How to choose a travel rewards card

By Sheryl Smolkin

SOURCE: SHUTTERSTOCK
SOURCE: SHUTTERSTOCK

I got my first travel rewards card in the mid-1990s when I was doing a distance LLM at University of Leicester and had to travel to Europe for series of residential weekends.

Without a great deal of thought, I opted for a CIBC Aerogold card because in addition to getting one point for every mile in the air, points were also awarded for amounts spent on household expenses with 1.5 per dollar credited for purchases at some grocery stores, drug stores and gas stations.

But it was often very hard to get Aeroplan seats on the flights we wanted to take. And it got even more difficult when Aeroplan instituted the current program, where the number of points required to reach a particular destination varies depending on the time of day, the day of the week or the time of the year.

When I started researching travel rewards cards again for this article, I realized that the current selection of over 70 cards is mind boggling and selecting a card that delivers the best value depends on whether you pay a fee, how much you spend each year and where you want to go.

In all cases, unless you pay off your credit card balance every month, the interest you pay on the outstanding balance will quickly erode the value of any travel benefits.

The most up-to-date resource I found was Rewards Canada. Here is their top 2012 pick in two categories with some of the key features of each card.

Top Travel Points Credit Card (with annual fee)

Capital One® Aspire Travel™ World MasterCard®*

The Capital One Aspire Travel World MasterCard has has been number 1 in this category for three years. Here are some of the reasons why:

  • Earn 2 reward miles for every $1 – on all purchases
  • Get 35,000 bonus reward miles with your first purchase
  • Get 10,000 anniversary bonus reward miles every year
  • Annual fee of $120. No additional fee to get a second card for “an authorized user.”
  • This card can be a good choice for someone who spends at least $2,000/month.

A requirement of this card is a minimum personal income of $60,000 or household income of $100,000.

Top Travel Points Credit Card (with no annual fee)

American Express Blue Sky Credit Card (2011: 1)

The Blue Sky Credit Card has been top in this category for four years. Here’s why:

  • Earn 2 points for every $1 in eligible card purchases at your chosen 5 places.
  • Earn 1 point for every $1 in card purchases everywhere else.
  • Earn a welcome bonus of 7,500 points the first time you use the approved card

I encourage you to follow the five step guide to choosing a travel rewards on the Rewards Canada website for a brief description of the types of travel rewards credit cards and what to look out for when choosing one.

There is an excellent chart updated to January 2013 comparing features of a series of the most popular Canadian travel cards. The Choosing a Travel Rewards Credit Card Flow Chart can also help you narrow down what category and type of card you should choose.

Have you selected a new travel rewards credit card lately? Have you had good or bad experiences with the card you are currently using? Send us an email socialmedia@saskpension.com. If your story is posted, your name will be entered in a quarterly draw for a gift card. And remember to put a dollar in the retirement savings jar every time you use one of our money-saving ideas.

If you would like to send us other money saving ideas, here are the themes for the next three weeks:

21-Mar Insurance Getting a better deal on car, house insurance
28-Mar Books Comparing eReaders
04-Apr Real estate New or resale house? Pros and cons

Mar 11: Best from the blogosphere

By Sheryl Smolkin

blogospheregraphic

This week’s best blogs are a mixed bag.

As soon as there is a hint of spring in the air, many people start thinking about buying and selling houses.

Peter Anderson writes in Bible Money Matters about how Cutting Expenses, Increasing Income And Staying On Budget To Reach A Short Term Savings Goal will allow his family to afford a brand new custom built home.

But Boomer and Echo blogger Robb Engen confesses  his biggest home buying regret was getting in over his head on his first home purchase. Fortunately  he caught a lucky break and got a promotion and a raise so things turned out ok.

If moving house is in your future, take a look at Joe Wood’s hints for moving for under $3 a click on Timeless Finance.

In Call Me Maybe: Why my $783 unlocked iPhone is a ringin’ deal  Squawkfox Kerry K. Taylor makes a good case for buying an unlocked cell phone so you can select the best deal from any carrier.

And if this is the weekend that you tackle your tax returns, take a look at Ray’s blog Tax Audits – Simple and Sound Advice on How to Avoid One, on Financial Highway.

Do you follow blogs with terrific ideas for saving money that haven’t been mentioned in our weekly “Best from the blogosphere?”  Send us an email with the information to socialmedia@saskpension.com and your name will be entered in a quarterly draw for a gift card.

