The Cost of Higher Education

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I read an article yesterday that really struck me. A 37 year old woman who attended law school ten years ago, is suing her law school. Since graduating in 2008, she has not been able to find a full-time salaried job as a lawyer and is blaming the school for not providing accurate data on its graduate’s success post law school. Anna Alaburda is now $170,000 in debt with loan interest of 8 percent.

I can’t help but feel aggravated while reading this. Those who know me well know I am all about personal responsibility, and I have written articles previously on the need to take ownership in which university you attend, and the amount you decide to pay for your education.

During my senior year of college, I took the LSAT and applied to quite a few law schools. I got in to several, and liked one in particular. I had interned the previous summer at a law firm and had quite a bit of exposure to the profession. Once I had narrowed down my search, I started looking at how much money each school was offering me in scholarships/grants. When I realized I would need to take out $110,000 in loans for tuition alone (that doesn’t cover any living expenses), I had to rethink if it was really what I wanted. After a lot of thinking and talking to those around me, I decided it wasn’t worth it. A guy I had met the previous summer who was also interning at my law firm, had graduated over a year ago and couldn’t find a job making over $50,000- he had $150,000 in student loans.

Had I decided to go to law school, I would be less than 2 years out of school and probably just like that other intern, with over $150,000 in debt. By not going to law school, I have been able to advance in my career where I now have 5 years of experience under my belt, and can guarantee I make more money today than I would had I gone to law school. It has also allowed me to spend the last 5 years saving money, contributing to my 401k, paying off my student debt from my undergraduate degree, buying a house, and taking vacations.

I’m not arguing that this is the solution for everyone, and who knows what my future earning potential would have been with a law degree, but I am happy with my decision. I’m in a job I love, working for a company I love.

Is Your Workout Worth the Cost?

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Nowadays there is always a new gym opening, or new fitness fad. As a person who really enjoys working out, I have spent a lot of money on fitness related classes and events over my lifetime. From traveling to run marathons, to flywheel spin classes, to barre and pilates. I’ve tried them all and more!

To a lot of people, the thought of spending $150/month to exercise is ridiculous and they could never justify it. In the Seattle area, outside of joining a standard gym, it’s hard to find a workout class or group that is less than this-some are much more. After years of paying a lot of money to workout and hire coaches for marathons and triathlons, I finally stopped because I didn’t want the expense. Instead I joined LA Fitness for $35/month. I loved the savings I was getting but wasn’t happy with my motivation. I find it so easy to workout when I’m training for a race or have a group class to go to, but heading to the gym after work by myself to do the treadmill and weights just isn’t motivating. Over the past 8 months, I’ve hardly made it to the gym and notice a difference in the way I feel about myself.

When I’m not working out consistently I’m less patient, and just not as happy overall. I’m pretty frugal in most aspects of my life and stick to my budget each month, but working out is something very important to me. I made the decision to cancel my $35/month gym membership since I’m not using it anyway, and signed up for a boot camp class that costs more. I don’t really want the added expense but if it makes me more focused at work, a better wife, and happier with myself I think it is completely worth it.

It all goes back to picking and choosing what is most important to you. In choosing to pay for a more expensive workout I continue to bring my lunch every day, and I don’t impulse spend.

Do you spend money on a gym or fitness membership, and do you feel like the money is well spent?

Why I Love My Credit Card

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I applied for my credit card (only one!) when I turned 18 and had an initial credit limit of $600. In 2007, it was pretty easy to qualify for a credit card- even as an 18 year old heading off to college in the fall with no income. Things changed slightly after the financial meltdown, and by 2010 my 18 year old brother couldn’t qualify for a credit card for anything! Because I got my credit card at 18, I started building credit history a full three years before someone who had to wait until they were 21 and three years makes a big difference.

By the time I was 25 and my husband and I were ready to buy a house, I had a credit score above 800 and a lot of history built up- time was on my side. I know a lot of people that still today don’t have the credit history to get a loan on a house with the best interest rates available.

Frequent flyer miles are just an added perk. I use my Alaska Airlines card for everything from groceries to monthly utilities and I’ve been able to take many free flights using miles I have earned. From a trip to Chicago to run the Chicago Marathon, to my honeymoon in Europe, most of my recent trips have been covered by miles I have earned just paying my monthly living expenses- if only I could get miles for my monthly mortgage payment!

Credit cards aren’t for everyone. If you’re someone who can’t control your spending, credit cards probably aren’t for you. My husband and I stick to a budget, and pay off our credit card each month so running up debt isn’t worrisome to us. A lot of people see their credit limit as “free money” (someone actually told me this once!) and spend until their card is maxed out. Then they’ll pay it down a little, and spend to the max again. This is a HORRIBLE idea. You will end up paying so much in interest and will never get out of debt if this is your philosophy. I do however think if you’re a responsible spender, credit cards can be a good thing.

4 Tips For Creating A Budget

Tips for creating a budget

Creating a budget (and sticking to it) is the best way to start saving money, however it can seem overwhelming for those who don’t know where to start. Below I have some tips for how to create a seamless budget.

