About Paper Checks

The reality is that the paper check is becoming obsolete as a method of payment. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, every adult had a paper checkbook and kept their records in it. With the advent of electronic payment, check fraud, and cloud-based recordkeeping, fewer and fewer people are opting to keep their records on paper, and fewer and fewer merchants are accepting checks as a method of payment.

What hasn’t changed is that the paper check is still the safest way to send money by snail mail. While the need to do this has decreased significantly, it isn’t zero. Some medical offices and no few government offices still require payment by snail mail, or if they do accept online payment, they charge extra for the service. (I’m looking at you, water and sewer bill.) It’s illegal and unwise to send cash in snail mail, and putting your credit card number on a slip in the mail exposes it to a number of people along the way who don’t need to see it. When you mail it as a check, only the entity written on the TO: line can cash that check, so it reduces the risk of money being withdrawn by someone who doesn’t have the right to do so.

There are also some people, especially older folks, who still use checks. A year or two ago, I was in a grocery store checkout line. The elderly man in front of me had been sent by his wife to the store to get a few things, and she had sent a blank check with him. I have the impression that she’d done all the money management for him, because he didn’t know how to make it out, and neither did the teenage clerk. I stepped in and showed them both how to fill it out, and he went on his way. The clerk told me afterward that she’d never seen one before.

So What Is A Check?

A check is an order to the bank to withdraw an amount of money from the account noted on the check and pay it to the entity in the TO: Line. The video below is a bit dated, but it explains the laws around checks, how they are processed, and how they are used.

Cautions About Using Checks

The video above shows checks being presented in paper to the bank. That isn’t done anymore; checks are now typically presented to the bank electronically as e-checks, which means that instead of clearing in a week, they’ll clear at best immediately or at worst in 2-3 days, unless you’re my water provider because they are archaic and need to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. What this means to you: if you present a check to someone for payment, you’d better have the money in your account now, not on Friday when you get paid, because it’s presented immediately, and “floating a check” (writing a check now expecting that money will be in your account before it is presented to the bank) doesn’t work like it used to.

Nobody else can sign a check for you. Your bank has your signature on file and will compare the signature on the check image to yours before honoring the check. Any attempt to duplicate someone else’s signature is forgery, and forgery on a check is check fraud. The person who duplicated your signature, and possibly you, can go to jail for that. Protect your signature.

A blank check — that is, a check that has your signature on it, but no amount or pay to: entity written on it, is effectively cash. Treat it as such, and don’t give one to someone you wouldn’t trust with all the cash in your bank account.

If you have a checkbook, as shown in the video above, it should be kept protected. Lock it in a drawer or safe when not using it.

If you write a check, record it immediately in the recordkeeping system of your choice. Paper registers come with the checkbook, but an online recordkeeping system works too. Record the check number, the amount, and the payee; your bank will tell you when they have honored that check, because it will show up in your account. If you record it at once, you won’t forget you wrote it and spend that money elsewhere. Check bouncing is illegal, and it’s UGLY.

Bouncing Checks (Or, Why Good Records Are So Important)

Pay attention to your bank’s policy on how they record withdrawals and deposits. This can be found in the paperwork that came with your checking account, or if you don’t have that, ask any bank teller and they’ll tell you. Many banks record checks before they record deposits, if the two happen in the same daily processing cycle, and quite a few will record the largest check first. Both of these are dangerous, and I’ll take an example to illustrate what can happen.

Say you’ve got $100 in your checking account, and you make an ATM withdrawal out of network for $40. You’ve also written a check for $57, and made an electronic payment for $72. Your bank makes the largest withdrawal first, but an ATM cash withdrawal comes out before any other type of payment (normally the case because it’s cash on the spot). So, both electronic payments land on the same day. The largest one clears first, so the $72 is pulled — but whoops, you only have $60 left so that puts your account in the negative. You’ll pay a bounce fee for that to the tune of $25-$35 per transaction bounced. So when the $57 – that would have cleared if it had been presented first – is presented, it too bounces. So, you’re paying $50-$70 to your bank, and both transactions bounce, putting you in trouble with both entities you paid. Not very nice, is it?

Don’t put yourself in that situation. Keep good records of every transaction, and make sure you can cover every transaction you authorize against that account.

A Final Word

It may be that you’ll never need any of what I just told you — or you might. Chances are you’ll come across a check at some point, even as they fade into obsolescence. If it does, remember this information, and you should be okay.

Friday Wisdom: First Impressions

You never get a second chance to make a good first impression.

Experts says that we size up a person anywhere in between 30 seconds and 2 minutes — and that first impression will drive all your interactions with that person, potentially forever.

