Jun 10

The U.S. travel industry is predicting that slightly more families will be traveling for summer vacation this year, but significantly more will be taking the frugal route, looking for cheap and affordable family trip alternatives. Barring any additional extraordinary environmental or economic events, parents will be doing lots of advance planning, using vacation deals and discounts, and looking for tips about how to substitute cost for creativity when creating memorable family vacation fun in the 2010 summer months.

A 2.3% increase in summer vacation travel in 2010 has been predicted by the U.S. Travel Association, compared to the Great Recession summer of 2009. According to the American Express Spending & Saving Tracker, 51% of Americans plan to take a summer vacation this year, and 80% of those vacationing families will be consciously working to save money during their vacation travels.

Despite the cataclysmic Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts that the price of gas will remain fairly steady in the summer months, at an average of $2.98 per gallon, which is 4% higher than last summer’s average of $2.86 per gallon. In comparison, airline industry domestic fares are expected to be 21% higher than they were in the 2009 summer vacation season.

All of these numbers can be boiled down to three things that will describe most American family summer vacations this year:

1) Road trips
2) Frugality
3) The need for tips and tools to create road trips that are more frugal, but not less fun.

Frugal family fun, whether on vacation or not, is a matter of substituting creativity for cost, according to Robyn Spizman and Evelyn Sacks, the authors of “Eat, Nap, Play.”

“Our vision of a less money-dependent lifestyle does not mean a ban on spending for entertainment or satisfaction,” Spizman and Sacks say in their book. It means just saying no to ‘everybody’s doing it’ or ‘everybody’s buying it,’ and relying on your own creativity and innate parenting skills instead.

Creativity that cuts costs is something that American families are going to have to look for if they want to spend less than the $1,000 per person average that American Express estimates the average vacation will cost this year. That is a high price tag for the 54% of Americans who are still cutting back on discretionary spending, and the 39% who are still worried about the economy and their jobs, according to the “Portrait of American Travelers” study.

Spending twice as much time and half as much money on a family vacation is something that is a reasonable family vacation goal, Spizman and Sacks say. “It’s easy to spend money on our kids,” Spizman and Sacks say. “But when special memories are made, not purchased, the entire family wins.”

Replacing vacation costs with vacation creativity requires some preparation, and Spizman and Sacks have these ideas about how to plan for frugal family fun:

How to Save on Meals – Before you leave on your trip, find restaurant and hotel deals for kids. There are a good number of kids-eat-free deals at local and national restaurant chains in this post-recessionary economy. And often you will receive food freebies and discounts by joining e-clubs on restaurant and hotel websites. Marriott, Omni, Hilton, and Kimpton hotel chains have announced special amenities and freebies specifically targeted at children and families this summer, for example. Consider the amount of money you will save by staying at a hotel with free breakfast or free kids meals when deciding where to stay.

How to save on Souvenirs – Instead of spending lots of money on vacation souvenirs, get your children excited about creating a scrapbook as the souvenir of your vacation instead. Instead of focusing on buying things, your children can be focused on taking photos of things they want to remember, collecting napkins, matchbooks, postcards, flowers, brochures, and other vacation memorabilia instead. Have an envelope for each child to put their own scrapbook stuff into so they can each create their own pages. If you bring inexpensive scrapbooking supplies, creating the scrapbook can be the primary activity that keeps children entertained during the car trip home.

How to Save On Hotels – Most Americans live less than a day’s drive from a national park and don’t even know it. Go to nps.gov/parks and nps.gov/kidszone for destination ideas close to home that will require fewer nights in a hotel.

The Vacation Journey, Not Just the Vacation Destination

One of the important things to remember about a family road trip vacation, Spizman and Sacks say, is remembering that the vacation is about the entire journey, not just the destination. The time spent together in the car on a road trip is a significant part of the entire adventure. Your travel time can be magic, or it can be tragic, depending on how you well prepare themselves and their children for it. Spizman and Sacks have these tips for putting fun into the are-we-there-yet part of your family vacation:

To Each His Own – Forced sharing in a small space is a setup for squabbles. Make sure each child has their own pillow, their own blanket, their own favorite game, their own cup, their own backpack, etc.

Seek and We Shall Find – Don’t forget the value of the good old-fashioned car games that families used to play together before handheld videogames and DVD players were invented. One game that can be started in the car, and carried throughout the entire vacation trip is the “Countdown Game.”

