Sunday, June 2, 2013

You Don't Have to Spend a Ton on a Funeral--Here's Why

As the director of Funeral Consumers Alliance, a nonprofit that helps people avoid funeral fraud, I know all about mortuary mythology. (That’s what I call the collective "wisdom" about death, dying, funerals, and dead people.) Most Americans get their information about how to bury the dead from the people we pay to do it for us—not exactly the most disinterested source.

Funeral directors aren’t all crooks and making your living burying the dead is a perfectly respectable career. But they are in business to pay their bills. Even super-savvy shoppers let their brains go on vacation when they buy one of the most emotionally fraught and potential costly services. You don’t walk into the car dealer with a blank check and you shouldn’t do it at the undertaker’s.

Here’s how to get the send-off that fits your tastes and your budget.

Consumers call FCA by the thousands and talk about death in the subjunctive mood: “Well, I don’t need your services now, but if anything should ever happen to me. . .” Death is not an optional lifestyle choice that may not be right for you. Having suffered a heart attack at age 36, I can tell you you’re not too young to die, either. That conversation with your kids about how to budget, compare credit card rates, protect your online life? You need to have it about death, too. Funeral planning is family planning, and leaving the ones you love without the tools they need is like sending your kids out of the nest believing the stork is going to deliver their first baby.

No gleaming casket will put dear mom on the fast track to sainthood, and no plain pine box will insult dad. Whether you choose something simple or something elaborate, the dead will stay dead and our love for them will live on. So, what's a "dignified" funeral? Whatever you decide and whatever fits your family's emotional needs and budget. I've been to two-day affairs with the dead on display and I've been to homespun potluck memorial services at Uncle Stu's house. There was no difference in the amount of laughter, tears, and hugs.

This figure gets bandied about as if it were a law of nature. The truth is a "funeral" can mean anything from a bare-bones cremation to a three-day viewing and procession to the grave (and anything in between). Local FCA groups do price surveys of burial and cremation costs and they routinely find a difference of thousands of dollars, all for exactly the same service. But if you do like most people and use the same funeral home every time, you'll never know if you're paying more than you need to. Would you make any other major purchase without comparing options?

Funerals are a "distress purchase," so the Federal Tracde Commission's Funeral Rule gives you specific protections. The rule requires funeral homes to:

Give price quotes by phoneGive you a printed, itemized menu of prices right at the beginning of any talk about arrangementsLet you choose item-by-item (vs. forcing you to buy a package) Accept a casket you bought elsewhere or made yourself without charging a fee Be truthful about any laws that do or don't require you to buy specific thingsIf someone—especially someone in the death business—tells you that the law requires or prohibits something, treat it as "pics or it didn't happen." Insist that they show you the actual law. Nine times out of ten, it never existed in the first place. Sometimes people are just passing along "what everyone knows," and sometimes you're being scammed to pad the bill.

Here are some things you should know:

No federal or state law requires embalming for all deaths.No federal or state law requires embalming as a condition of viewing the body.No federal or state law requires a casket or a grave vault as a condition of burial, and there are no government standards for casket construction.Dead people aren't a public health problem. You're infinitely more likely to catch the flu from other mourners who are breathing and coughing. Most states don't even require you use a funeral home. Yes, I'm saying it's legal to do it pioneer-style and have a simple funeral performed entirely by the family. For information and references, check out Dead Bodies and Disease, and the book Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death, a candid look at the funeral industry with a chapter on the laws in each of the 50 states. (Full disclosure: I co-wrote the book.)

Except for folks who have to "spend-down" to qualify for Medicaid, prepayment isn't usually in your best interests. Yes, the funeral home probably told your parents they'd lock in today's prices and that everything was "all taken care of." But the fact is, prepaid funerals are regulated differently in every state, and in many cases you can lose a great deal of what you paid if you cancel or change your mind before death. What's more, kids whose parents prepaid for their funerals are some of the hardest consumers to help if circumstances have changed.

Bottom line: You can't "take care of everything" for your family any more than you can guarantee them career success or a comfortable environment. Your family doesn't need nice-sounding but unrealistic promises—they need you to help educate them on how to plan and carry out your final arrangements without confusion or overspending.

Josh Slocum is the Executive Director of Funeral Consumers Alliance and co-author of Final Rights: Reclaiming American Death. Follow him on Twitter @FuneralConsumer.

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Image via Kzenon (Shutterstock).

How I Cut My Spending in Half to Take a Job I Loved

In 2009, I was a very senior executive celebrating my fourth anniversary at a brokerage firm. I was working about 70 hours a week, managing 80 people, and traveling to the company’s other offices (two of which were cross-country) 3-4 days a week, twice a month. Even when I wasn’t at the office or on the road, my Blackberry was constantly lighting up on nights and weekends. I would estimate I got about 400 emails a day.

