Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Four Questions to Ask About Maternity Leave

My November post is up over at Dimespring! Pop over there to find out what I learned about maternity leave.
My husband and I had our first baby this year, so this summer I did some research on maternity leave. I was surprised by what I found out, so here are the four questions I recommend to all expectant moms (or dads!):
1. Do you qualify for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act? If not, what type of leave does your company offer?
Read more at Dimespring!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

My trip to a kids' consignment sale

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I went to my first kids' consignment sale and I was totally in love. Inspired by Lazy Man and Money, I thought I'd give you a walk though of what it was like.

The sale I went to is run by Just Between Friends, a franchise consignment organization. Twice a year, they hold four sales in my metro area, all in different neighborhoods. I've heard that it's best to hit up as many sales as you can, because the selection will be different depending on the neighborhood. One area will have more clothing; another a better selection of items like high chairs and strollers - plus zip codes with higher incomes will have more expensive name brand items, if that matters to you. JBF sets up shop in abandoned retail spaces - former chain store locations that are currently in need of a tenant and so which boast register areas, bathrooms, and all the amenities of shopping in a regular store.

There are staggered opening times: pre sales are open to volunteers and consignors as well as first time moms, then general public days open first for a small admission fee ($3 or so, which goes to charity) and then for free, then there's another round of pre sales for half-price discounts and a last round of general public days.

I registered as a first time mom and went to the pre sale with a friend who also just had a baby. After being checked off the list (a bouncer at a garage sale!), we were handed large blue IKEA bags and turned loose into a huge retail space.

We were immediately faced with row after row after row of adorable girls' clothing, ranging from preemie sizes up to elementary school, neatly hung. There were a few rows behind that of boys clothing, then a row of maternity clothing. I hit up the diaper bags first, which were hanging next to the baby carriers, car seat bunting, and second-hand breast milk pumps. There were neatly organized rows of high chairs, booster seats, swings, jumpers, walkers, and car seats. There was a section of playpens and bassinets. The back wall held kids' shoes and nursery decorations, along with larger toys like doll houses and play kitchens, and a side wall showed off useful things like potties, baby tubs and strollers. Bins by the front held baby books, organized by age. Table after table held all manner of baby accoutrements: boppy pillows and covers, crib sheets, nursing supplies, bottles and bibs, safety gear, tiny nail clippers - everything you could possibly think to register for was present in that room.

And now, to the prices: WOW THE PRICES.

Infant onesies for $1 and sleepers for $2. Like-new Boppies for $5. Playards for $35. Diaper bags for $8. Books for 2/$1. Nursing tank tops for $5. Breast pumps for $30. Crib sheets and receiving blankets for a few bucks a piece. Car seats for $65 (I'm all for saving money but I did pass these up in the interest of safety). I spent about $160, and I came home with a couple of trashbags worth of clothing and blankets, plus a bunch of other stuff on my list.

Here was my strategy:

Select


Make a list before going! On that list, write prices that you're okay with spending on each item - you can find a sample pricing list here on the JBF website to get an idea of what's reasonable.

When entering the sale, head towards the thing that matters most to you. In my case that was diaper bags. My cousin goes for the shoes first. The bigger things (cribs, car seats, etc) can be selected and put in a "hold" area in the back of the store. Try not to pick up anything that you don't want to lug around with you for another hour or so.

If you want a stroller, pick that out first thing so you can put the rest of your purchases on it and wheel them around (you can't bring your own strollers on pre sale days, but apparently other times you can - or some people bring laundry baskets on wheels). Take a swing through the tables of stuff for blankets, sheets, nursing supplies and other miscellany, and grab anything that matches your list - be broad here and grab it if it seems like it matches what you want, even if you're not 100% sure.

Then head to the clothes.

Got that? Go to the clothes LAST. Especially if you have a girl! There are so many clothes. So. Many. They won't run out of your size by the time you get there.

Set a price in mind per outfit and don't even take anything off the rack that's more expensive than that. My upper limit was $2.50 for a sleeper and $1 for a onesie. Many of the outfits are two or three to a hanger, all for $5 or whatever. I grabbed whatever looked cute and matched my price in a variety of sizes (a few newborn things, a lot more 0-3 months, and a couple 3-6 months).

Sort

Then hightail it to an empty corner or somewhere you'll be out of the way, and start sorting. I sorted clothes by price and checked them all over for stains and damage (merchandise is all checked for this sort of thing before being put on the racks, but I still found some). Then I weeded out stuff that I liked okay versus stuff that I loved - this was kind of hard, but there was truly so much of it that it wasn't hard to leave behind anything I was only sort of crazy about. Many of the table things were in ziploc bags and if the tops weren't taped I would open them up and check them for stains, damage and quality. Probably 95% of what I picked up was in great shape, but it never hurts to check, even when you're only spending $1.