It doesn’t seem fair, does it? It doesn’t give you a chance to show all that you have to offer, only what you want people to see. That people who put on a good face and have terrible character go further than the amazing ones that take time to get to know.

You’re right. It isn’t fair. The best people take time to get to know, and not everyone will show their true selves at first impression — in fact, the ones who can do that often don’t have a lot to show.

The astute individual will tailor their own first impressions to what they want to show – and will trust their own only to a point. Your instinct is a powerful guide, but don’t let it be your only one.

 

How to Load A Dishwasher (And Have the Dishes Actually Get Clean)

Loading a dishwasher is harder than it looks at first blush. Plates that don’t get clean, glasses with spots all over them, melted plastic takeaway containers — all these things and more can happen to your dishes. The good news is that there are some tricks and tips that will help you get the most out of your dishwasher – without a lot of headache.

Use The Right Product

There are three cleaning products that you need to know about in order to keep your dishes sparkling fresh.

  • Dishwasher detergent: This is not the same as dish soap. Unless your idea of a good time is cleaning a mountain of wet suds off of your kitchen floor, do not attempt to use Dawn or similar in your dishwasher. Doing so could also damage your dishwasher, so please just don’t. My personal preference in dishwasher detergent is liquid Cascade Complete, but I know people who swear by the dishwasher pods, and that’s okay too. I find that liquid dissolves better than powder form, so I recommend the liquid. It’s less likely to leave unwanted leftovers.
  • Spot rinse: This stuff is a blue liquid you find in a squirt bottle or a pod that clips to the upper rack of your dishwasher under the names Jet Dry, Finish, or similar. It keeps water spots from forming on your glassware. Useful but not overwhelmingly essential unless you’re cleaning for company.
  • Tang: A quick and cheap way to clean your dishwasher, which you’ll want to do from time to time. Fill the soap holes with powdered Tang and run a full cycle with no dishes in it. It’s surprisingly effective.

💡 “But I drink Tang! Can it seriously be used as a cleaning agent, and if so, why am I drinking it?” Keep in mind that many foods have cleansing properties. Diet Coke can take corrosion off a car battery terminal, vinegar will remove urine from fabric, and lemon and baking soda will eliminate that nasty smell in your garbage disposal. Don’t let this fact turn you off of Tang, if you like drinking it.

Don’t Overdo It

Are you tempted to rearrange and cram that one last item in there, so that you don’t have to wash it by hand? Not so fast, tiger. One of the main reasons dishes don’t get clean is that the dishwasher is so full that the spray can’t reach every item in it enough to be effective. While running your dishwasher half-full is wasteful of both soap and water, running it excessively full may mean having to wash everything again, which is just as wasteful if not more so. You’ll spend less time and energy total if you wash that one last thing by hand and don’t have to redo the whole load because you overfilled the dishwasher.

My photo hosting is being a pain at the moment, but tomorrow I’ll try to post pictures of what a good dishwasher load looks like and what an overload looks like.

Turn It Towards The Water

Take note of where the sprayers are in your dishwasher. Most dishasher have a rotating one between the racks. When you load the dishwasher, turn it so the dirty side faces the sprayer.

On the topic of that rotating sprayer, don’t block it, or your dishes won’t get clean.

 

 

Rinse Your Dishes First

Get the worst of the food and crusties off the dishes by rinsing in the sink before you put them in the dishwasher. They don’t have to be perfect before you put them in there, but they shouldn’t be crusted over, either.

Everything Doesn’t Go

Some things shouldn’t go in the dishwasher at all.

  • Plastic types 1 (PET), 3 (PVC), and 7 (other): PET is meant for disposable plastic items and will warp or melt in the dishwasher. PVC is used for plastic pipes and outdoor furniture and is not considered suitable for food storage. Type 7 plastic is a catch-all category that may or may not melt and may or may not be toxic. It’s a crapshoot and the safest move is to simply recycle it.
  • Cast Iron Cookware: This includes any cookware like aluminum that has to be seasoned, but is most especially true of cast iron. Cast iron cookware will rust in the dishwasher, which means you’ll have to scrub the rust off with a Brillo pad and re-season it. This is a pain.
  • Fine china and special finishes: Fine china, handmade pottery, and some baking pans have special finishes that may be damaged or ruined in the dishwasher. In the case of fine china, it may also shatter or break when subjected to forceful sprays of water. Better not to risk it.
  • Wood items: Wooden spoons, picnic items, and bamboo can warp, discolor, go dry, or even burn in the dishwasher. Hard pass.
  • Excessively large items: If it’s big enough that it blocks the free rotation of any sprayer, it’s too big to go in the dishwasher.

