Donald Trump’s food stamp box idea is a solution without a problem

With the release of its fiscal year 2019 budget, the Trump administration pitched a “bold, innovative approach” to reform food stamps.

Unfortunately for recipients of assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the approach solves the non-existent problem of welfare recipients being able to choose their own food. The administration’s proposal would create a bureaucratic nightmare that would increase costs and force-feed Americans in a one-size-fits-all system.

The proposal recommends the creation of a program that would ship food packages known as “America’s Harvest Box” to SNAP recipients receiving more than $90 monthly in benefits nationwide, which would encompass 81% of SNAP recipients (16.4 million households). These new Harvest Boxes would take the place of half of SNAP recipients’ current benefits. The USDA argues that by buying directly from producers, it could deliver food at approximately half the retail cost, saving $129.2 billion over the next decade.

In theory, this would cut SNAP’s $68 billion annual budget by an average of $13 billion a year.

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SNAP is not a perfect system. It costs American taxpayers a large amount of money and has not proved effective enough in moving able-bodied benefit recipients towards work. Program integrity and reducing improper payments could also be addressed.

Even so, the solution is hardly an administrative monstrosity aimed at targeting one of SNAP’s main selling points: personal responsibility and consumer choice.

The odds that a proposal such as this could actually save money, let alone the kind of money that the USDA suggests, are low. The Harvest Box program would need the ability to deliver food on a monthly basis to households all across America. This could entail significant costs, as 85% of persistent-poverty counties in the United States are not in metro areas.

Assuming 16.4 million packages sent out 12 months a year, about 197 million Harvest Boxes would have to be sent out annually. For reference, that’s almost a third of the amount of packages Amazon handles in a given year. It’s difficult to see this as a more efficient system than simply crediting money to an Electronic Benefit Transfer card.

Even aside from the cost of delivering groceries to more than 16 million households spread out across America, an entire administrative apparatus would be needed to oversee such a program. Producers would need to be selected, food of nutritional value chosen and purchased, then directed to shipping centers. The requirement that all Harvest Box food be 100% American essentially means that the proposal would sacrifice cost savings in order to provide a payout to large farming businesses.

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Yet even if this proposal were able to save money, it would still be a bad idea. Harvest Boxes would be packed by USDA bureaucrats, not anyone with knowledge of an individual family’s needs.

The USDA proposal documents do not go into detail on whether it would provide for individual nutritional requirements, but if it did so, it would be another bureaucratic nightmare. And with low-income Americans already struggling to access fresh and healthy options, what logic is there in replacing half their food budget with non-perishables intended to last a month?

Why is this necessary? Though administration officials have referred to the program as being a “Blue Apron-type program,” Blue Apron at least allows you to choose the meals you have delivered. Families know far better than the federal government what they or their children need to eat, and forcing them to eat from a standardized package is inefficient (not to mention demeaning and insulting). The current system allows families to simply go to the grocery store and choose for themselves what their needs are. So long as families are purchasing items eligible for food stamps, no bureaucrat needs to be involved in that choice.

The Trump administration should scrap this poorly conceived idea and instead focus on meaningful reform. Taxpayers and benefit recipients would benefit from a better defined pathway to work for SNAP recipients and program integrity reforms. Neither would benefit from an inefficient and expensive system that tells Americans what to eat.

Andrew Wilford is an associate policy analyst with the National Taxpayers Union Foundation. Follow him on Twitter: @PolicyWilford.


Avoid a spring break money hangover


A new survey by ProjectKnow shows college students regret a lot of their spring break behavior. Sean Dowling (@seandowlingtv) has more.

Spring break doesn’t just belong to college folks tired of pulling all-nighters in the library. Everyone needs an excuse to indulge, whether or not you’re in school.

But jetting off for spring break like you might have in college is pricey (and seems exhausting after age 22). I searched the travel comparison website Kayak for weeklong all-inclusive resort vacations in Cancún, Mexico, booked one month in advance. For a trip in late March, the average cost was about $1,600 per person, which included flights, a hotel room and meals.

That is a ton of money for someone who doesn’t have any extra cash.

Bottom line: You have no “extra cash” if you have no emergency savings. You have no “extra cash” if you’re wondering whether you have enough room on your credit card. But with some planning and forethought, you can have an emergency cushion and a vacation, too.

