All posts by KSRI

Cost of wooden floor

Wooden flooring has become extremely popular in the modern era, and it’s easy to see why – it’s beautiful, hardwearing and easy to clean.

There’s nothing quite like the sheen of a gorgeous oak floor to set off a room. Flooring prices vary significantly so you might look upon owning your own wooden floor as a dream rather than something that’s realistically attainable.

However, lower priced laminate flooring is a cheap solution that, if installed well, can look lovely. If you want the real thing though, you should expect to pay for it. When you’re working out your budget, it’s important to consider the various types of wooden flooring available as this will have a major impact on cost.

There are a number of factors that attribute to the cost of laying a wooden floor, and with a little work, there are ways to keep costs down. Whether you’re doing the entire project yourself, or getting a professional in to help, you can often knock down the price with the following steps.

Carpet Removal and Disposal

Clearing a room, pulling up the carpet and disposing of the waste materials doesn’t require a lot of skill. If you get your installers to waste their valuable time doing this, then you better be ready to pay for the extra labour.

But you can do this yourself very easily and it won’t take long to do. Then, when tradesmen come to measure up, you’ll be in a good position to negotiate.

Remove Existing Skirting Boards 

Though you might not have initially considered it, when wooden flooring is installed, existing skirting is normally removed and thrown away. Floorboards can then be laid right up to the edge of the room with the required breathing room. New skirting is applied or threshold strips can be attached directly to the wall for a clean, chic finish. Again, by doing this low-skill job yourself, you can save your floor installers time and reduce overall costs. 

Install Underlay

Though many installers might prefer to do this job themselves, if you’re trying to keep costs down, then it’s worthwhile installing the underlay yourself. What’s essential is that you end up with a perfectly level floor.

On concrete foundations you may need to use a self-levelling compound, as well as putting down a damp proof membrane. On other foundations you can simply buy foam underlay, roll it out and cut it to shape. It’s best to allow the room to settle for a few days before fitting the flooring. 

Install Wooden Flooring Yourself

Up to this point, the project is relatively simple. However, the actual fitting of wooden flooring can be difficult depending on your experience and the tools you’ve got to hand.

Meanwhile, if you want to use engineered materials, you may want to research wooden floor fitting costs as it’s more difficult to install. Whilst engineering flooring normally comes with a tongue-and-groove fastening, solid wooden boards need to be nailed or glued down. They’re harder to work with and it’s also more costly if you make a mistake.

Wooden Floor Costs

If your skills are up to the task, then installing a wooden floor yourself can be a great way to save money as you’ll only need to pay for the materials themselves. You can work at your own pace, and though it might take longer, at least you won’t have fitters disrupting daily life.

Depending on the material, costs can be as low as £16 for a pack of laminate flooring to cover roughly 1.25m² and around £25 for engineered wood for the same area. That’s between £345 and £540 to cover 27m²; though it should be noted this is at the budget end of what’s available. As a comparison, a single square metre of solid wood can cost upwards of £50.

Accessories – When you’re pricing up your new floor it’s essential not to forget about the accessories. Underlay, threshold strips, pipe surrounds and new skirting boards will soon add up, not to mention the costs of paint if you need to give skirting a fresh face-lift.

Hiring Professionals for wooden floor, wooden doors and wooden stairs

For peace of mind, and to make life easy, you might want to get professionals in, either to lay the floor, or to do the entire project. It’s important to negotiate as much as possible, especially if you’ve already done some of the groundwork. You should also seek to get at least three quotes as fitting costs will vary.

If you’re having laminate flooring laid over a 27m² area, you can expect costs of around £1,000 to £1,400. Meanwhile, if you’re having a solid wood floor laid, then costs will be at least £1,000 more. Because of the expense of such a project, it’s a good idea to use a trusted service to be sure you’re collecting quotes from legitimate, reliable firms.

Wooden flooring can be an extremely beautiful and robust addition to your home. Luckily, there are several ways to keep costs down so that, regardless of your budget, you can enjoy this modern home décor feature.

Benefits of Car Advertising

By and large, a common U.S. driver voyages 13,476 miles for each year. That is 36 miles every day, which implies there are many individuals out and about that could be potential clients! Gone are the days when individuals lived, worked and played in a couple of square sweep. As America’s populace has flooded in the course of the most recent 75 years, our country has turned out to be more subdivided and our reliance on autos has expanded. Thusly, vehicle promoting has turned into an authentic type of showcasing. One that, on the off chance that you are a nearby business hoping to pull in neighborhood clients, can’t be overlooked.

We should investigate a portion of the advantages vehicle publicizing can have.

The Benefits of advertising on the car

70k-impressions

Lots and bunches of impressions – According to the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, it is assessed that amid a normal day, a vehicle notice can reach up to 70,000 impressions. That is a great deal of eyeballs! Truth be told, vehicle promoting contacts a bigger number of individuals than bulletins, radio, standard mail, nearby gathering mailers and mass travel publicizing. In any case, here is the best part – most people say that commercials on vehicles are in reality increasingly detectable, progressively noteworthy and made them make a move faster than conventional types of publicizing.

Economical advertising production

Like any great advertiser, one can’t just take a gander at the measure of impressions a crusade may get and infer that it will be effective or not. There are a great deal of mediums out there where you can purchase a large number of impressions however it will cost you a pretty penny when it is altogether said and done. In this way, we should pile up vehicle promoting expenses to other publicizing openings out there. When you stall the expense per-thousand measurement for every one of the fundamental publicizing mediums, you can see that vehicle promoting is unmistakably more affordable than it partners. Remember, this is for a solitary promotion. Regardless of whether you had an armada of 5 or 10 vehicles, each with their own promotions on them, at $.35 per thousand, it would in any case be $1850.00 less expensive than the following nearest medium on the list.cost of showcasing channels

Tax benefits

Ok, before you begin bouncing all over, supposing you can discount your entire vehicle by slapping a decal with your business logo on it… ..you can’t. Frankly, auto findings are very examined by the IRS and shouldn’t be messed with. A couple of years back, it was governed by an official courtroom that a business couldn’t discount 100% of a vehicles costs just as a result of a promotion. The uplifting news is, any cost that goes into setting said commercial can be discounted. Along these lines, in the event that you need to have an advertisement painted on your vehicle, have your truck wrapped or simply place a cool decal in your back window, pull out all the stops. Simply monitor the costs and discount them come expense time.

It’s quite certain that vehicle promoting – decals or magnets – is an incredible path for little and neighborhood organizations to advertise themselves. For little venture, you can transform your vehicle or truck into a portable bulletin that achieves potential clients and makes them make a move. Furthermore, with ad in favor of your vehicle, you wouldn’t fret being stuck in a couple of more congested roads!

What Is the European Union and Why Does It Matter to You?


On June 23, 2016, voters in the United Kingdom elected to terminate their country’s membership in the European Union in a referendum known colloquially as “Brexit.”

The verdict wasn’t decisive. The victorious “Leave” campaign won by a margin of less than 4%, and U.K. Google searches for “what is the EU” and “what is Brexit” peaked in the hours after polls closed, suggesting some voters weren’t clear on the referendum’s ramifications. But Article 50, the European Union charter’s membership termination provision, is clear: Any EU member state can choose to leave the union, and the plurality of voting-age U.K. citizens had voted for their country to do just that.

The victory for the “Leave” campaign launched what can only be described as a contentious divorce between the U.K. and EU. If all goes according to plan, the U.K. will formally leave the EU in March 2019, shrinking the union’s membership by one.

Economists warn that a “hard Brexit” — wherein the U.K. loses access to the single European trading market overnight — could have dire consequences for the country’s economy. Already, global banks and wealth managers are shifting resources from London, whose decade-long finance boom ended abruptly with Brexit, to continental finance centers like Frankfurt, Germany. Ardent “Remain” proponents advocate a do-over referendum that, they hope, will decisively reject Brexit.

But going back on its commitment to leave the EU could harm Britain’s credibility and undercut its reputation as an honest broker, opening a new can of worms. In any case, Britain’s ruling Conservative Party remains steadfast in its support of an on-time Brexit, come what may.

Why Does the European Union Matter?

For non-Europeans, Brexit is mostly an abstract concept, just one source of economic and political instability among many in an increasingly uncertain world. Why should non-Europeans — or, at least, those not planning to emigrate to an EU country anytime soon — care about the EU? Why does it matter that the EU has, in recent years, grown increasingly fractious, dysfunctional, and unstable?

Consider these consequences:

1. Equity Market Turmoil

Equity markets abhor political uncertainty. On the trading day following the Brexit referendum, for instance, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped more than 600 points. Though markets may recover in the temporary absence of bad news, periodic geopolitical shocks aren’t good for nervous investors.

2. Stronger U.S. Dollar

Political uncertainty in Europe and the U.K. depresses the euro and pound relative to the U.S. dollar, which investors continue to regard as a safe haven. A strong dollar is bad news for U.S. exporters, whose goods are more expensive to customers holding weaker currencies — and, it follows, bad news for the U.S. economy at large. On the other hand, a weaker pound is good news for flush U.S. companies looking to snap up struggling British competitors, according to The Guardian.

3. Protectionist Economic Policy

Many EU member states are grappling with increasingly assertive nationalist parties advocating for protectionist labor and trade policies (more on that later). While individual policy proposals should be judged on their merits, protectionism generally isn’t good for international firms whose business models favor free trade.

4. Uncertainty or Disruption for U.S. Companies Doing Business in the EU

Many U.S.-based companies have significant operations in the U.K. As Britain’s exit looms, some are downsizing or relocating these operations altogether; Ready for Brexit has more on multinationals’ rush to set up shop in continental Europe. Though perhaps necessary in the long run, these moves are costly and disruptive in the near term.

What Is the European Union?

To understand why Britons’ decision to sever ties with the EU was so momentous, we must first understand the European Union’s origins, structure, and purpose, along with the challenges and opportunities facing the soon-to-be-27-member bloc. Here’s what you need to know about the EU bloc’s origins and membership.

European Union Flag

Origins of the European Union

The seeds of the European Union were sown in the ashes of World War II, which devastated much of Western Europe and set the continent’s economy back decades.

The European Coal & Steel Community (ECSC)

The first milestone came in 1951 with the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), a unified market for French and West German coal and steel. The ECSC soon admitted Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, forging a single coal and steel market that stretched from Sicily to the North Sea.

ECSC member states agreed to submit to the jurisdiction of transnational supervisory bodies, including a newly created executive council and a special legal court. Like the ECSC’s economic domain, these bodies’ shared mandate was modest, but they nevertheless set in motion a project of economic and political cooperation that would define Europe in the decades to come.

The European Economic Community (EEC)

The six ECSC nations took the next step toward economic unification in 1957 with the signing of the Treaty of Rome. This treaty laid out the framework for the European Economic Community (EEC), envisioned by its founders as a regional free trade zone with no internal trade barriers and common external trade policies. The EEC was formed on January 1, 1958, beginning the long process of trade liberalization among its six founding members.

By 1967, this process was far enough along to eliminate the need for the ECSC and the European Atomic Energy Community, a common nuclear energy market. Both merged with the EEC that year, forming a unified transnational framework with one parliament and court system.

