Thoughts, ideas, suggestions and education from financial adviser Jim Ludwick, Founder of MainStreet Financial Planning, Inc. of Odenton, MD; Washington, DC; New York City, and Santa Barbara, CA

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Monday, January 11, 2010

As I write this blog I’m somewhere over the Midwest at 35,000 feet. Flying gives me a chance to read and think. That’s what I’ve been doing. “The Only Way to Fly” (Western Airlines, where are you?)

It’s a new year. and in our business we have to update our disclosures, pay fees to various governments, adjust our websites, our letters, our forms, and basically look at exactly how we deliver our services to clients and explain how we do this to prospective clients.

Our mission statement from day one (Sept. 27, 2002) has been: “We empower our clients to make good financial decisions”. That is the value proposition that Anna and I strive to deliver in every engagement and client interaction.

So this year, as in most years, we are evolving as our clients and prospective clients express the need for variations of the services we provide. In the past, we broke down our follow-on services to continuous, annual, periodic and hourly. Because of demand, we’ve added semi-annually, re-balance only, and emergency (I would rather call it urgency, but that’s another issue). This month we’re planning to specifically add “Any Friday Email Q&A”, “Webinars (Google it) on client requested or Our Choice Topics” and “Home Organization Visits”. Also, we’re using Skype more often to stay in touch.

I know that sounds like a lot, but Anna and I have been offering these “new” services on an ad-hoc basis for the past couple of years. We sometimes forget to tell folks what we can do, even though we say we deliver both comprehensive and a la carte financial planning services. The best way to do that is update our website and add these, along with prices or price ranges, to the “Services” section of our website. We have always prided ourselves on a “no surprises” Golden Rule philosophy which is why we have so much detailed information on our websites.

Did you just notice I said websites? This week, our mobile smart phone sensing website has gone live thanks to our webmaster Justin at Scheef Designs (also a client – full disclosure). This blog got a Justin makeover as you can see.

So now 2010 is in full swing. Stay tuned to us on Twitter and our personal finance reading alert service delivered via tweets. Ask any teenager how you can follow us at “jfludwick”. Still avoiding Twitter? Then look for our monthly summary of articles, websites, tool, and ideas summary sent to you via email. Many of you have had friends and co-workers contact us for this free email service. Please continue to recommend us and thank you. By the way, there is a link to click on and register at the top right corner on every page of our main website. No cost or obligation, and no other contact unless requested.

Both Anna and I are glad 2009 is over. We are looking ahead. Lots of challenges and opportunities for you, and us. Stay in touch.

Jim

PS: Dial 740-LUDWICK and find me anywhere in the world. That’s my Google Voice provided phone number. I tried to get 410, 443, 202 or 805 LUDWICK, but younger and smarter sons and relatives beat me to it.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Be a Diligent Online Consumer

In the past few weeks I’ve been online making purchases. No big deal these days. Most of us like the convenience, sometimes avoidance of sales tax (this may not last much longer), and competition that we can observe in real time.

So why am I blogging on this issue? Well, there’s lots of dollars at stake and in all three cases I’m going to detail, each amounted to over one hundred dollars that stayed with me only because I was diligent.

Encounter Number One. I booked online our family vacation cabin at the beach for two weeks, instead of one, for the first time. This was a much larger amount than I’m used to paying so when the total came back it looked OK to me. I have used this company’s site one time before so I was comfortable booking online, but opted to pay by check since their credit card “fee” seemed excessive. My first red flag. As I was making out the check I observed they had added a $117 insurance fee I had declined to check off on the online form while making my reservation. Hmm… I thought. Not a good practice and something I’m sure the North Carolina Board of Realtors might be interested in if this is a pattern. I got a quick email apology in response to my email questioning this charge so I decided not to turn them in, but I’m still suspicious and won’t use them again. If one of the owners is present when we check in, I may speak to them about this issue. As a business owner, I like to know when customers are dissatisfied, or worse yet, deciding not to come back and use our services.

Encounter Number Two. I got the bright idea of buying my wife a new laptop computer for Christmas. Now this bright idea came to me after two embarrassing public conversations where my wife pointed out she always got my hand-me-down laptop. But I might be straying a little, so back on topic. Off to the internet and reading reviews of the latest laptops and features I wanted to make sure she enjoyed with her new computer. I narrowed it down to two models and then went price shopping. Price comparison is pretty easy these days. Thank you internet.

Bingo. The most popular shopping site had it on sale and a rebate to boot. I emailed both of our sons to make sure dad was making a good decision. They are both techno-geniuses, in my humble opinion (yes, I know that I’m prejudiced). Less than an hour later, and I’ve been OK’d to make my purchase. I go back to number one and BANG. Price is up $100 and no rebate. Ouch. Now I had already been to the manufacturer’s website and saw the rebate there, so I wasn’t too worried about that, but how can the price change in less than an hour? Off to search and I’m not happy. Then I get bright idea number two, my browsing history. I click on the oldest link for that site and wowee I’m back at the sale price, but no rebate. No biggee, I buy immediately and the price is confirmed. Off to the manufacturer’s website, download the rebate. Two weeks later an email tells me the rebate is accepted. Final conclusion, I get the price I want and the rebate I deserve, but only because I was very diligent. Savings: $150.

Lastly, I need to buy an airline ticket. I’m reminded of that fact when Yapta.com sends me an email that the price has dropped on the date and flights they’ve been tracking on my behalf. Off to the airline website and the price is $160 higher. Rats. Well, the email is over an hour old, and I know prices change fast in this industry based on seats sold.

Just to be sure I go to Orbitz.com and whammo there is the original price. I call the airline because I can’t get their online site to give me the price Orbitz is quoting. The CSR says she can’t help and sends me to web support that tells me they can’t replicate the price either and that I should go ahead and buy at the higher figure and then put in for the price match plus $100 if you can find the same ticket price within 24 hours of purchase. So I buy it and go right back to Orbitz to document the lower price. Screen print for documentation and then complete the application. Ten minutes later I go back to Orbitz to see about the price and wouldn’t-you-know-it, the price is now $160 more not only for my airline, but the five other airlines that were also at that lower price. Coincidence? I don’t know, but after two weeks I was awarded a $260 certificate for future purchases on that airline.

Moral of this story. 1. Learn how to do a PRINT SCREEN (Google this if you don’t know how) 2. Remember you have a browsing history and might need to make use of it. 3. Look over invoices to make sure only what you intended to pay for is included. 4. Capture rebate forms as soon as you see them. Don’t forget to read their terms and conditions. In my case, it excluded stores like Best Buy, and Target, but not number one online shopping. Lastly, remember that even though in my case all three online companies are well known and mostly dominant in their area of commerce, you have to watch them very closely. Buyer Beware.

Happy New Year. Some things never change, but we can be hopeful, or lacking that, be diligent.