Author Archives: Susan Bogart

About Susan Bogart

Susan Bogart is the Director of Financial Aid for Penn State University's Dickinson School of Law. After twenty years of working in financial aid, the passion to keep a financial literacy blog could no longer be restrained. Susan has been at Penn State Law since 2003. Previously she ran the financial aid office at The John Marshall Law School (1995-2003) and worked as a financial aid counselor at Alfred University (1993-1995). She holds a B.A. in Music and English from Mansfield University and an M.A. in College Student Personnel from Bowling Green State University.

Food on the Road

Thanksgiving is the biggest travel holiday of the year in the United States.  Whether by car, train, bus, or airplane, there are steps you can take to save a significant amount of money on food while you are traveling.

If you’re heading out on the ground (car, train, or bus) it’s easy to pack a lunch, including drinks, to eat along the road.  A sandwich and soda or water that you bring from home are a lot less expensive than those you buy along the way.   Throw it all in a bag and you are set for hundreds of miles!

Things get a little trickier when you are traveling by airplane.  The TSA has restrictions on what you can bring through security.  Luckily, the restrictions only apply to liquids.  So your sandwich (and apple, and chips, and crackers) is fine to go through security.  The beverage is the tricky part.  When I fly I always carry on an empty refillable water bottle.  Most airports have bottle filling stations, so once you get through security you can fill your bottle and be set for the day (also an effective strategy for staying hydrated at the law school!).

Traveling is expensive enough on its own.  There’s no need to compound that with the cost of road food!

Failure is the Best Teacher

I feel like I’ve been failing a lot lately.  I was taking an accounting class that I late dropped because I wasn’t understanding the material.  I’ve been horrible about getting the Moneywise Tip out regularly.  My house needs to be cleaned.  My laundry needs to be put away.  My front porch needs repair work.  Everywhere I turn I see my face on a big pile of failure.

To some people this might be the worst feeling in the world.  But I like to think of failure as an opportunity to learn and grow.  Failures are some of the best learning moments in life.  It’s so much easier to learn from a failure than from a success. You can usually see pretty clearly where you went wrong.  Why wasn’t I doing well in my accounting class?  I didn’t enjoy it because it focused too much on something I don’t care about at all (I wanted to learn federal tax for individuals….not for businesses).  Why have I been bad about the Moneywise Tip?  I haven’t been assigning it a high enough priority…which is a mistake.  Why is my house a mess?  I need incentive (like a soon-to-be-erected Christmas tree!) to inspire me to clean.  Why is my laundry all over the guest bed?  Apparently, I haven’t found the obstacle of finding something to wear from the giant pile to be great enough (but it’ll be there very soon!).  And I’m sure as soon as I hurt myself on the front porch, I’ll get it fixed.  Failures make the answers so easy to find.

The important thing about dealing with failure is not to wallow in it, but rather to pivot toward something that works better.  Find the teaching point and learn from it.  When you overdraw your checking account, you have to look into why it happened so you don’t let it happen again.  When you can’t pay all of your bills with the funds you have available, you have to examine your budget to see where you spent too much.  When you apply for a credit card and you get denied, you have to look at your credit report to see what is wrong (and whether that’s even something you did, or just a credit report error).  You can’t wallow in it.  It’s important to keep moving ahead…even if that means you are moving in a direction you didn’t originally plan for.

Failure can feel terrible.  But it’s also one of the best teachers in the world.

Put Your Money Where It Matters (to you)

Money is always a game of juggling your priorities.  I became extra aware of it this weekend when I was talking with my father about my aging and ailing Toyota Prius.  The trunk doesn’t open on my Prius.  The latch broke a couple of months ago and my father asked me why I hadn’t had it fixed yet.  And I blathered something about not having time and money.  But then I realized that fixing the trunk just wasn’t my priority right now.  I find the time and money to go see my favorite bluegrass bands.  I always find the time and money to enjoy dinner out at my favorite brewpub on Friday nights.  I have the time and money to take a class every semester to work toward an academic goal.  It’s just not that important to me to be able to open the trunk on my Prius.  I will get it fixed eventually.  But it’s pretty easy for me to work around for now, so I just haven’t made it a priority.

I guess the tricky part with money is defining your priorities and making sure they’re not out of balance.  Making bluegrass festivals more important than repairing the broken trunk latch on a car that is otherwise fine isn’t a problem.  Making dinner out at the brewpub more important than paying the rent is a HUGE problem.  It’s a matter of making sure your NEEDS are met before you start throwing money at your WANTS.  And then you can decide how you are going to prioritize those wants.