Mar 4: Best from the blogosphere

By Sheryl Smolkin

blogospheregraphic

Now that RRSP season is over for another year, personal finance bloggers are again exploring basic money saving tips that can help to free up cash so you can stretch your paycheque to include saving for longer term goals like retirement.

On $he Thinks I’m Cheap blogger Andrew says you can save thousands if you do your research before purchasing almost anything and always try to negotiate a better price.

Jim Yih reports on BalanceJunkie that he has been collecting Air Miles for many years and he got a pretty good bang for his bucks when he cashed them in for a family trip from B.C. to Ottawa for his family of 6.

Boomer and Echo blogger Robb Engen offers 25 tips for filing your own tax return.

Tim Stubbs considers why it is important to have interim goals on the road to financial independence on Canadian Dream Free at 45.

If hitting the reset button to turn failure into success  worked for Steve Jobs, Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey, Birghter Life blogger Gerald McGroarty says it could work for you.

And after her MacBook Pro went blip, Squawkfox (Kerry K. Taylor) offers helpful hints for caring for your computer to keep it healthy and happy as long as possible.

Do you follow blogs with terrific ideas for saving money that haven’t been mentioned in our weekly “Best from the blogosphere?”  Send us an email with the information to socialmedia@saskpension.com and your name will be entered in a quarterly draw for a gift card.

How to erase your debt

By Sheryl Smolkin

SOURCE: SHUTTERSTOCK
SOURCE: SHUTTERSTOCK

A recent CBC article reports that the average Canadian’s consumer debt load hit $27,485 at the end of 2012, a six per cent increase over the previous year’s level and the first time the figure has been above $27,000.

According to credit monitoring firm TransUnion, at the end of 2012 consumer debt had increased at the fastest pace seen since 2009, with average debt loads increasing by more than $1,500.

If erasing debts was as easy as spending money, there would not be so many Canadians struggling to take from Peter to pay Paul every month. It takes courage, commitment and perseverance to make a bare bones budget and stick to it.

If you didn’t catch Gail Vaz-Oxlade’s signature television series ‘Til Debt Do Us Part” when it originally aired, I encourage you to watch a few episodes online to get you started.

The Financial Consumer Agency of Canada also has the following tips to help you get your finances under control:

  1. Stop using credit:  If you continue to spend beyond your means, it will be difficult to realize your goal of being debt-free.
  2. Find ways to cut spending: Review your budget and list ways you can cut down on your spending. Make coffee at home instead of buying it. Consider selling some of your assets or taking on additional work to bring in extra money.
  3. Pay at least the minimum by the due date: If you do not, you will harm your credit history and score. Paying off the debts with the highest interest rate first will reduce the amounts you pay in interest and reduce your debt more quickly.
  4. Contact your creditors: You may be able to negotiate a lower interest rate or a payment plan that works better for you.
  5. Set a reasonable repayment time: If your time frame is too long, debt fatigue will set in and you will lose focus. If your time frame is too short or unrealistic, your chance of success decreases and so does your motivation.
  6. Once a debt is paid, close that account: You do not need the temptation of that available credit to pull you back into debt. You will need to keep some credit and loan products in order to rebuild your credit, but only keep what you need and can manage responsibly.
  7. Commit to a payment schedule: Write post-dated cheques in order to keep to the payment plan and to show your creditors you are committed to repaying them.
  8. If your debt has gone to collection:  See Tips for dealing with a debt collector.

If you are stressed because of your debts, struggling to make your minimum payments, and need a plan to get your finances back on track and get out of debt, the Credit Counselling Society in Saskatchewan can help.  Other provinces have similar services.

The free and completely confidential service is available to all residents of the province. Connect them by phone, email or online  live chat.

Are you working hard to pay down debt? Send us an email to socialmedia@saskpension.com and tell us about your successes and your set-backs. Your name will be entered in a quarterly draw for a gift card. And don’t forget that the Saskatchewan Pension Plan offers a flexible way to save affordable amounts for retirement.

If you would like to send us other money saving ideas, here are the themes for the next three weeks:

7-Mar Airline points Which kind of airline points are better?
14-Mar Insurance Getting a better deal on car, house insurance
21-Mar Books Comparing eReaders

January 2013 return

SPP posted a return of 2.20% to the balanced fund (BF) and 0.045% to the short-term fund (STF). The year to date return in the BF is 2.20% and in the STF is 0.045%.