Try this plan: Do something small, cheap and slightly less extravagant; save a little for emergencies; and then plan a guilt-free trip next year with money that’s actually in your bank account — the very definition of “extra cash.” And watch the video above for additional regrets to avoid on spring break.

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Protect your future first

Proactively saving money for emergencies you can’t predict is more important than a big vacation. Find the money by cutting a subscription service you don’t use or getting rid of extras on your cell phone plan you don’t need. You don’t have to sit at home watching HGTV until you have three to six months of expenses saved, though.

Save $500 first, then reward yourself with a meal out. Get to $2,000, and take a day trip somewhere. After that, you’ll be in a better position to spend on things you want simply because you want them. Add up your basic expenses each month, and keep saving until you can cover three months’ worth, then six months’.

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Closer to home

While saving up, you’re still allowed to do cool stuff. The trick is to pay for that stuff in cash so you’re not building credit-card debt at the same time. Here are some ideas for local escapes:

Once your emergency fund is up and running, consider signing up for a rewards credit card, which can get you cash back to spend, or points for flights or hotel stays when you’re ready to go away. Many come with sign-up bonuses that can subsidize part of a future trip — but make sure to pay off the balance each month to avoid paying interest.

Plan way ahead

People who successfully save for vacation do it all year long. Just like you put a specific amount each month toward that emergency fund, and ideally also for retirement, do the same for travel, said Shurdonna S. Joseph , a certified financial planner at Janney Montgomery Scott in Philadelphia.

Danny Kofke, a special education teacher in the Atlanta area and author of “The Wealthy Teacher,” generally goes on one big summer trip with his wife and two kids. He saves $1,000 to $1,500 for it in what he calls a travel escrow account over the course of the year.

This strategy requires researching far in advance where you want to go and how much it costs. So try it for the next vacation you take. If that all-inclusive resort sounded appealing, set up an automatic transfer to your savings account for $133 a month, and you’ll have $1,600 for next year. Many online banks let you set up and name several accounts or subaccounts, so make one specifically for “Fun,” “Travel” or “Seeing the Sun Again.” You might even save more than you thought you could.

This column was provided to The Associated Press by the personal finance website NerdWallet.

Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Is your money mindset sinking you? Here’s how to change that – Press

Are you wondering why you can’t seem to get ahead financially? You’ve read all the books and perhaps even taken a course in managing your money. Why are you still sabotaging your financial situation?

The answer may lie in your money “mindset.” A mindset is a set of attitudes held by someone that determines the way they approach life. Thus, a money mindset is the way you see and approach money.

On the surface, most of you reading this will say that you would definitely enjoy having more money. But there are many of you who are actually sabotaging this desire with spending and saving behaviors that keep you from doing so.

Here are some money mindsets that actively keep people from reaching their financial goals. Is one of these stories yours?

Rich people are bad; poor people are nice. You may have a false notion that money breeds poor and undesirable traits in people. Or you may think that poor people possess a humility about them that means they are good. You may become nervous when you come into too much money and spend or even give away the surplus unnecessarily.

If this is you, remember that money is simply a tool. Think of the many philanthropists around the world who have done great things with money. These are people doing good.

I don’t deserve more money; I have what I need to survive. The key word here is survival. This mindset subconsciously refuses to look at promotions or sound investment ideas that can help you move from “survive” to “thrive.”

You may downplay your professional abilities and even avoid situations where you might be considered for a raise or other financial opportunity. You may also come to the end of your career discovering that you haven’t prepared for retirement because subconsciously, you were thinking you didn’t deserve one.

The money I receive right now may be all I will ever receive. Therefore, I must not spend or invest any of it. This is a tricky story. If this is you, then you may hide money in different places and tell family members that you have none. Or you may actually forgo comforts such as heat or air conditioning when you can actually afford it. This fear will create a reactive way of spending, and high stress.

If I earn more, I can spend more. This is a particular conundrum in getting ahead, and people who aren’t used to making more money can often sabotage their future with this mindset. If you begin to earn more money, it can feel spacious and you can feel as though you can loosen the proverbial belt.

You may then increase your spending, thinking you can now afford certain luxuries like a new car you actually don’t need, or other expenditures you can actually do without. And by purchasing things, instead of investing wisely, you will come up short, as you once did, even though you are making more.