I want to get my trunk repaired.  I just don’t want it more than I want concert tickets.  At least not this week.

Lost: One Credit Card

I lost my credit card two weeks ago.  I had it in my pocket while I was at a music festival.  And then next day I couldn’t find it.  I checked my purse.  I checked all the pockets.  I dug through my camper (that we were staying in at the festival).  I just can’t locate it.  And at the end of the day, this is really no big deal.

As soon as I realized the card was missing in action, I logged into my account on line to check for recent activity.  I found there were no charges that I hadn’t made.  Then I put the account on “pause,” which allows regularly recurring charges to continue but any other charges will be blocked.  This has given me some time to continue looking for the missing card, in case it is just misplaced and not really gone.  The idea of cancelling the card and changing the number everyplace that I have recurring charges is less than appealing, so I want to give my camper one more good overhaul in case it’s hiding in the mattress somewhere.

In the meantime, I’ve been really glad that I have another card that I’ve been able to use instead.  Without a backup card I would have been in a bad place (adulting really seems to require plastic payment these days!).  I’m thinking it’s probably a good idea just in general to have more than one credit card.  Not just because of situations like mine, but because not all places take all cards.  Some merchants will accept MasterCard, but not Visa.  Some will take MasterCard and Visa, but not American Express.  And so on and so on.  I like to be prepared for just about any situation, and having multiple payment options helps with that.

My plan for tonight is to pull everything out of the camper and really search for the card one more time.  If I don’t find it, I’ll cancel it and get it reissued this week.  But luckily, if it really is gone, it’s no big deal.

The Time to Buy is Now

I hate dealing with health insurance issues.  Everything seems so confusing.  Beyond the premiums, you have to deal with deductibles, co-pays, co-insurance, and networks.  It feels like the whole system is stacked against the little guy.  But there is one thing that is much worse than dealing with health insurance—not having health insurance.  Modern medicine is amazing.  And amazingly expensive.  So if you go without insurance you are taking a giant risk.  One bicycle accident or unhappy appendix can put you many thousands of dollars in the hole.

Because many students don’t have health insurance from another source, Penn State offers a student health insurance plan that provides great coverage.  The enrollment period stays open until September 3, so you still have a week to get signed up if you need insurance.  It’s not cheap.  Few things that are actually good are also cheap.  But we do have the flexibility to increase federal student loan eligibility to cover the cost of this important purchase.  You just need to stop by the Law School’s Financial Aid Office (in suite 105) or send me an email (sab36@psu.edu) and I’ll help you through the process.

The right time to buy health insurance is right now.  The wrong time to buy health insurance is when it’s too late and you need it.

Out of Sight is Out of Mind

Out of sight is out of mind.  Sometimes this is a bad thing (like when you misplace the Mother’s Day card you bought and forget to mail it until Memorial Day).  Sometimes this is a good thing (like when you don’t have any junk food in the house and you are forced to eat carrots instead).

Knowing that out of sight is out of mind can be a useful tool.  For example, at the beginning of each semester many students receive a large refund of student loan money to use for living expenses for the whole semester.  Getting that money out of your normal cash flow will make it easier to make it last the whole semester.  One option some students use is to immediately pay rent ahead through the end of the year.  Another option (and the one I prefer) is to build a monthly budget (taking into account the amount of money you have) and only allow yourself to use that much each month.  Put most of it into a savings account.  Preferably a savings account for which you don’t have an ATM card and transferring funds takes a couple of days—making it harder to cheat and withdraw funds early.

You should set up a designated “pay day” when your month’s funds transfer to your more accessible checking account so you have money for rent, food, laundry, and other living expenses.  The key to this working is simple:  DO NOT PAY YOURSELF EARLY!  If you do, you may find yourself subsisting on Ramen and hot dogs during finals.  Because money is a finite thing.  Unexpected windfalls rarely happen.  If you run out of funds and don’t have more coming for several weeks, you’ll be uncomfortable for a while.

Out of sight is out of mind.  So put your case books in plain view and stash your money away where it’s harder to get to.

 

One Bite at a Time

The halls are eerily quiet.  Nearly everyone is wearing exercise clothing.  Coffee is being taken in intravenously.  The law school reeks of exam time.

Take a deep breath.  Have the extra piece of chocolate.  Stop by the shelter and pet some dogs and cats.  It’s ok to eat pizza for breakfast and potato chips for dinner.  This too shall pass.

As the old saying goes, “How do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time.”  And while I don’t condone the consumption of pachyderms, I love the sentiment.  If it seems impossible, break it down into smaller, more manageable pieces.

