Personal Finance Tips

Money for Nothing and Apps for (Almost) Free

The ability to send someone money online has been around for a few years now, but there are still interesting innovations being made on a regular basis. There’s crowdfunding apps that we’ve discussed before (GoFundMe and Kickstarter, for example), but even these are becoming niche-y and hyperfocused. Even though it’s easier to spend money online these days, there are also ways of saving and even making money. And, if you owe someone, it’s so easy to transfer at the touch of a button. My brother and I often join forces for parental gifts (we figure one awesome gift is better than two sub-par gifts- macaroni art is apparently sad when you’re in your twenties). The apps in this post go beyond the usual money apps that we tend to think of, like Mint or whatever our personal banking system uses, and if my brother and I had our act together, we wouldn’t have to exchange money like this:

IMG_2865

Yes, this really happened.

Tilt. This crowdfunding app is popular among college groups, and I can see why. Tilt is an app for group fundraising towards a goal, like a spring break trip, for instance. To get started, you set a bare minimum amount. If at the end of the fundraising period you haven’t reached the minimum amount, no one will get charged. There are three ways to raise money on Tilt: collect, fundraise, or sell something (yes, that’s what it’s referred to on their site). As a person unfamiliar with Tilt, I didn’t quite grasp the difference between fundraising and collecting. “Collecting” means pooling resources for your personal gain (i.e. that spring break trip I mentioned earlier), while “Fundraising” is dedicated to a particular non-profit. Afterwards, anything you raise will go directly to that non-profit (it seems like an attempt to eliminate any potential shadiness).

Tendr. This is a prime example of a really specialized app. I discovered Tendr accidentally while looking for a different app (which I’m not even truly sure exists at this point and I’m starting to question my sanity a bit…if/when I ever find it, I’ll explain). Tendr is a wedding registry app, but instead of seeing what items the couple wants, you just give them money. It’s crowdfunding for brides and grooms! Sure, you could probably start a wedding registry via crowdfunding on Indiegogo, but people might think that a) you’re weird or b) it’s not legit. With something as niche-y as Tendr, at least it’s clear what the end goal is. Personally, I’d much rather give a bride and groom money via Tendr than Indiegogo. I’m curious what other niche fundraising apps will start appearing- wedding registrations are one of many common transactions that can be made more convenient.

Smarty Pig. This program is similar to your average piggy bank, but smarter. It’s like setting up a savings plan through your usual bank, but for a specific goal (parameters are at least $50 – $250,000), but you can also make additional one-time contributions. Your family or friends can also contribute via the “Find Users” link. If you want, you can even make your fundraising efforts public and link to your Facebook and Twitter accounts (a recommendation- if you are going to make your money raising attempt public, try to make it compelling and give people enough information- we made a whole Tech Thursday about this). One great thing about Smarty Pig is that it doesn’t let you cut corners. Even those who are hopelessly undisciplined with finances (me…) can’t thwart Smarty Pig. I hate it when apps outsmart me…unless it’s for my own good.

Acorns. If you have some spare change at the end of the month, and are interested in investing, Acorns is the app for you. This app is designed to make investment suggestions based on your age, location, and available resources. How is this different from having someone else manage your account? You don’t have to pay commission or account management fees (read: it’s awesome if you are kind of broke). It’s free to try and for accounts under $5,000, it’s a dollar a month, and there’s no fee for withdrawing your money when you’re ready. To fuel your Acorn account, you can pay via lump sum (one time payments), recurring daily, weekly or monthly payments. You can also use “round-ups,” which is what caught my eye. When you set up an Acorns account, you can link it to whatever online payment accounts you have (checking, credit card, PayPal) and Acorns will look at the dollar amounts of each transaction and round up to the nearest dollar. The change will go towards your Acorns account. Honestly, if I could just have a round-ups feature on my savings account, I’d be one happy (and potentially rich) camper (this round-up ability might exist somewhere, but as I mentioned before, I’m not great with financial stuff).

These apps are just a small sampling of ways we can raise, save, and exchange money on the internet lately. What are some cool money-related apps that you’ve seen go by recently?

