Get the most bang for your buck in seasonal spending

Brian J. O'Connor
Detroit News Finance Editor

Summertime is here and with it, so many, many choices. The red swimsuit or the blue? Plant geraniums or begonias? The cottage in Ishpeming or Bad Axe?

Also: What about property values, IRAs, Visa vs. MasterCard and what, oh, what to do about FICA taxes for the nanny?

That’s right: Even as our hemisphere makes its big annual tilt toward the sun, financial considerations continue to pile up. Let’s review, shall we?

Buying or selling a home

With the kids out of school, June is the official start of prime home-buying season, notes RealComp II Chief Executive Officer Karen Kage.

“It up-shifts in May and really kicks off in June,” says Kage, noting that home values have increased at a much faster pace than the number of homes for sale, especially as the rate of foreclosures have dwindled. Sellers of entry-level homes can find bidding wars erupting over their properties, and listings can be snapped up within weeks.

“It’s definitely turned a corner to be more of a seller’s market, and we haven’t seen that in a long time,” Kage says.

During May, sales in the Metro Detroit real estate market were up 1.1 percent. The median sale price soared from $135,000 to $155,000, a gain of 14.8 percent — and the highest prices since June 2006, more than a year before the housing meltdown that triggered the recession. The median price on non-foreclosed properties increased by 9 percent, to $169,000. Inventory, meanwhile, is up 4.2 percent, at nearly 23,000 homes on the market, with the average property listed for 50 days before the “Sold” sign went up.

Average prices are rising partly because cheap homes are disappearing. Foreclosures accounted for a mere 6.4 percent of homes on the market during May. During April, sales of all property priced at less than $100,000 dropped, while homes and condos in the six-figure all increased, and even soared in some cases. Sales of homes between $200,000 and $250,000 were up 31 percent, those between $400,000 and $1 million increased by 30 percent, and the market for properties between $1 million and $2 million ran up by 42 percent.

For sellers, now looks like a good time to clean out the basement, paint the front door and put your home on the market, especially if you’ve waited out the recession — just make sure you’ve got a place to go first. For buyers, the key is to line up all your ducks: Get your credit score in shape, get pre-qualified to borrow, and be prepared to make an offer when you find a place you like. Also, don’t expect to low-ball a seller, now that there are so few foreclosures.

Paying for vacation

Even if you budget for your summertime getaway, you’re likely to overspend. A survey from Experian consumer data services finds that 68 percent of vacationers spend more than they expect and 62 percent run into unexpected costs. The result is that 49 percent of vacationers accumulate debt, and 46 percent finance their vacations on plastic when they haven’t saved enough money.

On the other hand, 37 percent of us have canceled vacation plans because of money issues.

The first thing is be sure you’re budgeting for more than just your airfare, gas and hotel. In its last vacation cost survey in 2008, AAA suggested two adults traveling budget $244 per day for lodging, including $80 a day for meals. But also include items such as airport parking, beach or resort fees, equipment rentals and so on. Overall, Experian found travelers planning to spend an average of $2,275 on vacations, with about $1,300 going on credit.

“It’s important for people to realize that vacations cost money,” says Becky Frost, consumer education manager for Experian. “We all know that, but the survey shows that vacations cost more money than we think.”

Create a vacation budget and consider all the possible costs and, Frost says, if some of the expense does go on a credit card have a plan to pay off the debt after you get back. And as much as financial planners emphasize having a rainy day fund, Frost recommends setting aside a sunny day fund, too, to handle unexpected vacation costs.

“You don’t want a moment of vacation spending, when you’re feeling relaxed and in a great vacation mod, to spend on something overpriced and hit it equal years of credit-card debt.”

But what about the nanny?

Speaking of unexpected costs you DO know you’ll have to pay your nanny on the trip, right?

The folks at HomePay, a household payroll service, reminds domestic employers that federal law requires them to pay nannies for all their hours worked, plus travel time. In addition, the nanny’s travel expenses, such as airfare, lodging and meals, aren’t income taxable to the employees, but expenses the family can deduct.

And just because the nanny’s on the beach, she’s still working if she’s watching the kids. You’ll have to pay for any working hours, plus time-and-a-half for more than 40 hours in a seven-day stretch. But off-duty time, including sleeping, don’t need to be paid for.

The key, whether you are the nanny’s boss or the nanny, is to set ground rules before jetting off, says Rachel Levy Lesser, author of, “Who’s Going to Watch My Kids?”

“I would never assume that a family would not pay a nanny on vacation,” Levy Lesser says. “If you’re having somebody watch your kids to go on vacation, it’s going to be a different experience because you’re having your nanny live with you.”