A penny saved is a penny earned. Not true. A penny can be a penny, less than a penny, or even more than a penny. How? There may be some of you who are placing your funds in a low-interest-bearing savings account or other mechanisms that diminishes the money you could earn over time. You may reason that you are low-risk, and a lot of us are. However, low risk does not mean losing out on the opportunity to make the most of your funds. There are plenty of very conservative ways to earn more interest than a regular savings account.

The good news is that once you have surfaced the money mindset behaviors that hold you back, you can do something about it. But remember this – you can’t do this alone. You need the help of sound financial information and support. Connect with a wealth adviser to help you plan wisely for the future so that you finally move past self-defeat to celebrating reaching your financial goals.

Patti Cotton, MA, MAOD, PCC, works with executives, business owners, and their companies, to elevate and support leadership at all levels. Her client roster includes privately-owned small businesses and such entities as Bank of America, Boeing, Coca-Cola, Harvard University, Sysco, Edward Jones, Morgan Stanley, Girl Scouts of America, and more. Email her at

Letter: Level of Patronage is Ridiculous

I’m angry about the level of ridiculous patronage we’ve seen this past week with the appointment of Charlie Markel (someone who was FORCED to resign an elected post) to a town position that pays $85,000/year. But, I’m not surprised. I’ve grown up in New York. I’ve watched Cheektowaga politics. This friends-and-family plan is par for the course. 

Part of my anger is jealousy. I wish I could screw up so spectacularly and then get a very high paying job with great health benefits that I’m quite frankly unqualified for – just because my friend trusts me for the position. Most taxpayers in the Town don’t get that kind of benefit of the doubt in our life. 

But, I’m not just mad at Mark Wegner for pissing away roughly six figures of my (and your) tax money to help out a friend. I’m upset at the dick-measuring contest that started all this. This position (or the foreman position) was supposed to be eliminated to save money – then at a Town Board meeting Jerry Kaminski had a whole bunch of issues with the plan – and the money saving idea went by the wayside.

In essence – this is all a playground fight between different factions of Town government. But instead of playing with sandbox toys they’re using actual jobs and real money we all give to them with our ever growing property taxes. 

This is a message to everyone on the Town Board, in government positions, and within the parties – you are STEWARDS of OUR money. It is your JOB to make the best decision to get the best return for those funds – making sure residents in the town get the best services and have the best quality of life. These aren’t jobs to milk for your own personal gains. These aren’t jobs to have to seem impressive to your friends and neighbors. These aren’t jobs to be used to settle scores. You are called a public SERVANT for a reason. Act like it. 

I’m a patriot. I don’t mind paying taxes for services I’m provided. I have a problem when I’m paying for jobs that are redundant – overcompensated – and the people are underqualified. I’m sure that’s the crux of the anger most people are reading in all the Facebook comments.  

This may feel like a personal critique – but it’s intended to be constructive criticism. Stop looking at the people behind proposals. Look at the merit of the ideas. Crunch the numbers. Make up your own mind. Work for the good of the people.

Anne Luczack

Cheektowaga Chronicle publishes “Letters to the Editor” submitted by paid subscribers.  We recommend that your letter take a starting point from an article published by Cheektowaga Chronicle.  There is a 500-word limit and must your must include your name, email, and phone number.  Letters may be edited for grammar and shortened for space. Anonymous submissions or those that harass, intimidates, or uses fear to silence another person’s voice will not be considered.

By submitting your letter to the Cheektowaga Chronicle you affirm that you are the author of the piece and you have not submitted it to, posted to, or was published by any other media.

Private Financing for Public Infrastructure

The $763 million Ohio River Bridges East End Crossing project includes financing, design, construction, operation and maintenance for 35 years of a bridge that links Kentucky to Indiana.
The $763 million Ohio River Bridges East End Crossing project includes financing, design, construction, operation and maintenance for 35 years of a bridge that links Kentucky to Indiana.

Six Kentucky community banks that could be competing for business have agreed to work together as charter members of the specialty $150 million Commonwealth Infrastructure Fund to finance public-private partnerships (P3) in Kentucky.

In the next few months, CIF is expected to reveal one or more inaugural deals.

