Gift Card Buyer’s Beware!

For the upcoming holiday season, many of us will buy gift cards for friends and family who are difficult to buy for. Many stores are going out of business and some will not honor gift cards after a certain date. Check retailer sites carefully before buying gift cards from stores who have already announced financial difficults. Here is a list that a friend has put together.

Stores that are planning to close after Christmas are still selling the cards through the holidays even though the cards will be worthless January 1. There is no law preventing them from doing this. On the contrary, it is referred to as ‘Bankruptcy Planning).
Below is a partial list of stores that you need to be cautious about.

Circuit City (filed Chapter 11)
Ann Taylor 117 stores nationwide closing
Lane Bryant, Fashion Bug ,and Catherine’s to close 150 stores nationwide
Eddie Bauer to close stores 27 stores and more after January
Cache will close all stores
Talbots closing down specialty stores
J. Jill closing all stores (owned by Talbots) Pacific Sunwear (also owned by Talbots)
GAP closing 85 stores
Footlocker closing 140 stores more to close after January
Wickes Furniture closing down
Levitz closing down remaining stores
Bombay closing remaining stores
Zales closing down 82 stores and 105 after January
Whitehall closing all stores
Piercing Pagoda closing all stores
Disney closing 98 stores and will close more after January.
Home Depot closing 15 stores
Macys to close 9 stores after January
Linens and Things closing all stores
Movie Galley Closing all stores
Pep Boys Closing 33 stores
JC Penney closing a number of stores after January
Ethan Allen closing down 12 stores.
Wilson Leather closing down all stores
Sharper Image closing down all stores
K B Toys closing 356 stores
Loews to close down some stores
Dillard’s to close some stores
Value City closing before Christmas

While checking out this information, I came across a blog that looks very informative, both for cards to avoid and deals on gift cards that may be helpful

http://www.giftcardblogger.com/

No one likes to pay to much, but it’s even more frustrating when you purchase something that become worthless for the recipient.

The Season of Giving

The Christmas holiday will soon be here. I know most of you if you haven’t started your gift shopping will be starting very soon. It’s been a very difficult year for many of us. In our family, my husband experienced a 6 month layoff, and when recalled, lost all of his seniority. We’re struggling with getting a healthcare policy in place and really have no savings to speak of. This is also the start of the slow season at his workplace which lasts through March in most years, so money is a big concern right now, especially with 13 nieces and nephews to buy for plus our own 3 children.

My oldest son graduated college in June, but to date, has not had any job offers, with the first loan payments looming in December if they can’t be deferred.

But, considering our own hardships, we know that other familys are having a more difficult time than we can even imagine, either due to illnesses or financial issues.

My question to you is… What can you do with $5? If someone gave you $5, how would you spend it. My guess is that it wouldn’t go very far. That barely buys you a meal at a fast food shop.

Now, what can someone else do with $5? Imagine your $5 is combined with the same amount from 100 people. Imagine how many Christmases can be brightened with $500, or $5000. It takes very little from each of us to change someone’s life.

I encourage each of you to take some change from your pocket and donate it to an organization of your choice. This year, we’ve donated $50 to The Children’s Miracle Network which works locally to purchase necessary items for sick children being helped at Hershey Medical Center here in Central Pennsylvania. This is in additional to our annual contributions to Toys for Tots.

If your grocery store offers a $1 slip of paper to donate to local charity, don’t be so quick to say no. You’ve probably added something to your cart priced at much more than a dollar that you didn’t need. Your small contribution added to others can make a HUGE difference.

Not to late for Halloween crafts/snacks

This year I’ve seen a lot of fantastic ideas for Halloween. There’s still a full weekend to create some fun, so here are some links to help you start/finish your party planning.

Crafts (Children)

  • CandleEYEbra – When illuminated, these votive holders cast an eyeful of moody shadows on the walls.
  • Glue Ghosts – some school glue, wax paper and a few “accessories” and you can make your own glue ghosts.
  • Paper Strip Pumpkins (located about halfway down the page)
  • Shrunken Heads – Made from applies left to dry, don’t wait too long to start these!

Cooking

earn college savings with uPromise

I was at the grocery store this evening and had my uPromise card out and the cashier accidentally scanned my card for the customer ahead of me in line. I jokingly said, “That’s OK, I don’t mind taking credit for her purchase.” this started an interesting conversation with the other shopper about how it works.

