The Mystery Charge – A Teachable Moment

The cell phone bill came in.  It was a little higher than usual, not by much, but enough to get me looking for the reason why. 

I consider the cell phone bill a fixed expense.  Technically, it’s not since there is always the possibility that we could go over minutes at which point the charges skyrocket.  I know this.  Two teenage boys with their first girlfriends and, well, let’s just say they finally understood what I meant by girls can be expensive

But even so, we pretty consistently pay around $98/month, give or take a few pennies.  So it’s a fixed expense in my budget.

Both boys pay for their portion of the bill.  John and I take care of the family plan charge which leaves the boys with their $10 extra line charge and $5 unlimited texting fee.  That plus taxes and surcharges and the kids each owe me $17.04 monthly.  It’s a steal, really.

I located the extra charge.  It was for $5.99 and showed up under Ryan’s portion of the bill.  Ryan recently upgraded to a new phone.  His second in three years.  That’s what happens when kids have to pay for their own stuff.  They discover that they really don’t need the whiz-bang latest technology.  The old stuff works just fine, thank you very much.

Since the rest of us were not charged this fee, I figured it had something to do with Ryan’s new phone.  But instead of me picking up the phone to figure out what was going on, I decided it was time for Ryan to handle his own inquiries.  He’s 15 and quite capable.   He was also quite willing.  Again, when you have to pay for your own stuff, a $5.99 charge is worth looking into.

So he dialed the number and talked with the representative.    Here’s what he found out:  Apparently, out of the goodness of their hearts (it wasn’t in the contract), TMobile decided to enroll him in their insurance plan for his new phone.  It was $5.99 a month and would cover the cost of a new phone minus the $40 deductible (he’s familiar with deductibles) should he lose his.  He asked me what he should do.

“Have you ever lost your phone before?” I asked him.

“No,” he replied.

“Well, there’s always the chance that you will.  Is it worth it to you to pay six dollars a month on top of a $40 deductible should you lose your phone?   That’s up to you to decide.” 

I could tell he was thinking really hard about it.  He had his old phone for three years and never lost it.  He’d been scared that he had a couple of times, but we always found it.  Besides, his new phone cost him $150 plus taxes.  Minus the deductible, that would leave $110 that he was insuring at $6/month.  He decided it wasn’t worth shelling out the additional money. 

He finished his conversation with the representative who reversed the charges for him.  But the lesson is not over.  When the next bill comes in, I’ll have him confirm that it was reversed.  

Dealing with this sort of thing is definitely not fun.  It’s time-consuming and a hassle.  But I’m thrilled that both boys are at the age where they are capable enough to handle these on their own.  It puts them one step closer to being ready to go out in the world on their own…and do okay.  Sort of a bittersweet moment for me.

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How Does a 15-year old Save for a Car?

Ryan just bought a car. And she’s a beauty, too. 2002 baby blue Toyota Prius with only 57,000 miles. Owned by a 91-year old grannie who used it mostly to drive to church and back. No kidding. Problem is, Ryan can’t drive it; never mind he doesn’t have his license. He barely has his permit. And taking an online course to get his permit happened after he bought the car.

How does a 15-year old with no permit end up with a pretty snappy car sitting at the bottom of the driveway? It starts with a plan.

When Ryan was 11 years old he got his first job. He delivered papers once a week after school. Most of that money went directly into his savings account. Although he was responsible for all his discretionary spending, there wasn’t a whole lot he spent money on. John and I customized his interest rate (KidsSave was a great help in this area), so that the more he saved, the more he ended up with. This was a great incentive. But an even greater incentive was the offer his grandmother gave him. She would match him dollar for dollar on his first car.

Over the years he added soccer reffing, teaching math centers, and yard work for our neighbor to his list of jobs. He also did the occasional lemonade and root beer float stand. Then there were his buys and sells on ebay. Again, most of it went into his savings account. Although I have to mention here, just in case you may think he never enjoys spending money, he bought his own $350 mountain bike, an ipod touch, golf clubs and other pretty pricey items. He knows when to save and he knows when to spend.

But my main point is that, when you have a goal in mind, when you know what you want and have figured out the steps to get there, it’s easier to keep your eyes on the target. That’s the power of goal setting. It keeps us focused. Even when you’re eleven years old.