“We are looking at five to 10 potential projects that should start sometime in 2018. We expect to make loans to two or three projects in 2018 after the underwriting process has been completed,” said John Farris, who manages CIF. “We believe we will lend out all $150 million over three to five years – $30-$50 million a year.”

One development team already has a tentative green light for a P3 project it is pursuing through a local government request-for-proposal process.

“The development team’s response to the RFP contemplates using the CIF for construction financing,” Farris said. “The loan will be made by CIF only if this development team is awarded the P3 project by the local government.”

CIF announced its existence last October with one overriding purpose: allowing Kentucky community banks to compete with huge national institutions that typically finance larger, multimillion-dollar P3 projects.

CIF also could mean better use of assets for private banks and better roads, bridges, buildings and more for public taxpayers. It’s been harder for banks to qualify borrowers and put their assets to work since 2010’s Dodd-Frank Act, and demand for public infrastructure outstrips the commonwealth’s supply of public dollars.

CIF believes it is the only fund of its type created specifically to handle public-private partnerships. Each of the six member banks committed $25 million to the partnership, creating a lending pool of $150 million.

“The organization was set up so the smaller banks could participate … because the projects are potentially of such a size and scope that they would be too big for the community banks,” said Farris, who is also president and managing partner of Commonwealth Economics, an economic consulting firm in Lexington that works with public and private clients.

“They (the banks) know these projects and they know the areas, so they want to have an opportunity to participate in the financing,” he said. “That was the primary reason to pool resources: so that if there was a project in the $20-$50 million range, combined, the six banks could lend to these projects and feel good about their ability to be competitive as a lender.”

“By coming together (as CIF) we can address some of the needs that are beyond the capacity of any one individual community bank. Otherwise they go to very large out-of-state financial institutions,” said Lloyd Hillard, president and CEO of United Bank Capital in Frankfort, one of the
CIF partners.

“If we have a $30 million project, for example, each bank participates up to $5 million, so that means one bank doesn’t have to go (and assume all the risk for) the $30 million. Each bank has to make its own credit decision, so (participation is) going to vary from project to project.”

Bridge financing for bridges?

For decades, public agencies have paid for roads, sewer systems and airport improvements by either raising taxes or issuing bonds. But such bonds often are issued for 25 or 30 years, a period of time that isn’t appealing for banks that have to answer to regulators and shareholders annually or quarterly.

Both Hillard and Dan Mason, chief lending officer for Traditional Bank, said CIF might become a source of bridge funding that gets projects started, completed and stabilized before the banks then make a timely exit.

“The length of the projects will vary. There are other kinds of long-term financing that might be more attractive” for borrowers later on, Hillard said. “For example, insurance companies – large insurance companies – invest in stabilized projects based on cash flow, and they offer very long-range, fixed-rate (financing) in many cases that is much better than what banks can offer… Thus, the banks could go on to other projects.

“The primary focus here is to get projects started, constructed and underway and then move on to something else. We don’t normally book 25-year projects; we want to turn it over and move on to something else…”

Mason agreed that the CIF banks likely won’t have to commit their money for decades.

“It’s a possibility; that happens regularly out in the world. If the return’s right, then maybe somebody (another financer) is willing to pay a little bit more than the book value to get that stream of cash flow,” Mason said.

CIF’s structure gives member banks flexibility.

“You’ve just got to get things in place so when something comes along you can be prepared to react,” Hillard said.

Part of a shift toward P3 deals

Historically, public agencies built a road or parking garage or bought computer services for an office from private firms by contract, spending public dollars in their treasuries to do so. As political sentiment has changed and budgets tightened, public officials increasingly have declined to raise taxes, issue bonds or increase fees to pay for projects. Public-private partnerships that perform projects without committing taxpayer dollars are becoming a preferred approach.

The state’s Finance and Administration Cabinet has a fairly simple definition of these partnerships: “A long-term contract between a private party and a government entity, for providing a public asset or service, in which the private party bears significant risk and management responsibility, and remuneration is linked to performance.”

The Kentucky Chamber, the Kentucky League of Cities and the Kentucky Association of Counties all had input in shaping a P3 legislation update in 2016, which they support as a valuable tool “to address critical infrastructure problems.”

However, the chamber also advises P3 is not a “silver bullet” that will solve all the state’s infrastructure funding problems. P3s are not immune to risk.

