This article is by staff writer April Dykman.

On Monday at 8:30 a.m., I found myself at the veterinarian’s office — where, unknowingly, I would spend the next three hours.

The night before, my cat Mia threw up at least five times. In the morning, I found her wedged into a corner of the bathroom. I could tell how she felt just by looking at her.

I called the vet’s office near my house right when they opened, hoping to get her an appointment as soon as possible. I was relieved when they said they could see her in an hour.

The veterinarian wanted to run complete lab work on her and either do an x-ray, which is less expensive but provides less information, or an ultrasound, which was almost $300 but could tell them more.

What’s really necessary?

I’m not an expert, but an ultrasound for a cat with Mia’s spotless medical history seemed a bit excessive.

She didn’t have a fever, this was the first time this had ever happened, and she’s never been ill before. All the vet found during the initial exam was “a little bit of plaque” on her teeth. She recommended teeth cleaning at a later date, which would involve general anesthesia for a high-strung cat like Mia. (They recommended this procedure for my other cat, and quoted it at $300, plus.)

But even though the ultrasound seemed excessive, the vet threw out words like “pancreatitis” and “cancer.” And nothing jacks up anxiety and guilt like the possibility of cancer. It turns out, however, that some vets even profit off that fear.

From ABC News:

“As a young veterinarian working at a clinic in British Columbia, [Andrew] Jones said he got an early lesson about upselling after telling a pet owner whose dog had a lump to just monitor it. At the time, Jones said he was fairly certain the dog’s lump was a benign fatty tumor, but said the clinic owner quickly clued him in on the effectiveness of using the dreaded ‘c’ word: cancer.

“The practice owner… said, ‘no, that’s not how you do it… what you need to do is get that dog back in… It’s going to be much more profitable for the practice,’” Jones said. “He said that it might be cancer. And it’s — usually the ‘c’ word, pet owners get really concerned and they say, ‘do whatever you need to make sure it’s not serious.’”

The article goes on to say that over-vaccinating and unnecessary dental services are two other common ways that less-ethical vets overcharge. Regarding dental work, Dr. Marty Becker, a leading expert in veterinary care, said, “If [a pet] does not have periodontal disease, there’s no use putting it through the risk of anesthesia.”

See, that’s kind of what I was thinking, too.

Now, I’m not saying my veterinarian was trying to overcharge me. She seems genuine enough, and maybe she’s 100 percent right. Or maybe there’s a gray area and she’s just recommending this stuff based on the current school of thought. But what I wonder is, how do you know? And how do you decide what to do?

As a pet owner, I’ll do whatever I can for her; but I don’t want to subject my anxious, sick animal to anything that’s unnecessary. And while I’m fortunate to be able to afford this stuff, or at least to have the choice, I’d rather not pay hundreds of dollars for unnecessary tests and procedures.

The bill … so far

Back in the exam room, I waited while they did the lab work. They also called the ultrasound techs to see when they could come by. (It’s a procedure they outsource.)

The lab work showed no issues other than dehydration, which was to be expected. The ultrasound, it turned out, couldn’t happen until tomorrow morning. So they gave Mia fluids, antibiotics, an appetite stimulant, and anti-nausea meds, then we went home and she slept all afternoon. Total cost: $464.

That evening, she started acting like her normal self. So I decided to postpone the ultrasound, mainly because I didn’t want to stress her out again when she was just starting to feel better. Also, the techs were just “fitting us in,” so they wanted me to drop Mia off at 8:30 a.m. and they wouldn’t do the procedure until sometime between 9 and 11 a.m. I thought it best to wait until we could get an actual appointment.

So that’s where we’re at today. Mia seems completely fine, and I’m still wondering whether we really need another vet appointment and another test at this point. After doing some research online, sure, there’s a chance that it’s pancreatitis or even cancer; but also, like humans, sometimes pets just get sick and then they recover.

So readers, I’m curious. How do you make decisions when it comes to vet bills? Do you follow the vet’s recommendations, if you can afford to? Also, have you ever felt like a vet was upselling you?

This article is about Ask the Readers

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Former GRS staff writer Donna Freedman has been researching the importance of teaching children about money, and she asked if she could share some things she’s learned. This is the second of two articles on the subject. You can read the first one, about teaching younger children about money, right here. Donna writes for Money Talks News and blogs about money and midlife at DonnaFreedman.com.

Post-secondary education has never been more important. Personal finance writer Liz Weston notes that “a college degree today is what a high school diploma was 60 years ago,” i.e., the bare minimum for remaining in the middle class.

Whether a teaching degree or HVAC certification, it’s going to make a difference in your child’s life. The big question is how to pay for that training.