The EEC grew steadily through the 1970s and 1980s. In 1973, Ireland, the U.K., and Denmark joined; in 1981, Greece; in 1986, Spain and Portugal; and in 1990, a reunified Germany. All new members agreed to relax internal trade barriers and normalize external trade policy after joining. By the early 1990s, the unified economic market stretched from Lisbon, Portugal in the west to Athens, Greece in the east to Aberdeen, Scotland and Copenhagen, Denmark in the north.

The Dawn of the European Union

As the EEC’s membership grew, so did its ambitions. In 1993, the EEC changed its name to simply “EC” for “European Community.” That year, EC member states took the next major step toward a stronger, more integrated union with the enactment of the Treaty of Maastricht, a framework for closer political, economic, and security cooperation within the common market.

The Treaty of Maastricht, also known as the Treaty on European Union, set forth the basic framework that governs the modern EU. The treaty’s provisions included:

  • The basis for a regional currency (the euro)
  • The economic and government finance criteria (the Maastricht criteria) required of any nation that wished to join the regional currency
  • A regional central bank (the European Central Bank) with a unified monetary policy
  • A new concept of European citizenship premised on unfettered freedom of movement between EU member nations.

Future treaties — notably, the Treaty of Amsterdam (1997), Treaty of Nice (2001), and Treaty of Lisbon (2007) — clarified and amended aspects of the Maastricht framework. Among other things, these updates centralized and strengthened legislative and judicial power in Brussels, the EU capital; took further steps toward a common defense policy; and set forth an orderly procedure by which EU member states could leave the union.

European Union Members

As of early 2019, the European Union has 28 member countries, 19 of which use the euro. Three non-member nations — Iceland, Norway, and Liechtenstein — belong to the European Economic Area (EEA), an extension of the EU’s single market.

The European Union’s member states and their dates of admission are:

  • Austria (1995)
  • Belgium (1958)
  • Bulgaria (2007)
  • Croatia (2013)
  • Cyprus (2008)
  • Czechia, formerly the Czech Republic (2004)
  • Denmark (1973)
  • Estonia (2004)
  • Finland (1995)
  • France (1958)
  • Germany (1958)
  • Greece (1981)
  • Hungary (2004)
  • Ireland (1973)
  • Italy (1958)
  • Latvia (2004)
  • Lithuania (2004)
  • Luxembourg (1958)
  • Malta (2004)
  • The Netherlands (1958)
  • Poland (2004)
  • Portugal (1986)
  • Romania (2007)
  • Slovakia (2004)
  • Slovenia (2004)
  • Spain (1986)
  • Sweden (1995)
  • United Kingdom (1973), expected to leave the EU in 2019

European Union National Flags Map

The Eurozone

The Treaty of Maastricht set forth the terms under which a future regional currency zone — the euro currency zone, or eurozone — would operate. Today, the euro is the world’s second-most widely held currency and the principal rival to the U.S. dollar. Both currencies have floating exchange rates, meaning their relative values change on a daily basis. Since much of the world’s foreign reserves are held in one currency or the other, the U.S. dollar and euro are arguably the planet’s most significant currency pair.

According to the European Central Bank (ECB), the eurozone developed in three stages following the ratification of the Treaty of Maastricht:

  1. July 1990 to December 1993: Free movement of capital was established between the future founding members of the eurozone.
  2. January 1994 to December 1998: Future member states developed central banking and economic policy.
  3. January 1999 Onward: The euro debuted in global electronic currency markets in January 1999. Physical currency debuted in January 2002, and complete de-circulation of national currencies was achieved by March 2002. The European Central Bank implemented a unified monetary policy for the entire eurozone.

Since Maastricht, three additional mechanisms have arisen to shape and stabilize national and regional economic and fiscal policies within the eurozone:

  • The Stability and Growth Pact, which ensures that eurozone members adhere to sound budgetary policy
  • The European Stability Mechanism (ESM), which provides financial support to eurozone countries experiencing fiscal problems
  • The Single Supervisory Mechanism and Single Resolution Board, which help stabilize the eurozone’s banking system in periods of fiscal crisis

The euro currency zone, or eurozone, has 19 EU members:

  • Austria
  • Belgium
  • Cyprus
  • Estonia
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • Ireland
  • Italy
  • Latvia
  • Lithuania
  • Luxembourg
  • Malta
  • Netherlands
  • Portugal
  • Slovakia
  • Slovenia
  • Spain

Hungary, Poland, and Czechia are in various stages of preparation to adopt the euro. Sweden and Romania have committed to adopting the euro in principle, but the timetable is unclear in both cases.

With exceptions for “exceptional and temporary” excesses, prospective eurozone member states’ fiscal policies must accommodate the four Maastricht criteria:

  • Rates of inflation may exceed the average of the three best-performing member states by no more than 1.5%.
  • Public debt may not exceed 60% of gross domestic product (GDP), and the annual public deficit may not exceed 3% of GDP.
  • National currencies must be fixed to the euro for two years before adopting the euro. Member states must not intentionally devalue their currencies.
  • Long-term interest rates must be no more than 2% higher than the average of the three best-performing member states.

The Schengen Area

The Schengen Area is a 26-state region without border or passport controls. Originally proposed in 1985 outside the EC framework, the zone was formally established in 1995 and incorporated into the EU framework with the ratification of the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1997.

The Schengen Area is not exactly equivalent to the European Union. The U.K., Ireland, Bulgaria, Romania, Cyprus, and Croatia all have some border controls; non-EU members Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein — as well as tiny city-states Monaco, San Marino, and Vatican City — are formal or de facto Schengen states.

According to a 2008 European Commission publication about the Schengen Area, the region has more than 400 million inhabitants, nearly 2 million of whom commute across national borders each day. A European Parliament report states that the total value of intra-European trade, including cross-border trade that would normally be slowed by border controls, exceeded 5 trillion euros in 2014. The same report pegged the direct annual cost of restoring intra-Schengen border controls at 5 billion to 18 billion euros.

Non-EU citizens have freedom of movement throughout the Schengen Area. Once an outside visitor to Europe receives an entry visa or passport stamp at their point of entry to the region — for instance, an international airport — they can move without restriction between Schengen countries for up to 90 days. The EU allows visa-free entry from most developed nations; Schengen Visa Info has a list of countries whose nationals require a single “Schengen Visa” to enter the Schengen Area.

The European Union’s Mission & Governance

EU member states are bound by shared purpose and values, clear political structures, and obligations and rights spelled out in the union’s charter.

Values & Goals of the EU

The European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights spells out six values and eight goals that inform the region’s governance. The values are:

  • Human Dignity. The charter views this as the basis for all other fundamental rights.
  • Freedom. This is a broad-based concept of freedom that incorporates freedom of individual privacy, thought, religion, expression, assembly, and information.
  • Representative Democracy. All EU citizens are permitted to vote in and stand as candidates in elections for European Parliament and representative bodies and institutions in their home countries.
  • Equality. All citizens are considered equal under the law.
  • Rule of Law. The European Court of Justice holds final jurisdiction over national and sub-national courts within the EU.
  • Human Rights. The charter defines these as freedom from discrimination on the basis of sex and other protected statuses, the right to protection of personal data, and the right to access to justice.

The union’s goals include lofty ideals like promoting peace and enhancing “cohesion and solidarity” among EU member states.

European Union People Waving Flafg Symbolizing Freedom Human Rights Justice

Governing Bodies of the EU

To outsiders, the warren of executive, legislative, and judicial bodies governing the European Union is confusing, even inscrutable. What follows is a non-exhaustive accounting of the most important of these bodies.

European Council

The European Council is a non-legislative political body responsible for setting the agenda for the EU’s governing apparatus and proposing the laws the European Parliament may debate and enact. Led by a rotating president and composed mainly of member nation heads of state, the European Council has no power to pass or change laws directly.

Legislative Bodies

The EU has three main legislative bodies:

  • The European Parliament, whose 751 members are elected directly by EU citizens to represent their interests
  • The Council of the European Union, a non-elected body that represents the interests of EU member governments and has the power to compel national legislatures and agencies to act
  • The European Commission, a hybrid body charged with proposing new legislation and enforcing laws passed by other EU legislative bodies

Judicial Bodies

The EU has two main judicial bodies:

  • The Court of Justice of the European Union, the union’s supreme judicial body (akin to the U.S. Supreme Court), whose 56 judges ensure that EU laws are applied equally in all member states
  • The Court of Auditors, a non-enforcement body that operates as the external financial auditor for the EU’s governing apparatus and as EU citizens’ de facto taxpayer advocate

Other EU Bodies

The EU’s governance apparatus includes dozens of other entities of various size and import, including:

  • The European Central Bank (ECB), which sets a unified monetary policy for the union
  • The European External Action Service, which coordinates member states’ foreign policy
  • The European Investment Bank, which directs large-scale EU investment projects and provides loans and other forms of financial assistance to small businesses
  • The European Data Protection Supervisor, which enforces EU data protection laws
  • The European Committee of the Regions, which represents the interests of member states’ regional and local governments

Criticism of the EU Model

Even the EU’s most ardent boosters admit that the union has some flaws. While subjective opinions of the EU often turn on political philosophy, the following three criticisms are difficult to deny.

1. Democratic Deficit

Though perceptions vary by country, EU citizens generally have unfavorable views of the EU’s governing institutions.

This is due in part to the perception that ostensibly representative bodies like the European Parliament are not responsive to — or have little power to address — their constituents’ needs. These weak democratic institutions contrast sharply with an unelected European bureaucracy that’s widely seen to wield immense influence over EU citizens’ private and public lives.

It’s a fundamental weakness that’s likely to be remedied only with significant structural reforms that strengthen the EU’s democratic institutions — and, as Joseph C. Sternberg of The Wall Street Journal advocates, perhaps creating an executive branch in the mold of the U.S. presidency.

2. Brain Drain in Peripheral EU Countries

Free movement within the Schengen Area has been a godsend for talented Eastern European youths facing uncertain prospects close to home. With relative ease, Bulgarian lawyers and Polish physicians can relocate to dynamic western capitals like London and Berlin, where they’re likely to find better, higher-paying jobs.

Things aren’t so rosy for the communities they leave behind. As The Economist notes, origin countries face labor and talent shortages; one survey found that up to 90% of Bulgarian medical students planned to emigrate after graduation.

3. Monetary Policy Unsuited to the Periphery

The European Central Bank’s deflationary monetary policy is widely seen as biased toward the bloc’s northern “core,” whose members typically have manageable sovereign debt and low budget deficits relative to GDP. Debt-laden peripheral economies like Greece and Portugal would benefit from a more accommodating, inflationary approach. Economists attribute the Greek debt crisis, described in greater detail below, to a deflationary or “hawkish” monetary policy, at least in part.

The European Union Today: Challenges & Possibilities

The recent history of the European Union has been fraught. Since 2000, the bloc has faced a slew of challenges, many of which continue today. These are among the most significant:

Efforts to Admit New Members

Under Article 49 of the Treaty of Maastricht, any European nation that commits to upholding the EU’s six fundamental values is eligible to join the union. The formal basis for a country’s accession to the EU is spelled out in the Copenhagen criteria:

  • Stable political institutions that guarantee representative democracy, human rights, rule of law, and respect for the protection of minorities
  • A stable, market-based economy resilient enough to withstand market pressures within the EU
  • The capacity to implement and respect the supremacy of EU law and to remain in alignment with the aims of the EU’s economic, political, and monetary union

European Union Contract Criteria Requirements

For countries without longstanding traditions of political and economic liberalism, meeting the Copenhagen criteria is easier said than done. Croatia, the newest EU member state and one of several former Soviet states now in the union, acceded in 2013. No further additions are expected until at least 2025, when Serbia and Montenegro may join. Though Turkey has been the subject of accession negotiations since at least 2005, its accelerating turn toward authoritarianism directly conflicts with the first Copenhagen criterion and makes accession unlikely in the near term.

