Category: Opinion

Practical Money Matters – May 24, 2017

By Nathaniel Sillin
The Keys to Outfitting Your First Apartment on a Budget
Moving into a place of your own for the first time is a huge step. I remember my first post-college apartment move. It was nothing special, but it was mine. It came with a few new challenges and responsibilities and all sorts of opportunities. For the first time, I was able to decide how to decorate an entire living area and turn a blank slate into a home.
Here’s some advice for finding what you’ll need on a budget and a few inexpensive ideas to make otherwise unimaginative rooms come to life.
Look for hand-me-down and used furniture. Furniture – tables, chairs, bookshelves etc. – often takes up the most space and can be the biggest drain on your budget. You could start by mapping out your home using online floor plan software and determining what might fit where.
When it comes to finding furniture, friends, family members and friends of family members may have something they want to get rid of and simply haven’t had the time or energy to do so. Also consider marketplace websites’ free sections and the nonprofit Freecycle Network™, which hosts message boards where you can find local people giving away their unwanted belongings.
To find used furniture that’s for sale, head to consignment stores, garage and buy-sell-trade social media groups. There are even startups creating online marketplaces specifically for furniture, although they’re generally limited to large cities.
Get your kitchen in order. Many kitchen essentials, such as silverware, can also be found for cheap at second-hand stores. But if you’re looking for something new, you can save money by shopping at discount stores and online clearance sites.
Avid cooks who want to invest in a few kitchen appliances might consider waiting for large seasonal sales. For instance, standing mixers, slow cookers and other small appliances often go on sale every Black Friday.
Brighten up the place. While your apartment may have overhead lighting, a few standing lamps can set a much nicer mood. The good news is lamps often stay in the corner and won’t necessarily show a lot of wear and tear. In other words, this is another great buy-used opportunity.
Don’t shop second-hand for everything. There are a few things you don’t want to buy used: towels and bedding. Add mattresses to that list as well if you’ll be looking for a new one.
When it comes to sheets, ultra-high thread counts could be more of a marketing gimmick than an indicator of quality. Try to focus on how the fabric feels, find a weave that you like and you might be pleasantly surprised by the low-cost options at big box retailers. The same test works for towels.
Purchasing a new mattress can take a big chunk of your budget. Consider one of the new online mattress retailers that sell high-quality goods for less. Buying a mattress without testing it first may seem weird, but many offer free returns within the first few months.
Add a few personal touches. You’ve got the necessities covered, but how do you turn a generic apartment into a place that feels like home? Think walls, windows and floors.
Rather than painting, consider a cheaper (and easier) route by opting for removable wall decals or wallpaper. There are all sorts of shapes, designs, prints and even adhesive chalkboards for under $20. You could also decorate with paper, canvas or metal prints of your favorite photographs. Windows can get a cover-up treatment as well, but rather than spending a lot of money on brand new blinds you can get curtains that add color or a pattern to your room.
An area rug can help tie a room together, but they can also be prohibitively expensive. This is another item that you might not want to buy used unless you know the seller. Luckily, home good stores and some big box retailers usually have at least a few inexpensive options.
Congratulations on the move. Outfitting a new apartment doesn’t happen overnight. Especially if this is the first time you get to pick what to buy, it can take time to find your style and items to match. However, even with a limited budget, there’s a lot you can do to make a space your own.

