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Sunday, August 26, 2007

Ways to increase your earning potential

August 26, 2007

I figured out how to make extra money by accident one day. I was browsing my local Target store, killing time waiting to pick my kids up from school. I noticed all the clearanced items that had been marked down for quicker sales.

Upon closer inspection, I noticed the little red clearance tag showed the percentage off that the item had been marked. A "30" in the upper right corner meant the item had been marked 30 percent off of the retail price. Then I stumbled upon an item that had a 75. Sure enough, it had been retailed at $100 and now was on sale for $25.

Most people probably would have thought about how great of a bargain that would be to purchase for personal use. I immediately began running the mental numbers on how much profit margin could be made by reselling this item to the general public.

Having been on ebay for a few years and selling my extra junk on craigslist, I knew a handful of outlets for reselling items. I made some notes about which items where clearanced and went home to research the items. By using PriceGrabber and Froogle I could determine which items had the most potential for selling at a large profit.

I returned to Target and bought only the items with the most potential. I listed them all on ebay (minimal fees) and craigslist (free.) I sold almost everything for a profit withing two weeks and returned the items that did not sell to Target for a complete refund.

This experiment has gone on for two years now and I can tell you it works like a charm. You can even use this strategy to bargain hunt other retail outlets that mark down their products. Just make sure you keep your receipt to return your items in case they don't sell.

Originally posted on Helium here.

Planning a trip to Disneyland Park, CA

This is a reprint of an article I wrote for Helium in August of 2007.

Since determining what you want to do so closely correlates with how much money you can spend, we start each trip by planning a budget. You could also reverse-engineer the trip and start with a list of what you want to do while on vacation. Add up all the costs and determine the figure from there. We enjoy the challenge of squeezing as much fun out of every dollar so we typically aim for a total budget of $2000 and accomplish everything we want within that budget.

For a family of six (Papa, Momma and four daughters), we find it is an enjoyable challenge to stay within the $2000 limit. We include room & board, food, memorabilia, and travel expenses. Now that we've completed our fifth trip to Disneyland, we have a great handle on how to achieve our vacation goals.

On our last road trip (we prefer to drive from Phoenix to Anaheim), we started to joke about how much research we've done on creating the perfect Disney trip. So much research that we wondered if an eBook on the subject would help us fund our next trip. Fundraising is one of our subcategories when it comes to budgeting and every little fundraiser helps make the trip that much more enjoyable. More on that later.

So let's get into the subject of budgeting for the trip.

The basic necessities of a Disney trip fall into the following main categories:

1. Lodging
2. Food (after arriving at your destination)
3. Travel (gas, tolls, food on the road, etc)
4. Entertainment (shows, events, etc)
5. Memorabilia (stuff you keep)
6. Park Tickets
7. Miscellaneous (rainjackets for river ride etc)

Lodging

I'll start with lodging. We are big fans of timeshares. We own a week in Sedona and bank it every year to use in Anaheim. "Banking" simply means we tell our timeshare (Sunterra) that we do not want to use our timeshare in Sedona for the current year. In turn, they allow others to use our week and we, in turn, can use a week that belongs to someone else at another location. We subscribe to RCI International which is a company that handles the vacation exchanges of timeshares worldwide. We typically bank our week in Sedona and call RCI as early in the year as possible to book our vacation request. We ask for a timeshare closest to the Disneyland Park for a week that we specify. We like October for both temperature and Halloween.

Our timeshare, before we paid it off, cost us $79 per month for five years. We pay about $350 a year in maintenance fees. The property is owned by us and deedable to our children upon our death.

At that point, our girls can continue using the timeshare week indefinitely while only being responsible for the annual maintenance fee. We are so happy with the timeshare concept that we are currently looking for a second timeshare. This time around we're looking into Marriott rather than a second Sunterra property. More on that as it develops. Oh, and we pay $150 to RCI to make the vacation exchange. So once they call us and say they have a resort we like, we pay $150 to complete the deal. I'll blog about the different places we've stayed and let you know which ones we recommend and which ones we will avoid like the plague.

Travel

Lodging being taken care of, we have to estimate the cost of getting to the lodging. We use MapQuest or Google Maps to determine the route. We've also used the Google SMS text feature to get directions on one trip when we lost our printout. That tells us the mileage and hours of travel. From those figures, we can calculate gasoline usage and the amount of stops for food and restroom breaks. Typically for us, the trip is around six hours and about 320 miles. In our Oldsmobile Silhouette, that is roughly one full tank of gas (one way) and three meal breaks with an extra bathroom stop here and there.