I signed up for uPromise in June 2005 (at least, that’s what my online account says). I simply register my store cards for places I normally shop (two area grocery stores, a drug store, etc) and shop normally. I can also get credit for online purchases from participating websites like TigerDirect where I shop regularly. All in all, I’ve earned almost $300 for my children’s college funding. This may not seem like a lot, but when you consider that I’m not shopping any differently than I normally would, this really is free money! We’re already taken money from the account (my oldest son just graduated college in June). My younger son will be going to college in fall of 2009 and my daughter will be about 6 years behind that.

No matter what ages your children or grandchildren are, you can earn money for them. Friends and family can join you in earning to increase your earnings. So, don’t miss out on free money, sign up and register your store cards for savings.

www.upromise.com

Paying your mortgage with less pain

A co-worker and I were talking a few weeks ago about mortgage payments when we discovered that we had the same mortgage company. Several years ago, I had made the jump over to weekly payments. I’ve been doing this for many years now. She has a young family and like many of us, lives paycheck to paycheck. This topic came up again when she told me she had to call the mortgage company to work out a plan when she couldn’t pay her mortgage at all this month (her husband’s work hours were cut recently).

When I paid a monthly mortage payment, we felt broke constantly. Half the month we had no money because the mortgage payment was due. Depending on what day of the week the first fell, we didn’t always have the money in the bank and paid it a week late, sometimes more (using most of the 16 day grace period we were allowed). In order to change over to weekly payments, our mortage had to be current (this was a struggle since we were often paying on the 5th, which techically was past due). We also needed to have about half our mortgage payment on hand, because the weekly payments would start coming out immediately. This again was a struggle. It seems the easiest time to do this is after a nice tax refund or sale of a large item.

The beneifts of weekly payments: My husband and I both work and each of our payments is enough to cover the weekly payment, this means that one check (or about 2/3 of one) goes to the mortgage, the other check goes to other expenses. Budgeting is so much easier when the bills are staggered out. Our vehicle insurance is due the first week of the month, vehicle payment the second week, (another vehicle recently paid off was due the third week), and health insurance and fuel oil budget payments are paid from the fourth. This has allowed us to control the flow of our expenses much better and their is no longer a two week span of being completely broke.

Depending on your mortgage company, you may also pay down your mortgage faster. Some weekly payment plans apply the payment immediately upon receipt (ours unfortunately does not, holding the partial payments until the first of the month when they’re applied as a full payment). The later will not give you the early payment like the first. Some plans are also a 48 week plan where there are no additional payments, mine is a 52 week plan where we make the equivalent of one full payment to paydown principal. We refinanced our loan in November 2006. According to our mortgage company, we’ve already reduced our 15 year mortgage by 4 months by participating in the weekly payment plan. We hope to have it paid off several years early.

For us, the real benefit was paying the mortgage without feeling the constant struggle to balance everything. We pay many of our bills by automatic draft (I only recommend this if you know you’ll have a consistent amount of money in your account every week or you’ll face a lot of high bank fees .. ours are $40 per overdraft). I highly recommend contacting your mortgage company to see if they offer a weekly plan if you feel you could benefit like we did.

My new favorite picnic take-along: Boston Cream Pie Minis

Since Memorial Day, we’ve been to quite a few picnics and it’s always a challenge to take something along that’s unique. For the 4th of July, as we arrived at a picnic, my friend’s teenage daughter looked at what I had in my hands and said “Thank goodness you didn’t bring watermelon” (apparently that was a common take-along that year, along with at least 3 trays of brownies). I discovered an awesome recipe for Boston Cream Pie Minis in the Kraft Foods magazine (this is a free quarterly print magazine that I highly recommend, signup at the KraftFoods website)

The cupcakes may look complicated, but they’re actually quite easy, a simple box mix to make the cupcakes, a couple of ingredients whipped together, these are a great cooking project for parents and older children. The cupcakes can be cut with a simple butter knife so there’s no risk to fingers. My only tip is to cut the cupcake, place the bottom half on the tray where you’re going to want it for chilling (I can put all 24 on a large cookie sheet in rows of 4). Put your filling on the bottom, then top it, this reduces the need to move the cupcake before it’s fully set and keeps them looking fluffy and nice.