I added up what I was spending as I sorted so I could stick to my overall budget, and then I took the things I didn't want to a drop-off point - there are volunteers that return unwanted items to the shelves.

Buy

The line to check out is long but moves fast - it winds right by the books, which is a great time to check those out. I always forgot to look at them until I was exhausted and headachey and standing in line to pay already, so I didn't wind up with as many as I would have liked.

Sell

I haven't implemented the rest of the consignment sale plan - sell stuff! I've started collecting things, though: extra pump parts, duplicates or things that don't match, Baby M's clothes as she outgrows them. When the spring sales come around, I plan to be a consignor, which will get me into the pre sales even earlier and hopefully I'll make back at least what I spend.

If I can swing it, I will go twice: once to the pre sale for "stuff" like strollers, diaper bags, nursing tops and other non-baby-clothing items. Then I'll go back to the half-price sale for clothing - there are seriously so many clothes that you'll still get great, cute stuff even after it's been shopped for days. (Note: this is true of girls' stuff; the boys' selection is not as great and might get picked over more quickly.)

Have you ever been to a kids' consignment sale? Any tips to share?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Blackest of Fridays

Will you be shopping on Black Friday?

I never have. I worked retail once upon a time, about ten years ago, right when the black Friday madness was beginning. Simply based on that, I will never, ever go shopping the day after Thanksgiving, even though I love a deal.

On the other hand, maybe the deals on Black Friday are not so hot, after all. The Wall Street Journal did a report that found that frequently, better prices can be had a few months beforehand. After all, why would you lower your prices the day you KNOW customers are going to be shopping?

Then there was this Business Week article about the branding of Black Friday...and Cyber Monday...and Small Business Saturday...and even Buy Nothing Day. No Day is without corporate sponsorship I guess.

Young Cheap Living had a great list of 10 reasons to stay home this Black Friday.

So I say all that, and then I say, am I crazy to try to go shopping Black Friday evening? I am not looking for a deal. I don't want doorbusters. I don't want crowds.

I do, however, need a carseat, which I want to pick up in person, and Friday is the only day that I have totally free for the foreseeable future. Am I crazy to try to go pick one up after the crowds have cleared? DO the crowds clear on Black Friday?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Linkfest!

Before we get to the link love, here's a quick update on us!

Baby M is doing really well - she's growing (she's tripled her birth weight, three and a half pounds!), and eating (starting to learn to breastfeed!) and breathing (still with some oxygen assistance). She should come home around the new year, and we are very excited for it.

We are doing well, also. Peanut has been working crazy insane hours and I have gone back to work full time as well, so we're not seeing too much of each other and it's a little stressful - but we know that this time is temporary and things will get better soon. We are hanging in there. Thanks to everyone who's dropped me a note to check in on how we're doing.

20 Something Finance takes a look at the costs of a high deductible health insurance plan versus a PPO. Here's the difference for us, on an annual basis:

HDHP - Premiums $0 (covered 100% by employer). Deductible $3200. Coinsurance $0.
PPO - Premiums $2200. Deductible $500. Coinsurance 20%.

They're pretty evenly matched except for major medical events. Then, suddenly, the PPO becomes a giant albatross around our necks. Consider, for example, that my medical care for Baby M's birth was $50,000  - 20% of that would have been $10,000. And let's not even consider what we'd owe for her care, which has already reached the several hundreds of thousands. I thank my lucky stars every day that I made the right choice last November.

Still, that's not the case for every HDHP vs. PPO choice - our high deductible is not really all that high compared to many. It pays to do your research!

A summary on Lifehacker of how to commit internet suicide and disappear from the web. It's not the same thing as never having put something out there, but it's a way to clean up your tracks if you decide you want to be less findable.

I've been hearing a lot about JC Penney lately - Forbes recently covered the major losses they've suffered after changing from a sales-and-coupon model to an everyday-low-price model. I used to shop fairly regularly at JC Penney, always drawn in by a coupon, but I haven't bought anything there since they introduced the new pricing method. I wouldn't say that I am actively avoiding the store because of it, but sales and coupons certainly make me more likely to visit a store to buy something than just "everyday low prices". After all, I don't need any more clothes at any price, but I can always come up with a use for a $10 off $10 coupon. Interesting psychology, no?

Always the Planner's post about her infertility treatment had a great quote that applies to much more than the cost of reproduction: "However, I am a personal finance blogger. What I can afford and what I would like to pay are two different things." This is SO TRUE and probably warrants a post of its own. Keeping this difference in mind might be the key to financial success.

