How Much Are You Worth?

When I hear the term “net worth”, I first think about extremely wealthy people, the kind of people who have so much money that they pay people to manage it for them, the kind of people who get profiled in Forbes’ list of the wealthiest people in the world. Warren Buffett. Bill Gates. Oprah. Those folks.

But really we all have a net worth. It’s simply a measure of how much you have (assets) versus how much you owe (liabilities). And it can be a handy grade for how you’re doing financially. If your net worth is negative, you’re probably in trouble. If it’s positive, in theory you’re doing OK. If it’s very high, you’re probably doing well. However, it’s not that simple. If you could instantly sell all your assets and use the money to pay off all your debts if necessary, you’d still be above water if your net worth is positive. But some assets like houses aren’t so easy to sell. Even some financial assets, such as retirement accounts or CDs, aren’t the same as cash in the bank because they are more difficult to use and can involve penalties if used too soon.

Our situation is pretty straightforward. Our main assets are our retirement accounts and our home. The same is probably true for many of you. Our secondary assets include shorter-term investments, cash, two vehicles, and personal property. Our only liabilities are the mortgage for the house and some student loans.

I won’t post our numbers here since it seems a bit tacky, but there are people who are very open about their net worth and even post it on their blogs or turn it into an online competition. Curious about how you compare to your peers? Try CNN Money’s Net Worth Calculator.

To figure out our net worth, we could go old-school and list all our assets and liabilities on a piece of paper and add everything up, as explained in this article on About.com. Or we could hire a financial advisor like my friend Chris who has lots of letters after his/her name. But instead, we do it the easy way – make Mint.com do all the work for us and update it whenever we want.

A couple of years ago, I told you in this post about Mint, a personal finance website that can pull in your financial data from a variety of different sources and organize it a single convenient view. It can easily add up all your assets and liabilities and calculate your current net worth so you know how you’re doing. It’s not perfect. Certain websites that have unusual security measures such as multi-level authentication don’t play nicely with Mint. However, most of them work just fine. If you’re concerned about security, know that Mint has no ability to make transactions on your accounts, only to retrieve current balances. And it even has an iPhone app. Every day I use my phone to see which transactions have cleared and how much I have in my accounts. It’s been a bit depressing lately since my stock and fund balances have been declining in the market downturn, but at least I know where I stand overall. I hope you do as well, whether it’s through Mint, Quicken, a financial professional, or your own hard work.

“Secret” Hotel Rates

Have you seen those Priceline commercials starring William Shatner? You might find them obnoxious, but I enjoy their cheesiness and the gusto with which Shatner plays his part. However, I’d never actually tried to get a hotel room through Priceline or similar sites until now.

To finalize the details for our upcoming cruise to the Bahamas, I needed a room in the Fort Lauderdale area for the night before we sail. My normal approach is to check Southwest.com and some of the aggregator sites like Hotels.com or Travelocity. After much comparison of rates, maps, reviews, amenities, and more, I make a choice. Vacations are somewhat rare and special to me, so I like to invest some extra time to help ensure that we’re happy with the accommodations.

I started with that approach for this hotel stay, but then I decided to get a little crazy and try the “secret” hotel approach. Priceline, Hotwire, Travelocity’s Top Secret, and probably other sites let you get unusually good deals on hotels under one condition: they keep the hotel’s identity a secret until after you commit. You can search for a minimum star level and general location, but that’s about it. For a devoted researcher like me, it’s a bit scary to pay for a hotel in advance (nonrefundable, of course) without knowing exactly where I’m going. But it’s also exciting, like unwrapping a present.

I bid at Priceline, envisioning Shatner trying to convince me to bid lower, lower, lower! Apparently, I bid “too low” ($40 for a three-star hotel in Hollywood, FL), because I got rejected. So instead I paid $39 plus tax for a three-star “Top Secret Hotel” on Travelocity. Once I paid, it revealed my hotel – a Ramada that I’d been considering already. Through traditional channels, I would have paid $56 plus tax for the room. By rolling the dice a bit, I saved over $17. Not bad!

Have you ever tried the “secret” route for a hotel, car, airfare, or other travel detail? How did it go?

Blog Love

A couple of my friends have started their own blogs, and I want to share them with you.

Stomping Weasels – My friend James (Mad Bomber, as you might know him from his comments on here) writes this one. The name comes from Stomping Weasels for Jesus, the band that our home group plans to start someday. He’s still kicking around ideas, but so far he’s commenting on things in popular and/or Christian culture that are just wrong or unintentionally amusing.

Generic Mom Blog – My friend Ashley is a stay-at-home mom and part-time writer. Her blog focuses on the wacky and amusing world of momhood.

Thanks to all of you who blog. If you’re interested but not sure how to start, check out Blogger.com or WordPress.com for free hosting and lots of technical help (they do most of the work for you except for the actual blogging).

New Blogs to Follow

Check out the Other Sites section in the right sidebar for some cool blogs and other sites you might want to explore. I added a couple of new ones today:

  • The Researchist by Donny Cryer – He digs up interesting and useful information that might help you.
  • What Sarah Said by Sarah Smith – She is blogging about whatever she wants to talk about. Great name and nice pics.

Free Internet Fax Service

On occasion, I need to fax something to someone, which is a challenge since I have neither a fax machine nor a phone line. I went to FedEx Kinkos, but they wanted nearly $5 to fax a three-page document to Dallas. Um, no thanks! Finally, I found a free Internet service called FaxZero. It allows you two free faxes per day, up to three pages each. You upload a PDF or Word doc, enter the address, and click Send. It’s that easy. They email you once your fax goes through. Obviously, this service won’t work for all documents, but for simple things, it’s great.

Obsolete

Keith at BagOfNothing.com posted an interesting list of 12 Things That Became Obsolete This Decade.

I know people who still use some of them, such as land lines and dial-up Internet. I still occasionally use a fax machine for work because there’s no better way to transfer certain documents using the provided technology, but I find it extremely annoying to use and avoid it whenever possible. I also still call people sometimes out of necessity, even though I would rather email or text.

However, Jenny and I rarely if ever use the other items on the list, even CDs. Jenny and the boys got me a couple of audio cables for Christmas that allow me to connect my iPhone or MacBook to my car stereo and home theater. Since I have my CD music imported into both devices, I can use them as my music source instead of fumbling with the CDs. I’ve actually downloaded more music this year through iTunes than I’ve bought in CD form.

To Keith’s list, I would add:

  • Full-service, high-fee brokers of stocks, options, and mutual funds
  • Writing checks
  • Paying bills through the mail
  • VHS tapes

Can you think of any other items or practices that became obsolete this decade? Do you disagree with any of these?