Making college more affordable

An emphasis on planning and saving means borrowing less – and maybe not at all – for higher education. It could even mean the difference between going and not going: A 2010 study from Washington University of St. Louis indicates that youths who plan to go to college are six to seven times more likely to attend if they have savings accounts in their own names.

I know everyone’s sick of hearing this, but here goes: It’s never been as important to have a degree. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center study, 22 percent of young adults (25 to 32) with high school diplomas only live in poverty. The rate is 6 percent among college grads of the same demographic.

Yet taking out too many student loans can lead to financial ruin. If your family can’t afford to pay outright, emphasize that a low- or no-debt degree will mean a much less stressful adulthood. Explore options such as starting in community college (that’s where I began my midlife college degree) and then transferring elsewhere, preferably to a state school.

Bonus points if the school is within driving distance. Commuting isn’t much fun, but neither is adding an extra $9,500 to $10,830 worth of loans each year to pay for housing and meals. (Those scary figures are courtesy of The College Board.)

And if Junior insists on the “dream” school his high school counselor encouraged him to attend? Tell him exactly what you can afford to contribute, then have him run the balance through FinAid.com’s loan repayment calculator, which compares estimated monthly loan payments to the starting salary required to afford them.

Do not shortchange retirement planning or co-sign for too many loans to put your kids through school. You can’t finance your golden years. Don’t be ashamed, either; according to a 2013 study from Sallie Mae, parents are kicking in 35 percent less than they did three years ago.

Credit: A necessary evil?

Two more important (and relatively recent) PF issues are using credit responsibly and building a strong credit score. A growing young-adult trend is toward paying with debit: The proportion of people aged 18 to 29 without credit cards went from 9.3 percent in 2005 to 16.1 percent in 2012, according to a FICO analysis. (The number could actually be higher, since the study didn’t include the approximately 50 million American adults who don’t have FICO scores.)

Gail Hillebrand, the CFPB’s head of consumer education and management, thinks this can be a good way to learn smart money habits. Used correctly, debit cards encourage living within one’s means (you can’t spend what you don’t have) whereas a credit card can feel like free money.

“The movement of young people toward debit vs. credit has been a very healthy development,” Hillebrand says.

The trouble is, debit cards won’t help a credit score – and like it or not, this three-digit number has a lot to do with our children’s financial futures. Lenders use it to determine interest rates for auto and mortgage loans, and a poor credit score can keep you from borrowing at all.

Editor’s note: Anyone can check their TransUnion VantageScore and an overview of their credit report for free at WisePiggy.com.

Young adults should also know that potential landlords and insurance companies may use credit scores to determine whether they’ll get apartments or coverage, according to Liz Weston, author of “Your Credit Score, Your Money & What’s at Stake.” Employers often check credit reports when evaluating a potential employee – one more reason to start checking your credit report and score early in adult life.

While the CARD Act of 2009 made it harder for young people to obtain credit, several options exist. If you trust your son or daughter, offer to co-sign for a card or add the child as an authorized user on one of your own cards. Or suggest he get a secured credit card; shop around for one without undue fees, however, and make sure that payments will be reported to the three major credit bureaus.

Not only does responsible use of plastic boost one’s credit score, it can come in handy later on for true emergencies. Suppose your daughter’s car breaks down and her emergency fund can’t quite cover it. She has to get to work somehow. Putting the balance on a credit card means the wheels get repaired and the job gets retained.

Solvency begins at home

Some parents may not want to talk finances because of mistakes they’ve made with their own money: How can I teach what I don’t know myself? What if I do it wrong?

But if you’ve ever paid a mortgage, financed a car, maintained a bank account, saved for retirement or even just lived within your means, you can model some basic money management skills.

Don’t stop there, however. Get PF books from the library. Read newspapers, magazines, and websites like Get Rich Slowly, Money Talks News, The Motley Fool and Wise Bread. Look for free classes online, such as CNN.com’s “Money 101” or the 22-week “Fundamentals of Personal Financial Planning” class offered through the University of California-Irvine’s OpenCourseWare program.

Educate yourself so that you can educate your children. After all, you probably didn’t know how to swaddle a baby or potty-train a toddler until after you had kids. Then you learned because it was your responsibility to do so.

So grab those teachable moments with both hands. Model responsible behavior. (Hint: Jokes about “retail therapy” or rubber checks will not help your kids.) Talk early, talk often – even if you think they’re no longer listening.

The need for financial smarts can’t be overemphasized. Knowing the right moves can mean a more secure and comfortable life for our children. Not knowing can create lives of scarcity and struggle.


This article is by staff writer Holly Johnson.

A few weeks ago, I was browsing the Internet with my morning coffee when a link to a write-up at USA Today caught my eye. It read “Price tag for the American dream: $130K a year.”