Market index returns for January 2013 were:

Index  Jan 2013 return (%)
S&P/TSX Composite (Canadian equities) 2.25
S&P 500 (C$) (US equities) 5.51
MSCI EAFE (C$)
(Non-north American equities)
5.61
DEX Universe Bond (Canadian bonds) -0.74
DEX 91 day T-bill 0.09

Click here for a complete list of returns.

A comprehensive investment update to the end of the fourth quarter is available on our website at saskpension.com.

How to invest your retirement savings

By Sheryl Smolkin

Feb21cdn money tree 90161372

If there was a money tree growing in every back yard, we wouldn’t have to worry about saving or investing for retirement. Our annual harvest of $100 bills would pay for everything.

But money doesn’t grow on trees, so once you allocate hard-earned money to retirement savings, you must decide on an investment strategy that will grow your account into the nest egg you need to retire.

Before deciding how to invest your money, you have to identify how much risk you can stomach. Your retirement goals, the number of years left to retirement and the amount of money you can tolerate losing are all factors that will influence the percentage of your portfolio allocated to various asset classes.

The Investor’s Education Fund has a simple quiz that will help you identify your risk tolerance. When I took the quiz, I found out I have a “medium” tolerance for risk which means I am most comfortable with a mix of bonds, stocks and fixed income investments.

In a Masters of Money blog on the same website, Globe and Mail financial writer Rob Carrick says one thing everyone agrees on is that you must get more conservative in your asset mix as you get older.

Carrick suggests that every five years or so you should think about ratcheting down the risk level of your portfolio. In practical terms, that would mean moving some of your stock market exposure into bonds and cash. Your evolving mix of assets in a registered retirement savings plan account might look something like this:

AGE % IN STOCKS % IN BONDS & CASH
25 85 15
30 80 20
35 75 25
40 70 30
45 65 35
50 60 40
55 55 45
60 45 55
65 30 70

However, financial experts do not advocate that older Canadians get out of the stock market completely. You still need some portfolio growth in the period when you are drawing down funds to pay for retirement, particularly if you live to age 90 or beyond.

Members of the Saskatchewan Pension Plan benefit from the investment expertise of independent money managers. Funds of members who have not yet retired are pooled in the Contribution Fund.

The Contribution Fund allows members to invest in a balanced portfolio or a short-term fund. The balanced fund investment strategy is to maximize earnings for members and minimize the risk, while the purpose of the short-term fund is capital preservation.

The balanced fund portfolio composition is shown below.

BRPortfolio_Jan2013_details

The average earnings of the balanced fund since inception in 1986 have been 7.86 per cent with returns of 8.45 per cent in 2012.

Accounts of members who have retired are pooled in the Annuity Fund.The Annuity Fund is invested in bonds and short-term investments. The strategy for this fund is to produce income to pay members’ pensions.

Have you checked recently to see if your investments are consistent with your risk tolerance? If so, send us an email to socialmedia@saskpension.com. Your name will be entered in a quarterly draw for a gift card.

And don’t forget March 1, 2013 is the deadline for contributing to the Saskatchewan Pension Plan and your RRSP for the 2012 tax year.

If you would like to send us other money saving ideas, here are the themes for the next three weeks:

28-Feb Debt Reduction How to eliminate debt
7-Mar Airline points Which kind of airline points are better?
14-Mar Insurance Getting a better deal on car, house insurance

Feb 18: Best from the blogosphere

By Sheryl Smolkin

blogospheregraphic

As we contemplate retirement somewhere down the road, most of us are probably focused on how to save enough money. However, deciding how we are going to spend our time is equally important.

Dave Dineen on Brighter Life says if you have debt you are not ready to retire and provides a check-list for a debt-free retirement.

$he Thinks I’m Cheap blogger Andrew suggests that in addition to investing in stocks and bonds, planning how you will use your time, skills and health are three critical areas that should not be ignored when creating a retirement budget.

On Retire Happy, Donna McCaw discusses how planning retirement is a little like planning a honeymoon. You have to think about what happens after the first few months.

Guest blogger Robert writes on Canadian Dream: Free at 45 that since he retired he is busier than ever, volunteering, training for a triathlon and taking courses towards a Masters degree in Education at the University of Calgary.

And finally, readers of all ages will be interested Boomer & Echo’s 20 tips to save money on gas. But be wary of companies that try to sell you mileage-improving devices and fuel additives.

Do you follow blogs with terrific ideas for saving money that haven’t been mentioned in our weekly “Best from the blogosphere?”  Send us an email with the information to socialmedia@saskpension.com and your name will be entered in a quarterly draw for a gift card.

