The Ultimate Frugal Pittsburgh Tourist Guide

If you have a minute before or after this read, I’d appreciate it times a thousand if you could nominate me for a Plutus Award for Best-Kept Secret Personal Finance Blog.  If you’re not a major PF nerd or just don’t know what the Plutus Awards are, they’re awards given out to personal finance bloggers anually.  This is the first year I’m putting my name out there, and your vote would mean a ton!  Now on to the post!  Today’s is one I’m particularly excited about!

A couple of weeks ago I got something up for people who are moving to Pittsburgh.  After that post went live, I got a bunch of reader requests for a Pittsburgh Tourist guide.  Knowing me, you know it had to include ways to save money!  I reached out to some of my fellow Pittsburgh bloggers, and we’ve put together this pretty comprehensive series about all the great things to do when you visit our city.  We’ve got so much information, this is going to be a multi-part post series!  Check back on Monday for even more ideas of what to do when you come to visit our beautiful city.

The Inclines with Femme

The two inclines of Pittsburgh are a must-see.  Figure out which one makes more sense for your budget and travel goals.

If you’re coming to Pittsburgh, you need to see the inclines of Mt. Washington.  There are two of them, and they date back to the 1870s.  There used to be 15+, but as the need for this type of transportation up the mountain ebbed, more and more were shut down.

The Monongahela Incline is actually older, dating to the year 1870.  It’s the oldest surviving in operation in the country, actually.  This one is a bit cheaper to ride, and is regularly used as public transportation by city residents.  At the bottom, you can go to Station Square (a shopping center, and, at night, a night life scene,) catch the T (our rail system that runs through the city into the southern suburbs,) or walk across the Smithfield Street Bridge into downtown.  At the top is Mt. Washington, a neighborhood that boasts some of the best city views in the world.  There are overlooks to take it all in, and a small shopping district on Shiloh Street right at the top.  When I say shopping, I mostly mean food.  There’s an ice cream shop, bakery, beer/hot dog shop, the Shiloh Grill, Redbeard’s and a couple other places to grab some eats. At night there are a few neighborhood bars, too, mostly all located on this street.  If you want to do the inclines on a budget, the Mon Incline is definitely the way to go.

One mile down Grandview Ave., the touristy main drag, there’s the Duquesne Incline.  It’s actually a few years younger, built in 1877, but it’s not as widely used as transport.  It was in threat of being shut down at one point, so an organization stepped in and maintains it.  (Both inclines are National Historic Places.)  It’s more of a tourist thing.  The bottom empties into a parking lot with a much longer hike to the other end of Station Square.  You could walk across the Ft. Pitt Bridge to The Point, but the initial trek along 376 to do so can be treacherous, especially if you have kids in tow.  The cost to ride is higher, too.

But you’re rewarded with what I would argue are even better views at the top.  After you pass through the gift shop (something the other incline doesn’t have,) turn right on Grandview and walk a block up the hill to the statue of my boy George Washington and Guyasuta.  You have a head-on view of the city and our three rivers; it’s absolutely breathtaking.  There’s also a trail to hike there as it’s a part of Emerald View Park.  Other entertainment at the top is really only high-end restaurants.  They’re FANTASTIC, are incredibly romantic, and all have out-of-this-world views, but are going to cost you a pretty penny.  A good way to save is to go at lunch time.  The Coal Hill Steakhouse offers relatively affordable fare at this time (think ~$20-ish a meal.)  As far as I’m aware they’re the only one that still offers lunch options.  You can’t take kids under six there, though, and kids under ten aren’t allowed on the patio.

The Point With Chatón Turner

Find out Chaton's favorite Pittsburgh spot.  It comes with a dash of social entrepreneurship.

Visiting the Point is a great thing to do with first time visitors to Pittsburgh. It’s free and AMAZING! It’s almost like we have a great big geyser in the middle of downtown. You have to see it to believe it. You can grab an ice cream at Dream Cream Ice Cream downtown and walk to the Point. It’s a great way to kill a couple of hours and it’s family friendly!

Free, Water-Focused Outdoor Spaces with
Stephanie of When Crazy Meets Exhaustion

The Water Steps in the North Shore Riverfront Park: I actually had one of my first dates with my now-husband here! It’s great for a little romantic time, or fun with the kids!

The Point: the gorgeous fountain and its surrounding walking/running/biking trails make for a stunning photo opp, but more importantly, a beautifully relaxing way to spend an afternoon. Rent a kayak or enjoy the green space and a picnic. Whatever you choose, you won’t be disappointed: nestled away from the hustle and bustle, the Point is sure to please everyone!