The state’s most ambitious P3 project, KentuckyWired – which will create a gigabit-speed internet network with nodes in all 120 counties – is over budget and behind schedule. Initially expected in 2016, completion of a first phase in Eastern Kentucky is now slated for late 2018. In December, Moody’s Investor Service downgraded some $300 million in bonds issued for the project from “stable” to “negative” because of delays and cost overruns.

In Indiana, privatization of the Indiana Toll Road, a $3.8 billion P3 project in 2006, wound up in bankruptcy early this decade when truck traffic on the Chicago-to-Ohio artery was only half that needed to repay its bonds.

On the other hand, the $2.3 billion Ohio River Bridges Project, a joint Kentucky-Indiana P3 deal, came in on time and under budget, and is generating higher than projected toll revenue, according to

Farris, Hillard and William M. Alverson, CEO of Traditional Bank in Mt. Sterling, all point out that the institutions have legal lending limits enforced by bank regulators that cap how much they can invest in any one project. Limits are determined by a formula that weighs a bank’s assets and the level of risk.

Besides outside regulatory lending limits, the banks also have internal policies that govern how bank funds are invested.

Farris points to the ongoing dorm construction at the University of Kentucky by Memphis-based EdR, a real estate investment trust, as a good example of how public-private partnerships have worked in Kentucky. EdR financed all $450 million of its five-phase, on-campus student housing development.

Staying with what you do best

“Whatever the policy objective is, you start with that first. Then you say, ‘Is this something that the private sector might be able to use their expertise in?’” Farris said. “UK is great at educating students, but they realize there might be companies out there that are a lot better suited to building and operating dorms. So you look to a private partner and say, ‘What are the advantages?’ And oftentimes they can do it quicker and more efficiently because they’re used to doing it every day.”

About 30 miles south of UK’s Lexington campus, the Madison County Fiscal Court is debating whether to move ahead with a project called The Healing Center that would provide care for people battling substance abuse.

If the county approves the project, a key question is whether it would be a traditional build-to-suit project in which the contractor is paid to build the facility or be built through a P3, said Madison County Deputy Judge-Executive Colleen Chaney.

Madison County received three bids in January for $8-$10 million, Chaney said. All three bidders said they would do the project on a build-to-suit basis, with Brett Construction of Lexington, working with the Walton Co., also offering a P3 option.

The build-to-suit approach is a short-term relationship that ends upon acceptance of the facility, with the county responsible for financing. A P3 plan for The Healing Center would involve an ongoing relationship of 20 years or more because the contractor would be responsible for financing construction and maintaining the building while Madison County leases it, she said.

Meanwhile, 10 companies say they would work with Madison County to manage the center and provide the desired programming on a P3 basis.

“With The Healing Center, I think it’s (P3) the right way to go on this project,” said Madison County Judge-Executive Reagan Taylor. “Government in general doesn’t have the expertise to do recovery and healing, so it’s good to use a P3 and experts and partner with them to do what they do best.”

P3 law update set the stage for CIF

The P3-expanding legislation enacted by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Matt Bevin in 2016 also provided an impetus to create the CIF.

Over the preceding years, a long list of P3 projects were completed in Kentucky, and most other states have adopted legislation that allows for public-private partnerships.

The updated law broadened the private sector’s options, Farris said.

“The best thing about the law is the ability to do unsolicited proposals,” he said. “The new law codifies the process for the private sector to bring the public sector money-saving ideas.”

The 2016 law spells out a precise procedure by which a private party may present a P3 proposal to a public agency.

“In the past if you did that, you may have been precluded from (subsequently) bidding on that because you had had that contact with officials. … This changes the landscape and says, ‘Bring us your good ideas,’ ” Farris said.

Mike Burnside of the Kentucky Finance and Administration Cabinet said the new structure clears the way for the commonwealth to solicit P3 proposals or “have an unsolicited P3s where a developer comes in and approaches the commonwealth and says, ‘I’ve got a great idea. I would like to put a hotel or a recreational area or a water park or whatever on your property at this location. I will provide all of the funding up front and operate it, and we’ll do a revenue-sharing type thing over the years.’”

Such an agreement alleviates dependence on state bonds to pay for a project, said Burnside, who is commissioner for facilities and support services in the cabinet.