The object of “The Countdown Game” is to look for and find numbers everywhere you go on your trip. Start with the number “1,” and find the numbers in order and see how high the family can get in its number search. Make this a family activity that everyone contributes to, rather than a competition. You can even keep a list of where and how the numbers were spotted and include that as part of the trip scrapbook. It can become a family tradition to try to break the previous “countdown” record with each family outing.

Good Behavior Is Its Own Reward – Create a “Star of the Car” award and give points when children exhibit desirable behaviors like sharing, using a quiet voice, or saying please or thank-you. Periodically throughout the trip, you can give rewards to whoever has the most points. Rewards could be choosing the next movie, picking the next car game, or even an extra special snack that is reserved only for the “star of the car.”

Get Out and Wear Out – Plan plenty of stops in your travel itinerary, and make sure your children expend energy every time they’re out of the car. Making time for walking, cartwheels, skipping, races throwing a frisbee, playing catch, running with the dog, etc. will help children be less antsy, and more likely to nap when the car ride resumes.

Keep Their Eyes on the Prize – You can stage mini contests throughout the trip to see who can be quietest the longest, who can keep their mouth or eyes shut the longest, who can write the name of your vacation destination the most times in a minute, etc. Give out points for the winners, and translate those points into special privileges during vacation or when you get home.

Redefining “Family Time”

“A more authentic, easygoing approach to life with kids starts with the universal wisdom that it’s all about keeping it simple,” Spizman and Sacks say. This is a mental adjustment for parents who have become accustomed to buying entertainment and children who have become accustomed to getting satisfaction from stuff. But a summer family vacation adventure is a great way to start new family interaction patterns.

“That happy, tired feeling at the end of the day can come from interacting in ways that are about spending time, not money,” Spizman and Sacks say in “Eat, Nap, Play.” And isn’t that happy feeling what a summer family road trip vacation is all about?

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Jun 05

The leadership philosophies and quotable quotes of legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden will live on.

The leadership philosophies and quotable quotes of legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden will live on.

The focus and fanfare surrounding the NBA finals was interrupted this weekend when news of the death of former UCLA coach John Wooden hit the headlines. Wooden passed away at the age of 99, and even though it had been 35 years since his retirement from college basketball coaching, Wooden’s admirers have been speaking about his impact on the sport as if Wooden had just led a team to a championship victory last week. Such is the omnipresence of truly legendary leaders.

Pat Williams, the co-founder of the Orlando Magic, was a big John Wooden fan. In general, Williams is a fan of any person in a leadership position who makes a meaningful impact on a team. In particular, Williams chose Wooden as the subject for the seventh book in his “How to Be Like” series of books not because Wooden led so many winning basketball teams to so many basketball victories, but because of the person that Wooden chose to be whether he was winning basketball games or not.

Wooden showed the sports world that a big-time coach of a big-time team can teach his players to value ethics, integrity, and character more than a win-loss record. And even though winning was a secondary consideration to a Wooden-led basketball team, they still managed to do a lot of it. Wooden, and his 10 NCAA championship teams proved that good guys can, indeed, finish first.

The praise for Wooden in the days after his passing are effusive and plentiful, coming from basketball superstars and sports personalities that are larger and more famous than Wooden ever would have wanted to be. One of the best tributes, however, comes from the first chapter of Williams’ book, “How to Be Like Coach Wooden: Life Lessons from Basketball’s Greatest Leader.”

This one simple story from early in Wooden’s career explains why this year’s NBA finals are rightfully sharing the spotlight with this true basketball legend. This story also explains why John Wooden is known and admired by people all over the world who don’t really care much about the really tall people who work so hard to get the orange ball through the metal hoop.

A Tribute to Coach John Wooden from Pat Williams in “How to Be Like Coach Wooden”: Continue reading »

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May 15

There are plenty of places in the world where the quality of your life and your standard of living are not dependent on the number of your credit score. The United States is not one of those places. Not only it is difficult to get car loans, student loans, and home mortgage loans, and credit cards with bad credit, it can also be difficult to get good rental housing, a bank account, a cellphone, electricity, and even a job if you have bad credit.

According to the National Bankruptcy Research Center, plenty of American families are finding out first hand how difficult American life can be when you have a bad credit score in a credit-obsessed society after 1.41 million adults filed for bankruptcy in 2009. But that number is small compared to the estimated number of Americans who are not bankrupt, but still have a bad credit history. The fallout of the Great Recession, chronic unemployment, Ponzi schemes, banking failures, bailouts, and great big real estate bubble burst is that more than 100 million Americans now have negative entries on their credit report, and a diminished lifestyle because of it.

