I once had a professor who made it his personal quest to eradicate the word “unique” from the pages of his students’ writing. He spent what felt like a semester arguing with us about the overuse, non-uniqueness and meaninglessness of the word. Like the rest of the students, I gripped my desk in futile effort to defend the word. To this day, I treat the word like the name of Harry Potter’s nemesis and cringe whenever I see it. Now I’ve found my own word vendetta and the object of my disdain is the word “value”.

Recently my mother moved into a medical care center (nice term for nursing home). This left me with a garage full of her stuff; many of them are antiques. Several items are from the 1800’s and were hand made in Pennsylvania. I’ve commissioned a few to a dealer in Denver and am trying to sell a few on my own using the usual venues of Craigslist and eBay. The dealer told me that many of the pieces are valuable and if I were on the East Coast, they would probably move quicker and sell for higher prices than they will here. A clock dealer told me that the 18-hour clock made in upstate New York might have sold for around $500 a few years ago, but now the market might only yield $150 or so.

So, the subject of value has been high on my radar lately. Just because something is valuable, doesn’t mean it has real value. Valuables aren’t necessarily assets.

My son likes to watch the show Pickers. It’s fun to see the stuff these guys find. At the end of each episode they place values on the items they’ve picked, most of which they have not resold. Usually they value the items much higher than what they paid.  Is something valuable if no one wants to buy it?

In another example, I just finished reading the The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls. In this memoir, her parents constantly struggle to afford basics like food and shelter. Her mother owns land that she inherited but won’t sell because her grandfather told her you should always hold on to land. When the kids find a large diamond ring among the dirt and trash of their ramshackle house, their mother refuses to sell it because it makes her feel elegant and increases her confidence. Later when she is homeless, she still won’t sell the ring. Is sentiment of value? Is an item valuable if it makes you feel good to possess it?

People often confuse valuables with assets. Value is a subjective measure of worth. Assets have exchangeable worth that can be converted to cash. A possession is just a thing. It takes up space and can consume you more than you consume it.

While cleaning out my mother’s apartment I had to assess every item. Is this valuable to me or would it mean more to someone else? Do I really need to continue the lugging around of my grandmother’s furniture as my mother has? Do I need the memories associated with these things?

I ended up giving away a ton of stuff, but it made me feel much better than trying to scrape a few dollars out the items. I saw how gladly the people took salt and peppershakers, framed prints, forks and teacups. It made me happy to see them thrilled by acquiring these things for free. I don’t miss any of the things I got rid of which confirms that they offered me no value.

There are a couple of big financial whoppers, I mean lies, that we tell ourselves. The one I’ll address today is that which says a parent must pay for a child’s education. This myth came about sometime in the 1960’s when we created the ideal that everyone should go to college, get a high paying corporate job, where a suit and work for a gold watch. We all realize that story was hogwash, but we haven’t dropped all that it carried. We no longer believe that it’s necessary to stay at the same job forever, but we hold on to many supporting components of the myth including cars, houses, and paying for kid’s college.

I bought the myth too even though I didn’t grow up in it. At 17 I did what every high school junior did, I shopped colleges. My father found the college brochures I left lying around and laughed. “How do you think you’re doing this?” he asked and then continued, “I’m not paying for college.”  I was mad. How could he do this to me? Wasn’t that what parents were supposed to do? Looking back I have to tell my teenage self how stupid and selfish I was. Sure, my dad could have prepared me better for the reality by telling me sooner and maybe more compassionately, but that didn’t happen and it’s not the point of this post.

A parent’s responsibility is to care for their children the best they can within their means. If they have the means to pay for college or any other type of education, that’s fantastic. But if they risk their overall financial security to pay for it that’s irresponsible.

Nest eggs, retirement funds, investments should be used to help you when you either retired or can’t work. The best thing you can do for your children is to take care of yourself. Many people I know are dealing with the aftermath of parents who sacrificed their own finances in order to support their child’s education. The good news is that most of those adult children did get educations that afforded them decent jobs. The bad news is the they are now supporting their parents emotionally and financially. That’s a big burden to carry when you’ve also got children of your own. Don’t do this to your own kids.

I did end up going to college, partly to prove my father wrong. I passed up Duke for a small state university, and in my last year only paid $75 tuition. I did this through a mix of grants, scholarships, loans and work-study. And BTW, because I mixed it up my actual loans were rather small. I paid off my loans in about 5 years. That may have been a long time ago but grants, low-interest loans and scholarships are still available.

