Tuesday, August 13, 2013
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Financial experts agree that creating and sticking to a budget are the prime keys to an economically secure future. Great advice, no doubt. But much easier said than done. How do you get started?
A simple Excel spreadsheet can do the trick. List your monthly expenses in one column and how much you spend on each in the next.
If you use debit or credit cards for most purchases, all you have to do is review a couple months' history to find those totals. If not, you may need to save your receipts and do the math yourself.
Gauge your spending over a period of at least two months to calculate an average. You can't get an accurate picture by looking at only one month. There are too many variables.
Things like gifts or entertainment are not fixed expenses. They vary month to month. Insurance premiums are not always paid in twelve equal payments. You may buy a 90-day supply of regular prescriptions.
These all need to be considered when creating your budget. Calculate them as an annual amount, then divide by 12 to determine your monthly expenditure.
Creating this budget serves two purposes. First, you know how much money you need to make ends meet each month. Secondly, you get an understanding of your spending habits. If your expenses exceed your monthly income after taxes, you've got a picture of where you can reprioritize spending to get back to that even mark.
Don't automatically eliminate entertainment, savings, or that vacation you've been planning. Doing so is a surefire way to abandon your budget. You won't stick to anything that doesn't offer some sort of reward.
There are creative ways to spend less on essentials like groceries. We offered a few tips here.
Pay yourself first. Building emergency reserves is the cornerstone to security. You may have to start slowly and increase your monthly savings amount as you get back on track. The important thing is to establish a routine.
A goal will keep you motivated. Don't skip that vacation. Instead, determine how much you'll need and when you will need it. Watching your goal draw near, will make it easy to stick with the plan. And when you return home from vacation free of credit card debt, you will be all the more motivated to start stashing money aside for next year's getaway!
Perhaps your goal is to pay off credit card debt. Once gone, you'll have more disposable income each month. The tips we offered here will help.
Consider a debt consolidation loan at a fixed term while the rates are low. When they inevitably start to rise, interest charges on variable rate debt like a home equity loan or credit card debt will rise along with them. You may save a small fortune by locking in a low, fixed rate while you can.
Do you have financial planning tips that have worked for you that you'd like to share with GCFlash readers? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll include them in a future issue.
Control Medical Costs
Budgets are pretty easy to stick to. IF life went exactly as planned.
Despite our greatest efforts, it just doesn't work that way. Unexpected things happen. Your plumbing springs a leak or roof needs repair. Your car's transmission fails. Flooding, tornados or a hurricane ravage your town. You lose your job. Or your health.
Medical emergencies are a frequent cause of bankruptcy. The Centers for Disease Control reports more than 54 million people were having trouble paying medical bills at the start of 2012.
Medical bills can't be eliminated completely. But we can help you reduce them.
Do you have insurance? Research which hospitals and local doctors participate in their network before you need them. You won't have that opportunity if you're in severe pain or unconscious.
In-network providers agree to a fee schedule established by the insurance company. You are not liable for any amount they charge above the set fee, only your co-pay and deductible. Providers cannot bill you for the difference.
Doctors on staff at a hospital may not belong to the same networks as the facility. Don't assume that every one who checks on you participates in your insurance plan. It can be impossible to know for certain. You can ask to be seen only by those in your network, but don't count on the hospital to keep records of this type in order to comply with your request.
If you don't have insurance, ask about the hospital's financial assistance policy. They may have a program in place to help with expenses you can't afford. The government and certain nonprofits offer financial assistance for medical expenses, as well. If the hospital can't help, your local social service agency may be able to direct you to someone who can.
If your bills are related to a particular medical condition, contact local support groups to see if they offer financial assistance.
Ask for an itemized invoice. Check it carefully for duplicate charges. Call the billing office and ask for explanation of codes you don't understand.
The federal General Accounting Office estimates that 99% of all hospital bills contain overcharges. Make sure you're not paying $15 for an aspirin or $25 for a bandage. Many hospitals have patient advocates to help identify and resolve billing issues.
Is there an urgent care facility in your neighborhood? They are well equipped to handle anything that isn't considered life-threatening, such as broken bones or an ear infection. And at a much lower cost.
If you can't afford a good insurance policy, try to find one with a high deductible. The lower premiums may be within your budget. Even if you never meet your deductible, you'll pay lower care costs when the provider adjusts your bill to match the fee established by your insurance carrier.
Despite your best efforts, you may still be burdened with more medical bills than you can pay. Call the providers before they become past due and try to negotiate a settlement. They may agree to take a lesser amount if they know your position. They'll likely want payment in full of any amount you negotiate. Or a substantial down payment at the very least.
If they won't lower your bill, try to arrange a payment plan to pay the debt over time.
Delinquent medical bills will appear on your credit report. Unpaid providers can put a lien on your property. You can be denied credit based on non-payment of medical bills.
You can eliminate most of these problems by communicating with the provider before the bill becomes past due.
Tip of the Week
Healthcare services have become so complex that it takes specialized skills to navigate the maze. A new industry fills this need; helping consumers find errors in medical bills, appealing coverage denials with insurance providers or negotiating lower fees. For information, visit BillAdvocates.com.
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