Monthly Archives: November 2014

Selecting a Health Insurance Plan


I’ve written about why having health insurance is important.  I’ve written about how health insurance works.  But with the Affordable Care Act (ACA) enrollment period open, it seemed like I should write about how to sort through the many insurance options and to select one that works for you.

Health insurance now comes in metallically labeled levels of coverage.  Bronze plans pay about 60% of expenses on average.  Silver pays at about 70%.  Gold pays at about 80%.  Platinum pays at about 90%.  And there are also Catastrophic plans that pay less than 60% of average expenses, but these are only available to people under 30 or people with a demonstrated hardship.  Frankly, I would avoid the Catastrophic plans if at all possible.  Insurance is one of those things that you pay for hoping that you never ever need to use it.  But when you do need to use it (and with health insurance, that’s often a surprise event), you want it to actually pay for some things.

If you expect to make regular doctor visits or take prescription drugs regularly, you’ll likely want a Gold or Platinum plan.  These cost more per month, but they come with a lower deductible and lower co-insurance.  More out of pocket to buy the insurance, but less out of pocket to use it.

If you are healthy and don’t expect to have many medical expenditures, a Silver or Bronze plan may work better for you.  These have lower up-front costs, but come with higher deductibles and higher co-insurance.  These work well for the healthy and the wealthy.  And they definitely work best when paired with a health savings account.

Penn State offers employees the choice of a Platinum plan and an alternate high deductible plan (which I think is Bronze, but I’m not positive).  As a middle-aged woman with several health issues requiring prescription medication and follow-up physician visits, I’ve opted for the Platinum plan.  I have to pay a lot more per month for my coverage, but in the long run it makes the most financial sense for me, as I pay less out of pocket per year overall.  This year I ended up having three unexpected minor surgeries on my hands, and I was very grateful for the Platinum coverage.  My out of pocket expense with the high deductible plan would have been several thousand dollars as opposed to the several hundred I paid with my Platinum coverage.

Penn State students also have the opportunity to purchase a Platinum plan at a group rate from Aetna.  This student insurance option costs $2,838 per year, or $236.50 per month.  If I were an uninsured student with any health issues, I would choose this option without hesitation.  It’s less expensive than most Platinum plans on the ACA Marketplace and the coverage is great.  But if I were a healthy student needing coverage, I might think about saving money by choosing a Bronze or Silver plan from the ACA Marketplace.

The answer of which plan is best will absolutely vary from person to person.  How often do you go to the doctor?  What medications do you require?  Do you have any pre-existing conditions?  Do you expect you’ll need any surgeries?  How much money do you have available month-to-month for your premiums?  How much money do you have available to cover your deductible and co-insurance?  These are all things you’ll need to take into consideration in selecting your health insurance plan.  It’s not easy.  But it is truly important!

Cutting the Cost of Air Travel

Travel used to be fun.  It was easy to get onto an airplane. Security didn’t take an eternity.  You could keep your shoes on.  There used to be room for your knees and elbows on a plane.  They used to give you food if your flight was more than an hour or so.  You could check bags for free.  But everything is different now.  Flying is not fun.

Because flying is not very comfortable anymore, my general rule of thumb is that if I can drive the distance in eight hours or less, I don’t even consider flying.  But I’ve been known to opt for driving distances that take up to 12 hours.

When I do need to fly, there are several tricks I use to save money.

First, buy airline tickets at least a month in advance when possible.  The closer you get to your travel date, the more expensive the ticket will become.  And for some unexplained reason, tickets seem to be cheaper on Tuesday and Wednesday than on other days of the week.

Second, consider multiple airports.  It’s often possible to save hundreds of dollars by driving a couple hours to a different airport.

Third, don’t pay to check a bag if you don’t need to.  If you can get everything into a carry-on, you can save up to $50 round trip. But sometimes checking a bag is necessary.  Some airlines (Southwest!) will let you check a couple of bags for free.  Others may give you a discount on bag check fees if you are a member of their loyalty program or if you use their rewards credit card or if you check in online before you get to the airport.  Do a little research about your options before you pay the bag check fees.

Finally, food and drink can add up quickly when you’re in planes and airports.  Just like you can save a fortune by brown bagging your lunch to school or work, you can save a lot of money by packing a sandwich and some snacks when you fly.  Also, bring an empty water bottle with you when you travel.  I never go anywhere without my trusty Nalgene bottle.  It goes through security empty and I fill it on the other side.  No need to buy a drink.  And the trend must be catching on.  More and more often I find handy bottle filling stations in airports.

Water station

Travel is not much fun.  But destinations are wonderful.  And travel doesn’t have to be ridiculously expensive if you’re smart about it.

Paying the Bills: Auto-debit and online bill payment

I hate paying bills.  I guess everyone does.  But I don’t hate it near as much now as I did a decade or so ago.  And it has nothing to do with having enough money to cover everything.  That’s still a challenge.  It has everything to do with the Internet and automation.