It’s like the old financial advice that says “pay yourself first.” Or maybe a better metaphor comes from the airline attendant: put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.

We are having a rainy spring here in Colorado and I love it, but without a proper push I am likely to stay indoors. That’s really bad for me. I become unbalanced, grumpy and lethargic if I’m inside too much. Last week I saw a woman at my daughter’s school wearing a kicky pair of snappy boots. A light bulb went off in my head. “A kicky pair of snappy boots is just the thing I need to get me out in this duck weather,” I thought. Yes, they would be perfect to wear to my daughter’s wet soccer game on Saturday. And they’d be great for the muddy expedition planned for Sunday.  

DSW is just down the street from my house so I thought I’d just swing by and pick up a kicky pair of snappy boots. So, I whisked into the shoe warehouse and scanned the millions of shoes. Guess what? No snappy boots, none. I felt a pang of disappointment and despair. I needed a kicky pair of snappy boots now and ordering online would not fulfill this need. You might imagine what happened next. Manically I drove my mini-SUV like Ford to every store that I could think might have said boots. I would walk in quickly scan the displays then check with the sales clerk. If they weren’t sure, I was out of there and on my way to the next target. Some stores had boots, but not in my all-too-common size 7. Other stores had them in my size, but they weren’t snappy enough. In the end, no boots for me.

I was left to attend my daughter’s soccer game wearing my old low hikers. The ones with mismatched shoelaces and worn out soles. I expected that I’d feel dumpy and uncomfortable. Much to my surprise the field was not that wet. And, though it hardly matters, no other soccer moms wore snappy boots. The next day, I wore the same hikers to the muddy expedition. Though the boots might have made the mud easy to wash off, I would have looked and probably felt silly among the REI clad group. My daughter and I had such a great time together that we ditched our expedition group. She snapped about 100 pictures on my camera phone and we looked at every leaf, pinecones and dogs-must-be-leashed-signs along the way. “Today was a great day,” she exclaimed before bed. And I thought, “Yes, it was. In fact it was a fun weekend without the snappy boots.” 

It could, however, been a terrible weekend without boots. I knew when I first walked out of DSW that I should’ve checked my desperate quest for boots. I was caught in creating my own suffering. Not only did I not need boots, I didn’t need to spend the money.  

This is often how we relate to money. We create unnecessary needs that lead us to overspend and accumulate debt. Then we may feel too overwhelmed to manage our debt. We shied ourselves from the truth that is our finances and continue on the path of need. It’s so easy to end up looking at money and finances as a burden. Not only do we have difficulty in separating our wants from needs, but we start to believe that we have no control. But, we do. We always have the ability to control our motivation and attitude. If you can learn to catch yourself in the moment, like when I walked out of the first store, and realize you are beginning to create your irrational need then you can stop it. You can stop overspending. You might also look at the way you are suffering with debt. Perhaps a change of attitude, a bit of release from blame, will reduce debt from a monster to just a situation.

Most people think twice now before positing pics on Facebook of themselves hammering a giant margarita, urban base jumping, or robbing a bank. We’ve all heard the stories about people who lost their jobs or their health insurance. But many people are willfully posting stuff that could be even more damaging.

Take a look at your profile. Do you include your birthdate? High School? Hometown?  Favorite vacation spot?

What do all of these tidbits have in common? They are often the answers to security questions used to recover  your username and password on any secure login website. And here you are giving it away for free.

Just this morning I did an experiment to see how much I could learn about people I don’t know on Facebook. I picked a friend that I don’t know all that well. We are both personal finance writers, but have never actually met. I clicked one of his friends, and then one of that person’s friends, and one of that person’s friends, etc. So, I tried to expand the degree of separation. Over a 30 minute period everyone I clicked had their profile set to be shared with everyone. I could see where they went to school (so weird that many of them went to my tiny Pennsylvania university) their hometowns (odd again how close they were to mine). I could see if they were looking for love or were married. Some even listed their interests, siblings, children’s names and spouse or significant other.

Facebook does offer  privacy settings, but the way they rolled out the new settings was so confusing few people have looked at them. Even looking them over now I can’t figure out how to make somethings private and other’s not.  Facebook is used is to connect with people you’ve lost touch with or to build interest from potential clients or employers, so many people want their profiles to be viewed by everyone. 