Looking ahead, it’s clear that the EU’s fastest growth is behind it. The countries remaining within the union’s plausible geographic extent are either unlikely to meet the Copenhagen criteria anytime soon (this includes most non-member Balkans and Eastern European nations) or unlikely to accede for political reasons (polls and referenda reveal deep euroskepticism among majorities in Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland).

The Global Financial Crisis

The global financial crisis of the late 2000s precipitated an extended period of slow or negative economic growth whose ramifications continue to be felt today.

The EU’s post-crisis recession wasn’t as long or deep as the United States’, thanks in part to the aggressive application of fiscal controls such as the European Stability Mechanism. According to Kalin Anev Janse, Secretary General of the ESM, countries that received support from the ESM, such as Spain and Ireland, are among the region’s fastest-growing national economies today.

In the aftermath of the financial crisis, the EU deployed new financial controls designed to reduce future crises’ severity and disruptiveness. The Single Supervisory Mechanism governs more than 100 major European banks whose failure or impairment would threaten the monetary union’s stability; the Single Resolution Board provides for the orderly dissolution of failed European banks.

The Greek Debt Crisis

Unlike the United States, Europe experienced a second period of flat or declining economic growth in the early 2010s. Many economists blamed the ECB’s insistence on normalizing eurozone interest rates in defiance of lingering economic weakness. National debt crises on the eurozone’s economic periphery, most notably in Greece, also contributed to the slowdown.

Greece’s sovereign debt increased from 103.6% of GDP in 2006 to 178.9% of GDP in 2014, per Eurostat. The increase — over levels that were already technically impermissible under the Maastricht criteria — caused Greek government bond yields to spike from historic levels near 5% in 2009 to nearly 30% in 2011 and 2012, spooking investors and threatening to precipitate similar crises in other debt-laden eurozone economies. The crisis forced the Greek government to enact painful budget cuts and tax increases that deepened the country’s economic malaise, negotiate a 50% reduction in repayments to bond investors, and accept three bailouts from supranational financial stability bodies — most notably, an International Monetary Fund loan that later briefly fell into arrears.

Though the crisis’s acute phase is past, Greece continues to modify its obligations to bondholders. According to Bloomberg, the country’s European bondholders agreed in August 2018 to a 10-year extension of maturities on about $112 billion in bailout funds. Moreover, the conditions that precipitated the crisis — namely, the fact that debt-laden countries such as Greece coexist within the same monetary union as fiscally fastidious countries like Germany — remain in place.

Intra-EU Migration

According to a 2017 European Commission report on intra-EU labor mobility, nearly 12 million working-age EU citizens — about 4% of the bloc’s total working-age population — lived in a member state other than their country of origin. Four countries accounted for approximately half of all EU “movers”: Italy, Poland, Portugal, and Romania. Just two, Germany and the U.K., drew about 50% of all movers.

Intra-EU migration — specifically, migration of labor from peripheral eastern and southern European countries to northern and western states with strong labor markets — has fueled resurgent populist movements in some destination countries. During the Brexit campaign, for instance, “Leave” proponents pushed the offensive “Polish plumber” meme to galvanize support for tighter passport controls, a key plank in their platform.

Transcontinental Migration & the Refugee Crisis

Europe has long been a destination for migrants from Africa and Asia, but recent history has sorely tested the continent’s willingness to accept refugees fleeing war, famine, and economic strife. In 2015, according to the European Commission, more than 1 million people traveled to the EU from points south and east. Many endured perilous Mediterranean crossings in rickety, overladen boats; others chanced arduous overland journeys through scorching scrubland and rugged mountains.

Migrant Crisis Freedom Of Movement

To combat the crisis, the EU committed to investing billions of euros in humanitarian aid to transit and origin countries throughout the developing world. The lion’s share of this commitment — some 3 billion euros — went to Turkey, a major transit country for refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war.

The migrant influx is a major source of social and political tension in destination countries. After arguing for years that Germany had a moral imperative to accept refugees fleeing war and famine, German Chancellor Angela Merkel acquiesced to her country’s increasingly strident political opposition and agreed in late 2017 to limit annual refugee admissions. In July 2018, she and her conservative coalition partner reached a compromise to reinstitute some border controls on Germany’s southern fringe, where most non-EU migrants enter.

Though other Schengen countries had previously instituted limited border controls to manage migrant flows, the symbolism of the EU’s largest economy and most ardent champion doing so wasn’t lost on outside observers — nor Merkel’s political opposition. In October 2018, Merkel all but admitted that her political capital was spent when she announced that her present term as Chancellor would be her last.

Contentious Relations With Russia

In the late 20th century, the EU and its predecessors — then far smaller in extent — were de facto economic and ideological counterweights to the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellite states.

Today, Russia has a market-based economy and goes through the motions of representative democracy. To varying degrees, most of its former satellites embrace these Western ideals as well. Indeed, many newer EU members are former Soviet bloc countries: Czechia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria, Poland, and the three Baltic states.

Per the European External Action Service, the EU and Russian governments cooperate within the partnership and cooperation agreement (PCA) framework on matters such as trade, environmental policy, regional security, and education. Given their geographical proximity, Russia and the EU are economically dependent as well. The EU is a major export market for Russian oil and gas, and Russia, in turn, buys everything from vehicles and machinery to pharmaceutical products from EU manufacturers.

Moreover, wealthy Russian oligarchs see the EU, and particularly the U.K., as a safe place to stash capital beyond the reach of a capricious central government; London’s high-end real estate market is supported in significant part by foreign investment.

Lately, relations between the EU and Russia have soured. The Russian government sees the accession of former Soviet bloc states to the EU — as well as to NATO, the mutual defense partnership created to counter Soviet power — as a usurpation to Russia’s historical influence over its “near abroad.” The EU has watched Russia’s increasingly aggressive behavior with alarm, beginning with its 2008 invasion of Georgia and escalating with the 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula. Following its action in Crimea, Russia was expelled from the G8, a consortium of developed nations that includes EU members Germany, Italy, France, and the U.K., and portions of the PCA were suspended indefinitely.

The EU’s Russia policy is complicated by the diversity of its members. With close economic and cultural links with Russia, many eastern members advocate for accommodation, while most political leaders in the more historically influential western bloc see Russia is a significant threat to EU cohesion. However, those leaders — including Chancellor Merkel — face mounting pressure from nationalist political parties that advocate for strict immigration controls and closer ties with authoritarian regimes, including Russia’s.

Resurgent Nationalism & Illiberalism

Nationalism is on the rise across Europe, fed by slow economic growth, widening income inequality, and a powerful political backlash against intra-EU and transnational migration. According to the BBC, nationalist parties have won significant vote shares in nearly a dozen EU elections from 2010 to 2018. Nativists control the levers of power in Hungary, where openly anti-immigrant Viktor Orban, now in his third term as prime minister, advocates for radical change in Europe.

The nationalist resurgence complicates the EU’s efforts to present a united front on global human rights issues and threatens internal cohesion. Though every nationalist movement is different, EU nationalists generally oppose the Schengen Area status quo and advocate for the weakening or outright dissolution of the EU’s central government. Some ethnonationalist movements champion ethnic or linguistic partition, notably in Scotland and Catalonia, an autonomous region of northeastern Spain. Should their collective influence continue to grow, it’s difficult to see the EU following through on its expressed commitment to further integration.

Final Word

So where does the EU go from here?

Observers propose a range of scenarios to improve, stabilize, or radically change the union as it enters its seventh full decade of existence.

Carme Colomina of the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs proposes strengthening the EU’s democratic institutions and holding EU member states to minimum social safety net standards, such as a minimum wage, minimum basic income, and housing security.

Jacobo Barigazzi of Politico EU offers a dozen ideas, some more realistic than others: a “two-speed” EU government with different rights and responsibilities for eurozone and non-eurozone members; a common unemployment insurance regime; delegating more decision-making power to member countries; abolishing the European Council; adding a directly elected European president; and allowing Greece to leave the euro, among others.

Most of these proposals probably won’t come to fruition anytime soon. But, for the sake of their cause, champions of market economics and representative democracy must hope that the EU shakes its malaise.

How do you feel about the European Union? Are you worried about its future?



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How We Changed Our Financial Blueprint


Guest post from Hope of Under The Median:

Whether we realize it or not, the way we handle money is primarily a result of a template, set in childhood and reinforced by our parents. In other words, we tend to spend and save money much like our parents did.

This financial blueprint is a strong force in our lives, and if it’s not a fiscally strong one, it can take a moment of crisis to overcome it. This is my story.

My mother was widowed at the age of 42, with four children and no idea how much money was coming in or where it was all going. When I was 18, she told me tearfully one day that she and my father had never lived with a budget. He just made money every month and they paid the bills. There always seemed to be enough money. She was terrified!

Even though I watched her go through this experience, I didn’t live with a written budget (or any spending plan) until I was well into my 20’s. I worked with the only blueprint I had ever known — much like my parents, I just made money and hoped that there would be enough to go around.

Two moments of terror stand out in my mind.

The first, when I was 20. I had moved out of my mother’s home and was living with two roommates. One evening, my bank account dipped to just $25 and the ATM would not let me withdraw any money. My gas tank was nearly empty. I prayed every day on the way to work that week that I would make it there and back without the car dying. I got paid at 4pm, and by 4:15pm I was at the gas station!

The second incident occurred when I was 24. My husband and I had been married for just two months and our checkbook indicated an almost zero balance. My stomach plummeted into the pit of my stomach. My mind reeled as I realized we had spent nearly every penny of our wedding cash gifts in just a few weeks. If we didn’t make immediate changes, we would be in big trouble in a very short time.

That’s when the light went on!

I worked at a Christian radio station and a man named Larry Burkett had just begun a daily program called “Money Matters.” It was the first generation of live Christian money management call-in programs. I listened carefully and began to implement Larry Burkett’s suggestions.

Within weeks, I had plugged into some great authors and teachers. I read a lot of books. I figured out what ideas I could implement right away, and created a list of ideas to consider for the future. I learned to cook from scratch and how to track my expenses.

We focused on one or two areas at a time. When we had those areas streamlined and under control, we move on to another couple of areas.

Over the next thirty years, we rewrote our family’s financial blueprint.

We gained financial traction as we lived within our means. Although we made a salary which was significantly under the national median income, we paid off our first mortgage in five years. We brought up four sons in our tiny two bedroom bungalow, while saving money to pay cash for our second home.

I won’t tell you that it was easy… because it wasn’t!

At times the road seemed long. But, now I see my 20 and 22 year old sons living on a written budget, paying cash for automobiles, planning for the future, and sharing financial principles with their peers.

I realize that our change wasn’t just for us. It was also for them!

I’m Hope Ware, married to Larry since 1988. We’ve raised 4 amazing sons debt-free on an income which averaged under the national median. I blog over at Under the Median. In my spare time I teach in the high school department at our local homeschool co-op and I sing second soprano in a semi-professional ensemble.