Rather than an hourly rate, the family can arrange a flat fee for the trip, especially if the nanny doesn’t live in the home, and set aside time off, evening hours so that parents can get out, and other expectations. “You should definitely arrange that beforehand,” Levy Lesser says. didn’t address what to do about the chauffeur, cook under-butler or any footmen left behind at the Abby.

Putting the “P” in pool

Whatever your summer spending plans, if you’re swimming at the pool you’re going to want to set a aside a couple of bucks for swim goggles.

According to research from the Centers for Disease Control, it ain’t the chlorine in pool water that makes your nose run and your eyes turn itchy and red. Instead, it’s the chlorine doing its jobs, which creates “by-products of disinfection.” And what’s that chlorine reacting with? Try “sweat, urine, and other waste from swimmers.”

The CDC suggests using those showers before you hit the pool, and adds that “regular bathroom use to reduce the amount of urine in the pool will decrease the formation of irritants.”

Anyone who’s taken infant parenting classes knows that urine is sterile, but I’m still hitting the dollar store for a three-pack of goggles.

Summer jobs for the kids

Nearly 80 percent of employers plan to hire summer help this year, according to an annual survey by, an online site for hourly wage jobs, so the outlook for teen hiring is looking up. This gives parents a chance to teach some important money lessons, says Pamela Audette, senior vice president and relationship manager for Bank of Birmingham.

“Most kids get their first summer job so that they have money in their pocket to play with,” Audette says. “Most of them don’t have any idea where their money goes because of impulse spending.”

That gives parents a good opportunity to talk about needs vs. wants. One way is to set up some kind of savings goal, whether it’s big or small. A kid can start saving at an early age for his or her first car, for example, so help figure out how much they’ll need, how much to save each year for the next four or five years. Or the goal can be something immediate and small.

“Often parents can’t afford these expensive toys and phones. Those aren’t needs, they’re wants, but it’s OK to have wants as long as you can pay for them,” Audette says. “That is not necessarily the intent with the first job until you take it home to them.”

(My own suggestion is that any kid who’s heading to college eventually should be putting some money aside, too. That way, Junior has some skin in the game and may be just that much less inclined to blow off an 8 a.m. sociology class when he knows he’ll be wasting some of his own tuition money, too.)

The savings lesson can turn into something self-reinforcing when a son or daughter starts to recognize how small weekly contributions add up.

“When the savings account start to grow, kids want to work harder to make it grow faster,” Audette adds. “It’s just an instinct. You end up wanting to work more hours or two jobs.”

Another tactic is that if a child has earned income, they can also start a Roth IRA and start socking away money for their eventual retirement. Contributions to a Roth (but not gains) also can be withdrawn at any time to pay for school or other goals. One tactic is to save within the Roth account for a goal, withdraw the money and know that the earnings will continue to build over time. Some parents will match contributions to encourage Roth savings, but a child can’t contribute more than his or her official earned income and will have to file a tax return.

A first job is also a good way to introduce the skills involved in managing a checking account and creating even a basic budget for weekly spending, saving, goals and charity.

“One of the things I always mention is to donate to the humane society or to the children’s society, or something they seem to get excited about,” Audette says. “You should always set aside a little bit of money for people who are less fortunate than you.”

Speaking of charity ...

When the kids whine that “There’s nothing to do!” and “Summer is sooo boring!” have the young ’uns take a page from Kayla Abramowitz. The North Palm Beach, Florida, girl suffers from Crohn’s disease and juvenile arthritis, and her brother, Ethan, suffers from chronic gastrointestinal issues. That meant frequent visits and stays in a children’s hospital where the two kids soon ran through a meager collection of DVDs.

To help, Kayla set out to collect 100 new DVDs to donate to the hospital. Then she got her Girl Scout troop and elementary class involved and, after a local newspaper story ran, things took off. Now 13 years old, that effort has ballooned into Kayla Cares 4 Kids, an IRS-registered nonprofit that’s donated 8,100 books, video games and DVDs to 70 hospitals in 45 states. This month, Kayla won the $30,000 National Young Entrepreneurs Academy Saunders Scholarship at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce America’s Small Business Summit.

To get your kids moving in a charitable direction, “Figure out what your child is passionate about, and have the child come up with ideas,” suggests Kayla’s mom, Andrea Abramowitz. “Let the child direct it. That’s why this has been very successful — it’s been driven by Kayla.”

As for the young philanthropist, Kayla says, “If they have an idea they shouldn’t be afraid to try it.”

(313) 222-2145