Four years later the perfect opportunity presented itself. We live near a community college which doubles as a used car lot on the weekends. Nathan and Ryan, just playing around on the computer one day, discovered that a used Prius would be on the lot. A Prius is exactly what Ryan wanted. He’s my little eco-friendly kid.

The stars seemed to be aligning for him. About six months ahead of when he had planned on buying a car, it was an opportunity not to be missed. An opportunity on a variety of levels. This was his first major negotiation and he wanted to do it himself. So John and I prepped him. He needed to know exactly what his maximum offer would be. Start low, move up.

The owner, through her grandson, was asking $10,000. Ryan went in at $8800. They came back at $9200 which was exactly what Ryan had hoped. He had just made his first deal.

After registration and taxes, the total came to $9796. Split with his grandmother, Ryan’s share was $4898. He paid in cash. That’s how a committed 15-year old buys his first car.

Teaching our kids to set personal financial goals when they are young is so important. It starts with the little things…a video game then a bike then an ipad. They learn it’s possible and begin saving for the bigger things. To see how it’s done, check out this video:

Yippee! I’ve Got Money! A Letter to Teens

I was asked to contribute an article to a book being published on kids and financial literacy (will share more on that later). Apart from being thrilled to have been asked, I happen to love writing, so I jumped at the chance. My given topic was ‘kids and budgeting’ and is a little longer than I usually post. But I think you’ll find it easy to read. Here we go:

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Nice. You’ve got money. And if you’re like most teens, the first thing that comes to mind is to take that money and spend it. That’s reasonable. After all, you worked hard to get it. You did work hard to get it, didn’t you? But before you call all your friends and set up a date with the mall, ask yourself one question. Do I want to think like a millionaire or do I want to think like someone who lives with mom and dad when they’re 30?

You’re pretty savvy, so my guess is that you chose to think like a millionaire. Good. Because you’re going to learn some important stuff that will allow you to build wealth so that you can have and do the things you want. But always keep one thing in mind. Being rich in money is nice, but it’s also important to be rich in friends, compassion, knowledge, generosity… Then, being rich in money is so much more meaningful, for you and others.

Okay, we’ve got priorities straightened out. Now let’s get to the thinking-like-a-millionaire part. Most millionaires become millionaires because they are savvy in the art of managing their money. And the first thing millionaires do when they manage their money is to pay themselves first. It seems like a silly thing to do since the money is already theirs, but paying themselves, or in this case, yourself, first simply means that you are going to take some of your money and sock it away into savings. Then leave it there. No touchy the money. You’ll see why this is important in a minute. So decide, right now, how much of your money you will put into savings each month. A lot of millionaires started by putting aside 10% of their income. But you decide what works for you right now. You can always add more later.

Okay, pay myself first. Check.

Next, it’s always a good idea to share a little of what we have. Some like to give to their church, others like to donate to causes that are near and dear to their hearts. Whatever you choose, decide how much you want to give and how often you will be giving. It’s often easiest if you do it monthly, similar to how you put money into savings. And, hey, your parents may even be willing to match your donating dollars. They like it when they see you doing things to help others. So ask them.

But does that mean that you have to give money? No. Giving of your time and energy is just as valuable. At some point, though, maybe when you’re earning just a little bit more, you’ll want to re-visit this and make a commitment. Either way, you’ll discover a very important thing. Sharing makes people happy. And being happy is contagious. So share. It’ll make the world a better place.

Share time or money. Check.

Now, since you are a millionaire-in-the-making, you need to figure out where your money is coming from and where it is going. In other words, you’re going to track your income (money in) and expenses (money out). It’s going to take one month to gather enough information to be able to see patterns in your habits, so grab a notebook, use KidsSave or print out a recording sheet by visiting here and start recording. Every single penny you spend or bring in gets recorded. Yes, I know, it’s a hassle. But it needs to be done. Think: millionaire.

Then, when you have one month’s worth of data, look for patterns in your spending habits. If you like, you can create categories using colored pencils. (If you used KidsSave, print out your registry.) Items like soda, chips, and gum would go in a ‘snack’ category and can all be colored, say, yellow. Video games, itunes, and that new Wii controller you just bought would go in an ‘electronics’ category and colored…red. You get the idea. Expenses that are the same each month like your cell phone bill, remain in their own category. They are fixed expenses. And remember your charity and automatic savings? Consider those fixed expenses, as well.

