A.J. Shepherd

A.J. is a full-time graphic designer and wanna-be-out-of-debtor who shares money-saving ideas and tips on getting out of debt. In 2003, he found himself $40k in debt ($20k in credit cards alone) and rid himself of debt in five years. He and his friends have a website dedicated to personal finance and gaining financial independence at www.threethriftyguys.com. Read more about A.J. Shepherd.

Saving Money Through Your Employer

Posted by: A.J. Shepherd under Personal finance, Employment, Saving money Updated: January 5, 2012 - 9:45 AM

I’ve written about saving money through your employer before – but it bears a repeat.

Companies and organizations everywhere try hard to offer the best benefit packages to attract top candidates. It’s easy to lose sight of this when employment rates are high and many are still competing to find jobs. But, the employer too – is in this tough job market.

Due to the competition, there are several ways employees can save money through their employer. The following are some benefits that you might be eligible for at your place of work. If they aren’t offered, you may want to check with your human resources department.


  • Gym memberships or discounted memberships. Given the new year, many people are looking to make good on resolutions. Enter in: the health club. Many employers offer free or discounted memberships at health clubs through their insurance provider.
  • Discounted Microsoft® software. Through the Microsoft Home Use Program – you can get the suite of Office products for cheap. While your employer may not publicize this – you may want to go directly to your IT dept for the special code you’ll need to enter at Microsoft.
  • Event tickets. Through organizations like MERSC, companies are able to get tickets at cost or less and offer these to their employees.
  • Tuition costs. This is a great benefit to utilize at your workplace. Many companies see the value in employees who are “bettering” themselves through education and are happy to reward this.
  • Travel discounts. Rental cars, flights and even hotels often will have special company rates which have been pre-negotiated. You may need to enter a special code or show a card to get the break in price.
  • Cheaper shipping. Your workplace also may have set rates with various shipping companies. The company I work for also extends these rates to the employees. These prices are generally cheaper than you’ll find elsewhere.

Are there any other ways you've found to save through your employer?

Year-end Tax Tips from a Tax Pro

Posted by: A.J. Shepherd under Personal finance, Taxes Updated: December 14, 2011 - 10:28 PM

Can you believe we are coming to the end of 2011?

With the closing of another year, we make sure that our fiscal responsibilities are organized and ready to go for 2012.

Among the things on our list, are taxes. And so, we asked a tax pro in our area - Joni - to offer some year-end tax tips.

Joni – can you tell us about any new changes in tax law for 2012 that we need to be aware of?

I can tell you that the 401K and 403B maximum contribution goes from $16,500 in 2011 to $17,000 in 2012.  No other retirement vehicles were increased.  The social security wage base went to $110,100 from $106,800. Social Security recipients are receiving a 3% cost of living increase in 2012. They have not had an increase in 3 years.  However, their Medicare premiums increased. For 2012, mileage for business will be $.555, medical mileage will be $.23, and charitable is unchanged at $.14

And then, what are some last minute deductions folks can still make for their ’11 return?

As always, the charitable contribution needs to be made within the year and it shows up on the charitable statement the organization provides.  The organization needs to have it on 12/31/11 so that it gets posted. If you mail it by end of year, it will probably get posted in the next year.  If charged on a credit card by 12/31/11, you can take the deduction even if you do not pay for it until the following year.

Try to mail your January 1 mortgage payment before to see if you get 13 months of interest on your statement.

Be prepared for your net payroll check to decrease if Congress does not do anything regarding the payroll reduction as the current 2% reduction for employees expires on 12/31/11.

Utilize your Medical Flex Spending account so that you do not lose it.

Thanks Joni.

Any other year-ending tax advice to throw in the mix?

Joni, is with Joni L. Craft, P.A. She has offices in Minneapolis and Rochester, MN.

Low-cost alternatives to updating your house

Posted by: A.J. Shepherd Updated: September 17, 2010 - 12:52 PM

My wife and I recently moved into an older townhome that was built in the early 80’s. The prior resident was an older woman who had lived there since the house was built. Needless to say, there were a few remnants of yesteryear.

We didn’t have a lot of money to do major upgrades, so we went the low-cost route. In a very short timeframe, we were able to update the house just by making a few minor, inexpensive changes.

Here’s some of the things we did. 

Changed out all the switch plates

The existing plates were turning an ugly yellowish tint, so we decided to head to our nearest Home Depot and got some white plastic switch plates. These were about 50 cents a piece and did wonders for the home.

Switched all the knobs to nickel
The wood in the house is a dated-looking oak. So, to update the look we just switched out all the knobs and door handles on the cabinets and drawers to a brushed nickel. Purchased in a box of about 20 knobs, this was a great low-cost alternative to resurfacing the wood.

New light fixtures
Probably the most dramatic change took place when we replaced the dated disco-ball light for a new modern fixture. The nickel accented light, was a great addition and added a lot of warmth.


Scrubbed and cleaned
An obvious solution – but just by using some good ol’ fashion elbow grease and ammonia, things started to regain their original sheen.

Fortunately enough for us, the house was painted by the time we moved in by the previous owner. Painting will do wonders for your dated interior.

Since the kitchen is the “heart” of the home, we want to put in a backsplash. While we haven’t completed the work yet – adding a back splash can be done fairly inexpensively through adhesive tiling. I recently found out about this company, requested some samples and was amazed at the quality. We may still go with traditional tiling, but the stick-on route could be an efficient solution.

What are some things you’ve done to update your house on a budget?

Some places around the city to find a thrifty deal

Posted by: A.J. Shepherd Updated: September 4, 2010 - 2:49 PM

My dad was always on the lookout for a good deal. And, he loved the scratch-n-dents! If he could find a great appliance or item with a little nick in it for half-off, he was elated.