The water fountain in Station Square dances to music and lights at night, and beckons to visitors during the day. Cool off the mist, grab a bite to eat at one of the many surrounding restaurants and bars, or do some shopping in nearby shops and boutiques.

The great thing about each of these water features is they are all FREE! If you’re visiting on a hot summer’s day, you don’t want to miss Pittsburgh’s water!

PNC Park with Ashley Bergman from Ashley Park Avenue

Learn all the insider tips to save money on your next trip to a Pittsburgh Pirates game with Ashley Bergman!

As a Mom of three boys and currently two months away from my DIY wedding, I am always looking for the best deals, now more than ever! Pittsburgh, unlike most big cities, is one of the most affordable and family friendly around if you are on a budget. Pittsburgh offers free movies in the park, free days at the Carnegie Museums and not to mention the numerous free festivals Pittsburgh has every summer, did someone say Picklefest?

My favorite frugal thing to do is go to PNC Park and see a baseball game. In any other city going to a baseball game could get pricey but in Pittsburgh, if you follow my tips and tricks, you can get away with going to a game on the cheap and score some free stuff! So how do I do it?

The first thing is parking, this is always the most expensive part of my trips to Pirates games, my tip is get to the game early and park in a parking garage for $9-12.

Next is tickets, always look online for deals on tickets sometimes the Pirates offer deals based on how many runs were scored that week. I’ve seen tickets as low as $8 each. I buy my tickets right from the Pirates website and last year since we bought a good number of tickets the Pirates Marketing staff offered us a free private tour of PNC Park which was awesome! We always get the “cheap seats” which are in the bleachers in the outfield but the view is amazing (any seat in PNC Park has a great view) and you get the chance to catch a fly ball or have Starling Marte throw a ball to you. (Femme’s Note: Be sure to check out the Bucaroos Kids’ Club if you have children, too!  Tons of freebies in there, including tix!)

Okay so you are parked and have a ticket, but how do you eat on a budget at a ballpark? Go to Bucaroos by the gift shop. It is designed with kids in mind and serves what they call a smaller portion but it’s is pretty much the same size as the more expensive places but at more than half the price as other vendors. The quality is the same and even if you have to get seconds it is still cheaper than anywhere else in the park. My fiance and I got two orders of chicken fries, a slice a pizza, a pretzel, nachos and two small drinks for under $15! The Pirates also sell tickets that include food and drinks as well. (Savings Tip: Dont buy alcohol at a game, that is where the cost starts adding up.)

Now here is my favorite part: the free stuff! At every game there are usually three ways to score free souvenirs and here is how. If you use Twitter and get to the game early you can visit the Social Media Kiosk by the left field escalators, all you have to do is stand in line and Tweet and you get something free, it could be a tote bag, magnet, hat, and autographed baseball or even game tickets! FREE! The next way to score free swag is to register for a Pirates Rally Pass, also free, you will get a Rally Pass Card and having your card earns you a free spin on the prize wheel, again the prizes range from free tickets to simple things like tote bags and magnets. You can spin for free stuff every time you go to a game and once a month online. The last way to score free souvenirs is to sign up at booths they have at every game, I got a really nice Pirates drawstring backpack just for signing up for free at a car dealers tent. They sent me one thing in the mail and left me alone. I use my backpack all the time now! You can also go to the games on free shirt Friday (tickets are more expensive these days usually) and you can always save your program too!

Other tips:

  • Get to the game early and take your own pictures to frame at home and show off, explore the park and river side, enjoy free live music outside of the park
  • Sundays are Kids Days and kids get to run the bases after the game and they have inflatables for the kids to play on
  • Always wear layers and bring a poncho or umbrella, Pittsburgh sometimes goes through all four seasons in one game so be prepared.

For more ways to save at PNC Park check their website for promotional deals and their schedule of special events and for more free events and ways to save visit me at Ashely Park Avenue and on Twitter @AshleyParkAve!

 

That’s it for this first edition, but don’t worry; we have more coming your way Monday from other great area bloggers!  Also, be sure to check out our Pittsburgh Love Pinterest board for more fun ideas and general Pittsburgh-ness.  If you’re a Pittsburgh-area blogger who has some more ideas for our guide, don’t hesitate to contact me to contribute!

*Part of Financially Savvy Saturdays on brokeGIRLrich, A Disease Called Debt and Femme Frugality*

Party At Our House (We Did It Too!)

baropen

Although the wedding day has come and gone, the wedding posts don’t stop!  Brian and I just celebrated our 4-month anniversary—officially surpassing some extremely short celebrity marriages—and we still haven’t finished all the left over liquor, wine, and beer from the wedding.