These cupcakes have been a big hit everywhere they’ve gone (my own teenage son finds them irresistable).

http://www.kraftfoods.com/kf/recipes/boston-cream-pie-minis-105206.aspx

Could you be a victim of fraud?

Hopefully you’ve at least heard of the Nigerian Scams. You receive an unsolicted email asking you to help move some funds from a dead diplomat and for your assistance, you’ll receive a nice sum of money for your trouble. Oh, but you’ll need to pay some fees (few hundred to thousands, but not to worry, you’ll be made over $1million so what’s a few thousand)… you’ll never see that money… the money promised or the money spent. Now, you’d never fall for that would you? Or the fake lottery winnings (you just need to pay some money to release your prize or get it through customs or whatever).

http://www.snopes.com/crime/fraud/nigeria.asp

But, these scams can sometimes be a little harder to spot. There’s something in the back of your mind that says “Hey, this doesn’t sound quite right.”. Well, if you don’t listen to that voice, you could be out a lot of money.

So, here’s what happened to us this week. My husband has been trying to help his brother sell a large number of fish tanks that had belonged to our late nephew. They’ve been listed on Aquabid a few times, with no reasonable offers. Finally, a bidder steps up. Unlike ebay, there’s not a pay now button on this site. Payment is handled off-site by the bidder/seller. The first email sounds fine, interested in the tanks, can I pay by Cashiers Cheque (notice the spelling Cheque, not Check, not as common a spelling in the US, but not unheard of). I mention to my husband to be very careful, as there’s a good bit of fraud with Cashier’s Checks and that it could take 2 weeks to clear. Of course, he always thinks I’m quite paranoid about everything. But, something is nagging him just a bit or he wouldn’t have brought it up. So, he responds back to the seller that he’d take a Cashier’s Check. The next email is the one that causes the full red alert. The buyer now wants to send an extra $1000, have us send $900 of it to his shipper via Western Union as soon as we RECEIVE the check (he does actually capitalize the word receive). OK, this is a HUGE red flag. All auction sites and many banks will tell you that if the buyer wants to send you more than what you’ve asked for and send money elsewhere, end the transaction IMMEDIATELY. This will always be fraud. My husband tells me the new twist and I take a look at the email from our “friend” with a very english sounding name sending from a yahoo account with a very definite African IP address (if you don’t know how to check an IP address, contact your favorite geek and send the email as an attachment so the headers will be intact). My husband decides he wants to play with the scammer now and says that he’s fine with the arrangement but he’ll need to wait 2 weeks for the funds to clear. Of course our scammer is irritated and reminds him that the funds will clear in 3 days or less. DO NOT BELIEVE THIS. We contacted our local bank and they suggested 2 weeks, although some fraud prevention sites will tell you it can take even longer.

Answers to questions that we asked our bank:
If I deposit a cashier’s check, how long do I need to wait before I can be sure it’s good (we gave them the details of the “transaction”)?
They did say that the funds would be released into our account within a few days, but it could take 2 weeks for the check to be officially cleared by the issuing bank. They said that the cashier’s check would list security features on the back of the check, look at these features carefully and check to be sure they’re all there (if there are no security features listed, it’s a fake).

Would it be better to do a wire transfer?
NO, never allow a wire transfer from someone you don’t want to have your bank account numbers. (I had always been concerned about this myself and I was glad to hear the bank back me up on this).

Federal Trade Commission website: Check Overpayment Scams: Seller Beware
http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/alerts/overpayalrt.shtm

This scam has been going on for some time. In fact, you can see a similar story that dates back to 2002 here.
http://www.scamvictimsunited.com/our_story.htm

Remember, while you would never cheat anyone, there may be someone out there looking to take advantage of you. If you fall victim to a scam similar to this, and don’t have the funds to cover the amount of the loss (the amount sent back or sent to a shipper via Western Union), you could not only be out the funds, but spin into a devasting whirlpool of bank fees, bounced check fees, and bad credit. The scammers are smart, but we can outsmart them by being vigilante. If the tiny voice inside you says something is wrong, trust it. As the saying goes, if it sounds to good to be true, it probably is.

Negativity

Recently I’ve had an interesting experience with someone I know. When I first met her, she seemed so happy-go-lucky, good hearted and joyful about life. Recently I’ve spent more time with her and it’s been quite a different experience. Why…. attitude. Some of you might be suffering from this as well.