Meanwhile, thieves know that all this information is out there just waiting for them. With a first and last name, location, birthdate and other personal information they cut down the time it takes to figure out logins to your bank, credit card and other accounts. They love Facebook because it makes their jobs so much easier.

The way I view it, who cares if my elementary school friends can’t figure out if one Celeste is me or not. I don’t include much personal information.

Right about this time of year you might be experiencing a little spring fever. You’re itching to escape your office and spend the day outside. Well, I have a suggestion for you. Take the day off and spend it inside at your home office. Sounds boring doesn’t it?  Yeah, but if you use the day wisely you’ll have peace of mind that will let you enjoy many more warm sunny days.

Most of us carry a nagging feeling that we’re not doing enough when it comes to managing our personal finances. So here’s where the day off for peace of mind comes in. Schedule a weekday off from work. Don’t leave these tasks to Sunday night, when customer service lines are closed. A weekday gives you access to everyone you need.

Before your day off make a list of tasks to tackle. Then when the day comes get up as you normally would. Shower and dress, don’t lounge in your pj’s. Eat a healthy breakfast, because you’ll need energy. Then get on it.

First, start with the easy, but forgotten tasks. For me these are things like rebates that need to filled out and mailed or small refund checks, usually under $10 that have been sitting in my to-do box. Take of these things and you’ll instantly earn yourself some money and get in the groove to tackle the bigger things. And what are those bigger things?

  • Broker accounts. Are there changes that you’ve been thinking of making? Maybe you need to switch companies.  Have you analyzed the fees recently?
  • Retirement accounts. Has it been awhile since you made a deposit or looked at the status of your account?
  • Insurance. When was the last time you updated your policy or reviewed your coverage?  Is it adequate? Could you be saving money?
  • House inventory. This goes along with insurance. Have you ever documented your possessions? Where is that documentation, is it up safe and up-to-date?  Here’s an idea: take pictures of everything valuable, then store those pictures free online at sites like Flickr. That way you are not lost if something happens to your computer and you don’t need to store prints. You might also try making a video of every room in your home and uploading that online. This way you don’t have to take individual pictures and store multiple files. Caution: make sure the online site you use is secure, don’t show the world what you’ve got.
  • Credit cards. Negotiate lower rates. Switch and close high-interest loans. Consolidate. Make a plan to pay down draining debt.
  • Where can you save money? Has that cable or cell phone bill been nagging at you? Making you think that maybe it’s a little high and you could do better. Your financial day off is the day to check it out.

It might take you 8 hours to get through all those tasks that have been pecking at the back of your mind, but tackling them will feel so great. It’s well worth the day off from work and play.

OOPS

Ooops!

For years credit card companies have offered car rental insurance as part of their benefits package. But, it’s never a good idea to assume you’ve got this coverage–ever. Several years ago I was on a business trip with a group of coworkers in San Diego. We were a large group so one of us rented a van. I can remember standing at the counter with my coworker when he declined the insurance, brushing it off as an unnecessary expense. You can guess where this story is going. I’ll give you the setting. It involves a parking garage with tight corners and a parking spot next to one of those support posts. 

So, who paid for the damage? My co-worker. Even though his credit card did provide coverage. The accident first had to go to his insurance company. The guy wasn’t happy and neither was the rest of the office that had to hear the ranting over the next several weeks. Once insurance was settled the card company did pay for some of the expenses not covered by insurance, but by the time fees and other unexpected costs were added in my coworker ending up paying cash too.  

That was over ten years ago. Now, credit card companies looking to cut costs and their benefit packages are being trimmed. Even though they are required by law to send you notice of any policy changes, there is no law that can enforce whether you read or remember such policies.  So the lesson is…well, you know what happens when you ASS-U-ME.

Below is a current list of rental car coverage compiled by CreditCards.com. But again, don’t assume that these policies won’t change.