We typically get our gas from a frugal location (CostCo, Diamond Shamrock, etc) or for larger trips we use 80/20 cards (link). 80/20 cards are offers whereby you purchase a certain amount of gift cards and get reimbursed 20%. DealPass will sell a $100 gas card and refund you $20 at the beginning of the month following your purchase. We've packed food onboard for earlier trips to save money but we find that getting out and stretching at a local restaurant (and walking around a bit) does a lot more good than eating in the car and staying cooped up. Taco Bell and A&W are regular stops for us on our trip across the I-10. This also helps curb the tendency for the girls to leave their trash in the van for future parental cleanings :-)

We've settled on a mixture of road-ready snacks (beef jerky, chips, water, Gatorade, etc) to pacify us between stops. With all luggage strapped to the top of the van, an iced down cooler fits easily behind the back seat. Fruit also helps with sugar cravings and gives the mandible a good workout (apples etc). A good pre-trip grocery run costs us around $50 at our local Wal-Mart Neighborhood Marketplace.

Park Tickets

We always get Hopper passes to double our fun. Hopper passes allow us to visit both the Disneyland.

Park and California Adventure. Usually we buy them from AAA at their discounted rate but we always watch out for better deals. This past year we found a link on one of our favorite deal sites FatWallet that discussed discounted tickets during the Gay Days celebration. Using a link provided, we scored hugely discounted Hopper passes that were valid for almost two months. Gay Days, turns out, happens every year during the same week. So we'll be watching out for those again but be warned, they sell out fast. If you have any unused tickets at the end of your trip, make sure you sell them either on eBay, CraigsList, or Amazon.

Food

This section refers to all food consumed once we arrive at the destination. Our annual trip wouldn't be complete without a dinner (booked in advance because they only seat people with reservations) at the Blue Bayou. Enjoying a delicious Monte Cristo sandwich while watching and listening to the sounds of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride are so relaxing. A truly unique experience.

We've used coupons from Restaurant.com to enjoy local food outside the park at a 60% discount. Plug in zip code 92801 for Anaheim listings. Target's $1.50 hotdogs usually come into play at least one day while we gather miscellaneous items for the park (batteries, film, rain jackets, etc). Our AAA affiliation usually nets us some deals at the ESPN Zone in Downtown Disney. I can't say enough about how terrific that place is for the whole family. Continental breakfasts are usually provided at hour resorts / hotels. Fruit and protein bars are easily stowed on our pack mule (double stroller). With breakfast eaten at the resort and dinner outside the park once we're out, that usually only leaves lunch in the park. A few days we'll eat Disney food but usually stick to our snacks we bring.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Helpful advice on paying your medical bills

Medical bills can get really hairy, really fast. Having family members in the medical billing profession, I can offer some insight. Don't let the weight of medical bills weigh so heavily on your shoulders that it effects your quality of life. Remember, there are solutions to every problem if you look hard enough.

So you received a big, fat medical bill? Look it over and study it well. Do all the dates match the days you were seen? Do all the procedures correlate to what you had done? If you had an Emergency Room visit for a twisted ankle and your bill reflects an echocardiogram (ultrasound of the heart) then you are being billed for something you didn't have done on your visit. If you don't understand the terminology, google it. Don't be helpless, empower yourself and use the internet to breakdown the medical bill... line by line.

If you think there are inaccuracies, call the billing company. If they verify that the doctor or hospital they are billing for did indeed tell them to bill you for that incorrect exam then you have to call the doctor or hospital that is misinforming the billing company. Remember: the billing company is a third-party. They are simply doing what they are told to do.

Now that being said, I'm not saying billing companies don't make mistakes. They do and my mother whom has billed for 20 years will tell you the same. Challenge anything suspicious on your bill. An honest medical biller will contest the items for you. Sometimes all it takes is a fax from the medical facility stating that the item in question is indeed a mistake. Once this explanation is received by the medical billing company, the error should be dropped.

Once you have established that the medical bill is accurate you can begin your assault on the payment arrangements. Try to negotiate a payment plan. Your hospital or provider may be willing to accept smaller monthly payments. Keep in mind that your payments generally need to be reasonable and you must keep up with your payments. I highly recommend the following:

* Notify the appropriate offices quickly.
* Keep in touch with your creditors.
* Record the names and phone numbers of the people you are dealing with.
* Document the date, time, and results of your phone calls.
* Pay something - even a small amount - on each bill each month as a gesture of good faith.