  • Look at your previous month’s spending. Pull all bank statements, debit card, and credit card transactions to see where you spent your money last month. This will help guide you in planning your budget for next month. I prefer to download my statements into excel and categorize each of them. E.g. water, sewer, electric, and gas would all fall under “utilities”. I then sum up each category so I can see how much I am spending on groceries vs eating out or entertainment. This is usually how my sheet ends up looking (note- these are not actual numbers, I just made them up):

 

Details $ Spend Category   Category Sum Total
Movies $22.50 Entertainment   Entertainment $159.02
Gas $110.00 Utilities   Utilities $110.00
Rent $2,000.00 Rent   Rent $2,000.00
Shopping $100.00 Entertainment   Groceries $275.00
Groceries $125.00 Groceries      
Dinner Out $36.52 Entertainment      
Groceries $150.00 Groceries      

 

  • Follow the 50/20/30 rule for easy budgeting. This is a great way of thinking for someone creating their first budget. You should aim for 50% of your budget to be directed toward your fixed costs. This include rent/mortgage, utilities, car payments, gym memberships, and everything else you pay for monthly that doesn’t fluctuate much in cost. 20% of your take home pay should go toward savings and long terms goals. That includes contributing to your 401k, building your emergency fund, and making additional payments (beyond what is required per month) on debt. 30% of your take home pay should be spent on lifestyle choices. I mentioned gym memberships in fixed costs, but many would also consider this to be a lifestyle choice. Groceries and other expenses that change from month to month fall under this category. If your monthly fixed costs are taking more than 50% of your take home pay, you need to reevaluate how you’re allocating your pay check. Do the math with your own take home pay. If you make $3,000/month, no more than $1,500 should go toward fixed costs, $600 toward savings and long term goals, and $900 toward lifestyle choices.

 

  • Start creating your budget. Now that you know how much you tend to spend each month, and how much of your take home pay you should be spending on each category, it’s time to put pen to paper. I prefer to do my budgeting in excel because I can manipulate it anyway I want. There are of course great tools out there as well to help you create a budget like Mint, but I find it just as easy to create an excel spreadsheet. When you’re just starting out with your budget, it also forces you to keep a closer eye on what you’re buying. For example, if I go to target and buy both clothing and groceries, I can look at my receipts and add them to the appropriate category instead of just labeling them entertainment OR groceries.

 

  • Track your budget. Once your budget is created, make sure you’re tracking your budget. I look at my spending at least three times a week. My husband would say I’m obsessed, and I get it, not everyone is going to look at their budget that often but I do encourage you the first month to pay very close attention to your spending and how you’re tracking to your budget. If one area is coming in over (your car breaks down or you have another unexpected expense) try to pull money away from your lifestyle budget and not your savings and long terms goals if you can. If you’ve never followed a budget before it might seem difficult but I promise if you stick to it for a few months it really will become second nature.

 

Good luck and Happy Saving!

A

5 Tips to Stay Within Your Wedding Budget

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No matter how much or how little you are going to spend on your wedding, sticking to your budget is important. One of my closest friends recently got engaged, so I wanted to write this to help her along with others. I have seen so many people go off the rails with their budget, and end up with a massive credit card bill they can’t pay. The Knot reported that the average wedding cost is now $31,213. If you haven’t actually started planning a wedding that may seem like a lot of money, however once you start adding the cost of everything up, it can often be hard to stay below that amount- especially if you are getting married in a big city.

Without even knowing it you can easily exceed your budget, so I have five tips for staying on your wedding budget:

  • Create your budget prior to looking at wedding venues

When my husband and I got married, we looked at every venue in the Seattle area- online that is. I requested pricing from each venue before even considering to view it. Don’t go looking at venues that are out of your price range, it will be depressing. I have always loved the Fairmont Olympic hotel in Seattle but with the number of guests I had and what I had envisioned, it was way out of my budget so I didn’t even bother looking at it. And that leads me to my next tip:

  • Create a tentative guest list prior to looking at wedding venues

Don’t waste your time looking at a bunch of venues to find out weeks later that one you love only holds 125 people, and you’re going to have to invite 175 to your wedding. It’s another way to be disappointed right off the bat. Have your budget and guest list PRIOR to walking through any venues.

Wedding 1

  • Shop around for your dress

I went to many bridal shops when looking for a dress but told the sales women I wasn’t interested in trying anything on that was over $1,500- again, don’t bother looking at something if you can’t afford it. You have to prioritize what is most important to you on your wedding day and for me it was more about the ceremony and the reception. I knew I could find a dress I loved without spending over $2,000. I found a dress I loved, at a bridal boutique I loved, for a decent price. I wondered however if anywhere else carried the dress so I called around to some local bridal boutiques and found the exact dress for $300 less elsewhere. Because I loved the original bridal boutique so much and I wanted to buy it through them, I asked if they would match the price of the other shop and they agreed to. It never hurts to do a little research and ask questions!