Feb 11: Best from the blogosphere

By Sheryl Smolkin

blogospheregraphic

When I blogged for moneyville, one of the mantras that appeared over and over in the best-read stories were “if you don’t ask, you don’t get.” This week on Give me back my five bucks, moneyville alumni Krystal Yee makes a great case for negotiating salary in a new job instead of simply accepting the first amount you are offered.

If you are counting the days until spring when you plan to buy a new car, take a look at Robb Engen’s blog on Boomer& Echo where he tells you what you need to know before purchasing a new vehicle.

Alan Schram recently made a good case for saving money by using house brands of over-the-counter drugs instead of name brands on Canadian Finance Blog.

And I’m REALLY glad I didn’t read Mark Goodfield’s blog on the The Blunt Bean counter about how much it costs to own a dog before we got our darling cockapoo Rufus – even if he does wake us up at 5 AM.

Finally, don’t miss the latest rant from perennial favourite Kerry K. Taylor’s (aka Squawkfox) about credit cards that charge a $10 “inactive fee” for not shopping enough.

Do you follow blogs with terrific ideas for saving money that haven’t been mentioned in our weekly “Best from the blogosphere?”  Send us an email with the information to socialmedia@saskpension.com and your name will be entered in a quarterly draw for a gift card.

Thrifty ways to romance your valentine

By Sheryl Smolkin

SHUTTERSTOCK
SHUTTERSTOCK

St. Valentine’s Day began as a liturgical celebration of one or more early Christian saints named Valentinus. However, the celebration of Saint Valentine did not have any romantic connotations until Chaucer’s poetry about “Valentines” in the 14th century.

Today Valentine’s Day is a huge marketing opportunity for florists, jewellers and the candy industry. As soon as the Christmas decorations come down, malls are decorated with hearts and flowers.

It’s actually rather nice to have something to celebrate when spring is till several months away in most of the country. But if you want to give your loved one roses, chocolates or dinner out at the local hot spot, you may have to pay premium prices in mid-February.

When I was researching romantic, inexpensive Valentine’s Day gifts, I found Sheryl Kurland’s list of 50 Valentine’s Day Gifts for Your Sweetheart (without looking cheap). I’m not much of a “do-it-yourself” person so many of her ideas exceed the time and skills I possess. But here is an edited list of the 10 suggestions I like best:

  1. Make a framed group of photos (or photo collage) of memorable occasions you have celebrated together, in chronological order.
  2. Burn a CD with meaningful music like the first dance at your wedding, songs from musical you saw on your honeymoon and the lullabies that were the only thing that put your baby to sleep.
  3. Leave a love note on your partner’s pillow along with a chocolate truffle or two and a single rose.
  4. Create an in-home spa day for your mate. Put together a basket filled with inexpensive candles, bubble bath, rose petals, facial mask and scrub. Hand her towels warmed in the drier when she is done.
  5. Make a marvellous dinner for two. A home-made steak or lobster dinner is much less expensive than a pricey restaurant meal. And you can never go wrong with traditional cherry cheesecake for desert.
  6. Give your lover Valentine’s Day IOU coupons: I will make dinner. I will do the laundry. I will walk the dog for a week.
  7. Write new “updated” wedding vows, both serious and humorous and share them with each other over a glass of wine in a candlelit room.
  8. Make homemade chocolate-covered strawberries: 1) Melt a package of chocolate chips in a double boiler and add a small amount of oil; 2) Remove from heat and quickly dip the strawberries into the chocolate; 3) Place on wax paper and refrigerate for several hours until chocolate is firm.
  9. Get the kids involved. Help them make cards or print them off the internet. Make a special breakfast including pancakes, waffles or even buttery croissants from the local bakery.
  10. If you don’t have a special sweetheart, focus on bringing a smile or laughter to everyone you come in contact with on Valentine’s Day.

Can you suggest other inexpensive romantic ways to celebrate Valentine’s Day? Send us an email to socialmedia@saskpension.com. If your idea is posted, your name will be entered in a quarterly draw for a gift card. And remember to put a dollar in the retirement savings jar every time you use one of our money-saving ideas.

If you would like to send us other money saving ideas, here are the themes for the next three weeks:

14-Feb Retirement savings Pros & cons of available savings vehicles
21-Feb RRSP/SPP deadline How should you invest your retirement savings?
28-Feb Debt reduction How to eliminate debt

Also see:
Great ideas for Valentine’s Day. Creative. Thoughtful. AND CHEAP!!
100+ great Valentine’s Day ideas