What we planned: We used a combination of websites including TheKnot, A Practical Wedding, and Party Source as well as tips from previous brides and grooms to calculate how much we needed.  We unfortunately did not have assistance from our caterer with this although many couples we spoke to did. When we started sending out invitations for the wedding, our guest list was pushing 160 so we felt safer planning our liquor for 150 people since some estimates seemed extremely low (Party Source’s liquor would have been waaaaay off for us).  We did remember to factor in children, elderly, and those who did not drink.  We kept our timeline to the 5 hour time span at the venue for planning (if you’re hosting an after party at the hotel, you may want to include that extra time).

Elizabeth Anne Studios In reality: We probably should’ve taken the hint when the liquor store asked us how often we made trips to buy liquor and wine!  When the final tally on guests came in, we landed at our magical number of 125 which worked wonderfully with our catering budget.  On the day of, we lost a few more people to illness and were down to about 120.  Our wedding started a bit early (apologies to the venue as most of the guests headed straight there!) and since it was also the St. Patrick’s Day celebration in Pittsburgh, we continued to party after in the hotel.  We also highly encouraged people to drink our three specialty candy drinks (homemade and super easy!) and Apple Pi shots at 9:27:53pm (get it? 3.141592753)

Here are the stats:

KEB Liquor Chart

 

Wedding Photography // Elizabeth Anne Studios

It’s Getting Sunshiny Up In Here!

Finding happiness where you once found complaints.I don’t know that I’m always a sunshiny person.  I try to be.  But I know myself well enough to recognize that the realist in me makes me skeptical, analytical, and that doesn’t always come across as optimistic.

So when Kay nominated me for a Sunshine Blogger Award, I was a little shocked.  And then I read why:

Femme is mysterious. Femme is fabulous! She loves her hometown (Pittsburgh) so much and loves to share its wonderfulness with everyone! I love that about her. She doesn’t whine and pi$$ and moan about what’s wrong with her hometown, she promotes what she loves about it! I think we could all learn a lot from Femme, especially when it comes to gratitude and positivity. What can I say? Love that Femme!”

After I blushed, I realized that it’s true.  I love my hometown.  It wasn’t always that way.  I kind of despised it while I was growing up.  Then I moved around a little bit as an adult, and got grateful real quick.  I lived places that had culture, but were dangerous as all heck.  I lived places that were insanely safe, but had such a one-dimensional culture I almost lost my mind.  Then I came back to Pittsburgh, kissed the ground, and learned to overlook the quirks that used to be the fodder for rants.

Kay is super sunshiny period.  She’s always upbeat, always funny, and always giving.  Sincerely thank her for the nomination!

The way this works is I answer some questions she posed to me, and then I nominate some other bloggers and ask them some questions.  We’ll spread the sunshine around!  Here are Kay’s questions, and my responses:

What is the best thing that has happened to you so far in 2015?

Honestly, 2015 has been a year of duality.  Good things have happened, but the consequences of those things have been both positive and negative.  (Are you sure you still want to nominate me for this one, Kay? :p)

That’s life, though.  Good things are coupled with bad.  If I had to pick the best thing that has happened, it would probably be seeing the progress my kids have made.  It’s one thing that brings me such joy, untainted by any negativity.

How old were you when you left home for good and why?

I was seventeen.  The why is something I’m private about even in my personal life.  I also graduated high school when I was seventeen, though, to give you a rough idea of the time frame there.

What’s your favorite time of day and why?

Depends on the day.  We keep things exciting around here, and there are hardly any two that are the same!  I’m probably at peak perkiness between noon and three, though.

Who is your favorite celebrity crush of all time?

For a long time it was Orlando Bloom.  Then it was Robert Downey, Jr.  post-drugs and all that other mess.  Now…I’m not really sure.  People are people regardless of how much attention they get from others.  Regardless of how much money they make or how many pictures we see of them.  Celebrity doesn’t enamor me as much as it once did.

If you could live the life of anyone in the world for just one day, who would it be?

This is going to sound odd, but I’d be one of my kids.  I’d love to know what’s actually going through their little brains.  Plus it would be pretty cool to experience the magic and innocence that comes with being a child again.

I’m assuming we’re going Freaky Friday on this, and not Wife Swap.

Nominations

This is the part that typically keeps me from participating in these types of awards.  I have a hard time limiting my selections to just a few bloggers, and feel like a jerk for leaving some out.  I’m going to push forward this time, though!  Here are my nominations:

Kylie Travers- Kylie is an amazing woman.  She’s been through a lot of tough times over the past few years, but rather than shutting down or keeping all these difficult things to herself, she’s battled through them and overcome.  Not only that, but she uses her voice to inspire and help others.  She makes a difference in this world in a big way.