The article, which is based on a study conducted by researchers at Cornell University, claims that the rising costs of everything from food to housing have resulted in a new American dream that is out of reach for all but the one in eight American families who earn at least $130,000 per year. They apparently wrote a book about their study as well, in which they described the American dream as “finding and pursuing a rewarding career, leading a healthy and personally fulfilling life, and being able to retire in comfort.”

Why does the American dream suddenly cost 130K?

But, $130,000? Confused, I dove right in, picking the piece apart in an effort to understand where the authors were coming from. I even wondered if I had misread the title or discovered the world’s most unfortunate typo. No such luck. Here is the basic rundown of the new price tag for the American dream, according to USA Today:

Essentials — $58,491

  • Housing ($17,062)
  • Groceries ($12,659)
  • Car expenses ($11,039)
  • Medical ($9,144)
  • Education for two children ($4,000)
  • Clothing ($2,631)
  • Utilities ($1,956)

Extras — $17,009

  • Annual vacation ($4,580)
  • Entertainment ($3,667)
  • Restaurant dinners ($3,662)
  • Cable, satellite, Internet, and cell phone ($3,100)
  • Miscellaneous expenses ($2,000)

Taxes and Savings — $54,857

  • Federal and state taxes ($32,357)
  • College savings for two children ($5,000)
  • An assumption that at least one working parent maxes out their employer-sponsored 401K ($17,500)

Total: $130,357

Although some of these averages seem startling, a handful can be easily explained. The cost of housing, for example, was predicated upon the median price of a new home ($275,000) and a down payment of 10 percent. Then they simply spread the payment over 30 years at 4 percent interest. We all know how the cost of housing varies drastically due to geography, so it makes sense that areas with expensive real estate bring up the average cost for everyone.

Transportation expenses at $11,039 seem high too, but not so much when you consider that the average car payment reached $471 in Q4 of 2013. With the typical monthly car payment reaching epic proportions, it is not hard to imagine any family spending far more than even this study suggests.

What about the rest?

But does living the American dream truly require an annual vacation to a luxury resort as the study suggests? I don’t think so. We all know that many families prefer the simplicity of a campsite under the stars and the opportunity to show their children the beauty of nature. Others relax at home, go on cross-country road trips, or travel to visit family instead. Are they simply doing it wrong?

And it’s hard for me to imagine a family of four that needs to spend $16,321 on food to achieve the true American dream. They might want to, but it is certainly not a requirement. That’s $1,360 per month in case you’re keeping track, and a ton of cash if you are making any kind of effort to keep your costs down. Does any family need to spend that much money on sustenance to be truly happy and prosperous? Hardly.

What is the American dream?

In the book “The Epic of America,” James Truslow Adams stated that the American dream is “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

Those words were written in 1931 and, although I’m sure there are multiple meanings and theories, I interpret Adam’s words to mean that the American dream is synonymous with opportunity. In that sense, the American dream might not be something that is achieved all at once, but an ongoing journey or phenomenon that happens over time.

Unfortunately, as the USA Today piece shows, for some of us the American dream has now devolved into one based merely on consumerism — a lifestyle that cannot be achieved without cable television, regular restaurant dinners, and a smartphone for every child; one in which a 4WD SUV is the norm and the food bill runs upwards of $16,321 per year for a family of four. A life of consumption.

This isn’t my American dream, and it doesn’t have to be yours.

The American dream is what we make it

I worry about sweeping generalizations about the purported new American dream and the message it sends at a time when so many people are struggling. Those who are trying to get ahead and making progress could see the 130K figure and believe that the goal post is moving faster than they are.

But when someone tells you that you aren’t, in fact, “living the dream,” should you listen?

I don’t think so.

It’s true that times are tough. The price of everything from food to healthcare is whirling out of control, and full-time jobs are hard to find. In fact, so many people are working several jobs just to make ends meet, let alone get ahead, or — heaven forbid — get rich slowly.

Headlines like those in USA Today don’t help. In fact, they make us feel as if the American dream is much further out of reach than what we thought. They tell us that we need more, that we aren’t trying hard enough, and that we may never succeed.

It’s a lie.

Defining our own dreams

Instead of falling victim to this trap, I challenge you to follow your own dreams — no matter what they may be. Decide what brings value to your life and the lives of people around you and pursue it. Find happiness in small things that don’t cost much, if anything at all. Choose a life that is fulfilling, challenge the status quo, and ignore those who keep perpetuating the idea that we would all be happy if we only had more money and more stuff.

Find your own American dream and refuse to let someone else define it for you.

Chances are, it won’t cost anywhere near 130K.

Do you feel like you have a shot at the American dream? How much money do you think the American dream requires?


This article is by staff writer April Dykman.

Many years ago, when I was paying off a car loan and some credit card debt, I became really frugal. Almost obsessively frugal. I looked for every possible way to save money, and I dreaded ever having to spend money.

