Thursday, June 27, 2013

Grocery Shopping Utopia?

By Frances Rahaim, Ph.D.aka "The Money Doctor"

      Imagine yourself serenely grocery shopping with a complete sense of control, wheeling your cart through well arranged isles, choosing only items on your list, and knowing what you're total bill will be before you get to the register.
      Consider the freedom in not justifying each “put it back” item to persistent children who seem to desire every colorful box boasting a prize, and who have little concept of the lack of elasticity of the dollar. Okay, maybe it's not a day at the spa, but it's an improved shopping experience, right?
      It may seem next to impossible to achieve, but the solution may be closer than you think. Some financial advisors speculate that the calm environment of Internet ordering, complete with virtual shopping carts we can put on hold at our whim, may make for more financially responsible shopping, lessening impulse buys and allowing time to compare prices thoroughly.
      Others argue that the virtual atmosphere helps disconnect us from our dollar and we forget to add the cost of shipping, actually causing an increase in spending. No matter which theory you agree with, one thing is indisputable: it is a timesaver and a convenience to have the world’s shopping resources at your fingertips.
      While a few short years ago it seemed unimaginable, today we purchase an abundance of items online. Many stores even allow you to order online and pick up at your local store — my favorite. Even some pharmacies now offer online ordering and drive thru pick-up, so, why not grocery stores?
      Websites like offer low prices on household essentials, pantry goods and even some organics, but no refrigerated items. They offer free shipping on every order, but perhaps the most surprising feature is that they apply manufacturers coupons automatically. No more clipping and there's less tendency to buy an item just because you have a coupon for it.
      Online giant has jumped on the bandwagon as well with Amazon grocery. Prices there on most grocery items seem competitive, as you would expect, and shipping is usually free for orders greater than $25.
Amazon Prime members enjoy free two-day shipping. Their "Subscribe and Save" option may yield 15-30 percent discounts on automatic repeat shipments. I like that Amazon allows you to cancel your subscription after the first order without a penalty. Although meat and poultry items are available, shipping tends to be pricey.
      Most chain stores such as BigY, Stop & Shop and Walmart are beginning to offer complete ordering online with delivery at home. Stop & Shop’s Peapod program is one such service. Unfortunately, my research did not unearth this option in our immediate area currently.
Membership clubs like BJ's Wholesale warehouse offer discounts on everything from apples to vacations, but are still falling short of a complete online grocery shopping experience.
      Of course, nearly all grocery stores now offer flyers online and on mobile devices and some even have scan technology so you can tally what you're spending as you go — a feature particularly useful for sticking to a budget.
      I think this emerges as another chance for local stores to pull ahead in the competition for customer loyalty. Their inventory is usually a manageable size to list, they're quite focused on customer service and the incentive to compete continues to nudge them toward building a better mousetrap.
      Two very diverse store types stand out in my mind as local examples:
·     Green Fields Market in Greenfield and McCusker's Market in Shelburne Falls ( offer a cooperative shopping experience. Their niche market is wholesome foods and organic products. A visit to their Web site shows that more than 40 percent of the stores’ purchases are from local vendors.
·     The Barn in Greenfield (, in business since 2002, offers deep discounts and sells both in- and out-of-code product as well as fresh meats since 2009. They guarantee everything in their store, even if it's out of date. Online coupons and flyers are available at their informative Web site, which links to government and news sites including CBS for detailed information on understanding “sell by,” “use by” and expiration dates.
      This may be a good time for me to point out that no matter how large grocery stores in our area may seem, they all employ local people and touch local lives. I am not seeking to favor either large or small grocery stores, but rather to point out an opportunity to upgrade our standard of grocery shopping locally.
      Projecting into the future, grocery utopia might be creating a grocery list online complete with prices, prior to reaching the store. Or let’s really dream and consider placing the entire order online, receiving competitive pricing, and having it delivered to your home — all while supporting our local economy.

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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Good Debt vs. Bad Debt - It's Not What You Expect

by Frances Rahaim, Ph.D.
aka "The Money Doctor"

You may think that debt incurred for certain positive expenses like buying a home, starting or growing a business, or funding education is considered to be “good debt,” while credit card debt in general is dubbed “bad debt,” but it isn’t quite that simple, and knowing the difference between the two can be powerful knowledge. It could help you make your financing decisions more prudently and save you from some gut-wrenching regrets in the future.

