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When I was ready to go to college I had a big decision to make. I live in a city with a major university and that was the immediate dream choice. However, the price tag at the time was $16,000 a year (this was in 1977) at a time when, in many households, if they were lucky the top breadwinner was making $15,000 a year. My dad was a recent retiree from the military and just starting a new job; it didn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that was a stupid goal and unfair to even consider accepting. Thus, I went to a state university, where tuition at the time was around $1,600 a year (you read that right).

Walking up the slight grade to Pattee Library along the Allen Street Mall in early June, 2015.
Penn State via Compfight

These days, the rates for private universities can be extreme, and state universities, although still fairly affordable for state residents, can be pretty high for out of state visitors. The large local university in my area, if you only took 12 credit hours a semester, comes to around $41,000+. The state university closest to where I live comes in around $9,600 a year for residents, and $19,200 for out of state residents.

Even with the possibility of telecommuting (online classes) and not having to follow all the former rules about freshmen having to live on campus, costs can feel prohibitive, especially if you have to work and pay bills while trying to get a degree. All of this begs this question; is a college degree worth the debt?

It depends; don’t you just hate that answer?

Just like everything else in this world, there’s no cut and dry answer for everything. For instance, if you want to be a lawyer or physician, first off you don’t have a choice, and second, if you’re even just passable as a lawyer or physician you could be earning $100,000 a year pretty easily within a few years of graduating. The long term benefits for each can outweigh the costs… depending on specialty also.

So, if you’re a lawyer or physician, a debt of around $500,000 might not only be overcome with less difficulty (not saying it’s easy because, regardless of income, both vocations need to carry liability insurance, which can be pretty steep, but in some cases the employers will help pay off some of the debt), if you’re in it for the long haul you have the chance to be pretty well off.

What about for everyone else? Once again, it depends on what you’re shooting for. The average pay for engineers out of college is around $63,000 a year, and the rate of pay might be determined on where you got your education from. The overall average is around $45,000, which still isn’t bad, but it’s financially better if you went to a less expensive college.

However, average means just that, so if some are making $65,000, then some are making around $25,000, if that. Even in today’s world there are a lot of women who go to college and, instead of opting for a career decide to be stay at home mothers… who still have to pay off college loans. It might not have been financially smart to spend all that money for a degree that, no matter what it is, becomes meaningless, but to be fair those women probably didn’t go to college knowing they weren’t going to aim for employment at some point.

That’s ultimately the problem with trying to answer this type of question. There are people who don’t go to college, end up working at a place where they show proficiency, but because of a lack of a degree, or the right degree, will never be considered for advancement. There are also people who got a college degree in one field but end up working in a different field, and sometimes just having a degree allows them to be promotable, even if it’s in a totally different area.

We also can’t deny the fact that there are some high school graduates who find vocational schools to go to that can not only make pretty good money but, with proper business processes, could end up becoming millionaires. In the book The Millionaire Next Dooricon by Thomas J. Stanley, he highlights two professions where college degrees haven’t been needed for many of the people involved have become millionaires, those being plumbers and, oddly enough, auctioneers.

We also can’t deny the fact that there are so many more people who don’t go to college, that barely got out of high school and would have never considered it, that earn less than $10 an hour (although some states are passing laws these days trying to raise minimum wage), as well as those who are lucky enough to work in a town where manufacturing jobs are still plentiful and, because of unions, pays a pretty nice wage without the education. The work might not be stimulating but not everyone looks for that in a job.

Overall, families need to start thinking about college prospects when students are in their sophomore year of high school. The thoughts should include the area of study, parent’s finances (which many parents are reluctant to discuss but it needs to be a crucial part of the discussion), and the distance and costs of the universities being considered. Not all software programmers need to go to a top college to be proficient in what they do (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates), and not all millionaire businessmen have gone to college (Richard Branson), so it’s possible that one can do well without college.

If you’re on a different type of career track, getting a degree should probably be in your future. But, for the most part, the most expensive universities won’t give you more juice towards a great career than a state university. Your debt will be lower and your experience will be just as good.

At least it’s something to consider.

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I know what you’re thinking; technology and saving money? Absolutely! Who doesn’t use computers these days. Who hasn’t had an issue with their computer or laptop every once in a while?

junior birdman
dolanh via Compfight

The price of some computers has dropped since the days when a good computer used to cost around $1,500. True, some of the Apple computers will come in at that price but overall, they’re not overly expensive.

This means you have a usable computer. But if you’re doing more than writing some emails, you probably have the need for a bit more performance, as well as protection from outside attacks.

It can be expensive if you don’t know what you’re doing. The Geek Squad at Best Buy is pretty good, but if your computer isn’t still under warranty it might cost you $99 just to have them look at it… and then they’ll recommend some things that will cost you extra money.

Not everything I’m going to share is free, but it’s a less costly option and will give you what you need if you have any of these issues.

1. Free AVG

Do you have an antivirus program on your computer? If you don’t, shame on you. If you’re not sure, double shame on you. lol We can fix that. There are a lot of programs on the market, but for my “money” I’m going to recommend Free AVG. It’s a pretty comprehensive program that not only protects your computer from viruses but will scan your email as well.

It’s easy to install… as long as you’re paying attention. They have a paid version and many people install that one (it’ll show you both even if you download the free program), which is free for only a couple of weeks, so you have to make sure you install the right one. Also, they might ask you if you want to install their toolbar. Sure, it’s a nice level of protection but you probably already like whatever search engine you normally use so be aware and don’t install it.

The two best things about this program for novices is that you can set it up to it’ll automatically update itself without bothering you (though occasionally you’ll come back and see it asking you to reboot), and you can set it up to run once a week at a certain time so you’ll know it’s doing what it’s supposed to do, since many people download the program, think it’s going to do everything without instruction, and find later on that it’s never run at all.