Add up the totals for each of your expense categories. Then add up all the categories in expenses. That’s about how much you spend each month. Next, add up all the categories in income. That’s about how much you bring in each month. Subtract expenses from income. That’s how much money you have left over. No, duh. Want more money left over? Keep reading.

Keep track of my income and expenses. Check.

Okay, so you’re interested in ending up with more money. The good news is, it’s not that hard to do. And it can make a huge difference in whether or not you reach millionaire status and how quickly you get there. Here’s how.

Go grab that list of expenses you carefully recorded for one month; it’s time to take another look. This is where it can get interesting, so hang on. Choose one of the categories, like electronics, and look at the total amount you spent during that month. Now multiply that number by 12. That’s about how much you can expect to spend on electronics for the entire year. Do that with the other expense categories. Pretty eye-opening, huh? Time to reduce spending?

Start by taking a real close look at all the things you spent money on. Not happy about blowing a bunch of money on snacks at the mall? Great. Stop doing it. Wish you hadn’t bought those funky sunglasses that you never wear? Then think twice about putting out money for things you don’t really need. Not that you don’t get to have some fun with your money. Treating yourself is important. Just be aware of where your money is being spent. There’s a saying that goes “It’s better to tell your money where to go than to ask it where it’s gone.” So pay attention.

Alright, reduce spending. Check.

Okay, are you sitting down? Because this is the part where I bring up the ‘B’ word. Adults do not like this word. A lot of them even cringe when they hear it. But you’re not afraid. You’re a millionaire-in-the-making which puts you into the tough category.

Deep breath.

Budget.

Budget? Yup, budget…a plan for your money. It’s hard to become a millionaire without one so let’s just hit it straight on. Besides, when you see what’s really involved, you’re going to wonder why so many adults haven’t taken the plunge.

The first thing you need to do is track your income and expenses. Done. Then you need to create income and expense categories. Done. Next, you need to subtract your expenses from your income. Done. OMG! The budget’s done. No kidding. You just need to make sure that you’re meeting all your objectives of saving and spending carefully and that, then, pretty much sums up how to create a budget. Sheesh, what’s up with these adults?

Create budget. Check.

So, when you created your budget you discovered some extra money. Money that was left over after you subtracted your expenses from your income. Beautiful. Now we get to the fun part, the building-wealth-to-become-a-millionaire part. The part where you learn how to make money work FOR YOU, instead of you working for it.

Remember that pay-yourself-first money you’ve been saving? Here’s where it comes into play. You’re going to take that money along with the extra savings you just found in your budget and begin to invest it. But here’s the deal. The money you invest is money that you won’t be able to touch for awhile. I’m talking several years. In fact, the longer you can leave it alone, the better. Let me give you a quick example.

If you started saving $100 every month when you were 18 years old, and you invested it where it received 6% annual interest, by the time you turned 65 you would have $313,187. If you did the same thing but were receiving 10% annual interest, you would end up with $1,281,919. The secret is something called compound interest. Compound interest is money that grows on itself. Remember Einstein? Pretty smart, right? Well Einstein knew how special compound interest is. He called it the greatest force in the universe. Over time small amounts of money become large amounts of money. And if you keep making contributions while not touching any of it, yowza, it’ll take off like a bat out of H – E – double hockey sticks. Sick.

And what should you invest in? Lots of things. The key is to diversify. That’s when you divide your money into different investments. CDs and bonds are a good place to start. I also recommend mutual funds. When you’re ready you can begin investing in individual companies in the stock market. And maybe one day you’ll move on to real estate. But do your research first. Always do your research. http://Www.bankrate.com and http://www.fool.com are great places for that.

Begin my investing portfolio. Check.

Well there you have it. You’ve just set yourself up to become a millionaire. You are in control of your financial future. How cool is that? It’s very cool because that puts you into an elite group of people. A group of people with a millionaire mindset. You’re on your way to great things. Keep focused. Know your goals. Follow your dreams. Go get ‘em!

The Cell Phone: A Powerful Learning Tool

There was a huge graphic of a cell phone on the front page of the Sacramento Bee this morning. It was all about the love affair tweens and teens have with their cell phones confirmed in a study by Pew Internet and American Life Project.

If you have a tween or teen, this is not front-page news to you. But I thought it the perfect opportunity to re-print here a section from Raised for Richness, my parent kids and money primer:

Parents have been handed an unbelievable tool to help teach their tweens and teens money management. The cell phone. Yup. That object of love and hate. Done correctly it becomes an object of learning. Here’s how.

