Why I’m Not Buying My Wedding Dress From China

I didn't know about all the hidden costs when buying your wedding dress from China!

There’s been a rise in the last few years of websites and companies based in China selling wedding dresses to those of us in the Western world.  It seems like every dress I like on Pinterest comes from one of them.  The apparent great thing about them is that they’re far cheaper than buying from most bridal boutiques, even though a lot of their dresses are made in China, too.

I imagine the reason behind this is that you’re not paying the middle man—boutiques have to pay to get dresses shipped to them, a storefront to display them to the public, and commissions to sales associates.  Websites don’t have to do any of that.

Despite the cost difference, I don’t plan on ordering my dress from one of these companies.  Here’s why:

1.  I want to make sure I look good in it before I buy it.  Call me crazy, but I’d like to try something on before I drop hundreds of dollars on it.  I’ve heard horror stories of dresses not fitting, and then being really hard to return because of…

2.  …poor customer service.  If the dress arrives in the right color, the right size, and at the right time, ordering from these businesses would be amazing for my pocketbook.  But I understand that a lot of these companies are very hard to get in touch with if you need to return the garment, or, heaven forbid, you need a refund because they don’t get it to you in time.

If you’re determined to buy online, I’d check out The Dessy Group’s selection.  They have a great return/exchange policy and great customer service.  Plus they’re an American company originating in New York.  They’re offering 10% off and free shipping on orders over $100 now through December 31, 2016 when you use code Newdg15.

3.  They have different holidays than we do.  My friend ordered her dress from one of these online vendors.  She actually still highly recommends the website.  But there was also a hold up in dress production because of Spring Festivals or something like that.  (Please forgive my lack of knowledge about the specific holiday.)  I guess it would be akin to most people having abbreviated work schedules in the US around Christmas and New Years.  But I don’t know what other holidays they have and what weight they hold as far as worker or postal vacation days.

4.  You still have to pay for shipping.  And shipping from China isn’t cheap.  The price difference starts to become more neutralized when you take this into account.

5.  Sometimes dresses get held up in customs.  Because the dress is getting shipped from across the world, it makes many stops along the way.  I read one story in particular of a bride-to-be’s gown getting held up in Ireland, where they wanted hundreds and hundreds of dollars to get it to pass through customs.  The bride didn’t have hundreds and hundreds of dollars.  She tried to get in touch with customer service.  For the rest of the story, refer to reason number 2.

What I’ll Do Instead

1.  I won’t turn my nose up at “as-is” racks.  I don’t have to have a custom ordered dress.  If I can find one that fits and I fall in love with that’s a former display model or has a minor defect, I won’t be too proud to take it home with me at those marked-down prices.

2.  I’ll get it tailored.  If it doesn’t fit right off the rack, I’ll just get it tailored.  I’d probably have to do that if I ordered from China, anyways.

3.  I plan to go shopping in the winter.  Because December-January tends to be the cheapest time of year to purchase.

4.  I’ll only go into boutiques I know I can afford.  There’s no point in going to a store where I know I can’t afford the merchandise “just to look.”  If I fall in love with something there, it’s going to ruin my outlook on other, more affordable dresses.  There’s no reason to depress myself when I could be perfectly happy with something that doesn’t costs thousands and thousands of dollars.

5.  Anna taught me that it’s okay to negotiate. Yes, even on wedding dresses.  Read about her experience.

I’m going to nip this in the bud before all the personal finance bloggers can suggest it:  I’m not going to get one used.  I did that last time I got married.  I used a divorced girl’s dress because it was free and pretty enough.  It was actually a really expensive dress originally.  But I’m a total believer in bad mojo if I wasn’t before.

Besides that, I really was bummed that I didn’t get to do the traditional dress shopping with my mom.  Turns out it was a good thing that marriage didn’t work out, or I wouldn’t be getting married to the love of my life now.  So thank you, cursed dress.  Thank you.

Pssst! I’ve gotten married since this post went live. Want to see how shopping actually went for me? Read this post.

*The Dessy Group is an affiliate of Femme Frugality*

Lead, Water & Pittsburgh: A Mother’s Regrets

Buying bottled water is expsensive, but what if it reduced or eliminated your child's exposure to lead? Read about this Pittsburgh mother's regrets.

Since I became a mother, I’ve discovered new fears. A litany of them, actually. One of those fears when I was expecting was drinking water. I was so paranoid about water quality that I bought bottled. As a pregnant woman, I drank a lot of water. It was one of the few “luxuries” I allowed myself in those days.

After I had children, I was still concerned about it. So I continued to buy bottled, largely because I sometimes used formula with my children. (Primarily they were breastfed, but even then, what I was drinking would end up in their milk.) I didn’t use it 100% of the time, but it was still our primary source of drinking water.

After the formula and breastfeeding days were behind us, I eased up. Water and soil in Pittsburgh is surprisingly clean considering everything we’ve put our environment through until the 1980s. (Though our air quality is still suffering, despite us becoming a shining example of green-city renaissance.)

Plus, bottled water is expensive considering the stuff you get out of the tap is free. Stop drinking tap water and you likely won’t see a big dip in your bill.