Participants are state-chartered banks

The banks signed on to participate in CIF are some of the largest state-chartered institutions in Kentucky (ranked by assets).

Five of the 12 state banks with more than $1 billion in assets are among CIF’s six members. The sixth CIF bank, Commonwealth Bank Trust of Louisville, isn’t far behind. Commonwealth had more than $990 million in assets at the end of January, according to iBanknet, which gathers financial data from federal regulators.

Although each of the banks has pledged at least $25 million for the partnership, they’re not obligated to participate in all projects, according to Farris and the CIF banks’ executives.

Regarding sitting down at the table with some of his competitors when CIF members gather to talk business, Mason, Traditional Bank’s representative, said things have progressed smoothly.

“So far there’s been good open communication, and we’re all working toward a common goal,” said Mason, who acknowledged that competition for business has been discussed. “We talked about that early on – putting the interest of the commonwealth (Kentucky) at the fore. So far, in the early phase, it’s gone well.”

Commonwealth Infrastructure Fund

Participants each pledged $25 million toward financing public-private partnership infrastructure projects in Kentucky.

Source: iBanknet

Greg Paeth is a correspondent for The Lane ReportHe can be reached at [email protected]

We’re just not saving for the future


Allowance tracking apps allow parents to teach kids financial lessons without ever handing them cold, hard cash. Tony Spitz has the details.

If you were to ask the people around you to tell you honestly whether they are putting money away in savings, some would proudly nod their heads and reply that, yes, they are trying to put something aside for the future. Others would probably sheepishly look at you and reply that they would like to but can’t put aside as much as they would like. Still others would give you a blank stare, as if they didn’t understand the question and wonder why anyone would ask such a thing.

In this credit-fueled age, saving has become an antiquated concept for some people. But it wasn’t always so; saving money was something many of us were taught to do from childhood, and many children grew up in families that required them to save for things they wanted, instead of buying on credit.

Having money in savings is just as much a path to financial independence as it was 50 years ago; savings is a bulwark against many things that can ruin your financial future: job loss, unexpected expenses, medical problems and many others. On a larger scale, individual savings have traditionally been an indicator of a nation’s financial health.

I was reading through a recent study by about Americans’ savings habits, and it doesn’t provide a lot of good news. According to the report, one in five workers say they aren’t saving anything, and a substantial percentage of those aren’t saving enough. All this is despite positive economic indicators.

“With a steady, significant share of the working population saving nothing or relatively little, it’s virtually guaranteed that they’ll be unable to afford a modest emergency expense or finance retirement. That amounts to a financial fail,” stated Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst at

Apparently, many employed people who would like to be saving aren’t doing it because they’re living beyond their means. Nearly 40 percent of those responding to the survey listed other expenses as the roadblock to putting money away. Others (16 percent) said their jobs just don’t pay enough or they just “haven’t gotten around to it.” Thirteen percent blamed debt, while about 6 percent said they don’t need to save money, either because they think they have enough or don’t see it as important.

The study did reveal a couple of bright spots, though: Millennials report saving at higher rates than their parents and are second only to their grandparents. “Among age groups, younger Millennials (aged 18-27) were second only to seniors between the ages of 64 and 72 years old,” the report noted.

There are many great ways to start putting money away. Most financial websites have some great ideas for developing ways to become a better manager of your money, and making it work for you (instead of the other way around). Here are three:

  • Create a spending plan and follow it. A good budget that includes setting aside money for the future will not only help you be a better master of your money, it will help you develop your long-term financial security.
  • Take advantage of employee matching. Many employers offer to match money you put into a retirement fund. This will effectively double your contribution, and many people are leaving money on the table if they don’t take advantage of this common benefit.
  • Encourage your kids to save. There are many great ways to teach children good savings habits. One common approach is the Moonjar or similar approaches, in which kids take their allowance, birthday money or other income and divide into three containers for saving, spending and giving. As the amount of money in the jars grows, they will develop solid habits that can last their entire lives.

And if you’re interested in teaching financial literacy to your kids, there are many great resources out there. My personal favorite is, which is run by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.

Saving can be hard to learn, but just like nearly everything else that requires us to change our habits, it takes time, commitment and dedication. Arming yourself with the right tools is the first step towards taking control of your money.