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13 Budgeting Tips for People Who Wonder Where Each Paycheck Goes


A monthly budget is like Google Maps for your finances: You follow it because you don’t know where you’re going without it.

If you’re new to budgeting, don’t be discouraged by a few — or many —  wrong turns and closed roads along the way. The longer you stick with it, the better you get.

And with a few simple tips, you can be well on your way before you know it.

13 Budgeting Tips Anyone Can Follow

Whether you’re trying to pay off credit card debt or just boost your savings, here are some budgeting tips that will help you make (and stick to) your budget.

1. Set Your Goals Before You Make Your Budget

Without a goal, a budget is just a spreadsheet that tells you to have less fun.

Think about what you want in the next five to 10 years, and figure out what financial situation you need to get there. Whatever your goals are, know that any sound financial foundation starts with an emergency fund.

You might then want to pay off debt, save for a down payment on a home, or increase your savings.

Decide where you want to be financially next year and the year after. Knowing what you want to do with your money will guide you as you make your budget, and it will greatly increase the likelihood that you’ll stick to it.

2. There’s No One Size-Fits-All Budget. Find a Plan That Works for You

There are so many budgeting methods out there, and every guru says theirs is the best. But ultimately you have to chose the one that works for you.

If you’ve got an ambitious goal, we recommend trying a zero-based budget first.

To make a zero-based budget, start by prioritizing your expenses from essential to nonessential. Then, assign every dollar in your paycheck a “job” on the list until you run out.

The most important things — housing, food, minimum debt payments — get taken care of first, and you can disburse the remaining money for your goals and fun in their order of importance to you.

Zero-based budgeting is great for Type A planners. If you prefer to be a little more loosey-goosey, a 50/20/30 budget is a great option. With this approach, you don’t have to think too much about your expenses. You just allocate 50% of your income to your needs, 20% to savings and 30% to wants.

3. Use a Budgeting App or the Envelope System to Track Your Spending on the Go

Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

It’s hard to lug around your laptop or binder to keep up with each budget category, so a budgeting app is a great tool for updating your budget on the go. There are many out there, whether you like to enter each transaction manually or see everything updated automatically.

If your goal is to take an intense look at your spending, manually tracking your transactions is going to work best. Once you’ve been budgeting for a while and you’ve got a grasp on your spending, syncing transactions automatically works fine.

If you still can’t stick to your budget, the envelope system can help you succeed without so much emphasis on constant tracking.

After you decide how much money goes toward each of your expenses, put the money you’ll spend for each expense in a given week into separate envelopes and carry them with you. Once an envelope is empty, you’re done spending in that category. You can keep receipts in the envelope and examine your purchases later.

Envelopes are best for categories you’re prone to overspending on. You probably don’t need envelopes for things like gas and utilities, because you’re not likely to go on a gas-buying spree.

Popular categories for envelopes are restaurants, groceries, clothes and entertainment.

4. Use the Past to Predict Your Future Income and Expenses

Whether you choose a zero-based budget, 50/20/30 budget or some other method, you’re going to have to calculate your income and the amount of money you want to put toward every category or individual expense.

Salaried employees will get off easy when they calculate their incomes. If you have a variable income or side hustles, you’ll need to do some digging.

Look back at your income from the past six months, or as far back as you can if you’ve been at your current job for less time. Then find your average monthly income and the average amount of each paycheck.

Expenses like utilities can also be unpredictable. Check your online statements to see which months were higher versus which were lower so you can make future budgets. You may not be able to take that impromptu weekend getaway the month your electric bill will be $300, but it might be totally feasible during a month it’s going to be $75.

5. Make a Monthly Budget AND a Budget for Each Paycheck

Tina Russell and Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

Since most bills are monthly, it’s important to make a budget for the entire month to get a clear picture of everything due. But by breaking that down further into paycheck-by-paycheck budgets, you can pace your spending so you don’t end up penniless by the 20th.

You can make categories as vague or as specific as you want, but put as many barriers in place to prevent yourself from overspending in the first half of the month.

This is another time when the envelope system helps you, but you could do the same thing with reloadable gift cards for specific stores.

6. Don’t Confuse Infrequent Expenses With Emergencies

These aren’t the unexpected expenses that you’d cover with your miscellaneous or emergency categories. Infrequent expenses are the charges that come up once or twice a year — but we always seem to forget will happen.

Like when it’s Dec. 23 and you’re still not done with your holiday shopping. Who could’ve predicted Christmas would be on Dec. 25 AGAIN?!

Examples include things like auto insurance, car registration, license renewal, vet visits, car repairs and membership fees.

Keep a chart that includes your semiannual and annual expenses to determine what you need to save every month to cover them. Open a separate checking account or savings account where you put money every month to cover these expenses.

7. Remember the Obvious: You Need to Spend Less

Once the planning is done, it’s time for the hardest part: sticking to your plan.

If you’re in the habit of spending more than you make, your first priority is to find ways to save money.

We don’t mean you need to find better sales and clip more coupons. As much as we love a good coupon stack, the most important thing you can do is buy and spend less.

Some of our favorite tips to cut spending are:

  • Make a meal plan, and stick to your grocery list.
  • Prep meals on Sundays so you’re less likely to eat out during the week.
  • Opt for free events in your area instead of pricy activities or bars.
  • Try running and body-weight workouts instead of paying for a gym membership.

There are countless ways to save money. Our best tip: Start by slashing expenses that are making a big dent in your budget instead of shaving pennies off already manageable ones.

Do everything you can to resist the temptation to make impulse purchases or spend beyond your budget. An easy way to do this: Leave your credit card at home, and use cash envelopes or a debit card.

8. Use the 30-Day Rule to Stop Impulse Buys

If you still need to curb impulse buying, follow the 30-day rule: When you want to buy something that’s not in your budget, make note of the item in question for next month’s budget and revisit it in 30 days. If you still want it, you can consider buying it if you can afford it.

Online shoppers can use the Icebox Chrome extension that allows you to choose a 30-day “cool off” period before you can buy something.

9. Negotiate Your Bills to Save Money

People often take for granted that what they’re paying for their phone, internet and insurance is what they have to pay. By contacting your providers to negotiate your bills, you could lower your bills once or twice every year.

You can do this yourself by calling all your companies or using a negotiation app like Trim or Empower.

If you’re trying it yourself, be friendly, ask for more than you want, and back down from there. Stop when you feel you’ve reached a good deal. Oh, and be prepared to be on the phone for a while.

10. Remember That Things Will Go Wrong

Student loans and credit cards aren’t paid off overnight. And the perfect budget isn’t made in a day.

Things will change and go wrong. Impulse purchases will be made, and budgets will get obliterated by life’s little surprises. The most important tip for budgeting is to not give up.

When things go wrong, alter your budget to compensate. Move money from one category to another, put less in savings, or try a side hustle to add some wiggle room. And know that sometimes you’ll find yourself ripping up the entire budget and starting again from scratch in the middle of the month.

If budgeting continues to be difficult, try adding a small miscellaneous category somewhere to cover surprise expenses. These expenses come up often and derail the best budgeters. Make a category to cover them, and figure out where to put them later.

Eventually, you’ll get this whole budgeting thing down. But it’s going to start with a lot of bumps in the road.

How to Budget on an Inconsistent Income

Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

Living off tips, sales commissions or freelance work can make for a flexible lifestyle, but it also makes it hard to budget.

When you have an inconsistent income, you can follow all the budgeting tips above. But there’s one thing you should add to your budget to make it easier for yourself during low-income months.

11. Have an Income-Sinking Fund for When Your Income Is Less

When you calculate your income and get your monthly average, compare it with your income each month throughout the year. In months you expect to make more than average, take the difference and transfer it to your income-sinking fund. It’s a separate account where you put money you plan to take out in the near future for a specific purpose, such as supplementing your income on low-earning months.

During months when you expect to make less, you can withdraw up to your monthly average to help with expenses.

Tips for Budgeting With a Partner

Another challenge is budgeting with a partner. It can feel like too many cooks in the kitchen are ruining the budget soup, but when there are two incomes, lives and futures at stake, everyone involved needs to have a stake in the budget.

12. Hold a Monthly Budget Meeting

The first tip is to have a monthly budget meeting that both of you are required to attend.

Whoever enjoys budgeting more can make the budget, but the other partner still has to contribute something. Whether they change one line or many, we repeat: They must contribute.

The budget can still be flexible and change as needed during the month, but both partners should be consulted about big changes. Feeling included is important to working as a team on your finances.

13. ‘Subtle’ Hints Can Help if Your Partner Hates to Budget

If your partner isn’t on board with budgets, they’ll need a little convincing.

Ashley Patrick of Budgets Made Easy tried having budget meetings with her husband, but he wasn’t interested.

Patrick desperately wanted her husband to be part of their financial planning, but he wanted her to handle everything. So she turned to money-saving guru Dave Ramsey’s podcast.

“The biggest thing that fully got him on board was playing Dave Ramsey podcasts in the car, especially when I did it on a long road trip,” she said. “Hours of Dave Ramsey helped change his mindset.”

Both people need to be flexible with the other’s priorities and supportive of their goals.

Budgeting together won’t be easy at first — but it’ll lead to a lifetime of financial strength and happiness.

Jen Smith is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She and her husband paid off $78,000 of debt in less than two years on two less-than-average salaries. She gives money-saving and debt-payoff tips on Instagram at @modernfrugality.

The Penny Hoarder Promise: We provide accurate, reliable information. Here’s why you can trust us and how we make money.



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How to Find a Good Contractor for Home Improvement Repairs


You’ve likely seen the story on your local news: A fly-by-night contractor swoops into town and scams dozens of homeowners out of thousands of dollars each before disappearing without a trace.

No one wants to go through such an ordeal. And yet it happens all the time, especially during the summer when more homeowners start home improvement projects.

The vast majority of contractors are honest and trustworthy, but there will always be those who are ready and willing to run a scam and run off with your money. So how can you make sure you find a reliable and reputable contractor who keeps their promises? And how do you make sure you’re hiring the right professional for the job? Let’s take a look.

Do You Need a Contractor or Handyman?

Take a look at your project to-do list. Perhaps you need to replace the roof, fix the leak under the kitchen sink, re-tile the hallway floor, and install a ceiling fan in your son’s bedroom. You’d also like to build a small deck for summer cookouts.

Some of these projects are relatively easy to complete, while others are far more complex. So the question becomes: Do you need to hire a contractor, or will a handyman suffice?

Certain projects require in-depth knowledge and even local or state certifications; for these projects, you’ll need a contractor. Other projects can be tackled by someone who knows how to use a bandsaw or who has the time to fix a leaking pipe; for these projects, you can call a handyman, who will typically charge less per hour or project than a licensed contractor.

Here’s how to figure out which professional to hire for your project.

Handyman

A handyman will typically complete general home repair and routine maintenance projects, such as:

  • Replacing a sink
  • Installing a new toilet
  • Painting
  • Cleaning gutters
  • Drywall repair
  • Installing a patio
  • Seasonal maintenance projects
  • Minor HVAC repairs
  • Flooring repair or replacement
  • Yard work
  • Fence repair
  • Eliminating outdoor mold

These projects are not complex and don’t require much specialized knowledge.

Contractor

Contractors are better suited for larger jobs that require a permit, specialized knowledge, or both. These professionals fall into two categories: general contractors and contractors.