Shortly after I stopped buying bottled, the organization that provides our water (PWSA) switched from treating our water with soda ash for corrosion prevention to caustic soda. They both prevent erosion to lead pipes, but which one you use is highly dependent on water chemistry.

They made the switch because it was cheaper, and they didn’t notify anyone they were doing it, including regulating authorities. It went on from April of 2014 to January of 2016. They don’t have hard data that shows lead levels are elevated, but it is a possibility.

From a completely anecdotal perspective, I know of at least one house that has tested their tap water and lead levels came back too high, but I do not know if there were any other extraneous factors at play.

During the time that the caustic soda was being used, they didn’t test for lead levels. We already have a higher rate of lead exposure than Flint, Michigan in Pittsburgh, and now all my worst paranoid worries are receiving some justification.

PWSA is bringing me a free water testing kit. But, and here’s the kicker, all I do is fill up a tube of water and then submit it back to them for testing. No third parties. No control for bias.

I’m going to have a hard time trusting it.

The point? I wish I had trusted my instincts. I wish I had blown money on bottled water for the past two years. Sure, I’d have a little less money, but I also wouldn’t be scheduling blood draws for my children.

Live in Pittsburgh and want your water tested, too? Get a free kit by calling (412) 782-7554.

Major #FrugalityChallenge Wins

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the #FrugalityChallenge, I highly recommend you check out this post, and then join us on Twitter.

For those of you who are familiar, I wanted to share some of the major wins we’ve had this year. As we strive to better our finances through saving on everyday purchases, stashing money away for retirement, and hustling like the best of them, we tend to do some amazing things.

Here are some of the amazing things we’ve done in 2016:

  • Middle Class has fully funded her IRA for the year.
  • Hannah has given birth to a gorgeous child and continued rocking it in the challenge.
  • This Wife’s Life has paid off her car loan early. (Our family did, too!)
  • Ruth has said no to some major temptations.
  • Claudia has hustled her way to an amazing side business.

Plus we have fun pictures to document our journey:

 

 

 

We’d love it if you joined us! If you have been kicking 2016’s butt analog-style sans competition, please share it in the comments. Let’s celebrate all the wins!

 

 

Already participating and I missed your big win? I’m sorry. I suck. Let me know in the comments or by shooting me an email and I’ll get you all linked up. Twitter isn’t always the best for tracking, but it sure is a fun way to keep tabs on our progress!

Around the World in 80 Books: Nigeria & New Zealand

Welcome to the next installment in my Around the World in 80 Books Challenge! It’s exactly what it sounds like: I’m trying to read 80 books from 80 different countries/cultures around the world, and to add a frugal spin, I’m trying to do it all for under $20.

Here’s my running tally so far:
$0- Library books: Russia, Norway, Sweden, Mexico, Sierra Leone, Spain
$2.75- Late fees on the book for Italy
$0- Free eBooks: Scotland, England, Portugal, Cyprus, Albania, Montenegro, Mongolia
$0- Gift: Turkey, Pakistan
$0- Won in a Giveaway: Jerusalem
$1.99- eBook: Basque Country, Japan
$0- Paid review on an interesting read: Financial Inclusion at the Bottom of the Pyramid
______________________________________

Grand Total: $6.73

Both of today’s reads were free library books, so as long as I drop them off by Wednesday, that total should stay the same. Somebody hold me accountable!

Neither the book for Nigeria or New Zealand were my favorite books ever. But they both held a certain type of power. They’re important. And I’m glad I read them both.

Head’s up: today’s post contains more spoilers than usual. So if you’re thinking about reading either title, especially The Bone People, stop here. Then come back and discuss with me when you’re done!

Nigeria

This book focused on LGBT issues in Nigeria. It’s historical fiction, and as I later found out, meant to be a Young Adult novel.

The story is set in the midst of Nigeria’s very real civil war which spanned the 60’s to the 70’s. The main character discovers her sexuality when she is sent away to become a house servant for another family in an arguably “safer” town. She’s a lesbian.

She ends up battling it her entire life, trying to hide it, submerge it, and at times, even accept it. But coming out is a very dangerous proposition. Nigeria, which this book taught me is the second most religious country in the world, still stones people and worse if they stray from the traditional Christian viewpoint of one man plus one woman is the only way God intended things.

There is death. Some of it is related to the war. Some of it is related to sexual orientation and subsequent persecution. But there is also joy. I don’t want to ruin things too much, so I won’t disclose how she finds it.

I feel like this is a very important read. According to the author, things have not gotten better for the LGBT community in Nigeria since the time period this book was set in. And, as with Sierra Leone, I had no idea that there even was a war in Nigeria until I turned the pages of this novel.

Like I said, it wasn’t my favorite book ever. There was a large portion where her mother took her through the Bible, instructing her on why her sexuality was wrong. The main character questions and tears apart the biblical verses for what they actually are instead of what they’ve been interpreted to mean.

It was an important part of the read, but being a grown adult who grew up in Christianity, I had already done this myself and arrived at similar conclusions to the main character. So it was a little bit too explanatory for my tastes. But when I found out it was meant to be a young adult novel, the extreme detail made more sense. It may be the first introduction to these concepts for the intended target audience.