Teens need to stay connected to their friends. This is normal as they figure out their place in the world. Cell phones keep them connected. Using their “need” for a cell phone as the motivator, we can teach them basic money management skills such as budgeting, paying bills, and living within your means.

First, tweens and teens need to know that along with a cell phone comes responsibility. Keeping track of your cell phone, resisting the temptation to text during dinner, and paying your phone bill. Kids paying bills? You bet! And the best time to teach them is while they’re still hanging out with you. At least you’re not going to turn the heat off on them!

Next, it’s important to establish what part of the phone bill your child is responsible for. For example, you may pay the family plan fee but maybe your teen pays the additional phone line fee, texting, and any upgrades. If your child is old enough, you can even see if the bill could go go directly to her.

If you haven’t set up an allowance yet, this is the time to do it. Most kids don’t have jobs so it’s important to get money in their hands for the purpose of learning how to manage it. You can tailor the amount of allowance based on the responsibilities that come with it.

Now comes the fun part. Kids learn to manage their money in the context of something they love…their cell phone! Upgrades? They pay. Overages? They pay. New phone? They pay. Lost phone? They pay. Unpaid bill? No phone. See how simple it is? Okay, so it’s going to take a few months before everyone understands how the whole thing works, but when that happens, it’s a thing of beauty. Kids are happy; as long as they pay the bill, they stay connected to friends. Parents are happy; their kids are learning real life skills. It’s another win/win.

You may even find that your kids become pretty savvy consumers. Just how important is it to have the latest phone with all the gadgets? When it’s their money on the line, the difference between needs and wants takes on a whole new meaning! And that got-to-have-phone may be the perfect time to introduce them to the idea of setting a financial goal.

It’s true that some parents feel the peace of mind that comes with a cell phone is worth paying for the phone themselves. But wouldn’t you also want the peace of mind knowing that your child is ready to take on the financial challenges that await her out there? Don’t miss this silver-platter opportunity. With tweens and teens, they’re few and far between.

What are your thoughts?

Saving: It Takes a Plan

I’ve been doing a little work with a group of foster kids ages 17-19. One of my goals has been to get them to see that their daily actions can influence their future. So at one of our last group meetings we talked about goal setting.

I had them write down their goals for one-, five-, ten-, and twently-years. That begs the question…what are you doing right now to reach those goals?

But this most recent meeting was about their daily spending habits. How you spend your money today can impact your dreams for the future. Before I even arrived, I asked the group leader to have the young adults keep track of their spending for two weeks. ALL of their spending. This is usually a pretty unpleasant task so I never know if anyone is going to follow through.

When I arrived, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that they had all done it…in one form or another. One girl arrived with an envelope filled with receipts. Oh happy day. The lesson is so much more meaningful if it relates directly to their lives.

I started by having them highlight things on their recording sheet that they didn’t really need to buy. It was very interesting to see that they were all pretty honest about their spending habits. One girl spends $25/week on cigarettes and she’s not willing to give up smoking. So I did a little calculation to show her that she spends about $1300/year just on cigarettes. Eyes lit up.

Another girl spends $2 on yogurt covered pretzels from the vending machine every time she goes to class. That’s $10/week. She admitted that she didn’t really need to buy a snack and she was considering moving down the snack chain and buying regular pretzels instead since they were cheaper. One of the other girls offered that it would be even cheaper to buy the pretzels in bulk and bring her own little baggie to snack on. Now that’s a savvy consumer!

But what really impressed me was that a lot of them were already taking steps to curb their spending. Some had reduced their thermostat setting, others cut back on their fast food intake, one had reduced her car insurance policy. And most of them were using a cheaper cell phone provider, MetroPCS, which made me smile because I had done some financial literacy work for them last year.

I’d like to think that their reduction in spending was a result of the work I have done with them, and maybe some of it was. But I think the real reason is simply out of necessity. Times are tough and looking for ways to save has become an on-going activity. It was interesting, though, that after taking a close look at their spending habits, they found additional ways to cut back.

Another of my goals for this class was to get them to start an emergency fund. A minimum of three months worth of expenses is recommended. And now that they had found little areas to save, it made coming up with the plan easier. By the end of class, they had each had a plan to help them establish this fund.