General Contractor

A general contractor (GC) acts as a manager for large projects. They hire contractors, known as subcontractors, to perform specialized tasks such as installing new plumbing, installing new countertops, or rewiring a house. General contractors make sure that all permits are filed, all deadlines are met, and costs stay on budget.

You should hire a general contractor for projects such as:

Contractors

Contractors are skilled and licensed tradespeople who work independently with several general contractors or with a larger agency. You would hire a contractor for projects such as:

  • Building a deck
  • Rewiring a home
  • Installing a whole-house generator
  • Replacing plumbing or installing a water heater
  • Installing new windows or doors
  • Rebuilding a fireplace or installing a wood stove
  • Installing tile or masonry
  • Installing an HVAC unit

If you’re still not sure if you need a general contractor, regular contractor, or handyman, follow these rules from HomeAdvisor:

  • If the job will take more than a week, hire a GC.
  • If the job requires several different pros to complete, hire a GC.
  • If the job requires a few permits, hire a GC.
  • If these rules don’t apply to your project, you might be fine with a regular contractor or even a handyman.

Contractor Helmet Remodeling Kitchen Interior Blueprint Sketch

How Much Will It Cost You?

You may be wondering if you should do it yourself (DIY) or hire a contractor. And if you do hire someone, how much will it cost you?

A contractor’s quote depends on a number of factors: the type of project, how expensive materials are, and where you live. It’s impossible to quote an average price because projects vary so widely.

For example, if you’re thinking about remodeling your kitchen, you’ll likely have to hire a general contractor who will also enlist subcontractors such as plumbers and electricians. The cost for a project like this depends on the scope of the project and average hourly rates for each subcontractor, which can vary widely depending on where you live.

According to HomeAdvisor, average rates for contractors include:

  • Electrician: $50 to $100 per hour
  • Plumber: $45 to $200 per hour
  • Tile Setting or Stone Setting Professional: $863 to $2,681 per job
  • Roofer: $7,524 per job
  • HVAC: $284(repair) or $4,274 (installation) per job
  • Window Installation: $5,274 per job
  • House Painting (Exterior): $2,803 per job

Estimating what you’ll pay for a smaller project that requires a handyman is a bit easier. These professionals typically charge less than a contractor; according to HomeAdvisor, the typical cost for a handyman project, nationwide, is $178 to $650.

How to Find a Great Contractor

A quick online search is enough to scare you off from ever hiring a contractor. The Web is full of horror stories from families who hired a contractor who:

  • Ran off with their money without ever performing the work
  • Did the work so poorly they had to hire someone else to fix the job at double or triple the cost
  • Took months or even years to complete a project, for tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars over budget

If your area has recently gone through a major storm, such as a hurricane, tornado, hail storm, or flood, you also need to watch out for “storm chasers.” These are contractors who swoop in from out of town to fix homes damaged by a recent natural disaster. While some of these contractors are legitimate, many are just looking to make some quick cash and then hit the road before homeowners discover their shoddy work.

Still, there are plenty of honest and trustworthy contractors out there. How do you find one? It takes time, work, and patience, but your efforts will pay off.

1. Do Your Homework

Websites like Angie’s List and HomeAdvisor help take the guesswork out of hiring someone sight unseen; these are great places to start your search. Each site has an extensive database of home improvement contractors reviewed by verified members.

Another option is to contact your local chamber of commerce or building trade association and ask for their recommendations.

You can also ask your insurance company, even if they’re not paying for the work. Most insurance companies have agreements with reputable local contractors. Not only can you take advantage of the review process your insurance company has performed on these companies, but you might even get a price break based on the relationship between the contractor and your insurance company.

Once you’ve researched your options, make a list of at least three highly rated contractors you want to get a bid from and contact them directly.

2. Get Contractors’ License Numbers

After you create a shortlist of contractors, narrow down your list by calling and asking the contractors for their license numbers and certificates of insurance. All contractors, regardless of the state in which they operate, are required to have a business license and insurance coverage.

Having a business license number will allow you to contact your local municipality and determine whether the contractor is legally in business, while the certificate of insurance will ensure that the contractor is covered in the event anything goes wrong. Good contractors should carry both workers comp and liability insurance through their business. Ask to see their insurance policy so you can review their coverage.

Keep in mind that a business license is not the same as a contractor license. Each state, city, and municipality has different requirements for contractor licensing. Visit HomeAdvisor’s state licensing page to look up your state’s unique requirements so you know what licenses to look for from a reputable contractor.

3. Ask Questions

When it comes time to meet each contractor, it’s helpful to have a list of questions written out so you don’t forget something important. Consider asking them some or all of the following questions:

What Local Trade Associations Do You Belong To?

After the interview, call these organizations up and check that this contractor is indeed a member in good standing.

How Long Have You Been in Business?

Ask for proof for their tenure, since some fly-by-night contractors will claim “20 years’ experience” in the area when they actually only got into town last month.

Can You Give Me at Least 3 Recent References?

The keyword here is “recent.” Good contractors should be ready and willing to share the contact information of at least three homeowners they’ve worked with over the last year. If all they have are old references, it might be a sign that their work quality has dropped.

When you talk to these homeowners, ask them:

  • How quickly did this contractor return your phone calls?
  • Was the project completed on budget? If not, what happened?
  • Did the contractor keep their promises to you?
  • Was the contractor responsive to changes with the project? If there was any disagreement, what happened?
  • Would you recommend this contractor to someone in your family?

What Timeline Do You Have for This Project? Are You On Any Other Projects That Could Affect This Timeline?

Also ask them about any recent bids they’ve made with other homeowners. They might not have any projects lined up right now, but what happens if two other homeowners hire them later in the week?

Contractors Blueprint Meeting Discussion Floorplan Table Working

What Payment Schedule Do You Require?

Remember, an honest contractor will never ask for the full project amount up front, but most will ask for a deposit and regular payments throughout the project. Make sure you know when payments are due and how much they will be.

Will the Same People Work on This Project Every Day?

If you’re interviewing a general contractor, ask them who will be showing up at your home every day. What kind of vetting process do they use when hiring subcontractors? Will it be the same team of subcontractors every day, or will different teams show up on different days? Find out the details so you know what to expect.

What Should I Do to Get the House or Workspace Ready?

Do you need to move furniture? Take pictures off the walls in adjoining rooms? Roll up the rugs?

This is also a chance to ask if there’s anything you could do to prep the area that might lower the cost of the project.

What Will the Project Look Like, Really?

With this question, you’re asking how the project will affect your life and your family. Follow-up questions could include:

  • How loud will the work be?
  • How much dust will get blown about?
  • How much trash will be generated, and will it all be cleaned up every day?
  • Will one of us have to be at home while work is being completed?
  • Will you use any tarps to protect furniture and other objects?
  • Will your contractors wear shoe protection when they’re coming in from outside?
  • Where will you need to store tools and materials during the project?

If it’s a large project, ask if the contractor brings a port-a-potty or if subcontractors will be using one of your restrooms throughout the day.

Some of these questions might seem a little nitpicky, but don’t underestimate how much it might annoy you when a contractor tracks mud all over your carpeting because they didn’t take off their boots. Find out this stuff before the project begins so you can communicate your expectations and save yourself some headaches.

4. Get An Itemized Bid

Every contractor you interview should provide you with an itemized bid. This is a bid that lists, item by item, everything you’ll be paying for. It should include:

  • All labor costs (including estimated subcontractor costs, if your project calls for them)
  • All materials (including specifics such as paint, drywall, and light fixtures)
  • All permit fees
  • Any other expenses, such as travel fees the contractor expects to bill for

An itemized bill gives you clear and upfront information about how much the project will cost. It also gives you the power to stay on budget. If the contractor’s initial bid is more than you can afford, you can easily change the scope of the project to better fit your budget. For example, you might decide to go with less-expensive tile or do all the painting yourself.

If changes to your original quote are necessary, document them on your original quote and make sure that both you and the contractor sign it. Your quote should also contain applicable information regarding warranties or guarantees on work performed and materials used.

Keep this agreement in a safe place until your warranty expires in case you ever have to pursue legal action against the contractor.

You also need to clarify whether the contractor’s bid is an estimate or fixed price. Estimates can wind up costing you much more, so find out what factors might affect the final price.

If your contractor doesn’t want to give you an itemized bid, don’t hire them.

Red Flags to Watch Out For

A disreputable contractor can show up any time, at any place. But they often exhibit some red flags you can keep an eye out for.

1. They Solicit Door to Door

Good contractors usually have more work than they can handle and don’t need to knock on doors or put flyers in mailboxes to find work.

Some disreputable contractors use door-to-door solicitations to scam their customers outright. For example, in one of my old neighborhoods, an asphalt resealing contractor would periodically roll down the street, pitching their services to anyone who happened to be outside. One neighbor unwisely hired him, and they agreed upon the price and shook hands on it. No contract was involved.

The contractor finished the job that afternoon and demanded double the price he’d initially quoted. Because no contract was signed, it was a case of “he said, she said.” My neighbor had to take the contractor to small claims court to resolve the issue; he won his case, but not without a significant amount of time and stress.

Another common scam involves landscaping. A truck loaded with trees, bushes, and flowers will drive around neighborhoods, asking homeowners if they want to buy these super cheap “surplus plants” and have the landscape professional plant them in their yard. Usually, these plants are on death’s door, and the homeowner pays good money only to have to dig them up a week or two later.

Be wary of anyone going door to door looking for business. More often than not, this is a sign of someone who’s desperate for work.

2. They Ask You to Get Permits

Reputable contractors take responsibility for getting all necessary permits for a project because they’re the ones who will be talking to the building inspector when they arrive to inspect the work. They file the permit under their contractor license number.

A scammer will ask you to get your own building permit, which means you’ll have to lie about who’s really doing the work. As a homeowner, you can get your own permit for DIY projects, but if someone else is doing the work, they have to get the permit — and, thus, they’re the ones responsible to the inspector. All too often, contractors who request that homeowners get their own permits are unlicensed or have a bad reputation with local inspectors. Either way, run.

3. They Want All the Money Up Front

It’s normal for contractors to ask for some money up front, usually a lump sum amount or a percentage of what they quoted in their bid — typically, no more than 10%. If a contractor wants all the money up front, show them the door.

4. Their Bid Is Way Too Low

You should get at least three bids before you hire anyone, and these bids should be relatively similar in price.

Be wary of any contractor who submits an extremely low bid. There’s a good chance they’re bidding low to get their foot in the door so that later, they can hit you with unexpected charges for material or labor.

Another common scam with low bids involves a contractor saying he wants to use your project for “advertising purposes” or as a showcase piece for his portfolio. Just say no and walk away. An extremely low bid is a sign of inexperience, cutting corners, or worse.

Get a general idea of what your project should cost before you start looking at bids. Check out Remodeling’s Cost vs. Value Report, which lists the typical costs of 30 common home improvement projects by area.

Final Word

It’s scary enough to shell out thousands of dollars or more for a home improvement project, and it’s even scarier when you don’t fully trust the person responsible for completing the work.

Finding a great contractor takes time and research, but it’s well worth the effort. Dealing with someone who’s professional, experienced, and trustworthy will relieve a lot of stress in an already stressful situation and ensure that you get what you’re paying for.

What has your experience with contractors been like? Do you have any tips for finding a great contractor (or any horror stories to share)?



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Questions About Weddings, Roth IRAs, Shoes, Blankets, and More!