Joyce from My Stay at Home Adventures- Joyce is always upbeat and positive as she and her family build their way to a financially secure life.  She’s always there to help a friend, and her goal is to inspire and help her readership as they make their own financial journeys.

Meredith from The Mom of the Year- Meredith is another fantastic friend and blogger.  She writes about motherhood not from a “This is how to do it,” perspective, but from an honest, real perspective.  Her posts have been a major thing that helps me know I’m not alone in this crazy journey!

Cat from Budget Blonde-  Cat is an amazing blogger friend, as well.  She teaches others the ropes (seriously, if you’ve ever considered freelancing, check out this post,) hustles and provides for her own family, and still finds even more ways to give back to the community.  Even through challenges, she seems to be able to find the sunshine.

And my questions for the four:

1.)  What obstacle are you the proudest of overcoming?  Where did you draw the strength to do so?

2. ) If money were no object, what would your daily routine look like?

3.)  Who has been your biggest role model?

4.)  What’s your numero uno money tip to the masses?

5.) What’s the one thing you don’t feel guilty splurging on?

 

Here are the technicalities should you choose to participate!

Thank the person that nominated you.
Answer the questions from the person that nominated you.
Nominate some other bloggers for this award.
Write the same amount of questions for the bloggers you have nominated.
Notify the bloggers you have nominated.

 

Happy Monday, everyone!  I hope it’s a sunshiny one for you all.

What to Do About Your Rising Energy Bills This Summer

Energy prices went way up this summer.  Check out these tips to shave those numbers down.

Many Pittsburgh-area households received an unwelcome surprise in their mailbox this month: energy bills that were up to 35% higher. If you are a West Penn Power customer, the average monthly electricity bill increased $32, from $92.47 to $124.42.

What’s behind this painful bill? For starters, for the first time in twenty years, West Penn Power increased the distribution rates and fixed charges that all customers pay to have their electricity delivered. At the same time, the price that West Penn Power charged its customers for the actual energy they consume, called supply, skyrocketed. Unfortunately, July is the month when all of these recent rate increases hit your energy bills.

Check out the graphic below to see how these increases break down for a typical household that uses 1,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity a month.

Did your energy bills go up this summer?  Check out why, and what you can do about it.

 

Your Energy Choices
What you may not know is that you can take control over a significant portion of your energy bills: the rate you pay for the supply portion of your bill. That means that when bills jump up as they did this summer, you can switch to a competitive energy supplier and potentially save yourself hundreds of dollars per year on your electricity bill, if you shop smart.

Before you start shopping, it helps to understand your options. And options you have: from fixed rates to variable rates, short term to long term, the choices can start to add up. Here are a few of the key things you should know when shopping for an energy plan:

Your Price to Compare. The price to compare, or PTC, represents how much you would pay your utility for each kilowatt hour of electricity you use. This information can always be found on your utility bill–utilities are required to disclose it–and will help you understand how much you can save by switching to a new plan. The current West Penn Power Price to Compare for residential customers is 7.311 cents per kilowatt hour through the end of August. This rate increased from 5.331 to 7.311 cents per kWh on June 1.

Short term vs. long term contracts. You can find plans that last as little as three months or as long as 36 months. Shorter term plans often offer lower rates, but you risk rolling on to a higher priced plan at the end of the term. The longer term plans provide peace of mind from locking in stable, predictable prices. But make sure you’re ready to commit for the long term: these plans can come with hefty early cancellation fees.

Fixed vs. variable rate. Selecting a fixed rate plan means that you’ll pay the same rate for your electricity for the duration of the plan. Many people favor these plans due to their predictability: the rate you pay for your electricity won’t change from month to month. Some suppliers also offer variable rate plans, which means that the price you pay for your electricity varies month to month based on the market price. You may get a great deal on rates when market prices are low, but beware, you’ll be on the hook if rates suddenly skyrocket.

Renewable energy options. When you buy your power from a retail supplier, you also have the choice to purchase renewable energy plans. For West Penn Power customers, this typically means you’ll be buying your power from wind farms–helping to reduce global climate change with no effort on your part. The best part: sometimes, these plans can even be cheaper than the price to compare.
Energy shopping can be confusing, but knowing a thing or two about your options before getting started makes a big difference. Choose Energy can help you select an affordable plan that will lessen the sticker shock of this summer’s bill increase.