COMPARE CREDIT CARD RENTAL CAR INSURANCE POLICIES

 
American Express
MasterCard
Discover
Visa
Diners Club
Do all cards offer coverage?
All except the Delta Options card
No. Included on all Gold, Platinum, World and World Elite card
Yes, except for student cards
Yes
Yes
Secondary or primary?*
Secondary (You can pay $24.95 per rental for primary)
Secondary
Secondary
Secondary
Primary
Amount of coverage
Coverage varies by card
The lesser of the actual repair amount, current market value (less salvage), or $50,000 per incident
Up to $25,000
Up to the actual cash value of most rental vehicles
Up to $50,000 for Revolve Card, $75,000 for Carte Blanche card and $100,000 for US Professional Charge Card
Vehicle exclusions
Coverage varies by card
Trucks, pickups, campers, off-road vehicles, motorcycles, motorbikes, antique vehicles, limousines, sport utility trucks and vehicles with retail prices exceeding $50,000
Off-road, antique, limited edition, high value (more than $50,000) and high performance motor vehicles;  trucks; recreational vehicles; campers; pickup trucks; and mini-buses
Expensive, exotic and antique automobiles, certain vans, vehicles with an open cargo bed, trucks, motorcycles, mopeds, motorbikes, limousines and  recreational vehicles
Trucks, pickups, full-size vans, mounted on truck chassis, campers, off-road vehicles, recreational vehicles, antique vehicles, trailers, motorbikes, vehicles with fewer than four wheels and some SUVs
Country exclusions
Australia, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica and New Zealand (coverage is U.S. only for small business cards)
Ireland, Israel and Jamaica, and where prohibited by law (World and World Elite have no exclusions)
None except where prohibited by law
Israel, Jamaica, Ireland and  Northern Ireland
Australia, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica and New Zealand
Limit on rental length
Up to 30 days
31 days for World and World Elite cardholders, 15 days for other types
31 days (45 days if you’re an employee of an organization that provided a card for business use)
15 days in your country of residence, 31 days outside it
31 days
Fees that are covered
“Reasonable” towing or storage charges. Loss-of-use and administrative fees “when the rental company provides appropriate documentation”
“Reasonable” towing charges and “reasonable loss-of-use charges substantiated by a location- and class-specific fleet utilization log.” Administrative fees are not covered
None
“Reasonable towing charges, valid and reasonable administrative fees and loss-of-use charges substantiated by the auto rental company through a fleet utilization log”
“Reasonable” towing costs and “reasonable loss-of-use charges substantiated by a location and class specific fleet utilization log.” Administrative fees are not covered
Source: CreditCards.com research

A trip to the grocery store is always filled with too many decisions. There is the budget to consider and because I buy for a family there are allergies, food preferences and buying enough food to fill up hungry teenagers. Working within these constraints I, like most everyone I know, also try to purchase organic when possible. But that’s not always easy. Oh, there is an abundance of organic products available, but sometime its cost that overrules. But last Sunday I heard a story on NPR that changed everything for me.

It was a disturbing story about pesticide drift. I’d never heard of this before probably since it’s not something I’ve experienced in suburban Colorado. The reporter related an event where school children in California were waiting for their school bus on the edge of a vineyard when a white cloud drifted their way. The school bus was heading toward them and the driver noticed the cloud and pulled over in order not to expose the other children. The cloud passed in moments and the driver continued to pick up the children. But, by the time the bus reached them they were coughing and complaining of nausea and headaches. When they reached the school, the children were rushed by ambulance to the hospital.

Pesticide drift is apparently a common, almost nonchalant, occurence for people living near farms. And, while the point of the story is that there is a need for stricter control, enforcement and fines I took away a different message. It’s our responsibility as consumers and people to stop funding pesticide farming.

It’s not easy. Yesterday I was our local King Soopers, which actually does a good job of stocking organics. When I approached the produce section I was delighted to see organic apples 10 for $10. We’ve been eating a lot of apples lately and these were really beautiful. They also had organic strawberries for $3.99/lb. But then I needed bell peppers for a dish I am planning to make later in the week. Peppers were $3.99/ea. Yes, each not per pound. That seemed too high. So, I’ll have to adjust the menu.

Organics are expensive. The only way prices will come down is if demand increases. But, it’s not just about the money. It’s about eating responsibly and naturally. It’s probably no coincidence that the story NPR ran after the pesticide article was one about making an effort to eat locally through hunting and foraging. We are seeing the effects our modern mode of living is having on our planet. Is it time to return to a more basic way of life?

The choice of how you eat and spend your money is often de-personalized. It’s not hard to consider ourselves and our families when we make purchase decisions. We want our loved ones to eat nourishing food. But isn’t it crazy that anyone would think that a white cloud of pesticides blowing by their birthday celebration on weekend barbeque is normal? And yes, it is lower-income people living near these farms.

Hey farmer, farmer, put away your DDT
I don’t care about spots on my apples,
Leave me the birds and the bees – please
–Joni Mitchell

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