What’s inside? Here are the questions answered in today’s reader mailbag, boiled down to summaries of five or fewer words. Click on the number to jump straight down to the question.
1. Thoughts on caring for parents
2. Wedding question, part one
3. Wedding question, part two
4. Starbucks Visa
5. Books on home buying
6. Frugal running shoes
7. Roth IRA contribution question
8. Roth IRA or bigger e-fund?
9. Unwanted Christmas toys
10. Marketing crocheted baby blankets
11. Where do I get advice?
12. Further areas of philosophy

Here in Iowa, it felt like winter did not begin until about January 12th or so, but when it did, it hit with a vengeance, with many inches of snow and a forecast for the coming week that has wind chills at our home approaching -50F.

When the weather gets that cold, it interferes with all kinds of things. You simply avoid going outside if at all possible, which means that

As I write this, I’m bundled up in multiple layers of clothing with a cup of hot tea on my desk. I feel quite good after getting up quite early to shovel snow. I don’t bother running the snowblower unless we have several inches, as shoveling our drive of a few inches of snow is good exercise.

On with the questions.

Q1: Thoughts on caring for parents

My wife and I are in our forties. We have two adult children that are moved out and on their own. Her parents are both in their late seventies; my parents have been deceased since I was 20.

Her parents are ailing. They’re not in a situation where they need to be in a retirement home, but household tasks wear them out. They live about an hour away and we visit them two or three times a week to help out, as do my wife’s siblings.

We have been talking about the possibility of having her parents move in with us to make things easier on all involved. We are actually set up very well with this, as we have a large main floor bedroom that could be used by them and a main floor bathroom with a shower that could be modified a bit to make it easy for them to use.

Our main worry is that the other siblings will simply stop helping or visiting in any way and just assume we’re taking care of it. They really like the regular visits from their children and grandchildren and we worry that will all dry up if they move in with us. Our secondary worry is financial as it will add some household expenses.

What are your thoughts on this?
– Shaun

In general, if everyone is on board with this, I think multigenerational living is a great approach for everyone involved. The key to making it work is communication – people can’t hold back on their feelings or else you will turn every little molehill into a mountain. You have to listen to each other and genuinely try to be supportive of one another to the best of your ability. If you can do that, it’ll work well.

As for your specific concerns, with your primary worry, one way to handle this is to just simply have regular family dinners at your house. Make it a routine to have people over for dinner a couple of times a week. I don’t know whether your home can support this, but it sounds like it can.

Doing this gives people a reason to visit and see your in-laws rather than just “stopping by.” It’s usually easier to go visit a parent or a grandparent if you have a reason to do so; if it’s just “stopping by,” it’s easy to skip it. If there’s a meal involved, it feels more like a reason to visit. So, if the move happens, just institute some regular meals. Maybe have a regular Sunday evening potluck or something like that, and maybe start inviting a few people over on weeknights on a regular basis. For the extra meal effort, don’t hesitate to ask people to come early to help prep if needed or to bring a side dish – in fact, that’s a good idea, because it invests them in the meal and makes the visit feel more purposeful.

As for the financial concern, talk that over with your in-laws. They will probably want to feel some ownership over the situation anyway. You can simply ask them to pay the energy bill and the internet bill or something like that, something that will partially replace their utility costs at their old place and possibly cut your overall bills, too. They can contribute to buying food, too. This can end up being a money saver for you, actually.

The key with any situation like this is open communication and candor. Everything won’t go perfectly and you’ll all do things that drive the other one crazy. Just be open about it and don’t let it grow into hurt feelings. Understand that everyone loves each other and you all want to make this work.

Q2: Wedding question, part one

I have two wedding-related questions for the Reader Mailbag. One of my best friends is getting married, and has asked me to be a bridesmaid. We are in our mid-to-late 20s. She and her fiance make good incomes and come from fairly well-off families. My friend and I have pretty different approaches to our finances as she really enjoys going out, eating out, shopping, etc. Meanwhile, I’m currently in grad school.

My friend’s wedding will be at a swanky venue in one of the most expensive cities in the U.S. (Note: it’s not a destination wedding, but I don’t live there.) I expect everything about the wedding to be top-of-line. My friend wants all of her bridesmaids to purchase bridesmaids dresses together as a group from the same store, by the same deadline. The store stylist said that this guarantees that all of the dresses will come from the same dye lot. The dress that my friend chose for everyone to wear is $300. It’s not that I don’t have the money for this, but… that’s a lot of money!

I found that same dress, used, in my size online. The used dress is significantly less money than the dress’s retail price. I don’t feel that dye lot matters much, but some online wedding forums warn against bridesmaids purchasing dresses piecemeal to avoid inconsistencies that may show up in the wedding photos. I would feel awkward asking my friend if I can order the dress on my own rather than as part of the group, because I feel like I’d be ruining her expensive photos. Again, it’s not that I absolutely can’t afford it, but it just seems so wasteful to spend hundreds of dollars on a dress when I can find it for so much less. Is this a time when I just need to suck it up and participate in the group order for the sake of maintaining social normalcy? I already feel bad because I’m skipping the bachelorette party which is across the country, so I feel like I’m the odd one out.
– Tammy

If I were in your shoes, I would sit down and talk to your friend about the situation. Simply ask if it is okay for the bridesmaids to buy the dress on their own. If she asks why, simply explain the reason – you’re a graduate student, $300 is a lot of money, and you found the same dress in the same color for much less.

The thing to remember is that if this causes a real issue, then there are issues in the friendship to begin with. A good friend appreciates the situation that their friend finds themselves in and works to find a way around it. A wedding is not made or broken on the dress worn by a bridesmaid.

Just have a conversation. The vast majority of the time, this will be a non-issue. If it is an issue, it’s a valuable indication of the status of the friendship.

Q3: Wedding question, part two

Second, how much would you recommend spending for the wedding gift? I was thinking of something from the registry that’s $100, but a lot of wedding etiquette sites say that if it’s a really good friend, you should be spending closer to $175. I don’t want to seem cheap or send the message that I don’t value her as a really good friend, especially when this is going to be a really nice/luxurious occasion. But there’s also a shower gift to account for…
– Tammy

You should completely ignore “wedding etiquette” sites when they give an exact dollar amount for a gift, especially one as weirdly precise as $175. That’s just weird, bad advice.

Give a thoughtful gift you can afford. Pick something from the registry that you can afford and then also write a nice handwritten note to go along with the gift expressing your best wishes for the couple in your own words with your best penmanship.

Anyone who looks negatively upon a gift given to them is a person lacking in character. Gifts should always be given freely based upon what the giver can easily afford.

Q4: Starbucks Visa

As a Starbucks lover, is the Starbucks Visa worth it? How does it compare to popular cards like the Chase Freedom?
– Lana

Well, let’s walk through the hypothetical example given in their sales pitch. In that example, you’re spending $525 a month for a year, $25 at Starbucks and $500 elsewhere, so that adds up to $6,300. Let’s say you use the card for two years, so the total is $12,600.

This earns you 64 rewards in the first year and 28 rewards the second year, totaling 92 rewards. A “reward” is a drink or food item at Starbucks and appears to be at least somewhat Starbucks’ choice. Let’s assume these are worth an average of $4 each, so your total rewards are $368 in value.

To get that reward, you also have to pay $100 in annual fees on the card. So, you’re getting $268 in value, all in the form of Starbucks items that you largely can’t select yourself. That’s a little over 2% in rewards in the form of food items that are probably good but you can’t select yourself.

That’s not really the best card deal out there, and it’s going to decline in value each additional year because you only get that big bonus the first year.

I don’t think this card is worth it unless you drink a lot of Starbucks, in which case you might want to rethink how much you’re spending in coffee shops.

Q5: Books on home buying

Do you have any recommendations on books to read to learn about home-buying? My wife and I are planning to purchase this year.
– Jim

My first recommendation for first-time homebuyers is Home Buying Kit for Dummies by Eric Tyson (seriously). It’s an extremely good guide to what people should know about buying their first home, and Sarah and I read an earlier edition thoroughly when we were considering buying our current home. Ignore the “for Dummies” part – it’s a really good guide.

From there, I’d hone in on which aspects of home buying aren’t crystal clear to you and read articles and find books to fill in gaps in your knowledge.

If I had to pick a second book, I’d probably look at 100 Questions Every First-Time Home Buyer Should Ask by Ilyce Glink. While it’s not as thorough as the Tyson book, it does delve nicely into specific areas of the home buying experience and can complement specific areas of the Tyson book well.

Q6: Frugal running shoes

For a new year’s resolution I followed your advice and started a resolution of running for 1 minute every day this year and running more if I feel like it but not required. It’s been working great! I have been running about 20 minutes a day on average on warm days and at least running a block or two on the really cold days. I thankfully have a spot to run on snowy days.

Anyway I’m writing to ask for frugal advice on running shoes. I used to be a big spender back when I was running and bought expensive shoes constantly. I whipped my finances in shape during a time when I wasn’t running for various reasons but now that I’m back at it, I need to figure out a way to do this without spending $100-200 a month on shoes. Ideas?
– Tom

Let’s get this out of the way right now: I do not advocate anyone running in worn out shoes. You are begging for various physical problems by doing so. You should be replacing your shoes 300 to 500 miles or every 18 months, because the sole of the shoe simply wears down. Look at the bottom of the shoe and see if you see a lot of creases on the shoe’s bottom and there’s significant discoloring – that’s a great sign of wear and you should probably get new ones.

My recommendation is to find a good mid-cost model that really works well for you, buy a pair of them, and then stalk out bargains on that specific model. I have either personally liked or heard very good things about ASICS Gel Venture, Nike Revolution 4, and Adidas Cloudfoam, all of which are available under $50 a pair with ease, so try those.

Once you have a sub-$50 pair you really like, just watch very closely for bargains on those shoes and buy multiple pairs at once if you find a really good deal. You can watch them on Amazon by using tools like Camel Camel Camel, for example.

Q7: Roth IRA contribution question

I decided to put some money that I got for Christmas from my wonderful generous grandparents into a Roth IRA. I opened one through Vanguard and went to deposit the money and they asked if it was a 2018 contribution or a 2019 contribution. Which should I choose? Not sure of the ramifications.
– Julie

Since this is a new Roth IRA – meaning you haven’t made any contributions to a Roth IRA in 2018, I assume – and I’m also assuming that (a) you haven’t filed your taxes for 2018 yet and (b) the amount you’re contributing is less than $5,500, then you should make a 2018 contribution.

Each year, you’re allowed to contribute up to $5,500 to your Roth IRA – starting in 2019, that limit goes up to $6,000. That window to contribute starts on January 1 of a given year and ends when you file your taxes for that year early in the following year. So, until you file your 2018 taxes (some time before mid April), you can still make a 2018 Roth IRA contribution, and you should do so because that window is about to close forever, plus it leaves the 2019 contribution window wide open.

This is a great thing to be doing with a gift from grandparents, by the way. While they might want you to do something fun with that money, if you told them that you put it aside for your future, they’ll be proud of you and for good reason.

Here’s another good Roth IRA question.

Q8: Roth IRA or bigger e-fund?