 

 

*This post is made possible and contributed by Choose Energy.*

How to Save Money Raising a Child

With the average cost of child rearing at $245,340, you need to know how to save money raising a child. Insurance, housing, clothing tips and more.

The average cost of raising a child to age 18, as of 2013, is $245,340.  Or $304,480 if you adjust for inflation.

Is that the last year that data was available?
Yes.

Using those numbers, I should have spent $88,600 as a mother by now.  But I haven’t.  Not even close.  Ballpark estimate is less than a quarter of that.

A lot of our focus has been on building income over the past years.  But I’ve been taking stock lately and realized that we do live a pretty frugal lifestyle on top of that.  I guess we always have, and once we had kids we kept on with that way of thinking, even with additional mouths to feed.  We’ve saved or forgone spending at all, and it’s paid off for us big time.

Without further ado, here’s a list of how to save money raising a child, brought to you by La Maison du Frugality:

1. We haven’t upgraded our living space.

The number one contributing to factor to that huge, average number is housing.  It makes  up 30%.  When we first moved into our apartment, it was just the two of us, and it was moderately spacious.  Now, with kids, it’s not.  We share a room with one of them, in fact.  It’s not ideal, and it’s not always comfortable, but we’re used to it.  I want to change it, which is why we’re saving up to buy a home, but with rent increases in the area lately, after we have that initial down payment we won’t be spending a ton more than our current rent.  There’s a little bit of justification behind that statement, as we will have to start paying for extra utilities and  house maintenance.  But by not moving to another rental while we save for our bigger goal, we’ve saved about $500/month based on the market in our area.

2.  I had killer insurance while pregnant.

I haven’t been insured the entire time my kids have been alive, but I was lucky enough to be covered and have great insurance while I was pregnant.  And my kids have always been insured.  On top of good insurance cutting down drastically on out-of-pocket costs, from pre-natal appointments to delivery room (though those aren’t included in the $245,340,) I also made sure I took advantage of every facet of my insurance.  And I mean every facet.  I was able to get a lot of those expensive things my kids needed in those early days via insurance instead of out of my own pocket.

3.  We don’t pay for childcare.

A lot of this is due to my husband’s good relationship with his bosses at work, ability to set his own schedule there, and the ability to set his own schedule at school within reason.  For the most part, when he works, I’m home and visa versa.  But there are still occasions where our schedules overlap, and we need help.  He’s from the area, and most of my family stuck around, so we have baby-sitters galore who are generous enough to help out with the kids when we need it at no cost.  There are certain advantages to staying in your hometown.

4.  We don’t spend a lot of money on clothes.

My oldest recently and suddenly outgrew all their clothes.  My husband was freaking out, saying we had to go buy an entire new wardrobe.  I took him into the bedroom and opened the closet.  I pulled out a bag full of the next size clothes, designated for summer.  There was a whole other one for winter.  We didn’t need to go shopping.

So we don’t spend a ton of money on clothes.  Turns out we have a fair number of friends and family members with kids slightly older than ours, and we’re not afraid of hand-me-downs.  For those times when we don’t have something we need given to us (which is awesomely generous of our friends and family, by the way,) we head to the resale store and get $1 jeans or $7 brand-name sneakers.

5.  I know how to sew.

I do know how to sew.  My skills are remedial.  But they’re enough.  I’ve been able to mend clothing instead of tossing and replacing.  I’ve been able to stitch up stuffed teddy bears and giant turtles.  For the clothes that are too worn to resell or pass on, I save them up and use them to make blankets and quilts.   Fixing is almost always cheaper than replacing.

6.  I seek out free kids’ entertainment.

Summer is especially awesome for free kids’ events here in Pittsburgh, but there’s really something going on all year.  I’ve used library events year round.  In the fall there are RADical Days where you can do seemingly everything in the city at least once for free.  Because one of us or the other has been a student for most of the time we’ve had kids, we’ve been eligible for attraction discounts or freebies either from the venue itself or through the student life office.  If you look around, there’s almost always something to do for free.  Even if you can’t find an “event,” kids are down for anything if you’re excited about it.  Going to the park has never failed to disappoint mine, and on rainy days, the indoor playground at your local mall can do wonders as long as you don’t get sucked into any unplanned shopping while you are there.

 

So those are the top six ways we’ve saved or avoided spending at all, and spent considerably less than the $88k+ we should have.  What are some of yours?