Negativity. It’s amazing how negativity and bad attitude can really hurt us and keep us from reaching our goals and our full potential. This once joyful woman now constantly complains, no one ever helps me, my parents did more for my brother than they did for me, my parents don’t believe I can finish college, and other similar negative statements.

Now, what I see, a woman who’s parents bought a second home so that she could live rent free with her children while she got back on her feet, a woman who’s parents put her through college right after high school so that she could learn a marketable skill….but didn’t stick with it long… a woman who wants a lot of things done… but doesn’t want to take the responsiblity for doing them. It’s sad when we take for granted the things that truly are gifts to us every day. We start to feel that we are entitled to these things and that we deserve even more. Sometimes we complain that nobody is helping us get back on our feet (without realizing how many people have been trying to push us up while we continue to keep our butts on the floor or worse.. dig deeper holes).

I’ve spent many hours at her home trying to help her learn to break the cycle of CHOAS (see Flylady.net), but she still doesn’t want to do more than the absolute bare minimum (or less). We have our fate and future in our own hands. We have to stand up, shake the dust off ourselves, give ourselves some direction and start moving. I know, this is much harder than it sounds, but many of us sit, waiting and waiting for someone to tell us where to go and how to get there. Most of us don’t have that person to tell us.. and if we did, we would resent them for telling us what to do. It’s up to you. It starts with ending the negativity. Find something positive in your life every day. Stop taking things for granted and tell the people who are helping you how much you appreciate them and what they do. Tell your spouse or significant other that they are important to you. Spend time with your children, even if it’s just cuddling on the sofa under a blanket watching a TV show that they enjoy (you’d be surprised how entertaining the shows are Disney Channel are even for adults if you give it a chance).

You can see the theory of negativity around you even in some of the strangest places. “My name is Earl”. Watch the opening of the first season… the main concept.. I did bad things and bad things happened to me, so if I do good things, good things will happen to me. This concept is true. If you see only the negative things around you, only negative things will happen. If you choose to see the positive things around you, more positive things will happen.

A few weeks ago at my workplace, we were having communication issues that were leading to a lot of bad feelings. Someone left notecards on each desk stating “What I like about you is….” that had a positive message in them. No one will admit to doing it (we’ve asked at each of our staff meetings but no one has confessed), but it was a nice gesture on someone’s part. Even a small gesture can go a long way in letting people know that they are appreciated.

Try an experiment. Nice time you go to the grocery store, smile at everyone that you pass. Now, how many people smile back (it’s a lot). If you get stuck behind someone in an aisle. Don’t fume, smile, wait patiently (Don’t huff “EXCUSE ME”). I’ve on occassion simply turned around and gone around the aisle the other way. You can act angry and feel angry and shopping can be a bad experience or you can walk leisurely, act friendly and shop reasonably stress-free (this works best if you leave small children with a spouse).

Try seeing the positive just once a day. Try smiling at strangers for no reason (OK, not a crazy smile, just a small friendly greeting smile). Tell the well dressed woman in front of you in line that you admire her outfit, speak kindly to the cashier, especially if she seems rushed or rattled). Small gestures are meaningful to the people you share them with. Good things happen to you when you end the negativity, you will be more relaxed, you will be less angry, you will feel more loved. What can it hurt?

Menu planning

The Flylady system encourages menu planning for several different reasons. 1) it’s simply more efficient to plan your meals in advance and make sure you have all the ingredients you need 2) it’s cost efficient… use what you have, buy only what you need. No more… I don’t know, what do you want to have, let’s just order out 3) it’s time efficient. Nothing worse than starting dinner only to realize you’re missing a key ingredient and need to run back to the store for rolls.

I’ve been getting tired of having the same couple of meals all the time, so this week I decided to have a “new recipe night”. Double bonus, it was a crockpot meal that didn’t need a lot of attention. This week we tried Slow-Cooker Orange-BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwiches from the Kraft Food & Family magazine.

To find more recipes like this, you can visit the craft site for an archive of this free quarterly magazine with issues going back to 2002. If you sign up on the site, you can request new issues to be sent to you.

I can’t promise that I’ll be doing new recipe night on a weekly basis but the first experiment went very well.