Apply for Medicaid. If you are eligible, Medicaid may pay for some of your existing medical bills. Medicaid coverage can begin as early as the first day of the month, three months before the month you apply, if you would have been eligible in those months, so apply as soon as possible.

Be creative about finding help from outside sources. Charitable foundations, civic organizations and churches and community groups might be able to help. One website I highly recommend is Prosper.com. This website is made up of people looking to loan money. In essence, you apply for a loan and lenders (made up of the average citizen population) bid on the ability to loan you money. This drives the interest rate down on your loan and depending on your credit score, you may get a loan to pay your medical bills for a lower interest rate than you get from your local bank. Another beauty of Prosper.com is that you can kind of "tell your story" so that all the lenders get an idea of who you are and why you need the money. It is a fantastic system and you owe it to yourself to at least check out.

Whatever you do, don't ignore bills. Though tempting, this is not a good strategy. Hospitals and providers are more likely to negotiate with you if you contact them immediately. If you "let it slide" and ignore the bill, the billing company will send your bill to a collection agency where things can get MUCH uglier.

Don't transfer debt to a credit card. Most experts warn that this is a poor choice for paying off medical debt for two reasons:

1. The interest rates on your credit card will add significantly to your total payment.

2. Transferring medical debt to a credit card may affect your eligibility for Medicaid. Some medical costs can be deducted from gross income to determine your Medicaid eligibility. Medical debt on a credit card may no longer qualify as medical debt.

Try to keep your spirits up and immediately deal with your medical bills. Trust me, they won't go away. Call the billing company as soon as you get your bill and ask about a payment plan. Whatever the response, thank them for their help and tell them you'll be contacting them again shortly. Hang up and find your funding solution. Make a small payment in the meantime to let them know you are going to make payments. Even if it is only $10. I was once told that as long as you are making an effort to pay, that they can't send you to collections. Your state may be different so check it out.

Either way, attack the bills today and remember...there is always a solution if you look hard enough.

References:

www.digg.com
www.helium.com
www.yahoo.com
www.reddit.com
financialgenesis.blogspot.com

Choosing A Career in Radiology

I highly recommend the healthcare field to anyone seeking a career. If you don't know what you want to do, check out the numerous possibilities of working in healthcare. Why am I such a big proponent? Let me count the ways:

Need. Everyone needs healthcare at some point. From birth to death, healthcare is a necessity. Vaccine shots are needed for kids to go to school. Physical exams are needed for sports and insurance. Everyone eventually needs to visit a medical facility at some point in their life.

Pay. Check the salary tool at Monster.com. Look up the pay wages of healthcare workers. There are not very many jobs that are low paying and on top of salary is all the benefits.

Benefits. Retirement packages of matched funds, variety in work schedules, scrubs, and countless others. I particularly like working in hospitals.

Hospitals. Everything you need is right next to you. Dirty clothes? Grab some scrubs. Hungry? Go to the cafeteria, which is discounted to you as an employee. Headache? Visit your in-house pharmacy. Car broke down? Every hospital has a bus stop nearby. Want to go back to school? Hospitals general reimburse all tuition fees up to a set amount as long as it improves your ability at work.

Which career in the healthcare field do I recommend? Definitely Radiology. Compare all the two-year programs out there. Mechanical repair, Computer Aided Drawing, Air Conditioning Repair and see which pays you the most for the least amount of tuition. I paid $20K for Xray school. Granted, I paid a little much. I could have gone to the local community college and paid $6K but I didn't want to sit on the waiting list for two years.

Radiology, here in Arizona, pays roughly $20 per hour right after graduation. Accompany that with all the ways to optimize you paycheck and you can easily make $60K your first year. I am also encouraged by Radiology because of the upward movement potential. After you graduate as an Xray Tech, you can learn other skills on the job. Computed Tomography (CT) or Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) are OJT skills. You do not have to go to school to learn them or be certified (although this will change some day.) Each new skill or modality earns you a bigger paycheck.

Xray training can also be a springboard to other programs such as Sonography (Ultrasound), Radiation Therapy, or Nuclear Medicine. These require an additional two years of schooling but afford you a nice pay jump. I am currently in Sonography school at Gateway Community College. The cost is around $6K and my hospital is reimbursing me for the entire thing.

I have utilized my training to land a nice job on a night shift. This allows me to be home with my children and work when they sleep. I can usually find time to squeeze homework in when business is slow and nights are generally much slower than day shifts.

Originally posted on Helium here.