It’s also really intense for a young adult novel. But again, really important. Even the part I felt was laborious to read was extremely well-written.

New Zealand

Emma from Money Can Buy Me Happiness recommended this one to me. Emma’s from New Zealand herself, and this book had won The Booker Prize in 1985.

The book was beautifully, if unconventionally written. I didn’t want to put it down once. But it was also maddening. If you want to read this book, you’ll want to stop reading this review here. Honestly, it’s probably the best read for others who have read the book.

The first thing I struggled with was that because the characters were mostly Maori, whether by blood or culture, Maori language was used throughout. I had no idea there was a glossary in the back until about half way through; until that point I was using the internet. You’d be surprised (or not) about how little there is in the way of Maori translation online.

When I discovered the glossary, it mostly helped, but I was still left confused sometimes. I struggled with it, but it doesn’t really bother me because the whole point of this challenge is to read books from other cultures. A request to translate every last phrase to my own language when its  integration was there, likely, to demonstrate something and express things that English could not or did not, feels like linguistic oppression.

But there were other things I struggled with. Like the fact that Joe was a violent child abuser, yet he was written with such empathy. Maybe there’s something wrong with me, but it’s hard for me to feel a whole lot of pity for someone who all but kills a child in a drunken rage, regardless of what happened to them when they were a child themselves.

There was the fact that mysticism was weaved throughout the story, but never explained beyond a passing mention that it was happening.

The last thing I disliked was that I had no idea what the heck was going at the end. They all get back together, and I think Kerewin marries Joe (presumably platonically?) and adopts Simon. But I have no idea why the state would allow that. Or why finding out that Simon had previously lived with heroine junkies/dealers who had drowned somehow exonerated Joe from his sins. I hated how the narrative fluidly switched to the first person part way through, as I had no idea who the first person was.

If anyone knows how the book actually ended, PLEASE TELL ME. Because I read it and I still have no idea.

But I did like the exposure to a different culture. And like I said, I couldn’t stop turning pages. Amidst my moments of confusion, there were moments I read something that seemed to touch on a distilled life truth. Like these:

“Once I had to work at horrible jobs to earn enough money to buy food to eat in order to live to work at horrible jobs to earn enough…I hated that life. So I quit. I did what my heart told me to do, and painted for a living. I didn’t earn enough to live on, but I wasn’t too unhappy, because I was loved at home and I loved what I was doing. Money was the problem…then it all changed. I won the lottery. I invested it. I earned a fortune by fast talking. And while I was busy blessing the god of munificence, the lightning came. It blasted my family, and it blasted my painting talent. I went straight out of one bind and into a worse one.”

“I am just a waste…the worst thing I bear is the knowledge that others have borne far worse distress and not buckled like this under it. They have been ennobled by their suffering, have discovered meaning and requital in loss…”

“Werahiko: We don’t want to be left out, to sit ignored in the corner, but we might as well be. All the things we’ve got to tell, years of love and life and hate. We’d be a good drink for them, a fullbodied mature wine, and look at them! Overcome by fizzy pop, lollywater brew…

………….

Marama: When they want to listen, they’ll listen. We can’t wake them up just to tell them our stories. They’re busy making their own. And in the meantime, my love, we’ve got each other.”

On Deck

what it's worth

Can’t see the title? Click here.

My friend Katie over at Activehours actually picked this up for me. Thanks, Katie!

Yes, it’s about America, but it goes into the economic adversities that those of my own race and socioeconomic background and others not of my own race and/or socioeconomic background are up against. So we’re not just looking at a homogeneous culture. We’re looking at understanding others in order to find viable solutions.

I’m already loving it. If you want to read it with me, you can get a free e-copy here.

Have a recommendation for what I should read next? Leave it in the comments! Here’s what’s already in my queue:

Canada: The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be by Farley Mowat recommeded by Messy Money
Afghanistan: The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg recommended by Savvy Working Gal
Philippines: May Day Eve and Other Stories by Nick Joaquin recommended by Guiltless Reader
Iceland: Scarcity in Excess by Arna Mathiesen & Thomas Forget
Sudan: The Wedding of Zein by Tayeb Salih recommended by Kate Wilson
Kenya: Out of Africa by Karen Blixen recommended by Christine from The Wallet Diet
China: Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie T. Chang
Ethiopia: The God Who Begat a Jakal by Nega Mezlekia recommended by Based On a True Story
French Antilles: Victoire: My Mother’s Mother by Maryse Conde recommended by Based on A True Story
Suriname: The Free Negress Elisabeth by Cynthia McLeod recommended by Based On A True Story
Costa Rica: The Ticos: Culture and Social Change in Costa Rica
France: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr recommended by Our Next Life
Germany: In the Garden of Beasts or Devil in the White City by Erik Larson recommended by Emi from AIP Around the World
Haiti: All Souls Rising by Madison Smartt Bell recommended by Tre from House of Tre
Jamaica: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James recommended by Jana of Jana Says
South Africa: Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton recommended by Emily from The John & Jane Doe Guide to Money & Investing
Australia: In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson recommended by Aaron from When Life Gives You Lemons, Add Vodka
Romania: Anything by Andre Codrescu recommended by Abigail from I Pick Up Pennies
Mali: Monique and the Mango Rains recommended by Rebecca from Stapler Confessions

Free Mother’s Day Events in Pittsburgh 2016

Free Mother's Day Events in Pittsburgh! I can't decide between #1 and #4!