Most other things will be okay in the dishwasher, although some things should only go in certain places.

Careful With That

These items should go only in the top rack:

  • Plastics 2, 4, 5, and 6: These are reusable food-grade plastics and can go in the dishwasher, but all plastics should be confined to the top rack.
  • Small items: Most items of this nature are okay in the dishwasher but need to be prevented from flying everywhere. Placing them in the top rack where they won’t be hit quite so hard is the best means of accomplishing this.

A Final Word

Remember that anything that goes into your dishwasher comes out hot. It also consumes a fair amount of water and electricity. A thrifty move that will also keep your from burning your fingers is to plan to run the dishwasher while you’re asleep. Electricity is cheaper in the wee hours of the morning in many places, and you’ll wake up to clean dishes. Many dishwashers now have delay timers for exactly this purpose.

Good luck! I’ll post pictures tomorrow of how I do it to aid in explaining how it works, when I can bend Flickr to my will.

Smart Ways To Spend A Windfall

They happen every now and then, and they’re oh so fun when they do. Tax refunds. Gambling winnings. Inheritance payouts from a relative’s will. Monetary gifts. If you have escrow on your mortgage, excess from your escrow. These items are referred to as windfall income, a one-time infusion of money from various sources. You can’t count on it happening again, but it’s often in large amounts.

Large or small, it’s very tempting to run right out on a clothes shopping spree or go get that new phone you’ve been eyeing. There are so many things to spend money on, aren’t there? And so many retailers are holding great sales right around tax time.

Not so fast, is my advice.

Especially around tax time, retailers know perfectly well that the majority of Americans get refunds on their income taxes, and their goal is to get you to spend it at their store. The timing of these sales is absolutely not by accident, and the majority of these retailers are selling you things that are nice to have, not things that you really need. Consumerism is rampant in American society, and feeling flush with cash can make it hard not to fall for the carefully-tailored psychological ploys designed to get you to leave it with your favorite store.

Before you and your cash-infused friends hit the mall, consider these other ways to spend your money.

Create (Or Add To) A Rainy-Day Fund

A rainy-day fund is a key part of any responsible and well-managed financial plan. It covers things like an emergency auto repair, dental work, or your bills in the event of a job loss. It keeps you from having to run up your credit cards to handle the budget-busting emergency expenses that are part of life, and keeps you from having a debt-reduction plan derailed by an emergency expense.

This fund should not be confused with savings for planned expenses such as weddings, vacations, car down payments, and so forth. That should be a separate account from this fund.

How much should be in it? That depends on your life situation and your income. Experts recommend starting with a goal of $1000, which is generally enough to cover dental work or many car repairs. My experience says that serious dental work ends up being $1500 or more, so I recommend working up from there. In a perfect world, you’ll have three to six months’ worth of living expenses saved up against a job loss, but that goal takes time to attain.

Start somewhere. If you don’t have a fund at all, open a new savings account with your current bank and start one. If you use the three-account system I mentioned last week, open it at the same institution as your bills account. If you do already have one, consider designating a percentage of your windfall to adding to it.

Invest It

An investment is basically using your money to make more money. It takes a lot of time to build up a lot, but patience and discipline pays off.

Have you started saving for retirement? If not, I recommend getting started. The longer a small amount of money has to grow, the more it becomes. Even if you can’t contribute a lot, contribute something, and give that little something more time to weather the ups and downs of the stock market and become a big something.

If your employer does not offer 401(k) pre-tax retirement contributions, you can still invest post-tax for retirement by contributing to a Roth IRA. You can also invest money for medium-term goals, like a down payment on a house, college savings for a child, or paying for your wedding. There are even mobile apps that allow you to invest small amounts at a time, such as Acorns, Betterment, Robinhood, and Stash.

Pay Off Debt

Got student loans or a car loan? Most loans today allow you to pre-pay all or part of the loan without penalty. Check to be sure that this applies to your loan before you do it, but consider paying off part of that loan. If you pay more now, you’ll end up paying less in interest later because of the way loan amortization works.

How about a credit card? Is it maxed out? If you owe on a credit card, you already spent that money in your hand. Paying off that credit card will help you avoid finance charges and late fees, and a whole lot of worry and headaches.

Take Care Of A Problem

I did this with my tax refund this year. I spent most of it to address a non-working toilet, a non-working sump pump, and some other plumbing problems in my home, and I consider it money well spent. Fix your car. Get it cleaned/detailed. Address any standing problems in your home. Get new glasses. Have your teeth fixed.