2. RAM

If your computer is moving sluggishly or your hard drive keeps making all kinds of noises while you’re on it, that’s a good indication that your computer might not have enough memory to run things properly.

These days, browsers let you open a lot of tabs. Turns out those tabs, along with all the other stuff you might have running, uses up a lot of the memory that comes with your computer. If all the things you have open overtax the memory you have installed, your computer goes to the hard drive for help. That puts stress on the drive and slows things down to a crawl.

Adding memory, or RAM, can save the day. We call it a chip, but it’s a long green strip with a lot of things on it that you push into a slot inside your computer (yes, you’re going to have to open your computer but that’s not a big deal… as long as you turn it off first). It’s very easy to do, as long as you make sure to push it all the way in (you’ll hear a snap).

RAM 60/365
Amélien Bayle via Compfight

These days, RAM doesn’t cost all that much. You can buy memory with the capacity of 1GB through 8GB. You might have to look at your computer’s specifications to find out what the upper limit is but many of today’s computers can easily handle an upgrade to 16GB. Depending on how much you use your computer, you can decide how much more memory to add, though the recommendation is to at least double what you already have.

Prices can range from $8 for a 1GB chip up to $65 for an 8GB chip. If you have a specialty computer it’ll cost you more, but if that’s the case you probably don’t need this advice or any other advice I’m giving in this article. :-)

3. Zone Alarm

For the first suggestion I talked about an antivirus. Even the best antiviruses can’t stop everything on their own if you’re not a careful web surfer. What you need is a firewall, which is a program that helps to mask what’s known as ports on your computer, which is basically the electronic access point for how you get online. By masking the port, certain types of viruses can’t be activated from remote locations because they’re hard to find, and it at least gives you more time to take care of the virus.

Zone Alarm has been around a long time and has always been pretty steady. It’s also free to use, although they also have a paid version. The only thing you’ll need to determine is if you want to see every alert, because sometimes programs you already have will start to update and Zone Alarm will ask you if you approve. If you’re not upgrading something at the time, you’re probably going to want to know so you can deny it. Or you can tell the program not to alert you of anything, in which case it’ll only pop up when you know you’re adding something new. This one depends on your comfort level.

4. External drives

Lucky for you, it’s easier to add storage if you have a need because your main drive is getting full, or there are certain things you don’t want to leave on your computer all the time. The main two options are flash drives and external hard drives.

A flash drive is a tiny storage card or gadget that can hold anywhere from 4GB up to 64GB; that’s pretty amazing. It’s small enough to put in your pocket or hide away somewhere, and some of them look pretty innocuous in case you want to hide it somewhere so that only savvy people might recognize what it is. You can get these things for literally less than $5 if you shop in the right place, and even the largest flash drive can be found for $15 or so. It’s a great way to store all of your music files and image files without taxing your main drives capacity.

An external hard drive offers way more storage capability, anywhere from 250GB up to 1TB (that’s terabyte; that’s extreme storage power) and the price range starts around $20 and, on the low price end, up to around $55. Of course, it’ll cost more if you want different types that might be faster or offer more security but if you have basic needs, these will save you a lot of money.

What are you waiting for? Get computing!

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Back in 2010 I wrote an article on this blog titled Should You Refinance Your Mortgage? At that time, the state of housing was in total disarray all across the country, so I only addressed the monetary part of it.

Foreclosure on the American dream
Creative Commons License Kevin Dooley via Compfight

In one regard, it seems like it could make sense. If you have a lousy monthly interest rate, which would be anything over 9%, it makes a lot of sense to do. Back then I said 7% but now I’d opt for higher. I believe that anytime you can reduce your payments by close to 50% a month it’s a bargain… well, to a degree…

When we refinanced our home back in 2003, our initial interest rate was 5.75%, which wasn’t bad but not as good as the newer rate we eventually got. We saved $200 a month, which wasn’t too bad.

The thing is, we’d only been in the house for 3 years. For a 30-year mortgage, that wasn’t all that long a period of time. Also, we were first time homeowners, so a big part of our payment goes to escrow; truthfully that’s a good thing because I’m not sure we’d have had the discipline of saving enough money to pay that off each year on our own.

Now we’ve been in this house for 15 years and, because housing is better, we get multiple calls weekly and UPS mailings from a few banks every week offering to lower our interest rate. Because we’ve been in the house longer, we’d supposedly get a monetary bonus, which we could use to put back into the house, pay off bills or have fun with. Sounds pretty good right?

Here’s the downside. We now have 12 years of equity in the house. That means we’re 40% through our obligation for paying it off. Since we’re both over the age of 50, it means that our working lives aren’t all that long for this world. Can you imagine if we had to carry significant debt into our retirement paying on a house that we might not live long enough to pay off?

We have as a plan to try to pay this house off in 10 years. We know what the amount is to pay it off now and figure we can wait another 7 years before it’s time to push just a little bit more to get it taken care of. If we refinanced now, with the rate we have, we wouldn’t come close to getting the promised cash back or savings and we’d be starting over again. Frankly, that’s not a great proposition at this juncture of our lives. If we’d only had the house 2 or 3 years, maybe…

Something all of us need to be ready to do is look realistically at our long term goals. Ours is to have the house totally paid off so it’s not something we have to worry about, and can set it up so that if we need the money for health issues later on we could sell the house and use all of its assets in that regard.

If you’re young, or you haven’t been in your home for all that long, looking at refinancing your mortgage might not be a bad idea. Just make sure the lower payments and the terms are beneficial for you. If you’re neither of these… go ahead and look into it but look at the overall experience with a more critical eye.

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