Also by Bill Moak

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Contact Bill Moak at

Save on flowers and plants this spring

Whether you’re brightening up your landscaping or adding some new friends to your urban garden, plants and flowers can be very expensive. With small plants running around $5 to $10 and larger plants anywhere from $30 to $80, a large haul at the nursery each season can end up costing hundreds.

The temptation is certainly there this time of year as nurseries and stores begin putting out their newest selection of beauties. I know I get excited when I start to see those telltale pops of color in the gardening section. Here are some ideas for saving money on plants this year:

Limit seasonal pick-ups

If choosing between plants or flowers that last all year and those that don’t, I suggest you choose something you can transition indoors and outdoors.

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Or, if you really have your heart set on selections that only bloom for a period, choose which season you want to buy for and add it to your budget. If you’re really into the pinks, whites and blues that bloom in spring, make that your spending priority. If you can’t pass up the fiery oranges and red of fall mums, start saving now so you have cash on hand when the weather cools again.

Just have a plan because again, the temptation is high right now.

Understand plant care

Most plants come with a little tag or sticker explaining care, and if not, there are a plethora of online resources or nursery professionals who can help. Even though this is the boring part of owning beautiful plants and flowers (it’s way more awesome to choose and display them), it’s well worth the read. Watering needs, exposure to sunlight and trimming needs are all completely different for each flower or plant. So, make sure you have a care schedule in place to preserve your investment.

What’s the full cost?

If you’ve ever purchased plants before, you know the actual plant itself is just the beginning. Most plants require additional soil, a planter of some kind and occasional food/nutrients if you want them to last. Be sure before you hit the check-out line, you speak with someone about the long-term care of your plant and what you’ll need to have on-hand. It’s kind of like a low-maintenance pet.

Before you find yourself raiding the nursery with a full cart of goodies, be sure you follow these tips to keep your costs down. And finally, be sure you aren’t planting too early. While it may seem tempting to plant flowers and veggies on a warm spring day, remember a cold snap could send your investment down the drain.

Kat’s Money Corner is posted on Dollars Sense every Tuesday. Kat Hnatyshyn, when not blogging or caring for her little ones, is a manager with CommunityAmerica Credit Union. For more financial chatter, visit

16 Money-Saving Ideas for Spring 2018 – The Voyage Report


16 Money-Saving Ideas for Spring 2018


Need a medical procedure? Pick the right provider and get cash back

(CNN Money) — Laurie Cook went shopping recently for a mammogram near her home in New Hampshire. Using an online tool provided through her insurer, she plugged in her ZIP code. Up popped facilities in her network, each with an incentive amount she would be paid if she chose it.

Cook, a school nurse who is covered through New Hampshire’s state employee health plan, found that choosing a certain facility scored her a $50 check in the mail.

She then used the website again to shop for a series of lab tests. “For a while there, I was getting a $25 check every few weeks,” said Cook. The checks represented a share of the cost savings that resulted from her selections.

Paid? To get a test? It’s part of a strategy to rein in health care spending by steering patients to the most cost-effective providers for non-emergency care.

State public employee insurance programs were among the early adopters of this approach. It is now finding a foothold among policymakers and in the private sector.

Lawmakers in nearby Maine took the idea further, recently enacting legislation that requires some private insurers to offer pay-to-shop incentives, part of a movement backed by a conservative foundation to get similar measures passed nationally.

Similar proposals are pending in a handful of other statehouses, including Virginia, West Virginia and Ohio.

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“If insurance plans were serious about saving money, they would have been doing this stuff years ago,” said Josh Archambault, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Government Accountability, a limited-government advocacy group based in Naples, Florida.

Still, some economists caution that shop-around initiatives alone cannot force the level of market-based change needed. While such shopping may make a difference for individual employers, they note it represents a tiny drop of the $3.3 trillion spent on health care in the U.S. each year.

“These are not crazy ideas,” said David Asch, professor of medicine, medical ethics and health policy at the Penn Medicine Center for Health Care Innovation in Philadelphia. But it’s hard to get consumers to change behavior — and curbing health care spending is an even bigger task. Shopping incentives, he warned, “might be less effective than you think.”

If they achieve nothing else, though, such efforts could help remove barriers to price transparency, said Francois de Brantes, vice president and director of the Center for Value in Health Care at Altarum, a nonprofit that studies the health economy.