 

Benefits of Buying Used

benefits of used

When you’re making the decision to buy a used or new car, you probably take the cost of depreciation into account. After all, new cars do start losing their value the second you drive them off the lot. But there are several other monetary advantages to buying used. Buying new often means paying more fees, though you may not recognize it because they are often included in the sticker price.  Here are three fees that you completely avoid when you decide to buy pre-owned:

Delivery and Destination Fees: Every time a car is shipped from the manufacturer to the dealership, it costs money to transport.  These costs are passed on to the buyer via delivery fees, and sometimes an additional destination fee.  Typically these fees are included in the sticker price you see on the window tag, so you wouldn’t even think you were evading them by buying used.  Rather than looking like a fee, they make the new car’s price look more expensive. If a dealership ever tries to charge you delivery or destination fees on a used car, refuse or find a new dealer.

Advertising Fees: All dealerships have to pay into regional advertising fees as mandated by the manufacturer.  This cost is also typically included in the sticker price of a new vehicle.  Advertising fees on used vehicles are often…{continue reading on Arrigo Automotive Group}

Buying Used Jeeps

00001377_Jeep_Grand_Cherokee_Parked

When you’re looking at buying a used vehicle, you’re trying to get the best deal there is. There are several factors you should take into consideration including depreciation, safety, how much it will cost to insure, and how you will be using the vehicle.  If you’re looking exclusively at Jeeps, we have analyzed the data and found the two best models to buy used.

Safety & Insurance: How safe a car is plays a large role in how much you’ll be shelling out every month for insurance premiums.  To keep costs down, and your family safe, you’ll want to look at the safest models of Jeeps out there. While premiums vary across providers, the top two models, Grand Cherokees and Wranglers, are typically equally priced to insure, and they are both excellent in the safety department.To save even more on insurance and buff up your safety precautions, only look at vehicles from model years 2006 onward.  This is when Jeep started installing electronic stability control (ESC.)  ESC gives the vehicle more stability around curves and helps reduce the occurrence of skidding.

Depreciation: Depreciation is the value a car loses when it goes from being new to used.  Jeeps are not known for having high levels of depreciation.  They’re built to last, and therefore hold onto their value longer than other makes of vehicles.  The fact that they last is good news for anyone shopping used, but we can still compare depreciation between different models within the Jeep family. If you were purchasing a car new, you’d want to get the vehicle with the lowest level of…{finish reading all the tips at Arrigo Ft Pierce}

#MotivationMonday: Your Life is an Occasion. Rise to it.

Your life is an occasion.  A reason for celebration, and an opporutnity for happiness.  Rise to the occasion with this post.

A couple months ago, my mom brought over some DVDs.  Her coworker had a grandchild who had outgrown them, and knew my mother had some freaking adorable grandkids that would enjoy them.  We’ve worked our way through a few of them, and the other day we hit on Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium.

A little while ago, I wrote about ways to find inspiration when you need it.  One of the major things I do is keep a quote book to draw on when times are rough.  As I was watching this painfully kid-movie-like kid movie, there were a few lines that hit me like a bolt of lightning and made it into the book.

The movie goes like this (forgive any inaccuracies or oversights as I was watching between loads of laundry and lunch cooking):

Dustin Hoffman plays a magical toy-maker that’s 200-some-odd years old.  Natalie Portman manages the store.  There’s also a kid and an accountant played by Jason Bateman, but I missed their part of the storyline.

Dustin Hoffman has decided it’s time to die, and because he’s magical he has control over or foresight into when it will happen.  He gets a chance to say goodbye to everyone. As he’s saying goodbye to Natalie Portman, he tells her, “Your life is an occasion.  Rise to it.”

After he dies, she gives up on the store because she doesn’t know magic like Dustin Hoffman did, and ends up playing piano at a fancy hotel for a living.  (Because that is such a horrible thing?)  I’m pretty sure she rediscovers the magic and brings the store back to life, literally, but I can’t be positive.  The DVD started skipping.  I’ll have to get on that.

But that line. That line hit me.  “Your life is an occasion.  Rise to it.”  Off the bat, my mind went to fancy dresses.  Milestone birthday parties.  Celebrations.

Our lives are celebrations.  How awesome is that?  But how seldom do we live that way?

I looked up the definition of occasion, and it turns out that is one of them.  But I think this is the one that the saying they manipulated for the screenplay was referring to:

a convenient or favorable time, opportunity, or juncture:
-Thanks, Dictionary.com!

So our lives are a convenient time.  They’re an opportunity.  They’re a juncture.  That’s equally as awesome as a celebration, and so true.  How short of a time are we here at this juncture?  And how amazing is it that we have to opportunity to be here at all?  How many little things had to happen in concert for us to have this opportunity at life?  Our circumstances play a huge role in our lives, but we can rise to those challenges.  We can take those opportunities.  We can be active participants in our lives, or we can watch those opportunities fade away with regret.