Mother’s Day is coming! Seriously, it’s just over two weeks away on May 8th, 2016. Are you ready?

Here are some free Mother’s Day events in Pittsburgh for all of you in the Steel City on a budget.

The Zoo
Free admission for mom when she brings a paying child!  We did this last year for Father’s Day (same deal, only for dads,) and had a great time.
More Info

Clayton at The Frick
Free admission for mom when she brings a paying child, and a special mother’s day discount at the Museum Shop! You really need to call and make reservations on this one, though.
More Info

Run a 5k
Participate in the Mother’s Day 5k…for free! If you want to get a medal, you have to shell out $28+, but you’ll actually get two medals: one for you and one for your momma.
More Info

Race for the Cure
The Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure happens on Mother’s Day. While this would require the work of either fundraising or helping out the day of the race by volunteering your time, it could be a meaningful gesture to your mother, especially if breast cancer has touched your lives in any way.
More Info

Free Biking Event
The Cyclofemme ride happens every year on Mother’s Day, celebrating women who bike. You can do the 10-12 mile course, or opt for the shorter 3-6 mile one.
More Info

Hartwood Acres
Moms get a free tour of the mansion when another paying adult comes along on May 8, and if you feel like splurging, you can enjoy Mother’s day tea for $33/each on May 7.
More Info

World Fair Trade Day
If you’re down with celebrating on Saturday, Ten Thousand Villages is hosting a World Fair Trade Day. It’s a free event that will have live music and food sampling; last year story time was included!
More Info

How will you be celebrating your mother?  Or how do you hope to be celebrated yourself?

403(b) from a previous employer? Roll it over.

Work in the nonprofit or education sector? Here's what to do with your 403(b) after you've moved on from a job.

 

Ever wonder what to do when you leave an employer, but still have a 403(b) from your time of employment? One FF reader did! I pulled in an investing expert, Evan Powers from myFinancialAnswers, to answer this great, loaded question. While the reader is 60, Evan’s advice is great to keep in mind for anyone that works in the education or nonprofit sectors especially in our culture of increasingly transient workplaces.

I have several 403(b)s from different nonprofit jobs I’ve had. What should I do with them? I’m 60 years old.

A great question, and a timely one as well (I’ll get to the timeliness aspect shortly). Generally speaking, once you’ve left your employer, you have three options with your old retirement plan balance: leave it behind, distribute it, or roll it over. Each option has its benefits, but you’re almost always best off rolling your 403(b) assets over to an IRA account with your investment custodian of choice. There are any number of reasons why a rollover is usually the best course of action, but I’ll focus on the top four.

1. Lower Fees

Within the retirement plan landscape, 403(b) plans have long been viewed as the “Wild Wild West”, where just about anything goes—some plans are subject to ERISA regulation, but many are not, and even those plans that are governed by ERISA suffer from lax oversight and minimal employee knowledge and vigilance.

As a result, fees have generally been higher than necessary, as investment options have often focused on annuity and insurance-based products that carry high fees and may or may not suit investors’ needs (a brief history note: when 403(b) plans were first introduced, they were more commonly known as “tax-sheltered annuities” (TSAs), and annuities were the only allowable investments; that restriction was relaxed in 1974, but the focus on annuities has largely remained.)

The regulatory bodies have begun to crack down a bit on the 403(b) space in the last decade, and more scrutiny is expected from the IRS in the coming years, but that added attention won’t necessarily do anything to drive down the unnecessarily high fees that continue to plague these plans.

As an aside, even if your 403(b) plan includes a menu of low-fee mutual funds, you still could end up saving money by rolling over your funds to an IRA. That’s because in a 403(b) plan, you’ll still generally be paying some sort of catch-all administrative fee to the plan’s administrator and/or investment advisor. This administrative fee can typically be avoided entirely in an IRA, so you’ll end up ahead of the game even if you just choose to invest in the same (or similar) funds that you had owned in your 403(b).

2. Improved Investment Options

Fees aside, rolling funds over to an IRA can open up a world of new investment flexibility for you. Typically, 403(b) plans limit themselves to a small number of investment options (often heavily slanted toward annuities, as mentioned above), which limits the investor’s ability to build a customized portfolio. But in an IRA, there are few limitations on investment options, and an investor has the flexibility to invest in just about any publicly listed security (including individual stocks, which are almost never available in employer-based retirement plans).

For some investors, the increased investment flexibility can be daunting, as choice can often be paralyzing—indeed, studies have found that the more investment options an employer-based plan includes, the less money employees will contribute. Such is the paralytic power of “too many options”. But with the help of a qualified advisor, it’s easier than ever to build a coherent retirement portfolio that suits your needs and risk tolerances, at least once you’ve freed yourself from the “limited investment options” shackles. That last point leads us into our third benefit of rolling over your assets.