Kassie is a distance runner and a distance reader really. She lives in Ellsworth Maine and, while she might be quiet when you meet her, will throw out something witty when you least expect it.

Debt Is Not Forever

Happy woman jumping on blossom meadow. Beautiful day on field.

What I really like about blogs is you make friends you would have never otherwise made. My primary example is British Phil when people ask me for an example but I have also made friends who I’ve never gotten to meet, one of them being Jackie at The Debt Myth. (While Jackie and I have not yet climbed a mountain together, I’m sure we would do something equally epic if we ever met.)

Jackie approached a bunch of us about doing a ‘debt is not forever’ post on our blogs in solidarity this January.

Many of you know I started off my life as a personal finance blogger. I did it to force myself to learn about the topic and since starting in 2007, I’ve learned a lot about making money, spending money, saving money, and giving money. The best and most basic idea I’ve taken away from all this: don’t spend more money than you make and always put some aside.

Not Getting Into Debt In The First Place: A Mixture of Effort and Luck (like most things in life)

For several years, I made $10/hour and had to live on it. To force myself not to go into debt, I had to understand where every penny went. I kept a notebook (this is before I had a cell phone- because, you know, I couldn’t afford one!) and wrote down all my purchases for two months. I saw patterns (buying convenience food at higher prices, noticing I couldn’t walk out of TJ Maxx without buying something, etc.) and changed them. A lot of these habits still stick with me today, and I think that’s mostly a good thing.

While making $10/hour (ever since my first job actually), I’ve also had an IRA and I’ve put $25/week into it no matter what. When I was more ‘flush’ with cash ($11/hour, wohoo), I started to put $25/week into savings. I used the savings three times: twice to keep the business going and once to go to London.

Tower Bridge was really close to where we stayed, and kind of what I was expecting London Bridge to look like.

I know what you’re thinking, what does spending wisely and saving money have to do with debt? Well, not much. But the main reason I was able to put money away for savings and retirement even with my modest salary is I have never had debt. This is for two reasons: 1) my parents paid for my college and 2) I’ve always paid cash for cars. Yes, I am grateful. Yes, I am lucky. But not all things remain the same.

I eventually fell in love. Gamechanger on the life level and on the finance level.

Getting Two People On One Page: Not Easy But Worth It

Derrick is very financially responsible but as a homeowner, he had some debt in a home equity line of credit.

We did Financial Peace University online together (well, most of it anyway!) within the first year of our relationship to make sure we were on the same page with finances. Regardless of how you feel about Dave Ramsey, the modules made us have conversations we would have never had otherwise. And I’d be lying if I said the first 4 months of budgeting weren’t initially painful. But we kept trying. Relationships are about compromise and it takes awhile to get there.

Almost two years later, we still do our monthly budget and pay all our bills. It is painless and takes less than an hour. (So if you are just starting this process and arguing about how much to spend on groceries, take heart, it gets better!) Since we started, we have knocked off the home equity loan entirely while cash flowing our wedding.

Our aversion to debt also dictated a lot about our wedding actually, which I get isn’t romantic but I am super proud of. Part of the reason we chose our venue, decided on a morning wedding with an open bar, etc. was because we had a set amount budgeted for the wedding and didn’t want to go over. It meant parts of it weren’t fancy but I’d say it was a memorable event I’d change very little about if I did it again. We spent on our priorities and either DIYed or let go of a lot of expectations for the rest. (See white bridesmaid dress, $5 thrift store veil, $20 Old Navy flats, and suit Derrick already owned below for examples of budgetary compromise.)

Nicole and Derrick got married and have lots of silly pictures like this to prove it.

I would like to say one thing here. I have never resented Derrick for having debt while I didn’t. Not even once, not even a little. He has gotten on the ‘let’s not have debt’ path without resentment. I give him a lot of credit for that!

So while our debt didn’t even last two years of our life together, I can say I plan on our love being forever.

Onward and Upward

Since we (because it’s not just me anymore) don’t have debt, we are able to do things we wouldn’t be able to do otherwise. After working hard these last two years to pay for a wedding, pay off the home equity loan, and save up 4 months of emergency expenses, Derrick now has the chance to be an entrepreneur himself. Because he’s a really talented glass blower, among other things:

derrick-blowing-glass

(Yes, I’ll update his website with a shopping cart for his glass, once he has time to finish all the custom orders he has waiting and can make some inventory!)