I know this is a money blog, but the only correlation I can make for you today is that money isn’t the actual object of money.  Happiness, freedom, and fulfillment are the object of money, which is only a tool.  So on this blog, where money is our topic, I want to tell you that I hope you live today towards money’s goals.  I hope you seize opportunities, whether they be to spend time with your kids or take on a really fulfilling assignment at work.  I hope you celebrate life.  I hope you are able to make decisions that lead to happiness, and that if you aren’t afforded that luxury, you’re working hard to get to a place where that option is available to you.

I hope you know that just like Natalie Portman’s, your life is an occasion, and  you, too, have the ability to rise to it.

 

Who Does Free Community College Actually Help?

Who does free community college help?  It may not be who you're expecting.

I want to preface this by saying I’m not against free community college.  I think we need to invest more in the education of our populace, and that we don’t put enough emphasis on it as is.

However, as all this news has been coming out about plans for free community college, whether it’s Obama’s America’s College Promise or Oregon’s recent legislation, I can’t help wondering if the whole thing is a marketing ploy.  I’m not entirely sure who is being helped by making the cheapest college option free.  Because for the people who need the help most, it already is.

How Our Family Got Free Community College

My husband is currently a non-traditional student, and I graduated two years ago.  For both of us, community college was an integral part of our plan.  Even without scholarships, the education we got there was not only free, but we got paid to do it.  This was possible because of our income level and the Pell Grant, which is the Federal grant awarded to qualified students when they fill out the FAFSA.  When the Pell Grant was paid to our schools, any excess over tuition (and there was excess over tuition) was given back to us as a check for books and living expenses.  We applied for scholarships on top of this, which gave us even more money to fund life, not tuition, while we were in school.

Anyone under a certain income level can do this.

Can You Get Free Community College?

The way the FAFSA works is it takes into account all of your income and all of your dependents.  They run all this through a formula and come out with an Expected Family Contribution (EFC.) When your EFC is zero, you get the full amount of the Pell Grant according to the tuition of the school you’re going to.  Our EFC has always been zero (though that may or may not change for next tax year,) and we’ve always gotten the max Pell Grant, even exceeding our local community college’s tuition.  In Western, PA, post-secondary education isn’t cheap.  Community college is generally our cheapest option, but compared to other parts of the country our tuition rates are high.  (I’ve dabbled in school at other community colleges in my sojourns across the country and paid considerably less than he does here.)

So if your EFC is zero, community college already is free, unless they charge more than $5,775/school year.  That’s the max you can get from the Pell Grant for 2015-2016.

How to get an EFC of Zero

These first examples are not the only way to get an EFC of zero.  Rather, they’re automatic qualifiers.  If you fall into any of these categories, you’re automatically in.  The requirements to become an independent student can be found here.  Dependent students will have to use their parents’ income numbers.

Dependent Students

You meet one of these requirements:

  • Your parents or anyone in their household received SSI, SNAP, free or reduced-price school lunch, TANF, or WIC benefits in 2013 or 2014.  (If they aren’t familiar with those acronyms, they most likely didn’t get it.  These are welfare benefits, and it’s a very intensive process to obtain them.)
  • Were not required to file a tax return, or they were eligible to file a 1040A or 1040EZ.
  • Your parent is a dislocated worker.

AND this requirement:

  • Their AGI on their taxes was $24,000 or under.  (If they didn’t file, add up the numbers on all their W-2s and any other earnings that would have been taxable had they been required to file.)

Independent Students

If you don’t have dependents other than your spouse, you cannot qualify for an automatic zero.  That doesn’t mean you don’t qualify.  It just means they will use a formula, so it’s not as easy to eye up your income and know for sure where you will fall.  It’s more of a fill out the FAFSA and wait thing.

If you do have dependents, you automatically qualify for and EFC of 0 if you meet one of these requirements:

  • You or anyone in your household received SSI, SNAP, free or reduced-price school lunch, TANF, or WIC benefits in 2013 or 2014.
  • Were not required to file a tax return, or they were eligible to file a 1040A or 1040EZ.
  • You or your spouse is a dislocated worker.

AND this requirement:

  • Your AGI on your taxes was $24,000 or under.  (Again, if you didn’t file, add up the numbers on all their W-2s and any other earnings that would have been taxable had you been required to file.)

So those are the automatic requirements, but that doesn’t mean you don’t get the zero EFC if you don’t meet them.  If you don’t, and you want to run your numbers, you can check out the worksheets here.  If that’s too much work, you can just file your FAFSA and wait and see.  Their calculations may differ from your own, anyways, as there are a lot of factors that go into it.   You can also get a ballpark by using CollegeBoard’s calculator.