His inclination towards thrifty-ness and bargain shopping no doubt had an effect on me. Just like the next person, I love to find a bargain.

Residing in or around Minneapolis most of my life, I have found some spots to get a good deal or two. Here's a few:

Room & Board Outlet Store (Golden Valley)
A lot of their regular-priced stuff is beyond my means - but if you are looking to find good quality furniture at a discounted price, their outlet store could be your place. Note: they are only open Saturday-Monday.

ApplianceSmart (Various locations)
There are some great appliances here that have several items that are slightly scratched or dinged. I'm willing to pay less for a new product just because of a few imperfections.

Caribou Coffee's Warehouse Sale (Minneapolis)
A Minnesota native coffee brand, every once in awhile they will have a warehouse sale where you can save as much as 75% off retail prices. Check them out on Twitter (@Caribou_Coffee) for their next sale.

Plato's Closet (Various locations)
Good place for finding gently used "name brand" clothing. Neat thing about the store is that you can sell your used threads for store-credit or cash. Note: 

Savers (Various locations)
This Labor Day, Savers (a second-hand retailer) is having a 50% off sale on all clothing, shoes and other items.

Thymes Warehouse Sale (Minneapolis)
Star Tribune Deal Spotter, John Ewoldt, alerted us to this event taking place October 7-9.

Of course this is not an exhaustive list. Are there other locations around the city that you frequent and find some great deals?

Thanks for reading. Live thriftly.

Quick thrifty tips for State Fair

Posted by: A.J. Shepherd Updated: August 19, 2010 - 10:12 PM

For 12 days every year, we Minnesotan’s gather for one of the biggest and most attended state fairs in the country. The sights, the sounds and the smells (some, not-so-great), can’t be found anywhere else. The State Fair is an encore to our blissful summers and a final hurrah for the kids before they start pushing pencils.

While the fair is a great annual ritual, it can pick-pocket your wallet if you’re not careful. Preparation is key to surviving it and keeping your budget and emotional well-being intact. 

Here’s a few things I do to set myself up for fair-going success.

Ditch the car. I’d rather spend my time waiting in line for cheese curds than driving around for a decent parking spot. The park and ride is really the way to go. It’s free and all you have to do is drive to a designated location several miles from the fairgrounds and then catch a shuttle over.

Come early, leave early. If you aren’t into fighting the crowds and want to get in and out before lunchtime, this may be the best thing for you. Plus you might find some vendors willing to offer some freebies or samples while they aren’t so swamped later on in the day.

Buy tickets beforehand. You’ll save a couple bucks by purchasing tickets at Cub Foods or other locations throughout the state.

And, purchase the Blue Ribbon Bargain Book. For $4 pre-fair and $5 during, these can also be purchased at Cub Foods.

Go on Thrifty Thursday (August 26). This is when all the cheapskates show up. Tickets are $2 less and there are other discounts offered on games and concessions.

Bring a bottle of water and small snacks. With beverages costing in excess of $3 a gulp, I just bring a bottled water and fill up at various locations throughout the grounds when I’m low. The snacks help me avoid my proclivity towards gluttony.

What have I forgotten? How do you save a buck or two?

Live thriftly and enjoy the fair.


Growing up Minnesotan and getting into debt

Posted by: A.J. Shepherd Updated: August 13, 2010 - 12:39 PM

I grew up in a modest, Christian home with parents who were very conservative with their money. But in 2003, I found myself $40k in debt, with $20k from credit cards alone.

How did I get to that point with such a decent upbringing?

Before I answer that, allow me to start with a disclaimer:

I learned most of the things I want to share from life experiences and others who were successful with their money. I am not a financial professional, nor do I claim to be. So, please take that into consideration if you choose to heed any advice here.

I am hoping that by writing here I can help a few folks out. If I can cause someone to think or make a change for the better, great. I'm happy.

Money is a bit of a taboo subject to write or speak about in our "Minnesota-nice" culture. And, especially debt. When I was faced with my mountain of debt in '03, I felt like it was a near-impossible climb. I was basically job-less and had no savings. I lived in a cramped house with two other guys and was pretty proud of myself with being able to cough up the $300 rent every month.

So, back to the question: How did I ever get to a point where I was $40k in the hole? Unfortunately, I can't blame anyone but myself. Through some very unwise decisions (buying a car well above my means, spending like there was no tomorrow and taking out cash advances) I was able to amass quite the debt-load. It needed to stop. But it sure took awhile before I wised up. The stubborn-nature running through my genes - while useful in surviving Minnesota winters - didn't help much.

When I finally came around, here's what I did:

  • Realized I had a big problem. And, I needed help. (Apply all 12-step program laws right now, if you know 'em.)
  • Found cheaper room/board. Fortunately enough, I was living at my $300/month apartment when I came to.
  • Cut my expenses everywhere. This is where a budget comes in. If you don't have one at this point, it's a great time to start. You'll be surprised at how much money you spend and where it goes.
  • Stopped using the cards. I basically put them away so I couldn't see them anymore.
  • Found an accountability partner. I found a friend who also wanted to be debt-free and we went through the journey together. This is crucial in staying motivated.
  • Found other ways to make extra income. Fortunately for me, I was able to make some side money doing odd jobs as a designer while working a "full-time" temp job.

If you're facing a insurmountable mountain of debt right now, don't lose hope. You can be free of it if you start a plan today and stick to it.

Thanks for reading. I'd love to hear how you are getting out of debt or have already gotten out.

(I've written more about debt on our website at Three Thrifty Guys).


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