But with three children under 10, I knew that years of working at a blistering pace was taking a toll on our family, and I needed to make a change. I set out to find something a little less intense and found a great consulting role in marketing and product development with a small firm. I was excited to keep up all my professional skills (and get some new ones) at a pace I knew would bring some welcome relief to the crazy of our household. At this new job I would manage only 15 people, largely set my own schedule, and truly be offline while I was at home.

But to make it work, we had to make some adjustments in order to accommodate my reduced salary. In fact, it was a big reduction: $5,000 a month, plus the substantial bonuses I would no longer receive. When I did the math, I didn’t think it was even possible to make such a massive shift in our lifestyle—but I knew I had to give it a try if I didn’t want to burn out before I turned 40.

My husband Mark and I live in Larchmont, N.Y., a small town about 30 minutes outside of New York City, with our three kids, plus our dog Emily, our cat Nikki, and our fish Charlie. It isn’t cheap: The median household income hovers around $160,396.

Mark and I had always been good savers. I grew up in a modest home in a blue-collar town near Detroit, Michigan, but I never felt deprived. My parents taught me to never spend more than you earned—period. And I think that instinct kicked in when I took the new job. I had lived with less before and I absolutely knew I could do it again.

Salary cuts aside, I knew that no matter what, we could make things work as long as I followed my parents’ advice. I was fortunate that along with my new position, I still had the financial advantage of a 401(k) with company match for my retirement savings, and considerable savings. My kids stayed on my husband’s insurance, and I realized it was cheaper to leave them there and put myself on my new company’s plan. That just left our monthly expenses, which had ballooned as our family grew. After a lot of conversation with my husband and a ton of research, I figured out how to make it work.

The first thing I did to scale back our spending was aggregate all of my accounts with an online tool to understand where my pay was going. Once I could see my spending in one place, I sorted my expenses from largest to smallest. I figured if I could make big cuts on the big items, I would have a fighting chance of making it work. I’ve never been an over-spender, but we had a substantial mortgage and a full-time nanny, which topped my list of expenses.

First, we put down the money we had saved from our bonuses years prior to pay down a big chunk of our mortgage so that we could refinance and move from a jumbo to a conforming loan. I’ll explain: Fannie Mae only guarantees loans that meet certain requirements, including falling under a cap that changes annually. For 2013 it’s $417,000 ($625,500 for high-cost areas like Larchmont). These are considered “conforming loans.” Because they’re guaranteed, there’s a higher demand for them, and consequently lower interest rates.

The loan we had originally was considered a jumbo loan because it didn’t meet those requirements and wasn’t guaranteed, and had a higher interest rate. Once we put our bonus money toward the loan, we were able to refinance for a conforming loan with the lower interest rates (we went from about 6.75% to about 4.125%). Plus, we achieved 20% equity in our home and were able to stop paying PMI, the insurance you pay before that marker. That made about a $1,500 difference in monthly cash flow—a huge win—after a lot of effort!

Since both Mark and I were working full time, we had employed a nanny to help out. When making cuts, I decided to switch from our nanny of eight years to au pairs, who would live with us for one year each, sacrificing some salary for room and board. I worked with a company that arranges for international students to spend time in the United States. I didn’t like the idea at all of having someone living with us, but the switch would save us another $1,500 a month. (So far, we’ve had three au pairs, and everything’s gone great.)

We also tackled some other areas, like eating out, which saved about $500 per month (we’re up to $3,500 in monthly savings, if you’re keeping track!). I know spending $500 a month on eating out sounds like a lot, but for a family of six—including the au pair—that’s only dinner out four times a month, spending about $15 per person each time. I had more time to shop and cook because of my new hours, and I’d say it was the best thing that ever happened to our family. My kids were too young to realize that we were cutting our expenses, but I know they noticed that I was home more—and less stressed when I was.

While making all of these cuts, we also made sure to leave room for little luxuries so the transition wouldn’t be too hard. For example, we love wine, so we doubled our “bottle of wine at home” budget. Side note: There are some amazing bottles for less than $20 in any local wine store. That’s not to say that everything went perfectly all the time. Mark, who works in clean energy, was incredibly supportive—but we did have a “flare up” when I tried to swap his precious parmesan cheese block for a less expensive kind. There was a near revolt from my foodie husband, and I earned that some cutbacks are just not worth the fight.

Between these changes and a few more everyday tweaks, we managed to reduce our monthly spending by about $5,500 in the end.

The hardest part of the entire process wasn’t the actual spending less. It was the legwork of researching and finding the best lower-cost options, just when I was starting a new job. Refinancing a mortgage takes time, focus and paperwork. So does finding a great au pair service, writing the application and interviewing candidates. Plus, I had to get used to someone else living in my house… which actually turned out to be much easier than I thought. The au pairs tend to be really independent, and when they’re off duty, they usually aren’t around. I was worried about the transition, but my kids like having a fresh approach every year.

