Practical money matters by Nathaniel Sillin

MOVING INTO a place of your own for the first time is a huge step. I remember my first post-college apartment move. It was nothing special, but it was mine. It came with a few new challenges and responsibilities and all sorts of opportunities. For the first time, I was able to decide how to decorate an entire living area and turn a blank slate into a home.
Here’s some advice for finding what you’ll need on a budget and a few inexpensive ideas to make otherwise unimaginative rooms come to life.
Look for hand-me-down and used furniture. Furniture – tables, chairs, bookshelves etc. – often takes up the most space and can be the biggest drain on your budget. You could start by mapping out your home using online floor plan software and determining what might fit where.
When it comes to finding furniture, friends, family members and friends of family members may have something they want to get rid of and simply haven’t had the time or energy to do so. Also consider marketplace websites’ free sections and the nonprofit Freecycle Network™, which hosts message boards
where you can find local people giving away their unwanted belongings.
To find used furniture that’s for sale, head to consignment stores, garage and buy-sell-trade social media groups. There are even startups creating online marketplaces specifically for furniture, although they’re generally limited to large cities.
Get your kitchen in order. Many kitchen essentials, such as silverware, can also be found for cheap at second-hand stores. But if you’re looking for something new, you can save money by shopping at discount stores and online clearance sites.
Avid cooks who want to invest in a few kitchen appliances might consider waiting for large seasonal sales. For instance, standing mixers, slow cookers and other small appliances often go on sale every Black Friday.
Brighten up the place. While your apartment may have overhead lighting, a few standing lamps can set a much nicer mood. The good news is lamps often stay in the corner and won’t necessarily show a lot of wear and tear. In other words, this is another great buy-used opportunity.
Don’t shop second-hand for everything. There are a few things you don’t want to buy used: towels and bedding. Add mattresses to that list as well if you’ll be looking for a new one.
When it comes to sheets, ultra-high thread counts could be more of a marketing gimmick than an indicator of quality. Try to focus on how the fabric feels, find a weave that you like and you might be pleasantly surprised by the low-cost options at big box retailers. The same test works for towels.
Purchasing a new mattress can take a big chunk of your budget. Consider one of the new online mattress retailers that sell high-quality goods for less. Buying a mattress without testing it first may seem weird, but many offer free returns within the first few months.
Add a few personal touches. You’ve got the necessities covered, but how do you turn a generic apartment into a place that feels like home? Think walls, windows and floors.
Rather than painting, consider a cheaper (and easier) route by opting for removable wall decals or wallpaper. There are all sorts of shapes, designs, prints and even adhesive chalkboards for under $20. You could also decorate with paper, canvas or metal prints of your favorite photographs. Windows can get a cover-up treatment as well, but rather than spending a lot of money on brand new blinds you can get curtains that add color or a pattern to your room.
An area rug can help tie a room together, but they can also be prohibitively expensive. This is another item that you might not want to buy used unless you know the seller. Luckily, home good stores and some big box retailers usually have at least a few inexpensive options.
Congratulations on the move. Outfitting a new apartment doesn’t happen overnight. Especially if this is the first time you get to pick what to buy, it can take time to find your style and items to match. However, even with a limited budget, there’s a lot you can do to make a space your own.
Nathaniel Sillin directs Visa’s Practical Money Skills For Life financial education programs. Follow him on Twitter at His articles are intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. Always consult a tax or financial adviser for information on how the law applies to your individual financial circumstances.

Don’t be scammed

by Denisha Maxey

THE END of the school year is coming to an end for students. Soon it will be time to enjoy the summer sunshine and no worries over homework. The end of the school year signifies a special time for high school seniors, who are the graduating class of 2017. My daughter is one of the excited students graduating this year.