Practical Money Matters – May 17, 2017

By Nathaniel Sillin
Prepare Your Kids for the Real World by Turning Monthly Bills into Lessons
When you’re a kid, a few dollars can seem like all the money in the world. It can take weeks, sometimes months, to save up your allowance. When you finally decide to spend it, you might realize that $10 or $20 isn’t as much as it seems.
As a parent, you can help your children build important money management skills by providing experiences for them at a young age. Leading by example is a good way to start, and it can help instill good values and money habits. However, you’ll also want your children to get their hands dirty.
Open up your books. The value of money is a lesson you learn over time. For young children, games, such as Peter Pig’s Money Counter, or activities that help them identify coins and bills could be a good place to start. Older children may be ready to see how much things really cost. Going over bank or credit card statements, you could explain why you made each purchase and look for savings opportunities.
You can also turn a monthly bill into a teaching moment. Children might not realize how leaving the lights, heat or AC on can affect your monthly bills. You can sit down together and compare each month’s bill to the bill from the previous year. The practice of reviewing and comparing bills can help children understand that their actions have financial consequences.
They’ll also start to learn how much it costs to keep your home comfortable. That’s a valuable lesson, one I didn’t truly learn until I had my first apartment. You could take a similar approach to the groceries or other monthly expenses.
Help your children earn an income. Knowing the numbers is only part of the picture. It’ll be difficult for children to practice managing money if they don’t have any money to manage. But how, when and why children should receive an allowance is a debate for many parents.
Whether you pay a chore-based allowance or offer payment based on extra work, you could use a personal finance app that lets children see how much they’ll earn for each task. There are a variety of apps designed for different age groups, and some let kids create virtual accounts where they can track their earnings, spending and progress towards financial goals.
You can also help children find ways to earn money from outside the family. Organizing a yard sale could be a chance for them to help you clean out the home, practice bargaining and learn valuable lessons in entrepreneurship. Even a lemonade stand or bake sale requires that they buy supplies, work to earn money and put aside some of their earnings to pay for more supplies later.
Make your kids responsible for their bills. With a steady income comes increased responsibility. Make teenagers the boss of a bill, with real consequences for late payments.
The mobile phone or internet bill could be a good place to start. Figure out an appropriate portion for them to take on and require them to pay you each month. If they’re late, they lose internet access or their phone until they can pay their balance. When they don’t have enough saved to pay the bill, offer work opportunities for them to make money.
Once they take responsibility for their first monthly bill, you can also share how you manage the household’s finances. Show them what it’s like to keep multiple bills organized each month, make payments by writing checks or setting up auto-pay. Then explain how late payments can lead to fees, affect your credit and (just like with their phone) get services shut off.
Bottom line: Understanding how much it costs to manage a home and the importance of paying your bills on time can help you avoid costly mistakes. Some people learn these lessons once they’re at college or living on their own, but you can help give your kids a leg up by taking a proactive approach to their financial education.

Practical Money Matters – May 10, 2017

By Nathaniel Sillin
Can You Coupon Without the Extreme?
Following the Great Recession, it seemed liked extreme couponing was a competitive sport. You could watch on TV as shoppers armed with binders full of clipped coupons and an in-depth knowledge of stores’ policies would get incredible discounts at the checkout counter.
Extreme couponing may not be as popular today, but the Recession gave many people an appreciation for living a frugal lifestyle. That’s a good thing. Living within one’s means is a core tenant of practicing good financial habits and couponing can help you achieve this goal. However, as with most things in life, you want to try and find a healthy balance and look for ways to coupon without the extreme.
Make the most out of your couponing. Whether you’re on your weekly grocery run or making a major purchase, a discount can always be helpful. However, be wary of buying products you don’t regularly need or use simply because you have a coupon or there’s a sale.
Some people might choose to avoid temptation by looking for coupons after the items are in their cart. With a smartphone in hand, you can use a savings app to look for savings while you’re waiting to check out.
Another option, that might require a bit more time and strategy, is to plan your meals for the week ahead of time. You can write down your shopping list and spend five or ten minutes looking for applicable coupons before heading to the store. You might also choose to look at the coupons available and plan your meals for the week based off of what’s on sale.
No matter what tactics you use, the point is to save money on items that you will use, not to purchase merchandise simply because it’s discounted.
Invest your time proportionately to the potential saving. The time investment that an attempt at extreme couponing can require doesn’t always match the potential savings. Spending hours couponing and winding up saving $1.50 probably isn’t worth the time commitment.
A less extreme method is to consider the potential savings and spend a proportional amount of time researching products and looking for savings opportunities. But many people don’t take this approach. A survey conducted by Ipsos on behalf of Zillow in 2016 found that on average, people spent eight hours researching mortgages or mortgage refinancing; 11 hours researching a new car or truck; and four hours researching a new phone, tablet or TV. Almost a fifth of those surveyed spent an hour or less shopping for their home mortgage.
Learning about and comparing options before making major purchases, such as a home or car, makes sense. A small change in your mortgage’s interest rate could save or cost you tens of thousands of dollars. Comparing two new phones could save a few hundred dollars when it comes time to purchase.
Smaller recurring savings, such as the previously mentioned grocery runs, can certainly add up in the long run. If you’ve got a tried-and-true method that’s working for you, go for it. Just make sure you get a good return on the time and effort you put in.
If you find joy in the hunt that’s okay too. There are always exception and there are times when putting the extreme in couponing makes perfect sense. For example, there are extreme couponers who view their interest and practice as a hobby and coupon because it can be enjoyable to hunt for deals. While most hobbies cost money – this is one that could actually lead to savings.
There are also extreme couponers who figure out ways to get free products and then donate them to a local charity. It’s a win-win for the couponer and those in need.
Bottom line: While saving money is important, and can be fun, try not to become so enthralled by potential savings that you lose sight of the purpose – to spend less money on what you want or need. If you are going to invest your time in money-saving endeavors, make sure you can potentially get a good return on your investment.