Having a low credit score doesn’t just mean that you can’t go on shopping sprees with your American Express Black card. Most Americans are unaware of the many ways that bad credit can negatively affect their lives:

  • According to a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) study, six out of ten private employers check credit histories of job applicants and consider those scores when making hiring decisions. Thirteen percent consider credit scores even for employees who won’t have any financial or money-handling responsibilities or any access to sensitive information.
  • Although federal law prohibits an employer from using bankruptcy as a reason for not hiring, for firing, or for denying a promotion, 25% of employers admitted in a SHRM study that they have done so.
  • More than 90% of auto insurance companies use credit score information to determine premiums. The lower your credit score, the more it will cost you to drive a car.
  • Homeowner’s insurance premiums for people with bad credit will be higher too, with the rationale that people with bad credit do not maintain their property as well as people with good credit.
  • Not only will utility and cellphone companies require people with bad credit to pay a deposit for services, they will often charge a higher price for those services as well.

As credit scores are factored into more and more aspects of daily living, a low credit score no longer just means that you have bad money management skills, it’s starting to mean that you also have bad character, and you only deserve a second-class life.

Nobody knows better about the detrimental effects of bad credit on everyday life than Geoff Williams. Not only is he a personal finance writer for media outlets like AOL, Bankrate.com, and Consumer Reports, he is also one of the millions of Americans who got consumed by debt and declared bankruptcy. The book that he co-authored, “Living Well With Bad Credit” is based on both his professional research and his personal experience.

These days Williams considers himself to be a bad credit expert not because he wrote a book about it, but because he has survived the many consequences of bad credit and lived to write about it. His conclusion? Living with bad credit is different, but it doesn’t have to be bad, if you have a good set of strategies.

“The truth that the banks and credit card agencies don’t want you to know is that you can live an awesome fun, fulfilling life with a very low credit score,” Williams wrote in his book. “The Land of Bad Credit (LBC) should be no more than a temporary stop on the way to a better place. Think of it as a twelve-hour layover in Cleveland on your way to Maui” Williams writes in his book, along with co-author Chris Ballish.

While banks and credit card companies don’t like people with bad credit, they do like people to stay in debt. One of the reasons the U.S. economy is recovering slowly is because it is dependent on consumer spending. But consumers can’t afford to do a whole lot of spending without credit, and 50% of the population no longer qualifies for that credit. It is a sad conundrum that prosperity cannot be restored until lenders can find a way to saddle consumers with more debt.

Economists were encouraged when consumer debt rose $1.95 billion in March, 2010, which was only the second monthly increase in consumer debt in fourteen months. But isn’t it ironic (or scary) that what’s bad for personal finances is seen as being good for the economy?

For the half of the American population that is not taking on more debt because their bad credit scores will not allow them to, the challenge is to create a good lifestyle for themselves without the credit crutch. Some of the strategies that Williams and Balish give for confronting bad credit roadblocks in their book include the following.

  • Bad Credit and Banks: If you’re having trouble getting a bank account, you can enroll yourself in the ChexSystems Second Chance program, which will allow you to reverse your bad banking reputation.
  • Bad Credit and Job Hunting: If you think you’re getting turned down for jobs because of bad credit, consider explaining your credit situation with your potential employer even before it becomes an issue. Once an employer gets a look at your credit report, they may make hiring decisions before you ever get the opportunity to explain yourself unless you bring it up first.
  • Bad Credit, Mortgage Loans and Housing: If you’re having trouble finding a place to live, looking for places that are being rented or leased by individuals, or sold with owner financing. Individuals are often willing to overlook the past in ways that corporate policies never will.
  • Bad Credit and Car Loans: If you need transportation, look into car share, casual carpooling, long-term rentals, and mass transit. To purchase a car, consider finding an individual seller who will keep the title and allow you to make payments directly to them, instead of a bad credit auto loan company that will charge an exorbitant interest rate.
  • Bad Credit and Traveling: If you’re having trouble planning a vacation because hotels and car rental companies need credit cards, consider an all-inclusive package that you can pre-pay ahead of time. For business trips, use a debit card and make sure there is enough cash in your checking account to cover the deposits hotels and car companies will require.
  • Bad Credit Repair and Debt Desperation: If you are desperate to save or fix your credit, you are a target for growing number of financial scams. Consider never making a financial decision from a place of desperation.

There are many negative realities in living with bad credit. But one positive aspect about having bad credit in 2010 is that as the number of people with bad credit grows, the stigma attached to it is shifting, and the negative stereotypes are fading. It’s becoming clear that people with bad credit are not necessarily bad people. If it took a global economic meltdown for that to become clear, then the Great Recession wasn’t all bad after all.

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