Who Does Free Community College Help?

For the vast majority of people who really can’t afford it, community college already is free.  For everyone else, tuition prices are so low it kind of seems like a moot point.  The one demographic I can see this really helping is students who do not yet qualify for independent status, but who have parents who are unwilling or unable to help.  The biggest culprit for inability to pay in this situation is those who make a middle middle-class income or higher, but are saddled with debt, which the EFC does not account for.  I guess it could help anyone who was carrying debt, even independent students, but if you’re at that income level anyways, there’s probably not a whole lot that a community college education is going to do to help you increase your income with the exception of a few select trades.

So if community college is already free to those who cannot afford it, we’re really only helping that one demographic.  I’m all about helping them.  Really and truly, because they’re the one subset of potential college students who there isn’t a whole lot of hope for.  They’re stuck between not getting any financial aid as it’s largely granted based on income levels, and not getting any help from their parents.  But a large portion of the talk I’ve seen about this isn’t aimed at them.  And most community college attendees aren’t fresh out of high school, anyways; the average age is 28.  The whole thing feels like political showmanship to me.

If we’re going to start investing in education, let’s help those kids stuck between a rock and a hard place out.  But let’s get serious about it.  Let’s help pay for four-year colleges where costs are truly insane.  For everyone.  Let’s stop tuition inflation.  Let’s not stop at community college and pretend we’re some sort of martyrs for doing it.

 

  


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3 Ways to Get Help With Your Home Down Payment

Three programs that assist with down payment and closing costs when buying a home.

Saving for a home down payment is a massive undertaking.  Not only do you have to save up 10-20% of the home’s value, you also have to save for closing costs, and make sure you have enough left over in savings to prove to the bank you’re not going to end up destitute after you sign the paperwork.  While I’m not a big fan of subprime lending (who is anymore?) or taking out a loan you can’t afford (you’ll never build equity!) I am all about programs that can help people reach their goals faster and responsibly.  Especially with the state of renting threatening to erode another rung in the ladder to the American Dream.

Here are four programs that can help with your home down payment or closing costs.  Remember to use them not to buy something you can’t afford, but to help you mitigate costs that are prohibiting  you from building wealth.

VA Loans

VA loans are loans for those who are currently serving or have served in the military.  These loans allow you to get into a home with 0% down and no PMI (private mortgage insurance.)  I’m all about programs that help out veterans and soldiers, but I do want to throw a word of caution out there with this one.  When you are buying with 0% down, your mortgage is going to be larger.  You’re also starting with zero equity.  It’s imperative to be 100% sure you can afford your monthly payments.  If you can, a VA loan can be a good vehicle to get you into a house.  The house must meet certain criteria, so know that you likely won’t be purchasing a foreclosure or something that needs a lot of fixing up before it is usable.

First-Time Home Buyer Programs

These have slowed and decreased in benefit level since the Recession, but they do still exist.  Most states provide a first-time home buyer program through the state housing financing association, and some counties and municipalities provide additional programs.  These hyper-local programs are typically for homes in areas they’re trying to revitalize, so you must buy withing certain neighborhoods to get the assistance.  These programs offer a range of benefits which will vary from state to state, county to county, and city to city.  They can include grant money for down payment assistance, closing cost assistance, a second mortgage with 0% interest that closes the gap between how much you have saved and how much you need for either of these two costs, or simply lower-interest mortgages.

These programs aren’t unique to the US, and it’s interesting to see how they function around the globe.  For instance, in Australia, the folks at Homestart are the leading first home builders in Perth.  There, they have grants up to $10,000 for first-time home owners, and you can actually use the money to build a new home with no deposit out of your own pocket.

FHA Loans

FHA loans are run through the Federal Housing Administration.  With these loans, you only need 3.5% as a down payment, and you’re actually allowed to receive 100% of the funds as a gift from a relative.  The downsides to this are much akin to those of the VA Loan:  you’re starting with less equity, and the size of your loan will be larger.  On top of that, FHA loans require that you pay PMI, and it’s more expensive on these loans than on traditional loans.

 

Your best bet is to save up enough to pay for everything yourself, but if you’re in a situation where rent is keeping you from being able to save up for the down payment, but you could afford monthly mortgage payments once the rent was gone, it’s worth at least looking into these programs and running your own numbers to see how it would pan out for you in the long-term.

 

*This post is in collaboration with Homestart.  All content is created by and the opinion of Femme Frugality.*

 

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