3. Availability of Fiduciary Advice

As promised, here begins the “timeliness” portion of our program. Just last week, the Department of Labor (DOL) issued its long-anticipated new fiduciary rule, which greatly expands the definition of which actions require stockbrokers and other investment advisors to act solely in the “best interests” of investors or clients. This new rule is aimed most directly at IRA plans, protecting investors who had previously been subject to the whims of brokers who may or may not have been operating under some serious conflicts of interest.

Under the new DOL rule, a recommendation from an advisor to roll assets into an IRA automatically triggers the fiduciary standard, which means that the advisor is henceforth required to act solely in the investor’s best interest. For many investors, that means that rolling assets into an IRA can provide more protection than they had in their employer-based plans. That’s particularly true with 403(b) plans—while an increasing number of 403(b) plans are choosing to work with fiduciary advisors, it’s still the minority, and a large number of 403(b) plans remain exempt from fiduciary requirements, even after the passage of the new DOL guidelines.

So, moving your assets over to an IRA could ensure that you’re getting better advice on your retirement investment options. However, be aware that the fiduciary protection that’s promised by the new rules won’t fully take effect until mid-2017, so you’ll have to be careful who you engage with in the meantime.

4. Simplicity of Management

Finally, rolling several accounts into one will make managing your financial life easier. You’ll be able to better coordinate your various investments when changes to your portfolio are necessary, and life will be much simpler when it comes time to begin making required distributions (RMDs). Instead of having to withdraw money from several plans, you’ll only have one big “master” account to worry about, which makes the overall management much more streamlined.

Rolling your assets into an IRA could also potentially have benefits for your heirs if you have assets left over when you pass away—most 403(b) balances are required to be distributed in one immediate lump sum, but IRAs can generally be distributed to your heirs over a number of years.

Other Considerations When Rolling Over Your 403(b)

Depending on your current and expected future tax rates, a Roth IRA conversion might make sense, at least on some portion of your retirement assets. Such a conversion is typically not available within a 403(b) plan, and only becomes possible once your funds have been rolled into an IRA. That said, understanding the pros and cons of a Roth conversion strategy will almost certainly require contacting an investment advisor, which you may or may not be willing to do.

Also, there are some drawbacks to consider when rolling from a 403(b) to an IRA. One of the major reasons not to roll to an IRA is the potential loss of protection against lawsuits and bankruptcies. While 403(b) and 401(k) assets are almost always protected against claims, IRA assets might not be (the protected amount is usually capped just north of $1 million in assets.) The laws regarding IRAs can vary widely by state, so it’s probably worth a quick call to a local attorney to see what the specific rules and protections are in your location.

Secondly—and this one won’t apply to you since you’ve already passed the magic age 59-1/2 barrier—rolling assets out to an IRA can sometimes eliminate the potential to qualify for “early withdrawal” exceptions. Under those exceptions, employees can often make withdrawals from their 403(b) or 401(k) as early as age 55 without paying the usual 10% penalty, but that ability does not exist for IRA investments.

One final wrinkle: if you don’t anticipate needing your retirement funds any time soon—and if you’ve held your 403(b) accounts for a long time—then a portion of your assets may be eligible for a delay in required distributions, which also disappears once assets are rolled into an IRA. However, that benefit is such a specific and minor one that it’s rarely a reason by itself to overwhelm the benefits of a rollover.

On balance, the benefits of rolling over your 403(b) balances almost always outweigh any potential costs. However, if you have a limited investment background and won’t be comfortable making investment decisions on your own, it’s best to contact a qualified investment advisor (preferably a Registered Investment Adviser operating under the fiduciary standard) for guidance.

 

 

Evan Powers, CFP® writes about personal finance, investing, and retirement planning for myFinancialAnswers and Seeking Alpha. A Harvard graduate with an MBA from the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, Evan spent a decade as an active derivatives trader and fund manager before making a shift into comprehensive financial planning. He is a Senior Advisor with Cypress Financial Planning, LLC, and he enjoys working with clients out of the firm’s Charlottesville, Virginia office.

I estimated quarterly taxes. Here’s what happened.

Figuring out your predicted income for your estimated quarterly taxes can be a guessing game. Click to see how I did for 2015, and what I plan to change for 2016.

Last year I started paying estimated quarterly taxes for the first time. I laid it all out, and decided that I’d pay even though the IRS’s worksheet said I didn’t have to.

I was a little nervous about what was going to happen this Spring. Would I owe a ton of money? Would I get a ton of money back? All of my figures were based on guess work since our income is so variable. Anything could happen.

Income Results

As I was figuring out my estimated quarterly taxes for this year, I went back to my paperwork from last year to see how I had figured everything out. It turns out, my shot-in-the dark assumption for income was only $1,000 off….not bad! I used the same process to predict this year’s income; we’ll see how things pan out for 2016 tax season.

Estimated Quarterly Taxes Results: Federal

When I filed this year, I got a decent size check back from the Federal government. This was after paying for taking too much of a subsidy with our health insurance. (I should probably do my IRS income predictions earlier in the year so I can use it for my marketplace application, where I always seem to underestimate our income.)

That was a nice surprise, though if I had not been making those quarterly payments, we would have owed.