A simple test can reveal whether debt is good or bad instantly. In this test, there are three components that must be present in order for a debt to qualify as a good debt. Think of it like needing fuel, air and ignition to make a fire. Omit any of the three components, and the debt slides into the bad debt column. Interestingly enough, this test works for all kinds of debt.

Take a sheet of paper or open a spreadsheet and create two columns. At the top of one write “Good Debt.” Over the other, “Bad Debt.” Then ask yourself each of the three questions below pertaining to this particular debt. For each question that gets a “yes,” put a mark in the “Good Debt” column. For questions that receive a “no,” mark the “Bad Debt” column.

1. Is this debt necessary?
  • Do you need this debt? 
  • Is the item or service that it will fund an absolute necessity or could you live without it? 
  • Is debt the only way to fund it or do you have other alternative funding options? 
2. Will the debt include a finite period by which it will be paid back?
  •  Mortgages, car, business and other loans come with a definite payback life. Mortgages are usually 30 or 15 years, car loans are typically five or six years. Credit cards, on the other hand, are difficult to determine full payoff dates for (especially if you keep using them!). If you don’t know the exact date a debt will be paid off, provided you make the required monthly payments, then mark it in the “Bad Debt” column. 
3. Is this debt easily affordable for you?
  • Can you easily make the payments on this debt or is it a stretch? If it’s not comfortable for you to make the monthly payments for the long term, mark it in the “Bad Debt” column. 

If you answered “no” to any of these three questions (if you put any marks in the “Bad Debt” column), then it’s a bad debt. A good debt will satisfy all three of those criteria.

Sometimes taking this test may allow you to see when a debt is leaning toward the bad debt column, but could actually be a good debt if you could, for instance, pay it off in a finite period of time, etc.

When it comes to borrowing money, be flexible and creative. If you must finance an item, try not to get locked in to one idea and one way of paying for it.

While my preference would be for you to fund all your purchases in cash, when debt is necessary, I hope you’ll apply this test before making the decision to borrow. If you determine that a debt is necessary, at least make the adjustments to satisfy all three conditions and move it into the “Good Debt” column. 

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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Found Money

Finders Keepers

 We’ve all heard stories of people who have, at one time or another, stumbled across money. Maybe it’s a $20 dollar bill which slipped between the sofa cushions, or a found lottery ticket, or even a bag of money in the bushes near your house, it’s always exciting to come across cash you didn’t expect, or didn’t know existed.
            Those incidents, while nice, are unpredictable and few and far between. What you may not know, however, is that you may actually have money owed to you that you don’t even know about.
Recently, one of my clients received $750 tagged as “unclaimed” which was found by conducting a simple on-line search. I’ve also had some experience in this area, and I, too, discovered that there are lots of avenues to find money you never knew you had, or may have forgotten about.
            Perhaps a long, lost relative bequeathed investments to you without your knowledge. It doesn’t have to be a rich relative. Some accounts may have been established by an employer, and perhaps your family member never even contributed to them. The company holding the funds is required to try to find you. After a period of time, if no contact is made, that money gets turned over to the unclaimed property division of the state or commonwealth responsible for distributing it.
Another common source of found money is in housing transactions. Perhaps you held a mortgage or an FHA loan which required you to provide money up front with the promise that it would be refunded to you, only to have that money get lost in an accounting oversight. Or maybe there was a security deposit from an apartment that was never refunded to you when you moved out.
All of these dollars, if unclaimed, end up in an “unclaimed property” status under the state’s administration. If you want to find out about unclaimed property in your name, there are several ways to research it.  If you live in Massachusetts, one way is to go to the website and go to the “unclaimed property” page. Two additional sites to visit are and Those often contain lists of missing money that has yet to be turned over to the state. In each of these cases, it’s just a matter of filling out a form to claim your money, which can then be put to whatever good use you and your financial adviser decide.
A few minutes of time could yield a financial benefit. At the very least, you can have fun with this, searching by your name, or family members and friends. What a nice gift to be able to call someone and say, “I found some money you didn’t know you had. Go get it!”

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