All this to say debt is not forever and the best ways to deal with it are 1) little by little and 2) avoiding it when you can. I’ll link to all the other Debt Is Not Forever posts once Jackie makes the list live so you can see that my story is among the many ways to make the journey.

So take heart this new year and know at least one random woman in Maine is rooting for you to get out of and stay out of debt!

Nicole runs Breaking Even Communications, an internet marketing company in Bar Harbor Maine. When she’s not online, she enjoys walking her short dog, cooking with bacon, and trying to be outdoorsy in Acadia National Park.

Why Your Non-Profit Isn’t Getting Online Donations

I was reading a statistic that there are 1,409,430 non-profits in the US and 817,379 of them have an operating budget of less than $100,000.

I’m guessing this means that most of them don’t have fundraising committees, an on staff donor relations coordinator, rich benefactors throwing money at them, or fancy software that helps them optimize their relationships. So they probably need help.

Here’s us helping.

Here are several reasons your online donation form is not getting much in the way of online donations.

1) You don’t have an online donation form.

Sure, you did your part two years ago. You signed up for a Paypal account, took the embed code Paypal gave you, and stuck the donation button on your website. But how’s that working out?

eNkaW0o

I didn’t want to single out anyone so I got this picture off the internet to show what I mean by this donate button.

Here is the thing, the cold hard truth. Many people don’t use Paypal regularly and don’t entirely understand it. Power users of Paypal are 1) Nerds selling to other nerds. (I often pay for software with Paypal.) or 2) eBay people. So unless you are selling your cool Google App integration program or your Elvis collector’s edition hulu doll, you need to use something that isn’t Paypal.

Now you may say, “But Nicole, you can pay with a credit card with Paypal.”

Here is an exchange I had with my mom, almost word for word.

Me: Hi Mom, I sent you the link.
(Mom presumably clicks link)
Mom: Thanks honey, but I don’t have a Paypal account.
Me: You don’t need one, Mom, you can use a credit card.
Mom: But I don’t want to sign up for a Paypal account with my card.
Me: Mom, you can check out without signing up.
Mom: Really? How?

(Full disclosure, I also had this conversation with Kassie about a week ago. And she is a 24 year old smart person as you all know… so this isn’t just a ‘people over 50’ thing.)

Now imagine trying to have that conversation with every potential donor who visits your website. Most people won’t stick around to have it. They’ll just mentally note to mail you a check… then forget.

You know what everyone does have? A credit or debit card. Giving people an easy way to donate on your site with one of those without having to link to Paypal takes down a lot of barriers.

2) People don’t know you have a donation form.

You can have an awesome, fast loading, mobile friendly online donation form (and congratulations, you are in the top  20% of online donation forms) but guess what? What if no one knows you just added online donation capabilities on your site? Unless they just stumble upon your form (which, let’s face it, some people may), you won’t get an uptick.

So remind regularly your Facebook fans, your Twitter followers, visitors to your online location that you have a form to donate online. Obvious poster or step by step instructions very helpful. Here’s an example: http://www.sycamorereview.com/donate/ 

I know this seems obvious but remember, it’s only obvious because you know how it works. 🙂

3) You don’t regularly use social media.

Do you have a regular conversation with your supporters beyond the annual appeal letter? You do if you regularly use social media, an email newsletter, or a blog to talk to them.

So you may have noticed if you follow us online that we’ve use the blog, email newsletter, and social media to talk about donation forms… all in preparing a special offer to be released Monday about this very thing!

Being mid conversation with people already means you can also relay your donation message to them. We even made donation forms a subject of our weekly video series Tech Thursdays this week!

4) Donors aren’t clear with where the money goes (and feel little personal connection with the cause because of this). 

I don’t know about you but when a 60 employee non-profit (with employees who I know are making almost double what I make) sends my four person business a letter asking me for a donation, I may snicker.

OK I do snicker.

Here’s the thing though, I’d be a lot more likely to give to a certain program or department if that was an option.