Estimated Quarterly Taxes Results: State

State was the worst. I used the same number to figure out my state taxes, but did take into account the taxes withheld from my employer for my day job…which dried up suddenly last Fall. So I owed over $100.

Estimated Quarterly Taxes Results: Local

My local taxes had the best formula to help you figure out how much you’d owe. They have you do the exact math quarterly. Best. System. Ever.

I’m getting a negligible refund from them. I was extremely close to having paid exactly the right amount.

Paying in 2016

This year I used the same formula to figure out how much we might make in 2016, adjusted my formula for our state tax burden and wrote some pretty massive checks. That’s the thing about increasing your income, especially when you’re a freelancer: those tax checks get painful to pay.

I’m choosing to think about all the good things that my taxes might be paying for to get over the psychological gut punch. Though it would be pretty cool if we could only pay for the portion of the budget we supported like Maggie Gyllenhaal tried to do in Stranger than Fiction.

LEGO® Kidsfest: Awesome and Affordable

This past weekend we went to LEGO® Kidsfest. It’s been something we’ve been looking forward to for a long time. We’ve been looking forward to it so much that we were willing to make the four-hour-each-way drive to Harrisburg a day trip.

It was so worth every ounce of anticipation. And every mile driven.

We have a kiddo who needs a little extra help, and the staff both at the Farm Show Complex and the event itself were first class. They let us go in a couple minutes early to alleviate any inconveniences for our family. You don’t find appropriate accommodations everywhere you go; it felt fantastic to not only have our needs met, but to have them met with smiling, welcoming faces by people who went out of their way to show us around and make themselves available throughout the day.

It also allowed us to have a pretty cool view of this:

Kids going crazy as they enter LEGO Kidsfest PA.

After they are done explaining all the cool things to do, they let everyone in the “line” run into the displays and expositions. The joy and unbridled enthusiasm of all those kids was an awesome thing to see.

Other awesome things we saw? Life-size LEGO brick versions of Lightning McQueen, Marvel superheroes, Disney princesses, and Star Wars characters amongst others.

lego kidsfest pa

There were tons of castles, an elven fairyland that lit up and moved, and an awesome map of the US built up with 3D landmarks.

lego elves

There weren’t just opportunities to view, though. There were opportunities to build. We built and raced our own cars. We made shields at the Nexo Knights station.

kidsfest nexo knights

We sat in this giant pile of LEGO bricks as we experimented and played.

lego brick pile

There was even a display case for the kids’ creations.

Lego Kidsfest Display Case

We got to check out the new Santoki LEGO Stationary, too. They have pens, erasers, pencils, markers, rulers, and even journals that you can literally build on. They’re pretty dang cool. I’m now the proud owner of two of their pens:

santoki LEGO Stationary

I learned some interesting facts, too. Did you know there are only three LEGO Masterbuilders in the entire world? Two of them were at the event in Harrisburg! You could sign up for sessions with them, but my kids were regrettably a little too young to sit for them.

star wars lego kidsfest

There were also opportunities to play video games and watch Cartoon Network on a giant TV surrounded by LEGO creations; both of these our attention span was too short for.

But at the price, $19-$22 depending on the session time, there’s no need for FOMO. We can come back in subsequent years, and have a whole other experience without going broke. That’s what I loved most, I think. At a reasonable price, they held back no punches, and really gave a value-packed, age-appropriate experience to such a wide range of children.

 

Have you even been to a LEGO event? Would love to hear about it in the comments!

 

 

*In order to write this post, I was provided with free tickets and stationary products.*

What to Look for on Campus Tours

 

Don't get sucked into campus tours that show off glitz and glam; they're likely spending your tuition dollars irresponsibly. Ask these questions instead.The cost of education isn’t going anywhere but up, up, up.  Yet, when you’re a high school senior, the idea of touring expensive-to-maintain campuses that may put you in debt for the rest of your life is romanticized.  Nothing’s wrong with the campus being nice and up-to-date, but it’s important to know which areas to fall in love with to ensure you, personally, are getting the most bang for your buck over the  next four years.

Here are the top three things to look for as you’re visiting different colleges for campus tours:

  1. The Financial Aid Office.  I don’t care how pretty it is or how storied the history of the building is.  I care about how the people working behind those desks are treating me.  Do they seem ready to help me or ready to get me out of their hair?  Can they provide me with a list of scholarships–both internal and external without simply referring me to FastWeb?  Are they willing to understand my specific situation, or do they just cut me off and fill in my blank incorrectly without listening?  These people are going to be the ones affecting your finances for the rest of your life, so make sure they are good at their job.  Go visit them outside of a guided tour when smiles might be feigned.  Going without your parents is also a good way to see how they work in a candid situation.
  2. Facilities for Your Major.  If your philosophy class is in a shack, it probably won’t matter unless you’re a philosophy major who doesn’t like drafts.  If you’re majoring in electric engineering and the university has you studying everything out of a textbook, you may have a problem.  Certain majors lend themselves to being studied hands on, and that requires facilities. Assuming you researched the program before you decided to tour the campus, the facilities are probably right in line with what you were expecting.  The important thing to keep in perspective here is that these facilities are going to be a lot more important than a sweet dorm room.
  3. The Cafeteria.  The cafeteria in and of itself isn’t a deal breaker for a school (or at least shouldn’t be.)  What should be considered is the cost of the school’s meal plan and if you’ll actually like and use it.  Meal plans can save money, but not if you’re going out spending your money on other food because your fare isn’t edible or desirable.  So while you’re touring campus, ask to see the cafeteria, ask what the different meal plans offer, and sit down to actually try the food before purchasing a plan for the entire school year.