Hang in there.  You’ve got this.  One bite at a time.

Sometimes You Need to Reboot

Sometimes you just need to reboot.  We’ve all had it happen with our phones and computers.  The system just gets so overwhelmed that the only way to fix it is to turn it off and turn it back on again, giving it a fresh, clean start.

I was away from the office last Friday because I needed to reboot myself.  Spring is a pretty overwhelming time of year in the Financial Aid Office, and my work and personal worlds both had me feeling a bit out of control.  So I took a long weekend to go to a small music festival (one of my favorite things to do) and disconnect from normal life.  Today I’m back in the office with the same mounds of undone work surrounding me…but I feel better than I did last week.  Because I’ve had a reboot.

Sometimes your finances will feel overwhelming and you won’t be sure how you’ll ever be able to dig out.  At those times you may need to reboot your financial plans.  Maybe you have a credit card balance that you could save money on by transferring to a different card.  Maybe your student loan payment is uncomfortably high, but you can make life more manageable with a different payment plan.  Maybe your housing cost is too high and you have to make the difficult choice to move to a less expensive situation.  If your money has you feeling like you are sinking rather than swimming, you may need to look at things from a different angle and reboot your plan.  You will experience this many times throughout your life.  But nothing is hopeless.  You just need to reboot.

Secure Your Own Mask First

When you fly on an airplane there is always a safety speech before takeoff.  And the thing that has been ringing in my head since my last flight is, “Please secure your own mask before assisting others.”

That one sentence pretty much sums up this semester for me.  Spring semester always seems a bit harried, and this semester is no exception.  I’m not getting things done in as timely a fashion as I would like.  I’m a little overextended and feel like I’m focused a lot more on caring for others than making sure I’m ok myself.  But a conversation with a student last week made me revisit a tip on this theme that I wrote a couple of years ago.  I need to stop and secure my own mask before I can assist others.  You simply can’t effectively help others if you are in risk of not keeping yourself going.

The “secure your own mask” bit also hits close to home in a different way when it comes to charitable giving.  I’m sure I’m not the only person who hears the phone ring, sees the number of their alma mater, and lets it go to voice mail.  I know they are looking for a donation.  Sometimes it seems like every charity I’ve ever donated to is reaching out for a contribution at the same time.  And I want to assist others.  But my husband and I have some medical issues that are challenging financially.  So rather than stretching myself to assist others as much as I would like, I smile, politely said no (or agree to only a tiny amount) and proceed with securing my own financial mask.  It won’t be this way every year.  And it’s ok to say no to charities if you’re not feeling particularly financially secure yourself.  It comes back around when things are steadier financially.

I am hopeful that summer will unfold differently for me.  But it’s only because I’m taking steps to secure my own mask first.  Then I can proceed with assisting others.

 

The Scarcest Commodity

The scarcer a resource is, the more valuable it becomes.  It works this way with oil and diamonds and the minerals that help to make up your smartphone.  And it works this way with your time.  The further we get into the spring semester the scarcer time seems to be.  Exams (and commencement!) are only a few weeks away.  Your schedule is likely full of papers and events and planning and bar exam applications and outlines and study groups and…..well, you get the idea.  I’ve been finding the same thing in my world as both my personal and professional responsibilities seem to be more than I am able to squeeze into my waking hours.  But we trudge on, we compromise, and eventually we get through it.

The compromising is the tough part.  Every decision to spend your time on one thing means not spending it on something else.  Your priorities become clear.  When faced with the decision of spending my Saturday night seeing some favorite musicians perform or meal prepping with my Instant Pot, I chose the concert.  But that left me without lunches for the week.  Yet another decision.  Do I buy lunch out, or buy something pre-packaged?  I’m busy, but I’m not rich, so I hit the frozen food aisle at my local grocery store and bought an assortment of reduced-calorie frozen meals to eat for lunch this week.  And while I was at it, I grabbed a frozen veggie lasagna for Sunday dinner.  Not the most delicious food ever.  But also not bad, and not outside my budget.  And I didn’t have to give up the Saturday night concert.  I chose to spend my time on fun rather than food, but also didn’t give up too much of my money in the process.  Quality of food is less important to me than quality of life (which for me generally means live music).

Every decision has a trade-off.  But it’s important not to let money be the thing you sacrifice.  You can do or have anything you want.  But you likely can’t do or have everything you want.  What’s most important to you? What are you willing to give up in order to have it?  Can you do that without blowing your budget?