It took me two-and-a-half years to get myself into a role at the consulting firm where I could earn a good deal of sales commission, and we kept up our new spending habits throughout that time. In fact, I eventually ended up earning even more than I had at my old job when all my sales commissions were factored in, but at that point, we had already made structural changes in the big things and were able to save more than we ever had.

I’m no longer at my consulting job—I found my next position through a project for a company I ultimately decided I really wanted to join. When I read all of the research about the relationship between money and happiness, I can’t help but think that they’re completely different metrics. I was certainly very happy when I shared a basement apartment when I was just starting out, and no matter where life takes me, I know that I could be equally happy with far less than I have now.

How I Cut My Spending in Half to Take a Job I Loved | LearnVest

Libby Kane is the associate editor at LearnVest. After graduating from Wellesley College, where she was an editor at the Wellesley News, she joined the LearnVest team. Her work has appeared on the Huffington Post, Forbes, the Fiscal Times, and more. Libby spends her time visiting the best museums she can find—the mustier, the better. Follow Libby Kane on Twitter: @LibbyKane

Want more from LearnVest? Check out:

Confessions of a Trust Fund Baby

Be Career Fearless: 7 Tips From Intrepid Entrepreneurs

Image remixed from alexmillos (Shutterstock).

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Put a Cylon in it!

I know this sounds crazy, but before we get to the fun part of drilling holes in the front of the Jeep, let's program the controller and test it all out.  This will give you a chance to play with the controls and more easily see the resulting changes than when the LEDs are mounted and the controller is in the vehicle.

For the programming/testing stage, you only need four things:
- The TCL Controller
- a 25 pixel strand of TCL lights
- USB mini cable
- a computer with the Arduino IDE installed.*

I have a few code packages available for this project.  One is CylonEye, HippieCatcher, and HippieCatcher "Road Safe".
These are rough drafts, to be kind.  I'll be posting cleaned up code with better comments in a few days.

CylonEye does exactly what you would expect, and a little more. It utilizes the switches and pots on the developer shield to give the user many behavioral modification options without having to rewrite the source.

HippieCatcher functions like a digital 'cow catcher'.  For those too young, a 'cow catcher' was a plow-like contraption on the front of locomotive engines that deflect cows off of railroad tracks so as to prevent train derailments.  Similarly, the HippieCatcher code cycles through and endless series of morphing colors that start in the center pixel and flow outwards towards the edges.  HippieCatcher also makes used of the developer shield inputs to adjust the visual display.

HippieCatcher "Road Safe" is the same as above, but it limits the levels of blue light to keep you street legal.

CylonEye -
HippieCatcher -
HippieCatcher "Road Safe" -

More on the tunable options later.

For now, connect the TCL strand to the four-pin output cable on the TCL controller.  Then connect the TCL controller to the computer using your USB cable.  I use a dual-head portable hard drive USB cable, which increases the amount of power available to the TCL system.  Upload the code of your choice to the controller, and make sure the lights start morphing.

With the controller, TCL strand, and programming verified; we are ready to install the pixels in the vehicle.

*If you are trying to program a Seeeduino (or TCL Developer Controller) on OS X Lion or Mountain Lion, you will need to install FDTI USB drivers.  I have a blurb about this on my blog thing.  Once you have the drivers, the correct Board is "Arduino Duemilanove / ATMega 328" and the Programmer is "Arduiono as ISP".

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Get Great Deals at the Amazon Outlet Store You Never Knew Existed

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Google Drive Gets OCR Scanning, File Downloads, and More on Android

Android: Google has updated its Drive mobile app with a cleaner, cards-style look and several awesome new features. Among them: the ability to download a copy of documents directly to your device and scan papers using OCR.

So now you can scan receipts (using the "Scan" command from the Add New menu and snapping a photo of it) and later search for those scanned items, which are turned into PDFs.

Also, Drive now lets you see large previews of files by swiping between files and also do a few more editing things in Google Sheets.

Download the updated app on Google Play or learn more about it on the Google Drive Blog.

Google Drive | Google Play

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3D Objects from Recycled Materials

cosaspapel2.jpgThis instructable is part of "something out of nothing" series, this time "nothing" is material - recycled paper, banana skins and more. I've actually came across this idea, making sheets of paper for my art and soon realised that I get left over pulp, which goes to waste and could be used to make other things. This is how I started making 3D paper objects, that are not just nice to look at, but can be useful too and actually more fun to make. 


recycled paper
banana skins (optional)
grasses, flower pedals (optional) 



cosapapel2.jpgThere are countless objects to be made of paper pulp. Some suggestions: cup for organising pencils or bowl for coins and other small items; make the lid and here's a great box for jewellery and other stuff that need to be protected from dust. Balls on rope could be useful for making christmas decorations.

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