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December 4, 2008

5 Ways to Take Advantage of the Financial Crisis

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Photo Credit: Karin Catt

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1. Budget Wisely
"Live within your means," says senior financial adviser James E. Law of Law, Chemtob, and Associates. "Why carry around credit card debt from a dinner you had four years ago that you can't even remember?" Let the current atmosphere of fear and frugality inspire you to get your finances in order. Set a budget for yourself and stick to it. Some tips for doing so? To begin with, make sure you have a cash reserve, health, and life insurance. Once that's taken care of, "pay yourself first," says Law. Meaning, when you divide up your paycheck, treat the funds you set aside for a long-term goal like another bill you have to pay each month. Once you have some money saved up, be it $100 or $100,000, there are all kinds of smart ways to spend it now.

2. Take Stock
"Now is a great time to invest," says Law. "Although the market's not going to go up right away," buying stocks or mutual funds now, when they are less expensive, is like "buying a dress from Banana Republic for $50 instead of $100" — the less you spend initially, the less risk is involved, and the greater returns could be. If, and only if, you have extra cash, consider putting your money into stocks, bonds, or even your office's 401(k). Get advice from a professional financial planner like Law, or check out Websites like Yahoo's Motley Fool to start learning about the market.

3. Deals on Wheels
"Automakers are hurting," says Joanne Helperin, senior features editor of the auto information site Edmunds.com. "They are desperate to make a sale and will do anything to get you financed." It's harder to get a loan now than it was six months ago, but if you figure out how to pay, it's easy to get an excellent bargain.

The first step to getting financed, says Helperin, is to be prepared. Check how much the car's selling for on edmunds.com, autotrader.com, or kbb.com. That way, you'll know if the price you're being offered is fair or negotiable. You should also learn your credit score, which is free and easy to check at experian.com. The number's not set in stone: Pay off bills and consolidate debt to improve your score before you visit the dealer.

Next, head to the bank or credit union to get preapproved for financing. At this point you're the equivalent of a cash buyer, and car dealers will be falling all over themselves to get your business. A recent New York Times article mentioned $15,000 discounts on GMC Yukons, $14,000 off 2008 Ford pickups, and $12,000 off Jeeps this month. Additionally, several automakers, like Toyota, Nissan, Honda, and BMW, are offering historically low interest rates. These companies will scramble to beat your preapproved finance rates.
When selecting a car, look out for gas guzzlers, warns Helperin. Although gas prices are low today, who knows what they'll be tomorrow, given the volatility of the market. Check out Edmunds's "true cost to own" feature, which calculates how expensive a car really is, taking into account fuel costs, maintenance, insurance premiums, and loan interest.

4. Get Real (Estate)
National housing prices fell 2.1 percent in September alone, according to Integrated Assets Management. And for the first time in years, the number of Manhattan apartments up for sale is steadily increasing, while the number of buyers is steadily decreasing. Getting a loan may not be easy, but if you have the money, it's a smart time to spend it on real estate.

Prudential Douglas Elliman real estate agent Vickey Barron thinks the current market presents good opportunities for buyers, and not just because of the bargains. The whole experience of buying an apartment is suddenly more pleasant and less cutthroat.

Because the market is less competitive, "people have time to digest and take a deep breath," says Barron. "They don't have to act as quickly, and have more time to figure out" what they're looking for. "Buyers are real buyers, and sellers are real sellers," observes Barron. "An open house may no longer draw 35 people, but you know that the five or six people there are really interested. And no one's putting their house on the market just to test the waters" — they're really looking for a purchaser.

5. Vacate
"Hotels that never would have entertained the idea of offering a discount last year are offering incredible bargains," said Michelle Finkelstein, VP of sales at high-end travel planner Our Personal Guest. Many people have been canceling their travel plans due to the economy, which means last-minute vacancies and great buys for the people who fill them (you). "Hotels, even at the superluxury level, are offering deals — complimentary upgrades, amenities such as spa treatments or dinners, and, more commonly, extra nights for free." At ultra-luxe resort Ile de France on St. Barts island, you can stay five nights for the price of three, or seven nights for the price of four. And Royal Hideaway Playacar in the Riviera Maya, Mexico, will refund $500 of your plane fare.


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