It’s easy to get distracted by mega stadiums (which may be important to you if you’re a student athlete, but otherwise shouldn’t effect your educational decisions.)  It’s easy to get distracted by gorgeous dorms.  It’s easy to get distracted by a place’s history and “feel” or vibe.

Try to remember that the vibe is very expensive, the mega stadiums won’t guarantee you a job after graduation, and a bed is just a place to sleep.  Instead, focus your touring efforts on the places that are likely to save you unnecessary spending or give you a good return on your financial investment in your education.

25 Free Things to Do In San Diego

Want to save money on your next trip to America's Finest City? Check out this list of 25 free things to do while in San Diego. They'll keep you so busy you won't have time to spend money!

San Diego. Warm weather year round. Gorgeous beaches. Culture. It’s a place I’m very excited to visit later this year, but, as with most of my trips, I’m all about doing it on a budget.

Whether you’re headed there for a family vacation or #FinCon16, there’s no shortage of budget-friendly things to do. For everything the city has to offer, it’s actually an affordable destination when compared to other cities on the Californian coast.

Here are 25 FREE things to do in San Diego on your next visit:

Arts & Culture

1. Museum of Contemporary Art

With locations in San Diego and La Jolla, the Museum of Contemporary Art is great for families or young adults. That’s because in an effort to encourage youth participation in the modern art scene, this attraction is free for those 25 and under. (Just bring your ID if you’re not obviously a child.)

Other people that get free or discounted admission include:

  • Military members and their family (FREE)
  • Students age 26 and older ($5)
  • Seniors ($5)

Just be sure to bring the appropriate ID if you fall into any of these categories. Regular admission is $10.

2. Celebrate the Greatest Generation

Not too far from the Museum of Contemporary Art is an outdoor art installation honoring military history. The Greatest Generation Art Collection is located amidst other military memorials in Tuna Harbor Park. You can download a PDF for a walking, guided tour here.

3. Art in the Park

On the first and third Sunday of every month, the Coronado Art Association hosts Art in the Park at Spreckels Park. All artists are local, have been carefully curated by the Coronado Art Association and are present to talk about their pieces with the public.

4. International Cottages’ Lawn Program

Every Sunday from 2p-3p through early December, The House of Pacific Relations hosts a multicultural event including ethnic food, music, dancing, traditional costumes, arts and crafts. The organizations owns 33 cottages, each representing a different country/culture from around the world. For these Sunday events, each house takes turns. For example, here are the countries that will be featured in mid-late September:

  • September 18- House of Mexico
  • September 25- House of Germany

If you’re visiting any other time of year, be sure to check out the full schedule so you can see which country will be featured during your visit.

5. California Surf Museum

Founded by a resident who didn’t want to see the early days of surfing go forgotten, the California Surf Museum preserves boards, trophies, photos and other memorabilia for a truly one-of-a-kind experience.

The first Tuesday of every month is free to everyone, but prices aren’t too bad should you choose to come any other time:

  • Adults- $5
  • Military members, students, and those older than 62- $3
  • Children under 12- Free. Always.

6. Contemporary Art at the University of California San Diego

Want to see art like you’ve never seen it before? Go on this fun, self-guided tour of the numerous contemporary art pieces on display around UCSD’s campus. The Stuart Collection has a downloadable app to show you around, so you won’t even have to bust out the printer.

7. Queen Califia’s Magical Circle

Queen Califia’s Magical Circle is a sculpture garden created by the late Niki de Saint Phalle. Each sculpture is inspired by  Native American, Mexican and Pre-Columbian art. This fantastic art display is free to the public and open from 9a-12p on the second Saturday of every month, weather permitting.

8. Visit the Chicano Murals in Barrio Logan

You can’t talk about San Diego without looking at the contributions of the Hispanic community. Founded by activists in the 1970s, Chicano Park in Barrio Logan celebrates this culture through art. In fact, the entire neighborhood is experiencing a revival, and on top of the free-to-view murals, you’ll be able to stop in a lot of design studios that are a result of and boosting the revival.

9. Take a Living History Tour

Want to see what San Diego looked like when it was first established? How about what it felt like? You can do exactly that with free living history tours in Old Town Wednesdays through Sundays at 11am and 2 pm. Original and restored buildings line the streets of this 12-acre area where Mexican history is brought to life.

10. Ray at Night

Ray at Night is a monthly arts festival with gallery crawls, live music, food that’s so good it’s considered art and craft vendors. This free event happens the second Saturday of every month from 6p-10p at Ray Street and University Avenue in North Park.

