending.

You can't succeed at No. 5 if you don't know precisely where your money is going. When I first started working, I carried a pencil and paper around and wrote everything down. Today, there are numerous desktop software applications and Web sites that will aggregate your finances and track your spending and savings.

You can pay upfront for software. Choose an online program that's free, but supported by sponsored ads and offers you'll see when you log in (and the service may sell your data). Or you can pay a monthly fee for a site with no outside ads or offers. Check out this recent list of budgeting tools at the blog Get Rich Slowly.

7. Failing to exercise.

How can this hurt your finances? Daily physical activity lowers the risk of a multitude of ailments, from heart disease to diabetes to certain kinds of cancer, which are obviously expensive to treat, even for people who have health insurance.

A Harvard study found medical bills are behind 60 percent of U.S. bankruptcies, and more than 75 percent of bankrupt families had health insurance at the onset of the illness. Meanwhile, a regular work-out might get you a raise. Studies have found exercise can improve your performance at work by boosting cognitive skills and productivity, and reducing stress and absenteeism.

For information on Financial Management or other topics, please contact your EAP coordinator or visit the work life NYBalance web site.  There is a free book from Suze Orman as well as a CD for creating a budget and managing your personal finances.

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