There was a time when bill paying meant sitting down with a checkbook, a pen, and some stamps.  I’d write out checks and get them in the mail with enough time for them to get to their destination before the due date.  On rare occasions I would send a check that I didn’t have quite enough money to cover and hope that a deposit went through before the check was cashed (DON’T DO THIS!!!!!).  Sometimes there would be a mail failure and a check wouldn’t get there on time (or at all), leaving me on the phone with customer service representatives trying to sort it all out.


Today bill paying for me involves my computer (or my smart phone) and several auto-payments.  Several regular bills (my mortgage, my car payment, my car insurance) I have auto-debited from my checking account every month.  Several others (my cell phone, my online newspaper subscription, my Netflix account) I have billed right to my credit card.  The rest I pay online with my credit union’s online bill payment feature.  The funds move electronically in most cases, so I know that when I sit down tonight to schedule payment to my Visa card, the bill will be paid tomorrow.

As with everything, there are pros and cons to auto-debit and to online bill payment.  If you don’t have regular income, auto-debit can be a little scary as the creditor will attempt to deduct the money whether it’s in your account or not, and that could result in an overdraft for you.  But in most cases auto-debit is a win-win.  You never have to worry about taking action to make a payment, you know your payment will always be on time, and the creditor is happy because your payment will always be on time.  Some places (student loan servicers in particular) will even lower your interest rate on a debt if you sign up for auto-debit.

Online bill pay requires a little effort on your part to set up.  If you don’t enter your information correctly, your payment may end up in the wrong place.  And your bank may charge you for this service (though I encourage you to look around for a bank that doesn’t!).  But once you have everything set up, paying the monthly bills is a snap.  You sit down at the computer, enter the right amounts and desired payment dates next to the bills, and you’re done.  No checks.  No stamps.  No mail mishaps.

Paying bills is never anyone’s idea of a good time.  But it sure could be a lot worse!


Dry Clean Only: Does It Really Mean That?

Dry clean onlyDry clean humor

When I purchase clothing, I like to make note of laundry/care instructions up front.  There were years in my life when the words “dry clean” just threw up a big red flag and I refused to buy.  But then I spent several years living in Chicago, where there was a low-priced dry cleaner on every corner.  During those years the dry clean clothing crept back into my wardrobe because cleaning it wasn’t prohibitively expensive.  But when I moved to State College I was absolutely stunned by the high cost of dry cleaning.  And it started me to thinking about whether “dry clean only” really means that’s the only option.

As it turns out, clothing manufacturers are only required to list one care option on the label.  In cases where they do that, they tend to list the option that offers the least chance of damage to the clothing.  In many cases that means “dry clean” goes onto the label of something that actually could be laundered.  And I really think that in this age of everyone trying to protect themselves from potential law suits, more and more labels are encouraging dry cleaning rather than trusting consumers to be able to follow care instructions for the laundry.

A couple of recent purchases have really brought this issue to the front of my mind.  I recently bought two polyester blouses.  One said “machine wash cold, tumble dry low.”  The other said “dry clean only.”  Now I grew up in the 1970’s….the age of polyester.  I know darned well that polyester doesn’t need to be dry cleaned, or my mother never would have dressed me in it when I was in elementary school.  So I took a chance.  I machine washed the “dry clean only” blouse and air dried it on my drying rack.  And it came out beautifully.  Now I feel confident that I can wear that blouse frequently without having to worry about the cost of making it clean.

And just last week I picked up three pair of dress pants at the Goodwill store (where I’m known to shop frequently) for $3.49 each.  All three pair were made of some blend of the same materials—polyester, rayon, cotton, and spandex.  Two pair said “dry clean.”  One pair said “machine wash cold, tumble dry low, or dry clean.”  And I thought, why can one pair be laundered and these others made of the same materials can’t?  At $3.49 a pair it was worth it to me to take a chance.  I washed them in cold on the gentle cycle and air dried them.  And they came out perfectly.  Didn’t even need to be ironed.  No need to pay more than the cost of the pants just to get them cleaned.  These are clothes that I’ll wear frequently and be able to launder.

Now I’m not saying that everything that says “dry clean only” can be laundered.  I would never take a chance on laundering a suit or anything that has a lining.  And I know that the higher the rayon content, the less likely it will launder well.  I keep a general rule of thumb that anything that says “dry clean only” will be air dried rather than tossed into the dryer.  But I’ve laundered a lot of dry clean labels in my day, and only once (an ill-fated wool sweater from Goodwill) have I regretted that decision.

For those items that do actually merit the dry cleaner, I usually only have them cleaned once or twice a year (ok….maybe even less than that).  In between I freshen them up with Dryel.  Just treat stains with the solution included in the Dryel kit, put the clothing items in the special bag with the Dryel sheet, and put it in the dryer on low for 30 minutes.  Things come out completely undamaged and smelling fresh (though sometimes in need of an iron).  And I can clean 20 to 30 items for less than $10 that way.  MUCH cheaper than going to the dry cleaner all the time.

Clothing can be expensive.  But it’s necessary.  So why should we have to spend a fortune keeping out clothes clean?  In short…we don’t!