ViewPoint: Small Businesses are the Backbone of Rural Communities

By Rhea Landholm, Center for Rural Affairs
Small scale entrepreneurship is a proven strategy to revitalize rural communities. Owning one’s own business can create genuine opportunity across rural America with the support of a modest public investment.
The importance of entrepreneurship is particularly profound in the most rural areas. Our analysis of economic conditions in the farm and ranch counties of Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska and the Dakotas found that nearly 60 percent of job growth in the 1990s came from people creating their own job by starting a small non farm business.
Small entrepreneurship is the one development strategy that consistently works in these communities. This strategy also has the capacity to bring back young people – including those who earn a college degree. Our surveys of rural youth in northeast Nebraska found that half would like to someday own their own farm or business. That opportunity has the potential to draw them back to rural America.
Small business development helps rural people acquire assets and create wealth. That is essential. Asset and wealth-building through home ownership, business ownership and enhanced education lead to important long-term psychological and social effects that cannot be achieved by simply increasing income.
Businesses and houses bond one to a place and help to build sustainable communities. A commitment to rural asset- and wealth-building strategies can lead to stronger individuals, families and communities.
Small business are also very philanthropic. In a 2015 survey, an estimate of nearly half of all small businesses gave to charity with 90 percent of donations supporting local causes.
As part of National Small Business Week, April 30 to May 6, the Small Business Administration will offer free webinars. Find out more at
You can find more information and resources at

Practical Money Matters – May 3, 2017

By Nathaniel Sillin
Make Sure Your Property’s Assessed Value is Correct
Some homeowners can’t wait to see the assessed value of their home drop. In fact, they’ll tell you the bigger the drop, the better. Why? Your property taxes depend on your tax rate and your property’s current market value, which is determined by a local assessor. You can’t dispute the tax rate, but you may be able to show why the assessed value is too high.
An appeal that results in a lower value could save you money for years to come.
Find out when you can file an appeal. Start the process by determining when you can appeal your home’s value assessment. You may be able to find the deadline on your local assessor’s website, which might also have instructions on how to file an appeal.
Some areas have a several-month window each year for appeals, often following the annual mailing of assessment value notices. In addition, you might be able to dispute your property’s assessment following a renovation or if you just bought the home.
Check your current assessment for errors. Every year, you should receive an official letter stating the assessed value of your home. If you think your property value is lower than the stated value, start collecting proof to demonstrate your reasoning.
One of the first things to look for is a mistake on your property’s description, which may be on the letter you received or on your property card – available at the assessor’s office or online.
It’s not unheard of for a property card to list an extra bathroom or incorrect square footage. Assessors aren’t always able to look inside a home during an inspection, and they might not know about renovations to a home.
Make a note of errors and try to estimate the value of each. You’ll be able to use these as a basis for your appeal.
Gather more evidence. To strengthen your appeal, you may want to find additional evidence.
Make a list of comparable properties. Try to get a list of four to six similar properties in your area and their market value. You could use real estate websites that list recent or estimated sales prices, ask your neighbors or look through public databases to find official assessed values. If you find the homes’ sales prices or assessed values are lower than yours, or similar but your home is in worse condition, you may have a strong argument.
Estimate the cost of repairs. A leaky roof, cracked driveway or another issue could lower your property’s value. Make a list of the faults, estimate cost for repairs and take pictures as proof.
Make a note of changes in your neighborhood. A property’s value depends on more than just the home. If nearby houses were recently foreclosed on or the schools’ rankings dropped, your property could be worth less than it was before.
Get a professional assessment. You could hire a state-certified appraiser to estimate your property’s current value. However, the assessment might cost $300 to $500, and this might only be a good idea if your research already looks fruitful. In some areas, you may need an official assessment to file an appeal.
Once you organize your evidence, it’s time to file an appeal.
Present your findings. The appeal process varies depending on where you live. If you have a simple scenario, such as a mistake on your property card, you might be able to make your appeal over the phone. But some counties require you to submit the appeal online or by mail, or you may have to schedule an in-person review at the assessor’s office.
It could take several weeks to months to hear back. If the decision doesn’t come back in your favor, you could file another appeal with an independent review board.
Bottom line: After gathering evidence, you can make a showing for why your home’s assessed value is too high and potentially lower your property taxes. But think twice if you’re considering selling your home soon. A lower assessed value might affect how much someone is willing to pay for the home.


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