I am hopeful that this group is on their way to managing money in a way that will allow them to live in the future they each want. They’ve had a crummy start to life. They deserve a better future.

$100 Jeans

I love watching commercials.  Especially with Ryan.  He wants to go into marketing as a career so it’s always fun to critique commercials with him.

But last night, Ryan wasn’t with me while I had tuned in the Olympics so John got to hear me get annoyed at the t.v. instead.  It was a Tide commercial and a young girl, about 12 years old, came on and started complaining about not being able to get the $100 pair of jeans she wanted because her mom was able to get the stain out of her older sister’s jeans, turning the jeans into hand-me-downs.

I get the reference in the commercial to saving $100 on a pair of jeans by using the right laundry soap.  It’s become almost ho-hum to hear a commercial talk about saving money.  (On a side note:  Ore-Ida does a pretty creative job of listing a bunch of ways for families to save money…however, these families are simply not willing to compromise on their choice of french fries.  Brilliant.)  Money-saving commercials are in vogue and Tide wants to fit in.

But, honestly, do 12-year old girls really need $100 pair of jeans, and are their parents buying them?  Kudos to the mom in the commercial for making the young girl wear the hand-me-down jeans.   But I couldn’t help think about the message that was being sent about 12-year-olds wearing such expensive  jeans.

I say, if the girl wants those jeans so bad, then have her pay the difference between the “regular” cost of a pair of jeans and the designer cost.  Let’s see if that doesn’t change her attitude pretty quickly.  And, heck, if you gave her a clothing allowance and put her in charge of buying her own clothes, I’ll bet those hand-me-downs may not look all that bad.  It’s always amazing how frugal kids become when it’s their money they’re spending.

And, although he wasn’t with me, I know Ryan would agree.  He finally succumbed to his torn-in-the-knees jeans (not a cool look anymore) and bought himself one new pair…on sale…with his clothing allowance.

Girls = $

We were driving home from Nathan and Ryan’s basketball game yesterday when I asked Nathan what he planned on giving his girlfriend, Shea, for Valentine’s Day.  “I bought her a rose,”  he said. 

“My math teacher did an equation in class the other day where he proved girls were evil,”  said Ryan.

Ryan often throws out what I think are non sequiturs, but which actually turn out to fit in with the conversation.  It just takes a few additional questions to get there.  I wasn’t sure where Ryan was going with this one, however, and I would have been pretty surprised if his math teacher really believed it, so I asked him to explain.

“Mr. Williams did an equation where he said that girls equals time times money.”  Okay, I was with him so far.  “Then he said that time was equal to money so that makes girls equal to money squared.”  Hmmmm…. “Then he said that greed is the root of all evil so that makes girls equal to the square root of evil.  Cancel out the square and square root and you end up with girls equal evil.”  Double hmmmm.  And apart from the early reference to money, I think this was actually a non sequitur.  And I was a little concerned about the impact of his “equation”, especially on girls. 

“He’s only kidding, mom.”  I’m sure he was, but his equation was implying that girls were expensive and things that are expensive are evil.  But let’s focus on the expensive part for a moment.

I have to take issue with the perception that girls are expensive; I know plenty of girls who are much more frugal than their male partners.  That said, I do feel that high school is the time when boys are exposed to the cost of females.  That’s because it’s typically the time when boys and girls start dating and along with that comes expenses.  And from listening to the stories Nathan and his friends share about girls and their expectations (i.e. money spent on them), girls expect a lot.   Nathan is finding this out as he had to put out for last week’s Valentine’s dance ticket and dinner.   I know Nathan, and my guess is that he compares these expenses to a tank of gas.  The dance cost him two tanks of gas.

“I’ve decided that instead of going out to dinner and spending lots of money for Valentine’s, I’m going to take Shea to a little pond that Ronnie, Jimmy, and I discovered on one of our bike trails.  We can have a little picnic and then I have two movie ticket gift cards so we can go to the movies after that.  It won’t cost me a penny,”  he said with a pretty wide grin.  No, it’ll cost me money since it’s my food he’ll be using.  But that’s perfectly fine with me.  He’s learning some important lessons.

Then Ryan pipes up again.  “My friend is waiting until after Valentine’s to ask one of his friends to be his girlfriend.  He says he’ll save a lot of money that way.”  No non sequitur here.  That message came in loud and clear and made perfect sense…in a frugal, money-saving kind of way.  I wonder if his friend is in Mr. William’s class…