I have about $3,000 in an emergency fund which would be enough to get by for about two months. I am single with a 7 year old daughter. I have about $1,000 surplus in checking. Should I add to the emergency fund or add to my Roth? Nowhere near contribution limits for the year.
– Amy

First of all, I want to say that I am in awe of what you’re pulling off here. You’re a single mother who not only has a healthy emergency fund, but is also concerned about saving for retirement. You are on the ball and deserve kudos for that.

Second, two months of living expenses is a good healthy emergency fund. If I were in your shoes, I would probably make the Roth contribution with most of the surplus, leaving a little behind in checking as a buffer. Then, I would set up an automatic transfer from checking to savings each week – $10 or $15 or $20 should do. This way, your emergency fund automatically grows slowly over time and if you have to tap it, you know it’s going to refill over time with no further effort.

So, I’d probably contribute around $750 to the Roth IRA, then I’d set up a $20 per week automatic transfer into my emergency fund going forward.

Q9: Unwanted Christmas toys

My kids receive an absurd number of gifts for Christmas each year. For the last few years, my husband and I have actually removed a few items from their “pile” that they were less interested in and put them aside to see if they remember them and if not we quietly sell them and put the money in their 529. We figure the gifts were unwanted.

This past weekend my sister came over and mentioned the toy she had bought for our middle child. It was one he had overlooked and we had put in storage in the garage. We hadn’t sold it yet. He wanted it so we dug it out and gave it to him. My sister was obviously curious as to what the deal was and we explained it to her and she got really mad at us and called us thieves.

What are your thoughts?
– Jason

I honestly don’t see anything too wrong with your approach. You’re putting the gifts that your children aren’t interested in aside for a while, giving it some time in case they do think about them, and then if they don’t, you sell them off and put the money aside for their college education. It’s not as if you’re stealing their toys or anything – you’re just turning the ones they don’t want into something that will help them for life.

Your sister’s response might have had something to do with the fact that she apparently put a lot of thought into the gift and your child wasn’t interested in the gift, which hurt her feelings. Her feelings were probably hurt even worse when she found out you were going to sell it unopened.

This is one of those situations where you should just give it a little time and talk about it when the situation is less raw. I think your sister will see the sense in what you’re doing.

Q10: Marketing crocheted baby blankets

In late 2018, three extended family members had babies so I crocheted a blanket for each one. The recipients seemed to genuinely love them and two suggested that I try to sell them. I enjoy making them but I don’t even know where to start.
– Carrie

My honest suggestion is that you throw out the suggestion to your social network. Post it on social media along with a picture or two of the baby blankets and say that you’re willing to make them for baby shower or birth gifts. State your price and the dimensions and what kind of customization options you offer.

I’m honestly not sure what to charge for the blankets. That’s something you would be much better at assessing than I am. My suggestion would be to go relatively low in price at first – cover the price of the yarn and make a little for yourself, but not a mint – and then raise it if your blankets become popular.

You might also consider an Etsy account in order to sell your wares.

Q11: Where do I get advice?

You give so much great advice! Where do you go when you need advice?
– Jenna

When I’m in a situation where I don’t know what to do, I usually write it all out. I’m a huge proponent of doing “three morning pages,” which is a journaling technique where you sit down each morning and just brain dump three pages of writing in a blank journal. I try really hard to do that every day, and it often turns into a forum for me to take a problem in my life and turn it over thoroughly with pros and cons. I usually need to really understand a problem first before I can look for meaningful advice on it. Quite often, this process will make the solution to my problem screamingly obvious.

The next step, if journaling doesn’t give me an answer, is always to talk to my wife, even if the advice I need involves her. We communicate with each other a lot – not a day goes by without a few meaningful conversations. Sarah is my primary source for advice on everything.

If I’m still unsure, I usually go to the library and try to research ideas on my own. I tend to trust expert advice from books, where the reasoning behind the advice is usually laid out and I can see how that advice applies to my life.

If I’m still unsure, I usually talk to a few people in my life that I really trust. I have a few “mentors” in the community. I really trust and value the views of my parents and my wife’s parents and my sister-in-law. I talk to them next.

If I’m still not sure what to do, I’ll go talk to a professional in that particular field, but it’s very rare that I get to this point.

Q12: Further areas of philosophy

I have been enjoying your semi-regular series of Saturday articles about how different schools of philosophy provide personal finance guidance. What areas are you planning to cover in the future?
– Dane

So far, I’ve covered stoicism, Epicureanism, Aristotleanism, and secular Buddhism, for those interested. Dane’s note actually came in before the last one was posted.

Going forward, I definitely want to write an article on transcendentalism, which I’ve touched on indirectly several times. This would cover Emerson and Thoreau (who I hold in very high regard), among others. I can see a useful article on utilitarianism at some point. I want to read more about various Eastern schools of philosophy which, outside of secular Buddhism and a few others, I know little.

Beyond that, it really depends on where my reading takes me. I love reading philosophy, particularly those with a practical angle that provides insights on how to live, and I find that most such schools of thought that deal with the practical in some fashion have a lot of application to personal finance.

Got any questions? The best way to ask is to follow me on Facebook and ask questions directly there. I’ll attempt to answer them in a future mailbag (which, by way of full disclosure, may also get re-posted on other websites that pick up my blog). However, I do receive many, many questions per week, so I may not necessarily be able to answer yours.



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Is OnTrajectory the best retirement calculator?


OnTrajectory logoMy colleagues, who are money nerds just like me, know that I’m obsessed with finding the best retirement calculator. I’ve been on this quest for years. As you’ll learn later this week, my favorite retirement tool is (and has been) NewRetirement. But there are other great tools out there.

“You really need to try OnTrajectory,” Jillian from Montana Money Adventures told me last summer. “It’s great.” She’s been telling me that over and over ever since. (Meanwhile, Gwen from Fiery Millennials has also been pressuring me to try OnTrajectory.)

Last week, at long last, I had a chance to chat with Tyson Koska, the founder of OnTrajectory. During a 30-minute call, he walked me through setting up an account and playing with the tool’s features. I’m impressed. NewRetirement is still my favorite tool, but OnTrajectory is damn close. And I can see how for some people, the latter may actually be a better choice.

Today, let’s take a look at what makes OnTrajectory one of the best retirement calculators available on the web.

How OnTrajectory Started

The OnTrajectory origin story is similar to that of You Need a Budget.

Koska spent decades looking for a tool that would give him a high-level view of his financial future. “I couldn’t find one that I liked,” he says. He didn’t like their assumptions. He didn’t like their interfaces. He didn’t like their limited functionality.

Eventually, he took matters into his own hands. He built a complex spreadsheet to explore different variables and what-if scenarios. From there, he began coding Excel macros and small software tools. Over time, the current version of OnTrajectory evolved from his experimentation.

Just as YNAB grew out of Jesse Mecham’s desire to build himself the perfect budgeting tool, OnTrajectory is a product of Koska’s quest for the perfect retirement calculator. Over the years, it’s morphed from a simple spreadsheet to a complex tool with a distinctive look and feel.

OnTrajectory is all about this graph:

OnTrajectory graph

“That graph really dominates your tool,” I told Koska on our call.

“Exactly,” he said. “That’s the whole point. That graph is always present at the top of your screen to show you your trajectory. Any time you make an adjustment to your assumptions — any time — that graph gets updated.”

Because Koska considers himself a part of the growing FIRE community — the group of folks who is interested in financial independence and early retirement — OnTrajectory is built with their needs in mind. You want to retire by 40? Fine. OnTrajectory can handle that. You want some absurd saving rate like 90%? No problem. You can model pretty much any scenario you can imagine.

Getting Started

It’s easy to get started with OnTrajectory. Once you provide login credentials, you’re given two choices:

  • A quick-start wizard that asks only three questions before launching you into the tool.
  • A more comprehensive “guided entry” process during which you manually enter your income, expenses, and existing investment accounts.

The former is quick and easy. The latter provides better results. As you can probably guess, I’m not a quick-start wizard sort of guy. I opted to use the longer “guided entry” process. It didn’t take anywhere near the 30-minute projected time. (But that’s probably because I already had my financial info gathered in one place.)

OnTrajectory setup

During the set-up process, OnTrajectory asks questions about your existing financial infrastructure and your goals for the future. It uses this info to populate three of its five navigation tabs. The guided entry asks you to:

  1. Designate expected income, including regular salary, Social Security, pensions, rental income, and so on.
  2. Specify large, recurring expenses such as vehicle payments, housing payment, insurance premiums, property taxes, and the like.
  3. Enter current balances of major financial accounts like your Roth IRA and 401(k), regular brokerage accounts, and your bank accounts. (OnTrajectory does not automatically connect to your accounts. You must enter this info manually.)

You can add to or alter these numbers at any time. They’re not set in stone, so don’t be afraid of making mistakes.

OnTrajectory is free to use for fourteen days. (You don’t even need to enter credit card info, which is awesome!) If you’d like to continue using the tool, however, you have to subscribe at $4.99/month (or $49/year).

OnTrajectory pricing

Using OnTrajectory

OnTrajectory seems simple at first, but the more I worked with it, the more I appreciated how it handles complexity.

One of its strengths, for instance, is the ability to plot a variety of possible futures.

Our lives are dominated by uncertainty. Sure, there are likely paths that lie before each one of us, but there’s plenty we don’t know. Plus, a few times each decade, we reach major forks in the road to our future. Do I take this job or that job? Do I move to Savannah, Georgia or do I remain in Portland, Oregon? Should I draw Social Security at age 62 or wait until I can get maximum benefits at age 70?

Normally, it’s tough to predict how your decisions will affect your financial future. With OnTrajectory, however, it’s simple to explore these “alternate dimensions”. You can toggle any parameter at any time.

Here, for instance, is a list of my potential income sources. I’ve included working at the family box factory, two possible income levels from this website, eventual Social Security payments, and a potential inheritance from my mother.

OnTrajectory income sources

In Personal Capital, it’s nice that you can add or remove various events to see how doing so affects your future. But if you remove an event, it’s gone. You can’t save it.

With OnTrajectory, you just toggle a button to see the difference. If you want to add, say, an inheritance back into the equation, you just click the button once more. What this means from a practical perspective is that you can enter several possible scenarios/events that you deem likely, then explore different possible futures. This is a very handy feature.

OnTrajectory inheritance included

OnTrajectory also allows you to play with the assumptions “under the hood”. Three key variables are always instantly accessible: your retirement age, your Trajectory End Age (a.k.a. your projected date of death), and a projected inflation rate. (The default inflation rate in OnTrajectory is 3.00%. That’s just slightly optimistic for me. I chose to change it to 3.18%, which is the U.S. long-term average. If I were extremely pessimistic, I might change it to something like 4.08%, which I think is the 50-year moving average — but don’t quote me.)

You can also play with tax rates, investment contributions, investment returns, and more. As you might have noticed, you can enter start ages and end ages for most line items. If you want to explore different possible paths, you can enter additional age range possibilities without deleting your original item. Then you just toggle between the two lines to see the effects of, say, working longer.

OnTrajectory age ranges

OnTrajectory allows you to set specific goals, such as “I want my Trajectory to reach $1,500,000”. These goals then get plotted on your Trajectory graph. For instance, if I want to know when my net worth Trajectory will hit $1,500,000, the app will plot it on the ever-present graph. In this particular case, it says I should hit that goal on 11 November 2029.

OnTrajectory net worth goal

So, as you can see, OnTrajectory is very similar to a lot of other retirement calculators out there except that it takes things to the next level. Anything the Personal Capital retirement tool can do, OnTrajectory can do better.