Outdoor Life

11. Beaches

There are over 30 beaches in San Diego, including two that are consistently rated as top beaches in the entire country: La Jolla and Coronado. (For FinCon-ers, Coronado will be closer to the hotel.)

The other two that will be closest to our location will be:

  • Point Loma Beaches- Instead of sand, think rocky reefs and breathtaking cliffs overlooking the surf.
  • Ocean Beach- Ideal for surfing, swimming, sun bathing and dog owners. This one is, in fact, sandy.

That’s three, but like I said, there are 30. To find the one that’s perfect for your trip, be sure to explore more here.

12. Get Schooled in Fly Fishing

Ever wanted to learn how to go fly fishing? This is your big chance. Every Sunday at 9a, San Diego Fly Fishers hosts a free clinic at Lake Murray. It’s free, and there’s no reason to fret if you don’t have your own equipment. You can borrow some from the instructor.

13. Mission Bay Park

Mission Bay Park is  a 4,600 acre park graced by 27 miles of seashore. It’s also home to more than 20 miles of scenic paths that are perfect for biking, hiking or jogging, and lots of space to barbecue or take a picnic.

Word to the wise: parking here fills up quickly in the summer months!

14. Mission Trails Regional Park

If you thought Mission Bay Park sounded huge, wait until you hear the square acreage of Mission Trails: 5,800 acres! It doesn’t touch the ocean, but there’s no shortage of things to do. There’s a mountain to climb, trails to bike (or hike,) faces to rock climb, vistas to view, a river and two lakes to play in, and a massive visitor’s center to tour.

The visitor’s center focuses on both the geological history of the area, and also the history of the Kumeyaay Native Americans who call this region home. As with everything else on this list, it’s completely free.

15. You’re allowed to skateboard.

Aside from skate parks, there’s so few places you’re actually allowed to skateboard where I’m from. Not so on the West Coast! The Mission Beach and Pacific Beach boardwalk welcome the activity, along with rollerblading and biking.

16. Torrey Pines State Reserve

The Torrey Pines State Reserve exists to protect the United States’ rarest pine tree: the Torrey Pine. It also protects a salt marsh and waterfowl refuge, which are hard to come by anymore in southern California.

The reserve has trails to explore and guided tours, but there are some restrictions because of the reserve’s mission. Be sure to check them out before you make your trip.

Also, there’s a golf course.

17. Go Scuba Diving

Scuba diving and snorkeling can be magnificent at La Jolla Shores. You can also kayak, or chill around one of the numerous beach fires at night. Bring  your own gear to make this activity 100% free.

Nearby is Children’s Cove. It was originally set up to be a safe place for kids to swim, but now sea lions and seals use it to protect their own young.

18. Check out the Longest Wooden Pier in the West

Located in Oceanside Harbor, the historic Oceanside Municipal Pier is 1,942 feet long, and perfect for long walks or fishing.

19. Birds, Birds, Birds

Into bird watching? Or want to be? The Nature Center at the San Elijio Lagoon Conservancy offers free, guided walks every Saturday from 10-11a and amazing Family Fun Days where kids can learn more about nature and the local ecosystem in a hands-on environment on the first Sunday of every month from 11:30a-1:30p.

20. Tide Pools

Have you ever checked out a tidepool at low tide? If not, you totally should. It’s amazing to watch all the creatures that call these natural enclaves home, and much easier to do when the water’s low. The reef that makes La Jolla Shores so great for snorkeling also makes this a perfect place to observe the abundant ocean life when the tide’s gone out.

Entertainment

21. The Headquarters at Seaport

This one has the potential to be a little dangerous as The Headquarters is a shopping hub, but they do have free entertainment on the weekends! It is also home to the Police Museum, as it is the old police headquarters. Admission is free, and you can take selfies in an old, 1939 jail cell block.

22. Stargazing

You  may remember that the husband and I went on a super cheap date night, including a free tour and stargazing session at our local observatory.

I’ve been telling you this happens across the country, and I’m here to tell you again! On the first Wednesday of every month, you can attend Gazin’ With the Experts at Balboa Park for F-R-E-E at the dark sky observatory complex.

23. Listen to the 101-Year-Old Organ

Every Sunday starting 2p, there is an outdoor organ concert in Balboa Park. The organ, which just happens to be the second largest in the world, was gifted to the city in 1915, and is still going strong 101 years later!

If you visit during the summer, there are also concerts on Monday evenings featuring not just the organ, but also live art demonstrations and silent movies.

24. Tour the US Olympic Training Center

The first warm-weather Olympic Training Center was built in San Diego and is still actively used to this day. You can go on a free-guided tour every Saturday at 11, or guide yourself around during any other hours they are open with maps from the Visitor’s Center.

25. Go Ohm

The Self-Realization Fellowship Temple and Ashram Center was founded in the 1930s by the great Paramahansa Yogananda, who introduced the Western world to the concept of self-realization through meditation. This is actually the site where he wrote Autobiography of a Yogi. You can attend lectures, pray or meditate here or at their gardens during any hours that they are open. And they’re open almost all of the hours!

Know of any other free things to do in San Diego that should be added to the list? Share them in the comments below!

 

 

 

This post is in collaboration with SDTA.

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