The realization of high school being, turned into the reality of college planning and preparation. One thing I know parents who have children graduating this year have come to realize, is just how expensive college tuition is! College tuition continues to rise each year and students, as well as parents, are looking for scholarships to help cover the cost of their education.
Receiving scholarships reduces the financial burden placed on parents and avoids having to apply for student loans. However, trying to navigate the “scholarship world,” searching for scholarships students are eligible to receive can be tricky. Add the additional challenge of scammers waiting to take advantage of students and parents; searching for scholarships can be a stressful task. Here are a few scholarship scams parents and students need to watch out for:
Beware of any scholarship organization making claims of improving your chances to receive scholarships, but request a small fee to get students preapproved. In the end, the student never receives a scholarship and is told it went to another applicant. However, in reality there never was a real chance of being awarded a scholarship. The organization is collecting the fees and pocketing the money. Small fees of $50.00 can quickly add up when you collect it from several unsuspecting applicants!
Do not cash any scholarship check arriving in the mail with an amount higher than you were eligible for. Scam scholarship organizations will send out a check, ask the receipt to cash it and send the dollar amount difference back to the organization. The problem occurs when the check is cashed and the recipient discovers later the check was fake or invalid. Not only have you been scammed out of your money, but there will be consequences and fees from your financial institution. In the most extreme cases, the check may be linked to a criminal investigation you have now found yourself in the middle of.  
Be leery of any pre-approved scholarships emails from an organization you did not apply for a scholarship from. Often these types of emails are in your junk or spam folder because they are sent out as bulk messages. You will not receive a scholarship from organization you never completed an application with. The email will provide instructions on how to receive the scholarship and ask you to pay a disbursement fee. In the end, the recipient ends up with a fake or invalid check and out of a money for a fee that should have never been paid!
In the end, be smart and do your homework. Always research any business or organization offering scholarships or grants by visiting or
Denisha Maxey is director of dispute resolution at Houston Better Business Bureau.

Come hear updates from industry leaders

By Trishna Buch

The State Of Industry business luncheon is upon us. Industry leaders are going to be converging on the Doyle Convention Center, below, on May 22 to update Galveston County citizens on the happenings of the various chemical and petroleum companies in the county.
Industry leaders from Marathon Petroleum, Dow Chemical, Ashland, Eastman Chemical, Valero Refining and BP Chemicals will be the guest speakers and each person will be giving guests a run-down of their industry and its current state of affairs.
The speakers that the lunch attendees will get to hear from are Rich Hernandez, general manager of Marathon, Connie Bradley, division manager of Marathon, Aaron Cameron, maintenance manager of Ashland, Roselle Bleile, production leader at Dow, Sergio Matute, site manager of Eastman, Sal Viscontini, plant manager of Valero and Peter Nowobilski, plant manager of BP.
Attendees will also enjoy a meal catered by Benno’s – a Cajun seafood restaurant based in Galveston.
If you have not yet had a chance to purchase your tickets, they can still be bought for $20 by going to the Texas City-La Marque chamber located at 9702 Emmett F Lowry Expressway in Texas City or by going online to the chamber’s website at If you do not have a chance to purchase tickets beforehand, you can still buy them at the door for $25.

Photo by James Martin

Consumer business by Denisha Maxey

MOTHER’S DAY falls this Sunday. No doubt, retailers are raking in the dough as consumers spend hundreds of dollars searching for the perfect gift to celebrate mothers around the world.

If you have not found a gift yet, there is still time. However, before you splurge, do your homework and find the best gift that will really make your own mom’s day. You do not want to leave her disappointed with a non-working product or poor customer service.
Nor do you wish to find yourself fighting a battle if there is a need to return or exchange the gift, so here are some savvy tips to being a smart shopper for Mother’s Day.
If you decide to give your mother a day of relaxation at the spa, make sure you have researched the business before you buy a gift certificate to pay for the day. You can always view a business’ rating, customer reviews and complaint history at Houston Better Business Bureau’s website,
Read what other consumers have to say about their experience. Also, pay close attention to any special policies regarding the use of the certificate. You want to avoid any hassles that could possibly turn your mom’s day of relaxation into a day of stress!
Gift cards are a popular go-to item for gift giving. There are several different options, such as buying one for a specific retailer or a card that uses a Visa or MasterCard logo. Whichever you choose, make sure you are aware of any additional fees associated with the card. Gift cards can carry fees for checking the balance or a transaction fee each time it is used.
You definitely need to verify all such information before you purchase the card. You do not want to purchase a gift card valued at, say, one hundred dollars only to find mom can only spend eighty of them! Lastly, make sure you verify whether it has an expiration date.
Nowadays, the number-one popular resource for buying gifts is the internet. There is still time to order mom a gift online and receive it in time for Mother’s Day this weekend, although you might have to pay extra for expedited shipping to ensure it arrives on time.
Most online retailers advertise Mother’s Day gift specials, so check your options to find the best price for your budget. If traditional candy and flowers are your go-to items, still beware! Make sure you get what you pay for.
Ordering flower arrangements online can be tricky. While the picture online might display a beautiful arrangement with blooming flowers, your mom could end up with a bouquet of dead flowers on Mother’s Day. That has happened to me on more than one occasion!
Thoroughly review the business’ policy regarding returns or exchanges before buying. You want to avoid a battle if there is a need to ask for a refund or a replacement of your gift.
As always, before you buy, check on the selling business’ rating, complaints and reviews at
Whatever you decide to give your mom for Mother’s Day, I hope she enjoys it!
Denisha Maxey is director of dispute resolution at Houston Better Business Bureau.