But wait! That’s not all! OnTrajectory also allows users to create and print a variety of PDF reports. It includes a handy inflation calculator. And there’s a nascent OnTrajectory community on Reddit where you can ask questions and share ideas.

Having said all of that, OnTrajectory isn’t perfect.

Problems with OnTrajectory

As much as I love OnTrajectory, there’s one key piece of the tool that I hate: the terminology. For me, it’s confusing.

In this tool’s parlance, your Trajectory is your projected future financial path. And your Trajectory for any given date is your net worth on that date. That makes total sense, right?

OnTrajectory trajectory

But individual accounts can have trajectories too. If my 401(k) has a Trajectory of $246,136 today, that’s its balance today. So, maybe Trajectory actually means balance? I don’t know. I’m confused.

OnTrajectory investment trajectories

Things get more confusing after you’ve been using the tool for a while. Your Trajectory is based on your initial parameters, not your current situation. The tool does plot a trajectory projection based on your current situation, but your Trajectory (with a capital T) is based on your starting assumptions.

(There’s a logic behind this. OnTrajectory uses the Monte Carlo method to look into the future. It assumes that your current situation is one point on many possible projected paths, and that your circumstances will very likely be subject to “reversion to the mean”. By basing your Trajectory on your starting circumstances rather than your current circumstances — which generally improve with time — it’s providing a more conservative/cautious approach to retirement planning.)

I understand that OnTrajectory uses the term “trajectory” to stay on-brand, but for somebody like me it creates more confusion than clarity. I’d prefer that existing standard definitions were used. If your Trajectory is your net worth, then call it your net worth. If Trajectory simply means “balance”, then use the word balance.

OnTrajectory is a fine name for the tool, but I don’t see the need to cloud the issue by getting cute with naming conventions.

That’s my main beef with OnTrajectory, but it has other minor quirks too.

  • There’s a “Default Investments” account that cannot be deleted. (It’s meant to be a catch-all for stray cash, I think. This is sort of like the “petty cash” account I use in Quicken.)
  • OnTrajectory errorWhile attempting to enter my Basic Expenses line item, OnTrajectory refused to let me set its End Age to 79 (my projected end of life); it only let me set it to 78. (I was able to set everything else to 79 but not my Basic Expenses. Weird.) As a result, OnTrajectory believes I have $0 expenses during the last year of my life haha.
  • At one point, the OnTrajectory graph simply disappeared. I changed my projected date of death (or “Trajectory End Age” in the program’s terms) and the graph vanished. I couldn’t get it to come back. After trying a bunch of different things, I clicked the Undo button. I’m not sure what action I undid, but pressing the button brought back the graph.

To me, these “minor quirks” don’t affect my overall impression of OnTrajectory. They’re bugs (or features I don’t like). They’re likely to go away in the future. The terminology thing drives me nuts, but I suspect I might be the only person who is bothered by it. And it’s not enough to dampen my enthusiasm for this tool.

The Bottom Line

So far, OnTrajectory is the best traditional retirement calculator I’ve found. (As I said, I like NewRetirement better, but it takes a different approach.) It’s a comprehensive, complex tool — but the interface is never overwhelming.

If the interface does become overwhelming or confusing, OnTrajectory features extensive (and useful) documentation. In nearly every section of the screen, you can click on a little info button to bring up the on-line manual. This guide provides answers and tips on all of the functions and features. Impressive.

OnTrajectory help feature

For me, the killer feature is that OnTrajectory not only allows you to save your data, but also to create and save multiple scenarios. You don’t have to re-enter your data each time you want to check on your progress. And if you want to play with possibilities — what if I were to quit my job and take a more meaningful non-profit position? — it’s super simple to do so…without trashing your existing info!

“We’re all about the what-ifs,” Koska told me during our call last week. OnTrajectory is specifically designed to let users explore possible futures. “We let people play with a lot of variables, but our goal is for the interface to never become overwhelming.”

The bottom line? OnTrajectory is like the Personal Capital retirement calculator on steroids. It has everything I like about the PC tool, but is much more customizable. In fact, I like it so much that I signed up for a paid account!

Author: J.D. Roth

In 2006, J.D. founded Get Rich Slowly to document his quest to get out of debt. Over time, he learned how to save and how to invest. Today, he’s managed to reach early retirement! He wants to help you master your money — and your life. No scams. No gimmicks. Just smart money advice to help you reach your goals.



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2-Minute Money Manager: Should I Fix My House Before I Sell It?


Photo by Kzenon / Shutterstock.com

Welcome to “2-Minute Money Manager,” a short video feature answering money questions submitted by readers and viewers. You can learn how to send in a question of your own below.

If you’re not typically a video watcher, give it a try. These videos are short and painless, and you’ll learn something valuable. But if you can’t deal with video, no problem: Just scroll down this page for the full transcript of the video, as well as some reader resources.

Today’s question is one I’ve gotten many times over the years, and one I’ve had to deal with personally: Is it worth dumping more money into a house when it comes time to sell?

Here’s what I think.

For more information on this topic, check out “How to Price Your Home So It Sells for Top Dollar” and “12 Ways to Blow Your Home Sale.” You can also go to the search at the top of this page, put in the words “home selling” and find plenty of information on just about everything relating to this topic.

Got a question of your own to ask? Scroll down past the transcript.

Don’t want to watch? Here’s what I said in the video

Hello, everyone, and welcome to your “2-Minue Money Manager.” I’m your host, Stacy Johnson, and this answer is brought to you by MoneyTalksNews.com, serving up the best in personal finance news and advice since 1991.

Today’s question is from Joyce. It’s long, but it’s important to read the whole thing and to pay attention to the improvements Joyce needs to make in her home:

We want to sell our home, but it needs a lot of work. The work varies, (including) the wood trim needing painting — half of some windows are stripped of paint and stain and other windows are finished. Plaster in the bedroom closet near the fireplace needs repair. (There is a) small basement leak with heavy rain. Do we take out a loan for repairs and expect to get our investment back? I don’t know what to do.

Let’s go over those repairs again. Joyce has got:

  • Wood trim that needs painting
  • Some windows stripped of paint and stain
  • Plaster in the bedroom closet near the fireplace that needs repair
  • A small basement leak when there’s heavy rain

I’m wondering why you’d need to borrow money to fix this stuff. It doesn’t seem all that expensive to me, especially if you can do most of the work yourself.

But to answer your question, Joyce, you always want to have your house in the best possible condition when you sell. The reason is simple: There are a lot more people looking for homes that don’t need work than looking for homes that do.

You always want to do the simple things. Major improvements are different, because it may be hard to recoup your investment. But you certainly want to do the easy stuff. One of the cheapest and easiest things you can do is paint.

I hope you don’t need to take out a loan to do a little painting. So, try to do whatever you can with whatever money you have to make your home look as good — and to be as serviceable — as possible. The better it looks, the faster it’s going to sell, and the more money you’re going to get.

If you’re using a real estate agent, ask him or her for advice. Your agent may also be able to refer you to an inexpensive handyman. But, by and large, do everything you can to get your house in as good a shape as it can be before you put it up for sale.

There is also lots of information online about how to stage your house. For example, you’ll learn about simple things like decluttering, removing personal pictures and giving it a good cleaning. There’s plenty you can do to make your house presentable; even painting the front door can really help give it curb appeal. Take a look at some articles, do what you can to fix up your house, and borrow as little as possible.

Have a super-profitable day and be sure to meet me right here next time!

Got a question you’d like answered?

You can ask a question simply by hitting “reply” to our email newsletter, just as you would any email in your inbox. If you’re not subscribed, fix that right now by clicking here. It’s free, only takes a few seconds, and will get you valuable information every day!

The questions I’m likeliest to answer are those that will interest other readers. In other words, don’t ask for super-specific advice that applies only to you. And if I don’t get to your question, promise not to hate me. I do my best, but I get a lot more questions than I have time to answer.

About me

I founded Money Talks News in 1991. I’m a CPA and have also earned licenses in stocks, commodities, options principal, mutual funds, life insurance, securities supervisor and real estate.

Got any words of wisdom you can offer on today’s question? Share your knowledge and experiences on our Facebook page. And if you find this information useful, please share it!

Got more money questions? Browse lots more Ask Stacy answers here.



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Best Austin Mortgage Lenders of 2019


Austin is a tech hub, the state capital and home to the University of Texas. It’s no surprise that the city is growing rapidly. The surging population needs places to live, and plenty of mortgage companies are competing to help Austin home buyers realize the American dream.

» MORE: Find out about Texas first-time home buyer programs

NerdWallet is all about simplifying your search for the right mortgage lender for you. We have rounded up this list of national and regional mortgage lenders that we have reviewed and that do a lot of lending in Austin. In addition, we’ve listed some locally based lenders that we have not reviewed, but which do plenty of business in Austin.

NerdWallet recommends that you shop at least three mortgage lenders to increase your chances of getting a great deal on your home loan.

National and regional mortgage lenders in Austin

These lenders serve mortgage borrowers in most or all states, and they are among the most popular providers in Austin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Local mortgage lenders in Austin

These lenders are based in Austin, know the city well and are experienced in mortgage lending. They have not been reviewed by NerdWallet.

UNIVERSITY FEDERAL CREDIT UNION

  • Plenty of mortgage options from one of Austin’s busiest mortgage lenders.
  • Offers an array of fixed-rate and adjustable-rate mortgages.
  • Products include VA loans for active-duty military and veterans; Community Hero loans for teachers, firefighters, police officers and military; and Medical Community loans for doctors and nurses.
  • Mortgage services from application to closing are handled by UFCU and not outsourced to a third party.
  • Loans to buy land are available.
  • Members may use a mobile app to begin the application process.

Capstar Lending

  • Works with home buyers who want to participate in Texas’ home buyer assistance programs.
  • Participates in Texas bond programs to provide down payment assistance as well as tax credits.
  • Conventional loans with minimum 3% down payment and minimum credit score 620.
  • Offers FHA loans with minimum 620 credit score and VA loans, which don’t require a down payment.

Sente Mortgage

  • Offers borrowers a wide choice of mortgage programs from a homegrown lender.
  • Offers fixed-rate, adjustable-rate, VA, USDA, FHA, jumbo and construction loans.
  • You can start the application online and track the mortgage status.
  • Click to schedule a call from a loan officer if you prefer to speak to someone before or during application.

A+ Federal Credit Union

  • Options for home buyers and refinancers who want to get a mortgage from a local credit union.
  • Offers 15- and 30-year fixed-rate loans and 5/5 and 10/10 ARMs.
  • Down payments on fixed-rate loans as low as 5%.
  • Apply for a mortgage pre-qualification online in English or Spanish.
  • Join by making a one-time $10 payment to the A+ Education Foundation or being affiliated with a qualifying school, business or organization.

Best Austin mortgage lenders: summary

More from NerdWallet

NerdWallet’s selection of mortgage lenders for inclusion here was made based on our evaluation of the products and services that lenders offer to consumers who are actively shopping for the best mortgage. The six key areas we evaluated include the loan types and loan products offered, online capabilities, online mortgage rate information, customer service and the number of complaints filed with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as a percentage of loans issued. We also awarded lenders up to one bonus star for a unique program or borrower focus that set them apart from other lenders. To ensure consistency, our ratings are reviewed by multiple people on the NerdWallet Mortgages team.



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