Changes To Benefits For 2009

It’s that time of year where it’s time for open enrollment for medical and other employer sponsored benefits.

My company sold a 51% stake in themselves to a private equity firm, so we changed insurance providers, though they kept benefit offerings along the same line as they did with the old company. Hopefully that carries past 2009 because it seemed to work out well.
Some changes I made in our benefits for next year:

  • Changed to a no-deductible PPO – This past year, our PPO had a deductible of $150 per person for in-network charges. This year I switched to a no-deductible PPO. The zero deductible applies to in-network providers, with the trade off being that the out-of-network provider deductible is significantly higher, as well as the annual ‘out of pocket’ cost have a higher cap. I went through all of our medical bills for 2008 and confirmed that all of our doctors are in-network, and also spent time talking to the hospital that will be doing our delivery to make sure that all aspects of our expected childbirth is covered. They are and were very helpful in answering questions. I think this will be a good trade-off.
  • Added extra life insurance – My employer offers life insurance up to 10-times my salary, and also offers a policy for my wife. With a newborn on the way, this is something I wanted to address. I contacted our normal insurance provider to see what a comparable policy would be, and it was almost three times as expensive, so I’m sticking with the policy from work. The downside, of course, is that the employer policy would go away in the event that something would happen to my job, but I figure that if something were to happen, I would address that when the time came, but will enjoy the savings for now.
  • Contributed to an Health Savings Account – I have never contributed to this, but I wanted to this year since there will be some bills coming with the delivery of our baby as well as costs that are incurred for a newborn. The benefits of this are that it allows us to contribute throughout the year, and also is tax deductible, which reduces the overall cost. The downside is that you have to use all of it in 2009, so if you over-contribute, you could potentially use it. However, I’ve found that there is pretty good flexibility in how you can spend this, in that drugstores will allow you to spend it on many items, including humidifiers, first aid care, off-the-shelf medicines. In other words, the chances are pretty low that this will go to waste, especially in the first year of having a newborn.

The costs aren’t too bad. If I hadn’t added the extra life insurance, the cost per paycheck would actually be about the same as 2008. The extra life insurance will raise it slightly, and of course the HSA contributions will deduct as well, but this will be offset by less recurring monthly expense in money that I personally earmark for medical related expenses. I also calculated what the contributions will be once we have the baby and move to family insurance. This will add an extra $50 or so per paycheck once Baby Beagle comes to the world. I’m going to just start setting that money aside now to ensure that the effects won’t be noticeable once we have to sign up for that coverage.

Luckily, I just got my annual raise so the ‘bottom line’ won’t result in less take home after the contributions. That’s good to know.

Also, I wanted to give a special thanks to ShtinkyKat, a fellow personal finance blogger. She read my earlier post in which I was unsure about the possible out-of-pocket costs for childbirth. She asked a friend who had recently gone through it, and provided some very helpful information which led me to come up with a more firm number for my HSA contributions. Part of the fun of blogging and motivation is building a rapport with fellow bloggers and readers, and it’s nice to know that there are people reading and willing to help. Thanks again!

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Saving Money By Mulching The Leaves

We have a lot of trees on our property, and so the fall brings lots and lots of leaves.
I’ve been raking them and bagging them, but my pack of 25 bags that I bought at Costco ran out last week, and I forgot to buy more. I started wondering if I could just mulch them instead with my mulching lawn mower. I did a little research and found that mulching leaves can be very beneficial to the lawn as it will provide nutrients.
I’ve since read additional information that helps me believe that using the mulching mower is not a bad thing. Unknown to us, there are still earthworms in the ground that will use the mulched leaves to create valuable nutrients that will help the lawn next spring.
So, this past week I actually used the mower and it looks great. The mower shreds the leaves a lot smaller than I would have guessed, and it saved me from having to buy more yard waste bags.
Some highlights from the article, others that I’ve read, and from my own personal experience:

  • It’s better to mulch leaves when they’re dry. Mine were still damp from a rainfall the previous night. If they’re damp, you just have to go slower to let the mower have more time to mulch
  • If there are too many leaves, you should probably stick to raking. When you cut your grass and it leaves clumps, that means it’s probably too high and you should bag it. The same principle applies to mulching leaves. If they’re more than an inch thick, the mower probably won’t be effective at mulching them and it’d be better to rake and bag.
  • You can collect the mulch and spread it around other areas. Apparently a layer of mulch a couple of inches thick around bushes and flower beds will also help provide nutrients to those areas.
  • I probably wouldn’t mulch every time since we have so many trees. I figure if I never collected the leaves, I might be placing too much mulch down would not be doing any benefit after a while. I’d recommend mulching no more often than every other time.

Happy raking and mulching!

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My City Government Is Helping Residents Save Money

One of the things that was new to me when we bought our house last year was having to pay for garbage pickup. Prior to that, I had lived in a condo and so the garbage pickup was included in the monthly association fees.
When we were buying our house, I investigated and found that garbage pickup in our city was up to each individual household. There are five trash haulers licensed in the city, and our subdivision has a recommendation of using one of the five haulers. I signed up with them.
The cost varies with fuel costs, but most recently the cost was approximately $80 for three months, or approximately $27 per month.
I was surprised that there wasn’t a single trash hauler, and did a little bit of research on the subject. I found that the residents had actually voted it down a few years back. The details in the archive news stories were a little sketchy, but I think that the residents were nervous about it being an additional tax, some didn’t like the government ‘taking it over’, and yet other residents didn’t want to pay because they don’t use the service all year. A lot of retired people in Michigan are ’snowbirds’ and spend the winters in warmer climates such as Florida or Arizona. Many of these people felt it would be cheaper for them to pay as you go.
Recently, I heard that the city council has been inundated with requests from residents to consider this again. The costs have gone up tremendously versus what it was a couple of years ago. Plus, the fact that there were multiple haulers meant multiple trucks. This added to traffic, wear and tear on the roads, and the general displeasure of having to look at garbage on the curb as well as listen to garbage trucks going by.
Apparently, the city council is bypassing the city vote. Instead of rolling it into the taxes, they’re basically still making residents pay the garbage hauler, but they’re eliminating all but one of the trash haulers licensed in the city. People that leave for the winter can turn the service off, with a nominal re-activation fee in the spring.
And, the price for three months will be $45. That’s $35 every quarter, or $140 saved per year. That’s nothing to sneeze at. Even people that leave for four or five months will save for the time that they’re using the service. Plus, we’ll have one day of trash pickup in our subdivision, less wear on the roads, and I believe they actually provide better service. They’ll take more recycling than they do now, they’ll provide residents with larger trash bins and recycle bins, and they’ve agreed to purchase all new equipment.
For us, the hauler that was chosen is the same one we’re using, so I’m hopeful that the transition will be relatively seamless when it happens.
I can’t really see a problem with this and am glad that our city government is helping our residents save money.

My Hopes Following The Election

Now that the election is done, hopefully all the lawn signs will disappear, politicians will get back to work, and the business of getting the economy back on track will be the number one thing on our politician’s minds. Oh, and I think you’ll all agree that we’ll gladly welcome seeing early commercials Christmas versus the endless mudslinging ads that have taken over the TV, radio, and even Internet outlets.
Anyways, here are some hopes that I have for the various political powers that be. I’ll try to keep it related to personal finance since this a blog focused on that! :)
President-Elect Obama
First, congratulations to the newly elected President. In all the elections I’ve witnessed in my 34 years, I’ve never seen a candidate capture the attention and admiration of so many people. Whether you supported him or not, you have to admit that his energy was polarizing. Here are some hopes for our soon to be new President:

  • I want to see him channels the energy built during the campaign into a more united Washington and a more united America. We’ve been divided for too long. Between rich and poor. Democrats and Republicans. Even America versus well, everyone else. I hope that Obama can carry the promise to bring people together and make us once again the true United States of America.
  • While things like health care and tax reform were big campaign promises, those are not things that will fix the current economic problems, and should be addressed only when the economy is stabilized. Those things might make for popular TV ads, but we need jobs and I hope that Obama focuses his first 100 days (and more) to bring jobs to Americans.
  • As my series on ‘The Drive Home’ has shown so far, a good deal of our success as a nation over the last 100 years has been because of the automobile industry. That industry is suffering in a big way right now. Unfortunately, many people have given up on the industry and written it off. Even more unfortunate is that one of those people is President Bush, who basically said multiple times that the automotive industry was on it’s own. Regardless of how we got here, there are millions of people that depend on the automotive industry, whether they be workers of the auto companies or suppliers, or the retirees and families. I hope that Obama looks forward and works to make a healthy auto industry a key part of a healthy America once again.
  • This one’s more lighthearted. I live in Michigan and am very critical of our Jennifer Granholm, our current governor. I simply don’t think she has done her part to fight for Michigan jobs during one of the toughest economic times our state has seen There’s rumors that she could be considered as Obama’s Attorney General, a position she held at the state level before becoming governor. I hope that Obama pegs her for this job, so we can get a governor more focused on bringing jobs to Michigan.

The Democratic Party
The Democratic party was a mess for a good portion of the last 10-15 years. After losing both houses of Congress in 1994, they also lost the Presidency in 2000, and only in the past couple of elections have started to regain their footing. Now, the Democrats have come back in full force, taking over both houses of Congress with very decisive numbers, and of course having the Presidential office as well.

  • I hope that the Democrats do not use this time to push a partisan agenda.
  • Instead, I hope that they do what is right for America and help us out of the current economic crisis.
  • I hope that they listen. That they listen to one another, to Republicans, to independents, and most importantly to the voters. Having all the power is great, but it’s gotten parties into trouble before (see below), so I hope that they remember what is the important thing: the people.

The Republican Party
The Republicans quite recently once where the Democrats are now. The party that came back from having no control to having everything. It started in 1994 when they basically swept the elections for Congress and House by running races around the country focusing on the ‘Contract With America’. This was a pledge by Republicans to cut the size of government, streamline the government, promote lower taxes, and reduce government spending. This resonated with Americans, and the Republicans charged to victory. Six years later, they took over the Presidency as well and controlled it all (sound familiar?).
Unfortunately, several things have led to the quick fall of the Republican party:

  • The Contract With America was great in theory, but it didn’t really stick. The government has gotten bigger, not smaller, since The Contract.
  • Those that pushed for The Contract With America forgot to plan for what to do afterwards. I think America was so fired up to see what could happen after the party seemed to unite, but after everybody got elected, the Republicans really never came up with a true agenda.
  • The President that was elected lost the trust of most of America. Over eight years, the face of the Republican party lost more and more people to where perception became that he only cared about the rich, those on Wall Street, and those involved in oil. That doesn’t represent most of America, and as such, most got to feeling left out in the cold. He personally lost me after he turned his back on the auto companies.

After all this, the Republicans are now in the back seat. But, we need a strong second party. Many argue we need a third party, which I agree with, but we first need a strong Republican party if for no other reason than checks and balances. Our country was built on the checks and balances system, which was designed so that power is spread out and not controlled by one area (or party).

  • I hope that the Republicans return to their roots. They once stood for fiscal responsibility and not ballooning deficits. They’ve broken the promises of ‘The Contract With America’ and have lost their identity. I hope that they get it back.
  • I hope that the Republican party finds leadership and direction and can also find someone to inspire. We need as many people as possible to inspire and lead us, and I don’t care what party they come from!

The People
Americans are going to play a big part in what happens next.

  • I hope that offer our support to the President and the politicians that need to hear our voices and right now say they want to listen
  • I hope that we agree or disagree with positions or plans based on the merits of the plans, and not the party of the politician that supports it.
  • I hope that continue to participate. This was one of the highest voting turnouts in history, and i hope that we realize that our participation doesn’t end after you leave the polls, and also that it doesn’t end regardless of whether the people you voted for were elected or not. We need to let our politicians know what we want and what we expect. We need to make sure that our politicians are working for us and serving our needs. Don’t just sit back and watch. Take part!