Trent at The Simple Dollar provides six simple gifts you can make between now and Christmas. Christmas is completely canceled in the Moneybags' house - we are not buying or making gifts for anyone this year since we'd rather spend our time at the hospital with our (very) early Christmas present. But this is a list I might well be using next year!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

2012 Financial Check-Up

As the year draws to a close, it's time to make sure we've done what we can to lower our tax bill! Here are some of the standard things we look at around this time each year:

Max Out Roth IRA
While this won't lower your tax bill, it's a one-shot thing - you can only contribute a certain amount each year and if you miss it for a year, your chance is gone. You have until you file your taxes for the year to make the contribution, but earlier is always better! Here's more information about Roth IRAs, this year's limit, and who is eligible.

401(k) Check-Up
Your 401(k) contributions lower your tax bill now (deferring it until you withdraw the money at retirement) so it's a good idea to pay close attention to how it affects your overall situation. Of course, you should contribute at least to your employer's match, if one is offered - otherwise you are ignoring free money! If you got a raise this year, can you increase your contributions? A 1-3% contribution increase makes almost no difference in your regular paycheck but can pay off a lot in the long run.

In addition to checking your contribution level, you should also check to see how your 401(k) is allocated. Smart Money has a great rundown of how to evaluate whether your 401(k) needs to be rebalanced.

Medical Spending
Did you know you can deduct medical spending that are more than 7.5% of your adjusted gross income? It's true. This is something that probably won't affect most people during most years, but if you have a high-deductible health plan and meet the deductible, or have a lot of dental work done, or have some sort of medical emergency, you might spend enough to be able to deduct the overage from your taxes. In addition to things like hospital bills, you can also deduct mileage and meals, which comes in really handy when you have a major medical event in your life like we did this year.

Charitable Contributions
Monetary donations along with donations of goods and services might be deductible from your taxes. This requires you to keep some records all year long, but it can be worth it!

These last two are not tax-specific, but they tie in nicely to taking a look at your overall financial picture at this time of year.

Double check your benefits elections
Many companies do their annual open enrollment period in the last few months of the year. This is a really good opportunity to take a look at your health, life and disability insurance and make sure the plans you're on are still the most cost-effective and relevant to your life. And if you find that your company benefits aren't meeting all of your needs, I recommend private insurance - and I recommend Insurance for Dummies to walk you through the process. (No affiliation, I just really like the book!)

Take a look at your debt situation
For one thing, it might stop you from overspending during the holiday season! Perhaps you can take a new look at your finances and start formulating a plan to put into place as a New Year's Resolution to pay down your debt and gain some financial freedom in your life.

Do you do a financial or tax check-up each fall? Anything I missed off of my list?

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Linkfest!

Frugal Babe talks about how she does second-hand shopping. There are some really important points here that are worth reiterating - second-hand shopping takes longer and requires more patience and creativity than buying new does. It can be hard to wait for that perfect *whatever* that you're searching for or to dig through piles of junk to find something good, but the deals are worth it. (I'm putting this here not because I'm a paragon of doing this - but as a reminder to myself!)

A great reminder about how to have faith in myself as a new parent, from Girl's Gone Child.


Sweating the Big Stuff asks which is worse: feeling guilty about spending money, or feeling regret over not spending it. This is tough, because I know I have both kinds of regret. I think it really depends on the situation, and if someone comes up with a magic way to tell the difference, please let me know! (Some things I've learned: if you have the chance to study abroad, DO IT. That's a big regret over not spending that I have. And if you have to pay for your boyfriend's share of your spring break trip that he planned, DON'T DO IT. In fact, break up with him.)

Lame: 20 Something Finance reports about CEOs abusing their authority by trying to sway their employees' votes. This should be every bit as illegal as campaigning outside the polls, in my opinion. Threatening someone's livelihood to get your candidate elected is shady doings.

Hurricane Sandy may be over, but there were some really good posts about preparing for emergency weather situations. My favorites were at The Centsible Life and One Frugal Girl, along with one from The Consumerist about how long refrigerated food is good for when the power's out.

Recipe alert: a lentil and brown rice casserole from $5 Dinners.

Starting to think about the holidays? Some great gift ideas from AskMetaFilter and Bargaineering.

The New York Times
covered how technology is changing the way students learn - I have definitely seen the effects of technology and a shortened attention span in my own life. Peanut and I plan to limit Baby M's screen time especially in the first few years of her life. We don't have a television, so that will be easy, but it'll be harder to limit computer/smart phone time when we are slaves to those devices ourselves.

This quote jumped out at me from a recent Small Notebook post: “My things should complement, not complicate, my life goals.” This is larger than "things" - I'd like to evaluate whether my decisions complement, not complicate, my life goals.

What good reads have you found lately on the blogosphere?