Yet de Brantes predicts only modest savings: “Ideally, transparency is about stopping folks from continuously charging more.”

Among the programs in use, only a few show consumers the price differences among facilities. Many, like the one Cook used, merely display the financial incentives attached to each facility based on the underlying price.

Advocates say both approaches can work.

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“When your plan members have ‘skin in the game,’ they have an incentive to consider the overall cost to the plan,” said Catherine Keane, deputy commissioner of administrative services in New Hampshire. She credits the incentives with leading to millions of dollars in savings each year.

Several states require insurers or medical providers to provide cost estimates upon patients’ requests, although studies have found that information can still be hard to access.

Now, private firms are marketing ways to make this information more available by incorporating it into incentive programs.

For example, Vitals, the company that runs the program Cook uses, and Healthcare Bluebook in Nashville offer employers — for a fee — comparative shopping gizmos that harness medical cost information from claims data.

Crossing Network Lines

Maine’s law, adopted last year, requires insurers that sell coverage to small businesses to offer financial incentives — such as gift cards, discounts on deductibles or direct payments — to encourage patients, starting in 2019, to shop around.

A second and possibly more controversial provision also kicks in next year, requiring insurers, except HMOs, to allow patients to go out-of-network for care if they can find comparable services for less than the average price insurers pay in-network.

Similar provisions are included in a West Virginia bill now under debate.

Touted by proponents as a way to promote health care choice, it nonetheless raises questions about how the out-of-network price would be calculated, what information would be publicly disclosed about how much insurers actually pay different hospitals, doctors or clinics for care and whether patients can find charges lower than in-network negotiated rates.

“Mathematically, that just doesn’t work” because out-of-network charges are likely to be far higher than negotiated in-network rates, said Joe Letnaunchyn, president and CEO of the West Virginia Hospital Association.

Not necessarily, counters the bill’s sponsor, delegate Eric Householder. “The biggest thing lacking right now is health care choice because we’re limited to our in-network providers,” said the Republican from the Martinsburg area.

Shopping for health care faces other challenges. For one thing, much of medical care is not “shoppable,” meaning it falls in the category of emergency services. But things such as blood tests, imaging exams, cancer screening tests and some drugs that are administered in doctor’s offices are fair game.

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Less than half of the more than $500 billion spent on health care by people with job-based insurance falls into this category, according to a 2016 study by the Health Care Cost Institute, a nonprofit organization that analyzes payment data from four large national insurers. The report also noted there must be variation in price between providers in a region for these programs to make sense.

Increasingly, though, evidence is mounting that large price differences for medical care exist — even among rates negotiated by the same insurer.

“The price differences are so substantial it’s actually scary,” said Heyward Donigan, CEO of Vitals.

At the request of Kaiser Health News, Healthcare Bluebook ran some sample numbers for a Northern Virginia ZIP code, finding the cost of a colonoscopy ranged from $670 to $6,240, while a knee arthroscopy ranged from $1,959 to $20,241.

Another challenge is the belief by some consumers that higher prices mean higher quality, which studies don’t bear out.

Even with incentives, the programs face what may be their biggest challenge: simply getting people to use a shopping tool.

Kentucky state spokeswoman Jenny Goins said only 52% of eligible employees looked at the shopping site last year — and, of those, slightly more than half chose a less expensive option.

Still, state workers in Kentucky have pocketed more than $1.6 million in incentives — and the state said it has saved $11 million — since the program began in mid-2013.

Deductibles, the annual amounts consumers must pay before their insurance kicks in and are usually $1,000 or more, are more effective than smaller shopping incentives, say some policy experts.

In New Hampshire, it took a combination of the two.

The state rolled out the payments for shopping around — and a website to look for best prices — in 2010. But participation didn’t really start to take off until 2014, when state employees began facing an annual deductible, said Deputy Commissioner Keane.

Still, the biggest question is whether these programs ultimately cause providers to lower prices.

Anecdotally, administrators think so.

Kentucky officials report they already are witnessing a market response because providers want patients to have an incentive to choose them.

“We do know providers are calling and asking, ‘How do I get my name on that list’ [of cost-effective providers]?” said Kentucky spokeswoman Goins. “The only way they can do that is to negotiate.”

Kaiser Health News is a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation that is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.