ING Direct – 2 Day Sale

Today and tomorrow, ING Direct is having a “Financial Independence Days Sale”.

It’s a good sale. If you open a checking account or Sharebuilder account and you’ll get $76.  Apply for a mortgage and you’ll get $776 off of the closing costs.

I have accounts at 4 different banks.  Two of those were opened for specific debt-reduction purposes.  Of the others, one is used for most of my cash flow and bill payments, and the other is ING.   As of this moment, I have 15 accounts or sub-accounts with ING Direct.

Opening an account is painless and only takes a few minutes.   They are currently offering up to 1.25% in an interest-bearing checking account, though I’ve never qualified for more than .25%.  That account comes with overdraft protection, so you are charged interest instead of overdraft fees.

Once you have your first account set up, sub-accounts can be created in literally seconds.  Why would you want a bunch of sub-accounts?  I have a number of saving goals. Each of these goals has its own account at ING.  I can tell at a glance how much we have saved for our vacation next month and far away we are from affording my son’s braces.   My kids each have an account here because, currently, the interest rate is at 1.1%, which is miles ahead of most traditional banks.   Combined with the convenience of total online control, there’s no contest.

Money transfers are smooth.  I use one of my accounts as a transfer account to get money to and from two separate banks.

I also have a Sharebuilder account.  For those who aren’t familiar with it, it is a stock brokerage with low fees and a low barrier to entry.    If you set up an automatic investment, you get $4 stock trades with no minimum.  I’m not aware of any place cheaper.

That all sounds like a lot of ad copy and the links are affiliate links, but the truth is, I am just that happy with ING. I’ve never had an accounting error, or any problems at all.

The downside? Paper checks are verboten.  They will not accept paper checks, but you do have a check card to use.   You can hit 35,000 ATMS for free withdrawals, but any deposits are held for a few days before you have access to the funds.   It can also take 3-4 days to transfer money from ING to another bank.  I keep enough in the accounts that I’m always spending or transferring older deposits while I wait for the new ones to clear.

Even if you don’t like the bank, get a checking account, use it a few times and get $76 for very little trouble.   Open a Sharebuilder account, buy some stock and collect $76 for it.   Without an automatic payment, it will cost you less than $20 to buy, then sell the stock, netting you $56.

Who doesn’t like free money?

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Ignore Your Budget

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Image by Boz Bros via Flickr

For the first year of our journey out of debt, we had a strict budget, with all of our discretionary money spent out of an envelope system.  We had an envelope for groceries, one for discretionary spending, one for clothes and one for baby crap.   At the beginning of the month, we’d divide the money into the envelopes according to our budget spreadsheet.  If we used a card for anything, we’d take a matching about of money out of the appropriate envelope and put it in a box to get reconciled the next month.

Ugh. Almost 2 years later, it has turned into too much work and too much nagging about everything either of us put on a card.

We decided to simplify the system a few months ago.   Now, we still have a budget.  It’s even a zero-based budget, but we ignore it.  We only look at it if something changes for the worse.  If something changes for the better, the extra money just gets automatically rolled into our debt snowball, so there’s no need to worry about updating the spreadsheet.

Instead of envelopes, we kind of eyeball it.   We budget $450 per month for groceries, so we aim to spend $100 on our weekly grocery run.  That leaves some room for losing track of how much we are putting in the cart, or a last minute addition to the list.  It also leaves room for our secondary grocery trip to buy bread and milk later in the week.  We do go through a lot of milk at my house.  We budget $55 per month for diapers, but the deal we are currently getting with Amazon Mom is only costing us $30.79 for 6 weeks of diapers.  We ignore the difference.

This—and our heavily automated bill pay and savings—lets us keep our finances on track, without stressing over every dollar or fighting over every little thing that comes home unplanned.   I used to fire up Quicken and balance the checkbook every week.  Now, that happens at the beginning of the month, usually.  If I forget, it doesn’t matter.  At the beginning of February, I balanced the checkbook for the first time in almost two months and we never came close to exercising our overdraft protection account.  In fact, we had some extra, so that got sent directly to our debt.

Overall, it’s been good to test out a new system.  We have almost no financial stress and managing our money takes about a couple of hours per month instead of per week.  It’s all win.

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Three Alternatives to a Budget

the envelope system: day one

Image by J. McPherskesen via Flickr

Budgets aren’t for everyone.  For some people, the very idea of trying to track where their money going is painful.  And that’s just the idea of tracking the money.  It gets far worse when you’ve got $10 budgeted for coffee, $12 for fast food, $66.50 for gas, and $0.75 for entertainment.  It’s can be hard to follow a strict budget for long.

If you know you need to track your money, and you also know that a strict, zero-based budget won’t work for you, what can you do?  Luckily, there are alternatives.

1. Hope and Pray. This is otherwise known as the “Call my bank everyday and see how close I am to over-drafting” system.  To fully embrace this system, you need to not only abandon a written–or even organized–budget, but you should also throw your checkbook register in the garbage.   Make sure you’ve got a good overdraft protection account attached to your checking account and let your money take care of itself.  This is the ultimate zen of personal finance.  Don’t stress or worry, just hope for the best.   This system works best if you make more money than Oprah and have modest tastes.  For those of us who have to watch our money a bit to make sure the month outlasts our money, this probably isn’t a great plan.

2. The Envelope System. To implement this system, you do need to create a basic budget so know what you are obligated to pay.  Once you have that done, take a stack of envelopes and label them for each item you have to pay.   Add another envelope for food, another for entertainment, and another for miscellaneous because there is always a miscellaneous.   Divide the money among the envelopes.   Now for the magic. When you have to spend something, take the money out of the appropriate envelope and spend it.  That’s it.  If, however, there isn’t enough money in the right envelope, but you still need to spend the money, you have to take it out of a different envelope and spend less on the category that lost money.

3.  Percentages. This is the simplest of the non-budget budgets.   Take 50% of your money and spend it on necessities, like the mortgage, food,  and utilities.   The next 30% goes to savings and retirement.  The last 20% is for fun or any other thing you want to spend it on.  This naturally works best if you are out of debt, but if not, just make sure most of the 20% fun money goes to repaying debt.   This system works best if your bills are automated and you will need to set up a basic budget first, so you can make sure your necessities come in under 50% of your income.

Not every budget plan will work for everyone, but there are always alternatives that can still help you manage your money.

How do you track your money?

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