Save For A Goal

A down payment on a car. That road trip. A cruise to the Caribbean. That 60″ TV. These are all things that take time and money to work towards, but not usually so long that it’s worth taking the risk of investing it. Shoving some money in a savings account is never a bad idea.

Deal With Taxation

Be aware that some windfalls, particularly inheritances and gambling winnings, may be subject to taxation in your place of residence. If so, consider setting some of it aside to cover that.

A Final Word

None of this is to say that having a little mad money is a bad thing. It’s not. I’m not suggesting that you devote every dime you got to the boring adult stuff. A responsible adult, though, will not blow all of a windfall on fun. They’ll take care of business first and leave a little on the side for fun, instead.

Cleaning Supplies and Safety

This is a blog post that I never thought I’d write, until I knew someone who put Dawn in the dishwasher. If you have ever wondered about this, this is not a good idea. Different cleansers are formulated to tackle different problems and generate varying amounts of suds in the process. Using a cleaner for a purpose or in a way not indicated on the label may result in damage to the object being cleaned, personal injury, or just an unholy mess.

Ground Rules

Many cleaning supplies are toxic, acidic, basic, or some combination of the three. Observe these safety precautions when handling cleaning supplies to prevent accidental poisoning or irritation.

  • Always read the label first. The label will indicate if the cleaner is safe to use on a given surface, will discolor or stain fabric, should be used in a ventilated area, and more.
  • If your hands are easily irritated, consider using gloves and/or a mask when using cleaning products. Some of them absolutely require it. Asthmatics should keep an inhaler handy and use a mask.
  • Ventilate the space when using a strong cleaner. Turn on the bathroom exhaust fan, or open a window. Opening two windows, one on each side of the domicile, creates an air current that will move air through the house very nicely.
  • Never store cleaning supplies in the same area as food or anything that handles food. An entire locked cabinet somewhere in your house or flat should be reserved for these items. It is safe for them to share shelf space with non-food items such as pesticides, herbicides, gardening items, tools, paper products, and similar, but should not be stored with anything that comes into contact with food for humans or pets.
  • Similarly, whether you do self-checkout at the grocery store or have a checker do it, cleaning supplies should never be sent home in the same bag as a food or food item. Never do it yourself and don’t be afraid to correct a grocery store checker who does it.
  • Do not mix cleaners unless directed, and if multiple types of cleaner need to be applied to an area, rinse well between cleaners. Failing to observe this rule can produce toxic fumes or even an explosion.

‼️ Bleach and Ammonia

Advice regarding mixing ammonia and bleach can be summed up in one word: NEVER. Here’s why.

To put this into perspective for you, here’s some fun factoids about the chemicals described in that link.

  • Hydrazine was one of the components of the liquid rocket fuel used by the space shuttles.
  • Hydrochloric acid is present in your stomach acid. It’s also an industrial acid along with sulfuric acid.
  • It is possible for chlorine gas to escape this chain reaction. If it does, it’s corrosive and toxic and will appear as a green gas hugging the floor.
  • It is not true that mixing urine and bleach produces mustard gas. Mustard gas has sulfur in it, which is not present in this reaction.

Some things to keep in mind to keep this from happening:

  • This reaction can also happen if you are using concentrated chlorine products such as bleach or pool chlorine in the presence of water to clean something that has a lot of decomposed organic matter, such as an old fish pond or a composting toilet.
  • Urine is composed of ammonium salts and water. Under normal circumstances such as a bathroom or dirty diapers, the concentration of ammonia salts isn’t high enough to cause a dangerous reaction, and bleach is safe. However, a cat’s litterbox or a source of stale urine will have higher concentrations of ammonium salts in the urine and use of chlorine products such as bleach could cause this reaction to occur.
  • Use vinegar to denature the ammonium salts present before attempting to bleach items of this nature. In the case of the catbox, a mixture of Dawn and water to scrub it out followed by a cup of vinegar left in it for five minutes will suffice.

If you should accidentally cause this chemical reaction to occur:

  • Remove pets and children from the area.
  • Close interior vents and ventilate to the outside (open a window or turn on exhaust fan or both).
  • Get out of the area for several hours.
  • If you or anyone in the area experience any burning on skin or eyes or have trouble breathing after doing this, go to the nearest emergency room.
  • If any pets appear to be in distress, take them to an emergency vet.

A Final Word

Always remember: cleaning supplies, while necessary to the maintenance of any home, are usually toxic chemicals. Treat them as such, and treat them with respect and care.

Friday Wisdom: Polonius Was Right

This above all: to thine own self be true;

And then it must follow as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man.