Then one morning my husband accidently broke our coffee carafe. I helped him clean up the glass and caught myself feeling anxious about having to buy a new carafe. How much was that gonna cost?

As it turned out, only $12. That’s when I knew I had swung too far in the tightwad direction. I’d gone from not really being in control of my money to being a control freak. And it was making me miserable.

From one money extreme to the other

Before I educated myself about personal finance (starting with GRS, actually!), I never tracked how much I was spending. When my credit card bill arrived each month, I had no idea how high or low it was going to be. If it was low, whew! I could relax. If it was high, I’d buckle down for a few months and pay it off. Then I’d continue with my previous spend-now-worry-later habit.

Opening the credit card bill was pretty stressful back then. Here’s what I wrote almost five years ago about that period of my life: “My stomach dropped as I looked at the balance, added the expenditures in my head, and realized that yes, it was correct. The bank didn’t make a mistake. I bought that stuff.”

Eventually, I started learning about emergency funds and the real cost of paying interest. As I followed J.D.’s story, I slowly started to get my own financial life in order. I saved a small emergency fund first; then I started to tackle my debt.

Being type-A, though, I felt like I had failed in the personal finance area of my life. So I wanted to pay off my debt as soon as humanly possible. I wanted it gone, erased from my credit report and erased from my life. I dreamed of the day when everything would be paid in full.

But somewhere along the way, I started to get anxious about spending money. I worried that I wasn’t getting the best deal. I beat myself up because I’m terrible at clipping coupons and remembering to use them. I’d read frugal blogs and kick myself if the writer DIYed something that I just bought. Spending was making me miserable.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with being frugal. But replacing a $12 carafe shouldn’t ruin your morning, you know? I didn’t want to live like that any more than I wanted to dread the credit card bill every month.

I needed to find middle ground.

April in the middle

I didn’t find that balance right away, of course. It took time to (mostly) make my peace with spending and saving. So today I thought I’d share what this more balanced approach looks like for me.

Here are my spending guidelines and how I approach spending these days:

  • I only spend money I have — meaning, no credit card balances … ever. I pay off my rewards card at the end of every month. This action alone alleviates a ton of money-related stress.

  • I spend guiltlessly on things that are important to me. For instance, I greatly value my family’s health. So I’m okay with the fact that we pay a lot for grass-fed, organic what-have-you. I’m okay with our gym dues and paying for yoga classes. It feels good to spend money on the things we value.

  • We indulge sometimes. I like the Balanced Money Formula a lot, which leaves room for indulgences like eating out and, in our case, hiring a housekeeper to clean our house twice a month. Uber-frugal me would never, ever, not in a million years, hire a housekeeper. But it is actually more affordable than I thought and, for me, it’s been life-changing. Between cleaning sessions, the house requires very little upkeep, and this means we’re always ready for company. I enthusiastically pay my housekeeper. She’s amazing.

Here are my saving guidelines and my more balanced approach to saving money:

  • We have an emergency fund. Right now, it would get us by for at least a year. That’s probably a little too much for an emergency fund; but we sold some land recently, and I still need to figure out what we’ll owe in taxes and then set that aside and move the rest of the funds.

  • We contribute to Roth IRAs. Knowing that we’re saving for retirement and that we have an emergency cushion helps me feel less guilty about spending money elsewhere. I don’t have to worry about what we can spend if we take care of savings first.

  • I comparison-shop for the bigger stuff. If it is an expensive purchase, like the refrigerator we had to buy last year, I spend a fair amount of time sorting through reviews, looking for the best deals, and Googling coupon codes. But researching like that for something like a $12 carafe? I have to let that go. It keeps me more sane.

  • I do a quick gut-check. Before I buy most things, I take a little timeout. Do I really like/need/want this? Do I already have something that works just as well? Could I make it myself? For instance, I recently planned a baby shower for a friend. I saw these neat tissue paper tassels I wanted, but they were $30. Spending $30 for something I wouldn’t reuse bothered me. So I Googled “how to make tissue paper tassels,” and I made my own in about 30 minutes with an extra $3 worth of supplies.

  • I lower our bills as much as possible. I love to save money on property taxes, insurance, cell phone plans, and other expenses that I can lower without feeling a pinch. This also can include things like cutting subscriptions and memberships you no longer use and refinancing your mortgage when rates drop.

Of course, this is just what works for me, and one of my favorite GRS tenets is to do what works for you. You might be more frugal than I am; and if you are perfectly happy that way, that’s great! I’d probably be envious of how much you save. Or maybe you think protesting your property taxes is a waste of time, and you’d rather focus on increasing your salary. I wouldn’t necessarily disagree.

So, readers, let me know in the comments: Have you ever been at a spending or saving extreme? What does balance look like to you?


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