  • Keep track of your spending

This seems like a no brainer, but it’s harder than you think. You’re excited about the big day, and before you know it you’ve spent way more on one area of the wedding than you had intended to. Don’t forget this money won’t magically appear so stick to your budget and write everything down along the way.

Wedding 5

  • Don’t forget the “extras”

This is by far the most important and something I even ran into when planning my wedding. When you’re creating your budget, you may forget about things like gratuity and taxes. My wedding reception venue had roughly 10% (state sales) tax and 18% gratuity not built into the quote I received. For every $10,000 it works out to about $2,980 in taxes and gratuity. And that’s just the reception. Don’t forget about your photographer, transportation, and everyone else you have to tip that day. Also, things like décor tend to add up quickly- without even realizing it I had spent $30 in basic, small candles per table which came out to about $540 in candles! Outside of your wedding day itself are tons of activities- bridal showers, bachelorette parties, and your honeymoon. What is most important to you? Would you rather spend $1,000 to go away for your bachelorette party or put that money toward a honeymoon with your new husband? Everyone is different. I chose to stay somewhat local for my bachelorette party so that my husband and I could go to Europe for our honeymoon. It’s all about prioritizing and deciding what you want most.

Louvre

 

Save Money or Pay Debt?

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I’m often asked whether or not you should save money in an emergency fund, or pay off debt first. While a lot of people may argue you should pay down your debt first, I know firsthand how important an emergency fund can be.

According to a USA Today poll of over 1,000 participants, 34% had no emergency savings AT ALL! That means they can’t pay for a simple car repair, or the $650 dental bill I got last month. It also means when these situations come up, people are putting them on their credit card and going even further into debt. The poll also revealed 47% of participants couldn’t cover their living expenses for more than 90 days.

Before paying off your debt, you should have three months’ worth of living expenses saved in your emergency fund. When calculating your living expenses, include your necessities- rent/mortgage, utilities, cell phone, etc. Gym memberships and other entertainment can be cancelled or cut back on in the event you lose your job and therefore aren’t as crucial. You should however factor in how much you spend on weekly groceries, and don’t underestimate it.

Once you decide how much to save each month or bi-weekly, set up automatic deposits into your savings account. If you’re waiting until the end of the month to move money from your checking account to your savings account, you probably aren’t because there isn’t much money left. I always have my monthly savings come directly out of my check.

Obviously you can’t ignore your debt and you will need to make the minimum payments until you have that three months’ worth of living expenses saved. Once you hit that savings goal I encourage you to start throwing more money at your debt, paying off your debt with the highest interest first. Typically a credit card will have a much higher interest rate than student loans, and even car loans. I like to have a decent amount in savings, so I don’t completely cut off my contribution to my savings account. I would look at how much you can save each month, and continue putting 25% of that into your savings while putting 75% toward paying down your debt.

How much money you have in your savings account is really personal preference. Having less than 4 months makes me uncomfortable but that’s not to say I haven’t been there. My husband and I had to put $79,000 down when we bought our home in June. Less than eight weeks after moving in, our hot water heater and furnace went out. Luckily we had the money in savings to pay for that ($6,500) unexpected expense, but between that and our house down payment it left us with less than 4 months of living expenses in an emergency fund. Since then we have been contributing more to our emergency fund each month and trying to cut back on non-necessities.

While paying down debt is important because the longer it takes you to pay it off the more interest you will have to pay, you can’t afford not to have money in savings. You will only accrue more debt when emergencies come up and you are forced to put it on your credit card. Start small and you’ll be amazed how quickly you can build up your savings account to three months’ worth of living expenses.

Happy Saving!

A

Student Loans and Personal Responsibility

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We often hear about how to get out of student debt, but what decisions can we make to benefit our future PRIOR to taking on those loans? According to the Huffington Post, college graduates from the class of 2014 owe an average of $29,000 in student loans. While I don’t disagree that college is becoming ridiculously expensive, I do think we all need to take a little bit of personal responsibility in the decisions we make about attending college.

When I was a senior in high school, I took the SAT and applied to 10+ universities- about 50% of them private. I got excited when the acceptance letters to these private universities started rolling in. In a way, they felt better than the State school acceptance letters I received. It’s not like I was applying to Harvard or Yale, but in my circle of friends there was this status that came with attending a private university.

I was leaning toward a private university, when I had a sit down with my parents. They wanted to make sure I understood what I was taking on. While the private school did offer some grants, I would still graduate with over $75,000 in student loans versus less than $25,000 if I chose the state school. My parents encouraged me to think long and hard about it, and after weighing my options and visiting the state school, I knew it would be a good fit.

I had plenty of friends who chose the private university option, and many had a great experience. However, many of them graduated with over $100,000 in debt and got a job out of college making $40,000. Some of the schools I had looked at would have taken me nearly 20 years to pay back on a standard payment plan- that is a long time!

Now I am not against going to a private university, I think there are advantages to both sides. I just think we need to do a better job having that initial conversation. Prior to taking out these loans, we need to understand how much debt we will really be responsible for repaying and how long that will take. I think we are quick to jump on these universities and blame them for having us $150,000 or more in student loans, when we all are in control of our own education.

Cougs