— Hamlet, Act I, Scene iii

That entire soliloquy has some excellent life advice in it, and it’s worth committing the whole thing to memory. Everything Polonius said is still true and relevant today. I’m going to focus, though, on the statement above, because it’s the keystone in the arch of fulfilling relationships.

In this context, “true” doesn’t mean “in line with your values”, although that is also true. It means “honest”.

Being honest with yourself about yourself is hard, because there are going to be things about yourself that you don’t necessarily like. The good news is that you’ll also find things about yourself that you do like. You don’t have to like everything about yourself to know that you are still a worthy human being, that you are a child of the stars just like everyone else, and that you have the right to be here. That you are still deserving of love.

Self-honesty is the basis of emotional health, of self-confidence, and self -respect. From self-respect comes good boundaries, from good boundaries comes trust of others, and from trust of others comes love. Without self-honesty, honest and healthy relationships are impossible.

In short, a happy life begins with being honest with yourself about who and what you are — and are not.

 

Money Management: The Three-Account System

So you’ve got a bank account. Fantastic. Everyone needs one of those. You might even have a checking account and a savings account. Even better!

That’s the traditional system, and it works if you’re absolutely vigilant about your spending. It can be tough to avoid accidentally spending your bill money on an emergency expenditure, though, and you can make a numbers mistake and have everything bounce on you, which is a fiscal nightmare. I’ve even had a company accidentally double-withdraw me, which if I hadn’t had my ducks in a row could have really messed me up good. The closer to the line you walk financially, and the less cushion you have, the more likely this is to happen.

The traditional system is trouble for people who aren’t good with numbers or who like to act spontaneously. I know a lot of these types of people. Enter the three-account system. Here’s how this works:

You have a checking account with your local financial institution, a bank or credit union that has local branches and ATM’s for your daily financial needs. This account also has a debit card tied to it. This is what you use for your groceries and other day-to-day purchases. If you want to go to the movies or out to dinner, that expense comes out of this account. If you don’t have enough money in the account to go out to dinner, you can’t afford it.

You also have another checking account with a different financial institution, preferably one that does not have a local presence in your town. It might be an online-only bank or an institution that does not have branches in your part of the country. Mine is a credit union based on the opposite coast whose nearest branch is two hours away, but who has a nice suite of online tools. This account’s sole purpose in life is for the payment of your bills. Your rent, electricity, water, phone, car payment, and so forth all come out of this account. You ideally should not have a debit card for this account, and if you do, that card definitely does not belong in your wallet. The goal is to let this account largely manage itself.

The third account is a savings account at the same institution as your bills-only checking account. Its job is to be your rainy-day fund. A rainy-day fund handles large emergency expenses such as a busted hot water heater, a car accident, or emergency dental work. It can also handle your bills in the event of a sudden job loss, but should not ever be used to fund things like vacations. If you want a savings account for fun stuff like vacations or a house down payment, establish another savings account for the purpose. It’s okay to have two or three savings accounts.

Most employers today have the ability to direct-deposit your paycheck, and most of those have the ability to split your paycheck among multiple accounts. To start the system, establish all three accounts, then calculate how much your fixed bills are every month. If your electricity fluctuates, estimate the average for a month. If you want to set aside savings every month towards your rainy-day fund, that counts as a bill. (Pay yourself first.) Have your employer deposit the total amount required for all your bills into your bills-only account, and the balance into your everyday checking account.

💡 When making any financial calculations, round every expense up to the nearest dollar if it’s an expense, and down to the nearest dollar if it’s income. This means your budget accounts for more expense and less income than you really have, and the change becomes a little kitty sitting in the bottom of your checking account. Over time, this little pool can add up to significant savings that can rescue you from a calculation error or a double-withdraw like the one I mentioned at the top of this blog post.

If you block out monthly savings among your bills — and I hope and recommend that you do — you can then set up an automated transfer to tuck that amount away in your savings account every month. Voilà! You’re saving money every month before your I-want-those-shoes urges ever see that money.

I actually deposit a bit extra into my bills account every paycheck. This lets me retain enough money in my bills account that I don’t care when the bills land. They could all land on the same day and I’d still be okay. I have enough stashed in the bottom to handle it. This might not happen for you right away, but if you tuck away a bit extra from your direct deposit, it builds up over time.

A Final Word

The goal of any budget is to ensure that you spend less than you earn, a state of affairs known as “living within your means”. If you treat savings as a bill to be paid every month, you’ll end up living beneath your means, which is even better. It’s not something that most of us can achieve quickly, but small accounts and good habits add up over time.