Having fields in your online donation form that allow you to specify a program or otherwise personalize a donation help more people (and different people) connect with different parts of your message.

Our local library's online donation form lets you donate in a certain person's memory (yes, we made this form).

Our local library’s online donation form lets you donate in a certain person’s memory (yes, we made this form).

5) You sound sad.

No one wants to get on a sinking ship. If you organization seems like it’s struggling, unorganized, or otherwise ‘sad’, your potential donors will pick up on it and steer clear.

Have someone really honest look at your website copy. Do you seem ungrateful, terse, sad, angry, etc. in your writing? Or do you seem grateful, fun, inspirational?

If you want to see what I mean, here’s a video making fun of the ‘sad African’ stereotype in fundraising. (Warning, there is one curse word but it wasn’t enough for me to think it was worth not posting):

 Here’s hoping some of these tips increase your online donation amounts and donors… just in time for giving season!

What’s that? You don’t have an online donation form for your website? We can totally fix that for you.

Nicole runs Breaking Even Communications, an internet marketing company in Bar Harbor Maine. When she’s not online, she enjoys walking her short dog, cooking with bacon, and trying to be outdoorsy in Acadia National Park.

What I’ve Learned Having 20 Strangers Sleep In My House

airbnb-logoOne of Derrick and my personal goals in life is to get our house paid off early. So after we got married and had cleared out boxes of plates, silverware, and mason jars for the event out of the spare bedroom, it seemed natural to think about using otherwise ignored space to generate some income.

So the day after we got married, we had our first AirBnB guests. (We warned them that the rest of the house looked like a bomb went off but our first guests, who happened to be German, were very gracious.) We’ve had about 20 people come through our house in the last month, hailing from places as exotic as Switzerland to more expected like New Jersey. Some stayed as short as one night and one as long as three days.

Our first reaction when we tell people we do this is that they think it’s weird. But hear me out, it’s actually kind of interesting.

You have a roommate… when you feel like it.
So I have a friend visiting this weekend so I blocked off Friday and Saturday night so AirBanB people couldn’t book the room. Unlike having a full on regular roommate, you just have a roommate when it’s convenient.

You set your price/expectation.
Between the photos, the profile, and your price point, you set the expectation for the experience.

I have taken a stunningly bad photo of the room, mainly so when people see it in real life, they are pleasantly surprised that it doesn’t look like the kind of room they will be murdered in.

And we priced ourselves cheaper than we thought we could get for a few reasons 1) Attract laid back and younger travelers (a relatively affordable option), 2) The room isn’t finished off yet so we didn’t think it was fair to charge full market value, and 3) We wanted to get some people to stay in the space and leave some initial reviews.

When we put in flooring and add a few extras to make it nice, we may up the price and get professional photos but until then, we are marketing ourselves in this way on purpose.

We have met some really interesting people.
The guys from Boston reminded me of my college friends while the couple from Bejing showed us how to properly do a Kung Fu tea service (no joke). We have met people who are thrilled to be in our town and it’s really rubbed off on making us enthusiastic in the same way. Some people who stay over want to talk a lot and we get to know them well and some just want a place to sleep and, as I say in the listing, we are fine either way. Everyone we’ve met has been really nice and grateful. I’ve even met someone who teaches website design and we plan on keeping in touch about work stuff. Networking without leaving my house, who would have thought?

It’s kind of inconvenient so be prepared.
Ever had to go to the bathroom while someone takes a really long shower? Yeah when four people share one bathroom, it is bound to happen. Also between Derrick and I, we’ve really had to coordinate changing bed sheets, cleaning the bathroom, welcoming guests etc. which has sometimes meant we didn’t or couldn’t do something. Adjustable shelves in the party closet? Cleaning out the pantry? On hold projects when you are sharing your space and not wanting to make a mess or a bunch of noise.

I bet now you’re curious. Want to see our listing? Click here: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/4120600 And if you have any questions, let us know. We are AirBnB fans, on the host and guest end.

Nicole runs Breaking Even Communications, an internet marketing company in Bar Harbor Maine. When she’s not online, she enjoys walking her short dog, cooking with bacon, and trying to be outdoorsy in Acadia National Park.