A “clean” start

Several years ago, my best friend introduced me to Flylady.net. If you haven’t heard if it, now’s a great time to check it out. Flylady is an empowering process of cleaning your house without crying in frustration, wearing yourself out from frenzy or yelling at your children for whatever it is they haven’t cleaned up this time. I was overwhelmed by keeping a household and just never knew where to start. Funny how we never are actually taught how to clean our homes, yet, we’re expected to know how and know how to do it well. Some of us just aren’t “lucky” enough to be born with the natural instinct to clean. I always said I needed a list, this infuriated my husband who thought I should just know what needed done and do it. The problem really wasn’t that I didn’t know what to do.. just had no clue where to start.

I come from a long line of human packrats. “I might need it someday” was deeply imprinted somewhere in our DNA. This makes for a very messy house, bookshelves packed beyond the limits with things, closets filled from top to bottom, front to back with things. Nothing was too large or too small to keep forever. Of course, it didn’t help that the few things I did throw out, I almost immediately needed the day after trash day. The Flylady system was introduced at almost the same time as The Freecycle Network concept of giving things away to local people (with the possiblity of getting a needed item back again if the situation occured). Between these two things, I felt amazingly free to get rid of the things I really didn’t WANT. I spent weeks “decluttering” things that I simply didn’t use and didn’t treasure for any reason whatsoever. It was so liberating.

So, fast forward awhile and I stopped making time for the Flylady routines, my house didn’t go back to nearly the state it was in initially, but still it wasn’t were I needed to be. My neighbor was struggling a few weeks ago with a large amount of clutter, tension and frustration. Friends would come help “clean” the house, meaning they would come in one day, throw stuff in boxes and move it to another room “out of the way”. These binge cleaning sessions may make us feel better short term, but without a real system, we simply cannot maintain our homes this way and again we’re frustrated. So, I introduced her to Flylady and together, we’re forming our own support group for the housekeeping challenged :).

I’m lucky in that I have a husband who’s pretty tidy and wants a clean house and is willing to help achieve the goal. He does dishes, cleans the stove, empties trash cans and makes the bed. He’s also not afraid to clean the bathroom as needed. My problem was that for years, I simply could not meet his standards. We’d binge clean, and he’d chastise me to “see if you can keep it this way”. When I’d make what I felt were significant achievements, my reward was “It should look like this all the time”. I always felt like I was met with constant criticism and that my best was never good enough. Ironically, it seems like some of the worst homemakers are the ones who have the highest level of perfection. I’ve seen this in my own son as well. “If I can’t do something perfectly, I simply won’t do it at all”. Flylady gives us the positive feedback we so desparately crave. She tells us that “Housework done imperfectly still blesses our home” and that we’re not behind, we simply need to jump in where we are. She breaks our home into 5 zones, focusing on a zone each week with short missions to accomplish each weekday (weekends are family time).

Flylady sends us constant reminders all day to make our beds, get up and get dressed, do our laundry, exercise and drink plenty of water, and clean our homes 15 minutes at a time (even working mom’s like me can manage this most days).

Because I hadn’t been doing my daily and weekly chores for so long, I have a lot of work to do. Today I was going to do my weekly dusting. Seemed simple enough. I have the coolest feather duster from Flylady.net’s store and I love dusting with it. I was going to dust my mini-blinds (the duster works great on these), but it had been so long since I dusted that the blinds were filthy. Sigh, I took each one down in turn, washed them in the tub and used a Mr. Clean magic eraser on each slat of the blind (these erasers are my absolute most favorite cleaning sponge. If you haven’t tried them on your soap dish, pick up a box on your next trip to the store). Of course, once the blinds were clean, I realized my curtains hadn’t been washed in ages and were covered in dust as well… time to wash these too. Now that the blinds were clean, I could see every cat hair on the loveseat where he loves to lay, so.. it was off to a good brushing with the lint brush (I got my exercise from all this brushing, sponging, reaching and washing today). So, all in all, had I been doing my 15 minutes of weekly dusting, I would have saved several hours of washing blinds and more. So, the next time we think we don’t have time to do housework, let’s think of all the time we save ourselves to enjoy the weekend by spending a bit of time every day cleaning our home.

Check out Flylady.net if you’re a Sidetracked Home Executive looking for a “how-to” for housekeeping 🙂