Practical money matters by Nathaniel Sillin

FLIPPING a house can seem like a walk in the park when it’s wrapped into a few montages during a half-hour TV program. Find a run-down property. Buy it. Take out a few walls, paint, replace carpets, upgrade the kitchen and voilà – you could make tens of thousands of dollars in just a short time.
Reality is seldom so straightforward. Flipping a home can be risky and there’s no guarantee you’ll profit from it.
Finding and buying the right house at the right price point can be difficult. The shows often start with the submission of a winning offer on a home. You might not realize that it takes a lot of work to determine what a potentially good flip looks like and find a property to match.
Experienced flippers have learned how to estimate costs and work backward. A rule of thumb in the industry is to take 70 per cent of the potential selling price – what’s known as the after-repair value, or ARV – and then subtract the renovation costs and use the result as the maximum buying price.
You’ll need a lot of background information, including comparable selling prices of similar homes, to figure out the right numbers. The ability to be honest with yourself while estimating the cost of parts and labor is also important.
For example, if you estimate that you could sell your renovated home for $200,000, you’d start at $140,000, which is 70 per cent of that figure. If you calculate that the renovation costs will be $40,000, you’ll arrive at the maximum buying price of $100,000. The 30-per-cent margin that remains if everything goes according to plan isn’t entirely profit – you might still have expenses like closing costs or reimbursing your investors.
You need a lot of working capital. While paying cash for a home can expedite the sale and increase profits, it might not be an option for beginner flippers. However, traditional lenders don’t necessarily offer financing for flips, especially if you’re trying to fix up a dilapidated home. Even when they do, you might not be able to borrow enough to cover all your expenses.
Instead, some flippers turn to hard-money lenders, private individuals or companies that issue short-term loans backed by real assets, such as the home you’re buying.
With either traditional or hard-money lenders, expect the financing costs to be higher than those you’d pay for a mortgage when buying a home to live in.
Keeping an eye on your total budget is essential. If you borrow enough money to make the purchase but don’t have cash on hand to pay for the renovations and unexpected contingencies, you’ll be stuck before you even start.
In addition to the purchase price, you’ll need money for renovations, upgrades, inspections and permits. Also, consider the cost of ownership between the purchase and sale. Carrying costs, including utilities, financing, insurance and property maintenance, can add up each month.
You want to move fast. One thing you pick up from the TV programs is that time is of the essence. In competitive markets, you’ll need to move quickly to evaluate a home and put in an offer before someone else buys it.
Successful flippers might have a real-estate license or work with a real-estate agent to gain access to the multiple listing service, or MLS, a directory of homes that are for sale. Others look for homes that are for sale by owner or use direct-mail campaigns to reach out to prospective sellers.
Once you buy the home, there’s another race against time to complete the work and make a sale. Working with a trusted contractor and real-estate attorney could expedite the project. Once you’ve developed a strong working relationship, you might even want to invite others to join your team and contribute their work in exchange for a cut of the profits.
Bottom line: Flipping homes can be profitable, particularly for people who have professional real-estate experience, but don’t expect it to be easy money. Months of hard work can go into a flip without any guarantee of success.
Nathaniel Sillin directs Visa’s Practical Money Skills For Life financial education programs. Follow him on Twitter at His articles are intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. Always consult a tax or financial adviser for information on how the law applies to your individual financial circumstances.