I Cut Up My Credit Card And I’m Still Alive

About a month ago, I cut up my credit card. I stood at my kitchen counter with my glass of red wine, had a moment of silence and then snipped.

What a cool yet terrifying feeling? Photo via http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7169/6426867439_f4033b5e3d.jpg

What a cool yet terrifying feeling! Photo via http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7169/6426867439_f4033b5e3d.jpg

My dad had cosigned on this credit card over ten years ago while I was in college so I could build some credit.

And build I did. I built my credit limit from a $2,000 to an over $10,000 limit. And while I had months that were a little tighter than I would have liked (like when I used to spend $100/month on groceries), I always paid the card off. Always.

Then after Bank of America didn’t record my payment and had a 30 minute phone call about it with them a couple months ago, I thought ‘Why am I having to go through these people to spend money I already have?’

So I moved all my automatic billing stuff (internet, Y membership, etc.) to my bank account, canceled my card officially, then cut it up. It was a cool but terrifying feeling.

So if I was building credit and paying things off, why cancel it?

There were a lot of reasons for me to finally do this. Here are a few:

1. You really ‘feel it’ paying cash.

Nothing like taking four twenty dollar bills for $80 worth of groceries to see the value in your purchases. Even though I’m not a big spender normally, looking at my bank account after just one month makes me see I am keeping more of my money now that I feel every purchase I am doing.

2. In terms of combining finances with Derrick, this feels more honest.

Since Derrick and I are engaged and moving in together this month, we are in the process of combining our finances, something I’ve never done with anyone. If the money comes out of our shared account when I buy something, that will make sure I am honest with him and myself… and keep away any unexpected surprises. Because it’s one thing to make yourself  rearrange your budget when you decided you had to buy an impulse purchase but it’s another thing to expect someone else to. Even though I’m an honest person and don’t think I’d do this, I am taking away the temptation.

3. Booking a hotel room? Buying airline tickets? A debit card works the same.

For all those people who tell me I will suddenly not be able to buy airline tickets or rent a car, that’s what a debit card is for.

4. I have a line of credit from my bank for emergencies.

I set this up about a year ago. I have $1000 line of credit at something like a 4% interest rate on my personal account at my bank. If I have a small emergency and not enough cash to cover for some reason, that’s available to me. Use a credit card for an emergency at a 25% interest rate? Why would I?

5. If someone really wants to know my credit history, there are plenty of things to look at.

Every landlord I’ve ever had, four years worth of cell phone bills… it’s not like I am unknown in the world in terms of payment history. I don’t need to keep building credit; if someone can’t take my cash, I probably shouldn’t be buying that object anyway.

I’ve told a few friends I’ve done this and the reactions have ranged from ‘Good for you’ to ‘Are you crazy?’. I’m not telling you that you should do this or need to; I’m just saying I’ve done this recently and it seems to be working well for me.  If I don’t have the money, I have no business buying something.

Derrick and I are still figuring out how all this will work in our finances but I’m curious: Do you think no credit cards is too extreme a stance? Why or why not?

Nicole runs Breaking Even Communications, an internet marketing company in Bar Harbor Maine. When she’s not online, she enjoys walking her short dog, cooking with bacon, and trying to be outdoorsy in Acadia National Park.

What Would Jesus Buy?

What Would Jesus Buy: Whether you agree with the tactics or not, this movie reminds us all the reason for the season.
I subscribe to the Daily Worth newsletter, where I was alerted today that the movie “What Would Jesus Buy” was streaming for free on Snagfilms. Being that it was Friday afternoon and I was getting much else done, I decided to watch it.
It was a pretty good tongue in cheek look at our consumerist culture, which ramps up to new levels during the holiday season. Seeing clips of crazy shopping footage, encouraging television anchors (buy now!), and pervasive holiday commericals all together made me realize just how bad it was. Sometimes I forget about these things since I don’t have cable!

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Nicole runs Breaking Even Communications, an internet marketing company in Bar Harbor Maine. When she’s not online, she enjoys walking her short dog, cooking with bacon, and trying to be outdoorsy in Acadia National Park.